Commentary by Brent Kalwei
This is a countdown of what I believe to be the most significant games in National Football League history based directly upon the results of the games themselves and how they changed the league.
Let me lay some ground rules for this list. The games on this list are judged based on a few different factors. One key element is how rare the game was in that nothing in the game has ever been seen before or since. Another factor is how the direct results of the outcome of the game had on changing the future of the league. Lastly, I considered the long-term effects of both franchises involved in the game.
Remember this isn’t a countdown of the greatest games. Therefore, the game doesn’t have to necessarily be a great game. This also isn’t a countdown of how significant the games were before they were actually played. If it were, the first Super Bowl game in 1967 or the first-ever playoff game in 1932 would be on this list. I reiterate that this countdown is solely based on the rarity of the games results and how they would change future NFL events.
10. “The Helmet Catch” Super Bowl XLII (2008)-New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
The Patriots came into Super Bowl XLII with an opportunity to achieve something that has only happened once in the history in the National Football League. With an 18-0 record, the Patriots needed to beat the Giants to complete a perfect no loss and no tie season. The Giants finished the regular season 10-6 as a wild card and a huge Super Bowl underdog. Some games are defined by a single play that infamously seems to change the outcome of the game. Giants receiver David Tyree caught what was known as the “Helmet Catch.” The play would help the Giants end the Patriots’ perfect season. I believe this game not only changed history by keeping New England from perfection but it changed the future of these franchises in my opinion. New England had won three Super Bowls in the decade prior to the game. You can call it coincidence but the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since. I think this game turned the tides. The Giants also would go on to beat the Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl.
9. “Sea of Hands” AFC Divisional Playoff (1974)-Oakland Raiders 28, Miami Dolphins 26
Coming off three straight Super Bowl appearances and winning two of them, the Dolphins were looking to make history as three-peat champions. The Raiders, on the other hand, lost the previous season to Miami and on a heart-breaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 playoffs. According to raiders.com, the Raiders would finally get past Miami in this meeting on a late touchdown pass from Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler to running back Clarence Davis in between three Miami defenders. The play is known as the “Sea of Hands.” The impact was significant as the Raiders used the win to propel themselves to a Super Bowl two years later. The Dolphins, on the other hand, have since been back to the Super Bowl only twice in almost 40 years while winning none. I feel like this game ended a dynasty in the making for Miami and was the start of Pittsburgh’s reign at the top in the 1970s.
8. “End of A Dynasty” NFC Championship (1991)-New York Giants 15, San Francisco 49ers 13
The San Francisco 49ers came into the 1991 NFC Championship with one of NFL’s all-time greatest dynasties. According to pro-football-reference.com, they won four Super Bowls from 1981-1990 including two in a row coming into the the 1990-91 season. The 49ers were looking to become the first team in history to win three Super Bowls in a row. Quarterback Joe Montana had been a pivotal part of the team’s success as a three-time Super Bowl MVP. With the 49ers leading 13-9 in the fourth quarter, Giants linebacker Leonard Marshall put a hit on Joe Montana that would change 49ers history forever. According to Gayle Saunders, the crushing hit left Montana with a broken hand and cracked ribs. Montana left the game and would miss the whole 1991 season. With the injury affected 36-year-old Montana nearing the end of his career, the 49ers were forced to go to Steve Young as their future starting quarterback. The Kansas City Chiefs took the chance on Montana and he thrived there winning the first playoff games for the Chiefs in 22 years. The 49ers, on the other hand, did win a Super Bowl in 1995 but were never as successful as they were in the 1980s with Montana. In my opinion, the 49ers would have won the 1991 NFC championship without a doubt if he weren’t knocked out of the game. He was known for late game heroics. If they were to be trailing late in this game, he would have found a way to win it.
