The Greatest Divisional Playoff Games Ever

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The Greatest Divisional Playoff Games Ever

In my last article, "The Greatest Wild Card Playoff Games Ever," I recapped some of the first round's best games and moments.  Now, we move to the Divisional Playoffs, the NFL's Elite Eight. There are 12 games in this list, so read with patience.

 

1971 - Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 (2 OT)

In the game remembered for Ed Podolak's memorable performance, he racked up 350 all-purpose yards (8 receptions for 110 yards, 17 carries for 85 yards, 3 kickoff returns for 154 yards), which is still an NFL playoff record but was almost broken by San Deigo's Darren Sproles in the 2008 Wild Card playoffs.

In the longest NFL game played to date at 82 minutes, 40 seconds (and the Chiefs' last game at Municipal Stadium), Miami kicker Garo Yepremian kicked the winning 37-yard field goal after 7:40 of double-overtime.

The Chiefs jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter with Jan Stenerud's 24-yard field goal and Len Dawson's 7-yard touchdown pass to Podolak. However, the Dolphins tied the game in the second period with Yepremian's 14-yard field goal and running back Larry Csonka's 1-yard touchdown.

The teams exchanged touchdowns in the third quarter before Podolak scored on a 3-yard run in the fourth period. However, Miami quarterback Bob Griese threw a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Marv Fleming to tie the game.

Podolak returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Dolphins 22, giving Stenerud a chance to win the game for the Chiefs in the final minute of regulation. He missed the field goal attempt and the game went into overtime.

 

1972 - Steelers 13, Raiders 7

Two words: Immaculate Reception.

In a game mired in controversy for its finish the game was mostly dominated by defense.  The contest remained scoreless until Pittsburgh kicker Roy Gerela kicked an 18-yard field goal in the third quarter. He added a 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to increase Pittsburgh's lead to 6-0.

Raiders backup quarterback Ken Stabler, who had replaced starter Daryle Lamonica, ran for a 30-yard touchdown to give Oakland a 7-6 lead with 1:13 left in the game.

Facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40 with 22 seconds remaining, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball toward fullback Frenchy Fuqua.

The pass bounced off Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and was caught by Harris, who then ran the rest of the way downfield to score a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 12-7 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

To this day, the Raiders still contest that Harris touched the ball illegally and they were shafted out of a Super Bowl championship. 

 

1974 - Raiders 28, Dolphins 26

In a play that became known as "The Sea of Hands," the Raiders' Clarence Davis somehow caught the winning touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in the game among a crowd of three Dolphins defenders.

With 2:08 left to play, the Dolphins took a 26-21 lead with a 68-yard, four-play drive that ended with Benny Malone's 23-yard touchdown run.

Following a 20-yard kickoff return by Ron Smith with Oakland trailing 26-21, the Raiders got the ball on their own 32-yard line with 2 minutes left to play and all three timeouts left.

After a 6-yard completion to tight end Bob Moore and a short run, Stabler went deep to Fred Biletnikoff, completing two consecutive passes to him for gains of 18 and 20 yards.

Then after a catch by Cliff Branch, Frank Pitts made a bobbling first down catch at the Dolphins 14. On the next play, Clarence Davis ran the ball 6 yards to the 8-yard line, where the Raiders called their final timeout.

On the next play, Stabler looked for Belitnikoff in the end zone, but he was tightly covered. With Dolphins defensive end Vern Den Herder dragging him down, Stabler threw a desperate pass to the left side of the end zone into a "sea of hands," where Davis fought his way through the Dolphins defenders to make the winning catch.

Miami quarterback Bob Griese's final pass attempt was intercepted at the Raiders 45 by Phil Villapiano.

 

1977 - Raiders 37, (Baltimore) Colts 31

On a play known as the "Ghost to the Post," Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler threw a 42-yard completion to tight end Dave Casper to set up the game-tying field goal with 29 seconds left in regulation.

Casper, nicknamed "The Ghost" by his teammates, also caught a 10-yard touchdown pass 43 seconds into the second overtime period to win the game.

With the Colts leading 31-28 with time running out, the "Ghost to the Post" to Casper advanced the Raiders to the Baltimore 14-yard line, where Errol Mann kicked the tying field goal to send the game into overtime.

 

1980 - Raiders 14, Browns 12

It was the first of many heartbreaking, last-minute post-season losses for the Cleveland Browns.

Simply known as "Red Right 88," Browns quarterback Brian Sipe's pass was intercepted in the end zone by Raiders safety Mike Davis with 41 seconds left in the game to preserve Oakland's victory and eventually their trip to Super Bowl XV.

Instead of opting for a game-winning field goal, Cleveland decided to attempt a passing play because Browns kicker Don Cockroft had previously missed two field goal attempts, had another aborted following a bad snap, and had one extra point blocked.

