The Divisional Playoff weekend is arguably the best football weekend of the year. The wildcard teams that won are looking to maintain their momentum, while the teams that earned a bye are hoping that rest and extra time to prepare are the necessary ingredients to advance. With 2 games on Saturday and 2 games on Sunday, football fans are always in for a treat. It also helps that the Divisional Playoffs have produced some of the greatest games in NFL history. Here is the 10 greatest NFC Divisional Playoff games, in NFL history.
December 23, 1972: Dallas 30 San Francisco 28
This game is overshadowed, largely due to the face it was played on the same day as The Immaculate Reception. But the Cowboys and 49ers had their fair share of drama as well. It looked like the 49ers would run away and hide with this game, building a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, thanks to two touchdown runs from Larry Schreiber and a 97-yard kickoff return from Vic Washington for a touchdown. The Cowboys did manage to put up 10 points before halftime, to cut the deficit to eight. But the 49ers got a third touchdown run from Schreiber to take a 28-13 lead, heading into the fourth quarter. Cowboys coach Tom Landry decided to replace starting quarterback Craig Morton, with Roger Staubach, in order to spark the team. On Staubach’s first possession, he fumbled and the 49ers recovered. But kicker Bruce Gossett missed a 32-yard field goal, giving the Cowboys life. On the ensuing drive, the Cowboys kicked a field goal of their own to slice the 49ers lead to 28-16. The Cowboys defense began to snuff out the 49er offense, and Staubach seized the momentum. Roger the Dodger lead the Cowboys on a 55-yard drive, that was capped off by a 20 yard touchdown reception from Billy Parks. However, there were under two minutes remaining, which forced the Cowboys to attempt an onside kick. It worked as Mel Renfro recovered the kick, setting up the Cowboys to complete the comeback. A Staubach 21-yard scramble was followed by a 19-yard reception from Parks, setting up the Cowboys with a first and goal from the San Francisco 10-yard line. Staubach then delivered the dagger when he connected with Ron Sellers from 10 yards out for the winning touchdown. This proved to be a devastating loss for the 49ers, as they spiralled into mediocrity for the next decade. The Cowboys could not carry their momentum into the NFC Championship game, as they were ousted by their bitter arch-rivals from Washington.
December 28, 1975: Dallas 17 Minnesota 14
This game is known as the Hail Mary game, but Viking fans would love to forget about it, as it adds another chapter into their heartbreaking history. The game itself was a defensive struggle, as the Vikings took a 7-0 lead into halftime, thanks to a 1-yard plunge from Chuck Foreman. The Cowboys scored the only points in the third quarter as Doug Dennison’s 4-yard touchdown run, evened the game. The Cowboys took their first lead in the game, midway through the fourth quarter on a 29-yard field goal from Toni Fritsch. The Vikings responded on the ensuing drive, as quarterback Fran Tarkenton engineered a 11 play, 70-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run from Brent McClanahan. The Vikings defense, known as the Purple People Eaters, stepped up, as they forced a three and out from the Cowboys. However, the Vikings offense couldn’t do anything against the Doomsday defense of the Cowboys, giving Roger Staubach and company one more opportunity. The Cowboys were faced with a 4th and 16 at their own 25-yard line. Staubach found Preston Pearson who took the ball to the 50-yard line, giving the Cowboys a chance. The Vikings argued that Pearson did not come down with the ball in bounds. However, the officials ruled that Pearson was forced out by cornerback Nate Wright, therefore ruling the reception good. With only 32 seconds remaining, Staubach dropped back to pass and fired a long pass down the right sideline looking for Drew Pearson. Wright was there on the coverage but as the ball arrived, Wright fell down and Pearson hauled in the pass and scored the winning touchdown. Wright claimed Pearson pushed off but their was no flag on the field. Pearson said after the game “I used that swim move that receivers use to get inside position on defensive backs. There was contact with Nate Wright, but there was no deliberate push.” Staubach described the play as “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” A legend was born. The Cowboys destroyed the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game, but ran out of miracles in Super Bowl X, as they fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
