The “instant classic” label is being widely tossed about in the wake of Sunday night’s Bills-Chiefs divisional-round playoff game, Kansas City prevailing over Buffalo 42-36 in overtime.
Yet even at a time when society seems more prone to hyperbole, recency bias and instant analysis than ever, it’s fair to tout this contest’s worthiness as a postseason masterpiece. (It is a shame that nicknaming such memorable affairs seems to largely be a stamp from a bygone era.) Regardless, watching such a riveting performance reflexively leads to a desire to contextualize – yes, rank – it with playoff paragons of the past.
So let’s try to find its place among previous postseason gems during the Super Bowl era – beginning in 1966 – while discounting Super Bowls themselves. (If it’s Super Sunday rankings you desire, knock yourself out here.)
With those parameters in mind – and it’s amazing how many memorable games were left on the cutting room floor – here’s our list of the 22 greatest NFL playoff games:
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22. The longest game
It occurred on Christmas Day in 1971, the Chiefs hosting the Dolphins in the divisional round. The marathon lasted 82 minutes and 40 seconds of game time, a double overtime thriller that remains the longest in league annals. Miami K Garo Yepremian ended it with a 37-yard field goal, but not before Kansas City RB Ed Podolak racked up a playoff record 350 all-purpose yards and two TDs in the 27-24 defeat.
21. Luck of the draw
Admit it, you forgot about the Colts’ 45-44 escape from the Chiefs in a 2013 wild-card win, Indianapolis’ comeback from a 38-10 hole the second-largest in playoff history. Andrew Luck (443 yards, 4 TDs passing) outdueled Alex Smith (378 yards, 4 TDs), though his most fortuitous play came on a 5-yard TD run off a recovered fumble that cut K.C.’s lead to 41-38. Luck’s 64-yard TD strike to T.Y. Hilton six minutes later gave Indy its winning margin.
20. ‘We want the ball and we’re gonna score’
Those famous/infamous words by Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck were for the benefit of his former Green Bay teammates after winning the coin toss before overtime at Lambeau Field during a 2003 wild-card matchup. He proceeded to throw a pick-six to CB Al Harris in sudden death, and the Packers advanced by virtue of a 33-27 triumph. Honorable mention: Four years later, Green Bay legend Brett Favre made his final start for the Packers at frosty Lambeau … and threw an OT INT in the NFC championship game, which led to an NFC-clinching field goal for the Giants. New York went on to upset the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42.
19. ‘Marathon by the Lake’
For Jets fans hoping to face the cross-town Giants in an Apple Bowl Super Bowl to end the 1986 season, those dreams were dashed in a double-overtime divisional-round loss at Cleveland. Browns QB Bernie Kosar passed for 489 yards, third most in a playoff game, and drew a key roughing-the-passer infraction from NYJ DE Mark Gastineau. At 77 minutes and 2 seconds of game time, this is the second-longest game of the Super Bowl era. Cleveland was on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum the following week, when John Elway mounted “The Drive.” More on that later.
18. 2014 NFC championship
The Packers led the Seahawks 19-7 in Seattle, where playoff visitors typically go to die, before Russell Wilson caught fire on a day when he’d served up four interceptions. Two TDs, a recovered onside kick (with help from a Green Bay special teams botch) and a wild two-point conversion later, and the Seahawks were up 22-19. The Packers managed a late field goal to force overtime, but Wilson and Co. wouldn’t be denied, Jermaine Kearse hauling in a 35-yard TD on the sixth play of extra time to send Seattle to Super Bowl 49. Honorable mention: The Seahawks’ win in the 2013 NFC title game was arguably even better, CB Richard Sherman’s deflection of QB Colin Kaepernick’s final pass preserving a 23-17 win over the 49ers which catapulted Seattle to its only Lombardi Trophy.
17. Junkin’s snap
The Giants held a 38-14 second-half lead on the road against the 49ers in the 2002 wild-card round … before surrendering 25 unanswered points to Jeff Garcia and Co. And yet the G-Men could have survived in San Francisco on a game-ending field goal – had long snapper Trey Junkin, who came out of retirement to play in the game, not butchered the delivery. Chaos ensued as holder Matt Allen, hoping for a miracle TD, threw an incomplete pass that sealed New York’s fate. Turns out, there were offsetting penalties downfield that should have conferred a replay for the Giants, an error the NFL later admitted. “Bummer,” 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said in jest upon learning of his good fortune.
