Happy NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend or, as I like to call it, the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, there ought to be carols.
In earning its capitals, Divisional Playoff Weekend beats wild-card weekend on a tiebreaker of superior tension. It beats conference-championship weekend because it ropes in Saturday and teems with four games rather than two. It beats Super Bowl weekend even more for that same reason. Does anybody else recollect that melancholy of childhood when the number of playoff games would begin to wane until eventually the Super Bowl would dissolve -- no more first quarters, no more second quarters -- toward a bleak and unforgiving football-less February landscape just ahead?
Well, here comes the fat January weekend, which calls to mind all the fat January weekends of American life, which reminds a mind that they used to be December weekends, which sets a mind revisiting all 168 DPW games since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and seeking a top 10, which spawns some realizations.
Realization No. 1: There have been fewer great games than it seems. While it's hard to find a year with four duds, you can find a bevy of years that spat out three. Read game summaries for a while and come upon a truth of life: A lot of the fun lurks in the anticipation. And then another truth: So what.
Realization No. 2: I'm stunned again by how names come into our lives, become part of our lives, fill Sunday after Sunday through our autumns and winters, then vanish utterly. I'm not talking about names like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw or Troy Aikman, names that hang around in halls of fame or broadcast studios. I'm talking about names of perfectly exceptional athletes such as these: Natrone Means, Ahman Green, Jeff Garcia, Antowain Smith, Jeff George, Kordell Stewart, Terry Kirby, Bam Morris, Keenan McCardell, Lake Dawson, Barry Foster, Robert Brooks, Bill Brooks, Brian Mitchell, Jay Novacek, Gerald Riggs, Vance Johnson, Andre Reed, Mark Duper, Erik Kramer, Webster Slaughter, Willie "Flipper" Anderson, Henry Ellard, Anthony Carter, Louis Lipps, Roosevelt Leaks, Bubba Bean, Drew Pearson, Vince Ferragamo, Danny White, Bert Jones … They were with us all the time, then they weren't.
Realization No. 3: Some enormous games take up three hours of your life but then exit the brain entirely. For myself, the most recent of these came in on Jan. 12, 2008: Green Bay 42, Seattle 20. I have zero memory of it whatsoever. Ryan Grant rushed for 201 yards. I apologize to him.
First, some DPW award nominations:
Dallas 5, Detroit 0 (Dec. 26, 1970) -- It was the second post-merger divisional playoff game ever played, yet its score might go forever unduplicated.
Best Supporting Actor
On DPW occasions, we should always try to bring up Houston Oilers rookie safety Vernon Perry who, in a shocking 17-14 upset of the No. 1-seeded San Diego Chargers (Dec. 29, 1979), intercepted four passes, blocked a field goal and returned that blocked field goal 57 yards to set up a field goal. The Oilers had deciphered San Diego's signals and knew where the passes were coming. That can help, especially when lacking an injured world-class runner (Earl Campbell), an injured veteran quarterback (Dan Pastorini) and an injured excellent receiver (Ken Burrough).
Best DPW to Date
I'm going to go with Jan. 10-11, 2004, which had Carolina and St. Louis rattling nerve endings with their double overtime, New England and Tennessee at 14-14 into the final five minutes before an Adam Vinatieri field goal and a halted Steve McNair drive, Indianapolis and Kansas City playing the first punt-free NFL playoff game to 38-31 and Philadelphia's 20-17 overtime win over Green Bay noteworthy for an inconceivable moment noted below.
Fewer than 10 minutes after Pittsburgh opened up a can of upset romp on the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 19, 1976, winning by 40-14, a small charter plane crashed into the upper deck at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, causing no injuries and enabling the pilot to get his own reality show, the first part of which is true and the second part, not.
The Los Angeles Rams' 14-12 upset in Dallas on Dec. 19, 1976, concluded with a play most had never seen to that point: Rams punter Rusty Jackson, Charlie Waters' victim on two blocked punts that day, fielded the snap and ran laterally out of the end zone for a safety that drained the clock.
Oddest Monumental Game
On Jan. 7, 2001, in Nashville, home of the No. 1-seeded and defending AFC-champion Titans, Trent Dilfer completed 5 of 16 passes, the Ravens gained 134 yards total and the Ravens squeezed out six first downs all day. Yet the eventual Super Bowl champions went from a 10-10 fourth-quarter tie to a 24-10 win on Anthony Mitchell's 90-yard blocked-field-goal return and Ray Lewis' 50-yard interception return and forged the question: Who really needs an offense?
