The 10 Most Costly Turnovers in NFL Postseason History
Turnovers are the worst thing in the world in the playoffs. Do it twice in a game, and you'll probably lose. Do it in the fourth quarter of a one-score game, and it will come back to haunt you at the end.
Over history, many close playoff games have been decided by that huge defensive play—an interception or fumble recovery in the final few minutes of play.
This is a list that won't even include some of the most memorable turnovers in NFL history. Al Harris' interception touchdown in overtime to beat the Seattle Seahawks in the 2003 wild card round won't make it. Neither will Karlos Dansby's fumble recovery touchdown to beat the Packers in this past year's wild card round. Red Right 88, from the 1980 AFC divisional round, just missed the list, and so did Ty Law's interception touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI.
What is included, however, is five moments from the Super Bowl and five from conference championship games, as well as a "What if?" reversal question from one of the top playoff games of the past decade.
You'd be surprised at some of the names on this list. Six of the names below are either in the Hall of Fame or will be upon retirement. One was a former Comeback Player of the Year, and the other four have all been selected to the Pro Bowl. You won't find many no-name players on this list.
Honorable Mention: AFC divisional, January 2006: Jerome Bettis' fumble
Bruising running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis was called on to score an insurance touchdown for the Steelers, who led the powerful Indianapolis Colts 21-18 with just 1:20 to play in the AFC divisional playoffs. Bettis hadn't fumbled all season, but linebacker Gary Brackett popped the ball out of Bettis' grasp at the 2-yard line.
Cornerback Nick Harper grabbed the bouncing pigskin and sprinted down the field. Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a miraculous shoestring tackle at the Colts' 42-yard line. Peyton Manning drove the Colts down the field, but Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, hooked a 46-yard field goal as time expired.
The Steelers went on to win their record-tying fifth Super Bowl after defeating the Denver Broncos in the conference championship and the Seattle Seahawks in the title game.
Had the Colts managed to win the game, they would have been heavy favorites to beat the Denver Broncos, and probably would have defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. One can only imagine what Peyton Manning's legacy would look like with two Super Bowl championships, three Super Bowl appearances, and a 12-8 postseason record.
10. AFC Championship, January 1988: Earnest Byner's fumble
For the second-straight year, it seemed that a Broncos-Browns conference championship game would head into overtime. The Browns trailed 38-31 with just 1:12 remaining, needing only three yards to tie the game. But Broncos' cornerback Jeremiah Castille stripped running back Earnest Byner at the 2-yard line and recovered the ball. The Broncos gave the Browns an intentional safety and won 38-33. Byner, who will always be remembered as one of the biggest goats in postseason Browns history, actually had a phenomenal game, accumulating 187 total yards and two touchdowns.
After losing at the hands of John Elway's famous drive in the previous year's conference championship game, it could be argued that no franchise in the history of professional sports has suffered a more painful defeat in the playoffs in consecutive seasons at the hands of the same team. Two years later, the Browns faced the Broncos in the conference championship game again. Same team. Same place. And same result.
9. Super Bowl XXX, January 1996: Neil O'Donnell's interception
The Cowboys faced the surprising Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX with two goals in mind: Win their third Super Bowl in four years and establish a new NFL dynasty. As well as extract revenge for Super Bowl losses suffered at the hands of the Steel Curtain back in the 1970s.
The Cowboys led 20-17, with just over four minutes remaining. The Steelers had the ball on their own 32-yard line, with time for one lengthy drive. But on second down, quarterback Neil O'Donnell was intercepted by cornerback Larry Brown, who returned the interception 33 yards to the Steelers' 6-yard line. Running back Emmitt Smith secured a Cowboys' victory with his second rushing touchdown. O'Donnell was intercepted again on the final play of the game, this time on a Hail Mary attempt.
Ironically, O'Donnell entered the game as the least intercepted quarterback in NFL history. He signed with the New York Jets in 1996, where he lost all six starts. Larry Brown, who intercepted O'Donnell twice on the day, was rewarded with a huge contract by the Oakland Raiders, but he never lived up to his potential and retired after the 1998 season.
