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Monday, January 12, 2004
Updated: January 13, 4:52 PM ET
The NFL's classic playoff battles

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Last weekend's slate of NFL do-or-dies may go down as the best playoff weekend in the league's history. What got us going on this list was the Panthers' incredible double-OT win over the Rams, not just because of the overtimes, but because it capped a wild finish that included onside kicks, controversial coaching moves, missed field goals ... and finally, a 69-yard touchdown pass on the first play off the second OT from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith.

It was the fifth-longest game in NFL history, but it doesn't quite make this list of the greatest NFL playoff games of the Super Bowl (not including Super Bowls). Put it down as No. 11.

1. Air Coryell vs. Killer B's: Chargers 41, Dolphins 38, OT (AFC semis, Jan. 2, 1982)
The greatest playoff game ever is lacking just one thing: a nickname.

As the first quarter ended, it looked like a blowout: the Chargers led 24-0 despite playing in front of 73,735 fans in the stifling-hot Orange Bowl.

Dan Fouts
Fouts was spectacular against Miami, but the fatigued Chargers lost to the Bengals in the AFC title game.

Early in the second quarter, veteran Don Strock came in at QB for Miami, replacing David Woodley. The Dolphins' comeback began: a 34-yard FG; a one-yard TD pass; and then, with six seconds remaining in the first half, a spectacular 40-yard "hook-and-ladder" play that ended with halfback Tony Nathan in the end zone with time expired. Chargers 24, Dolphins 17.

In the second half the game turned into a shootout: Strock ended a 74-yard drive with a TD pass to Joe Rose to tie it at 24. San Diego's Dan Fouts to Kellen Winslow. Chargers up 31-24. Strock to Rose again. 31-31. Miami intercepts Fouts, and Nathan scores on a 12-yard run. Miami up 38-31. Fouts' 8-yard TD pass to James Brooks with 58 seconds left. 38-38.

The Dolphins got the ball back and had one last chance, but Kellen Winslow blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt by Uwe von Schamann as regulation time expired.

Overtime was also wild. The Chargers had the first chance to win, but Rolf Benirschke missed a 27-yarder. The Dolphins had the next good chance, but von Schamann had another kick blocked. Finally, with 1:08 left in OT, Benirschke hit a 29-yard field goal to win it.

What a game. Strock completed 28 of 42 passes for 397 yards and four TDs. Fouts was 33 of 53 passes for 433 yards and 3 TDs. Winslow, who suffered severe cramps, a pinched nerve, a cut lip, and a swollen left eye , was sucking oxygen because of the heat. But he caught 13 passes for 166 yards and had to be helped off the field

"You think you're so exhausted," said Charger defensive end John Woodcock, "that you can't go out there one more time. But you do."

"This may not have been the longest playoff game ever," said Chargers coach Don Coryell, "but it had to be one of the most exciting. I've never been so proud of our kids in all my life. I've coached for more than 30 years and I haven't ever seen anything like this game."

2. The Ice Bowl: Packers 21, Cowboys 17 (NFL championship, Dec. 31, 1967)
Thanks to new heating coils under the Lambeau Field surface, the playing conditions for the Cowboys-Packers NFL Championship Game wouldn't just be frigid (-13 at game time with a 14-mph wind), they'd also be slick. The system malfunctioned, and the field became a skating rink. It was so cold that the refs' whistles didn't work -- the little wooden balls created no sound when encased in rock-solid saliva.

Bart Starr
The Packers disdained a game-tying field goal and scored on fourth down.

Somehow, the teams managed to score points. Bart Starr, who'd be sacked eight times before the game ended, hit Boyd Dowler for two first-half TDs, and the Cowboys scored when George Andrie ran a recovered fumble 7 yards for a TD. Halftime score: 14-10.

The Cowboys took the lead early in the fourth quarter when running back Dan Reeves threw to Lance Rentzel for a 50-yard TD. Then, with Green Bay trailing 17-14 and only 4:50 left, Bart Starr drove the Packers 65 yards to the three. Thirteen seconds remained when Starr proposed a QB sneak on fourth down to Vince Lombardi, who uttered 10 immortal words: "Run it, and let's get the hell out of here."

Starr scored, and the Pack won, 21-17. Lombardi was glad to send the sellout crowd of 50,861 home. "We didn't want a tie," he said. "We had compassion for those spectators."

3. The Catch: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 (NFC Championship, Jan. 10, 1982)
It was Tom Landry's Dynastic Dallas vs. the young 49ers, who at 13-3 had the best record in the NFL. It would be the end of one era and the start of the other, although nobody knew it at the time.

The Catch
Montana to Clark: A dynasty was born.

Playing in San Francisco, the Cowboys and 49ers exchanged leads six times, with third-year QB Joe Montana throwing three TD passes, and Dallas scoring on a couple of TD passes by Danny White and a Tony Dorsett 5-yard run.

With only 4:54 left, San Francisco trailed 27-21 and were pinned back on their own 11. Montana and offensive mastermind Bill Walsh went to work, pounding the Dallas D, noted for its great pass rush, by handing to Lenvil Elliott on sweep after sweep after sweep, interrupted only by Freddie Solomon's 14-yard end-around and one Montana to Dwight Clark 10-yard connection.

