January football: It's the absolute best thing in the world, next to a 12-inch Philly cheesesteak.
It's where average players become superstars (see: Terry Bradshaw), and superstars become average players (see: Dan Marino).
Simply put, it's where legacies are built.
Each season, there are exactly ten games leading up to the Super Bowl: four in the wild-card round, four in the divisional round, and two conference championship games. Exactly 10 of them in the last decade were what you could call an all-time classic. These games have featured everything you would want in a postseason game: lots of scoring, big plays, comebacks, and last-second game-winning scores.
Five of the 10 games went into overtime, and one went into double overtime. Defenses win championships, but over the past decade, NFL teams, particularly in the postseason, have used offenses to win games.
Gone are the days of defensive struggles. High scoring affairs—like the Cardinals-Packers wild-card game—are much more common. Even in a rare defensive battle, such as the Giants-Patriots in the Super Bowl, the offenses are in complete control for the majority of the fourth quarter.
So here it is: the ten greatest games (with one honorable mention thrown in) from the wild-card, divisional, and conference championship rounds of the past decade.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia Eagles 20, Green Bay Packers 17
In their first postseason game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles faced a powerful Green Bay Packers team, which had defeated the Seattle Seahawks off an Al Harris interception touchdown in overtime in the wild-card round.
In the first quarter, Brett Favre tossed two touchdown passes to Robert Ferguson, giving the Packers a commanding 14-0 lead. Donovan McNabb tossed a touchdown pass to Duce Staley, cutting the lead to 14-7.
Right before halftime, the Eagles made a memorable goal-line stand, stuffing Ahman Green on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line to keep the score at 14-7. On the first play of the fourth quarter, McNabb provided a memorable play, dancing away from several Packers defenders before firing a 12-yard touchdown to Todd Pinkston to tie the game at 14.
The Packers added a field goal to take the lead 17-14, and with 2:22 left, the Eagles got the ball back on their own 20-yard line.
What happened next is one of the most memorable plays in Philadelphia Eagles history.
The Eagles faced a 4th-and-26 from their own 26-yard line with just 1:12 to play. McNabb fired a 28-yard strike to Freddie Mitchell, extending the drive, and breathing life into Philadelphia. Four plays later, David Akers kicked a 37-yard field goal on the last play of regulation to force overtime.
On the Packers' first offensive play in overtime, safety Brian Dawkins intercepted an errant pass from Brett Favre, returning it 35 yards to the Green Bay 34. Four plays later, David Akers kicked a 31-yard field goal to win the game.
The Green Bay Packers were called the "team of destiny" late in the season, but it was the Eagles who used destiny to overcome a 14-point deficit and advance to their third consecutive NFC championship game.
10. New York Giants 23, Green Bay Packers 20
The Giants brought an incredible nine-game road winning streak into their NFC championship matchup with the powerful Green Bay Packers, led by three-time MVP Brett Favre.
Trailing 6-0 in the second quarter, Brett Favre threw a 90-yard touchdown to Donald Driver, the longest scoring play in Packers' postseason history. It was Favre's 18th consecutive postseason game with a touchdown pass, an NFL record.
The Giants and Packers traded touchdowns, until Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for a four-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to give the Giants a 20-17 lead.
Cornerback R.W. McQuarters intercepted Brett Favre early in the fourth quarter, but lost the football on the return, giving the Packers a fresh set of downs. Green Bay took advantage, tying the game at 20 with 11 minutes remaining. Giants' kicker Lawrence Tynes missed a potential 43-yard go-ahead field goal with six minutes remaining.
With just over two minutes left, R.W. McQuarters fumbled a punt for the Giants, and after a classic football folly scramble for the football, the Giants recovered near midfield. Ahmad Bradshaw scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 48-yard run, but a holding penalty nullified the score. Tynes was called on to convert a 36-yard field goal on the last play of regulation, but he hooked it wide left, sending the game into overtime.
On the first play of overtime, defensive back Corey Webster intercepted Brett Favre, in what would be Favre's last pass as a member of the Green Bay Packers. It was Favre's second career pass in overtime in the postseason, both of which were intercepted.