16. Tebow to Thomas
It marked the apex of “Tebowmania,” Broncos QB Tim Tebow hitting WR Demaryius Thomas on a slant in stride – never Tebow’s forte – on the first play of overtime, Thomas sprinting to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown to dispatch the reigning AFC champion Steelers in the 2011 wild-card round. It would be Tebow’s final start in Denver before Peyton Manning replaced him the following season.
Aaron Rodgers passed for 423 yards and four TDs in his first playoff start during the 2009 wild-card round. It wasn’t enough. Kurt Warner countered with 379 yards and five TDs (he had just four incompletions) in his final postseason victory. The Packers never led Arizona and trailed by three TDs in the third quarter before Rodgers brought them back. The game ended on the third play of overtime, when Rodgers was strip-sacked, and LB Karlos Dansby returned the resulting fumble 17 yards for the TD that gave the Cardinals a 51-45 win over Green Bay. The 96 combined points remain a playoff record. Honorable mention: Same teams, same building (University of Phoenix Stadium) six years later in the divisional round, Rodgers tying the score with a 41-yard Hail Mary to Jeff Janis on the final play of regulation. Carson Palmer’s two completions in overtime, a 75-yarder and 5-yard TD to Larry Fitzgerald, won it for the Cards.
14. ‘Hail Mary’ game
The term is now part of the football lexicon, but it became famous here. Cowboys QB Roger Staubach’s 50-yard heave to Drew Pearson in the 1975 divisional round – did Pearson push off a bit, too? – allowed Dallas to vanquish the Minnesota Vikings 17-14. “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary,” said Staubach afterward.
13. ‘The Comeback’
The defending AFC champion Bills dug out of a 35-3 hole in a 1992 wild-card win to overcome the Houston Oilers, winning the largest comeback in league history 41-38 in overtime. With Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly out with a knee injury, Buffalo was led by backup Frank Reich – now head coach of the Colts – who stepped in to pass for 289 yards and four TDs, sparking a furious comeback and springboarding the Bills back to the Super Bowl. Honorable mention: Seven years later, these franchises met again, though the Oilers had morphed into the Tennessee Titans by then. The “Music City Miracle” might have been a forgettable game if not for its crazy finish, Kevin Dyson scoring the game-winning 75-yard TD on a kickoff after snaring a cross-field lateral from TE Frank Wycheck. The Titans rode their 1999 wild-card win all the way to their only Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.
12. Ghost to the Post
The Colts’ final playoff game in Baltimore did not have a happy ending as they were victimized for three TDs by Hall of Fame Raiders TE Dave “The Ghost” Casper in the 1977 divisional round, including the game-winner in double overtime. However it was Casper’s 42-yard hookup from QB Ken Stabler to set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation that hurt Colts fans most in a 37-31 shocker. Honorable mention: As he was going to the ground, Stabler’s end-zone loft was collected by RB Clarence Davis in a crowd of Dolphins to snatch a 28-26 victory in what would become known as “The Sea of Hands” game. It ended Miami’s dynasty but helped launch Pittsburgh’s, as Oakland lost the 1974 AFC title game to the Steelers the following week.
11. Ravens shock Broncos
Baltimore’s surprising march to a Super Bowl 47 crown really set sail in Denver during the 2012 divisional round. Joe Flacco exploited a blown coverage to hit Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard TD to tie the game 35-35 with 31 seconds left in regulation. Justin Tucker drilled the game-winning FG in double overtime, ruining Manning’s first season with the Broncos.
10. ‘The Drive’
Elway led his famous 98-yard march (over 15 plays), culminating with a 5-yard TD toss to sliding Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left in regulation as the Broncos tied the 1986 AFC championship game in Cleveland 20-20. Denver beat the Browns with a field goal in overtime, sending Elway to his first Super Bowl appearance. Honorable mention: In the following season’s AFC title game, the Browns overcame a 28-10 second-half deficit to knot the game 31-31 before succumbing 38-33 – undone by RB Earnest Byner, whose fumble near the goal line canceled out his 187 yards and two TDs from scrimmage in what was otherwise a fantastic showing.
9. ‘Minneapolis Miracle’
This 2017 divisional-round bout between the Saints and Vikings featured four lead changes in the final three minutes at U.S. Bank Stadium. But the only one that most remember is Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard catch-and-run TD from QB Case Keenum as New Orleans S Marcus Williams misplayed the pass, allowing Diggs to tightrope his way to the end zone for a 29-24 victory.
8. 2006 AFC championship
Manning finally overcome the Patriots, but it required him to bring the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit and a Tom Brady interception in the final minutes before Indianapolis secured its 38-34 win – one that preceded Manning’s only Super Bowl title with his original franchise.