After a timeout, Sipe was instructed to "throw it into Lake Erie" if the play was anything less than wide open.  On the play, Sipe chose to force a pass to tight end Ozzie Newsome.

The pass was intercepted in the end zone by Davis, who had cut in front of Newsome's square-in route.

Had the play been executed properly, it would have presumably resulted in a touchdown. The primary receiver, Dave Logan, ran a crossing pattern, had a step on his defender and was open at the 6-yard line.

Unfortunately Sipe misread the defensive back's movements and thought Logan was covered, so he went to the secondary receiver and threw in traffic where it was intercepted.

The quarterbacks of both teams were completely dominated throughout the game. Sipe was held to just 13-of-40 completions for 183 yards and intercepted three times. Oakland's Jim Plunkett completed only 14-of-30 passes for 149 yards, with two interceptions.

 

1981- Chargers 41, Dolphins 38 (OT)

Known as the "Epic in Miami," Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke kicked the winning 29-yard field goal in a game that set playoff records for the most points scored in a playoff game (79), the most combined total yards by both teams (1,036), and most combined passing yards by both teams (809).

In the third quarter, Miami tied the game at 24, with Don Strock's 15-yard touchdown  to Joe Rose. Each team then scored two touchdowns, with San Diego's Dan Fouts' 9-yard tying score to James Brooks with about a minute left in regulation.

Dolphins kicker Uwe von Schumann had a chance to win the game on the last play of regulation, but his field goal attempt was blocked by Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, a play that would prove to be vital.

In overtime, the Chargers took the opening kickoff and advanced to the Miami 8-yard line, but Benirschke missed a 27-yard field goal attempt.

Then after both teams exchanged punts twice, the Dolphins reached the San Diego 17-yard line, only to see von Schamann's 34-yard attempt get blocked by defensive lineman Leroy Jones.

The Chargers then drive to the Miami 10-yard line, where Benirschke made the winning field goal.

Strock turned in the best game of his career, completing 29-of-43 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns, while Fouts put on one of the best performances of his Hall of Fame career, completing 33-of-53 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns.

The image of an exhausted Winslow, who finished the game with 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, being dragged off the field by two Chargers teammates has been constantly replayed ever since.

It is also remembered for a clever hook-and-lateral touchdown (from Fouts to Duriel Harris and finally to Tony Nathan) to end the first half.

 

1994 - Chargers 22, Dolphins 21

In Don Shula's final game as head coach, the Chargers overcame a 21-6 halftime deficit by limiting the Dolphins offense to only 16 plays in the second half.

Miami's Dan Marino threw three touchdowns in the first half: two to tight end Keith Jackson for 8 and 9 yards, and a 16 yard score to Mike Williams. San Diego could only counter with two field goals by kicker John Carney.

However, in the third quarter, San Diego's Reuben Davis tackled Dolphins running back Bernie Parmalee in the end zone for a safety. San Diego then took the ensuing free kick and marched 54 yards to score on Natrone Means' 24-yard run.

The Chargers later took the lead 22-21 with 35 seconds left on quarterback Stan Humphries' 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Seay in the flat.

Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich then attempted the game-winning 48-yard field goal on the final play of the game, but his kick was wide.  The win sparked the Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX.

 

1996 - Jaguars 30, Broncos 27

In one of the most shocking playoff upsets ever, the Wild Card Jaguars (a second-year expansion team) overcame a 12-point deficit and scored on six consecutive possessions to upset the Broncos, who had finished the season with an NFL-best 13-3 record and were favored to win by over 14 points.

In the third quarter, Denver was limited to 14 plays for 37 yards. Meanwhile, Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell connected on a 31-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell.

Mike Hollis kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Jacksonville a 23-12 lead with less than 11 minutes left in the game.

However, on Denver's next drive, Terrell Davis scored on a 2-yard touchdown run, a successful two-point conversion shrunk the lead to 23-20. Jacksonville responded with another touchdown drive, featuring a 29-yard run by Brunell, who later finished the drive with a 16-yard pass to Jimmy Smith with 3:39 remaining, making the score 30-20.

The Broncos then scored on Elway's 15-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ed McCaffrey with 1:50 left, but they had no timeouts left and were unable to recover the onside kick and the Jaguars secured the upset.  Jacksonville would fall to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

 

2001- Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT)

The "Tuck Rule Game" launched one team into a dynasty and has sent the other spiraling into a black hole.  The final game at Foxboro Stadium was mired in controversy and this game sparked the New England Patriots into their current status and has sent the Oakland Raiders down a road of uncertainty.

In the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing 13-3, Tom Brady led the Patriots on a 10-play, 67-yard drive, completing nine consecutive passes for 61 yards and finishing it with a 6-yard touchdown run.