Most Incredible Weather
Nothing like outdoor football in appalling conditions, and the second runner-up here made No. 7 overall down below, so that comes later. The phantasmagorical rainstorm that hit Los Angeles (really) on Dec. 26, 1977, to muddy up the Rams' 14-7 upset loss to Minnesota finishes first runner-up. And the runaway winner: the "Fog Bowl" of Dec. 31, 1988, when that mass occlusion rolled into Chicago's Soldier Field in the second quarter of the Bears' 20-12 win over Philadelphia and visibility diminished to about 20 yards. This was storybook stuff wherein the TV looked strange and the typed play-by-play may or may not be accurate. Nobody really knows.
Best Jolts That Weren’t Great Games But Livened Up the Weekend
5. Jacksonville 62, Miami 7 (Jan. 15, 2000) -- As Dan Marino's grand career and not-grand playoff career both ended, the Jaguars had 520 yards and Miami had seven turnovers.
4. New York Giants 21, Dallas 17 (Jan. 13, 2008) -- It was the first time in 20 years that an NFC No. 1 seed had exited before the conference-title game; it came when R.W. McQuarters intercepted Tony Romo in the end zone with nine seconds left; and it qualified as portentous.
3. Indianapolis 10, Kansas City 7 (Jan. 7, 1996) -- A kicker missed three field goals. We try to refrain from over-mentioning names in sad kicker stories around here.
2. New York Jets 28, New England 21 (Jan. 16, 2011) -- The Jets had lost 45-3 to the Patriots the previous month, but you might not have known that because Rex Ryan's Jets are very quiet and seldom get any publicity.
1. Minnesota 36, San Francisco 24 (Jan. 9, 1988) -- Bill Walsh's penultimate year featured a 13-2 regular-season record that found its way to this purple-haze shocker in which the Vikings led 20-3 at halftime and Anthony Carter caught 10 passes for 227 yards.
Best Tense, Taut Games That Didn’t Make the Top 10 But Live on Mostly Because of One Play
5. Oakland 24, New England 21 (Dec.18, 1976) -- Third down and 18. Patriots leading 21-17 after becoming the only team to beat Oakland that whole season. Final minute. And it still roils to this day: the roughing-the-passer penalty on New England's Ray Hamilton, giving Ken Stabler and Oakland a first down at the New England 13-yard line.
4. Philadelphia 20, Green Bay 17 (Jan. 11, 2004) -- Fourth down and 26. Packers up 17-14. One-twelve to play. McNabb to Freddie Mitchell. Gain of 28. My.
3. Oakland 14, Cleveland 12 (Jan. 4, 1981) -- "Red Right 88," Brian Sipe's pass into the end zone from the Oakland 13-yard line with 41 seconds left, went to Oakland safety Mike Davis, negated any thought of another Don Cockroft field goal try and infused horror into all Cleveland, including a then-child who appears on this site and whose surname begins with the letters "P-o-s."
2. Dallas 17, Minnesota 14 (Dec. 28, 1975) -- Even as a person who has watched enough football to become just about comatose, I did not remember that Staubach had completed a fourth-and-16 pass to Drew Pearson that the Vikings protested as out of bounds, or that the referees ejected future Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page for arguing too vehemently. I did remember that Staubach threw 50 yards to Pearson for a you-must-be-kidding touchdown with 24 seconds left, and that the Vikings forever claimed Nate Wright a victim of offensive pass interference, and that this game introduced "Hail Mary" as a football term, and that somebody threw a liquor bottle that struck official Armen Terzian, knocked him unconscious and forged the banning of glass from stadiums.
1. Pittsburgh 13, Oak- ... Oh, like you even had to ask.
Seven Honorable Mention DPW Games
San Diego 28, Indianapolis 24 (Jan. 13, 2008) -- Do you still remember Billy Volek?
Tennessee 34, Pittsburgh 31, overtime (Jan. 11, 2003) -- Bill Cowher screaming he had called timeout, Joe Nedney converting after two misses that would have won it.
