They used to call them NFL Conference Semi-Final Games. The name now is NFL Divisional Playoff Games. Whatever, they are the “final four” of each conference, the “elite eight” of the NFL. The winners of these games go to the conference championships and get one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Through the years, the best of these “divisional games” have been so memorable that they have been labeled. Here are the Top 5 Greatest NFL Divisional Games of All Time.
5.) NFC Division Playoffs: Saturday, January 16, 2016: Arizona Cardinals 26, Green Bay Packers 20 (OT)
“Hail Mary/Hail Larry”
It was one year ago when quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Carson Palmer of Arizona wowed fans with two of the greatest back-to-back plays ever. With :05 seconds to go in the game, and trailing 20-13, Rodgers aired out a 41-yard “Hail Mary” pass that was caught in the end zone by Jeff Janis. It became the first game-tying touchdown pass on the last play of regulation in postseason history. After the extra point which knotted the score at 20-20, the game went to overtime. The Cardinals won the toss and elected to receive. On the first play of overtime, Palmer connected with Larry Fitzgerald for a 75-yard completion to move the ball to the Packers 5-yard line. Two plays later, it was Palmer to Fitzgerald again for the winning score. The Cardinals went on to the NFC Championship where they lost to the Panthers in Carolina.
4.) AFC Division Playoffs: Saturday January 19, 2002: New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13 (OT)
“Tuck Rule Game”
Heavy snow was falling as the Patriots and Raiders battled for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game. Trailing 13-3 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tom Brady led New England on a 10-play, 67-yard scoring drive that cut the Oakland lead to 13-10. Then with less than 2:00 minutes to go in the game, Brady dropped back to pass and was hit by Charles Woodson. He lost the ball and the Raiders recovered. However, referee Walt Coleman, after looking at a referee instant replay review, overturned the fumble, saying that Brady’s arm was moving forward and it was an incomplete pass. New England kept the ball and, later in the drive, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard field goal in a blizzard to send the game to overtime. The Patriots won on a Vinatieri 23-yard field goal. It was New England’s only lead of the game, it was the final game at old Foxboro Stadium and it was the springboard for the Patriots winning their first NFL championship. Two weeks later, they took a 20-17 win over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI.
3.) AFC Divisional Playoffs: January 4, 1981: Dallas Cowboys 30, Atlanta Falcons 27
“Duel in Dixie”
A game all too familiar to Falcons fans. Atlanta led Dallas 24-10 after three quarters at Fulton County Stadium. However, the Cowboys responded with a three-touchdown fourth quarter to win the game. The final blow was a 23-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Drew Pearson with :47 seconds to go in the game. The Cowboys missed the extra point giving the Falcons a chance to tie with a field goal. However, the Falcons turned the ball over on downs. It was especially painful for the Falcons as they were the top seed in the NFC in the post season after a fantastic 12-4 season under Leeman Bennett, including nine wins in a row. Dallas went to the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Philadelphia. The Eagles lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
2.) AFC Divisional Playoffs: December 23, 1972: Pittsburgh 13, Oakland 7
“The Immaculate Reception”
The game, held two days before Christmas in 1972, is known for one thing: the catch made by Franco Harris that won the game. NFL Films considers it the greatest NFL play of all time. It is that, as well as the most controversial one. With 22 seconds to go in the game, Pittsburgh trailed Oakland Raiders 7–6. On 4th down and 10 on their own 40-yard line, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball downfield trying to connect with the tailback “Frenchy” Fuqua. The Raiders’ Jack Tatum and Fuqua collided. Fuqua hit the ground, the ball traveled backward to where Steelers’ fullback Franco Harris apparently caught the ball before it hit the ground and ran it in 35 yards for the winning score. There has been much discussion as to who deflected the ball that Harris caught, Tatum or Fuqua? If it was Fuqua, then the catch would have been illegal. The Steelers went on to lose the AFC Championship Game to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, who later beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
1.) AFC Divisional Playoffs: January 2, 1982: San Diego Chargers 41, Miami Dolphins 38 (OT)
“Epic in Miami”
This overtime classic set many NFL Playoff records: most points scored (79), total yards (1,036), and most passing yards (809). Quarterback Dan Fouts and the Chargers looked as if they would run away with the game as they built a 24-0 lead after one quarter at the Orange Bowl. However, the Dolphins replaced quarterback David Woodley with veteran Don Strock in the second quarter and things changed. Miami scored 17 points in the second to trail by only a touchdown at halftime. The back-and-forth third quarter saw the Dolphins tie the game on a Strock 15-yard TD pass to Joe Rose, only to see Fouts come right back to hit Kellen Winslow with a 25-yard strike to retake the lead at 31-24. Another touchdown pass by Strock tied the game at 31-31 heading to the final quarter. Miami took their first lead of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter, but San Diego tied things at 38-38 when, with only :58 seconds to go in the game, Fouts was flushed out of the pocket and tried to hit Winslow in the end zone. The ball flew over Winslow’s head and was caught by James Brooks for the tying score. Eventually, after a wild 13:52 overtime, the Chargers Rolf Benirschke kicked a 29-yard field goal for the 41-38 win.