Arizona fans are elated and relieved. Green Bay fans are crushed. But those who didn’t have a dog in the fight on Saturday evening in the desert know we just watched something epic. “A game for the ages”, said Al Michaels—this from a man who called the Don Denkinger game in the 1985 World Series, Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in the Super Bowl and, oh by the way, the U.S. hockey team stunning the Soviet Union in 1980, just to name a few. Michaels was right. Now it’s just a question of where the Packers-Cardinals game ranks.
TheSportsNotebook’s most recent blog post ranked the best games in NFL Divisional Playoff history, choosing nine of them in the modern era, going back to 1978 when this round became the second week of playoff action rather than the first. Since we have a template already in place, let’s use that for now and ask where Green Bay-Arizona should be.
If you read through the original Notebook Nine, I think any discussion has to begin by at least putting this game fourth on the list. The current #4 is, ironically, another Packer game, their 2003 loss in Philadelphia. In this case, the defining moment was Donovan McNabb converting a 4th-and-26 on the game-tying drive. Saturday night trumps it with Aaron Rodgers’ 4th-and-20 from the shadow of his own goal line.
In fact, moments before the play I texted a friend that this was the play that would redeem the memory of 4th-and-26 in the eyes of Packer Nation. How about that, plus a desperation touchdown pass with Rodgers throwing under pressure off his back foot?
Next up in the list is The Tuck Rule game, the Patriots’ 16-13 win over the Raiders in the blizzard. This game is about the controversial “was it a fumble or forward pass” call on Tom Brady that New England won and then Adam Vinateri’s stunning 45-yard game-tying field goal in the teeth of the driving snow.
This is a tougher comparison. We have the perspective of history with this 2001 game, and we know that the win was the lynchpin to the first Super Bowl trophy for The Golden Boy & The Hoodie, which gives it some added historical juice. But purely as a football game, the Packers-Cardinals game was better. There was more back-and-forth and there was controversy (the Cardinals’ getting away with an obvious pick on their go-ahead touchdown and two spots where they got first downs by less than inches). I see the argument for 2001 Pats-Raiders, but I’m moving Saturday night ahead of it.
Now let’s go to the current #2, the 2012 Ravens-Broncos game. The biggest claim to fame here is the stunning Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones 70-yard touchdown toss to tie the game with less than a minute to play. It was an incredible moment, but not as much so as Rodgers-to-Jeff Janis on the final play of the game. And, like the comparison to Patriots-Raiders, the Saturday night Packers-Cardinals game was better throughout.
The current #1 is the 1981 Dolphins-Chargers game. This is where the run has to stop. Larry Fitzgerald’s Saturday night performance for Arizona was probably the closest we’ll see to what San Diego’s Kellen Winslow did that night in Miami. But that 1981 game had everything.
San Diego had a 24-0 lead, that was cut to 24-17 by half on a hook-and-lateral play from Miami on the last play of the second quarter. Then the Dolphins had the game in hand before a fumble. Then the Chargers tied it. Miami misses two field goals that could have won it (one blocked by Winslow) and San Diego misses a chip shot of their own. Finally, the Chargers prevail. That’s a pretty high bar to hurdle and as great as Saturday night was, it didn’t quite reach that level.
Saturday night was something more than just a good playoff game. The Denver-Pittsburgh game on Sunday was a good playoff game. Saturday night in Arizona was epic. It’s not being prisoner of the moment to call it historic. Since 1978, there have been 152 second-round NFL playoff games. And we just watched the second-best of that group.