Tuesday, December 30, 2014

NFL Top 10: Wildcard Games

Since the advent of the wildcard round in the NFL in 1978, the opening round of the playoffs has seen some of the most memorable games in league history.   Presented are ten of the best from the wildcard round -


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TEN: Buffalo Bills at the New York Jets, 1981 - The Bills were entering their second straight playoff run and only their third since 1966, while the Jets had made the playoffs for the first time since the 1969 season and had done so after losing their first three games and with questions burgeoning about coach Walt Michaels, who'd acted in threatening manner to reporters following a Week Three loss to the Bengals.   The two AFC East foes had split their regular-season matches, and the Jets were sporting a defensive line in Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, Joe Klecko, and Larry Faulk aka Abdul Salaam, a unit quickly named The New York Sack Exchange.

The game quickly became a Bills rout, beginning with a fumble of the opening kick by the Jets run back for a touchdown by Charles Romes of the Bills.  Two Joe Fergunson touchdowns to Frank Lewis and a field goal put the Bills up 24-0 in the second quarter, but the Jets behind Richard Todd refused to quit in a turnover-plagued contest (the two teams combined for eight interceptions and the opening kick fumble).

Todd threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Jets from the 24-0 gap and a fourth-quarter gap of 31-13 to within 31-27; getting the ball back in the final minute, Todd raced the Jets to the doorstep of the win only to be intercepted in the endzone with almost no time left.

Despite the loss, the Jets had made a point, in that they were determined not to be defined by Joe Namath's long-ago triumph.


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NINE: The Catch II - Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers, 1998
- For only the fourth time in sixteen seasons the 49ers did not win the NFC West, while the Packers likewise failed to win their division, the NFC Central.  The two teams entered Candlestick Park a combined 23-9, but the Packers had gone to the previous two Superbowls and had beaten the Niners five straight times.   Brett Favre's matchups against the Niners were for the most part uncompetitive, while Steve Young faced the specter of a lifetime record of 0-8 against the Packers.

This game became different right away, as the lead tied or changed six times in the first three quarters.  An exchange of field goals put the Niners up 23-20 in the fourth, but Favre stormed the Packers to the go-ahead touchdown at the 2-minute warning.   As Young began clawing the Niners forward, the biggest question mark was third-year receiver Terrell Owens, who'd had two catches but also several drops amid glare made brutal by The Stick's angles.   Also struggling was Jerry Rice, taken out of the game by the Packers defense until a six-yard catch with 52 seconds to go; controversy then ensued when the ball fell out; it was  ruled an incompletion but replay indicated a potential fumble.   With eleven seconds to go Young was nearly picked off, but the ball hit the ground.   With eight seconds to go Young was on the Packers 25; he dropped back, momentarily stumbled, then rifled the ball to Owens between two defenders into the endzone, the biggest and most clutch playoff touchdown for the Niners since Dwight Clark's winning score in 1981.    And yet the game almost ended in a Packers win anyway on the final kick return, run into Niners territory before being stopped.

The 30-27 win, coming amid burgeoning scandal within the Niners' ownership circle, was the club's last playoff win for four years.


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EIGHT: The Music City Miracle - Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans, 1999 - The 1990s decade had been a traumatic one for the team formed by Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams, as the Houston Oilers collapsed from a playoff team to a vagabond in Tennessee until in 1999 a brand new stadium was completed.   The Oilers name was retired by Adams and the name Titans - personifying Tennessee as The Athens Of The South - was returned to pro football after the collapse of the New York Titans before the 1963 season.

The new Tennessee Titans surged in 1999, beginning with a 36-35 slugfest over the Cincinnati Bengals.   The Titans finished 13-3, losing the AFC Central to the 14-2 Jacksonville Jaguars; Jacksonville's only two losses all season had been to the Titans.  Entering this wildcard game the 11-5 Buffalo Bills had been led by Doug Flutie, but late in the season Rob Johnson, the man he'd replaced, started against the 13-win Indianapolis Colts and erupted to a 31-6 win; the win (over a Colts team with nothing to play for having secured the second AFC bye) sparked controversy as Johnson was named starter for the playoffs, this due to a 73% completion rate to Flutie's 55% rate with nineteen touchdowns and sixteen interceptions and possibly also memory of Flutie's futile performance in a 24-17 playoff loss the previous season at the Dolphins (Dan Marino's only playoff win in four tries against Buffalo).

Neither offense generated much all game, as McNair was held to 76 passing yards and a pick while running in one touchdown amid teammate Eddie George's 106-yard rushing performance.   The two teams swapped medium-range field goals with the Bills now leading 16-15 with only time for the kickoff return.

