NFL history is replete with games that have become so famous (or infamous) and so ingrained into the public consciousness that all you have to do is utter a word or a phrase to a fan and there’s an instant recall. As much as any of the legends that have actually suited up for the NFL, these games are an essential part of this history and fabric of professional football in America. Let’s take a look at just five of the most well-known.
The Ice Bowl – Cowboys vs. Packers, December 31, 1967
When you hear someone like Chris Berman talk about “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” you can credit this game as the inspiration. On the last day of the 1967 season, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys met in a rematch of the previous year’s NFL Championship. The official game-time temperature was a balmy −15°F / −25°C, with a wind chill around −48°F / −44°C. To this day it’s still the coldest game ever in terms of actual air temperature. To put this into perspective, consider that the average February low temperature for Nome, Alaska is −2.3°F / -19.06°C. Brrr.
This would be nothing more than a trivia question, however, if not for the game itself. The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead after a pair of Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler TD passes, but a pair of costly miscues led to 10 Dallas points. The Cowboys took the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Dan Reeves halfback option went for 50 yards to Lance Rentzel. That seemingly iced (ha ha) the win for Dallas, until Starr marched his team nearly 70 yards downfield with less than five minutes to play. With 16 seconds to play and his team on the Dallas 1-yard-line Starr followed the blocking of guard Jerry Kramer to paydirt, giving the Packers their third consecutive NFL title.
The Miracle at the Meadowlands – Eagles vs. Giants, November 19, 1978
From the sublime to the sad. In week 12 of the 1978 campaign the New York Giants hosted the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles at the Meadowlands. New York came into the game with a three-game losing streak and a sub-.500 record, while the Eagles had won two in a row to climb to 6-5 and third place behind Dallas and Washington. They had also not lost to the Giants since the opening game of the 1975 season.
Despite being favored, the Eagles fell behind 14-0 after Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik threw a pair of touchdowns. Down 17-6 to start the final period, Philly fullback Mike Hogan ran for a one-yard score to make the score 17-12 (the PAT failed). But after Eagles QB Ron Jaworski threw his third interception of the game, New York seemed to have things all sewn up (CBS even started rolling their closing credits). They simply had to kill 31 seconds on a 3rd-and-2 from their own 29. The smart play would’ve been for Pisarcik to take a knee and run the clock. They did not choose the smart play.
For some baffling reason offensive coordinator Bob Gibson called a running play. Pisarcik attempted to hand the ball off to Larry Csonka, but never really had a firm grip. He lost the ball and it was picked up by Eagles defensive back (and future mediocre coach) Herman Edwards, who sprinted for a touchdown.
For a fan base used to disappointment – the Giants had logged two winning seasons since 1963 – The Fumble (as it was known locally) was simply one more punch to the groin. For Gibson, it spelled the end of his career. He was fired the next day and never worked in football again. The team, meanwhile, lost three of their last four to finish 6-10, good for last place. Head coach John McVay’s contract expired after 1978 and was not renewed. He never coached again, although he did find a front office job with the 49ers. Pisarcik was released after the 1979 season and he finished his career with the Eagles. Csonka’s contract expired and he opted to return to the Miami Dolphins for his final year.
The Catch – Cowboys vs. 49ers, January 10, 1982
Man, I never get tired of watching Dallas lose. And this was more than just any Cowboys loss. This was a very real passing of the torch for NFC dominance. The Cowboys, who pretty much owned the NFC in the ’70s (along with the Minnesota Vikings) and were playing in a second-straight conference championship game, squared off against a San Francisco squad that was improving rapidly under third-year head coach Bill Walsh and second-year starting QB Joe Montana.
The two teams traded the lead six times heading into the final five minutes. The 49ers, down 27-21, took the ball on their own 11 and marched down the field largely on the strength of Montana’s arm and Lenvil Elliott’s legs. They drove all the way to the Dallas 6 with just 51 seconds to play and facing a 3rd-and-3. Walsh sent Montana in with a play known as “Sprint Right Option,” which called for Montana to roll right and locate his primary receiver, Freddie Solomon. The two had already connected for a first-quarter TD using this play, but this time it nearly fell apart. Solomon slipped coming off the line and Montana was harassed by Dallas defenders Ed “Too Tall” