Top 25 Moments in NFL History

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIMay 18, 2012

Top 25 Moments in NFL History

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    There are so many special moments in the history of the National Football League—how can you narrow them all down to a list of the 25 greatest moments? It is not an easy task, but that is what we are going to set out to do.

    When we use the phrase top moments, we are looking for specific things that benefited the NFL and NFL fans in general.

    From the early years of the NFL being created, and as it evolved over time, the sport of football continued to gain in popularity, taking on a bigger role in American sports and culture.

    We are ranking our top 25 most memorable moments that the NFL has offered to date. Now, on to the presentation...


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25. National Football League Is Created (1922)

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    The birth of professional organized football started with a meeting of seven men in Canton, Ohio in 1920. One of the attendees was the legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe (pictured). The group decided to form a league that would consist of 10 teams playing in four states. The league was to be called the American Professional Football Association, or APFA for short. The APFA was formed on September 17, 1920.

    The APFA nominated and elected Thorpe to be president of the league. According to this article from, some of the APFA league members consisted of the owners of four teams from Ohio, (Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and the Dayton Triangles) and from Illinois (Rock Island Independents, Chicago Cardinals and the Decatur Staleys). 

    The league only lasted for two years, and it was then reorganized on June 24, 1922 into the National Football League. The only founding teams that are still in existence are the Arizona Cardinals (who started off as the Chicago Cardinals), the Decatur Staleys (who later became the Chicago Bears) and the Green Bay Packers.

    Over the years, the National Football League became more organized, which led to the creation of the first league championship game in 1933. The National Football League was taking roots and taking hold.


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24. NFL Draft Is Created by Bert Bell (1935)

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    Burt Bell was a co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was struggling to put a good product on the field. His Eagles team was having trouble securing top-level talent, so in 1935, Bell proposed that the National Football League consider going to a draft. 

    Bell felt that the draft would enhance the competitive parity on the field in order to ensure the financial viability of all franchises. His proposal was adopted unanimously, and the NFL draft was born. 

    Bell's plan stopped players from only joining the most prestigious teams in the league, and gave the other teams a fighting chance to compete each year. The draft has changed over the years in regards to trimming some of the rounds and making tweaks like adding compensatory picks, but the current draft is essentially what Bell envisioned that it should be.

    The NFL is much better off thanks to Bell's insight and creativity. Bell also served as NFL Commissioner from 1946-1959. Bell had been a partial owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers team, but had to sell his shares of the team to accept the commissioner role.

    Most football fans are aware of the AFL and NFL merger, but Bell was responsible for the real first merger of the NFL. That merger was between the NFL and the All-America Football Conference. He also dealt with a gambling scandal in 1946, and encouraged players to report whenever somebody approached them in an attempt to bribe a player.

    Another little known accomplishment was that Bell created the NFL league schedules on his own, in addition to coming up with the revenue-sharing system that allowed teams from smaller markets to compete with teams from larger markets, who brought in much higher revenue streams.

    Bell was responsible for many positive developments that are still in place in the NFL today.


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23. NFL Goes Prime Time with Monday Night Football (1970)

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    The very first time that the ABC network televised a game of Monday Night Football was on September 21, 1970, between the New York Jets at the Cleveland Browns. The Browns won that game 31-21.

    The very first broadcasting trio was Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson. Other key figures would join the crew in subsequent years, such as Frank Gifford and O.J. Simpson.

    One interesting story from that first year is that Cosell was slurring his speech in the November 23, 1970 game. He wound up vomiting all over Meredith's boots. Cosell left the booth, so Jackson and Meredith had to finish up the game on their own.

    Why Monday Night Football was so important was that it brought pro football into more homes around the country at prime time, when families would be home on a weekday night. Cosell and his mannerisms were the deciding factor for whether you opted to listen to the broadcast live or listen to the radio instead.


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22. Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

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    The Miracle at the Meadowlands occurred on November 19,1978. The New York Giants were in control of the game, and only had to kill the final minute of the clock to secure a victory.

    Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled the attempted handoff, and Herm Edwards of the Philadelphia Eagles scooped up the gift fumble, and raced into the end zone untouched for the shocking win.

    From that point forward, when teams are in a similar situation, they go to the victory formation. They always have one player kept back, just to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again.

21. Instant Replay Is Passed (1986)

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    The National Football League adopted instant replay on March 11, 1986, to help referees out with specific calls in games.

    Despite the ability to slow down the video feed and the use of different camera angles, it is still not a totally foolproof system. Part of the rationale for that statement is that there has to be enough visual evidence to overturn the call made on the field. If the call on the field was wrong, it can be tough to overturn it.

    Prior to 1986, whenever a team lost due to a bad call, it gave the fans a rallying point to bemoan their bad luck. Now with the advent of instant replay, they have a fighting chance to know that their team wasn't cheated or robbed.

    In this story by Tony Long of, the adoption of instant replay also went hand in hand with the ability for coaches to challenge calls on the field that they thought were wrong. The improved technology included slow motion and multiple angles, which helped the instant replay official get the most information possible to make an accurate decision.

    This development has helped the game of football advance. There will continue to be more tweaks to the system over the years. For the 2012 season, the NFL adopted a new rule that every turnover will go to instant replay to verify that it was indeed a turnover before proceeding on with the game.


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20. Music City Miracle (2000)

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    There must be something in the water when the Buffalo Bills face the Houston Oilers, or the later version of the Oilers, the Tennessee Titans. When these two teams get together, stay in your seats until the final gun goes off.

    The setting was a Wild Card AFC Playoff game on January 8, 2000. The visiting Buffalo Bills had just scored on a 41-yard field goal by Steve Christie to take a 16-15 lead with only 16 seconds left in the game. All the Bills had to do was kick off, tackle the return man and then knock down the Hail Mary pass and they would advance to the next round of the playoffs.

    Instead, the Titans ran a trick play, which you can watch being played out on the video. Was it a lateral or a forward pass? That will probably be argued for decades to come, because the camera angle is a key factor in knowing the correct call. We might never know the real truth.

    One thing is for sure, the Bills have never been back to the playoffs since this game. Another thing we know is that the guy who scored the winning touchdown on this crazy play, Kevin Dyson, is the same player that would be tackled one-yard shy of tying up the Super Bowl for the Titans later on in the playoffs. Could that have been karma?

19. The Ice Bowl Game (1967)

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    The Ice Bowl game was played on December 31, 1967, between the host Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. The game in question was for the NFL Championship.

    The weather in Green Bay that day was horrific. The temperature at kickoff was -15 degrees F (-26 degrees C), with a wind chill factor running around 44 to 48 below zero. Lambeau Field had issues due to the intense weather conditions, and their system to heat the turn had broken down. That left a sheet of ice on the field when they lifted off the tarp, and conditions couldn't have been any worse.

    The video will give you an interesting look at the game, but you need to know it is a tad over 10 minutes long. The Packers defeated the Cowboys 21-17 to become NFL Champions, in one of the special games in NFL history.

18. The Immaculate Reception (1972)

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    The Immaculate Reception game featured the Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Oakland Raiders on December 23, 1972. The Raiders were up by the slimmest of margins, 7-6, over the Steelers and seemed to be in control of the game.

    The Steelers had the ball on their own 40-yard line with less than 30 seconds left to play and no time outs left to use. Terry Bradshaw heaved up a pass downfield, and the ball ricocheted over to Franco Harris. Check out the video to watch the play unfold.

    This is one of the craziest and wackiest plays in NFL history. The Steelers wound up winning the game 13-7 due to the Immaculate Reception. It should be noted that the Steelers weren't able to advance any further in the playoffs. They were eliminated the following week by the Miami Dolphins, who were mowing down all teams in their quest for a perfect season.