It was here that all hell broke loose as Lorenzo Neal took the kick at his own 25, handed off to Frank Wycheck, and then Wycheck threw it parallel to the line marker to Kevin Dyson; Dyson  raced past the Bills along the left sideline to the complete disbelief of everyone into the winning touchdown.   The play went to review, and ABC replays showed the lateral was indeed - albeit by inches - an actual lateral, and the touchdown stood.

The play - Home Run Throwback as it was known in Titans circles - was repeated in spectacular form in 2012's 44-41 overtime win by the Titans over the Detroit Lions.


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SEVEN: Wildcard Sunday, 2002 - The whole of Wildcard weekend in 2002 qualified as among the most memorable, first when the Atlanta Falcons crushed the Packers and ended Green Bay's career playoff winning streak at Lambeau Field, then when Peyton Manning's Colts faced the club's second ever playoff meeting with the New York Jets and were annihilated 41-0.   But it was Wildcard Sunday that reached into the football stratosphere of amazement.

First the Cleveland Browns were in their first playoff run since 1994, and facing the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field; Pittsburgh had beaten Cleveland in both games that year as former Dan Reeves quarterback project Tommy Maddox took over for Kordell Stewart and stormed the Steelers to a 10-5-1 record; the tie (34-34) came ironically against Reeves and his Atlanta Falcons squad.

Kelly Holcolm had taken over as Browns quarterback, and the Browns surged to the playoffs on a 9-7 record and after a bizarre confluence of Week 17 wins and losses league-wide amid a game-winning goalline stand against the Falcons by the Browns for the 24-16 playoff-clinching win.  Holcolm stormed the Browns to three touchdown drives and a field goal, interrupted by Antwaan Randle-El's 66-yard punt return score.  

The Browns led 24-7 in the third, but the Steelers behind Maddox kept clawing, and trailed 27-14 entering the fourth.   Maddox and Holcolm traded touchdowns, then after two Holcolm incompletions the Steelers got the ball back with 2:35 to go.   Maddox whipped four passes to the Browns 3-yard line and the go-ahead Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala touchdown run.  Holcolm, with just 50 seconds to work with, reached the Steelers 45 but made no attempt at the endzone, instead throwing short and thus blowing any chance at salvaging the win.   The 36-33 Steelers win completed the three-game season sweep of the pesky Browns.


Yet this game would be topped big-time immediately following, for the New York Giants were at The Stick against the 49ers.   Jeff Garcia, ex-CFL quarterback, had replaced Steve Young during 1999 and had Terrell Owens and other receivers to go with Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow at running back, while ex-Panther Kerry Collins was wielding an offense with Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, and running back Atiim Kiambu Hakeem-Ah "Tiki" Barber.   The game opened with two touchdown exchanges highlighted by Terrell Owens shaking off two defenders for a 76-yard catch-and-run.   The Giants behind Collins then raced to a 35-14 lead in the third; a dropped Shockey endzone catch led to a Matt Bryant field goal and a 38-14 lead.

The missed touchdown became a source of bitterness later, because Garcia went to a no-huddle offense and exploded to a TO touchdown catch, a 14-yard run by himself, and two two-point conversion throws to Owens.   A Niners field goal made it 38-33 before the Giants clawed to the Niners 24 in the final four minutes; a bad snap by Trey Junkin, signed only the week before after missing the entire regular season, was followed by a shanked Matt Bryant kick.

Now the game saw hell break loose.   First Garcia whipped the Niners to the go-ahead touchdown with one minute remaining; Terrell Owens and Giants safety Shaun Williams nearly came to blows on the play, then on the two-point try Garcia was intercepted and a brawl erupted that led to Williams' ejection.   On the Giants possession Collins was nearly intercepted at the Niners 28 but the play was ruled incomplete.   The Giants reached the Niners 23, but on the last-second field goal Junkin's snap was low; holder Matt Allen dropped the ball, picked it up and ran, then heaved to the endzone for Tam Hopkins; still more controversy ensued when the Giants were flagged for an ineligible man downfield (Rich Seubert) while media contended the Niners were guilty of pass interference and that one untimed down should have been added.   A letter of apology to the Giants followed from the league office, and Junkin, almost in tears, announced he was finished in football.

Coach Jim Fassel summed up the entire weekend in his bitter postgame press conference - "I'm not getting over this one."


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SIX: Matt Hasselback's Botched Prediction - Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, 2003 - The Packers had stormed to their ninth playoff run in eleven seasons and were now facing their former coach, Mike Holmgren, now with a Seattle Seahawks team in its first playoff game since 1999 - and unknowable to anyone beginning a spectacular run of playoff appearances over the ensuing seasons ending in 2013's Superbowl runaway.