Lawrence Tynes was called in again to win the game for the Giants. The third time was the charm, as Tynes' 47-yard field goal—the longest ever by a visiting kicker at Lambeau Field in the postseason—sent the Giants to their fourth Super Bowl. Tynes' kick came 17 years to the day of Matt Bahr's game-winning field goal in the NFC championship game to send the Giants to Super Bowl XXV.
The Giants became just the second NFC wild-card team to advance to the Super Bowl, and just the third team to ever reach the Super Bowl after winning three road games.
9. Carolina Panthers 29, St. Louis Rams 23
In the 2003 divisional playoffs, the Rams, arguably the NFC's top team over the previous five seasons, faced the Carolina Panthers, who were playing in the postseason for just the second time in franchise history.
After two Jeff Wilkins field goals gave the Rams a 6-0 lead, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad fell on a fumble in the end zone to give the Panthers a 7-6 lead. Five field goals later, the Panthers led 16-12. Brad Hoover's fourth-quarter rushing touchdown gave the Panthers a commanding 23-12 lead.
But kicker John Kasay missed a 54-yard field goal with just over six minutes remaining, and the Rams rallied for a 15-play touchdown drive and two-point conversion that cut their deficit to 23-20 with 2:39 to play. Wilkins then recovered his own onside kick, setting up a chance at a potential Rams victory.
But coach Mike Martz responded with one of the most gutless coaching decisions in NFL history. With 39 seconds remaining and one timeout, the Rams faced a 1st-and-10 from the Carolina 15-yard line. Martz opted to have the NFC's highest scoring team run down the clock and settle for an easy 33-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, the Panthers marched down the field, eventually going for a 40-yard field goal to win the game. Kasay missed, but was given new life, as the Panthers were called for delay of game. Kasay missed again, this time from 45 yards. Later in the overtime period, Wilkins missed a potential game-winning 53-yard field goal.
The Rams got the ball back, but Marc Bulger's third interception gave Carolina the ball, and on the first play of the second overtime, Jake Delhomme threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith to send the Panthers to their second NFC championship game.
The Panthers won the fifth-longest game in NFL history, despite committing 13 penalties for 92 yards, failing to recover an onside kick, and missing two field goals in overtime.
8. Tennessee Titans 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 31
The Steelers, who had just survived an incredible roller-coaster battle with the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round, faced the Tennessee Titans, winners of 10 of their last 11 games, and arguably the hottest team in the National Football League.
The Titans jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, thanks to touchdown runs by Steve McNair and Eddie George. But three Tennessee turnovers, including two Eddie George fumbles—his first two of the season—led to 20 unanswered points for the Steelers and comeback king Tommy Maddox. It was the second straight week that Maddox rallied the Steelers from a deficit of at least 14 points.
McNair rallied the Titans, tossing touchdown strikes to Frank Wycheck and Erron Kinney. The Titans took a 28-20 lead, before Maddox threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward. The two-point conversion, thrown from receiver Hines Ward to receiver Plaxico Burress, tied the game at 28 with 10 minutes remaining. Each team kicked a field goal, and when Titans kicker Joe Nedney missed a 48-yarder on the final play of regulation, the game headed into overtime.
In overtime, two Justin McCareins receptions drove the Titans into field-goal range, where Joe Nedney converted two of his three field goal attempts. His first attempt was successful, but did not count because the Steelers had called a timeout before the snap. His second attempt was unsuccessful, but because of a running into the kicker penalty by cornerback Dewayne Washington, Nedney would be given a third chance from 26 yards.
This time he converted, sending the Titans into the AFC championship game.
More drama followed after the kick, as Steelers coach Bill Cowher insisted that he had called a timeout before Nedney's game-winning field goal. Linebacker Joey Porter even went as far as to announce that the refs lost the game for Pittsburgh, referring to the controversial running into the kicker penalty.
During the game, running back Eddie George suffered a concussion after he was knocked unconscious on a helmet-to-helmet hit. Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell and wide receiver Plaxico Burress left the game with injuries, and Titans quarterback Steve McNair needed to have some flesh cut away from his bruised right thumb at the end of regulation.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 29
No one gave the Jaguars and inexperienced quarterback David Garrard much of a chance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had shocked the world by winning the Super Bowl just two years earlier. But the Jaguars showed some fight, when after Najeh Davenport's touchdown run gave the Steelers an early 7-0 lead, Maurice Jones-Drew returned the kickoff 96 yards to the one-yard line. Fred Taylor then tied the game on a one-yard touchdown run.
