The 13 Most Memorable Playoff Games in NFL History

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Though I’m sure we’ll never forget the week that we spent arguing about whether Mike Shanahan should have benched hobbled rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, last weekend’s playoff games themselves didn’t produce many NFL Films moments.

Heading into the second weekend of the NFL Playoffs this weekend, with legends like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady ready to take the field, let’s hope this weekend will be different.

In the meantime let’s honor the new year by looking back on 13 of the most memorable playoff games from NFL history.

Note: By “playoff games,” I mean postseason games since the beginning of the Super Bowl era (1966-67), not including the Super Bowls themselves.

The Ice Bowl

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
NFL Championship Game; December 31, 1967

The turf at Lambeau Field in Green Bay is known colloquially as the “Frozen Tundra.” On December 31, 1967 it was a sheet of ice.

The 1967 NFL title game between the host Packers and the Dallas Cowboys was the 34th NFL Championship Game. But it was only the second for which the winner would represent the league in the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a spectacle that Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt would later dub the “Super Bowl.” One year earlier the Packers had defeated the Cowboys in a close game at the Cotton Bowl to capture their second consecutive NFL title and advance to the first ever AFL-NFL Championship (a.k.a. Super Bowl I).

The temperature in Green Bay on December 31, 1967 was -13° Fahrenheit (-25° Celsius). A problem with Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system created conditions where any moisture that landed on the turf would freeze. The ice problem got worse as the sun went behind the stadium.

Conditions were so bad that the marching band from Wisconsin-La Crosse had to cancel its halftime show because several band members got hypothermia. (Legend has it that the clarinets were so cold that they were unplayable and that band members’ lips were freezing to the mouthpieces of the brass instruments.)

Despite these conditions, the Packers and Cowboys managed to play a compelling game in front of 50,000 fans.

Packers quarterback Bart Starr skates across the Lambeau Field ice during the 1967 NFL Championship Game.

Packers quarterback Bart Starr skates across the Lambeau Field ice during the 1967 NFL Championship Game.

At the half, Green Bay led Dallas 14-10. The Cowboys took the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 50-yard halfback option touchdown pass from running back (and future Broncos, Giants, and Falcons coach) Dan Reeves to receiver Lance Rentzel.

The Packers, trailing 17-14, began their final possession with just under five minutes on the clock. Quarterback Bart Starr and the Packers used almost all of that time in their drive down the field and ended up with third-and-goal on the Dallas one yard line with 16 seconds remaining.

A pass play would have made the most sense—because an incomplete pass would stop the clock whereas a running play that didn’t result in a touchdown may have run out the clock and ended the game. But Starr was confident that he could keep the ball and run it into the end zone behind right guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman.

The play was successful; Starr crossed the goal line, clinching the game, the championship, and a trip to Super Bowl II for the Green Bay Packers.

The Immaculate Reception

Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC Divisional Round; December 23, 1972

From 1948 through 1971 the Pittsburgh Steelers played in only one playoff game, a 17-10 loss to the Lions in 1962. From 1972 through 1979 the Steelers went to the Playoffs every year and won four Super Bowls. The symbolic turning point for the franchise was a play late in Pittsburgh’s 1972 opening round playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.

The Immaculate Conception is the Roman Catholic belief that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was conceived without the taint of original sin. To Steelers fans the Immaculate Reception also has religious significance.

With less than 30 seconds remaining and trailing the visiting Raiders 7–6, the Steelers faced fourth down on their own 40-yard line. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw scrambled and, under pressure, threw a long pass to receiver Frenchy Fuqua. Depending on whether you talk to a Steelers fan or Raiders fan, the ball bounced off either Oakland defender Jack Tatum or Fuqua and into the hands of Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, who was able to secure the ball before it hit the ground.

If the ball had touched Fuqua, Harris’s catch would have been illegal, due to a now defunct rule that said that two offensive players could not touch a pass in succession. Regardless of what actually happened, officials ruled that the ball hit Tatum, not Fuqua, and landed immaculately (without the taint of being touched by another offensive player) in Harris’ hands.

