There is absolutely nothing greater than watching a quarterback lead a last-second, game-winning drive in a playoff game. This is exactly what made Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas, and John Elway among the greatest clutch quarterbacks in NFL history.
A last-second drive is even more exciting than a big 17-point comeback. It's the most nerve-racking, thrilling two minutes you'll ever experience. Quite simply, it's something you'll never forget as long as you live.
Throughout history, game-winning drives in the postseason have become increasingly more common. The last 10 years have provided us with more game-winning drives in the playoffs than the previous 70 years combined.
Below is a list of the ultimate 10, with one honorable mention thrown in. It's a list so incredible that Donovan McNabb's "4th-and-26" drive against the Green Bay Packers in the 2003 divisional playoffs missed the cut. So did Steve Young and Terrell Owens' heroics versus Green Bay in the 1998 wild card round.
So here it is: the most thrilling drives in NFL history. Quite simply, these are the drives that took a man and made him a legend.
Honorable Mention: Super Bowl XXXVIII, February 2004: New England 32, Carolina Panthers 29
The highest-scoring quarter in Super Bowl history resulted in five combined touchdowns, capped off by a game-tying 12-yard touchdown pass from Panthers' quarterback Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 remaining.
After John Kasay made one of the biggest blunders in Super Bowl history by shanking the kickoff out of bounds, the Patriots faced a 1st-and-10 on their own 40. Brady tossed two 13-yard passes to receiver Troy Brown, and faced with a 3rd-and-3 from the Carolina 40-yard line, Brady hit receiver Deion Branch with a 17-yard strike to put the Patriots at the Panthers' 23-yard line.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed a 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give the Patriots their second world championship in three seasons. It was Brady's second game-winning drive in the last minute of play in a Super Bowl.
10. AFC Divisional, January 2002: New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
Late in Tom Brady's first playoff game, the Patriots trailed 13-3 to the Oakland Raiders. Brady engineered a 10-play, 67-yard drive, completing nine consecutive passes for 61 yards and running in from the six-yard line to cut the deficit to 13-10.
After a huge stand by their defense, the Patriots got the ball back, trailing 13-10 with minutes to play. Brady continued to march the Patriots down the field until blitzing cornerback Charles Woodson forced a fumble, which linebacker Greg Biekert recovered with just 1:43 to play.
The game appeared to be over, but referee Walt Coleman ruled that Brady's arm had been moving forward, and it was an incomplete pass. Just more than a minute later, kicker Adam Vinatieri's incredible 45-yard, line-drive field goal tied the game. Factoring in the massive snowfall and the conditions of the playing field, Vinatieri's kick might be the best in NFL history.
In overtime, Brady led the Patriots on a game-winning drive, highlighted by a fourth- down completion to receiver David Patten on the Raiders' 28-yard line. Four Antowain Smith runs later, Vinatieri converted a 23-yard field goal to win the final game at Foxboro Stadium in dramatic fashion.
9. AFC Championship, January 1987: Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20
Back in 1986, John Elway was virtually an unknown, still going through the growing pains of being an NFL quarterback. Then came Elway's famous drive against the Cleveland Browns in the conference championship game.
After the Broncos muffed the kickoff, they began the drive on their own 2-yard line, trailing 20-13, with 5:39 left on the clock. Elway completed six of nine passes for 78 yards and added two scrambles for 20 yards. He also overcame an eight-yard sack to complete a 20-yard pass to Mark Jackson on 3rd-and-18 near midfield, the key play of the drive. Elway's masterpiece culminated in a five-yard touchdown strike to receiver Mark Jackson to tie the game at 20 with just 37 seconds remaining.
Elway led the Broncos on a 60-yard, game-winning drive in overtime. After Rich Karlis kicked a 33-yard field goal, the Broncos were AFC champions.
8. Super Bowl XXXVI, February 2002: New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17
Kurt Warner led a furious comeback from 14 points down to tie Super Bowl XXXVI on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with just 1:30 remaining in the game. A dynasty seemed to be in the making, as the Rams were fighting to win their second Super Bowl title in three seasons.