A Rashean Mathis 63-yard interception return touchdown (his first of two interceptions) and a Jones-Drew 43-yard touchdown pass gave the Jags a surprising 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. Jones-Drew added another score following a Pittsburgh field goal, and Jacksonville led 28-10 entering the fourth quarter.
Then, in less than eight minutes, Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on an amazing comeback, throwing touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller before a Najeh Davenport touchdown run gave the Steelers a 29-28 lead with six minutes remaining in the game.
The Jaguars' season appeared to come down to a single play, as they faced 4th-and-2 on the Steelers' 43 with just two minutes remaining. But Garrard rumbled 32 yards to the 11-yard line, and a 25-yard field goal by Josh Scobee gave the Jaguars a 31-29 lead with 37 seconds remaining.
After defensive end Bobby McCray stripped Roethlisberger and Derek Landri recovered, it was over. The first season under new coach Mike Tomlin ended the same way as Bill Cowher's first season—with a first-game playoff loss at home. The Jaguars became the first team to beat the Steelers twice in one season, and advanced to the divisional round of the postseason for the first time since 1999.
6. New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
The final game at Foxboro Stadium became arguably the signature game in the eventual Patriots' dynasty of the early 2000s, with a little help from a play now known as "The Tuck Rule."
Both teams struggled to move the ball in the heavy snowstorm, which resulted in double-digit punts in the first half. The Raiders dominated the first three quarters of the game, holding onto a 13-3 lead.
By the fourth quarter, the Patriots had completely abandoned their running game, relying on the inexperienced Tom Brady to engineer a 10-point comeback in his first postseason start. Brady completed nine consecutive passes, capping off a 67-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 13-10. With two minutes to play, Brady fumbled while attempting to pass, and the Raiders recovered.
However, referee Walt Coleman ruled that Brady's arm had been moving forward on the play, resulting in an incomplete pass. Given new life, Brady drove the Patriots to the 27-yard line, where a phenomenal 45-yard line-drive kick by Adam Vinatieri tied the game with 27 seconds remaining. Given the weather conditions, the kick is probably the most impressive of Vinatieri's career.
The Patriots drove for the winning score in overtime, thanks to a risky 4th=and-4 conversion from Tom Brady to David Patten at the Raiders' 22-yard line. Seven plays later, Adam Vinatieri converted a 23-yard field goal to put the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
This should rank as maybe the greatest postseason game of Tom Brady's storied career, as he completed 26 of 39 passes for 238 yards in the second half along. This was the first glimpse of many for Patriots fans of the eventual postseason dominance of Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers 36, Cleveland Browns 33
No one expected the Browns to put up a fight against the Steelers. The powerful Steelers had advanced to the AFC championship in 2001 and captured the division title in 2002; the Browns were only 9-7 and hadn't advanced to the postseason since the Bill Belichick days of 1994.
But incredibly, the Browns took a 14-0 lead, thanks to three big plays on offense: an 83-yard pass from Kelly Holcomb to Kevin Johnson, a 1-yard touchdown run by William Green, and a 32-yard pass from Holcomb to Dennis Northcutt.
On defense, Daylon McCutcheon intercepted two passes and Antwaan Randle-El lost a fumble on a punt. Randle-El returned a punt for a touchdown to put the Steelers on the board, but a field goal and another Holcomb to Northcutt touchdown pass gave the Browns a shocking 24-7 third-quarter lead.
Both defenses disappeared in the last two quarters, as NFL Comeback Player of the Year Tommy Maddox tossed touchdown passes to Hines Ward, Jerame Tuman, and Plaxico Burress. In between, Kelly Holcomb threw his third touchdown pass, and Phil Dawson added another field goal.
With under three minutes remaining, the Steelers trailed 33-28. Maddox completed four passes for 61 yards before a Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala touchdown and a Tuman two-point conversion gave the Steelers a 36-33 lead with 54 seconds remaining in the game.