8. Super Bowl X, January 1976: Roger Staubach's interception
One of the most exciting Super Bowls in NFL history, Super Bowl X came down to the final minute of play. The Cowboys trailed the Steelers 21-17 and faced a third down on the Steelers' 38-yard line. With just seconds left in the game, quarterback Roger Staubach had no choice but to try to re-create some of the Hail Mary magic from the divisional round against the Minnesota Vikings.
Staubach heaved a pass into the end zone, which was tipped by Steelers' safety Mike Wagner, and safety Glen Edwards grabbed the ball from midair for an interception, making Super Bowl X the only Super Bowl in history with a last-play turnover deciding the outcome of the game.
The Steelers used their Super Bowl victory to turn into an NFL dynasty, winning Super Bowl XIII and XIV, which, along with a victory in IX, gave them a record four in six seasons.
7. AFC Championship, January 2007: Tom Brady's interception
After Peyton Manning led the Colts on an incredible 18-point comeback against the Patriots, the conference championship game turned into a slugfest. Brady led the Patriots to a go-ahead field goal with just 3:49 remaining, but Manning responded with a phenomenal touchdown drive, and the Colts led 38-34 with 1:00 remaining.
Brady completed two quick passes to move the Patriots to the Colts 45-yard line, but with 18 seconds remaining, he was intercepted by cornerback Marlin Jackson, which clinched a Colts victory. The Colts ended up defeating the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Odds are that if the Patriots had advanced to the Super Bowl, they would have easily handled the Bears, which would have given them a record-tying four Super Bowl titles in six years. Peyton Manning would also still be without a Super Bowl title and Tom Brady would have four rings, tying him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
6. NFC Championship, January 1982: Danny White's fumble
Everybody remembers Dwight Clark's famous catch in the conference championship game, a play that gave the 49ers a 28-27 lead with just 51 seconds remaining. Although everybody forgets that the Cowboys still had plenty of time to drive down the field and attempt a game-winning field goal.
After the kickoff, quarterback Danny White completed a long, 31-yard pass to receiver Drew Pearson, where only a one-handed tackle by cornerback Eric Wright prevented a touchdown. Two plays later, defensive end Lawrence Pillers stripped White of the football, which was recovered by defensive tackle Jim Stuckey to seal a 49ers victory.
The teams headed in opposite directions after the game. The 49ers turned into an NFL dynasty, winning the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals and three more before the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the Cowboys won just two more playoff games during the decade and reached an absolute worst in 1989, when they lost 15 games.
5. Super Bowl V, January 1971: Craig Morton's interception
Super Bowl V between the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys resulted in 11 combined turnovers and is easily the sloppiest championship game in NFL history. However, it did provide one of the more exciting finishes in Super Bowl history.
With the scored tied 13-13 and under two minutes remaining, the Cowboys began their drive at the Colts 48-yard line. A huge penalty pushed the Cowboys back to their own 27-yard line, where they faced 2nd-and-35. But quarterback Craig Morton's pass went through the arms of running back Dan Reeves and was intercepted by Pro Bowl linebacker Mike Curtis, who returned it 13 yards to the Cowboys' 22-yard line. Two plays later, rookie Jim O'Brien kicked a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left in the game, and after Morton's final desperation pass was intercepted (his third fourth-quarter interception), the Colts were the world champions.
Besides the obvious fact that Morton's turnover occurred in the Super Bowl, it had virtually no effect on the history of the NFL. Neither team turned into a dynasty, and neither quarterback ever amounted to much. Morton did make it back to the Super Bowl, with the 1977 Broncos, where he turned in the single-worst performance by a quarterback in Super Bowl history.
4. NFC Championship, January 2008/2010: Brett Favre's interception
In Brett Favre's final season with the Green Bay Packers, he led the Pack to a 13-3 record and a home conference championship game, where they faced the surprising New York Giants. The game entered overtime tied 20-20, and on Favre's first pass, he was intercepted by Giants cornerback Corey Webster. Four plays later, kicker Lawrence Tynes connected on a 47-yard field goal, the longest by a visiting kicker in Lambeau Field in the playoffs, sending the Giants to the Super Bowl.