17. The Drive (1987)

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    The Drive is how the comeback of John Elway and the Denver Broncos is described, the infamous march down the field that Elway orchestrated against the Cleveland Browns. The game was played on January 11, 1987 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

    Cleveland had just scored and were up 20-13 with 5:32 left in the game. Denver fumbled the kickoff, and the Broncos recovered the ball, but they would have to start the drive pinned back at their own 2-yard line. If Elway was going to rally the Broncos, he would have to take them 98 yards against a tough Browns defense, and that would be just to tie the game and send it into overtime.

    "The Drive" is best described by watching the video, so you can see it unfold. This is classic Elway at his best.

16. Wild Card Teams Are Included in the Playoffs

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    The NFL has added Wild Card teams to the NFL playoff format three different times.

    The first time was prior to the merger in 1970 between the National Football League and the American Football League. That was the first time a wild card team was allowed to compete in the postseason.

    The second addition happened in 1978. When the NFL increased the schedule to 16 games, they added one more wild card team to each conference, bringing the total to two wild cards teams per conference.

    The third and final addition came in 1990 when a third wild card team was added to each conference.

    The additional playoff teams meant that a greater number of teams could still reach the postseason. Games that might have been meaningless in December in prior years now had the chance to be something special, if it meant that the team had a shot at being one of the wild card qualifiers.

    And as we have seen over the years, once you are in the playoffs, anything is possible. So far, 10 wild card teams have made it all the way to the Super Bowl, with six of those 10 winning the Lombardi Trophy. Out of those six winners, three of them had to win three straight road games to advance to the Super Bowl where they won it all (Pittsburgh, New York Giants and Green Bay).


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15. The Catch (1982)

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    Joe Montana's pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone in Super Bowl XXIII is known as "The Catch".

    The date was January 10, 1982, and it was the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were hanging on to a 27-21 lead in the final minutes of the game, knowing that Joe Montana and the 49ers would have to drive 89 yards to score the winning touchdown.

    Montana confidently led the 49ers down the field, taking them to the Cowboys 6-yard line with only 58 seconds left in the game. On a third and three, Montana wanted to hit Freddie Solomon, but he was covered too well, so Montana had to scramble to avoid the Cowboys pass rush and look for another target.

    Dwight Clark was working his way back towards the rear end zone. Montana threw a pass that nobody but Clark could possibly catch. Clark jumped up as high as he could, and just barely was able to haul the pass in for the winning touchdown.

    From here, the 49ers proceeded to go on and win the Super Bowl XVI game against the Cincinnati Bengals.


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14. NFL Moves Draft from January to April (1976)

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    The NFL Draft had been in existence for 40 years or so, but for some reason the NFL continued to hold the draft in late January or early February.

    Finally, the NFL made the decision starting with the 1976 NFL Draft to hold it on April 8-9. In subsequent years, the draft was held on May 3-4, April 21-22 and even April 17-18.

    The decision to move the draft back three months gave the NFL teams a much better window to complete their scouting work. With the NFL Scouting Combine, pro visits to the various NFL teams and Pro Days at the major colleges, the NFL personnel in charge of finalizing draft grades had more opportunities to kick the tires on college players and have a better idea of who they were potentially drafting.

    From a fan's viewpoint, it allowed for more time and viewing opportunities to really learn more about the players and have a little more understanding and vested interest of who their team might be interested in drafting and why.

    With the NFL Network televising the Scouting Combines and Pro Days, fans got to see first-hand what assets specific players had. This gave them a chance to form stronger opinions, which is always good for stirring up interest in the game.


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13. Bills Complete Greatest Comeback Win in NFL History (1993)

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    Frank Reich, the king of football comebacks, led the Buffalo Bills to an improbable comeback win against the Houston Oilers in a wild card playoff game on January 3, 1993.

    Reich overcame a 32-point deficit in the third quarter, rallying the Bills to take a 38-35 lead in the fourth quarter, only to see the Oilers comeback and tie the game prior to the end in regulation. In overtime, Bills safety Henry Jones intercepted a pass from Warren Moon, setting the Bills up in field goal position. Steve Christie kicked the winning field goal, and the Bills wound up winning 41-38 in overtime. They proceeded to advance to Super Bowl XXVII, where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys 52-17. 

