In the wake of Stefon Diggs’ stunning walkoff touchdown that enabled the Minnesota Vikings to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the question immediately arose from a friend of mine—is this the craziest ending to an NFL playoff game we’ve ever seen?
I went to the archives and scanned the results of each playoff game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the answer to the question is this—if it’s not the most bizarre conclusion to a playoff game, it’s certainly a hard one to beat.
Before going to other candidates for the honor, I want to point out that the biggest thing that will jump out at any football fan in reviewing past playoff games is just how many fantastic finishes there have truly been. Try it. Go to Pro Football Reference’s page on the 1970 NFL season, scroll down to where the playoff results are, and then scroll back up to click “Next Season” and go on a little ride through NFL history.
That means there has to be a way of narrowing these games down and categorizing them. And for purposes of this article that means clearly saying what we are not looking for.
–We’re not looking for the best playoff games in NFL history. The 2017 Vikings-Saints finish wouldn’t qualify there—for the better part of three quarters it was a fairly pedestrian game that looked like a Minnesota win until Drew Brees heated up. If we were looking for best game, we’d look at ones like the ‘81 NFC Championship Game (featured on the book cover above, with Dwight Clark snagging Joe Montana’s pass) or Oakland’s 28-26 win over Miami in 1973, to name a couple.
–We’re also not simply looking for an exciting finish. To me, that excludes games that were won or lost on a field goal attempt on the end or a solid drive that ended with a normal touchdown. We’re not looking for “normal plays”, as good as the games may have been. In this particular instance, we’re looking for the moments that leave you shouting, “I don’t believe what I just saw!”, a la Jack Buck. This throws out a whole host of great games, including the 1990 Giants-49ers classic NFC Championship Game.
–To further shorten the list, and again using Diggs’ catch-and-run as the measuring point, I only used games where the decisive play was a clear win-or-lose moment. It couldn’t be just to force or avoid overtime. This notably eliminated games like the ‘99 Super Bowl, where the Rams stopped the Titans on the one-yard line on the final play to win 23-16. Or the ‘87 AFC Championship Game, where Jeremiah Castille stripped Earnest Byner as he looked ready to go in for the tying touchdown. Or Joe Flacco’s stunning 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones that enabled Baltimore to tie Denver in 2012 and eventually win in overtime. And…well, you get the point.
–We are not looking for the games with the most historic impact. In this particular exercise, wild-card games between teams with no realistic hope of advancing much further are treated the same as the Super Bowl. It’s the craziness of the finish we’re after here.
So with all that said, here are the chosen games, in chronological order:
1972: Pittsburgh 13 Oakland 7
Trailing 7-6, a last-gasp pass from Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw is deflected by either Raider defensive back Jack Tatum or Steeler receiver John Fuqua. Who it was is important, because in 1972 the rules said that once an offensive player touched a pass the ball was dead. This ball caromed off someone, was snagged by Franco Harris at his shoelaces, who raced in for the winning touchdown. Officials conferred and ruled Fuqua had not touched the ball and the touchdown stood.
1972: Dallas 30 San Francisco 28
The Cowboys were down 28-13 in the fourth quarter. This was 24 years before the two-point conversion came into the NFL, so this was a three-score deficit. It was still 28-16 with a couple minutes left. The Cowboys scored, covered an onside kick and scored again. By the way, this game not only took place the same year as the Steelers-Raiders classic, but the same day. December 23, 1972 was an early Christmas gift for pro football fans.
1975: Dallas 17 Minnesota 14
Roger Staubach does it again, throwing a 50-yard desperation heave to Drew Pearson to stun Minnesota. Viking fans and players insist Pearson pushed off and one fan expressed his displeasure by throwing an empty liqor bottle at an official (yes, you could bring a few more things into the stadium in the 1970s than you can today). This was the game on my mind yesterday, as I shared the video on social media and said the Vikings finally had seen one of these plays go their way.
1993: Green Bay 28 Detroit 24
It was the first playoff appearance for both Brett Favre and Barry Sanders. The Lions led it 24-21, and the Packers nudged past midfield. Favre rolled to his left, stopped and threw back across the field, all the way to the other sideline, where Sterling Sharpe was wide open for the winning touchdown. The pure arm strength generated on the throw could only have been done by a handful of players in NFL history. The wisdom of throwing across your body in that situation is more debatable—another Favre effort to do so in 2009, in another Vikings-Saints classic, had a less favorable ending.
1999: Tennessee 22 Buffalo 16
The Bills led 16-15 and needed to only get through the kickoff and maybe one play to finish the road upset. Lorenzo Neal took the kickoff for the Titans and handed off to Frank Wycheck. The big tight end ran to the right side of the field, stopped and threw the ball back across to Kevin Dyson, who raced down the left sideline for the touchdown. A long review took place to make sure it was a backwards lateral, not a forward pass. It was extremely close. To the fury of the Bills, the touchdown stood and “The Music City Miracle” had its place in NFL lore.
2006: Seattle 21 Dallas 20
This should have gone down into the history books as just a great NFL playoff game that ended on a late field goal from the Cowboys to win 23-21. They were lined up for a kick that was basically an extra point. Tony Romo was the holder. The snap was true. The ball hit him squarely in the hands…and bounced away. The Seahawks had survived.
2014: New England 28 Seattle 24
The one Super Bowl play to make our list. On its face, an interception in the end zone isn’t enough to qualify—otherwise, we’d have to include games like ‘07 Giants-Cowboys or ‘81 Bills-Jets. But the sheer improbability of Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson make this game stand out. It’s recent enough that I’m sure you remember the details—on the two-yard line and with everyone either expecting a run from Marshawn Lynch, or at the very least, giving Wilson a run-pass option on a rollout, the Seahawks instead have Wilson throw right into the middle on a pop pass. Butler breaks immediately, makes the pick and gives Brady-Belichick their fourth Super Bowl trophy.
2017: Minnesota 29 New Orleans 24
That brings us to Sunday. The Vikings are ready to add another chapter to their long history of playoff heartbreak, blowing a 17-0 lead. On their own 39-yard line, they have one play and if that can get out of bounds, time to try a field goal. Case Keenum throws a deep fade to Diggs. He goes up and gets the ball between two Saints defenders. With everyone focused on whether he can get out of bounds and give Kai Forbath a chance at a long field goal, New Orleans whiffs on the tackle and Diggs races into the end zone.
This list form the lead candidates for craziest ending to an NFL playoff game. Here’s how I would rank them…
3)2017 Minnesota-New Orleans
5)2014 New England-Seattle
7)1993 Green Bay-Detroit