NFL Hell: The 5 Most Heartbreaking Games of All Time (Video)
Everyone hates the NFL.
At some point, after a game that you’ve been totally invested in ends with your team on the wrong end of the score, you’ve hated the NFL. For a brief moment, maybe, but it was there nonetheless.
Of course, that’s the beauty of professional sports, with those painful losses only serving to make the victories that much sweeter. It’s the road that every fan must travel, and we do it willingly, with key events in our lives inextricably linked with sporting fixtures.
An important victory can be the catalyst for an evening to go from good to great, shared with the people you care about in a milestone moment that you will one day recollect and think to yourself: “That was a good time. We were all happy.”
But in the short term, the defeats are the ones that stick. Especially the close ones—the ones so tense that they went down to the final seconds with both sets of fans just as apprehensive about the outcome. The defeat washes over you and there’s nothing left but the melancholic murmur of a failed season.
This article will bring it all back. So if your team is featured on the list, I’m sorry.
But I know how you feel.
5. The Heidi Bowl: New York Jets vs. Oakland Raiders, Week 10, 1968
If you never got to see the final minute, here it is...
When compiling this list, the easiest thing would be to pick five Super Bowl games. Surely those have to be the most painful games to lose. Maybe so, but there are some games that transcend their position on the calendar to endure as NFL benchmarks. Some even change the game itself.
This game did both.
In today's media-saturated climate, televised sports are a big deal. Networks devote millions to capturing every play of every game, and with that comes a huge audience. If the game goes into overtime, the other scheduled programming has to wait. Such is the power that these games wield.
It wasn't always like this, however. Jets fans would find this out the hard way.
In a way, it was all the players' fault. Bitter personal rivalries between the Jets and the Raiders had resulted in many penalties and injuries to players, delaying the game as the clock stopped each time to accommodate them. Despite this, it was an exciting game with plenty of scoring plays, and the Jets were hanging on to a 32-29 lead as it went into its final minute.
The story goes something like this. Apparently, NBC had received a lot of calls from concerned viewers who wanted to know if the game was set to continue, as it was coming to the end of its scheduled slot. This led to a jamming of its switchboard, meaning that the call from NBC executives—to give the go-ahead for the game to continue being broadcast—never got through.
I can only imagine the scenes in the houses of Jets fans. Instead of a nail-biting finish to a hard-fought battle, the whole of the East Side was abruptly shifted to the Swiss mountains to view a heartwarming tale of a young girl living with her grandfather.
The Raiders scored two touchdowns in that missing minute, taking the game 43-32. It would be a while before New York would know the final score. But the extra time would not have made the result any easier to deal with.
The broadcasting rules were changed forever—now a professional sports contest will always run into the next scheduled program in the event that it outlives its original time frame. To further ensure that it never happened again, special telephones were installed via a separate exchange, meaning that network personnel could always communicate with one another, no matter how many external calls were being fielded by the switchboard.
Their names? "Heidi" phones.
4. The Catch III: New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers, 2011 Playoffs
"Dome teams are soft and [Drew] Brees' padded numbers are an insult to Dan Marino."
"Alex Smith is nothing more than a game manager who relies on his defense and special teams to win for him."
These were just two of the insults that were hurled across the Internet before this game, in capital letters and accompanied by some other choice phrases that won't be reprinted here. After the game, one of those insults was still in use, while the other had been co-opted and thrown back at those who coined it.
But to wade through the insults and misdirected aggression would be to detract from a game that perfectly encapsulated why we watch the NFL.
The first half was tense, and the second half looked to be building to a decent climax when suddenly Brees connected with Darren Sproles on a short pass that he converted into a 44-yard touchdown, giving the Saints their first lead of the game.
Smith stepped up with a 28-yard touchdown run of his own, but the Niners failed on the two-point conversion—then Brees threw to Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard touchdown and the Saints converted their own two-point attempt.
With 1:32 left, the time had come for Smith to repay some of the faith shown in him. The resulting drive led to a third-and-3 at the Saints 14, and with 14 seconds left David Akers was practicing his kicks on the sideline as the final timeout was called.
Smith called his final play, an over-the-middle cross-pattern route for Vernon Davis. Smith threw the ball into tight coverage with a ferocity not previously seen from him. Davis turned his head and the pass was in his arms. Roman Harper piled into him at the point of catch, but Davis held on and it was over.
There may be some consternation about such a recent game being on this list, but any game that manages to drain the neutrals and break the hearts of both sets of supporters deserves nothing less.
Davis ran from the field in floods of tears as his teammates rushed to console him. And this was the guy who had just won the game.
3. Wide Right: Buffalo Bills vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XXV
This one needed to be good.
The specter of the Gulf War hung over everything, but the late Whitney Houston had delivered a pre-game rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that aroused such patriotic fervor that it threatened to overwhelm the whole occasion. The game had a lot to live up to, and it didn’t disappoint.
Everyone knew the Bills would win. Their no-huddle offense had racked up 95 points in two playoff games, with the last coming in a 51-3 rout of the Los Angeles Raiders. The Giants, meanwhile, had failed to score a touchdown in the NFC championship game. They made it past Joe Montana and his San Francisco 49ers, but Buffalo would be a step too far.