Later in the quarter, the infamous "tuck" incident occurred. As Brady dropped back to pass, he lost the ball while being tackled by former Michigan teammate Charles Woodson, and Oakland linebacker Greg Beikert recovered it with 1:47 left.

However, an instant replay challenge caused referee Walt Coleman to overturn the fumble, ruling Brady's arm had been moving forward while being tackled and making the play an incomplete pass.

Taking advantage of his second chance, Brady led the Patriots inside the Raiders' 30-yard line where Vinatieri made a 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left, a dramatic kick through heavy snowfall that barely cleared the crossbar, sending the game into overtime. 

New England won the coin toss and drove for the winning field goal on a possession that featured a risky fourth down conversion attempt from Brady, who threw a 6-yard pass to David Patten at the Raiders' 22-yard line to keep the drive alive.

Following five runs from Antowain Smith and one from Brady, Vinatieri made a 23-yard field goal to win the game.  The win sparked the Patriots to back-to-back upsets in the AFC title game and Super Bowl XXXVI.

 

2005 - Steelers 21, Colts 18

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't given much of a chance against the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts.  But the Road Warriors didn't get the memo and became the first-ever No. 6 seed to knock off a No. 1. 

One play after a punt with seven minutes left, an interception by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu was overturned by instant replay (a reversal that the league would later admit was a mistake).

Taking advantage of his second chance, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning completed a 9-yard pass to Dallas Clark, a 20-yard pass to Marvin Harrison, and a 24-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, moving the ball to the Steelers 3-yard line.

Edgerrin James finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run, and Manning threw a pass to Wayne for a successful 2-point conversion, cutting the lead to 21-18.

Then in a wild finish that no one saw coming, the Steelers were forced to punt on their ensuing drive.

But with 1:20 left in the game, Manning was sacked on fourth-and-16 at the Colts' 2-yard line by Joey Porter, and the ball was turned over to the Steelers on downs.  Pittsburgh led 21-18 but the score did not dictate just how dominant the Steelers were.

At this point, the game appeared to be over. However, the Steelers were forced to advance the ball towards another score instead of taking a knee because the Colts still had three timeouts remaining.

But on Pittsburgh's first play, in which Jerome Bettis tried to punch it in for an insurance touchdown, he fumbled for the first time all season when linebacker Gary Brackett popped it from Bettis' hands with his helmet.

Indianapolis defensive back Nick Harper recovered the ball and appeared to be on his way for an Indy touchdown that would have given the Colts the lead when Roethlisberger made a season-saving tackle at the Colts' 42-yard line, spinning around and grabbing his ankle.

Eventually, the Colts then advanced to the Pittsburgh 28-yard line but Mike Vanderjagt, who had been perfect at home in the playoffs in his career, missed a 46-yard game-tying field goal attempt wide right with 17 seconds remaining, and the Steelers ran out the clock. 

The win sparked the Steelers' surprising road trip and victory in Super Bowl XL.

 

2006 - Patriots 24, Chargers 21

The San Diego Chargers were 14-2, had the NFL MVP, home-field advantage, the Coach of the Year, nine Pro Bowlers and five more All-Pros.  All the New England Patriots had were pedestrian wide receivers, an aging defense and a banged up secondary. 

But they also had Tom Brady, three championships, and time.

Four Chargers turnovers, three of which were converted into Patriots scoring drives, helped lead to a Patriots upset win.  Multiple penalties also helped out New England's cause. 

Much-maligned head coach Marty Schottenheimer called two fourth-down conversions and one important challenge during the game.  He was fired soon after.

In the fourth quarter on a fourth-down conversion attempt, Brady's pass was intercepted by Marlon McCree, but Troy Brown stripped the ball, and receiver Reche Caldwell recovered it. Schottenheimer unsuccessfully challenged the play and lost a timeout.

Four plays later, Brady threw a 4-yard touchdown to a wide open Caldwell. Kevin Faulk took a direct snap and scored the two-point conversion to to the game.

Then, after forcing a punt, Brady completed a 19-yard pass to Daniel Graham. Two plays later, Caldwell caught a 49-yard strike down the right sideline to set up rookie Stephen Gostkowski's third field goal to give them a 24-21 lead with only 1:10 left in the fourth quarter.

With no timeouts left, San Diego drove to the Patriots 36 on their final possession, but Nate Kaeding's 54-yard field goal attempt fell short with three seconds remaining in the game. 

The Patriots celebrated on the field, some players mocking linebacker Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" sack celebration and were branded as a classless organization.

Once the conference title games are set, I'll continue this "Greatest" series with the best games in Conference Championship history. If I missed any, please let me know. 

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