December 30, 1979: LA Rams 21 Dallas 19
The Cowboys came into this game as huge favourites, as many observers thought the Rams were on the decline, and only made the playoffs because they won the weak NFC West division. While those same observers pegged the Cowboys as Super Bowl favourites and thought they would romp through the NFC. But the Rams had other ideas. Led by a stifling defense, and two touchdown passes from quarterback Vince Ferragamo, the Rams built a 14-5 lead at halftime. Texas Stadium was in stunned silence, as they thought the Cowboys would steamroll the Rams, like they did late in the regular season to the tune of 30-6. The Cowboys needed a spark, and they got it from cornerback Dennis Thurman who intercepted a Ferragamo pass early in the third quarter. The Cowboys failed to convert on the ensuing drive, but the Doomsday Defense was up to the task yet again. They forced a Rams punt, giving the ball back to the Cowboy offense. A combination of big plays, and Ram penalties, setup a 1-yard touchdown run from Ron Springs, pulling the Cowboys to within two points. On the final play of the third quarter, Cowboy safety Cliff Harris intercepted a Ferragamo pass, setting up the Cowboys with great field position. Dallas took full advantage as Roger Staubach hooked up with tight end Jay Saldi on a 2-yard touchdown reception, giving the Cowboys a 19-14 lead. Defenses regained a foothold on the game as both teams had opportunities to score, but couldn’t capitalize. This proved costly for Dallas, as they had chances to put the game away. But the Rams held firm, and got the ball back at the 50-yard line, with 2:16 left in the fourth quarter. The Rams then hit the biggest play of the game. Ferragamo dropped back to pass, and found receiver Billy Waddy over the middle. Waddy found a seam in the Dallas secondary, and raced into the end zone for the touchdown. Vin Scully, who was calling the game for CBS, said it best when he elegantly stated, ” The crowd is in a state of shock.” The Cowboys did have a chance to respond, but unlike many times before, Roger Staubach failed to execute the game-winning drive, and the Rams pulled off the huge upset. This was Staubach’s final game as he retired in the offseason. The Rams continued their surprising run by blanking Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship game. The Rams met their match in Super Bowl XIV as they lost to the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers.
January 4, 1981: Dallas 30 Atlanta 27
With Roger Staubach enjoying retirement, many thought the Cowboys were headed on a downturn. No one in the football world thought Danny White could replace Roger the Dodger. White was the backup quarterback for the last 4 seasons, as well as being the punter. White was slash, 15 years before Kordell Stewart entered the league. Meanwhile, the Falcons were considered a team on the rise, led by young stars Steve Bartkowski, William Andrews and Alfred Jenkins on offense. The defense was known as the “Gritz Blitz” as defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville loved to stack the line of scrimmage, and blitz opposing quarterbacks. The game started brightly for the Falcons, as they built a 10-3 first quarter lead, thanks to a 60-yard touchdown strike from Bartkowski to Jenkins. When the third quarter ended, the Falcons had a 24-10 lead, and looked to be in control. With no Staubach, the Cowboys chances were slim. But Danny White had some magic that carried over from the Staubach era. A Robert Newhouse 1-yard touchdown run, pulled the Cowboys to within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Falcons replied with a field goal, pushing their lead to 27-17. The Cowboys came right back as White capped off a 62-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson. The aging “Doomsday Defense” made a big stop on third down, forcing the Falcons to punt, and giving the Cowboys a chance to win the game. With 49 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, White was forced to release the ball hurry, as the Falcons came on an all-out blitz. White flung the ball towards the direction of Pearson, who beat two Falcon defenders, to make the catch and score the winning touchdown. The crowd at Fulton-County Stadium, which was incredibly noisy throughout most of the game, fell silent as the Cowboys celebrated another come from behind playoff victory. Dallas ran out of luck in the NFC Championship game, as they were soundly defeated by division rival Philadelphia.
