Was It As Good For You? (Part II: Regular Season NFL Edition of what makes for a great game)

As I mentioned in my last post, we have entered that part of the offseason when there really isn’t much going on.  If your team’s first round draft pick hasn’t been signed yet, don’t worry because they will.  As far as I’m concerned, news stories about OTA’s are always written while wearing rose-tinted glasses.  Is the team or the beat writer really going to broadcast if that blue-chip free agent they just overpaid for is lazier than Homer Simpson on Valium?  Or if that shiny new first round pick could screw up a cup of coffee?  We are really not going to know much until the season starts, so let’s reminisce for a little while.

I wrote about what makes a game great in a previous post.  When I look back from a historical standpoint to see if the game is great, I look at the game itself more than the conditions surrounding the game.  I do think that heightened circumstances can add to a game’s greatness, but it is not the end-all, be-all factor.  If a conference championship game was decided by a last-second, walk-off field goal or touchdown, that does not necessarily make it a great game, just a great ending.

Also, I really don’t care in the least whether the game was nationally televised or not.  Yes, the Sunday and Monday night games tend to have the better teams (at least based on the previous years’ record) and a bigger stage, but I really don’t care how many people besides me saw the game.  There is a radio host on the four-letter network that always brings up the TV ratings after major sporting events which he uses to judge his opinion of the game, and this causes me to change the station because I just don’t care If I was watching the same game as everyone else.

When it comes to Sunday and Monday night games, I have to admit that it has been a long time since I have seen one past halftime that was not involving the Bills.  I am a working adult, and I can’t stay up past midnight and go to work the next morning and expect to be fully-functional.

And here they are:  The Top Ten Regular Season Games in NFL History

Number Ten:

1994 Miami Dolphins 39, New England Patriots 35

In the opening game of the 1994 season, people were unsure how Dan Marino would perform following his torn Achilles tendon the year before.  It didn’t help Marino’s cause that the Dolphins were going up against second-year quarterback Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots, who were now competitive under second-year head coach Bill Parcells (albeit with a very un-Parcells-like style of play).  This game did also have one little added extra that I love which is playing football with the baseball diamond superimposed on the field, and a few days’ worth of rain to top it all off (but the rain did subside by kickoff).

Marino and Bledsoe proceeded to have a shootout for the ages, combining for almost 900 yards passing and nine touchdowns.  New England held the lead throughout most of the first three quarters, but never by more than eleven (21-10, 3rd quarter).  The Dolphins took a short-lived 32-28 lead in the fourth quarter, but Bledsoe would bring the Patriots back on the ensuing series with 23-yard pass to Ray Crittenden.  Marino proceeded to drive the Fish down the field, even while slipping and sliding on many of his dropbacks.  He hit Mark Ingram on a 4th and 5 for a 30-yard touchdown that would prove to be the game winner.  Both teams went to the playoffs and both lost their opening games.

Number Nine:

1979 Oakland Raiders 42, New Orleans Saints 35 MNF

1979 was the first year in the post-John Madden era, and Tom Flores was having a difficult time as a lot of the veteran Raiders were getting old, and the new faces in the lineup were a few years away from reaching their potential.  This was also the first year that the Saints were really starting to play competitive football.  They were starting to win about as much as they lost, and even though it would be another eight seasons before they would have a winning record, they were no longer an automatic “W”.

In a rocking Superdome, an upstart Saints team played well enough to stay ahead for almost the whole game, but could never deliver the knockout punch.  The Saints took 28-7 and 35-14 leads into the fourth quarter when Ken Stabler went to work.  Madden would later say that when he was watching this game on TV, he knew that the Raiders would win because of the look on Stabler’s face after getting clocked by linebacker Ken Bordelon.

Stabler threw three touchdown passes and led the Raiders to another touchdown drive in the second half.  The comeback was sparked by the return of receiver Cliff Branch, who had been forced to sit out the first half due to being late to a meeting earlier in the week.  Branch caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, on one of them, he took a short pass and put a brilliant move on the corner and proceeded to jet down the sideline without being touched.  After the smoke cleared, the Raiders had a 42-35 win to keep themselves in the playoff race (though ultimately unsuccessful).

Number Eight:

1986 New England Patriots 34, Miami Dolphins 27

This was the last game of the 1986 season, and it was a Monday Night matchup with heavy playoff implications.  If the Patriots win, they’re in the playoffs; if they lose, the Bengals are in (and they kept showing the Bengal team gathered together, watching the game with heavy anxiety and anticipation).  The Dolphins had nothing to play for at this point, but you wouldn’t know it on this night.  It was also the final game at the Orange Bowl, where the Patriots hadn’t won since 1966.

The Dolphins moved the ball rather effectively in the first half, but they kept turning the ball over (which had plagued their season, along with a bend-and-constantly-break defense).  The Patriots scored on a pass from Tony Eason to Stanley Morgan, but Eason was knocked out of the game later in the first half, forcing Steve Grogan to come in.  The Patriots led 13-10 at the half.

