What are the best games in NFL Divisional Playoff history?


Last night’s Cardinals-Packers Divisional game was a classic, perhaps made even moreso because the teams met a few weeks ago and the game was a total rout. (The same team did win both times, though.) That happens a lot in the playoffs — look at Vikings vs. Seahawks just last week. The regular season game was a mess — Seahawks killed ’em — and the playoff game should have been a SEA loss, except for Blair Walsh missing a relatively simple kick. Cris Collinsworth was hyping the NFL like a mofo last night — in essence, he’s an employee of the NFL, not of NBC — but this is why we love the sport, give or take: cool endings in big games.

Divisional Weekend is unique for two reasons:

  • It’s essentially the best eight teams in the NFL that year playing, or the top 25 percent
  • The top four teams come off byes, but the other four teams have ‘momentum’ from wild card weekend — so it’s easy to see a top seed lose
  • (Admittedly, that did not happen yesterday.)

So, in this crazy-ass environment, what are some of the best NFL Divisional games ever? Let’s give it a whirl.

Chargers vs. Dolphins, 1982

Many people consider this the greatest Divisional game in NFL history; I’m not necessarily doing this list in any order, but it’s probably No. 1, sure. There were two blocked field goals down the stretch and 1,036 total yards of offense. They often refer to this game as ‘The Epic in Miami,’ and whenever anyone references Kellen Winslow (or his son), the relevance of that name comes from this game (Winslow had 13 catches for 166 yards and blocked a field goal near the end):

Raiders vs. Dolphins, 1974


When you make a list like this, you start to think about how the NFL’s great franchises ebb and flow. The Raiders and Dolphins are amazing all-time, but in the last half-decade they’ve been iffy. (Current Raiders are a well-put-together team, but they seem to lack a stadium lease, which is awkward.) This is often called ‘The Sea of Hands’ game, which is relevant because all good Divisional games need a funny slug. Last night’s Cardinals-Packers is apparently being called ‘The Hail Larry’ game. Heh. By the way, the Raiders had no business winning this game at the time. You could argue it was an important brick in John Madden’s legacy.

Patriots vs. Raiders, 2002

Ah, The Tuck Rule game. Here’s a good sports bar debate: without the Tuck Rule game, is Tom Brady still the ‘Tom Brady’ legacy-wise we consider him today? Fun personal story: I watched the end of this game at my junior year apartment with a few friends, then we went out to some house parties. My friend, who’s at base a Raider fan, got in about four different skirmishes that night. He claims it was one. Regardless, this game is important in NFL history because without it, the Patriots end that first title run season in the Divisional Round — and who knows what happens down the road? (Admittedly, they probably win some titles.)

Dolphins vs. Chiefs, 1971


This is still the longest game ever played, playoffs or otherwise — 82 minutes and double OT on Christmas Day 1971. The Chiefs had a shot to win but missed a 31-yard FG; Larry Csonka ran 29 yards to get the Fins in FG range and they won it. Often considered an all-timer.

Eagles vs. Packers, 2004

This game had no long-term resonance in that the Eagles never won a Super Bowl in this run, and the Packers probably wouldn’t have won another one — although I could be wrong there — but 4th and 26 was pretty cool. I watched that on a couch in the Montrose section of Houston and it might be the first time I straight leapt in the air on an NFL play.

Jaguars vs. Broncos, 1997


My grandfather — now deceased, as grandfathers are wanton to do — used to have a bunch of people over around the holidays to their place in CT. I watched this game there. I guess I was 16, if I’m doing the math right. The Jags shouldn’t even have been in the playoffs that year; they were 9-7 and a two-year old franchise. The Broncos were a juggernaut (that would go on to finally win Super Bowls, thankfully). This game has to be the biggest gut punch of Elway’s career to that point, and there had been a few.

Ravens vs. Broncos, 2013

By any logical account, this should have been the final game of Ray Lewis’ career. Instead, he ends his career with a Super Bowl — in large part because of this seemingly improbable win. I was texting my friends last night about Cardinals-Packers and this was the last really good Divisional game I remember; I watched the end of this in a bar in Midtown Manhattan and I was not sober, and I remember going crazy. Ironically, this was a major gut punch for Peyton Manning — and you can make an argument his career might end today vs. another AFC North team.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1972


Two words: Immaculate Reception. One of the more famous moments in NFL history, yea?

Colts vs. Steelers, 2006

Watched this game hungover at work (ESPN in Bristol) after a night out in NYC and driving back around 7am. I was sitting near my man James Bailey, who is a die-hard Steelers fan. He about near lost it. If you don’t remember this game, it’s the Big Ben Miracle Tackle deal.

Broncos vs. Oilers, 1992


One of the major ‘Mile High Magic’ / Elway games. Some people call it “The Drive II.” Basically, Broncos win — then Bills beat them in the AFC Championship Game. What happens the year after this? Oilers have another massive choke — biggest in NFL history, essentially — in the Frank Reich game. Houston and football have not gone well together, mostly.

Saints vs. 49ers, 2013

Sad story here: I missed the end of this game because I was in a Target. I think that’s a man card revoking, potentially. Not sure. To me, this game is more about what Jim Harbaugh did with the 49ers than anything about Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, or the Saints. I might be wrong there.

Cowboys vs. Vikings, 1975


This was one of the original “Hail Mary” games. Fairly controversial, and many believe it never should have even happened. Look at that picture above — it captures the essential spirit of what was going on.

What did I miss?

There are about 20 other contenders for this, including a couple of Redskins games, Bills-Browns 1989, some old Raiders-Colts games, and more. Feel free to leave a few in the comments if you’d like, or check here, here, or here.

Ted Bauer