The 2003 meeting in steady snow began as a 13-6 Packers halftime lead, but Hasselback, a former Brett Favre backup, started storming the Seahawks forward, this following a season where the Seahawks lost six of eight road games, notably a brutal 44-41 overtime loss at Baltimore.   Hasselback whipped the Seahawks to three drives ending in Shaun Alexander touchdowns; the game lead tied or changed five times in the second half as two Ahman Green scores helped lead to overtime.

On the coin toss the Seahawks won, and Hasselback declared aloud, "We want the ball and we're gonna score!"   The Seahawks' first possession lasted three plays and a punt, then Green Bay punted after just three plays.   Hasselback completed two passes to his own 45, but on his fifth throw of the drive he was picked off by Al Harris and Harris raced 52-yards and the winning touchdown (33-27).   The Hasselback boast defined Seattle's rivalry with the Packers until the ultimate controversy erupted in 2012.


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FIVE: Shootout At The Glendale Corral - Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, 2009
- After flaming out in 2002-3 with the Rams, Kurt Warner went to a one-year-and-done career with the Giants before winding up with a Cardinals franchise subject to universal ridicule as the team where careers went to die.   After getting a new stadium, University Of Phoenix Stadium, that reputation began to change as Warner replaced inept draft pick Matt Leinart and installed a level of professionalism almost never to be found in Cardinals history.   2008 saw the Cardinals shock the league with three playoff wins and a Superbowl berth, a berth nearly ending in a stunning victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now in 2009 the Cards were a solid 10-6 and division champions, hosting the wildcard Packers.   The game began as a Kurt Warner runaway as the Cardinals stormed to a 17-0 lead in the first; Warner kept attacking and stormed the Cardinals to a 31-10 lead, but second-year Packers starter Aaron Rodgers began clawing the Pack back; two Rodgers touchdowns and a Warner score left Arizona up 38-24 in the fourth, and Rodgers kept roaring and two more touchdowns tied the game.   Warner put the Cards back up 45-38 with five to go; Rodgers tied it at the two-minute warning.   Warner completed five passes for 73 yards in the final two minutes - and had more touchdowns (five) than incompletions total (four) - but Neil Rackers' kick shanked badly and the game went into overtime.   After a holding penalty the Packers were on their 17 when Rodgers bobbled the ball, shanked it into the hands of Karlos Dansby, and Dansby roared to the winning touchdown, a 51-45 Cardinals win and one of the defining games of Warner's career - it was also a defining game for Rodgers, who erased a 21-point gap yet still botched the game and has gone on to win just two games in which he has trailed by two or more scores.


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FOUR: Marshawn's Earthquake - New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, 2010 - The once-woebegone Saints weathered the worst storm of their existence in 2005, then helped rally their city with a 2006 playoff surge under Sean Payton and Drew Brees; in 2009 it paid off in the biggest playoff win in the club's history and then the Superbowl.   They were wildcards in 2010 and traveled to the Seahawks, under former Jets and Patriots coach Pete Carroll following his lengthy sabbatical with USC.   The Seahawks had struggled to 7-9 and it was enough to win the NFC West, the first case of a team with a losing record winning a division.

The widely expected Saints win, however, was not to be.   Matt Hasselback exploded to three touchdowns and a 24-20 Seahawks lead at halftime.   Drew Brees kept fighting back, but Hasselback matched him drive for drive.  In the final four minutes the Saints had clawed to within 34-30; it was then the Seahawks finished off New Orleans as Marshawn Lynch - a former Buffalo Bill acquired by Seattle in an October trade that went largely unnoticed in football circles due to New England's Randy Moss trade that same week - exploded.   He stormed through the line, broke nine tackles, and threw down corner Tracy Porter (the hero of the Saints' NFC Title win over the Vikings and the Superbowl win over the Colts) while scoring from 67 yards out; fan cheering was so powerful the stadium registered as a medium-strength earthquake on a seismograph less than a mile from Qwest Field.

A late Brees touchdown could do nothing but cut the final score to 41-36 Seahawks.   For a team ridiculed for failing to post a winning record, the 2010 Seahawks wound up sending a decisive message to the league - be very afraid.


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THREE: The 3:16 Game - Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 2011 - There may never be another phenomenon like Tim Tebow.   Building a powerful following in his college career, Tebow became a source of discussion before the 2010 NFL Draft and his selection by the Broncos and short-lived head coach Josh McDaniel caused a stir in league circles.   Tebow's ebullient expression of his religious faith won him fans, and as 2011 began his unconventional playing style began to foment disagreement in football analyses.   He became starter under new Broncos coach John Fox and despite dismal throwing efforts he was able to lead comeback wins over Miami and others; the comeback wins kept up, and when Tebow ran in the winning touchdown vs, the New York Jets he had become a full-fledged international sensation, a sensation that kept surging through six straight wins and did not abate even with crushing losses to New England and Buffalo.