    The day after the game, the Oilers fired both defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas. The Oilers replaced Eddy with Buddy Ryan.

    In 1984, while at the University of Maryland, Reich also led a similar dramatic comeback against the University of Miami. Maryland was trailing 31-0 at halftime, and Reich put together a dynamic second half to lead his team to a 42-40 win.

12. Heidi Game (1968)

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    On November 17, 1968, the New York Jets were leading the Oakland Raiders 32-29. There was approximately 1:30 left in the game when NBC abruptly cut away from the conclusion of the game to return to their regular programming, broadcasting the movie "Heidi."

    Football fans were furious that they couldn't see the conclusion of the game, and they flooded NBC with phone calls. The Raiders did mount a big comeback in the final 90 seconds, which you can watch via the video.

    For NFL fans, this game was significant because it convinced the networks that they had to air games until they naturally concluded, whether or not the game ran over the allotted three hours. This allowed fans to watch games in their entirety, and not be cheated out of any more fantastic finishes.

    The Raiders wound up winning the game 43-32.

11. NFL Network Is Created (2003)

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    The NFL Network debuted in November of 2003. This network, combined with NFL Films, gave football fans as much football as they could want to possibly see. Sure, much of it was past footage or replays of games from years prior, but it was still football. Who doesn't enjoy the work of NFL Films?

    While the network now has more games to broadcast, thanks to a new deal for the 2012 season, everything isn't exactly peaches and cream. As per this article from, there is a struggle going on between what the NFL Network wants to produce and what kind of products NFL Films wants to produce.

    As somebody who writes about the NFL, I watch enough of the programming to know that when they get a hot topic, like Peyton Manning trying to find a new team, or Tim Tebow's comebacks in Denver, they can beat those topics to death until you are sick of them.

    But for the casual fan that might have only an hour or two available at night to sit down and catch up on what is going on around the league, it is probably more than sufficient to meet their needs.


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10. Best Draft Class in NFL History (1974)

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    It is a long and difficult path for any first-round draft pick to have such a great career that they wind up being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. How is it possible then that one team could have such a magical draft class that they wound up sending four draft picks from one year into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

    Well, that was the case of the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers draft class. The four future Hall of Famers that they drafted that year were: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. 

    It is almost impossible to imagine a draft class having a greater impact on a team than what this quartet did for Pittsburgh.

    For what it is worth, here is the order in which they were selected. In Round 1, Swann went with the No. 21 overall pick. In Round 2, the Steelers drafted Lambert with the No. 46 overall pick. The Steelers didn't own a pick in Round 3. In Round 4, they took Stallworth with the No. 82 overall pick. In Round 5, they found Webster, pick No. 125.

    This was an unbelievable job by the Steelers scouting department, and a "while you were sleeping" notice to the rest of the NFL scouts.


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9. NFL Creates the Super Bowl (1967)

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    When the American Football League and the National Football League agreed to complete their merger, a championship game between the two leagues became part of the agreement.

    The first such championship game was to take place on January 15, 1967, and in that first year it was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers won that first game, 35-10, against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    The leagues also agreed that in 1970, the final game would be changed to a contest between the two conferences, the AFC and the NFC.

    The importance of the Super Bowl is that it rivaled the popularity of the World Series and eventually overtook the fall classic. It allowed football to become the main team sport in the United States.

    From the commercials, the amount of food and drink that is consumed, the office parties and office pools that are created and having family and friends over to watch the game and see the gala halftime show, the festivities surrounding Super Bowl have become an important event in our culture and something we look forward to with great anticipation every year.


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8. New York Jets Win Super Bowl III (1969)

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    As far as special moments in NFL history go, how could we not include Joe Namath and the New York Jets triumph over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III?