December 31, 1983: San Francisco 24 Detroit 23
Neither team had terrific regular seasons, so no one quite knew what to expect in this playoff encounter. The Lions won the weak NFC Central with a 9-7 mark, but were missing starting quarterback Eric Hipple due to an injury. The 49ers finished with a 10-6 mark, but were minus receiver Dwight Clark because of injury. The first half saw the 49ers capitalize on Lion turnovers, as Gary Danielson threw two interceptions, that led to 49er touchdowns. The Lions had chances to score as well, but could only manage 3 field goals from Eddie Murray, including a postseason record 54-yard boot, to make the score 14-9 San Francisco at the half. The 49ers could have put the game out of reach, as Danielson threw two more interceptions, but the Lions defense held the fort. Early in the third quarter, Danielson threw his fifth interception of the game, which led to a 19-yard field goal from Ray Wersching, to give the 49ers a 17-9 lead. The Lions settled down and put together a 10 play, 73-yard drive, that culminated on a 11-yard touchdown run from Billy Sims, drawing the Lions to within a single point early in the fourth quarter. Now it was the 49ers turn to make a mistake, as Joe Montana threw an interception, setting up the Lions at the San Francisco 27-yard line. Once again, it was Sims who finished the drive off, this time scoring from 2 yards out, giving the Lions a 23-17 lead with 4:44 remaining. Then it became Montana time. Joe Cool does what he does best, lead the 49ers on a clutch drive. Montana engineered a 70-yard drive that took 3 minutes and 21 seconds off the clock. The drive was climaxed when Montana fired a 14-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Solomon with 1:23 left, giving the 49ers a 24-23 lead. The Lions did have one last chance, and drove the ball to field goal range. However, Murray’s 45-yard field goal attempt just missed to the right, which spelled doom for Detroit. The Lions spent the rest of the decade mired in mediocrity. The 49ers lost the NFC Championship game to Washington in heartbreaking and controversial fashion. But the 49ers rebounded by going 15-1 in 1984, that culminated in a Super Bowl championship.
January 10, 2004: Carolina 29 St. Louis 23 (2 OT)
The fifth longest game in NFL history, ended in thrilling fashion that stunned the partisan crowd in St. Louis. The Rams tried to set the tone early, as they drove down the field on two separate occasions. However, they could only manage two field goals. The Panthers caught a big break early in the second quarter as a botched shovel pass was fumbled, and recovered by receiver Muhsin Muhammad in the end zone, giving Carolina the lead. Both teams traded field goals for the rest of the half, as Carolina went into the dressing room with a 10-9 lead. The third quarter saw the battle of field goals continue as the Panthers kicked two field goals, while the Rams split the uprights once, to give Carolina a 16-12 lead entering the fourth quarter. It looked like Carolina put the game away midway through the fourth quarter, when Brad Hoover’s 7-yard touchdown run, gave the Panthers a 23-12 lead. Carolina had a chance to bury the Rams following a Mike Minter interception. But kicker John Kasay missed a 53-yard field goal, giving the Rams hope. On the ensuing drive, Marshall Faulk scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, then Marc Bulger found Dane Looker for the two-point convert, pulling the Rams to within three. The Rams attempted an onside kick, and recovered it to set them up 1st and 10 from their own 40-yard line with 2:39 remaining. The Rams moved the ball to the Carolina 16-yard line, where they faced a 4th and 1 with under a minute remaining and one timeout. Instead of going for the first down, or the winning touchdown, Rams coach Mike Martz elected to run down the clock and kick the field goal. The crowd at the Edward Jones Dome booed mercilessly as Jeff Wilkins booted a 33-yard field goal, to force overtime. Both teams had chances to end the game in the first overtime period, but missed field goals by both teams extended the game. Late in the first overtime period, the Rams were driving deep into Carolina territory, but Bulger was intercepted by Ricky Manning, giving the ball back to Carolina. On the first play in double overtime, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme connected with receiver Steve Smith on a crossing pattern. The Rams were late to react, and Smith had nothing but open field in front of him. 69 yards later, the Panthers had won the game, while the Rams looked on in disbelief. Carolina continued their winning ways the following week by defeating Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game. Carolina’s good fortune came to an end in Super Bowl XXXVIII where they lost a heartbreaker to New England.
