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It was a wild weekend in the second round of the NFL playoffs. There were two thrilling finishes, one game that was good into the fourth quarter, the setting up of an epic championship game rematch and the lingering possibility that the Super Bowl could be a family battle between the Brothers Harbaugh. But I don’t think anyone will deny that the defining memory of this weekend came early, at the end of Saturday’s first game and it’s what a writer on ESPN dubbed “The Baltimore Bomb.”
We won’t waste any space here wondering how Denver could have allowed Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones to get behind the secondary with less than fifty seconds remaining, a seven-point lead and seventy yards between Baltimore and the end zone. That’s the obvious point and one that’s already been hashed over to death. What I’d like to do is just take a brief look at where The Baltimore Bomb fits in NFL playoff lore.
You can make the argument that this was the most stunning play in the history of the NFL postseason. I’ve done a brief run through the annals of NFL playoff history to try and see if there’s anything even remotely comparable.
As a disclaimer, my research consisted of clicking through the playoff scores of the past 35 years on Pro Football Reference and relying on my own memory triggers from there, so I won’t claim this is an exhaustive review, but there are very few plays which even get in the same ballpark as The Baltimore Bomb.
Let’s start by defining The Baltimore Bomb. Now I’m taking nothing away from Joe Flacco. The quarterback threw a perfect strike and hit Jones in stride. If he underthrows it even a bit, Jones might still make the catch, but the tackle could be made and Baltimore would still have had no timeouts and had to go about 25 yards in thirty seconds. But the defining element of this play is still the blown coverage on the part of Denver.
Therefore, we’re looking for plays where a game was swung by either an unspeakable mental blunder, or a physical error which is well removed from the customary parameters of player mistakes. For example, I’m not looking for Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1986 AFC Championship Game—he just got stripped going in for a tying touchdown. I’m sure it doesn’t make anyone in Cleveland feel any better, but it was a normal play that took place at the worst possible time for the Browns. (Ironically that game was also in Denver, and the ’86 Browns are the organizational forerunners of today’s Ravens).
So with the framework narrowed, here are the candidates I’ve come up with, listed chronologically…
*In 1981, Buffalo trails Cincinnati 28-21 and is driving for the tying touchdown. On a 4th-and-4, the Bills convert. The play is called back for delay of game and given the reprieve, the Bengals make the stop on 4th-and-9. Cincinnati advances to the AFC Championship Game and beats San Diego. Buffalo doesn’t make a Super Bowl until Marv Levy’s run from 1990-93.
*In the 1990 NFC Championship Game, with San Francisco leading the New York Giants 13-12 and the clock winding down, Roger Craig fumbles. New York recovers and quickly drives for a tying field goal.
*In 2003, the Green Bay Packers have the Philadelphia Eagles beaten, down 17-14 and with the Birds facing 4th-and-26 in their own end. Donovan McNabb converts the pass, and it’s worth noting that the pass got all the way to the first down marker—no yards after the catch. Philadelphia drives for the tying field goal and wins in overtime.
*In 2006, San Diego is leading New England 21-13 with five minutes to go. Tom Brady throws his third interception of the game to San Diego safety Marlon McCree. Inexplicably, McCree tries to fight for yardage on the return, rather than let league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson kill the clock. McCree fumbles, Brady cashes in the reprieve, with a tying touchdown and two-point conversion, then hits another throw late to set up the winning field goal.
In reviewing these, I’m inclined to cut Craig a break—while protecting the ball had to be paramount for San Francisco at that point, they still needed to keep the ball. It’s a play that’s probably on the borderline of this category and the generic “heartbreaking” category. To a lesser extent the same goes for McCree—while batting for five extra yards on an interception return was ludicrous given the circumstances, it’s not as bad as letting a receiver get behind you.
I think the Bills delay of game is very underrated in the annals of stupidity. It doesn’t get on a highlight reel, but how you can you possibly not get your play ready in time for fourth down with the game on the line? Maybe that one needs to get a category all its own, while 2003 Packer fans and 2012 Bronco fans go to war over whose secondary botched it the most.
Our contemporary media is usually rushing to create “historic” moments when they really don’t exist. That’s not the case here. The Baltimore Bomb was a true legend of the NFL playoffs and will have to be on everyone’s short list of candidates for most stunning play ever.