January 2nd, 2013 by Nat Coombs
Putting together a Top 5 list – when it comes to NFL Playoff games – is virtually impossible, because of the embarrassment of riches on offer. It’s rather like being asked to chose your favorite Beatles’ song, or name Hulk Hogan’s finest film (right now, it’s Santa With Muscles).
One thing’s for sure: if a playoff game has landed itself a nickname then it gets bonus points. And a comeback against the odds never hurt anyone’s chances, neither does a big upset. Hopefully my list has some or all of these, but there are many notable absences that could have easily made the cut [did someone say, “Motor City Miracle”?)
#5. SAINTS 36 at SEAHAWKS 41 – 2011
The Seahawks ‘out of nowhere’ playoff win over the defending champs was remarkable, not least when you consider they had a losing regular season record. The ‘Hawks were only in the postseason because the NFC West had proven to be even worse than the idea of a Vince Wilfork Christmas album.
Veteran Matt Hasselbeck – without doubt one of the unluckiest and underestimated QBs of the last 20 years – played a blinder: throwing 4 TD passes to secure one of the most stunning upsets in playoff history. Hasselbeck had been out injured leading up to the game and was only cleared to play 48 hours before – apparently having fluid drained from his hip
This is also the game where Marshawn Lynch officially returned, running for 131 yards and a TD that was soon described as watching something out of a video game – hence his self-styled “Beast Mode” which has been terrorizing NFL defenses ever since.
Of course, the whole thing is faintly absurd given the playoff rules that meant the Saints, as a Wild Card qualifier had to go on the road to the “divisional winners”. Ultimately the true Seattle would be found out the following week, coming unstuck against the Bears in the Divisional round.
#4. EAGLES 12 at BEARS 20 – 1988
The clue to this one is in the nickname: “The Fog Bowl.” The fog that rolled across Soldier Field on New Year’s Eve 1988 was so thick that visibility was limited to about 15 yards in any direction. Players complained that they couldn’t even see the first down markers. Or the sidelines.
How either team managed to score, and how the hell Randall Cunningham, the remarkable Eagles’ QB threw for over 400 yards, still remains a mystery to most NFL observers.
Cunningham’s virtuoso performance didn’t matter though: the Bears won, much to the delight of their fans, most of whom had no idea what was going on. Helpfully, the refs were calling out down and distance via microphones. Which presumably was as much for the players benefits as the supporters.
#3. GIANTS 38 at FORTY-NINERS 39 – 2003
The 49ers overcame a 38-14 deficit and scored 25 unanswered points in the second half. This was Terrell Owens era San Francisco, of course, and TO had a vintage day, catching 9 passes for 177 yards, 2 TDs and two 2-point conversions: one of the finest individual performances from a WR in playoff history.
The Giants team, with underrated QB Kerry Collins in fine form – 342 yards for 4 TD’s – had plenty of chances to win the game despite the Niners’ comeback. With just over three minutes left in the game, they missed a routine (42 yard) FG giving the ball back to the 49ers and allowing the go-ahead score. And even after that, Collins led them back to the 49ers’ 23-yard line with six seconds left. But Trey Junkin – a 41-year-old veteran only recently re-signed, who had messed up a previous snap for a FG, blew it again and a botched pass play meant New York ended their playoff run with a whimper. More frustratingly for them, a pass interference call, against the 49ers, wasn’t spotted, though acknowledged as missed by the officials. If they’d picked it up in game, the Giants would have had another shot at a FG – from much closer range.
Spare a though for Steve Mariucci, the 49ers head coach. Having won this one and taken his team to the Divisional round, where San Fran were duly shut down by a sensational Tampa Bay defense, “Mooch” lost his job. Collins was released by the Giants in 2004. And Owens lasted one more year in SF before leaving to join Philadelphia, where he held a press conference whilst doing press ups. But that’s another story.
#2. PATRIOTS 34 at COLTS 38 – 2007
Featuring two of the very best, arguably at the peak of their playing prowess (though both Tom Brady & Peyton Manning are playoff bound once again five years on) the 2006 AFC Championship was perhaps the apex of the best NFL rivalry of the noughties.
The Patriots had dispatched the Colts from the postseason twice in the previous three years, so it was not surprising that this game soon earned the nickname “Peyton’s Revenge”
New England pushed to a 21-3 lead at one stage and the Colts subsequent 18-point comeback was the largest ever in an NFL conference championship game.
The context is key of course. Every playoff game matters, but when it’s a place in the Super Bowl directly on the line – somewhere the Colts hadn’t been for over 25 years – and it’s the same big bully (New England) knocking you around yet again, the pressure that built up on Manning, (Coach) Dungy & Co. was immense. Manning’s game-winning drive was typical of his unrivalled ability in time-sensitive situations. The game is all the more remarkable when you consider Brady had driven the Pats back to the Colts 45 yard line – FG range in a dome stadium – with the final drive of the game before throwing a pick to Marlin Jackson and ending the game.
#1. OILERS 38 at BILLS 41 – 1993
When a playoff duel earns the nickname “THE Comeback” with a history as illustrious as the NFL’s, you can conclude that it either features Ol Blue Eyes and Bill Clinton duetting on My Kinda Town, or it’s a pretty damn fine ballgame.
Featuring the Houston Oilers (who ply their trade as the Tennessee Titans these days) and a Buffalo Bills team in the second season of their back-to-back-to back Super Bowl losses – yep, those guys – the game was so dubbed because the Bills, under the stewardship of back up QB Frank Reich, clawed back from a 32 point deficit to win in OT.
What makes the defeat from the jaws of victory so bitter for many Oilers fans was the overwhelming sense that this team, featuring superstar QB Warren Moon, was their best chance at getting to a Super Bowl (as the Oilers) particularly because Moon’s opposite number, Jim Kelly, one of the finest QBs to ever play, was out injured.
Maybe it was jinxed once a Houston radio commentator delivered the following “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”
Reich had shown some capability deputizing for Kelly before, but January 3rd 1993 was one of those magical days, where a jobbing journeyman got a shot and delivered the type of gutsy performance usually reserved for the silver screen. Reich ended the day with 21 of 34 pass completions for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 1 interception and the Bills advanced to the Super Bowl, where Kelly returned to his starting role, and the Cowboys duly trounced the team.
On January 4th 1993, the following day, the Oilers fired Defensive co-coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas.
NAT COOMBS, as well as writing for ESPN America on the NFL & MLB, is one of ESPN UK’s studio anchors and also presents NFL Live on Channel 4 in the UK. He is the host of the cult sports podcast Americarnage.
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