Here’s a look at the nine best games in the second round of the NFL playoffs since 1978. That year is chosen as the benchmark because it’s the first year when the league expanded to a 10-team postseason, thereby marking the first year that the divisional playoffs marked the second round, rather than the first. The Notebook Nine is ranked in ascending order…
#9: 1994—Chargers 22 Dolphins 21: As the last game on a divisional weekend otherwise filled with blowouts, this one made the weekend. Stan Humphries led the Chargers from 21-6 down to take a one-point lead. Dan Marino led Miami roaring back for a last-second field goal try. But the normally reliable Pete Stoyanovich missed.
#8: 1979—Oilers 17 Chargers 14: San Diego again makes the list, but this time for the wrong reasons. Houston looked dead to rights, facing the top-seeded Chargers and the high-powered offense led by Dan Fouts. When the Oilers’ star running back Earl Campbell and quarterback Dan Pastorini couldn’t go, it looked helpless. But in one of the great single-game defensive performances ever, safety Vernon Perry picked off Fouts four times and keyed the upset.
#7: 2014—Patriots 35 Ravens 31: Just last season, Tom Brady’s run to a fourth Super Bowl title nearly ended early, as he trailed by two touchdowns on two different occasions. But with a brilliant performance, aided by a trick play where wide receiver Julian Edelman threw a TD pass, New England rallied. They preserved the win on an interception near the goal line.
#6: 1986—Browns 23 Jets 20 (2 OT): What do you get when two suffering franchises meet? A game filled with what might-have-beens. Cleveland was in a 20-10 hole in the final five minutes, but a roughing the passer call on Mark Gastineau gave Bernie Kosar’s team new life. They rallied to tie it. Then they missed a short field goal in OT. Finally, Cleveland survived. The Jets’ misery continued…the Browns waited another week until giving up a legendary drive to John Elway’s Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
#5: 2011—49ers 36 Saints 32—For three quarters it was a normal “good game” that was entertaining, but not one for the history books. In the fourth quarter, all craziness broke loose and the teams combined for 34 points. In the last four minutes alone, each team scored two touchdowns. Alex Smith ran 28 yards for one TD and finally won it on a 14-yard TD pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left.
#4: 2003—Eagles 20 Packers 17 (OT)—Where I live, in southeastern Wisconsin, you need say only these words—“4th-and-26.” That’s what Philadelphia faced in the final two minutes in their own end. Donovan McNabb converted a surprisingly easy throw to midfield and led the rally for a tying field goal. In overtime, Brett Favre threw what was, even for him, a wildly ill-advised pass across the field where he wasn’t even looking at the receiver. Philadelphia intercepted and won it with a field goal.
#3: 2001—Patriots 16 Raiders 13 (OT)—It was the legendary Night Of The Nor’easter in Foxboro and snow dumped all over the field. The Raiders led 13-10. The Patriots were driving and a then, mostly unknown first-year starter in Tom Brady appeared to fumble. The play that would become known as “The Tuck Rule” declared it an incomplete pass. Adam Vinateri hit the greatest kick in NFL history when he nailed a 45-yarder in the midst of a blizzard to tie the game. The Patriots win the game and ultimately their first Super Bowl. Tom Brady becomes The Golden Boy and Bill Belichick becomes The Hoodie.
#2: 2012–Ravens 38 Broncos 35 (2 OT): Baltimore was supposed to have the best special teams in football, but gave up two kick returns for touchdowns to Trindon Holliday. Peyton Manning appeared to have Denver in control, albeit never comfortably for most of the game. It’s the ending that makes this game amazing.
The Ravens, down 35-28, are on their own 30-yard line with less than a minute to play. Denver need only keep the play in front of them. But Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones gets past safety Rahim Moore and is hit in perfect stride by quarterback Joe Flacco. The game is stunningly tied and the Ravens win in double overtime. “The Baltimore Bomb” keys a redemptive Super Bowl run for a group of veterans that had been frustrated in the postseason in recent years on Ray Lewis’ last ride.
#1: 1981–San Diego 41 Miami 38 (OT): I’m really not a Chargers fan, in spite of them being on this list three different times. It’s also the second appearance of a Dolphins-Chargers game in what is a four-game playoff history between the two franchises (Miami won the other two easily).
In this one, San Diego jumped out to a 24-0 lead, the Dolphins went to backup QB Don Strock, who ultimately had them ahead 38-31. Andra Franklin fumbled when the Fish were driving for a lockup field goal. Fouts rallied for the tying touchdown. Each team missed a field goal in overtime. The Chargers win and tight end Kellen Winslow—who caught 13 passes for 166 yards and blocked a field goal at the end of regulation, has to be carried off the field by teammates due to exhaustion.
A fresh new batch of games is ahead of us in a few hours. Will Chiefs-Patriots, Packers-Cardinals, Seahawks-Panthers or Steelers-Broncos change the list? Time to find out and watch history unfold before us again.