    The AFL was still thought to be playing an inferior brand of football, as compared to their more established NFL counterparts. That was clearly evident in the first two Super Bowl games. But Joe Namath had that swagger and belief in his own ability and that of his teammates, leading him to guarantee that the Jets would defeat the Colts.

    Namath was able to back up his claim. The Jets outplayed the Colts, easily defeating them 16-7. From that point on, the AFL no longer had to feel inferior to the NFL, and the national perception changed for the better.

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7. NFL and NFLPA Agree to New Deal (2011)

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    The NFL and the NFLPA ended their labor dispute by reaching a new 10-year deal on July 25, 2011. The negotiations had stretched on for so long that there was genuine concern and fear from NFL fans that the two sides might not be able to come together in time to preserve the entire season.

    But cooler heads prevailed, and the efforts of individuals such as Robert Kraft, Jeff Saturday, Commissioner Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith all contributed to bring about a resolution that both sides could live with.

    Any time you have labor unrest that can ultimately lead to a strike and lost wages, or in this case lost games or a lost season, you run the risk of losing some of your die-hard fans as a result. Too many people in the country are struggling to make ends meet, and for these millionaires and billionaires to be quibbling over how to divide up these huge network contracts seems quite inane to the normal fan.

    But with at least nine more years of peace and harmony, hopefully the landscape is set to prevent any work stoppages in the future.


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6. NFL and AFL Complete Their Merger (1970)

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    When the American Football League started to play games in 1960, nobody knew exactly what to expect. The uniforms were quirky and the stadiums were old and decrepit—like War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo where I would watch games as a kid.

    But the league was developing its own stars and was gaining a following. Fans liked the high scoring action, and the league wasn't going away.

    Things started getting heated when the New York Giants signed Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak to a new contract, and whatever gentleman's agreement that existed between the two leagues went out the window. AFL Commissioner Al Davis wanted to sign away as many NFL stars as he could for the AFL, but there were enough owners on both sides that saw this was headed in the wrong direction. They secretly started meeting with the thought of creating a merger behind Al Davis' back.

    Davis was against the idea of a merger, but had no choice but to go along with it when the majority of AFL owners wanted to make it work with the NFL. The resulting merger grew the talent base of the NFL immensely, and it put new rivalries around the country in place. The merger was a huge boon for the NFL. It resulted in a much larger league, more talent, greater interest and many new rivalries that are still thriving to this day.


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5. Tennessee Comes Up One Yard Short (2000)

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    Another memorable moment was the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, between the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams.

    The Rams were holding on to a seven-point lead, 23-16, with the Titans driving down the field in the final minutes of the game. Titans quarterback Steve McNair engineered a drive that brought the Titans all the way down to the Rams 10-yard line with just six second left in the game. There was time for one last play.

    McNair hit wide receiver Kevin Dyson on a slant pattern, and linebacker Mike Jones met Dyson before he could extend his arm and the ball over the goal line. Dyson came up one yard short, the remaining seconds ticked off the clock and the Rams had their first Super Bowl championship.

    That play, now referred to as "The Tackle," had so much drama and tension, that it will have to remain as one of the top moments in NFL history.

4. Giants Wreck Patriots Perfect Season (2007)

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    The New England Patriots were just one step away from matching the Miami Dolphins perfect 1972 season. The Patriots were undefeated in the regular season and playoffs in 2007. All that remained was to defeat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, and the Patriots would make history. In fact, they would have won two more games than the Dolphins did. The regular season was now 16 games long, and the Dolphins only had to win 14 games to sweep their season.

    As it was, the Patriots had defeated the Giants 38-35 in the final regular season game of the season, which demonstrated how evenly matched the two teams were. That is why it was somewhat surprising that the Giants were 12-point underdogs coming into the game. The Giants proved their grit and determination by winning three straight playoff games on the road, so they had momentum coming into the game.

    The most famous play of the game was an Eli Manning scramble where he somehow escaped Patriots rushers that had him in their grasp, only to see Manning somehow dance out of the attempted sack and heave an improbable pass down the field. Even more improbable was the way that wide receiver David Tyree trapped the ball against his helmet to secure the catch. A remarkable play for a remarkable game.

