The Top 10 Iconic NFL Moments in the Past 5 Years
There are plenty of reasons why we love the NFL. There is a history to the game—a sense of pageantry and pride for the 32 franchises that make up the league—and a reverence for the players on the field and for those who have come before.
Football, after all, is a game of intensity, emotion, action—and, of course, iconic moments. Yes, the NFL is a bottom-line business, defined by wins and losses. As fans, however, it's the memories created by the game that we truly cherish.
For some, the NFL will always be defined by the lasting impressions created by men like Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, Ray Nitschke and Jim Brown. Others long for the days of Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly.
The players and coaches of NFL yesteryear have certainly provided some iconic moments and added to the lore of the game, but so have players of this generation. It might not feel like the past few years have been quite as impactful, but that's largely because the more recent big moments feel so fresh.
Make no mistake, we're going to look back on this period in NFL history and be impressed by some of the memorable moments it has created.
With this in mind, we're going to count down the top 10 NFL moments of the past five years. We'll be looking at impact moments that have occurred since the second month of the 2011 season.
We'll also be limiting our choices to on-field moments, which means retirement announcements, suspensions and off-field incidents won't be included—even if they do hold their own place in NFL history. Our rankings will be based on both historical significance and the impact of the specific moment.
Let's get the countdown started, beginning with moment No. 10.
10. New England Lets Bradshaw Score
Super Bowl XLVI marked the second time in five seasons that the New England Patriots and the New York Giants met in the big game. For the second time, an improbable Giants drive set up the game-winning score.
New York took over with 3:46 remaining in the fourth quarter and down by two points. A defensive stop on the series would have likely sealed a victory for the Patriots, but it was not to be. Quarterback Eli Manning drove the Giants 88 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
What might be most memorable about the final drive, though, was Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run with just under a minute remaining. See, the Patriots allowed Bradshaw to walk into the end zone in order to preserve one last opportunity to construct a game-winning drive of their own.
Bradshaw, realizing what the Patriots were trying to do, tried to stop himself just short of the goal line. However, momentum carried him into the end zone.
Joe Posnanski of SI.com called the touchdown "perhaps the strangest play in Super Bowl history."
New England got its chance at a final drive thanks to head coach Bill Belichick's decision to let Bradshaw score. We'll be revisiting the logic behind the decision later on our list, but the comeback attempt fell short.
New England's final drive ended with a failed Hail Mary, and the Giants walked away with a 21-17 victory. A stout Giants defense and some late-game heroics by Manning and Co. secured the win, but this bizarre play is one that stands out from the rest.
9. Tim Tebow's Overtime Stunner
Whether you like or dislike former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, it's difficult to deny that he had a major impact on the NFL during his time as a pro. The unconventional quarterback and iconic faith enthusiast was, for a time, perhaps the most polarizing man in football.
Selected in the first round of the 2010 draft (25th overall) by the Denver Broncos, Tebow went on to play three seasons in the NFL and appear in 35 games. This, despite the fact he never seemed willing to embrace more traditional quarterback mechanics.
Tebow's best season came in 2011, when he started 11 games for the Broncos. He helped lead Denver to an 8-8 record and an AFC West title.
To open the postseason, Denver hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was during this playoff contest that Tebow's most memorable NFL moment occurred. The Broncos and Steelers ended regulation tied at 23 and Denver got the ball to open overtime.
On the first play from scrimmage in the extra period, Tebow hit wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in stride in the middle of the field. Thomas then took the pass 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
This definitely wasn't the prettiest game-winning pass we've seen in the postseason, but it remains a memorable one. It was arguably the most iconic play to come from a period when "Tebow Time" ruled the NFL landscape.
8. RG3 Goes Down
It's hard to tell what the future has in store for quarterback Robert Griffin III, but when he entered the league as a rookie back in 2012 he appeared destined for greatness.
The Washington Redskins traded away a plethora of picks in order to move up to the second overall selection in the 2012 draft. The team used that pick to secure Griffin, an electrifying Baylor product and potential franchise quarterback.
The Redskins were rewarded with one of the most memorable rookie campaigns in league history. During the 2012 season, Griffin passed for 3,200 yards, rushed for 815 yards and scored 27 combined touchdowns. He committed just seven turnovers as a rookie and helped lead Washington to a 10-6 record and an NFC East division title.
For his efforts as a rookie, Griffin was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl.
