And here’s the second half of the list:
Number Five: 1989 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Buffalo Bills 30 @ Cleveland Browns 34
This was the classic matchup of a team that was flashy and a great team on paper (Buffalo) against a supposedly boring workman-like team that played well together (Cleveland). In a very weak AFC (9-7 would have been good enough for 4th place in the NFC East or West), the Bills won the AFC East with a 9-7 record, but only by beating a 4-12 Jets team 37-0 in week 17. The Bills had all of the pieces, but couldn’t keep their egos in check during the season, which led to the nickname “the Bickering Bills”. The Browns won the AFC Central by a half a game (9-6-1 compared to Pittsburgh and Houston’s 9-7), but were on a roll after a disastrous late-November to early-December slide.
Jim Kelly and the Bills had many opportunities throughout the game to take total control, but they just couldn’t stay out of their own way. They hit big plays, but also couldn’t get their running game going or hold on to well-thrown passes (11 drops for the game by Bills receivers). They could hit on big plays, but couldn’t handle the routine ones, the kind that you need to convert to win a game against a good team, which the Browns were. In the first half, Kelly hit on touchdown passes to Andre Reed and James Lofton for 72 and 33 yards, respectively. Bernie Kosar threw touchdowns to a wide-open Webster Slaughter for 52 yards and Ron Middleton for 3 yards just before the half. The Browns led 17-14 at that point.
In the second half, the two teams traded scores back and forth, but the Browns never relinquished the lead. Whenever it looked like the Bills gained the slightest edge in momentum, the Browns either snatched it away or the Bills shot themselves in the foot. After cutting the lead to 24-21 in the third quarter, Eric Metcalf returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against the Bills’ normally reliable coverage units. From then on, the Bills were constantly in scramble mode, trying desperately to catch up. When Thurman Thomas scored on a three-yard catch, the Browns blocked the extra point. That play dramatically altered the rest of the game because a three-point deficit became four points.
The Bills got the ball back with slightly more than two minutes left and needing a touchdown. The Bills drove inside the Cleveland ten with fifteen seconds left. You know how Red Sox fans refer to 1978 simply as “Bucky f—ing Dent”? Well, Bills fans have Ronnie F—ing Harmon. Harmon dropped a perfectly thrown pass to the corner of the end zone that would have won the game for the Bills. Instead, Kelly threw an interception to Clay Matthews on the last play, and the Browns won 34-30. Harmon was later cut in the off season.
This game had 778 yards of offense including over 400 yards passing for Jim Kelly and four touchdowns, and three touchdown passes for Bernie Kosar including ones for 52 and 44 yards.
Number Four: 2006 AFC Championship, New England Patriots 34 @ Indianapolis Colts 38
It’s such a great thing and so rare to see two certain first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks battle it out in a championship game when both are in their prime. We as fans were privileged to see Peyton Manning duke it out with Tom Brady for supremacy over the AFC throughout the last decade. They had met two previous times in the playoffs in 2003 and 2004, with New England largely dominating both games (24-14, 20-3), mostly due to having home field advantage. Because of both playoff loses, Manning had to shake the image of being this generation’s Dan Marino (an excellent regular season statistical quarterback, but not able to win anything that matters). That would change in 2006 because even though the Colts and Patriots had identical 12-4 records, the Colts won home field advantage with a seven-point win over the Pats in the regular season.
The game started out just like the previous two times these teams met in the playoffs; the Patriots grabbed the early advantage (21-3 in the first half), and looked like they were going to run away with it again. The Pats scored on an offensive fumble recovery in the end zone (the first of three times for the game an offensive lineman would score a touchdown), an interception return for a touchdown, and a seven-yard run by Corey Dillon (whose fumble resulted in the first touchdown.
This is where the home field advantage kicks in because if this game was at New England, the Colts probably would have folded quicker than Superman on laundry day. The Colts were able to come back in large part because their offense is best suited for an indoor stadium and a home crowd which keeps quiet during play-call changes at the line of scrimmage. The Colts were able to even the score at 21 by the middle of the third quarter, partly due to a touchdown pass from Manning to Dan Klecko on a lineman-eligible play. Both teams would trade scores for the rest of the game, including a fumble recovery by Colts center Jeff Saturday in the end zone to even the score at 28 in the fourth quarter.
Following three successive drives that ended in field goals, Indianapolis drove deep into New England territory. It almost wasn’t to be because Reggie Wayne bobbled the ball in the open field after a catch and run that put the Colts firmly in scoring territory. Wayne recovered the fumble, and Joseph Addai scored a few plays later to give the Colts a 38-34 lead with under a minute left. The Colts defense then did something they couldn’t do in either of their two previous meetings with the Patriots in the playoffs: make a stop when it counted. Brady was intercepted to end the game, and give the Colts the right to beat the Bears in the Super Bowl (I say that because I believe the 2006 Bears to be one of the worst teams to ever make it to the Super Bowl).