With no flags on the field, Harris sprinted into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

The Hail Mary

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
AFC Divisional Round; December 28, 1975

For Roman Catholics the Hail Mary is an intercessory prayer to Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin. Football fans use the term differently. In football parlance, the Hail Mary is a long pass thrown in desperation—often in a game’s final moments—with a low probability of being caught.

We owe this terminology to Roger Staubach, great Dallas Cowboys quarterback and devout Catholic.

Staubach’s Cowboys opened the 1975 postseason in Minnesota against the 12-2 Vikings. Trailing 14-10 in the game’s final seconds, Staubach threw a desperation pass from midfield to receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the ball on the 5-yard line and took it across the goal line for the winning touchdown.


Following the game, Staubach said to the media about the game-winning play that he closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary. The expression caught on, and the Cowboys advanced to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Epic in Miami

San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins
AFC Divisional Round; January 2, 1982

“Dan Fouts” is a name that usually comes up in lists of all-time greats who never won a championship. The longtime San Diego Chargers quarterback may have never won the Super Bowl, but he did lead his team to an epic playoff victory in 1982, in a game later known as “The Epic in Miami.”

Nowadays, a 41-38 score in an NFL game would be considered high-scoring but not unusual. In 1982 it was unheard of.

The January 2, 1982 AFC division playoff game between the Chargers and the Miami Dolphins and at Miami’s Orange Bowl was a glimpse into the future, setting NFL playoff records for total points (79), total yards (1,036), and total passing yards (809). The intensity of the game and the near 90-degree heat left a bunch of the players exhausted and dehydrated.

Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught 13 passes for 166 yards, is helped off the field following the "Epic in Miami."

Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught 13 passes for 166 yards, is helped off the field following the “Epic in Miami.”

San Diego appeared to be in control after one quarter, leading 24–0. But Miami scored 17 unanswered in the second, to close within a touchdown by halftime. At the end of the third the score was tied at 31.

The Dolphins, after intercepting a pass from Fouts to Charlie Joiner late in the third, scored on the first play of the fourth quarter. Miami maintained a 7-point lead and was prepared to put the game out of reach when running back Andra Franklin fumbled deep in Chargers territory.

Fouts drove his team the length of the field to score a touchdown and send the game into overtime. The Chargers won the toss and drove down to the Miami 10 yard line for what would normally be an easy field goal. But thanks in part to a bad snap, Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke’s kick went wide left.

Miami answered by marching back down the field and attempting a 34-yard field goal attempt of their own. San Diego lineman Leroy Jones blocked the attempt by Dolphins kicker Von Schamann.

The Chargers managed to get in position for another short field goal. This time Benirschke’s kick was good, giving San Diego the 41-38 win.

The Catch

Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
NFC Championship Game; January 10, 1982

The Dallas Cowboys had dominated the NFC in the 1970s. From 1966 through 1980 America’s Team won 11 Division titles, made 14 (of 15 possible) playoff appearances, advanced to eight NFC or NFL Championship Games, played in five Super Bowls, and won two.

The San Francisco 49ers, by contrast, qualified for the playoffs only three times during that span: in 1970, 1971, and 1972. All three times they were eliminated by the Cowboys. From 1973 through 1980 the Niners never appeared in the Playoffs and put together only one winning season (an 8-6 campaign in 1976).

But in 1981 third-year coach Bill Walsh turned things around in San Francisco. The 49ers went 13-3 that year, running away with the NFC West and clinching the top seed in the playoffs. This earned them the chance to host the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.

The Cowboys and Niners were evenly matched and traded the lead throughout the game. With about five minutes remaining, San Francisco took possession on their own 10 yard line, trailing 27-21. Third-year quarterback Joe Montana, who had thrown three interceptions to that point, drove the team down the field. With less than a minute on the clock, the Niners were on the Dallas 6, facing third-and-goal.

Montana called a play for wide receiver Freddie Solomon, hoping to duplicate a play that had resulted in a first-quarter touchdown. But the Cowboys were ready for it and had Solomon covered.