Kelly Holcomb, who finished with 429 passing yards and three touchdowns, led the Browns to the Steelers 29-yard line, but time expired before Dawson could attempt a game-tying field goal. Holcomb, one of the worst postseason quarterbacks in recent memory, deserves even more praise for his big passing day, considering the 25-carry, 30-yard rushing effort from running back William Green.
Maddox finished with 367 yards and three touchdowns in the most dramatic postseason victory for the Steelers since the Immaculate Reception in 1972. The Steelers became just the tenth team to beat an opponent three times in a single season, with all three victories coming by three points. The Browns lost their eighth consecutive road postseason game, and have not appeared in the postseason since.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Indianapolis Colts 18
The Steelers began the season with a 7-5 record, and needed to win their final four games just to qualify for the postseason. Meanwhile, the Colts cruised to a 13-0 start and seemed destined to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, following disastrous results in the postseason in both 2003 and 2004.
Ben Roethlisberger, who had played poorly in each of his two postseason games from 2004, shocked the world by leading the Steelers to an early 14-0 lead on touchdown passes to Antwaan Randle-El and Heath Miller. Late in the third quarter, Jerome Bettis, who had already announced that 2005 would be his final season, rushed for a one-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 21-3 lead.
However, Peyton Manning responded by throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark to cut the lead to 21-10. One of the strangest plays of the season came with six minutes remaining as Manning threw an interception near midfield to safety Troy Polamalu. Tony Dungy challenged the ruling—because if he didn't, the Colts season was virtually over—and surprisingly, the play was overruled. In the days following the game, the NFL announced that the replay reversal had been a mistake.
The Colts scored and converted the two-point conversion to make the score 21-18, but when the Steelers sacked Manning at his own two-yard line with just 1:20 remaining, it appeared to be virtually over. However, when the Steelers tried to score an insurance touchdown, linebacker Gary Brackett forced a Jerome Bettis fumble. Cornerback Nick Harper, who had been stabbed in the knee by his wife after an argument the night before, picked up the football and maneuvered his way down the field, before foolishly cutting to the inside of the field, where a falling Roethlisberger managed to bring down Harper at the Colts' 42-yard line.
Manning drove the Colts down the field, where a 46-yard field goal attempt by Mike Vanderjagt would have tied the game. But the most accurate kicker in NFL history, a man who had been perfect kicking at home that season, missed by a mile to the right, and the Steelers earned the right to play in the AFC championship.
3. San Francisco 49ers 39, New York Giants 38
The greatest comeback in 49ers postseason history was not led by Joe Montana or Steve Young. It came at the hands of undrafted quarterback Jeff Garcia, who had lost his only postseason start a year earlier.
The Giants held a 38-14 lead late in the third quarter, thanks to a sensational passing day by Kerry Collins. Collins threw for 342 yards and four touchdown passes—three to Amani Toomer, who also finished with 136 receiving yards.
Enter Jeff Garcia.
Garcia threw for 331 yards, including the winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets with just a minute left in the game. Terrell Owens recorded 177 yards and two touchdowns, as well as two huge two-point conversions.
Despite the enormous collapse, the Giants regained the ability to win when Kerry Collins hooked up with Ron Dixon for two huge receptions to put the ball on the 49ers' 23-yard line with six seconds left in the game.
Then came one of the most controversial plays in recent NFL history.
41-year-old Trey Junkin, who was literally signed off the street as the team's long snapper after Dan O'Leary suffered an injury a week earlier, botched the snap. Holder Matt Allen should have spiked the ball to stop the clock and give the Giants another chance on fourth down. Instead, he threw an incomplete pass, and
the game ended with the Giants being penalized for an ineligible receiver downfield. However, it was revealed the next day that penalized guard Rich Seubert had in fact checked in as an eligible receiver before the play, and the penalty should have been called on a different Giants lineman.