If you watched the Giants offense during the first quarter and concluded that they were all over the place, you probably weren’t alone. Alternating between running and passing plays, using bootlegs and play-action fakes, it started to make sense as the Giants took time off the clock and limited Buffalo’s possessions. Despite this, Buffalo would strike quickly, and had a two-point lead going into the second half.
The Giants' draining of the clock continued, and the Bills were down by one as the game went into its final stages. But when Bills quarterback Jim Kelly spiked the ball at the Giants 29-yard line with eight seconds remaining, it appeared that Scott Norwood would make the kick and order would be restored.
Even Buffalo fans had to admit it had been a great defensive performance from the Giants, but they had to figure it would not be enough and the Bills would take the trophy.
Except it didn’t happen like that.
Norwood’s career-longest field goal had been 49 yards, and he had to make it from 47 here. He had made 20 of 29 attempts for the season. And in his six years as a pro he had made one of five kicks on grass that were from 40 or more yards.
There was enough distance, but “wide right” was the call, and with that call went Norwood’s career. From then on he would be the answer to a trivia question. His performances declined by the season, and eventually he was cut.
The Bills would never get closer to winning the Super Bowl than they did that day against the Giants. Starting with that year, the Buffalo Bills made four consecutive trips to the title game and lost them all.
2. The Fumble: Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos, AFC Title Game, 1987/88
Cleveland Browns fans deserve to have something good happen. Every time I watch the Browns, I keep waiting for some kind of tragedy to occur. When Colt McCoy got nailed by James Harrison last season in the helmet-to-helmet tackle that caused his concussion, of course, I felt for him. I also wanted him to get up and lead the Browns to victory.
But another part of me was screaming inwardly at the TV: "You play for the Browns! What did you expect to happen?"
If the Browns could choose a part of the field that they hate the most, the opposing 2-yard line would probably figure highly. In the 1986-87 season, John Elway was handed the ball on his 2-yard line to begin what would be known as "The Drive"—98 yards in five minutes that led to a game-tying touchdown and the Broncos eventually winning in overtime.
The following season brought about the same fixture, and the 2-yard line would play its part once more.
Earnest Byner had kept the Browns in the game. This is often forgotten and doesn't deserve to be. Byner was both the leading rusher and receiver for the Browns in that game. He had already scored two touchdowns, so it made sense that the hand-off was to him.
He cut left, looked toward the end zone and was one step from tying the game when he fumbled the ball two yards from the goal line. It was recovered by the Broncos., who intentionally gave up a safety and won the game.
Byner was traded to the Redskins the next year, where he had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under Joe Gibbs, making the Pro Bowl twice and winning the Super Bowl ring he was denied the opportunity to play for with the Browns.
But every time I see that play against Denver, I'm still rooting for him to make it.
1. One Yard Short: St. Louis Rams vs. Tennessee Titans, Super Bowl XXXIV
I played a lot of sports when I was a child. On nights before key games, I would often have dreams that involved the next day's fixture. In these dreams I would be the hero, leading my team to victory just when it looked like we were about to be beaten.
The final play of Super Bowl XXXIV is a pre-game nightmare writ large.
The game was going the Rams' way. In in the third quarter they scored a touchdown to increase their lead to 16-0. It looked like the Titans were done, and there were mutterings about the possibility of a Super Bowl shutout.
From nowhere, the Titans reeled off 16 unanswered points to tie the game with 2:12 to play. Kurt Warner of the Rams then threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce, but he'd done it so quickly that it seemed there was enough time for Tennessee to score and send the game into overtime.
In the Titans' wild-card game against the Buffalo Bills, Kevin Dyson had taken a lateral on a kickoff return and run for a 75-yard touchdown, winning the game with three seconds to play in what would become known as "The Music City Miracle."
He would have twice that much time to win the Super Bowl.
With six seconds on the clock, the Titans called their last timeout. Tight end Frank Wycheck would run to the right, luring Rams linebacker Mike Jones to follow, leaving Dyson free to slant across the middle and receive the pass on the 5-yard line. The only thing between him and glory was five yards.
The problem with any play-calling is that it fails to take into account the vagaries of human behavior. Although Jones had followed Wycheck out to the goal line, he had turned his head back just in time to see Dyson receive the pass. He veered back toward the Titans wide receiver, throwing himself at his legs and bringing Dyson down.
Dyson looked out at the goal line as he fell to the ground. Did he make it? He stretched out his arm, desperately trying to break the line with the ball as the clock drained its last second.
Jones got to his feet and threw his arms in the air, but Dyson remained on the ground, forever one yard short after unwillingly creating one of the most iconic images in NFL history.
Epilogue: Some Notes on Selection
Would David Tyree's "Helmet Catch" make your list?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The trouble with creating a list like this is that you are forced to remove your inherent fan bias from the equation and remain impartial throughout the process.
The games that made the final five are the ones that still get to me when I watch them replayed. My heart rate rises and it's almost as if I'm watching them for the first time.
The only exception to that was the "Heidi" game, included because of the immense frustration that the Jets fans must have experienced when their TVs were suddenly no longer showing the game.
I'm sure that in reading this you will have created a list in your head of alternate games that meant more to you and left you more emotionally devastated after suffering the defeat. Any stories like that are welcomed in the comments section.
Think of it as NFL therapy before the new season starts.