As we head toward the Super Bowl, I unveil what I believe to be the five greatest plays that ended up winning big games in big moments. The decisiveness of the play, the degree of difficulty, the amount of luck involved, and the magnitude of the game are all taken into account. As with last week’s column, a Week 1 play, no matter how dramatic, won’t make the list. Odell Beckham, Jr.’s catch last season against the Cowboys, as spectacular as it was, did not help his team out one bit and didn’t really hurt Dallas in the short or long term. Once again, my picks are below, accompanied by video and analysis, and topped off with some honorable mentions. Let me know what you think—agree, disagree, did I leave off your team’s great moment?
#1: David Tyree’s Catch (Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3, 2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14):
This is the greatest and most consequential play in NFL history. As well as they had played in the game, the underdog Giants trailed the Patriots 14-10 with 2:39 to play and were about to hand them the first perfect season in the NFL since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Facing 3rd down and 5 on his own 44-yard line, Eli Manning scrambled and flailed in the pocket for what seemed like an eternity—at one point narrowly avoiding a sack—before heaving a go-for-broke, jump ball Hail Mary in the direction of David Tyree, a wide receiver no one had heard of before and no one would ever hear from again. Tyree made a one-handed catch pinning the ball to his helmet, keeping it away from Rodney Harrison, somehow doing all of this without the ball hitting the ground. The jaw-dropping play kept the Giants alive, and they ultimately won the first of two Super Bowls in the Tom Coughlin-Manning era. The defeat also inaugurated a mild down period for the Patriots, who lost Brady to injury early the next year and did not return to the Super Bowl until 2011.
#2: Adam Vinatieri in the Snow (AFC Divisional Round, Jan. 19, 2002: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 in OT)
Forget the “tuck rule” debacle involving a then-young Tom Brady. The Patriots were at home, but it seemed to be the Raiders’ year, and Oakland led 13-10 late despite a miserable snowstorm. Adam Vinatieri, then a mid-career, undistinguished kicker, stepped out into the middle of the weather to try a 45-yard FG, only slightly closer than the one the similarly-built Scott Norwood had hooked wide right in perfect weather a decade earlier in the Super Bowl. Vinatieri had to line drive the ball in order to keep it from getting caught up in the wind. Luck was surely involved, as well, in that he managed to avoid having the kick blocked by a Raiders defender. But the kick sailed through, and New England lived to play OT, where Vinatieri chipped in a much smoother 23-yard FG to secure the victory and, for all intents and purposes, launch the Patriot dynasty. Oakland would make the Super Bowl the following year, but given the weaknesses of the Steelers and Rams in 2001 on defense, it’s tempting to think their more-complete team could have won the Super Bowl that year had the odds gone their way in this game. As for Vinatieri, a Hall of Fame berth seems all but sewn up—at least two of his other kicks in his career could have easily made the list (see “Honorable Mentions”).
#3: The Immaculate Reception (AFC Divisional Round, Dec. 23, 1972: Steelers 13, Raiders 7)
Entering this game, the Raiders—despite being on the road—were on the rise under coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler. The Steelers had suffered through almost constant mediocrity since they were founded in 1933, and were making only their second playoff appearance in 40 years. They seemed headed for elimination, trailing 7-6 with no timeouts and just 1:17 remaining. Terry Bradshaw dialed up a 4th and 10 pass play, and had to scramble just to get off what essentially amounted to a Hail Mary intended for John Fuqua. The ball bounced backward as Fuqua collided with Jack Tatum, and into the direction of Franco Harris, who was initially blocking on the play, then went out as a receiver at the last second. Harris caught the ball and held off Raiders DB Jimmy Warren to get into the end zone to give the Steelers the lead and the eventual victory. Under the rules at the time, the catch may have been illegal: if Fuqua had touched the ball, he would have been the only offensive player eligible to catch it. But the referees believed Tatum also touched the ball, making it a live ball before it hit the ground; thus enabling Harris to catch it as well. Luck had more to do with this one than skill, and even though the Steelers went on to lose their next playoff game, this lucky bounce of the ball sprang the franchise forward to win four Super Bowls in six years and permanently etched the Steelers onto the NFL map.
#4: Montana to Clark (NFC Championship, Jan. 10, 1982: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27)
After committing six turnovers, the upstart 49ers probably didn’t deserve to be in this game against a long-time conference power. But young QB Joe Montana capped off the game-winning drive with a throw to Dwight Clark as he was falling backward with two defenders on him with 51 seconds to go. “The Catch” (and an extra point) secured the victory to the 49ers, who went on to win five Super Bowls in thirteen years, and the Cowboys slipped back into the pack for the rest of the 1980s.
#5: The Music City Miracle (AFC Wild-Card Round, Jan. 8, 2000: Titans 22, Bills 16)
Initially this game seemed destined to be remembered as the one where Bills coach Wade Phillips, based off a meaningless Week 17 game, replaced starting QB Doug Flutie with Rob Johnson and perhaps sealed his own team’s fate in the process. But Johnson had the hot hand and played well, leading the Bills to a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds remaining. All the Bills had to do was kick off, prevent a return, and secure the victory. The Titans might have considered themselves lucky just to get to the playoffs for the first time since the old Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee, but a lot of skill and some luck got them out of this jam and to a miraculous victory. Lorenzo Neal took the kick and handed off to tight end Frank Wycheck, who threw the ball backward (just barely, as it turned out) across the field to receiver Kevin Dyson, who had enough room to get up the field and score the game-winning TD. The Bills haven’t been back to the playoffs since; the Titans went all the way to the Super Bowl that year and remained in contention for much of the 2000s.
Honorable mentions: Jim O’Brien’s field goal with five seconds left gives Baltimore a Super Bowl V win over the Cowboys (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aNW8xp2y0g). Steve Young caps off his hall of fame career with a TD pass to Terrell Owens in what’s later dubbed “The Catch II” to secure an NFC wild-card playoff win over Green Bay in 1999 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o3b3HW387A). Adam Vinatieri walk-off field goal wins Super Bowl XXXVI for the Patriots in 2002 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ehXQ1Z7lGU). Vinatieri overcomes an early miss and a blocked kick to nail a near-walk off FG