Ranking the NFL's best playoff moments: The Catch, Hail Mary and more

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 8, 2020

They elicit delight and dismay, depending upon where your fandom resides, of course. But they never disappoint. Not when you take into account the sheer lunacy and, well, luck involved. They are the best postseason plays in NFL history, as voted on by a panel of ESPN reporters who cover the league.

The usual suspects are here, from the Immaculate Reception to The Catch to David Tyree's helmet histrionics. A more recent vintage, like The Minneapolis Miracle, is represented, too.

Our panel of NFL experts ranked the best postseason plays of the Super Bowl era. In and of themselves, it's hard to argue with the "wow" factor of each play. But when you dig deeper, you see just how with one foot, let alone a yard, this way or the other, NFL history is changed and with so many far-reaching ramifications. Big time. Indeed, these plays have helped launch dynasties as well as hastened declines. So let's dive in, the water's fine ... unless it's your team on the business end of one of ESPN's 10 best postseason plays in NFL history.

1. 'Immaculate Reception'

Game: AFC divisional game between Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders

Date: Dec. 23, 1972

Situation: Steelers trailed Raiders by one, fourth-and-10 at their own 40 with 22 seconds left

Play result: Running back Franco Harris 60-yard TD pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw

Final score: Steelers 13, Raiders 7

What this play means to NFL history: In Pittsburgh, it is the equivalent of a religious experience. In Oakland, it is seen as something more sinister -- the "Immaculate Deception." Did running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua touch the ball first, or was it all safety Jack Tatum? (The rules at the time stipulated that only the first offensive player to touch a pass could catch it.) Did the ball touch the Three Rivers Stadium turf before Harris gained possession? Or what about the claim of linebacker Phil Villapiano that he was clipped by tight end John McMakin? The game tape has been scoured more than the Zapruder film and there are still no clear answers. Pittsburgh's first playoff victory meant nothing the next week, as the Steelers lost to the undefeated Dolphins. And the Raiders ended Miami's winning streak at 18 games in Week 2 of the 1973 season. But from the perspective of Pittsburgh, which has a statue of Harris making the catch at its airport, the play helped launch a dynasty, as the Steelers would win four Super Bowls in six years, starting with the 1974 season. And hey, Harris calls Villapiano every Dec. 23, just to ask what he was doing on that day in 1972.

2. 'The Catch'

Game: NFC Championship Game between San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys

Date: Jan. 10, 1982

Situation: Cowboys led 49ers by six, third-and-3 at the Cowboys' 6-yard line with 58 seconds left

Play result: Tight end Dwight Clark 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana

Final score: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27

What this play means to NFL history: Clark coming down from the heavens in front of a helpless Everson Walls after Montana had pump-faked defenders Ed "Too Tall" Jones, D.D. Lewis and Larry Bethea out of their cleats was more than a passing of the torch (Dallas had knocked San Francisco out of the playoffs three consecutive times in the early 1970s). The Catch also jump-started the Niners as the Team of the '80s while relegating America's Team to an afterthought for the decade. But keep in mind, were it not for Eric Wright's then-legal horse-collar tackle of a breaking-away Drew Pearson on the Cowboys' ensuing possession, The Catch would be a footnote and the Cowboys would have faced the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Instead, the Niners' West Coast offense became all the rage in a copycat league and Joe Montana became Joe Cool.

3. Ice Bowl QB sneak

Game: NFL Championship Game between Green Bay Packers and Cowboys

Date: Dec. 31, 1967

Situation: Packers trailed Cowboys by three, third-and-goal at the Cowboys' 1-yard line with 8 seconds left

Play result: Quarterback Bart Starr 1-yard TD rush

Final score: Packers 21, Cowboys 17

What this play meant to NFL history: It made the QB sneak more than cool, regardless of the minus-15 degree temperature at kickoff, with an average wind chill of minus-48 degrees; it made it, well, iconic. Starr getting in after calling his own number from inside the 1-yard line behind a double-team block by center Ken Bowman and right guard Jerry Kramer without telling any other teammates also solidified Packers coach Vince Lombardi's legend. Sure, the Packers still had one more game to play, against the AFL champion Raiders in Super Bowl II, but at the time, winning the NFL title game was the thing. And beating the Cowboys for the second consecutive season for the NFL championship? How 'bout them Packers?

4. 'The Helmet Catch'

Game: Super Bowl XLII between New York Giants and New England Patriots

Date: Feb. 3, 2008

Situation: Giants trailed Patriots by four, third-and-5 from their own 44 with 1:16 left

Play result: Quarterback Eli Manning completes 32-yard pass to wide receiver David Tyree

Final score: Giants 17, Patriots 14

What this play meant to NFL history: The final catch of Tyree's otherwise prosaic career -- a play after cornerback Asante Samuel dropped what would have been a game-sealing interception -- kept alive the Giants' improbable winning drive and allowed the undefeated 1972 Dolphins to pop some corks. Yeah, the Giants beating New England ended the Patriots' epic season, one in which they won their first 18 games before losing in the Super Bowl. Oh, and those Dolphins? They are still the only team to go unbeaten and untied in a season at 17-0. Manning, who was nearly sacked three times on the play, called it the "luckiest" play in NFL history.