In the second half, both teams traded scores back and forth, and forced a 27-all tie late in the fourth quarter.  The Patriots had the ball, and in very by-the-book fashion, were grinding out yardage on the ground (something they had not done all year, they only averaged 2.9 yards per carry on the season) in an attempt to run out the clock and secure the win.  Steve Grogan threw conventional thinking out the window and threw over-the-top to Stanley Morgan for a touchdown (when the Patriots were in makeable field goal range) with under a minute left.  Dan Marino threw an interception on the first play of the ensuing possession, securing a Patriots victory and playoff birth, and the first of four straight missed trips to the playoffs for the Dolphins.

Number Seven:   

1992 Buffalo Bills 34, San Francisco 49ers 31

It took the NFL seventy-two years to have a game that didn’t have a punt, and this was it.  Steve Young and the 49ers looked like they had the upper hand in the first half, building a 24-13 halftime lead.  The 49ers were without Jerry Rice after the first series of the game, and they had to suffice with Odessa Turner and Mike Sherrard for the rest of the game.

The Bills got it together and stopped turning the ball over in the second half.  They also had an unlikely hero in tight end Pete Metzelaars, who caught two touchdown passes in the second half and had 113 yards on four catches.

One thing that I love about this game is that it was high-scoring, but it wasn’t a result of constant bombs and pancake blocks.  Both offenses were just so good at making adjustments throughout the game that the defenses couldn’t keep up.  Most of the receiving yards on both sides were yards-after-the-catch.  Any game where both punters didn’t need to take a shower following the game belongs on this list (OK, bad example).

Number Six:

1983 Washington Redskins 37, Los Angeles Raiders 35

This game proved to be a Super Bowl preview, and there was almost no way that the Super Bowl could match the drama and excitement of this game (Spoiler: It didn’t).

The Raiders started off slow, spotting the ‘Skins a 10-0 lead, but they jump-started their offense with a rare 99-yard touchdown pass from Jim Plunkett to Cliff Branch in the second quarter.  The Redskins held the lead for the entire first half (as much as 20-7), and most of the third quarter, but they could never quite put away the Raiders.  The Raiders came back in the second half and then some, with four straight touchdowns, building a 35-20 lead of their own.

The Redskins didn’t have the highest-scoring offense in league history (to that point, since surpassed) for nothing.  They ended up scoring seventeen straight points to finish off the Raiders.  All told, Plunkett would throw for over four hundred yards, four touchdowns, and four picks in this game, and Theismann for over 350 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

An interesting footnote on this game, one of the key plays of the Redskins’ comeback was a 67-yard screen pass to Joe Washington (but it wasn’t a scoring play).  That play would come back to haunt the Redskins in the Super Bowl later that year, as it was used at the end of the first half, intercepted, and returned for a 5-yard touchdown by Jack Squirek (Who?).  Well, fool me once….

Number Five:

1994 Miami Dolphins 28, New York Jets 24

This was the famous (or infamous if you’re a Jet fan) “Spike Game”.  The Jets were still in the playoff hunt with a 6-6 record, but in the devastation of losing this game, they would not win again for the rest of the season.

The final play was so brilliant that most people forgot about the previous 59 and ½ minutes that came before it.  It actually looked like the long-suffering Jets were going to have a stroke of good luck on this day.  Boomer Esiason had one of his best days in a Jets uniform, throwing for 382 yards and two touchdowns while building a 24-6 lead (and looking like a very dangerous team against the 8-4 Dolphins), but the Jets’ defense failed him when it counted.

Mark Ingram scored all four of the Dolphins’ touchdowns (all in the second half), including the fake spike which drove a stake into the hearts of the Jets for the rest of the season (I bet Pete Carroll doesn’t list this one on his resume).

Number Four:

1982  San Diego Chargers 41, San Francisco 49ers 37

This game had everything: two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Dan Fouts, Joe Montana), two great coaches (Don Coryell, Bill Walsh), two offenses at the peak of their game, six lead changes, a mix of stars and role-players, and action and suspense continuously throughout the game.   Both teams scored touchdowns in every quarter.  The Chargers had three receivers (Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, and Charlie Joiner) with over one hundred yards receiving.  Both teams only punted once.  The offenses combined to gain 1003 yards.  In my opinion, this was the best offensive game the 49ers played in the eighties, and they did it before Jerry Rice’s, Roger Craig’s, John Taylor’s, and Brent Jones’ time.

Most of all, something that I love about this game is that the Chargers had the opportunity to play for the tie in the fourth quarter, down 37-34, and didn’t do it.  Field Goals, while being a strategically sound option, can be a cop-out or a safety net.  Dan Fouts went for the touchdown, throwing to Chuck Muncie for the final points.

Number Three:

1989 San Francisco 49ers 38, Philadelphia Eagles 28

This was a game that featured a very strange dichotomy: San Francisco’s offense of the 80’s vs. the Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense.  It is very rare to see Joe Montana mentally rattled ever, but it happened throughout the first three quarters in this game.  The Eagles sacked Montana eight times, slammed him to the unforgiving Veterans Stadium turf on numerous other occasions, and caused him to repeatedly trip over the feet of his lineman (one of which resulted in a safety).