Denver 14, Kansas City 10 (Jan. 4, 1998) -- A taut, suspenseful felling of a No. 1 seed whose two-minute offense looked somewhere between chaotic and horrific.
Denver 26, Houston 24 (Jan. 4, 1992) -- John Elway, from his own two-yard line, to the winning field goal, through a fourth-and-six and a fourth-and-10. It might be No. 10-1/2 in these rankings.
Los Angeles Rams 19, New York Giants 13, overtime (Jan. 7, 1990) -- Jim Everett up the sideline to Flipper Anderson.
Dallas 30, Atlanta 27 (Jan. 4, 1981) -- On the same riveting day Sipe threw into the end zone, the top-seeded Falcons led 24-10 after three, but Danny White and the Cowboys went on fourth-quarter drives of 85, 62 and 70 yards.
Los Angeles Rams 21, Dallas 19 (Dec. 30, 1979) -- In Roger Staubach's final game, the less-decorated Vince Ferragamo backed up to pass with 2:06 left, threw over the middle to Billy Waddy and watched Waddy cover the last half of the 50-yard pass that flung a 9-7 team toward the Super Bowl.
Dallas 30, San Francisco 28 (Dec. 23, 1972) -- Later the very riveting day of Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception," Staubach led the Cowboys from 28-13 down after three quarters, and Mel Renfro chipped in a crucial onside-kick recovery.
And The Top 10
10. Carolina 29, St. Louis 23, two overtimes (Jan.10, 2004) -- It did not look like the fifth-longest game in NFL history when the Panthers led 23-12 with three minutes left, or when Marshall Faulk scored to send it toward 23-20 after the two-point conversion. Yet after Jeff Wilkins recovered his own onside kick, and Marc Bulger led the Rams to the Carolina 16-yard line, and Mike Martz played for the tie even with ample time for more, and John Kasay made a game-winning 40-yard field goal in overtime only to have a delay-of-game penalty, and Kasay missed from 45, and Wilkins missed just shy of the crossbar from 53, and a second overtime began, and Jake Delhomme threw mid-range to the great Steve Smith, and the great Smith ran the last 45 yards for the 69-yard touchdown, it had been one long, dramatic Saturday.
9. San Francisco 36, New Orleans 32 (Jan. 14, 2012) -- Could those four lead changes in the final 3:53 of this high-quality donnybrook help this still-fresh game gather stature through the years and push it higher up the list?
8. Jacksonville 30, Denver 27 (Jan. 4, 1997) -- The oddball of the 10 is the only game without major closing doubt and the only game from the 1990s. After all, Jacksonville led 23-12 and 30-20 and Denver seemed frantic. What distinguishes this, though, is the overarching feeling that carried all through it, once the Jaguars recovered from Denver's 12-0 early lead. Here a No. 5-seeded, two-year-old expansion franchise that barely nudged into the playoffs at 9-7 on a missed field goal up and dismissed a No. 1-seeded Super Bowl hopeful, with Mark Brunell throwing to Keenan McCardell, scrambling for a big 29-yard gain and throwing 16 yards to Jimmy Smith for the final touchdown. While very good in plot, it soared on its high quotient of this-cannot-be-happening.
7. New England 16, Oakland 13, overtime (Jan. 19, 2002) -- Snowstorm. Final game at Foxborough Stadium. The "Tuck Rule." Oakland by 13-3 after three. Some straggler Tom Brady, with nine straight completions on a 67-yard drive. A fourth-and-four conversion on the overtime winning drive. You could choose any number of delights from this smorgasbord of Saturday night tension, but I still can't get over Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal, through the deluging snow, with 27 seconds left, to tie the game, barely clearing the crossbar. If it's not the best field goal ever, it's on the medal stand.
6. Oakland 37, Baltimore 31, two overtimes (Dec. 24, 1977) -- They call it "Ghost To The Post," referring to tight end Dave Casper's nickname, and when he looked skyward for that thing Ken Stabler lofted with 29 seconds left and Baltimore ahead 31-28 in a to-and-fro show with nine lead changes, it had a slight Willie Mays-with-a-helmet look to it. It gained 42 yards and arranged a tying Errol Mann field goal, it served as memorable precursor to Casper's 10-yard touchdown catch from Stabler 43 seconds into the second overtime.