7. “The World Series of Pro Football” Regular Season (1950)-Cleveland Browns 35, Philadelphia Eagles 10
As far as regular season/exhibition games, there would be none more significant than the one that took place in 1950. The All-American Football Conference and National Football League were separate rival leagues prior to 1950. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Cleveland Browns won four straight AAFC titles, but a lot of people thought they were no match for the NFL’s best Eagles who just won two straight NFL titles. According to Andy Piascik, many football fans wanted both leagues to set up a matchup between both leagues to see who was better. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, both leagues finally organized a game between both leagues’ finest teams, on September 16, 1950. According to Piascik, to many people’s surprise, the Browns dominated the contest and won 35-10 in front of 71,000 fans. The Browns victory would give the AAFC the respect it deserved and therefore the Browns, Colts and 49ers were admitted into the NFL as the two leagues merged. I believe without the Browns victory, some teams would have never got the opportunity to compete in the NFL like they deserved to. From 1946-1955, the Cleveland Browns formed a dynasty that will go down as one of the best ever. According to profootballhof.com, during that span they achieved four AAFC championships and three NFL titles.
6. “The Longest Game” AFC Divisional Playoff (1971)-Miami Dolphins 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24 (2OT)
The Kansas City Chiefs came into the 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff as one of the most successful teams in recent memory. In fact, the Chiefs franchise won more games and championships than any other team in American Football League History before it famously merged with the NFL. The Dolphins, on the other hand, were an upstart team who just recently hired Head Coach Don Shula, who would go on to become a Hall of Famer. Shula led the Dolphins to their first winning season in franchise history in 1970. According to profootballhof.com, this game is still the longest game in NFL history and it was a game that featured heart-breaking missed field goals by both teams that were potential game winners. The Dolphins would eventually win the game. The impact from the result of the game was significant because it was the end of an era in Kansas City. According to pro-football-reference.com, they would not win another division title for 22 years. The Dolphins took the win and ran with it. They would go on to the Super Bowl after this win. They ended up losing the Super Bowl but went on to win two Super Bowls in a row in the following seasons.
5. “The Tuck Rule Game” AFC Divisional Playoff (2002)-New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13 (OT)
This game would be remembered for one play that would change football history forever. The Raiders led 13-10 late in the fourth quarter as the Patriots had their final scoring chance. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit as he dropped back to pass and fumbled the ball and the Raiders recovered the ball and apparently had the game won. Then the referees went to review the play. Upon further review, the referees said Brady’s arm was going forward when the ball came loose, therefore ruled an incomplete pass. According to Mark Maske, this is known as the Tuck Rule. The Patriots went on to tie the game and then win on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in overtime. The Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl that season and then another two Super Bowls in 2004 and 2005. This game is where I believe the dynasty of Brady and the Patriots began. If not for the overturned call, the Patriots would have lost and they would have never won their first Super Bowl that year. The Patriots had never won a Super Bowl prior to the season, therefore I believe this game and the Super Bowl win gave New England their spark into future success. Oakland was a successful franchise that did manage to get back to the Super Bowl the following season. With that being said, the Raiders lost the game and after the appearance they haven’t made the playoffs since.
4. “The Perfect Season” Super Bowl VII (1973)-Miami Dolphins 14,Washington Redskins 7
The 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff was a major piece to the Dolphins future success. As a result, the Dolphins used their momentum to lead them to the first and only no-loss and no-tie perfect season in the NFL to date. That is a historical feat in itself. I believe at the time the feat wasn’t as a big deal as it is now. Now everyone is going after the “Perfect Season” because it’s so rare. At the time I think people probably thought it was something that could happen maybe once every 15 to 20 years. Well, since then, no one has done it, therefore making it legendary. This win was significant to the entire NFL because every year there is a Super Bowl champion. There was only one 1972 Miami Dolphins team. There have arguably been better teams since the undefeated Dolphins team but one fact remains. The Dolphins went undefeated and no one can ever take that away from them. In recent years, ESPN analyst Chris Berman sort of jokes around when the last undefeated team in the NFL loses. He has a pop of champagne sound go off in the background as to say the Dolphins are celebrating that they are safe another year as only undefeated team in history.