Despite many experts calling for New England to let the game go into overtime, Tom Brady carefully marched the Patriots down the field. Three straight completions went to running back J.R. Redmond before Troy Brown hauled in a 23-yard pass. A Brady-to- tight-end-Jermaine-Wiggins completion tacked on six more yards, leading to Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal attempt.
Vinatieri's kick was successful, marking the first time a Super Bowl was won with a score on the game's final play. Brady's performance earned him MVP honors and propelled the Patriots into the first dynasty of the new millennium.
7. NFC Championship, January 1982: San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27
In a tightly contested game featuring many lead changes, the 49ers found themselves trailing 27-21 with the ball on their own 11-yard line and just 4:54 left in the game. Quarterback Joe Montana had led the surprising 49ers deep into the postseason in his first full season as the starter, but time seemed to be running out on the 49ers.
Montana refused to quit, though, leading the 49ers down to the Dallas 6-yard line, where they faced 3rd-and-goal with just 58 seconds remaining. The play called for a pass to receiver Freddie Solomon, but Solomon was covered—and worse, the Cowboys' defensive line was bearing down on Montana. Montana executed a perfect pump fake, then threw a high spiral toward the back of the end zone. All-Pro receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping fingertip grab, securing a 28-27 victory for the 49ers.
The play signaled the beginning of the 49ers' reign in the 1980s, arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history. It also ended the Cowboys' long streak of dominance in the NFC. The play is one of two signature plays most used to describe the legendary career of Joe Montana.
6. AFC Championship, January 2007: Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34
Peyton Manning desperately needed to win a Super Bowl to silence the critics who claimed he would never win the big one. Facing the New England Patriots, who had dominated the Colts in the postseason in 2003 and 2004, the Colts quickly fell behind 21-3, and it appeared that history would repeat itself.
Then Peyton Manning quickly navigated the greatest comeback in conference championship game history, tying the game. But the Patriots jumped to a 34-31 lead late in the fourth quarter.
The Colts' drive began on their own 20-yard line with just 2:17 left in the game. Incredibly, Manning moved the Colts 70 yards in a span of 19 seconds, highlighted by a 32-yard pass to backup tight end Bryan Fletcher. The Colts, not wanting to give Tom Brady the ball back, wasted almost a full minute before rookie Joseph Addai scored on a three-yard touchdown plunge, giving the Colts a 38-34 lead.
After defensive back Marlin Jackson intercepted Tom Brady in Colts territory, the Indianapolis Colts were at last AFC champions. The Colts' touchdown drive marked the fourth playoff appearance in which Bill Belichick's defense took the field with the game on the line in the final few minutes—and this time, it cost them an opportunity to become the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
5. NFL Championship, December 1967: Green Bay Packers 21, Dallas Cowboys 17
The 1967 NFL championship was a rematch of the previous year's conference championship in which the Packers defeated the Cowboys to advance to Super Bowl I. The game-time temperature was the coldest in NFL history (-13 degrees), and the wind chill was much worse (-45 degrees).
After the Packers jumped to an early 14-0 lead against Dallas' Doomsday Defense, the Cowboys fought back, eventually taking a 17-14 lead in the final quarter.
The Packers, trailing by three with 4:50 left in the game, began at their own 32-yard line. Bart Starr led the Packers down the field with five completions, including a 19-yard pass to fullback Chuck Mercein. Facing 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line with no timeouts and just 16 seconds remaining, Starr, not wanting to risk a fumble, called for a quarterback sneak. He skated in for the winning score behind a huge block thrown by guard Jerry Kramer.
Starr's run led to a second consecutive Super Bowl title, as well as the Packers' fifth championship of the decade. The drive by Starr, he greatest clutch quarterback in the National Football League, is the only one to result in a game-winning touchdown in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter.
4. Super Bowl XLIII, February 2009: Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23
Kurt Warner had just led the Cardinals on an improbable 13-point fourth-quarter comeback, and the Cardinals appeared destined to earn their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Then Ben Roethlisberger took matters into his own hands.