The 49ers had the ball on the Dallas 6 with 58 seconds to go. On third-and-three, Montana eluded the Cowboys rush and threw into the end zone, where Clark managed, somehow, to grab it at the back of the end zone while way, way up high. Unbelievably high.

The PAT put the 49ers ahead, but the Cowboys managed to almost get into field goal range before a Danny White fumble was pounced on by San Francisco.

4. The Drive: Broncos 23, Browns 20, OT (AFC Championship, Jan. 11, 1987)
The Dawg Pound was still a puppy, and Cleveland's rabid fans (no pun intended) couldn't have been happier -- their man, Bernie Kosar, had just tossed a 48-yard TD pass to Brian Brennan to put the Browns ahead of the Broncos, 20-13, with 5:43 left in the game.

John Elway
John Elway masterminded Denver's 98-yard, game-tying drive in the 1986 AFC Championship Game.

And, oh yeah -- Denver was now pinned back at their own 2-yard line. Good luck, Elway.

Then the Denver QB, who had had a less-than-stellar day, pulled out every trick in his book to engineer "The Drive," a 13-play, 98-yard, 5-minute epic that ended with Elway connecting with Mark Jackson in a bone-littered end zone for a 5-yard TD pass with only 37 ticks on the clock. Rich Karlis' extra point tied the game and sent it into OT.

During The Drive -- the nickname stuck almost immediately -- Elway, barely able to hear over the 79,915 screaming and barking Browns fans, was spectacular, completing 6 of 9 passes for 78 yards and rushing for 20 more.

The game went into OT. The Broncos stopped the Browns on the first possession, took over, and Karlis kicked a 33-yard field goal for the win.

5. The Comeback: Bills 41, Oilers 38, OT (AFC wild card, Jan. 3, 1993)
We wrote about this one in last week's list of the greatest collapses of all time, but Houston's collapse couldn't have come without its great play in the first half, and Buffalo's comeback couldn't have come without the team's (and, in particular, QB Frank Reich's), second-half and OT play. Final score: Bills 41, Oilers, 38.

In 1999, ESPN.com readers voted it the best NFL wild-card game of all time.

6. Merry Christmas, Miami! Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24, OT (AFC semis, Dec. 25, 1971)
At halftime, the game was tied, 10-10. Back and forth it went in the second half: Chiefs up 17-10, Dolphins tie it; Chiefs up 24-17, Dolphins tie it.

But it looked like the Chiefs had it won when Ed Podolak, having one of the greatest individual games in NFL history, returned a kickoff 78 yards to the Miami 22, putting Kansas City in field goal position with little time left. But Hall of Famer kicker Jan Stenerud missed wide right from 31 yards.

The first OT period passed with only two real scoring opportunities, a blocked Stenerud attempt from 42 yards out, and a Gary Yepremian miss from 52 yards. Finally, midway through the second OT, Yepremian hit a 37-yarder for the win. The longest game in NFL history -- 82 minutes, 40 seconds -- was over.

"It was a horrifying experience, because one break is going to be the game" said Chiefs QB Len Dawson of the overtimes.

Podolak's great performance is often forgotten because the Chiefs lost (their only home loss of the 1971 season). He scored two TDs, caught eight passes for 110 yards, rushed 17 times for 85 yards, and returned three kicks for 154 yards.

7. The Fumble: Broncos 38, Browns 33 (AFC Championship, Jan. 18, 1988)
In the mid-1980s, Browns fans had no shortage of great, close games. Unfortunately, twice, when wins would have meant trips to the Super Bowl, the Broncos found a way to beat them.

This game looked like a Denver cakewalk in the first half, with the Broncos piling up a 21-3 lead. But in the third quarter, the Browns scored on their first four possessions, and by the time they got the ball with 3:53 remaining in the game, trailed 38-31. Starting on their own 25, they quickly moved to the Denver 8.

Then came The Fumble. On second-and-5, wrote Robert Markus in the Chicago Tribune, Earnest "Byner took a handoff at the Denver 8, bounced to his left and stormed into the end zone. The only problem was that he did not take the ball with him. [Jeremiah] Castille knocked it out of his hands at the 3 and then fell on it. End of drive with 1:12 left on the clock. End of game.

The Browns' bitterness surfaced in the postgame locker room. "I've never seen a luckier team in my life," said wide receiver Brian Brennan. "We outplayed them. Even though we've lost to them two years in a row, I feel we're the better football team."

"I don't think the best ball team won, and I like to give credit where credit is due," said safety Ray Ellis. "It'll be frustrating to watch two teams play in the Super Bowl and know we should be one of them."

8. The Botched Call: 49ers 39, Giants 38 (NFC wild card, Jan. 5, 2003)
It's still fresh in our collective memory -- the 49ers, on home turf, overcoming a 38-14 Giants lead to win their wild-card matchup in last season's playoffs, 39-38.