Montana scrambled. Under pressure, and with Cowboys 6-foot-9 defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones chasing him, Montana threw a high pass off of his back foot into the back of the end zone. It almost appeared as though he were throwing away the ball to avoid a sack. But receiver Dwight Clark (who, like Walsh and Montana, was in his third year with the team) made a leaping catch, securing the ball above his head with the tips of his fingers.

“The Catch,” as it is now known, tied the game. The extra point gave San Francisco the lead for good.

Here’s Vin Scully with the call:

The Freezer Bowl

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
AFC Divisional Round; January 10, 1982

On January 2, 1982 the San Diego Chargers played in 88-degree heat in Miami. (See above.) The following weekend they went to Cincinnati for one of the coldest playoff games in league history.

The Ice Bowl holds the distinction of being the NFL game played at the coldest temperature. But, in terms of wind chill, the 1981 AFC Championship Game between the Chargers and Bengals at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was even more frigid.

According to the formula for wind chill that the National Weather Service used at the time, the average wind chill for the game was -55° F. (Using the updated formula that the NWS introduced in 2001 the wind chill that day was around -34°.) According to this article, the beer and ketchup froze that day.

The Chargers hailed from sunny San Diego and had played the previous week in the uncomfortable heat of South Florida. And they didn’t adjust well.

The Chargers and Bengals face off, through the fog created by their breath, in the game now known as the Freezer Bowl.

The Chargers and Bengals face off, through the fog created by their breath, in the game now known as the Freezer Bowl.

The Bengals took a ten-point lead in the first quarter. San Diego closed the margin to three in the second, but Cincinnati added a touchdown before halftime and were dominant after the intermission. The Bengals managed the cold and won the game 27-7 earning the franchise its first trip to the Super Bowl.

Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow said that the extreme playing conditions were “inhumane” and claims to have physical ailments from the game that he never recovered from.


Continue reading to relive more memorable NFL playoff moments like:

  • The most infamous example of Cleveland heartbreak.
  • Another amazing end zone catch by a 49ers receiver.
  • Two miracles involving the Bills and the Oilers/Titans.
  • Perhaps Peyton Manning’s finest playoff moment.
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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. Good choices. I would like to have maybe heard something on the longest game ever in NFL history. It was my grandfather’s last Dolphin game. He died a few days later. I’ve always thought it was ironic that his last game is still the longest game. Dolphins at Chiefs in Municipal Stadium on XMAS day went 2OT, Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24. The Dolphins won in 82 minutes, 40 seconds. RIP Grandpa-12/30/71.

  2. Philly Pagooleeus says:

    1998 NFC Championship belongs on this list, it holds up under repeat viewings

  3. That is a good one. I still feel bad for Gary Anderson.

  4. That would be a good addition to the list. You don’t see many double overtime games. From what I can tell, there were only four in NFL history.

  5. Good list, but there are some epic games left off. The 2OT Dolphins/Chiefs game in ’71, the “Sea of Hands” game (Dolphins/Raiders in ’74 season), the “Ghost to the Post” game (Raiders/Colts in “77 season), The Fumble (Broncos/Browns in ’87 season), Fog Bowl (Eagles/Bears in ’88 season), The Drive II (Broncos/Oilers in ’91 season), 49ers/Giants 39-38 game from 2002-03 playoffs, The Tackle (Steelers/Colts in ’05 season).

  6. 2007 NFC Championship Game, January 20, 2008 – Green Bay Packers vs. New York Giants. Second coldest game at Lambeau Field, Brett Favre’s last game as a Packer, an EPIC overtime thriller, and the Giants first of two recent NFC Championships en route to two improbable Superbowl victories.

  7. Freezer Bowl would not be on my list, that game was over before it started. January 1982 was the most epic cold front of all time though…

  8. Nice list. Interesting that none occurred recently, which is correct. Despite what the NFL-media infers, the playoffs have not been great recently. (I’m talking playoffs; there have been some good Super Bowls like NYG/NE, GB/Den, STL/NE, STL/Ten, et al.)

  9. And this past weekend did not produce anything great other than perhaps some moments from Sea/ATL. The NE and SF wins were dull, and though Balt/Den was close, it was one of the slowest, ugliest, poorly played/poorly officiated games in my 28 years watching NFL.


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