Number Three: 1987 AFC Championship, Cleveland Browns 33 @ Denver Broncos 38, – “The Fumble”
I never understood why Broncos fans hold “The Drive” in such high regards, and this game is usually forgotten, or an afterthought in the very least. In a strike-shortened season, the two best teams in the AFC (which isn’t saying much, the next best team only had nine wins for the season) duked it out for the right to play Washington in Super Bowl XXII. Unlike the year before, both teams came out guns blazing. The Broncos got good field position and an early lead due to three first-half Cleveland turnovers. The Browns were moving the ball, but kept turning the ball over or not making the most out of their opportunities, and the Broncos had a 21-3 halftime lead.
Cleveland took the second-half kickoff and immediately drove down the field just like they had been the whole game, only this time they made the most of it with a 18-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to Reggie Langhorne to close to 21-10. The Broncos matched the score on a twisting, scrambling 80-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson, the last seventy yards of which were on the ground to put the Browns right back in an 18-point hole. Earnest Byner would rule the rest of the third quarter, running and catching for touchdowns, and cutting the Bronco lead to 28-24. The Broncos kicked a field goal, and led by a touchdown at the end of the quarter.
They traded touchdowns in the final quarter, and Cleveland got the ball back, trailing 38-31, for one final ill-fated drive. As we all know, Earnest Byner fumbled at the goal line after Cleveland drove the length of the field in an effort to tie the game at 38. Jeremiah Castille will be forever remembered in Broncos history for his strip of Byner at the goal line, and nothing else. Denver ran most of the clock off, took an intentional safety, and left the Browns with only enough time for an unsuccessful Hail Mary attempt. Byner ended up the goat of the game despite his 187 rushing and receiving yards and two touchdowns. He did get a measure of personal redemption with a touchdown and a victory in Super Bowl XXVI with the Washington Redskins, but unfortunately that doesn’t help the Browns much.
Number Two: 1981 AFC Divisional Playoffs, San Diego Chargers 41 @ Miami Dolphins 38 OT
There are some things that don’t hold up well over time. This game isn’t one of them. You could put this game on TV today, and it looks like it was played recently. There was no point in this game where you could walk away for a couple of minutes and come back, and have the game situation and momentum not be any different. There were about a half-dozen times in this game where you thought there was no way that one of them would lose, and then it would be flipped in an instant.
The Chargers took a very quick 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter thanks to a punt return for a touchdown, a normally Swiss cheese-like defense that didn’t give up a yard, and the ever-elusive Air Coryell offense. Dolphins’ quarterback David Woodley was yanked, Don Strock subbed in, and the Dolphins worked their way back to 24-10. With six seconds left, on a last-ditch drive at the end of the first half, the Dolphins executed the best hook-and-lateral play that I have ever seen. Don Strock hit Duriel Harris on a 15-yard curl, who sucked the defense in before pitching to Tony Nathan who ran the remaining 25 yards for the touchdown, pulling the Dolphins to within seven.
They traded punch for punch throughout the second half, with neither team accepting the possibility that they might lose. Strock threw touchdown passes to tight ends Joe Rose and Bruce Hardy, and Fouts threw a touchdown to tight end Kellen Winslow. After a twelve-yard touchdown run by Nathan (just about the only successful Miami running play all night), the Dolphins had a 38-31 lead, and soon had the ball back deep in Charger territory. The Dolphins were in position to get a two-score lead and put the game away until running back Andra Franklin fumbled the ball away with a little under four minutes left. Franklin’s fumble would be largely forgotten amidst all of the scoring, but it ended up being the pivotal play in the fourth quarter, and the Dolphins would not score again for the rest of the game. The Chargers drove the length of the field and scored on Dan Fouts’ overthrow-turned-touchdown pass to James Brooks.
Miami actually had a chance to win the game in regulation, but their field goal attempt was blocked. An interesting play happened on their final regulation drive when Strock was intercepted by Willie Buchanon at midfield, but the ball came out when he hit the ground, and was recovered by Miami. Today’s rule of the ground not being able to cause a fumble would have given the Chargers the ball, but that rule didn’t exist at the time, so the ball went right back to Miami.
Both teams had their opportunities in overtime, and both teams missed field goals. To both teams’ credit, they both went into the overtime being aggressive on offense. Too many times, coaches try to play on their opponent’s mistakes and end up losing anyway. Rolf Benirschke finally finished the Dolphins off with a 29-yard field goal almost fourteen minutes into overtime.
