Rush Street: Payton's effort ranks No. 1

Despite flu, Sweetness ran for 275 yards in 1977 victory over Minnesota

Originally Published: July 16, 2010
ESPN.com

Adrian PetersonTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson set the single-game rushing record (296 yards) on Nov. 4, 2007.

Adrian Peterson owns the single-game rushing record (296 yards against the San Diego Chargers in 2007). Does that automatically give him ownership of the top rushing performance in NFL regular-season history? If only it were that simple.

After extensive research and analysis, we came up with a top-5 list. We rated each performance on a 10-point scale in four categories: importance of game, quality of opponent, impact of performance and miscellaneous factors.

For a detailed explanation of our criteria, click here.

Here are the top 5 rushing performances in regular-season history.

Passing | Receiving

No. 1: WALTER PAYTON, Chicago Bears | 275 yards

Nov. 20, 1977, vs. Minnesota Vikings

Franchise Game importance Opponent quality Level of impact Miscellaneous Total score
6
7
9
9
31

Walter Payton was once asked what defenses could do to stop him.

His response: "The night before the game, I guess they'd have to kidnap me."

On a gloomy, rainy day at Soldier Field, not even a battle with the flu could stop him from rushing for a NFL game-record 275 yards, two yards better than O.J. Simpson's mark. Payton's mark stood for 23 years, and is now fifth on the all-time list.

[+] EnlargeWalter Payton
Bill Smith/NFL/Getty ImagesThe flu. Bad weather. Neither derailed the great Walter Payton on Nov. 20, 1977.

Payton rushed 40 times, had six of the Bears' paltry 23 receiving yards and scored the only touchdown in Chicago's 10-7 win over the Vikings. (Minnesota played for the NFC title that season, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.)

The Bears came into the game foundering at 4-5 and just two weeks removed from a 47-0 drubbing by the Houston Oilers. They had already lost to the 6-3 Vikings earlier in the season, and with just a 14-game regular season, it seemed as though the playoffs would elude the Bears for a 14th consecutive season. But after Payton's emotional performance, Chicago ripped off four straight wins to end the season 9-5 -- and the Bears needed every win. It took an overtime win on the final day, and earning a tiebreaker over Washington, but the Bears finally made the playoffs.

Payton, who led the league in rushing that year, won the 1977 MVP award.

Quote/unquote: "I didn't think I could put on a Walter Payton performance when I left the dressing room." -- Payton

No. 2: EMMITT SMITH, Dallas Cowboys | 168 yards vs. No. 1 defense

Jan. 2, 1994, vs. New York Giants

Franchise Game importance Opponent quality Level of impact Miscellaneous Total score
8
6
7
8
29

Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson sent in backup running back Lincoln Coleman to replace the injured Emmitt Smith, whose right arm dangled at his side. Coleman didn't play a down.

"Jimmy told me to go in," Coleman said, "but Emmitt told me to get out."

With the Cowboys driving in overtime in the final game of the regular season against division rival Giants at the Meadowlands, not even the searing pain of a separated shoulder could send Smith to the sidelines. Too much was on the line. Win, and be NFC East champions, with a first-round bye and home-field advantage. Lose, and play an extra playoff game, lose home-field advantage and watch the Giants be crowned division champs.

[+] EnlargeEmmitt Smith
Bill Hickey/Allsport Despite excruciating pain, Emmitt Smith carried Dallas to the NFC East title on Jan. 2, 1994.
In the second quarter, Smith separated his right shoulder after being slammed to the turf. Smith, however, missed only two plays before re-entering the game. He had a thigh pad taped to his shoulder to absorb hits.

In overtime, Smith carried the Cowboys, touching the ball nine times for 41 of his team's 52 yards to set up the winning field goal. He finished with 229 of his team's 339 yards (168 rushing) against the league's No. 1-ranked defense.

The 16-13 victory gave the Cowboys home-field advantage and, more importantly, a one-week rest for Smith's shoulder. Afterward, broadcaster John Madden, who called the game, said it was the most courageous performance he had seen.

Dallas went on to beat the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, then rolled to its second consecutive Super Bowl win.

It was a signature game for Smith, who earned the league rushing title and MVP award that season. Although he rushed for the lowest total on our list, his perseverance through pain merits the No. 2 spot.

Quote/unquote: "I came in with the intention of doing whatever it took to win. At halftime, the injury was pretty rough. I had to make a decision whether to sit or play. I wanted to do everything to help us win. I wanted to play. I didn't care." -- Smith

No. 3: ADRIAN PETERSON, Minnesota Vikings | NFL-record 296 yards

Nov. 4, 2007, vs. San Diego Chargers

Franchise Game importance Opponent quality Level of impact Miscellaneous Total score
4
6
9
7
26

It was billed as the MVP versus the rookie, but at the end of a long day for the Chargers' defense, it wasn't LaDainian Tomlinson's 40 yards rushing that people were talking about.

Adrian Peterson had just run for 296 yards, eclipsing Jamal Lewis's NFL game record of 295 yards set four years prior and solidifying his place as one of the most electrifying rookies of all time.

Peterson had already had his coming-out party when he rushed for 224 yards against the Bears, but this was different -- San Diego was good. The Chargers, 4-3 at the time, lost to eventual Super Bowl champion New England in the AFC Championship Game that season.