    Manning then floated a pass to Plaxico Burress in the end zone with 35 seconds left to play, and the Giants had completed their 17-14 comeback win.

    Interestingly enough, in the two games played between these top two teams that season, they scored an identical number of points, 52-52 against each other. How wild is that?

3. Super Bowl XXV (1991)

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    Super Bowl XXV was one of the most memorable moments in NFL history. The game turned out to be the closest Super Bowl game in history of the event, as no other Super Bowl game before or since has ever been decided by one point. 

    In addition, the game was played while the Gulf War was being waged, so security at the stadium was extremely tight. I should know, as this was the first Super Bowl game I ever attended in person.

    Whitney Houston had her remarkable version of the Star Spangled Banner. The amount of pride in the country was on display all over Tampa Stadium.

    The New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills 20-19 when Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game sailed wide right. The entire stadium was on their feet to see how the kick would turn out, as the outcome of the game hung in the balance.

    For Giants fans, it was sheer joy all over the stadium when the kick missed. For the Bills fans, it was the first of four-straight tough Super Bowl memories. I will never forget that game, and I am sure the football fans that witnessed it won't forget it either.

    The game will be remembered for the great defensive scheme that defensive coordinator Bill Belichick ordered up to try to contain Jim Kelly and the Bills' hurry up K-Gun offense. It was a classic battle of a strong defense battling against a strong offense. This was a game for the ages.

    One odd note to pass on—ESPN is running a story that ex-Giants star linebacker Lawrence Taylor is auctioning off his Super Bowl ring from this game. The auction will close this weekend. Timing is everything, right?

2. NFL Helps U.S. Heal After 9/11 (2001)

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    As far as stirring or touching moments go, you would be hard pressed to find anything more moving or touching than the weekend that the NFL games resumed following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

    When the NFL decided to resume their season, every game played around the country was filled with moments like the one pictured above from the New York Giants at the Kansas City Chiefs on September 23, 2001.

    In this story by Bill Reiter from Fox Sports, he interviews ex-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his memories from the entire episode. Taglibue recalls hearing the news of the plane flying in to the World Trade Center, and agonizing over how to properly move forward.

    Tagliabue decided to hold off on playing games, in an attempt to let things start to calm down and stabilize. When the NFL resumed play on September 23, the Giants were met by a loud and emotional greeting from the Kansas City Chiefs' fans. In games played around the league that day, it helped the country to heal a little bit more, as it would with each passing day.

1. Miami Dolphins Reach Perfection (1972)

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    In the modern era of the NFL, there has only been one team that was able to sweep through the entire regular season, as well as sweeping through the playoffs and Super Bowl, to go undefeated for the year. That one team was the1972 Miami Dolphins, and we have reserved our top spot on this list for their unmatched achievement.

    The NFL regular season was still only 14 games in 1972. The Dolphins wound up with a 17-0 record that year, despite losing their starting quarterback Bob Griese to a broken ankle in Week 5, when he was sacked by Deacon Jones of the San Diego Chargers. Backup Earl Morrall stepped in, and capably led the Dolphins from there all the way to the AFC Championship game, until Griese was able to return. Griese led the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII to their championship win.

    The Dolphins didn't blow teams out, but played well enough to win, which is what it's all about anyway. The Dolphins won their three playoff games by a combined total of only 17 points. They beat Cleveland 20-14, beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship 21-17 and then beat Washington in the Super Bowl 14-7.

    Miami was led by the running back duo of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, wide receiver Paul Warfield and Hall of Fame linemen Jim Langer and Larry Little. The No-Name defense was led by Nick Buoniconti, Bill Stanfill, Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. 

    The 2007 New England Patriots came close to matching the Dolphins. The Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season, only to lose in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. If the NFL decides to add even more games on to the regular season, it will make it even more difficult for anybody to match the Dolphins' perfect season.

    Thanks for checking out the presentation. 


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