Each year, certain playoff games live on while others fade. As the NFL embarks on its latest postseason, here are some of the most underappreciated games from the Super Bowl era. No Super Bowl-winning teams are eligible here; they get their due. But several of these games produced a Super Bowl entrant.
Obscured because of its first-round placement and the Vikings' one-sided Super Bowl IV loss, this frigid matchup pitted the NFL's No. 1 defense against Rams MVP quarterback Roman Gabriel. The two Hall of Fame Purple People Eaters came through for the Vikes in sub-zero wind chills. Two Gabriel TD passes in the first half gave Los Angeles a 10-point halftime lead, but Joe Kapp's 2-yard QB sweep staked Minnesota to a fourth-quarter advantage. Eller beat Hall of Fame right tackle Bob Brown for a safety, and a Page INT protected the 23-20 lead. The Vikings routed the Browns the next week, venturing to the first of their four Super Bowls.
Between the Steelers' four-Super Bowl run between 1974-79, this was the only time they did not appear in an AFC title game. A pre-ESPN Tom Jackson had a lot to do with that. The Pro Bowl linebacker's fumble return set up a first-half TD, and he picked off two Terry Bradshaw passes to give the Broncos their first playoff win. Pittsburgh, however, outgained Denver and forged a 21-all tie in the fourth quarter. After two Bronco field goals, Jackson's second pick stopped a go-ahead Steeler march in a 34-21 victory. Denver's Orange Crush defense produced a Super Bowl berth. The Steel Curtain exacted revenge in the '78 playoffs, however.
The NFL expanded to 10 playoff teams in 1978; these 9-7 squads began a new era at a muddy Fulton County Stadium. The Eagles held a 13-point lead with less than four minutes to play. It could have been more, but punter Mike Michel -- asked to kick once Dıck Vermeil did not sign a replacement kicker after Nick Mike-Mayer's late-season injury -- missed a field goal and an extra point. The Falcons scored two TDs -- on Steve Bartkowski passes to tight end Jim Mitchell and wideout Wallace Francis -- in the final minutes to take a 14-13 lead. A Ron Jaworski-led drive ended with a Michel 34-yard miss with 17 seconds left. The NFC champion Cowboys eliminated the Falcons a week later.
The Cowboys and Rams faced off in six playoff games from 1973-80; Dallas won four of those. The defending NFC champions were favored to win this Texas Stadium encounter against a 9-7 Rams team, after Roger Staubach's final comeback gave Dallas the NFC East title over Washington. The Rams nullified another Staubach rally. The Hall of Fame QB erased a 14-5 halftime deficit with a 2-yard TD pass to Jay Saldi in the fourth quarter. But the Rams escaped on a deflected 50-yard pass from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy near the two-minute mark. Staubach retired after this 21-19 loss; the Rams parlayed this upset into a Super Bowl XIV berth.
The Air Coryell Chargers blew their first playoff opportunity, losing to an undermanned Oilers team in the 1979 divisional round. They almost endured a reprise a year later. Despite the Bolts being the first team to deploy three 1,000-yard receivers -- John Jefferson, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner -- they let the Bills take a 14-3 halftime lead. Bills QB Joe Ferguson played on a severely injured ankle and reinjured it during a three-INT outing, aiding a Chargers escape. Dan Fouts hit Joiner and Ron Smith -- on a 50-yard strike with 2:18 left -- for second-half TDs to preserve a 20-14 win. The Raiders beat the Chargers in San Diego in the AFC title game.
While three 1981 name games -- the "Freezer Bowl," "The Catch" and the "Epic in Miami" -- overshadowed this Shea Stadium contest, it nearly involved a historic Jets comeback. Behind two Frank Lewis TD catches during the ex-Steeler's 158-yard day, the Bills led 24-0 in the second quarter. Despite trailing by 18 in the fourth, the Jets rallied to slash the deficit to four. Amid a 377-yard performance, Jets QB Richard Todd drove the hosts into Buffalo's red zone. However, his fourth INT -- to linebacker Bill Simpson -- gave the Bills a 31-27 win. The Jets were, however, in the AFC title game a year later.