5. Miami 27, Kansas City 24, two overtimes (Dec. 25, 1971) -- The longest game in NFL history at 82 minutes and 40 seconds certainly had no losers, and it had that fine element of a stunning performance by a player on the side that did not win, as Ed Podolak rushed for 85 yards, caught passes for 110, returned three kickoffs for 154 and totaled 350 all-purpose. In a goose-bump moment late in regulation, he also returned a kickoff 78 yards to the Miami 22-yard line only to have the great Jan Stenerud miss a 31-yard potential winner. Overtimes: Stenerud blocked from 42, Garo Yepremian no good from 52, Larry Csonka bulls 29 yards and, finally, Yepremian hits from 37, so that it did end.
4. Pittsburgh 21, Indianapolis 18 (Jan. 15, 2006) -- This mass act of madness didn't scintillate all the way through -- Pittsburgh led 14-3 at the half, 21-3 thereafter -- but its late-game twists proved so unusual that they're still almost beyond belief. To summarize the final 5:26, Troy Polamalu had an interception overturned erroneously on replay while Pittsburgh led 21-10 … Peyton Manning got sacked at his own 2-yard line to quash the Colts' dream season … But then Jerome Bettis fumbled for the first time all season and Nick Harper started on what looked to be a 98-yard fumble return ... But then Ben Roethlisberger managed to reach around and tackle Harper somehow at the Colts' 42-yard line … And then Manning steered the Colts to the Pittsburgh 28 ... But then Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal attempt, which happened to be his first miss at home. Really, now.
3. Oakland 28, Miami 26 (Dec. 21, 1974) -- This fur-flying bout at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum majored in quality all through, but we'll start with Cliff Branch's diving catch at the Miami 27 with 4:37 left, after which he got up untouched and completed the 72-yard touchdown for a 21-19 lead. Then we see the twice-defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins going 68 yards in four plays until Benny Malone shockingly rumbles the last 23. Then there's Oakland at its own 32 with two minutes left, and two passes from Stabler to Fred Biletnikoff, a timeout and, with 24 seconds left, Vern Den Herder hanging on Stabler as Stabler tosses a crazy thing into the end zone, where Clarence Davis makes the eight-yard touchdown reception between three defenders in a frenzied scrum. Sheesh.
2. Cleveland 23, New York Jets 20, two overtimes (Jan. 3, 1987) -- This storybook came loaded up with almost too much plot to comprehend. Not only did it have one of Cleveland's best pushes to what could be the most deeply felt Super Bowl berth ever, but it had another practitioner of woe, the Jets, leading 20-10 with 4:14 left after Freeman McNeil's 25-yard touchdown run and an excellent Jets broadcaster proclaiming it done. Cleveland moved 68 yards with help from Mark Gastineau's roughing-the-passer on a second-and-24, some Jets strategy that (lo!) wreaked discussion, a great Jets punt nullified by penalty, and the Browns at their own 32 with 51 seconds and no timeouts left. Bernie Kosar, who also had been intercepted in the end zone from the 3 in that ludicrous fourth quarter, hit Slaughter for 37 yards and the veteran kicker Mark Moseley, a late-season addition from retirement, tied it with seven seconds left. He also missed from 23 yards in overtime. He also connected from 27 in the second overtime. And Cleveland also had an even more storied game the next week.
1. San Diego 41, Miami 38, overtime (Jan. 2, 1982) -- Yet after all of that, No. 1 remains a runaway. A romp. A Secretariat. San Diego led 24-0. Miami led 38-31. Miami ran that gorgeous hook-and-lateral before halftime. Dan Fouts led San Diego back to 38-38 with one minute left. Tight end Kellen Winslow blocked a Miami field goal that would have won it. Leroy Jones blocked a Miami field goal that would have won it. The teams gained 1,036 yards. Don Strock replaced David Woodley and starred (29-for-43 for 403 yards and four touchdowns). Fouts starred also (33-for-53 for 433 yards and three touchdowns). When Rolf Benirschke connected from 29 yards some 13:52 into overtime, he already had missed in overtime from 27, as if this needed any more plot. And somehow, Winslow starred more than any of them, with 13 receptions for 166 yards, the blocked field goal and his exhausted lean on two teammates for his iconic hobble to the locker room after this breathless, peerless masterpiece.