January 11, 2004: Philadelphia 20 Green Bay 17 OT
If the first quarter meant everything, the Packers would have blown out the Eagles. Two touchdown passes from Brett Favre to Robert Ferguson gave the Packers and early advantage, and it looked it would be Green Bay’s day. The Eagles did settle down in the second quarter and pulled to within a touchdown as Donovan McNabb connected with Duce Staley on a 7-yard touchdown pass. The third quarter saw the defenses carry the play for much of the period until late in the quarter, when Philadelphia embarked on a 8 play 88-yard drive that was capped off on the first play in the fourth quarter when McNabb hooked up with Todd Pinkston on a 12-yard touchdown pass, to tie the game. Late in the fourth quarter, it looked like Green Bay was headed to victory when Favre fired a 44-yard completion to Javon Walker, who was tackled at the Eagle 7-yard line. The Eagles defense did prevent a touchdown, but Ryan Longwell did connect on a 21-yard field goal, to give the Packers a 17-14 lead. The Eagles got the ball back with 2:22 remaining, down by three with a chance to tie the game, or take the lead. The drive started well as Staley burst through with a 22-yard run. However, on the next play McNabb was sacked for a 16-yard loss. After two incompletions, the Eagles were faced with a 4th and 26 with 1:16 remaining. Things looked bleak for Philadelphia. But McNabb managed to come up with a play, as he connected with Freddie Mitchell on a 28-yard pass play, giving the Eagles new life. The Eagles continued driving as the clock kept ticking. David Akers booted a 37-yard field goal, as time expired to force overtime. The Eagles won the toss, but went three and out. Green Bay got the ball back, but Favre’s first pass was intercepted by Brian Dawkins who returned it to the Packer 34-yard line. The Eagles only needed two plays to get to within Akers range, and the left-footed kicker and no trouble with his 31-yard attempt, giving the Eagles an improbable victory. Philadelphia would not have the same success the following week as they were dispatched by Carolina in the NFC Championship game.
January 14, 2007: Chicago 27 Seattle 24 OT
A thriller at venerable Soldier Field. The Bears thrashed the Seahawks early in the regular season and were looking to duplicate that performance. It looked like the Bears would do just that on the opening drive, as Thomas Jones 9-yard touchdown run, capped off a 12 play 80-yard drive, giving the Bears an early advantage. But the Seahawks settled down and tied the game on the first play of the second quarter as quarterback Matt Hasselbeck connected with Nate Burleson on a 16-yard touchdown pass. The Bears quickly responded on the next possession, as Rex Grossman hit Bernard Berrian on a 68-yard touchdown pass, giving the Bears a 14-7 lead. But the Seahawks fought back, recovering a Grossman fumble late in the first half. Shaun Alexander finished the short drive with a 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game. But the Bears had an answer of their own, marching 57 yards on 7 plays, that Jones capped off with a 7-yard touchdown run, giving the Bears a 21-14 lead at halftime. The Seahawks opened the second half with a Josh Brown field goal, cutting the Bears lead to 21-17. The Seahawks then took the lead late in the third quarter, as Alexander’s 13-yard touchdown run, gave Seattle a 24-21 lead. The fourth quarter was a tight, tense period as both teams couldn’t do much offensively. The Bears did manage a 12 play, 48-yard drive that Robbie Gould finished with a 41-yard field goal, evening the game 24-24 and forcing overtime. The Seahawks won the toss, but were forced to punt. A bad punt gave Chicago excellent field position and they would not waste the opportunity. 7 plays and 34 yards later, Gould came on and nailed a 49-yard field goal, sending the Soldier Field crowd into a frenzy. The Bears followed up that performance with a stirring victory over New Orleans in the NFC Championship game. But the Bears ran out of gas in the Super Bowl, as they fell to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI.