3. “The Catch” NFC Championship (1982)-San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27
Coming into the 1982 NFC title game, the 49ers have never won a championship in their franchise history. At the time, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana won some important games, but this was the ultimate test. They were now playing against what is known as “America’s Team.” The Cowboys won five NFC Championships in the 1970s alone, including two Super Bowl victories during the decade. In fact, to add to San Francisco’s torment, according to pro-football-reference.com, Dallas knocked them out of reaching two Super Bowls by beating them in the 1971 and 1972 NFC title games. Late in this contest it seemed as if the 49ers team may have faced more agony of defeat. The 49ers trailed 27-21 late in the fourth quarter and needed a touchdown to win. Joe Montana drove them deep into Dallas territory. Facing a third down, Montana rolled out and looked and looked and finally released a pass toward the back of the end zone. A tall receiver named Dwight Clark seemingly came out of nowhere to make a catch on a perfect pass from Montana. The play would be known famously as “The Catch.” This catch sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl, which they won. They would go on to win four Super Bowls during the 1980s. In my opinion, it is the greatest NFL dynasty ever. I would take those 49ers teams over some of the greatest. In my opinion, the dynasty began with this classic game where I believe Joe Montana’s legacy of the greatest quarterback of all time began. It was the beginning of head coach Bill Walsh’s successful reign in San Francisco and the end of Dallas’ dominance in the NFC. This game got the 49ers over the hump.
2. “The Guarantee” Super Bowl III (1969)- New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7
Most of the significant games on this list affected the franchises involved. Super Bowl III affected the entire NFL to this day. In 1960, the American Football League was started as its own league separate to the NFL. According to history.com, in 1966 both leagues would agree on a future merger in 1970 which would combine both leagues. As part of the agreement, the AFL Champion would meet the NFL Champion for what Kansas City Chiefs former owner Lamar Hunt coined as the “Super Bowl.” According to Lynn Zinser, prior to the merger of 1970, people believed the AFL teams were no match for the NFL. In Super Bowls I and II, the NFL’s Packers won both handily which at the time seemed to prove the critics right. According to Matt Snell, coming into Super Bowl III, NFL’s Colts were 18-point favorites over the AFL’s Jets. Fed up with the AFL’s disrespect, Jets quarterback Joe Namath said, “We’re gonna win the game, I guarantee it.” Namath was one of the AFL’s most popular players. The Jets did go on to win the game over the heavily favored Colts. This victory cemented the respect the AFL long hoped for and helped bring equality to the AFL as they merged with the NFL. If the NFL would have won this game, the merger may have been dismissed. The NFL would have instead thought they were too superior and not wanted to go through with the merger. The Jets victory significantly helped the agreement between the leagues, thus making the league what it is today. Ironically, the AFC would win 10 of the next 12 Super Bowls following the merger.
1. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” NFL Championship (1958)- Baltimore Colts 23, New York Giants 17 (OT)
On December 28, 1958, the NFL staged a game for the ages. According to Frank Gifford and Peter Richmond, there were an estimated 45 million viewers throughout the United States watching the game. The 1958 NFL Championship featured rarities that the NFL had never seen before. It would be the beginning of a legacy for Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. According to Tom Barnidge, with the Colts trailing the Giants 17-14 late in the game, Unitas operated what is now known as a two-minute drill. This was really the first time this phrase was used. Unitas was probably the first true gunslinger quarterback who threw the ball in a rushing-oriented league. His late game heroics helped the Colts tie the game at 17 with a late field goal which sent the game to a sudden-death overtime. Nowadays every football fan knows what overtime is but back then it was an unfamiliar event. This was the first time in NFL history a playoff game had been tied after regulation, therefore needing a way to determine a winner. Behind the arm of Unitas, the Colts won 23-17 in overtime with an Alan Ameche touchdown run. So as far as football, this game featured the first two-minute drill and first sudden-death overtime. Although those terms were new to the viewer, this game’s impact would change the NFL and the way it was viewed forever. Since there were so many viewers and the game was such a classic to watch, this game helped the NFL gain popularity around the country. At the time, baseball was America’s most popular sport but “The Greatest Game Ever Played” helped lead to a big future for the NFL. Along with television popularity, the result of this game may have led to Lamar Hunt’s idea to form the AFL which I mentioned merged with the NFL later on. The other games on this list affected franchises and the alignment of the league. This game goes one step further by linking football with the United States. An interesting fact to also know, according to William Wallace, Weeb Ewbank coached both the 1958 Baltimore Colts and the 1968-69 Jets. Both teams won the games that are number one and two on my list.