Unfortunately, the fairy-tale start to Griffin's career came to an abrupt halt during the 2012-13 postseason. Griffin came into the playoff opener against the Seattle Seahawks banged up and lacking mobility. He left the game with a severe knee injury.
Griffin ended up needing surgery to repair his ACL and LCL after that playoff game, which the Redskins lost. He never appeared to be the same player after the injury and has yet to recapture any of the magic from his rookie season.
Griffin is currently on injured reserve as a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns.
This definitely isn't a bright moment in recent history. However, it's an iconic one that encapsulates the end of the beginning—and possibly the beginning of the end—of a controversial and once-promising career.
7. Adrian Peterson Falls Just Short of Rushing Record
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson entered his final regular-season game of 2012 needing 208 rushing yards to set a new NFL single-season rushing record. Legendary running back Eric Dickerson held the record with his 2,105-yard season in 1984.
Dickerson made it clear that he didn't want Peterson to break that record in his season finale against the Green Bay Packers.
"I do not want him to break my record," Dickerson said on NFL Network's NFL Total Access before the game. "I'm not going to tell that lie, but he's such a great player, and I'll say it: If a record that is meant to go down to one guy, it'd have to be him."
It's fitting that Dickerson recognized the greatness of Peterson, who is unquestionably the most dominant back in recent history. This is why that Vikings-Packers game is iconic, even though Peterson fell nine yards shy of setting a new high-water mark.
Peterson only (only?) rushed for 199 yards against the Packers to finish the 2012 season 2,097 yards rushing. This made him just one of seven players to crack the 2,000-yard mark in a season.
The fact Peterson even had a shot at the record was incredibly remarkable considering he suffered a torn ACL in December 2011.
Though Peterson fell short of a new record, his breaking of the 2,000-yard mark is one of the highlights of his legendary career. It should remain an iconic moment for as long as Peterson is remembered as one of the greats.
6. Beckham's One-Handed Catch
In just over two years, New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has established himself as one of the top wide receivers in today's NFL. He racked up more than 1,300 yards in each of his first two pro seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl after each.
Selected 12th overall in the 2014 draft, Beckham didn't make his NFL debut until the fourth week of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury. However, the LSU product quickly leapt onto the national scene thanks to his playmaking ability.
Of course, the most iconic moment of Beckham's rookie season came in Week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys.
During the game, Giants quarterback Eli Manning heaved a pass from near midfield and toward the front of the end zone. Fighting both cornerback Brandon Carr and the sideline, Beckham managed to make a ridiculous one-handed catch to come down with the football in the end zone.
Beckham's catch ended up being named best play at the 2015 ESPY Awards.
Beckham appears to be just getting started with an impressive NFL career. Barring injury or an unforeseen step back, he's likely to be remembered as one of the top wideouts of his generation. If so, then this iconic play will probably go down as the one that launched his rise to stardom.
Even if Beckham isn't a legend of the game, this catch will be remembered as one of the craziest catches of all time.
5. Calvin Johnson Sets Record
Longtime Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson decided to call it quits this offseason, marking the end of a legendary nine-year career. He finished it with an impressive 731 receptions, 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns.
Five years from now, there will likely be more than a few arguments over whether Johnson deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
Regardless of which side of the proverbial fence you fall on, it's hard to argue that Johnson wasn't one of the defining players of his generation. As such, he provided fans with a number of memorable on-field moments.
Perhaps the most iconic moment, though, came in Week 16 of the 2012 season against the Atlanta Falcons. The Lions lost that game 31-18, but a 26-yard pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford late in the fourth quarter sent Johnson into the history books.
Johnson came into the game needing 181 yards to break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record. That catch put him over the mark—he finished with 11 receptions and 225 yards. Johnson also set a new record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games (eight) and tied a record for 100-yard games in a season (11) during the contest. He finished the 2012 season with 122 receptions and 1,964 yards receiving.
This was the moment in which Johnson secured the most dominant receiving season in NFL history to date.
4. Peyton Manning Sets New TD Record
Peyton Manning headed into retirement this offseason, and he does so as arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history. Though he doesn't hold as many Super Bowl titles as some other signal-callers, he holds almost every significant passing record one could imagine.
In October 2014, Manning broke one of the most prolific marks in league history when his Denver Broncos battled the San Francisco 49ers. During the game, Manning needed three touchdowns in the game to break the all-time passing-touchdown record then held by the legendary Brett Favre.
