Top 10 NFL Wildcard Playoff Games Of All-Time
In 1978, the teams that make the playoffs in the NFL increased from four to five in each Conference, so the Wildcard games featuring the top two second place teams in each Conference were born to start the first weekend of the postseason. Then in 1990 the NFL teams that make the playoffs increased from ten to twelve, so two additional Wildcard playoff games were added. With the 2002 realignment that expanded the Divisions in each Conference from three to four, the four division winners in the league with the worst record host the Wildcard games.
In 1980, the Oakland Raiders became the first Wildcard team to win the Super Bowl. Since then other five Wildcard teams (The 1997 Denver Broncos, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2007 New York Giants and the 2010 Green Bay Packers) have won the Super Bowl. Over the course of the years there have been many memorable games. Here are the 10 Best all-time Wildcard games (from 10 to 1), with three Honorable Mentions.
NOTE: The year I write is the season, not the actual date, as some of this games were played the following January.
Honorable Mention A: 1981, Buffalo Bills at New York Jets
Buffalo Bills safety Bill Simpson intercepted a Richard Todd pass with 2 seconds remaining in the game at the Bills 1-yard line to preserve a 31-27 victory.
The Bills led 24-0 in the second quarter, but the Jets came back with 13 points of their own, then after a Joe Cribbs 45-yard touchdown run, New York scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and drove to the Bills 11-yard line late in the game, but Simpson’s pick sealed Buffalo’s win.
Honorable Mention B: 2003, Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers
Al Harris’ 52-yard interception return of a Matt Hasselbeck errant throw with 4:25 left in overtime gave the Packers a 33-27 victory.
The Packers (who trailed 20-13 at the start of the fourth quarter) could have won the game in regulation after Shaun Alexander's third rushing touchdown of the game tied the score at 27, but Ryan Longwell missed a 41-yard field goal in the final play of regulation.
Then in the coin toss before the start of the overtime, referee Bernie Kukar’s microphone was open, so everyone at Lambeau Field and watching on television heard Hasselbeck’s comment: "We want the ball, and we're going to score!”. Seattle won the coin toss, but couldn’t score in overtime.
Honorable Mention C: 2007, Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee kicked a 25-yard field goal with 40 seconds to play, and Jacksonville upset Pittsburgh 31-29. The Jaguars led 28-10 at the end of the third quarter, helped by Rashean Mathis 63-yard interception return for a touchdown, and six sacks of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and after Najeh Davenport 1-yard touchdown run the Steelers led 29-28 with 6 minutes to play. But Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard led the Jaguars to the winning field goal drive, led by a 32-yard run with less than two minutes in the game to put the ball on the Steelers 11-yard line. Then after 4 plays, Scobee kicked the winning field goal.
10: 2006, Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, serving as the holder for kicker Martin Gramatica's 19-yard field goal attempt with 1:19 to play, botched the snap, and even that he picked the football and tried to ran for a first down, he was stopped 1 yard short by Seahawks' cornerback Jordan Babineaux, and Seattle preserved a 21-20 victory.
Dallas led 20-13 with seven minutes to play in the game, but wide receiver Terry Glenn fumbled at their 2-yard line, and the ball was battled into the endzone by linebacker Lofa Tatupu and recovered by safety Michael Boulware in the endzone for an apparent touchdown. But after Dallas challenged the play, referee Walt Anderson called it a safety because Tatupu had his left foot out of bounds when he batted the ball. Neverthless, Seattle cut the Dallas lead to 20-15 and received the ball after the safety at the 50-yard line and in four plays scored what it turned to be the winning touchdown (a 37-yard pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Jerramy Stevens).
This was the last game coached by Hall of Famer Bill Parcells.
9: 2011, Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the first play from scrimmage in overtime for an improbable 29-23 victory for Denver.
This game (known as the 3:16 game due to Tebow’s 316 yards passing and averaging 31.6 yards per completion, also the game had a 31.6 Nielsen rating) was notorious as Tebow’s last victory as a starting quarterback and last home game as a Bronco.
Denver lead 20-6 at halftime, and 23-13 early in the fourth quarter, but Pittsburgh tied the score, first with a field goal and then with a 31-yard touchdown reception by Jerricho Cotchery. Then the Broncos won the coin toss and Tebowmania was all over the country.
8: 1998, Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Terrell Owens caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young between three defensive backs with 8 seconds in the clock, and the 49ers won 30-27 over the two-time defending NFC Champion Packers. It was a redeeming play for Owens, whose fourth drop of the day with 5 minutes to play and San Francisco leading 23-20 in Packers' territory meaned that the 49ers had to punt instead of having a first down at the Packers 30-yard line. Then Brett Favre led Green Bay to a 89-scoring drive, highlighted by Corey Bradford's 47-yard reception, and culminated in a 15-yard touchdwon catch by Antonio Freeman with 2 minutes remaining in the game, and Green Bay regained the lead, 27-23.
But the 49ers advanced 76 yards in 9 plays, culminating in Owens' winning score. It's worth mentioning that San Francisco had a brake in the drive, as Jerry Rice clearly fumbled the ball after being tackled by Bernardo Harris, but referee Gerald Austin called Rice down by contact. That was the last season the NFL didn't had instant replay. This game is commonly known in San Francisco as "The Catch II".