Number One: 1992 AFC Wild Card Playoffs: ,Houston Oilers 38 @ Buffalo Bills 41 OT
This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this. My opinion might be slightly biased because I am a Bills fan, but there is no match for this game on a historic level, or just based on pure excitement. It looked like the Oilers’ were going to end their streak of playoff futility, especially considering they beat the Bills 27-3 the week before when the Bills were playing for the division title and a first-round bye, and knocked out Jim Kelly for the next two weeks in the process.
The Oilers drove the length of the field all four times they had the ball in the first half, and Warren Moon threw touchdown passes on each of those four drives. Houston’s 28-3 halftime lead was not a fluke. None of the touchdowns came on long passes (3, 7, 26, and 27 yards), and long passes in general were not part of their game plan (their longest play of the day was 32 yards). Everything was working exactly the way it was drawn up, and Buffalo couldn’t execute anything to save their life. Moon was 19 of 22 for 218 yards in the first half, nearly perfect.
The only thing Buffalo had going for them was that they got the ball to start the second half. Of course, that wouldn’t mean much after Frank Reich threw an interception that went right through Keith McKeller’s hands and into Bubba McDowell’s, which was returned 58 yards for a touchdown.
Buffalo scored on a very methodical drive on their ensuing possession, and then made what I believe to be the biggest play of the day. The Bills lined up in their standard kickoff formation with their standard personnel, and executed a perfect middle onside kick that kicker Steve Christie recovered himself. It still surprises me that the Oilers didn’t expect an onside kick when the Bills were down by 25 in the third quarter.
Little by little, from that point on, the Oilers began to self-destruct. A missed coverage here, a missed block there, a mental mistake here, and a bad break there, any one of which by itself wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they created an avalanche of momentum on the Bills’ side from which the Oilers couldn’t recover. Even though the Bills didn’t get the lead until three minutes left in regulation, the Oilers played panicked football throughout the second half like they were behind and desperate to catch up, only they were actually ahead the whole time.
The Bills scored four touchdowns in a seven-minute span in the third quarter, and the Oilers couldn’t even make a first down. The score went from 35-3 a minute into the third quarter to 35-31 going into the fourth quarter. The Bills scored on a 1-yard run by Kenneth Davis, a 38-yard pass from Frank Reich to Don Beebe (where Beebe was forced out of bounds and came back in to catch the pass), and two Reich to Andre Reed passes (26 and 18 yards). Reed would score again with three minutes left on a 17-yard pass following a bad hold by Oilers punter Greg Montgomery on a field goal attempt to give Buffalo its first lead of the day at 38-35. The Oilers would kick a field goal with a few seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime, but it really wouldn’t matter.
The Oilers won the coin toss for the overtime, but Nate Odomes intercepted Moon on third down, and coupled with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Oilers, gave the Bills the ball in field goal position. The Oilers complained that receiver Haywood Jeffries was held by Darryl Talley on the play, but if they blame their losing a 32-point lead and the game on that play, then they are just choosing to ignore the dozens of other mistakes they made throughout the second half to put themselves into that position. Steve Christie kicked a 32-yard field goal two plays later to give the Bills a 41-38 win and the greatest comeback in NFL history.
There is one very big reason why I put this game at number one above the 1981 Chargers-Dolphins game. Throughout the history of the NFL, I can think of plenty of shootouts, but I can’t think of any other 32-point comebacks.
Some fans reading this list might say that I missed a couple of games, the 1958 NFL Championship (Colts/Giants, “Greatest Game Ever Played”) and the 1967 NFL Championship (Green Bay/Dallas, “Ice Bowl”) to be specific. All lore and legend aside, go back and watch the 1958 game sometime. The level of play has almost a backyard quality to it. That game is considered to be the greatest ever, but that conclusion was reached decades ago. That game just doesn’t translate well to modern times. That game is a great moment for the NFL, but should be known more for its impact on the game, not for what actually happened on the field.
As for the Ice Bowl, don’t let the game conditions dictate greatness or the level of play. That Packer team was arguably the worst of all of Lombardi’s five championship teams as they finished the regular season with a 9-4-1 record. We all know that it was -13°F outside, but that has nothing to do with football. Green Bay went the better part of a half without gaining a first down. The brilliant game-winning play was a quarterback sneak, not exactly a strategic labyrinth. Remove Vince Lombardi from the storyline and this is just a close game on a really cold day, not a legendary event.
There’s my list. I want this list to continually change. That’s part of the reason why I keep watching football, because I believe there will always be more greatness to come. Let the discussion begin.