Manning achieved the feat with an eight-yard strike to wideout Demaryius Thomas in the second quarter. With that pass, Manning became the most prolific touchdown-thrower in NFL history. Any moment when you pass Favre on the all-time list is an iconic one.
"I do have great appreciation for the quarterbacks that have played this game throughout the years, and so I'm honored just to play the position," Manning said after the game, per NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
Manning went on to break Favre's all-time passing-yardage record in 2015, but that moment isn't as iconic as this one. This is, perhaps, because Manning was eventually benched in that record-setting contest for Brock Osweiler because of poor play.
Manning finished his career with 539 passing touchdowns.
3. Ray Lewis' Last Dance
Legendary linebacker Ray Lewis will long be known for a number of things. He spent his entire 17-year career with the Baltimore Ravens. He was named to 13 Pro Bowls. He racked up 1,336 career tackles, 41.5 career sacks and was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Lewis will long be known as the face of the Ravens franchise and for his iconic pregame dance used to pump up his teammates and the crowd.
Lewis announced in 2012 that he planned to call it a career after the season was over. This meant that Baltimore's home playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts in January 2013 would be his last game at M&T Bank Stadium.
As was customary for the intimidating and outspoken defender, Lewis kicked off the contest with a memorable "Ray Lewis Dance."
This created a moment that will not be soon forgotten by Baltimore fans or those who followed Lewis' lengthy career. There would, of course, be more dancing for Lewis to come in the 2012-13 postseason. Baltimore went on to win Super Bowl XLVII, giving Lewis the second ring of his career.
Yet, this was the last time Lewis would step onto the field for his pregame ritual in front of the home crowd. Looking back, this should stand out as one of the most iconic moments of Lewis' Hall of Fame career.
2. The Play Call That Will Forever Be Questioned
Super Bowl XLIX saw the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks face off in one of the most memorable title games in recent history. This one featured precision passing, hard-hitting defense, notable lead changes and perhaps the wildest finish in Super Bowl history.
Tom Brady led the Patriots back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, engineering two touchdown drives in the game's final period. New England surprisingly turned that 10-point deficit into a four-point lead.
Seattle, though, got an opportunity to respond. Quarterback Russell Wilson drove the Seahawks all the way to New England's 5-yard line with just over a minute remaining. Patriots coach Bill Belichick could have instructed the Patriots defense to allow Seattle to score—a tactic he used in Super Bowl XLVI—but this time he didn't.
Marshawn Lynch then ran the ball to the New England 1-yard line. New England eschewed a timeout, forcing Seattle to run their next play with just 26 seconds remaining. Seattle chose to throw the ball, and Wilson's pass intended for Ricardo Lockette was intercepted by then-rookie Malcolm Butler at the goal line.
Butler's pick secured the victory for the Patriots, who were able to run out the clock after taking possession of the ball.
Don Banks of SI.com later called Seattle's decision to pass at the end of the game the worst in league history.
"The play that was and remains the worst call in NFL history," Banks wrote. "Not just Super Bowl history. NFL history. Bar none."
You're not likely to find many folks who will disagree with Banks' assessment of this fateful play. This is why Wilson's throw—and Butler's pick—is an iconic moment that will forever be etched in NFL lore.
1. 'This One's for Pat'
When it comes to iconic NFL moments, few stand out as much as a certain one that followed the Denver Broncos' victory in Super Bowl XXXII.
Minutes after the Broncos secured a 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers—the first Super Bowl win of quarterback John Elway's storied career—Broncos owner Pat Bowlen lifted the Lombardi Trophy high and announced "this one's for John."
Fast-forward to the end of the 2015 season and Super Bowl 50. Elway brought the Broncos back to the big game, this time as executive vice president of football operations. Denver took home another Lombardi Trophy in the game by beating the Carolina Panthers 24-10.
Bowlen stepped down as CEO of the Broncos in 2014 due to his suffering from Alzheimer's disease, but he technically remains majority owner of the team. Elway used his postgame moment to recognize Bowlen and his more than 30 years of ownership of the franchise.
"This one's for Pat," Elway happily declared, holding the Lombardi high in the air.
This particular moment is likely to remain an iconic one long into the future for a couple of reasons. Not only did it pay homage to a well-respected owner of a revered franchise, but it also completed the transformation made by Elway from championship quarterback to championship executive.
In addition, this victory marked the second championship for quarterback Peyton Manning, and it ended up being the final game of his career.
There was undoubtedly a lot of history involved in Super Bowl 50, and the game will forever be remembered by Elway's postgame statement.