Trailing 23-20, the Steelers' drive began at their own 22-yard line with 2:37 left on the clock. A holding penalty immediately knocked the Steelers back 10 yards, but Roethlisberger completed four passes—three to Santonio Holmes, including a huge, 40-yard play that moved Pittsburgh to the Cardinals' six-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger fired a perfect strike to Holmes for a six-yard touchdown, completing the greatest Super Bowl ever played in improbable fashion.
Roethlisberger's drive won the Steelers their record sixth Super Bowl and erased all memories of his horrific Super Bowl performance three years earlier.
3. Super Bowl XXIII, January 1989: San Francisco 49ers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 16
The Bengals faced the 49ers in an attempt to deliver revenge from Super Bowl XVI, and through the first 57 minutes, succeeded in their mission, holding a 16-13 lead.
Joe Montana and the 49ers began their drive on their own eight-yard line with just 3:10 to play. Montana used two Roger Craig runs and completed five passes to move the 49ers to the Bengals' 35-yard line. But an incompletion and a penalty brought up 2nd-and-20, where Montana hit Jerry Rice for a 27-yard gain over the middle. One play later, facing 1st-and-goal from the 10-yard line, Montana fired a bullet to Pro Bowl receiver John Taylor for the game-winning score.
Montana's drive marked the first time in Super Bowl history that a team won on a touchdown in the final minute of play. The drive is well-noted for Montana pointing out actor John Candy in the stands in an attempt to calm his teammates, the signature moment in the legendary reputation of Joe Cool.
2. NFL Championship, December 1958: Baltimore Colts 23, New York Giants 17
The 1958 NFL championship game, which was played in "The House That Ruth Built," has quite simply been called "the greatest game ever played."
The Giants, led by star quarterback Charlie Conerly, erased a 14-3 halftime deficit and led 17-14. The Colts got the ball at their own 14-yard line with just 1:56 remaining in the fourth quarter. Johnny Unitas completed a total of seven passes to move the Colts to the Giants' 13-yard line, where kicker Steve Myhra booted a 20-yard field goal to send the game into the first overtime period in the history of the National Football League.
In overtime, Unitas led the Colts on an 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive, which included two 3rd-and-long completions, as well as a 22-yard run by fullback Alan Ameche. Finally, on the drive's 13th play, Ameche bulled over from the one-yard line, and the Colts were world champions. Colts receiver Raymond Berry finished with 12 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown.
Unitas' two drives, often cited as the first known instance of a "two-minute drill," are regarded as the turning point in the history of professional football. It was after this game that pro football surpassed Major League Baseball as the most dominant sport. The 1958 NFL championship featured a total of 17 Hall of Famers, including Giants coordinators Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, and still remains the only championship game to go into overtime.
1. Super Bowl XLII, February 2008: New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
The New York Giants were supposed to be the answer to the trivia question: Which team did the Patriots beat in the Super Bowl to complete the first 19-0 season in NFL history?
But don't tell that to the Giants. Trailing 14-10 with just 2:39 left in the fourth quarter, the Giants took over at their own 17-yard line. Eli Manning slowly and methodically led the Giants down the field, completing two passes to Amani Toomer and using a huge fourth-down conversion by bruising running back Brandon Jacobs. The Giants found themselves in a 3rd-and-5 situation from their own 44 with just 1:15 remaining. What ensued next is probably the single greatest play in NFL history.
Eli Manning took the snap and was immediately surrounded by three Patriots. All-Pros Adalius Thomas and Richard Seymour each grabbed a part of Manning's jersey, but Manning spun away and flung the ball downfield. Receiver David Tyree caught the ball and managed to press it against his helmet as he fell to the ground. All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison was unable to knock the ball from Tyree's grasp, and the play resulted in 32 yards.
Four plays later, Manning prevented the Patriots' perfect season by lofting a 13-yard touchdown pass to receiver Plaxico Burress, completing arguably the greatest upset in NFL history and officially ending the Patriots' dynasty.
Manning became the first quarterback in the 88-year history of the NFL to lead a last-minute, championship-winning touchdown drive when anything less than a touchdown would have signaled failure.