It was the second biggest comeback in NFL history, and what made it even more remarkable was that the 49ers erased the 24-point deficit with less than 19 minutes remaining in the game. QB Jeff Garcia and WR Terrell Owens both played spectacular ball, while the Giants collapsed. New York botched the snap on a 41-yard FG attempt as time expired, but the NFL later admitted pass interference should have been called on the 49ers, giving the Giants another opportunity.

9. Sea of Hands: Raiders 28, Dolphins 26 (AFC semis, Dec. 21, 1974)
In the final 4:54 at the Oakland Coliseum, the Raiders and the Dolphins played a great game. The Dolphins led 19-14 but the Raiders came back on a two-pass, 17-second, and 83-yard scoring drive. The first completion, which moved Oakland from its 17 to the 28, was Ken Stabler to Fred Biletnikoff. The second was a 72-yard TD pass from Stabler to Cliff Branch.

Sea of Hands
Oakland's Clarence Davis somehow hauled in Ken Stabler's pass.

Bob Griese then marched them 73 yards in four plays that lasted just 2:20; it included 7- and 15-yard rushes by Larry Csonka and ended with a 23-yard scoring sweep by rookie Bennie Malone. Dolphins 26, Raiders 21.

Stabler returned the favor; working from their own 32, Oakland drove to the Miami eight. With no timeouts remaining, he rolled left and threw to RB Clarence Davis, who made a great catch among a "sea of hands" belonging to three Dolphins defenders, for the winning TD with 24 seconds remaining.

Curt Gowdy called it "the greatest game I have ever seen."

10. The Immaculate Reception: Steelers 13, Raiders 7 (AFC semis, Dec. 23, 1972)
Trivia question: who was Terry Bradshaw's primary receiver on the "Immaculate Reception" play? (Answer at end of this entry).

Franco Harris
Franco Harris came out of nowhere to haul in the Immaculate Reception.

Here's the dirty little secret of the Immaculate Reception game -- it was more memorable than great. In fact, it makes this list only because of the spectacular, and still sometimes disputed, ending. But without the actual Reception -- the Bradshaw-Jack Tatum-Franco Harris ricochet play that still has to be seen to be believed -- the game would have been forgettable, except for connoisseurs of three-yards-and-dust style play.

Aside from the Reception, the Steelers scored only on 18- and 29-yard field goals by Roy Gerela. That was all the scoring until the Raiders took the lead on a 30-yard touchdown run by Raiders QB Ken Stabler with 1:13 left.

With 22 seconds remaining, the Steelers had the ball on their own 40. Bradshaw threw downfield to Frenchy Fuqua, who collided with Tatum at the Raiders' 35. The ball rebounded off Tatum, and flew back to the 42, where Harris scooped it up before it hit the ground and ran for a TD with five seconds remaining.

The Immaculate Reception was actually reviewed on television replay before the referee, Fred Swearingen, ruled it an official TD. He made a call up to the booth, to make sure that the ball had not hit Fuqua, in which case it would have been an incomplete pass.

The Steelers' offense sputtered but the D, well on its way to being the toughest in the 1970s, was extraordinary against the high-scoring Raiders.

But still, the great game resulted from a great play, a "66 Option" pass in which the primary receiver was actually a wide open wide receiver who never came close to the ball.

Win a bar bet: His name was Barry Pearson, and he hadn't played a single regular-season game during the 1972 season.

Also receiving votes:
  • 1968 AFL Championship: Jets 27, Raiders 23 ... Jets score late, Raiders fumble at NY 24.

  • 1972 NFC semis: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28 ... Staubach led 17-point 4th quarter

  • 1975 NFC semis: Cowboys 17, Vikings 14 ... Hail Mary to Drew Pearson

  • 1977 AFC semis: Raiders 37, Colts 31 (2 OT) .. The "Ghost to the Post," Stabler to Casper

  • 1980 NFC semis: Cowboys 30, Falcons 27 ... Dallas scored 3 TDs in 4th quarter

  • 1983 NFC Championship: Redskins 24, 49ers 21 ... 49ers score 21 in 4th but Moseley kicks FG with 40 seconds left

  • 1986 AFC semis: Browns 23, Jets 20 (2 OT) ... Browns score 10 in final 4 minutes, win in OT. Kosar throws 64 times for 489 yards

  • 1989 AFC semis: Browns 34, Bills 30 ... INT at 1-yard line with 3 seconds left seals it

  • 1990 NFC championship: Giants 15, 49ers 13 ... Two-time SB champs go down as Matt Bahr hits 42-yarder as time expires

  • 1993 AFC wild card: Chiefs 27, Steelers 24 (OT) ... KC blocks punt late to force OT

  • 1998 NFL wild card: 49ers 30, Packers 27 ... Young to Owens with 3 seconds left

  • 1998 NFC championship: Falcons 30, Vikings 27 (OT) ... Gary Anderson misses first FG of season with 2:10 left, Falcons then tie it and win in OT

  • 1999 AFC wild card: Titans 22, Bills 16 ... The Music City Miracle

  • 2001 AFC semis: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT) ... The Tuck

  • 2003 NFC semis: Panthers 29, Rams 23 (2 OT)