The Best Moments in NFL Playoff History

  • The Catch II


    With all due respect to “The Catch,” the play that kickstarted the 49ers 1980’s dominance, the sequel to Dwight Clark’s grab over 15 years later is the more impressive feat. Clark’s outstretched arms remain an iconic piece of NFL lore, but check the replays – he didn’t jump much higher than his opponent’s knees.

    The second edition was set up by similar events – a long, late drive by the Niners in an attempt to win the game – with a pair of participants on the opposite ends of their careers. Steve Young punctuated one of his last game-winning drives with a dart across the middle to Terrell Owens, who rewarded his quarterback’s confidence by holding onto the ball through a jarring collision with two Packers players.

    The grab helped launch a future superstar into the limelight, and the image of young Owens cradling the ball in the end zone is forever woven into folklore.

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  • The Music City Miracle


    Down 16-15 following a late field goal by the Buffalo Bills, Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans were down to their final chance. Back to receive the ensuing kickoff, it appeared that divine intervention would be the only thing that could save them from defeat.

    A miracle would be exactly what transpired. Using a play named “Home Run Throwback” developed by special teams coach Alan Lowry, the Titans used a cross-field lateral to catch Bills players off guard before Kevin Dyson raced down the sideline. Officials would spend time deliberating in the replay booth to determine whether the lateral was a forward pass or not, but results proved inconclusive. The Titans escaped with a win and went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

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  • Elway’s Dive


    John Elway is responsible for a number of brilliant playoff moments, and it’s hard to pin down just one to remember him by. Cleveland fans surely remember him for “The Drive,” a 98-yard masterpiece considered one of football’s greatest clutch performances. However, the singular play that stands out among Elway’s achievements came a decade later.

    Nearing the end of his career with his championship aspirations still out of reach, Elway’s Broncos were deadlocked with the Packers at 17 all when he was flushed out of the pocket on third-and-six. Nimbleness sapped by age, Elway summoned the mobility he had left and put his body on the line, diving headfirst for a first down rather than employing the typical QB slide. He took a licking in the process, but Elway’s effort extended the drive and sparked Denver on the path to victory, showing determination that lifted his whole team.

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  • Helmet Catch


    Shield your eyes, Patriots fans – you had to know this one was coming. A win away from becoming the second undefeated team in NFL history (with more wins to boot), New England had to get just one more stop in order to vanquish the New York Giants.

    Unfortunately for Pats fans, Eli Manning’s escape act and David Tyree’s impossible catch proved to be a late turning point for New York. After several potential game-ending mistakes by the Giants were flubbed by their opponents, Tyree flipped the game on its head, leading to the game-winning touchdown just four plays later.

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  • James Harrison Pick-Six


    Few plays in NFL history were as impactful as James Harrison’s stumbling, bumbling interception return in Super Bowl XLIII. Harrison’s Steelers were pressed up against their goal line with halftime looming, in danger of relinquishing their lead to the Arizona Cardinals.

    After intercepting quarterback Kurt Warner at the goal line, Harrison had a lot of work left to do. Thanks to some (possibly illegal) blocking and a masterful navigation of the sideline by Harrison, the Steelers went from possibly being scored on to padding their halftime lead. Harrison’s return was the longest in Super Bowl history, and stands out among a number of Pittsburgh’s title triumphs.

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  • Vinatieri Snow Kick


    Adam Vinatieri has a reputation as one of the game’s great clutch kickers for good reason – his leg won multiple Super Bowl titles during an almost two-decade career. Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, came in the round directly before his first Super Bowl victory.

    Known more commonly as the “Tuck Rule Game,” the Patriots win over Oakland in the 2002 AFC Championship Game was powered by questionable officiating and two marvelous kicks by Vinatieri. Through a near blizzard, Vinatieri tied the game from 45 yards out in regulation, setting up the eventual winner in overtime.

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  • The Tackle


    Remember those Titans that advanced to the Super Bowl after a late-game miracle against Buffalo? They would be involved in another dramatic conclusion, but the “team of destiny” fell just short of extending their season in Super Bowl XXXIV.

    Down a touchdown with six seconds left, the Titans threw a slant across the middle to receiver Kevin Dyson, who had only linebacker Mike Jones to beat near the goal line. Jones managed to bring down Dyson inches short of the goal line, sealing the Super Bowl win for St. Louis.

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  • “Beast Quake”


    Lampooned for earning a postseason berth despite going 7-9 in the regular season, the 2011 Seattle Seahawks were thought to pose little threat to the reigning Super Bowl champs. New Orleans was not quite prepared to get punched in the mouth – literally and figuratively – by Seattle.

    With the game still in reach late in the fourth, Marshawn Lynch ran directly through the Saints defense, shedding linebackers and secondary members like small children during a 67-yard touchdown. Crowd noise and movement was so great from Lynch’s run that local seismic monitoring stations picked up small tremors at Qwest Field, forever immortalizing Lynch as the man who quite literally caused an earthquake.

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  • Terrell Owens
  • John Elway
  • David Tyree
  • James Harrison
  • Adam Vinatieri
  • Kevin Dyson
  • Marshawn Lynch

Regular season dominance is a necessary step towards the postseason, but it pales in comparison to coming through in crunch time. Legends are built in the winter months. There’s a reason why players with extensive playoff resumes – Joe Montana, Tom Brady – are revered by the football community, while those who fall short of expectations are judged harshly.

Whether you’re a diehard fan of a local team or just a general football enthusiast, there are bound to be postseason moments that stand out in your mind. Some of those may have come at the expense of your favorite team, burning the pain into your heart forever, though hopefully your favorite player’s biggest triumph resonates in a similar manner. The one-and-done nature of the NFL’s postseason amplifies the stakes for each play, each game. Margin for error is so slim that memorable moments are pre-destined to rise from the ether.

There’s one common bond that these top moments share – they were impactful, meaningful plays that made the difference in a push for the Lombardi Trophy. The players who conspired to make these magical plays happen did not always emerge as ultimate victors, but they will be remembered for their stretches of awesomeness despite not reaching the summit.

To reflect the team nature of America’s game, all phases of the game have to be represented. Mythologizing quarterbacks is a popular trend, but defense and special teams deserve their time in the spotlight as well. It takes a full roster to become NFL champions, and it takes the help of teammates to create a memorable playoff moment.

These are The Best Moments in NFL Playoff History.

Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck

image via Monica M. Davey/Getty Images