NFL Vice President of officiating Mike Pereira also admitted that pass interference should have been called on 49ers' defensive end Chike Okeafor for pulling down Seubert, which, combined with the penalty against the Giants, would have given the Giants another chance at a game-winning field goal. When the dust had settled, the 49ers had completed the second-biggest comeback in postseason history, earning the right to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
2. Arizona Cardinals 51, Green Bay Packers 45
Not many people gave the reigning NFC champions much of a chance against the powerful Green Bay Packers, winners of seven of their last eight games. Big mistake. After becoming the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and seven or fewer interceptions in a single season, Aaron Rodgers tossed an interception on his first postseason pass, and after a Tim Hightower touchdown run, another turnover, and a Kurt Warner to Early Doucet touchdown pass, the Cardinals led 14-0.
The humiliation grew worse for Packers fans, as Neil Rackers added a field goal at the end of the first quarter to give the Cardinals a commanding 17-0 lead. A second Doucet touchdown reception was sandwiched between an Aaron Rodgers touchdown run and a Mason Crosby field goal, giving the Cardinals a 24-10 lead at halftime. Last year's postseason hero, Larry Fitzgerald, grabbed a 33-yard pass for the game's longest touchdown. The Cardinals boasted a seemingly insurmountable 31-10 lead.
Then Rodgers rallied the Packers, tossing touchdown passes to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones. In between, Fitzgerald scored his second touchdown, the ninth touchdown reception of his short postseason career. When John Kuhn rushed for a one-yard touchdown to tie the game at 38, Rodgers and the Packers had completed an incredible 21-point comeback in just 15:18.
Kurt Warner tossed his fifth touchdown pass to Steve Breaston, making him the second quarterback in postseason history to throw for five touchdowns in a game twice. But Rodgers showed tremendous poise, throwing an 11-yard touchdown to Spencer Havner to tie the game with under two minutes remaining. When Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal with just seconds remaining in regulation, the NFL's highest scoring postseason game of the century went into overtime.
On just the third play of overtime, Michael Adams stripped Aaron Rodgers, and linebacker Karlos Dansby grabbed the fumble and sprinted 17 yards untouched for the game-winning score. The 51-45 shootout marked the highest scoring game in postseason history, and the 13 touchdowns were also an NFL record.
Rodgers, who turned the ball over on his first and last plays, was nearly flawless in between, completing 28 of 42 passes for 422 yards and four touchdowns. But the MVP of the game was 38-year-old Kurt Warner, who completed 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns. Warner's 154.1 passer rating is the highest in NFL history for a quarterback with as many pass attempts.
Even more incredibly, Warner played against the NFL's No. 1 team in Defensive Hog Index without injured three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Simply put, Warner's single-game effort ranks among the top 10 individual performances in NFL postseason history.
1. Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34
The most entertaining, nail-biting, exciting, and yes, best playoff game of the past decade came on Jan. 21, 2007, when the Indianapolis Colts hosted the New England Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Everybody remembers what happened early in the game. The Patriots jumped out to a 21-3 lead midway through the second quarter, thanks to a typical Manning meltdown in the postseason, highlighted by an Asante Samuel 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.
But then the Colts, namely Peyton Manning, rallied. In just 11 minutes, the AFC championship went from a slaughter to a slugfest. When the dust had settled, the Colts had slayed the dragon, earning a trip to Super Bowl XLI, and erasing painful memories of the 2003 conference championship game and the 2004 divisional round, both of which were dominant victories by the Patriots.
Bill Belichick's so-called clutch defense had failed yet again, and this time, even the great Tom Brady wasn't able to bail them out. Rookie Joseph Addai scored the most famous touchdown in Colts' postseason history—with the possible exception of Alan Ameche's one-yard plunge in 1958—by rushing for a touchdown with a minute to play. After Marlin Jackson picked off Brady at midfield to seal it, the RCA Dome could finally celebrate after years of heartbreak.
Long forgotten about the game is the record three touchdowns scored by linemen. Patriots guard Logan Mankins fell on a fumble in the end zone for the first score of the game. Colts defensive tackle Dan Klecko grabbed a one-yard touchdown pass to complete the wild comeback in the third quarter, and Colts center Jeff Saturday fell on a fumble early in the fourth quarter in the end zone to tie the game once again.
Manning completed his wild ride in the 2006 postseason by earning Super Bowl XLI MVP honors against the Chicago Bears, but the real Super Bowl of the 2006 playoffs was the classic AFC championship game.
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