5. 'The Hail Mary'

Game: NFC divisional game between Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings

Date: Dec. 28, 1975

Situation: Cowboys trailed Vikings 14-10, at the 50-yard line with 32 seconds left

Play result: Wide receiver Drew Pearson 50-yard pass from quarterback Roger Staubach

Final score: Cowboys 17, Vikings 14

What this play meant to NFL history: Sure, the term "Hail Mary" to describe a last-ditch deep pass at the end of regulation had been around since at least the 1930s, but it became as commonplace as the term "America's Team" after Staubach found Pearson in front of a falling-down Nate Wright (or did Pearson push off Wright?) inside the 5-yard line. The Dallas win stopped a potential rematch of Super Bowl IX, in which the Vikings fell to the Steelers. Instead, the Cowboys went to Los Angeles, thumped the Rams for the NFC title and then fell victim to the Steelers in Super Bowl X. And the Hail Mary pass is no longer a novelty; teams now scheme for it, both on offense and defense ... just in case.

6. 'Music City Miracle'

Game: AFC wild-card game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills

Date: Jan. 8, 2000

Situation: Titans trailed Bills by one with 16 seconds left and were receiving a kickoff

Play result: Wide receiver Kevin Dyson takes lateral 75 yards for a touchdown

Final score: Titans 22, Bills 16

What this play meant to NFL history: How close was Frank Wycheck's toss to Dyson to being an illegal forward lateral, which would have rendered this null and void? Let's just say it was closer than Scott Norwood's missed field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXV nine years earlier. And that was just fine with the Titans, who rode the play all the way to within a yard and a PAT of forcing OT in Super Bowl XXXIV against the Rams. The Titans would go to the playoffs five times in the next nine years, including the 2002 AFC title game, while the Bills would not return to the playoffs until the 2017 season. Perhaps the 1999 Jaguars felt the pain of this play more than anyone other than the Bills, as Jacksonville lost only three games that season -- all to the Titans, including for the AFC championship.

7. Malcolm Butler's game-sealing interception

Game: Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks

Date: Feb. 1, 2015

Situation: Patriots led by four with 23 seconds left and the Seahawks at the New England 1-yard line

Play result: Butler intercepts quarterback Russell Wilson's pass in the end zone

Final score: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

What this play meant to NFL history: Conspiracy theories abound, like the Seahawks wanted Wilson to be the game's MVP with a passing touchdown, rather than running back Marshawn Lynch with a rushing TD. Or maybe coach Pete Carroll just has difficulty in short-yardage situations (see: USC vs. Texas for the 2004 national title with Reggie Bush inexplicably off the field, or the Seahawks blowing a first-and-goal from the 1 against the 49ers in the 2019 finale). In any event, the goal-line pick kept Seattle from back-to-back Super Bowl titles and hastened a frustrated Lynch's one-year retirement a year later. For New England, it breathed new life into the Patriots' dynasty, as they would play in three of the next four Super Bowls, winning two. And maybe they win all three if Butler isn't benched for no discernible reason against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

8. 'Sea of Hands'

Game: AFC divisional game between the Raiders and Dolphins

Date: Dec. 21, 1974

Situation: Raiders trailed Dolphins by five, first-and-goal at the Miami 8-yard line with 21 seconds left

Play result: Quarterback Ken Stabler throws 8-yard pass to running back Clarence Davis

Final score: Raiders 28, Dolphins 26

What this play meant to NFL history: Stabler falling down and hitting Davis between three Dolphins -- Mike Kolen, Larry Ball and Charlie Babb -- kept back-to-back champion Miami from going to its fourth straight Super Bowl. "Somebody had to stop those Dolphins," said linebacker Phil Villapiano, whose interception of Bob Griese after the Sea of Hands play sealed the victory. But the Raiders could not keep the momentum, falling the next week to the Steelers, who would win four titles in six years. Oakland would finally break through in 1976 and the Dolphins have not won a Super Bowl since.

9. Santonio Holmes' winning touchdown

Game: Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals

Date: Feb. 1, 2009

Situation: Steelers trail by three, second-and-goal with 41 seconds left at the Cardinals' 6-yard line

Play result: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a 6-yard touchdown pass to Holmes

Final score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

What this play meant to NFL history: Holmes' toe-tap catch in the right corner of the end zone on a seeming fire-drill scramble play by Roethlisberger enabled the Steelers to become the first team in NFL history to win six Super Bowls and Mike Tomlin became the second African American coach to win a Lombardi trophy. Pittsburgh would return to the Super Bowl (but fall to Green Bay) two years later, and the Steelers have not been back since. The Cardinals, who had been to the playoffs only four times in the Super Bowl era, have been to the playoffs only three times since Holmes outleaped defenders Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Ralph Brown and Aaron Francisco and kept Hall of Fame-bound QB Kurt Warner from his second ring.

10. 'Minneapolis Miracle'

Game: NFC divisional game between New Orleans Saints and Vikings

Date: Jan. 14, 2018

Situation: Vikings trailed by one with 9 seconds left, third-and-10 at their own 39-yard line

Play result: QuarterbackCase Keenum throws 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs

Final Score: Vikings 29, Saints 24

What this play meant to NFL history: In and of itself, the play was remarkable -- first fourth-quarter, walk-off touchdown in NFL playoff history. Defensive back Marcus Williams inexplicably whiffed on the tackle of Diggs and he took the Vikings into the NFC title game, where they were spanked by the Eagles. Truly, this play robbed us of the potential Drew Brees-Tom Brady Super Bowl that has yet to come to fruition.

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