Though it came in a strike-shortened season, this game deserves more attention. Not only was it Terry Bradshaw's final playoff game, but this matchup also pitted a Steelers team still starting nine Hall of Famers against the period's most exciting squad. The Chargers, in what would be their Air Coryell years' last playoff run, ended the Steel Curtain era. Bradshaw and Fouts each had 300-yard days at Three Rivers Stadium, and the second of John Stallworth's two TDs gave Pittsburgh a 28-17 fourth-quarter edge. But two ensuing Winslow TDs -- the second via final-minute screen pass -- rescued the Bolts in a 31-28 classic. In a revenge measure, the Dolphins routed the Bolts a week later.
A two-month strike induced a one-time-only 16-team playoff bracket, setting up an NFC matchup of 5-4 teams. The Metrodome's first playoff game turned out to be fun, with the Falcons scoring two special teams touchdowns -- one on an option pitch to an Englishman (kicker Mick Luckhurst) -- and returning an INT for another. After Bob Glazebrook's 35-yard pick-six, Tommy Kramer piloted two TD drives to erase a two-score Atlanta lead. A Luckhurst field goal gave the Falcons a 24-23 fourth-stanza edge, but another Vikes drive ended in a TD -- a Ted Brown 5-yard run inside two minutes. After this 30-24 triumph, Super Bowl champ Washington defeated Minnesota.
The only conference championship game appearance in the Seahawks' first 29 seasons came in 1983, by virtue of a big upset in Miami. In a game that featured five Dolphin turnovers, the 9-7 Seahawks upended rookie Dan Marino in a 27-20 stunner. Fellow standout rookie Curt Warner upstaged Marino, totaling 151 scrimmage yards -- the final two on a go-ahead touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Dolphins returner Fulton Walker, he of a Super Bowl return TD the year prior, then fumbled twice to seal Seattle's upset. The Seahawks lost to the Raiders the next week, and the Dolphins avenged this loss in the 1984 playoffs.
Not a 49ers Super Bowl year, but this game involved a flawless Joe Montana drive and a monster Billy Sims effort. It also featured five Gary Danielson INTs to hamstring an upset-poised 9-7 Lions team. A Week 16 injury to Eric Hipple sidelined Detroit's QB1, and the veteran Danielson staked the 49ers to two first-half TDs after INTs. But Sims (140 scrimmage yards) scored two fourth-quarter TDs to give the Lions a six-point lead. Montana countered with a 6-for-6 final drive that culminated in a Freddie Solomon score and 24-23 margin. Danielson's ensuing salvo ended with an Eddie Murray 42-yard field goal miss. The 49ers lost in a controversial NFC title game in Washington.
In the first of the Oilers' seven straight playoff appearances, they needed to withstand a big Steve Largent day. The future pass-reliant Oilers outgained the Seahawks by nearly 200 yards. Alonzo Highsmith and Mike Rozier combined for 140 on the ground -- including Rozier's zig-zag 1-yard score -- and Warren Moon threw for 273. But Tony Zendejas missed a 29-yard field goal that would have sealed a win, leading to Largent scoring a final-minute TD. The Hall of Famer's 132-yard day was not enough, however; the Oilers won the overtime coin toss and prevailed 23-20. Houston won three wild-card games during this stretch but zero divisional-round games.
The Browns' "The" games have endured; their action-packed wins from this period have not. Cleveland held off the future powerhouse in a 34-30 shootout. The Bills and Browns were nine-win teams in an NFC-tilted season, but this game included five 30-plus-yard TDs -- including two from Browns wideout Webster Slaughter and a 90-yard kickoff return by rookie Eric Metcalf. But the Bills rallied to within four late in the fourth quarter, and Jim Kelly marched the visitors into the Browns' red zone. This game, however, is most remembered for Ronnie Harmon's ensuing end zone drop. Clay Matthews ensured a third Browns-Broncos AFC title game -- without a "The" -- with an interception one play later.