7. ‘Immaculate Reception’
The final play of this 1972 divisional rounder was far more memorable than the overall game, which the Raiders led 7-6 before the last snap. But Franco Harris’ 60-yard TD gallop after gathering QB Terry Bradshaw’s caromed pass intended for Frenchy Fuqua is one of the league’s defining moments – and there’s still an open question as to whether Harris’ recovery was legal, and he only fuels the controversy to this day with vague responses when he’s asked about the play.
6. 2018 championship games
Just an unforgettable day of football. It began with the Rams toppling the Saints 26-23 in overtime at the New Orleans Superdome, largely because officials missed an obvious pass interference call on Los Angeles DB Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the fourth quarter. Had a flag been thrown, the Saints would almost certainly have milked the clock before attempting a short field goal for the win. That evening the Patriots beat the Chiefs 37-31 at Arrowhead Stadium, Brady leading a game-winning march on the only drive of overtime. League MVP Patrick Mahomes didn’t get an opportunity to touch the ball after regulation, an ironic prelude to his win over Buffalo three years later.
5. ‘Tuck Rule Game’
Controversy. Bad weather. And a dynastic spark. This game, Brady’s first playoff appearance, had everything but is best known for the arcane and now nonexistent tuck rule, which spared TB12’s Patriots from what almost certainly would have been a lethal fumble after he was hit by Raiders star (and former Michigan teammate) Charles Woodson in the 2001 divisional round at old Foxboro Stadium. And let’s not forget Adam Vinatieri’s 45-yard FG in a driving snowstorm – perhaps the toughest kick in league history – tying the game in the final minute before the kicker drilled the pivotal three-pointer in OT. A few weeks later, New England won the first of its six Super Bowls. A “30 for 30” documentation of this game is coming soon to an ESPN viewing platform near you.
4. ‘Ice Bowl’
The Packers’ won their final NFL title under legendary coach Vince Lombardi in sub-zero temperatures and a wind chill that was far crueler on New Year’s Eve in 1967. Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr got just enough traction on the frozen field to score the decisive TD on a 1-yard sneak, thanks in large part from a crucial block by G Jerry Kramer. Two weeks later, Green Bay dismantled the AFL champion Raiders in what would later be called Super Bowl 2, which was also Lombardi’s last game as Packers coach.
3. ‘Epic in Miami’
Chargers QB Dan Fouts and Dolphins backup Don Strock both passed for 400 yards and combined for seven TDs in this 1981 AFC divisional classic, a time when such aerial fireworks were highly unusual. San Diego’s “Air Coryell” attack bolted to a 24-3 first-half lead, but Miami tied the game in the third quarter and led 38-31 – thanks in part to RB Tony Nathan’s famous “hook and lateral” TD – in the fourth before the Chargers sent it to overtime. Both teams had unsuccessful field-goal tries in sudden death before the Chargers’ Rolf Benirschke won it with a 29-yard kick. Battered and dehydrated from the humid conditions, Bolts Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow was the hero, catching 13 passes for 166 yards and a TD while also blocking a Miami FG try at the end of regulation.
Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with fans after defeating the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 23, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Buffalo Bills with a score of 4 to 36.
2. Chiefs-Bills on Sunday
A breathless finish was mesmerizing and caused the palms to sweat even if you had no rooting interest, Buffalo and Kansas City combining for 25 points – in the final two minutes of regulation, which featured a playoff record with three go-ahead TDs in that short span. Mahomes and Bills QB Josh Allen repeatedly traded blows – both accounted for four TDs and combined for more than 800 yards of total offense – until Allen didn’t get the chance to counter in overtime, Mahomes’ 8-yard scoring toss to TE Travis Kelce ending it on K.C.’s first possession.
1. ‘The Catch’
Dwight Clark’s 6-yard fingertip TD catch from Joe Montana in the far reaches of the Candlestick Park end zone with 58 seconds left in the 1981 NFC championship game launched the 49ers dynasty and slayed the post-Staubach Cowboys, who still had several Hall of Famers … and almost made a comeback of their own in the final seconds. Honorable mentions: There’s actually a San Francisco trilogy here, “The Catch II” featuring Terrell Owens’ game-winning TD to beat Favre’s Packers in the waning seconds of a 1998 wild-card game, and tearful TE Vernon Davis’ TD snag from Smith terminating the Saints in the 2011 divisional round, aka “The Catch III.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL playoffs – best games in history: Where does Bills-Chiefs rank?