Opposite the NBA and MLB, the NFL had an amazing decade. Whereas those sports combined to produce three Game 7s in 20 championship series, the NFL saw five Super Bowls come down to the final two minutes. It avoided major scandals while providing us with a likable upstart turned detestable villain, one of the best rivalries the sport has ever seen, featuring two historically transcendent players at the game’s most important position. Oh, and it cleaned up its logo.
It might even be the Golden Age of the NFL.
As for my list, you’ll notice that the common theme uniting all 10 games is fourth-quarter drama. And not like, one-team-drives-for-one-late-TD-to-win drama, but back-and-forth-for-all-15-minutes-with-multiple-scores drama. And even having that high standard and far fewer games to choose from than in the other sports, I had to make some tough cuts. The final ones included the Steelers’ comeback win over the Browns on Wild Card Weekend in 2002 (the same day as a game that made our countdown), the Steelers’ upset of the Colts in the 2005 Divisional Playoffs, and the Colts’ incredible fourth-quarter comeback on Monday Night against the Buccaneers in 2003.
On the other end of the spectrum, the worst game of the decade was Super Bowl XXXVII, the Buccaneers’ 48-21 romp over the Raiders. If you don’t know why, you’re a Bucs’ fan.
10. 2000 Regular Season: New York Jets 40, Miami Dolphins 37 (OT)
The lone regular-season game to make the cut, the “Monday Night Miracle” (or “Midnight Miracle”) at the Meadowlands included an astounding 37 fourth-quarter points between two defensive-minded teams that came into the game at 5-1. Trailing 30-7 entering the final stanza, the Jets scored 23 points in under 12 minutes to tie it, sparked by a Laveranues Coles touchdown when he took the ball out of the hands of Sam Madison. Jay Fiedler and the Fins—this was the year MNF weirdly decided to use shorter nicknames for teams like “Fins” and “Vikes” in its graphics—responded with a deep TD pass to Leslie Shepherd, only to see Vinny Testaverde, who was 18-of-26 for 235 yards and four TDs in the fourth quarter alone lead the Jets down the field once more, hooking up with offensive lineman Jumbo Elliott with 40 seconds to go to send the game to overtime.
In OT, Marcus Coleman picked off Fiedler…only to fumble it back to Miami.
On that same drive, Coleman nabbed another Fiedler pass, holding on to it this time to help set up John Hall from 40 yards out and the win.
After improving to 6-1 with the victory, the Jets suffered two three-game losing streaks down the stretch and missed the playoffs at 9-7. Miami recovered to go 11-5 and win the AFC East before falling to Oakland in the second round of the playoffs.
From Josh, Unabashed Jets Fan: There’s little more fun than seeing offensive linemen run, catch, and, frankly, do anything but block on the offensive line. Suffice it to say, Jumbo Elliot’s bobbling fourth-quarter TD is one of my favorite Jets memories. Being a huge Wayne Chrebet fan (go Hofstra!), his touchdown to tie it at 30 was pretty cool, too. Interesting note: I actually have a slightly better memory of the Jets-Dolphins 1999 MNF game (38-31 victory for the Jets) for three reasons: 1. The score was closer throughout the game; 2. It was one of Dan Marino’s last games; and 3. It was the beginning of the Ray Lucas era (I LOVED Ray Lucas). But, that was last decade. And, the 2000 MNF matchup was pretty awesome.
9. 2002 Wild Card Playoff: San Francisco 49ers 39, New York Giants 38
I don’t need to watch that video. It was pass interference. This game never happened.*
*Sidenote: For an objective fan, January 5, 2003 was the second-best sports day of the decade, since it included both this gem and the honorable mention Steelers-Browns Wild Card game. You’ll find out what the best sports day of the decade was on a later Top 10 Games list. HINT: That day included two of one sport’s top five games. Any guesses?
8. Super Bowl XXXVIII: New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29
I don’t want to say this is the kind of game that came out of nowhere; it was the Super Bowl after all. But the Patriots entered on a 14-game winning streak while the Panthers had defeated a mediocre Rams’ team (in an underrated double-overtime game) and the choking Eagles on the road to advance to Houston. We didn’t really expect it to be close.
And then it unfolded as one of the weirdest games in Super Bowl history. The game was scoreless for 26 minutes before the teams combined for 24 points in the final 185 seconds of the half, with New England taking a 14-10 lead into an infamous intermission. After a scoreless third quarter, the teams decided to shoot it out for the entirety of the fourth. The Pats went up 11, Carolina came back with two TDs (and two failed two-point conversions—which would prove costly).* The second of those two scores—an 85-yard Jake Delhomme-to-Muhsin Muhammad pass—was one of the most stunning plays of the decade. All of a sudden, the Panthers were winning in the fourth quarter. It was weird.