Despite the NFL steadily making receiving yards easier to compile, Flipper Anderson's 336-yard single-game standard remains 32 years later. Two months after that electric night, the Rams wideout tacked on a signature playoff performance. He scored twice in an upset at the Meadowlands. In the playoffs after missing the previous two fields, the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick Giants could not contain Jim Everett. The thin-faced QB threw for 315 yards -- 50 of those went to his second-year receiver. An Everett-to-Anderson 30-yard strike allowed the Rams to walk off, 19-13, in overtime. While an all-time 49ers team shredded the Rams a week later, Anderson's '89 season should not be slept on.
The Chiefs have a diverse file of playoff agony; some losses ended up overlooked. The first Marty Schottenheimer-era outing qualifies as an "others receiving votes" letdown. Largely on the back of Stephone Paige, whose record Anderson broke, Kansas City held a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in Miami. The Chiefs' No. 5 scoring defense wilted. Dan Marino threw two subsequent TD passes, the second a 12-yarder on which Albert Lewis' INT gamble led to a Mark Clayton stroll-in to make it 17-16. A holding penalty stalled a Chiefs final drive, and Nick Lowery's 52-yard game-winning field goal try fell short. The Bills beat the Dolphins in the snow a week later.
Moving from Steve DeBerg to Dave Krieg, the Chiefs could not voyage past the divisional round. They did in 1993, after trading for Joe Montana and signing Marcus Allen. Montana started 0-for-7 in this game and suffered an injury, leading to a Krieg touchdown pass. Steelers QB Neil O'Donnell also threw three. The 9-7 Steelers held a 24-17 lead late in the fourth stanza, but tight end Keith Cash blocked a punt to set up a fourth-and-goal Montana-to-Tim Barnett connection that tied the game. In Arrowhead Stadium's Astroturf finale, the Chiefs won 27-24 on a Lowery OT field goal. The Chiefs upset the Oilers to qualify for their only conference title game between 1969-2018.
Back from an Achilles tear, Marino nearly led the Dolphins to a second Round 2 win over the Chargers in three seasons. Marino threw three first-half TD passes to give Miami a 21-6 lead, but a Reuben Davis safety keyed a Charger comeback. Occurring in the 1992-98 window when the NFL ditched replay, this game was rough for officials, who deprived the Bolts a TD and gave them a phantom score. The last of Natrone Means' 139 rushing yards, however, set up a Stan Humphries-to-Mark Seay go-ahead TD inside a minute remaining. Marino's well-conducted final drive ended with a Pete Stoyanovich missed field goal and a 22-21 loss. The Chargers ventured to their only Super Bowl that season.
Overlooked because of what the Vikings did in 1998, their final pre-Randy Moss season included a late comeback. Brad Johnson's season-ending surgery allowed an unretired Randall Cunningham to return to a QB1 role, and he directed a rare two-score rally inside of the two-minute warning. Officials had a shaky day here too, wrongfully giving the Giants and Vikings TDs. Replays showed a Jake Reed foot out of bounds, but after his score, Minnesota recovered an onside kick and turned it into a game-winning Eddie Murray field goal in a 23-22 rain-soaked win. The Vikings lost to the 49ers the following Saturday.
A brutal Mike Vanderjagt playoff miss derailed the 2005 Colts, but the polarizing kicker cost the 2000 team as well. However, Jim Mora -- in his final playoff game before making notable comments on the subject -- set this in motion by declining a penalty that forced Vanderjagt to try a 49-yarder rather than give Peyton Manning a third-and-medium in overtime. His miss led to Lamar Smith punctuating a dominant day. Helping a Dolphins team limited by three Jay Fiedler INTs, Smith logged a playoff-record 40 carries (for 209 yards) -- the last of which a 17-yard walk-off -- in a 23-17 Miami win. The Raiders beat the Dolphins a week later.
Later that Saturday, the Saints had the assignment of containing the defending Super Bowl champions. Although Drew Brees led New Orleans to eight playoff wins, its first postseason conquest should be better remembered. Journeyman wideout Willie Jackson dominated, hauling in six Aaron Brooks passes for 142 yards and three second-half TDs. Jackson's barrage put the Rams down 31-7 with just under 12 minutes remaining. Kurt Warner led a furious charge, accounting for three TDs in seven minutes. The Saints, however, dodged a "Greatest Show on Turf" go-ahead drive when Az Hakim fumbled a late punt. A year after their 31-28 loss, the Rams went 14-2 and won the NFC.