In Brett Favre's first season with the Minnesota Vikings, he helped the Vikings advance to the conference championship game, where they faced the powerful New Orleans Saints. With just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the game was tied, and the Vikings faced a 3rd-and-15 on the Saints 38-yard line. Favre forced a throw to Sidney Rice, which was intercepted by cornerback Tracy Porter to force the game into overtime. In overtime, kicker Garrett Hartley nailed a 40-yard field goal to send the Saints into the Super Bowl.
Favre's turnovers were virtually identical. Each cost his team a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and each added to a postseason career that has been mediocre, to say the least.
3. NFC Championship, January 1991: Roger Craig's fumble
Joe Montana and the 49ers had won 14 of 18 postseason games during the 1980s, including four Super Bowl titles. But they had scored a combined six points in blowout losses to the New York Giants in the 1985 and 1986 playoffs. However, the 49ers led 13-12 late in the fourth quarter of the conference championship game and appeared to be on their way to extracting revenge.
Then Giants great Lawrence Taylor recovered a Roger Craig fumble with just 2:36 remaining. Five plays later, kicker Matt Bahr converted a 42-yard field goal on the last play of the game to send the Giants to Super Bowl XXV, where they defeated the Buffalo Bills. Bahr's field goal is the only come-from-behind walk-off field goal in postseason history.
With this loss, the 49ers' dynasty officially ended. Two years later, the Dallas Cowboys emerged as the cream of the crop in the NFC, and the next NFL dynasty.
2. Super Bowl XLIV, February 2010: Peyton Manning's interception
With a victory in Super Bowl XLIV, Peyton Manning would earn his second ring and cement his reputation as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Instead, Manning might have done as much to damage his legacy as if he had quietly missed the playoffs in the first place.
Trailing 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, Manning led the Colts into Saints territory, and it appeared as if the Super Bowl might go into overtime for the first time—until cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in front of a pass intended for four-time Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne and returned it 74 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. The Saints stopped Manning on fourth down in the final minute, winning 31-17.
The Saints became the 10th team to record an interception touchdown in the Super Bowl (all 10 teams won). In a span of two games, Porter provided the two most memorable defensive plays in New Orleans Saints history, each time partially damaging the legacy of one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks.
1. Super Bowl XLIII, February 2009: Kurt Warner's interception/fumble
Kurt Warner led the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a quest to complete one of the more improbable Cinderella stories in NFL history. The Steelers jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but the Cardinals scored a touchdown, intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass, and drove down to the Steelers' 1-yard line. Then on first down, Steelers' linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, jumped in front of Warner's pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, the longest play in Super Bowl history. Harrison's return closed out the first half, giving the Steelers a huge 17-7 lead and a lot of momentum. According to NFL simulations, the Cardinals had a 66 percent chance of winning the game if they had scored a touchdown to lead 14-10 at halftime. But after Harrison's play, the Cardinals' chances stood at just 20 percent.
Incredibly, Warner led the Cardinals on a 13-point, fourth-quarter comeback, giving the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with just 2:37 remaining. The Steelers would take a 27-23 lead with just 35 seconds remaining in the game, giving Warner one last chance to work his magic. Warner completed two quick passes to move the Cardinals to the Steelers 44-yard line, but he was sacked and stripped of the ball by Pro Bowl linebacker LaMar Woodley with just five seconds remaining, sealing a victory for the Steelers.
Warner's play was similar to his performance in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Patriots, when he threw a huge second -uarter interception touchdown to Ty Law, and then rallied the Rams from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. Both times, however, Warner's mistakes ultimately sealed a loss. In Super Bowl XXXVI, the Rams lost a chance at becoming a future dynasty, and in Super Bowl XLIII, Warner missed out on a golden opportunity to virtually guarantee himself a Hall of Fame berth.