*It was very easy to kill John Fox after the game for going for two each time, but both decisions made sense. Down 21-16 in the fourth after a scoreless third? Not a bad spot to go for it. Up 22-21 in the fourth? Have to go.
Of course, Brady responded to retake the lead—at seven after getting the two-pointer. Carolina had one more answer, as for the second time in three years, Ricky Proehl scored a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes of a Super Bowl against the Patriots. But then John Kasay became one of the biggest goats of the decade, knocking the ensuing kickoff out-of-bounds. That set up New England at its own 40, and we all knew how it was gonna end. The only question was how long Vinatieri’s field goal would be. It was 41 yards, and the kicker atoned for two earlier misses with his second title-winner.
7. 2001 Divisional Playoff: New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
By now, this game almost seems on par with Game 7 of the ’92 NLCS in terms of defining the paths of two franchises. It was Brady and Belichick’s first playoff game in New England, and Gruden’s last in Oakland.* A different outcome, a different interpretation of a seemingly incorrect rule, and who knows how the decade in the NFL transpires?
*While the Raiders would go to the Super Bowl the following season, the seeds of their decline were certainly sown with Gruden’s departure and the inability to infuse any youth to this old nucleus.
But it wasn’t a different outcome, as the Patriots did all the things they would become known for in the final minutes: Brady was what we came to know him as in the fourth quarter, the New England defense got a huge stop, Troy Brown had a big punt return, Belichick went for it when most coaches wouldn’t on a big fourth down in overtime, and Adam Vinatieri made the greatest field goal in NFL history—oddly enough, one that now gets overlooked because he hit bigger (but never better) field goals in his career.
Oh, and Walt Coleman properly interpreted the “Tuck Rule,” which is a dumb rule, but Walt didn’t write it. That was a pretty important play, too.
And can you believe I’ve gotten this far without talking about the snow? Is there anything that alters your expectations for a football game more than the promise of snow?
6. 1999 Wild Card Playoff: Tennessee Titans 22, Buffalo Bills 16
The decade’s first playoff game, played in January of 2000, portended what was to come in the Januaries and Februaries of the Aughts. In crafting the sport’s finest finish ever, the Titans provided us with the first and perhaps most memorable “Where were you?” moment of the decade in sports.*
*My dad’s minivan after basketball practice, having turned on the radio as Kevin Dyson crossed into the end zone, wondering what all the to-do was about.
Here’s why the Music City Miracle is better than the Immaculate Reception, which is really the only other one that comes close*: Umm, it wasn’t ludicrously lucky. “Home Run Throwback” was the play the Titans drew up and executed to perfection—depending on your camera angle along the 25-yard line. Not to go all Will Hunting, but do you realize how easy that was for them to score? Once he caught the ball, the Titans’ radio analyst said, “He’s got something.” What Dyson had was a clear path to the end zone, buffeted by a blockade of Titans along his right. He wasn’t touched, and no defender came within several car lengths’ of him.
*Those tempted to include “The Catch” should realize by now that all that play consisted of was a pretty nice throw and a really nice catch. It was a good play, but was it any better than Young-to-Britt was for the Titans against the Cardinals 10 days ago?
And you know how dejected the Bills all felt after that, with only three seconds left? That’s exactly how the Titans felt after Buffalo’s go-ahead field goal! The only thing that could have made this ending better would be if the Bills did the same thing back at Tennessee, in which case we would have had long arguments about Jeff Fisher’s unconscionable decision to kick the extra point instead of going for two. Turns out, he did get a little lucky with that one.
5. 2006 AFC Championship: Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34
Sometime in the next decade, when Peyton Manning officially hangs up his cleats, this may be the game that makes him the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Great quarterbacks lie on a Marino to Montana spectrum—from stats to titles—and Manning’s first playoff victory over New England, in come-from-behind fashion no less, prevented him from simply being his generation’s Dan Marino.
It’s easy to forget that these were not the two best teams in the AFC that season, that they each had to win on the road the week before, that Manning was having a terrible postseason, and that Brady had been bailed out in San Diego when the Chargers fumbled an interception on a fourth-down play on the tying drive. But it’s easy to forget all that because of how great this game was, in particular a second half that saw the Colts overcome a 21-6 halftime deficit. Each team answered one another in that second half, including a Colts offensive lineman recovering a fumble in the end zone, just as the Patriots had in the first half. In the end, Manning had to lead a drive in the final four minutes. And after failing the first time and having to punt, he got a second shot and capitalized, with Joseph Addai scoring on a run up the middle to get the monkey off Peyton’s back in the best game produced by the league’s best rivalry this decade.
4. Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17
Time for a characteristic pat on the back: I was all over this. Prior to the game, I said if the Pats could hold St. Louis to field goals and get any kind of early lead, this would be “the biggest upset since a certain other #12 trotted off the field.”* I even said they’d win it on the final play on a 49-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
*Come on, people: Namath.
The interesting thing to reflect on with this game is how much Tom Brady has changed since then. Remember, Drew Bledsoe won the AFC Championship for New England; this was the first Super Bowl in my lifetime to have a legitimate quarterback controversy. And then, with 90 seconds on the clock after the Rams’ furious comeback tied it—with the help of that Willie McGinest hold that negated a long fumble return TD and a Ricky Proehl tying TD, the first time—it was surprising to see the Pats do anything but kneel. Brady was just a game manager. But he led that dink-and-dunk drive down the field—the first three completions all to J.R. Redmond out of the backfield—setting up Vinatieri from 48 out and the win.
One yard off ain’t bad, right?
Note: This was also the last game Pat Summerall announced with John Madden, and if I were to pick a “Worst Thing to Happen to the NFL This Decade Outside of Players Dying,” it would be the forced retirement of Pat Summerall.
3. Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23
This game was very similar to the Super Bowl played five years earlier between the Patriots and Panthers: The favorite from the AFC, just a few years removed from another Super Bowl title, held the lead for most of the game until a furious fourth-quarter comeback that included a stunning touchdown pass that gave the underdog the advantage, only for the favorite to come back and win on the last drive.
Now, what separates the two is that this game included the unreal end to the first half on James Harrison’s interception return for touchdown, two of the greatest performances by wideouts in Super Bowl history, and a final drive for a TD to come back to win rather than a FG to break a tie. And do you remember this had a safety, too? That was a big momentum changer.
A great game, and in most decades, probably the greatest. But we’ve still got TWO to go.
2. Super Bowl XXXIV: St. Louis Rams 23, Tennessee Titans 16
Like a few of its Super Bowl predecessors on this list (and successors chronologically), Super Bowl XXXIV wasn’t the closest game throughout. The Rams—who I should remind you were one of the best teams in NFL history, and I’m not kidding—dominated the first half but led only 9-0 (despite attempting field goals on all five of their possessions). St. Louis pushed the lead to 16 early in the third. The Titans responded on both ends, scoring on three straight drives to tie the game at 16 with just over 2:00 to play.
And then the game got epic.
Warner hit Bruce for a 73-yard TD on the first play of the ensuing Rams’ drive, immediately putting Tennessee back in the hole and becoming the first QB to throw for over 400 yards in a Super Bowl. After a penalty on the kickoff, the Titans started with one timeout, 1:54 on the clock from their own 10-yard line. It would be the greatest non-scoring drive in NFL history.
Steve McNair made one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history on a 3rd-and-5—big plays happen on that down in the big game—eluding two Rams in the backfield and finding Kevin Dyson down on the 10-yard line to set up the game’s final play. On the quick slant from the 10, Dyson couldn’t break free of Mike Jones’ grasp, falling one yard short of the goal line in the best final play a Super Bowl may ever see.
1. Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
You want to call this a subjective pick, go ahead. You’re wrong. This is the best football game of the decade, and maybe the best game across all sports. What separates Super Bowl XLII from the other, very strong contenders are two things: 1. The obvious historical impact of the Giants’ upset; 2. The fact that the game was tight for all 60 minutes, with neither team leading by more than four at any point.
This isn’t to say that it wasn’t a very odd game. Long scoring drives by each team to start the game meant it was halftime before you knew it. And although both offenses moved the ball well between the 30s, neither could get on the board again until the fourth quarter, which was every bit as edge-of-your-seat exciting as Steelers-Cardinals or Rams-Titans. New York surged ahead when Eli Manning found David Tyree with over 11 minutes to go—the moment when the upset, this unfathomable upset, seemed really possible for the first time. The best offense in NFL history answered—belatedly so—with under three to go to retake the lead, 14-10.
That set up Eli Manning, 83 yards and 2:42 from immortality. It was a chance, and that’s all I could have asked for. The Giants converted a 4th-and-1—for years a significant problem for them—before Manning turned in what even Steve Sabol agrees is the greatest play in Super Bowl history.* Just look at the difference between what should have happened (sack, 4th-and-15) and what did happen (big completion, 1st down deep in Pats’ territory). That was the moment where the upset went from possible to probable.
*Still don’t miss Pat Summerall after hearing Joe Buck call that play? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Of course, the Giants still needed to go 25 yards, and everyone forgets the huge 3rd-and-11 conversion to Steve Smith the play before Manning found Plaxico Burress on a perfectly called slant-and-go to beat New England’s first blitz of the drive.
Super Bowl XLII, unlike the Patriots, was perfect.