The Broncos won the AFC West in a three-way tie with San Diego and Oakland and hosted the 12-4 Steelers on Wildcard Sunday; it was the seventh career playoff meeting between Pittsburgh and Denver and media speculation stipulated that the Broncos, under GM and former quarterback John Elway, livid at Tebow's poor throwing efforts, might bench Tebow for so important a game.

It all began turning upside down as Tebow rallied the Broncos after two Steeler field goals; he threw one touchdown and ran in another, while a Ben Roethlisberger interception was sandwiched between two Matt Prater field goals and a shocking 20-6 Broncos lead.   The Steelers clawed back in the second half as they outscored Denver 17-3 aided by a Willis McGahee fumble.   A late sack of Roethlisberger snuffed out any chance at a winning field goal and the game went to overtime at 23-23.

On the opening play of overtime the Steelers laid out a Cover Zero defense, basically daring Tebow to throw with almost no one protecting the back side of the defensive line; it was exactly what the Patriots a month earlier had shown the rest of the league to not do - instead of play passively the Patriots had attacked Tebow directly and thus threw him completely out of his game.

Given this defensive look, Tebow unloaded a pass caught high by DeMaryius Thomas and Thomas took advantage when the Steelers bit on the play fake; he raced almost unmolested to the winning touchdown (29-23 final).   It was Denver's first playoff win since 2005 and caused still more reaction when the box score showed Tebow had thrown for 316 yards with a 31.6 yard per catch average.   Multiple stats aligned with the Bible verse John 3:16 and the correlation became the most celebrated confluence of faith and football ever seen.

Adding to the bizarre quality of the game is that the Steelers' 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens means Pittsburgh has not won a playoff game since the 3:16 game.


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TWO:  The Comeback II: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, 2013 - The Broncos gave up on Tebow when Peyton Manning, out a year after several neck surgeries, was released by the Colts.  Manning signed with Elway's Broncos - the irony of Peyton's rookie year being Elway's final playing year was curiously overlooked - and stormed the Broncos to a 13-3 2012 season ending in a rip-roaring Divisional Round loss to the Ravens.   The Colts meanwhile drafted sure-shot quarterback prospect Andrew Luck and exploded to 22-10 in his first two seasons.

The Chiefs meanwhile signed ex-Eagles coach Andy Reed after seven mediocre or worse seasons and acquired former 49ers starter Alex Smith, given up for dead by the Niners for Colin Kaepernick.   The Chiefs stormed to win their first nine games before collapsing to finish 11-5, including an embarrassing home loss to Luck's Colts.

For Wildcard Sunday in 2013 the Chiefs came to Lucas Oil Stadium and exploded, storming to 38-10 in the third quarter, pouncing on a Trent Richardson fumble and two Luck INTs.   But Luck began storming the Colts back as the Colts defense forced a fumble.  By the fourth quarter and despite a third Luck pick the Colts had raced to a 41-31 gap, then Luck scored himself on a botched Donald Brown run.   After a Chiefs field goal Luck whipped a 64-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton and the Colts suddenly led 45-44.   The Chiefs final drive died out at the Colts 43 and Indianapolis had its first playoff win since 2009 and had erased a 28-point gap.

Only one other game had ever seen a bigger comeback.


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THE NUMBER ONE WILDCARD GAME OF ALL TIME - The Houston Oilers at The Buffalo Bills, 1992 - Even if the NFL sees a game where a team erases a five-touchdown gap The Comeback can never be forgotten.   From the injury at Houston that knocked out Jim Kelly to the stunning effort of backup Frank Reich, the Bills showed a level of heart impossible to forget.   The Oilers came in with every reason to feel confident in a win.   Warren Moon exploded the Oilers with four touchdowns in the first half, and a Reich pick-six put Houston up 35-3, a gap impossible to erase.

Yet Frank Reich did just that, having beaten Jimmy Johnson's Miami Hurricanes team in 1984 by wiping out a 31-0 gap to win 43-40.   Reich exploded the Bills to five straight touchdowns, four of them throws by him sandwiched around a Moon fumble, a blown field goal try, and an interception; a second Moon pick was wiped out on a roughing the passer penalty.   By halfway through the fourth the Bills improbably led 38-35.  Moon finally got the shellshocked Oilers to the tying field goal, but early in overtime a pass sailed over a blanketed Ernest Givens and was intercepted.   Steve Christie's field goal ended the biggest Bills win (41-38) in their history and the largest comeback win in NFL history.


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Twelve years later the two clubs have endured a roller coaster, and it all adds up to that the "Wild" in Wildcard fits better than perhaps anyone could expect.

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