It’s time for another weekend with the first round of the NFL playoffs. Yesterday, as I was making a three-hour drive through central Wisconsin, I grabbed a diet Dr. Pepper, relaxed and tried to think of the most memorable games in NFL playoff history this round since 1990. That year is the cutoff point because it’s when the NFL expanded the postseason to 12 teams and had four opening-round games.
I’m afraid to say I was able to remember the matchup and winner of all 84 first-round games, and pertinent points from a lot of them. The fact I can remember this stuff while casually driving is surely at least one explanation for a lot of the problems in my life. But it is what it is, and I am who I am. So I thought I’d put a few of those memories down here.
I don’t claim these are the best games of the first round, just ones that stood out in my mind. I have spared readers the references to Redskins playoff wins, simply because as long as Daniel Snyder is the owner I don’t expect too many more, so what’s here has to last me the balance of my lifetime. I’ll bury readers with recollections of ‘Skins wins some other time. Here are four recollections overall, that encompass six total games…
BUFFALO’S BATTLES: The Bills played the Houston Oilers in the 1992 playoffs and then met the organization again in the 1999 postseason after the Oilers had moved to Nashville and re-invented themselves as the Tennessee Titans. Both games would challenge for the top spot of best first-round game ever played, and at the very least the most amazing finish.
In ’92, the teams met in Buffalo, a rematch from a regular season finale where the Oilers not only hammered the Bills 27-3, but cost them the AFC East title, a first-round bye, the health of their quarterback Jim Kelly, who hurt his knee and All-Pro linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Houston was an explosive offensive team, the first “Run-And-Shoot” team in the NFL, as Warren Moon was the quarterback on an attack that spread the field with four wide receivers.
In the second quarter of this game, Moon gunned three scoring passes to three different receivers and opened up a 28-3 lead. An interception return for a score just after halftime stretched the lead to 35-3. Kelly was on the bench and backup Frank Reich was in. Reich was already the author of the greatest college comeback in history, when he led Maryland to a win over Miami after trailing 31-0. Now he duplicated the feat in the NFL. After a short TD run made it 35-10, Reich threw four straight touchdown passes, the last three to Andre Reed. Houston actually had to rally for a field goal to force overtime, before Buffalo won it 38-35. It set the stage for the third of Buffalo’s four straight AFC championships. Houston continued a pattern of playoff disappointments and would not make a Super Bowl until their relocation.
Tennessee’s year came in 1999. Even though they won 13 games, they had to play a first-round game with Buffalo, as Jacksonville won the old AFC Central division. The Titans were led by quarterback Steve McNair and had a Pro Bowl runner in Eddie George. They were a more physical team that their immediate forerunners in Houston and had a rookie defensive end named Jevon Kearse who could cause a lot of problems. Kearse sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety to key a 2nd quarter run that saw Tennessee go up 12-0 at halftime. Johnson was feeling pressure in a lot of ways, as he was not a popular choice to start over fan favorite Doug Flutie, who always seemed to have a knack for making the big play. Buffalo scored on two touchdown drives in the third quarter, but foolishly went for two points on one and missed.
At 13-12, the teams traded field goals and with 16 seconds left, Buffalo was kicking off with a 16-15 lead. The kickoff was given to tight end Frank Wycheck who went to his right sideline, stopped and threw the ball across the field to receiver Kevin Dyson. The lateral ended up in a touchdown and to the fury of Buffalo fans and players, it was ruled on replay that the lateral had gone backyard (further research, including that of an NFL Films computer analyst confirms the call was correct, and that was my belief watching it at the time). The Titans went on to the Super Bowl. The Bills haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
GREEN BAY-SAN FRANCISCO RIVALRY: These teams have met several times and several different rungs of the postseason and we’ll revisit some of those if another chapter is written in this year’s NFC Championship Game. In 1998 and 2001 they played in the first round, each one memorable in its own way.
In 1998 the Packers were the two-time defending NFC champs, but at 11-5 were off the championship pace. After a three straight MVP seasons, Brett Favre’s TD-INT ratio dropped to 31-23 and the Vikings won 15 games and the old NFC Central. San Fran had been ousted by the Packers each of the previous three years and was looking for some revenge. The game would prove to be nothing short of a classic. Favre and Steve Young each played well, but each also had a couple interceptions.
Green Bay led 17-10 at half, but the pendulum kept swinging back and forth and San Fran had a 23-20 lead late in the fourth quarter. At this point, Favre led his team on a long drive that ended with 15-yard pass to Antonio Freeman and what looked to be the winning score. Young marched the 49ers back. He got them to the Green Bay 25-yard line, aided considerably by an atrocious no-call where Jerry Rice obviously fumbled and it was recovered by Green Bay. But in those days there was no recourse to the Man Upstairs (the replay official, not the Almighty in this case). Young took advantage of the opportunity and rifled a perfect strike to Terrell Owens over the middle for the game-winning touchdown.
Green Bay and San Francisco each briefly disappeared for a couple years after the Niners lost the ensuing 1998 playoff game in Atlanta. The Pack and Niners weren’t back in the playoffs until 2001, and they found each other again, this time at Lambeau Field. With both teams at 12-4, this was, based on the records, the best first-round game ever played. Twelve wins is a Super Bowl-caliber season and somebody was going home right away. The defenses controlled early and a missed PAT by Green Bay was the difference as they trailed 7-6at halftime. Favre, on his way to a 22-for-29 day with 269 yards, stepped it up and led one drive for a field goal and another capped with a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bubba Franks.
The Packers short-sightedly went for two to go chasing that missed extra point and dug themselves a bigger hole when a failure kept the score at 15-7. San Francisco’s Jeff Garcia then led a TD drive of his own in the fourth quarter and his two-point play did work, tying the game. The Pack took over one last time.
Winning the rushing battle was the biggest factor in winning this game, as Ahman Green rushed for 86 yards, while Frisco’s Garrison Hearst was held to 42. After a field goal, Green took in a 9-yard touchdown run that wrapped up a 25-15 win. Packer head coach Mike Sherman never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, but this win is the answer to those say he couldn’t win a big game. In a battle of NFC title proportions, Sherman made great halftime adjustments and his team won.
The Buffalo battles with Houston/Tennessee and the Green Bay games with San Francisco are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of the first round. Surely, you’ve got your own games that stick out if you find your mind wandering on a long drive (surely you do, please tell me I’m not the only one). Let’s see where the four games coming up this weekend fall within NFL lore.
VIDEOS: Below are the videos for the disputed calls references here, the Music City Miracle and the Worst Non-Fumble Call Ever Made In A First-Round Game (yes, the last title I made up myself)…
GREEN BAY-SAN FRANCISCO