7: 2010, New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch famous "Beast quake" run, one of the most replayed plays in recent NFL history, helped the 7-9 Seahawks (the first losing team to made the playoffs) to beat the defending Super Bowl champions Saints 41-36. Lynch broke 9 tackles in route to a 67-yard touchdown run with less than 4 minutes to play to seal Seattle's victory. In a wild first half, Seattle led 24-20 after trailing 17-7, then they never losed the lead (they were leading 34-30 before Lynch's run). It's worth mentioning that the movement provoked by the 66,336 fans at Qwest Field during and after Lynch's run was registered by a seismograph as a small tremor.
For the record, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw for four touchdown passes, while Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for more than 400 yards.
6: 1999, Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans
In a play widely known as The Music City Miracle, Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson took a lateral from Frank Wycheck to score a touchdown in a 75-yard kickoff return with less than 15 seconds remaining following a Buffalo field goal to win the game 22-16, in the first playoff game ever at Nashville.
The Bills lead 13-12 late in the fourth quarter, but the Titans regained the lead 15-13 with a 36-yard field goal by Al Del Greco with less than two minutes remaining. But the Bills had a 38-yard drive of their own to set up Steve Christie’s 41-yard field goal and regaining the lead 16-15.
Then Christie’s kickoff was picked up by Lorenzo Neal at his own 25, who handed to Wycheck, who then threw the lateral to Dyson to score the winning touchdown.
5: 2002, Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
In the first playoff game of the Browns after they reentered the NFL in 1999, Steelers’ quarterback Tommy Maddox led Pittsburgh to 29 points in the second half for a 36-33 come from behind victory. Cleveland led 24-7 in the third quarter, and 33-21 with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game.
But Maddox led Pittsburgh to two touchdown drives, the last on a 3-yard run by Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala with less than a minute to play. Maddox’s play (367 yards passing, three touchdown passes) overshadowed Cleveland quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
4: 2002, New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers
The same day of the previous game (January 5, 2003) there was another high-scoring game, this time with a controversial finish.
In the last play of the game, Giants holder Matt Allen threw a pass intended for Rich Seubert (an eligible lineman) after a botched snap by veteran long snapper Trey Junkin, who was taken out of retirement before this game, passed through Allen and kicker Mattt Bryant. Seubert was interfered by Chike Okeafor, but back judge Scott Green didn’t threw a flag that would have got the Giants another field goal try to win, and San Francisco won 39-38 in dramatic fashion.
The Giants jumped to a 38-14 lead with 4:27 remaining the third quarter, but 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia threw for two touchdowns (the last with one minute remaining) and ran for another to gave the 49ers the lead 39-38. There were offsetting penalties after both the last touchdown and two-point conversion attempt, and Giants safety Shaun Williams was ejected after taunting with Terrell Owens and punching center Jeremy Newberry, which added to the lore of this game. Then Bryant attempted a 41-yard field goal and the rest is one of the most controversial endings in playoff history.
3: 2009, Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby picked up an Aaron Rodgers fumble in overtime and returned 17 yards for a touchdown for a 51-45 victory.
This game set the playoff record for points (96) and touchdowns (13), and both Rodgers and Kurt Warner combined for more than 800 yards passing and 9 touchdowns. The Cardinals never trailed in the game, leading at halftime 24-10 and 38-24 at the end of the third quarter. But Rodgers led the Packers to two touchdown drives to tie the score at 38.
Arizona then regained the lead with 5 minutes remaining, but Packers tight end Spencer Havner tied the score at 45 with two minutes remaining. Arizona kicker Neil Rackers missed a field goal in the final play of regulation to the send the game into overtime.
Then the Packers won the coin toss, but in the second play from scrimmage safety Michael Adams sacked Rodgers and the ball popped out into Dansby’s hands, who then ran into the endzone untouched.
2: 2013, Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck led Indianapolis to an improbable 45-44 victory, after trailing 38-10 at the start of the third quarter. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith threw for four touchdowns, but a costly fumble after a Robert Mathis' sack and a subsequent Colts touchdown helped Indianapolis to cut the lead 38-24. At the start of the fourth quarter, and with the Chiefs leading 41-31, the Colts caught a break: With the ball at the Chiefs 2-yard line, Kansas City safety Eric Berry forced a fumble by running back Donald Brown, but the ball went right into Luck's hands and he ran 5 yards for a touchdown. After Ryan Succop kicked a field goal to put Kansas City ahead 44-38 with five minutes to play, Luck found T.Y. Hilton for a 64-yard touchdown pass (his fourth of the game) to gain the lead for the first time in the game.
The Chiefs advanced to the Colts' 43-yard line with two minutes to play, but Smith pass to Dwayne Bowe on fourth down was incomplete, and the Colts managed the second biggest postseason comeback victory in NFL history.
1: 1992, Houston Oilers at Buffalo Bills
In the largest comeback playoff victory ever, Buffalo came back from a 35-3 deficit early in the third quarter to win the contest 41-38 in overtime.
The Bills didn’t have starting quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas left the game early with injury (both of them future Hall of Famers), but backup quarterback Frank Reich led the Bills to five touchdowns (four of them touchdown passes, three of them to Hall of Famer Andre Reed) to take the lead 38-35. Houston tied the score at 38 late in the game to send the game into overtime, but in the extra period Buffalo’s cornerback Nate Odomes intercepted quarterback Warren Moon to set up Steve Christie’s 32-yard field goal to an amazing victory.
For the record, both Moon and Reich threw for four trouchdown passes each. Moon set the playoff record for completions (36) until was broked by Drew Brees in a previously mentioned game at Seattle in 2010.