Bill Cowher fury represents the lasting image from this game, but the Titans and Steelers waged a shootout prior to a semi-controversial ending in the 34-31 game. The Titans overcame two early Eddie George fumbles to take a 14-0 lead, and after the Steelers scored three straight TDs, Frank Wycheck -- amid a 10-catch, 123-yard evening -- gave Tennessee a one-point lead. Hines Ward's second score -- from XFL 1.0 MVP Tommy Maddox -- steered the game to OT. Cowher's postgame explosion stemmed from Joe Nedney missing a 31-yard field goal but being bailed out by a Dewayne Washington running-into-the-kicker penalty. Nedney's ensuing make sent the Titans to Oakland.
In perhaps the lowest-profile of the five Titans-Ravens playoff tilts, the teams were hardly less menacing. Tennessee rostered co-NFL MVP Steve McNair, while Baltimore employed 2,000-yard rusher, Jamal Lewis. The 12-4 Titans prevailed 20-17 , holding Lewis to 35 yards. The Titans outrushed the Ravens 165-54, but Baltimore -- perpetually dominant defensively -- stayed in the game on a 56-yard Will Demps INT return score. A Todd Heap jump-ball TD tied the game at 17 inside of five minutes remaining, but McNair directed a final march that ended with 44-year-old Gary Anderson's 46-yard field goal barely clearing the crossbar. The Patriots narrowly edged the Titans the next week.
Drew Brees' lone Chargers playoff game included an overtime-forcing connection between two Hall of Famers, but kickers ended up deciding it. Months after the Bolts acquired Philip Rivers, Brees emerged with his only Pro Bowl season in San Diego. He and Chad Pennington combined for four touchdown passes and 598 yards; Brees' second TD toss went to Antonio Gates with 11 seconds remaining. However, Marty Schottenheimer dropped to 5-12 in the postseason after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal in OT. Doug Brien made a 28-yarder to give the Jets a 20-17 win and send them to Pittsburgh, though Brien's issues in that game cost Gang Green.
In between their tries with top-10 QB picks, the Jaguars saw David Garrard lead them to a playoff win. The former fourth-round pick received backing from a 96-yard non-scoring Maurice Jones-Drew kick return and a Rashean Mathis 63-yard pick-six but came through in a big spot. Ben Roethlisberger dug the Steelers out of a 28-10 hole, and Pittsburgh led 29-28 in the final minutes. Garrard set up a go-ahead last-minute field goal with a fourth-and-2 scramble, and Bobby McCray's sack-strip sealed the Jags' 31-29 win. The unlikely contenders were not pushovers in New England the next week. Mike Tomlin's second season ended better.
This Round 2 game involved the most well-rounded Matt Ryan-era Falcons team and an ascending Seahawks squad that led the NFL in DVOA. A few future Hall of Famers were involved. Seattle erased a 20-0 halftime deficit on the strength of Russell Wilson's 385-yard day; the rookie teamed with tight end Zach Miller to torch Atlanta's fifth-ranked defense. Marshawn Lynch's 1-yard TD gave Seattle a one-point lead with 31 seconds left. Ryan, however, drove the Falcons 41 yards in 15 seconds, allowing Matt Bryant to seal a 30-28 escape and prevent an all-time collapse. These Falcons did not recover after blowing a 17-point lead against the 49ers.
Since 1995, the Packers and 49ers have played eight playoff games. Bigger Green Bay and San Francisco games from this period seem to have obscured this frigid showdown. Wisconsin native Colin Kaepernick bedeviled the Packers for a second straight year, accounting for 325 yards (98 rushing) and outplaying Aaron Rodgers on this day. After the 49ers held the Packers to a field goal to tie the game at 20, Kaepernick engineered a game-winning drive -- complete with an 11-yard scamper on third-and-8 -- to lift the visitors to a 23-20 win. This was the first of three straight Packers walk-off playoff losses.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.