The Vikings were struggling at 2-5, and Peterson had only 43 yards as the Vikings entered the half down 14-7. After halftime, he rushed for 253 yards. His 64-yard TD run tied the score moments into the third quarter, and he scored the game's clinching touchdown on a 46-yard run to make it 28-17 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings' passing offense was dreadful, and everybody knew Minnesota was going to run, yet the Chargers couldn't contain Peterson, or his teammate, Chester Taylor. Taylor rushed for 60 yards on nine carries.

By the end of the 35-17 victory, Peterson had topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season and was on pace to obliterate Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1,808 yards.

Unfortunately for Peterson, his performance wasn't a catalyst for him or his team. He rushed for more than 100 yards only once in his next six games and an injury cut his season short by two games. His team fared no better. The Vikings lost to Green Bay 34-0 the following week and missed the playoffs for the third straight year.

Still, his performance catapulted him to Rookie of the Year honors, to the top of the NFL record books, and into the No. 3 spot on our list.

Quote/unquote: "I was out playing ball. I wasn't thinking about the record at all." -- Peterson

No. 4: COOKIE GILCHRIST, Buffalo Bills | 243 yards

Dec. 8, 1963, vs. New York Jets

Franchise Game importance Opponent quality Level of impact Miscellaneous Total score
6
3
9
5
23

After leading the AFL in rushing in 1962, Cookie Gilchrist was having a very average year for a very average team. He had just 622 yards and eight touchdowns with two games left, and the 5-6-1 Bills had little hope of making the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeCarlton
Courtesy Pro Football Hall of FameCookie Gilchrist rushed for 357 yards in two games against the Jets in 1963.
With only a home-and-home series with the 5-5-1 Jets remaining, the Bills needed to sweep the series and get lots of help to secure the franchise's first playoff appearance. Thanks to Gilchrist, they did just that.

On Dec. 8, 1963, Gilchrist broke Jim Brown's rushing record for a game with 243 yards and scored an AFL-record five touchdowns in the Bills' 45-14 win over the Jets. The following week in New York, the Bills once again took care of the Jets, 19-10, as Gilchrist chipped in 114 rushing yards and a TD, bringing his two-game total to 357 yards.

The Houston Oilers and Boston Patriots both lost in the season's final week, setting up a playoff game between the Patriots and Bills to determine who would play the winner of the West Division for the league championship. Unfortunately for Gilchrist and the Bills, the Patriots beat them in the playoffs, ending Buffalo's improbable run.

The Jets weren't very good -- they finished 5-8-1 and had the worst rush defense in the league. But Gilchrist singlehandedly squelched the Jets' playoff hopes, put his team in the playoffs, and set two records in two dominating rushing performances.

Quote/unquote: "I wanted a percentage of the hot dog sales, the popcorn, the parking and the ticket sales," Gilchrist told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2007 about his difficult contract negotiations with Bills coach and GM Lou Saban. "He said that would make me part owner of the team. I was a marked man after that."

No. 5: COREY DILLON, Cincinnati Bengals | 278 yards

Oct. 22, 2000, vs. Denver Broncos

Franchise Game importance Opponent quality Level of impact Miscellaneous Total score
2
6
9
5
22

When asked how he ran in a 31-21 Week 8 win against the Broncos, Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon said, "One word. Hard." Dillon broke Walter Payton's 23-year-old NFL game rushing record with a 278-yard performance that carried his team to its first win of the season.

[+] EnlargeCorey Dillon
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport Corey Dillon ran through Denver's defense and into the record books on Oct. 22, 2000.

Dillon's fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 65 and 41 yards in the final five minutes beat the Broncos. His 12.6-yard average per carry against Denver was the highest of the performances we considered.

Cincinnati, 4-12 in 2000, wasn't good. Denver finished 11-5 and made the playoffs, and although its defense ranked No. 23, its rush defense ranked No. 7. Most teams tried to pass on a Denver defense that had the fewest attempted rushes against it. But Dillon took on eight-man fronts head-on all game -- out of necessity. The Bengals, who played first-round bust Akili Smith at quarterback, threw 14 times for 14 yards, and didn't complete a pass after the first quarter. Denver knew the Bengals had to run, and still couldn't stop Dillon.

The Bengals didn't have many bright spots during the late 1990s, and their 0-6 start in 2000 didn't help. Dillon's performance didn't save their season, and the record stood for just three years before Jamal Lewis broke it with the Ravens. But for a day at least, Dillon gave Cincinnati a reason to embrace its football team.

Quote/unquote: "[Dillon] was like a beast. Like a wild animal." -- former Bengals RB Brandon Bennett

Honorable mention

• Tiki Barber, New York Giants (Dec. 30, 2006): In his last regular-season game, Barber carried 23 times for 234 yards -- 10.2 yards a carry -- and three touchdowns in a 34-28 victory over Washington. The win put the Giants in the playoffs as a .500 team.

• Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns (Nov. 24, 1957): He set the NFL game rushing record versus the Los Angeles Rams. Brown, a rookie, rushed for 237 yards and four TDs on 31 carries.

• O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills (Nov. 25, 1976): He set the NFL game rushing record versus Detroit. He rushed for 273 yards and two TDs on 29 carries.

• Bo Jackson, Los Angeles Raiders (Nov. 30, 1987): He rushed for 221 yards and two TDs versus Seattle on "Monday Night Football." Remember how he ran over Brian Bosworth?

• Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens (Sept. 14, 2003): He set the NFL game rushing record versus Cleveland. He rushed for 295 yards and two TDs on 30 carries.

• Jerome Harrison, Cleveland Browns (Dec. 20, 2009): He had the third-highest single-game rushing total with 286 yards, against Kansas City. He also scored three TDs, including the winner.