January 14, 2012: San Francisco 36 New Orleans 32
One of the wildest games in NFL history, came down to the final seconds as the 49ers and Saints played a thriller at Candlestick Park. The 49ers got off to a fast start, building a 17-0 lead, thanks to two touchdown passes from Alex Smith. But the Saints fought back as Drew Brees fired two touchdown passes of his own, drawing the Saints to within a field goal at halftime. The third quarter saw the pace slow significantly as 49er kicker David Akers booted a 41-yard field goal, for the only points of the period. The fourth quarter was completely different. After the teams exchanged field goals, the Saints took their first lead of the game, when Brees connected with Darren Sproles on a 44-yard touchdown pass with 4:02 remaining. The 49ers responded with a 6 play, 80-yard drive, that was capped off by Smith’s 28-yard touchdown run. The 49ers missed the two-point convert, which held the score at 29-24 with 2:11 remaining. The Saints countered with a 4 play, 88-yard drive that was finished off by a 66-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 remaining. Brees then found Sproles for the two-point conversion, giving the Saints a 32-29 lead. But the 49ers had one last chance, and they would make good on it. Smith led the 49ers on an 85-yard, 7 play drive which featured a 47 yard completion from Smith to tight end Vernon Davis. With just 9 seconds remaining, Smith connected with Davis with a 14-yard touchdown pass, giving the 49ers a thrilling victory. The 49ers however had the tables turned on them the following week, when they lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game in overtime.
January 13, 2013: Atlanta 30 Seattle 28
The Falcons had gone through many playoff heartbreaks over the years, and were looking to reverse their fortunes. In the first half, it looked like they would do just that, as Atlanta jumped to a 20-0 halftime lead, thanks to two touchdown passes from Matt Ryan. The Seahawks needed to bounce back in the second half, and they did Russell Wilson found Golden Tate on a 29-yard touchdown strike, giving the Seahawks life. But the Falcons answered with a 14 play, 80-yard drive, that was capped off by Ryan’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Jason Snelling. But the Seahawks wouldn’t die as Wilson engineered an 8 play, 80-yard drive that carried over into the fourth quarter. Early in the period, Wilson finished the drive with a 1-yard run, to pull the Seahawks closer. Then Seattle’s defense came up with a big play as safety Earl Thomas intercepted a Ryan pass at the Seattle 38-yard line. 4 plays and 62 yards later, Wilson found tight end Zach Miller on a 3-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Seahawks deficit to 27-21. The Seahawks defense continued to stymie the Falcons offense as Atlanta couldn’t generate anything. Seattle got the ball back with 3 minutes remaining at their own 39-yard line. With momentum on their side, Seattle moved the ball 61 yards on 7 plays, that Marshawn Lynch ended with a 2-yard touchdown run, giving Seattle its first lead, 28-27 with 34 seconds remaining. Jacquizz Rodgers returned the kickoff 34 yards, giving the Falcons one last gasp with 25 seconds remaining. Ryan completed two passes, one to Harry Douglas, the other to tight end Tony Gonzalez, setting up a 49-yard field goal attempt for kicker Matt Bryant. Just before Bryant’s attempt, Seattle coach Pete Carroll called a timeout just as the ball was snapped. Bryant missed the kick, but the attempt didn’t count. After the timeout, Bryant made good on the field goal, giving Atlanta a 30-28 lead. Bryant then attempted a squib kick, but Seattle quickly pounced on the ball, giving the Seahawks excellent field position. Instead of attempting a 65-yard field goal, the Seahawks went for a Hail Mary play. Wilson’s throw found the end zone, but was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who was brought in as an extra defensive back, to preserve the victory for the Falcons. In the NFC Championship game, Atlanta built a 17-0 lead for the second straight week. Once again, the Falcons blew the lead. This time, they could not recover, as they lost to San Francisco, ending their Super Bowl dreams.
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