The best and worst of both sides were on display as the Eagles’ defense was able to dominate on most plays, but their “zero” coverage (no safety help) also gave up four fourth-quarter touchdown passes (plus one more on the second play of the game).

The Eagles kept getting good field position all day, but their offense just wasn’t good enough to take full advantage.  The Eagles ended up only scoring two touchdowns and settling for four field goals on the day, and leaving the window open for a comeback.

Number Two:

1986 New York Jets 51, Miami Dolphins 45 OT

This was the famous game where Dan Marino throws for six touchdowns and the Dolphins still lose, and would serve as a microcosm of his entire career.

The Jets’ defense went into this game being held together by duct tape and dental floss, and the Jets still beat Marino in his prime.  That says a lot that the Jets went into this game knowing that they were going to have to score touchdowns on almost every possession to win, and they did it.  Wesley Walker for the Jets turned in one of the greatest receiving performances in NFL history, 6 catches for 194 yards and 4 touchdowns (including the game-tying and game-winning touchdowns).  Every time that the Jets needed a big play, he was there.

This game was also a prime example of why every team needs to have some kind of a running game.  The Dolphins raced up and down the field the whole game, but couldn’t run the clock out when they had to with two minutes left.

Also lost amidst all the scoring was that on the Jets’ final drive of regulation, they used the hook-and-lateral pass successfully – twice.  The first worked for a first down, and on the second, they faked the lateral which allowed them to get out of bounds.  Walker caught the 21-yard tying touchdown on the last play of regulation in the middle of four Dolphin defenders, and the 65-yard game winning touchdown on a streak down the right side.

The game wasn’t without controversy, though.  The Jets won the toss and chose to take the ball to start overtime.  They fumbled the kickoff which the Dolphins recovered, and it could have been reviewed under the new replay rule, but the ref blew a quick whistle thereby nullifying the review.

Number One:

1979 Dallas Cowboys 35, Washington Redskins 34

This was Roger Staubach’s last regular season game in his career, and he made it the most memorable.  This was the last game of the regular season, and if the Cowboys won, they would win the NFC East.  This was one of the rare times in NFL history that point differential was brought to the table in determining playoff tie-breakers.  That same day, the Bears killed the Cardinals 42-6, ensuring that the winner of this game made the playoffs and the loser stayed home.

The game featured great comebacks by both teams.  The Redskins jumped to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, the fell behind 21-17 in the third.  The Redskins pulled themselves together, leading 27-21 late in the fourth quarter, when John Riggins took a sweep 66 yards for a seemingly game-clinching touchdown.

Down 34-21 with six minutes left, Staubach threw to Ron Springs 26 yards for a touchdown.  The Cowboys used their timeouts, and Larry Cole stopped Riggins in the backfield on a 3rd and 2 (the ‘Skins ran the same play Riggins scored the long one on earlier), and got the ball back with under two minutes left.  In one of the greatest quarterback escapes I have ever seen, Staubach sidesteps a pass-rusher and throws a strike for a first down, and two plays later he hits Tony Hill on a fade for the winning touchdown.  The Redskins got the ball back, Joe Theismann got the Redskins in position for a 59-yard field goal attempt, but the refs ruled the clock had run out.  The Redskins called a timeout after their final play (possibly with one second on the clock), but it was ruled that it was one second too late.  Even if the field goal attempt was allowed, Mark Moseley was only 7/24 (29%) in his career from 50+ at that point.

So, that’s the list.  You might notice some games missing that fall into the category of “NFL Lore”.

Heidi Game?  I didn’t see it, and unless you’re about fifty-five years old, an AFL fan, and were living on the west coast in 1968, you didn’t either.

Holy Roller?  Completely forgettable with the exception of the final play.

Snow Plow Game?  It was a great NFL moment, but no 3-0 game deserves to be on a “Greatest Ever” list.

Midnight Miracle (2000 Jets/Dolphins MNF)?  I turned it off because of how bad the game was.

2003 Colts/Bucs (The “leaping” game)?  I was watching this game with three of my fraternity brothers, and went to bed after the Bucs’ last touchdown.  The first fifty-five minutes was a total yawner.

You also may notice that this list is a little Dolphin/Marino-heavy, and you would be right.  Before you criticize, keep in mind that the Dolphins magically disappear from the playoff list.  “Great Marino Playoff Performances” doesn’t exactly rival War and Peace in length.  Marino was blessed with unbelievable talent, an offense that suited him, and receivers that complimented him, but he also had a sketchy-at-best defense and no running game which is conducive to great games, but not championship football.

Here is my list, I hope you enjoyed it, and let me know where you think I screwed up.  Thanks for reading.


3 Responses to Was It As Good For You? (Part II: Regular Season NFL Edition of what makes for a great game)

  1. You like offense too much!

    Having been a mediocre linebacker in high school, I like a good defensive struggle. Although I will admit that big scoring plays are usually what’s memorable in a great game.

I do appreciate other viewpoints, so please comment

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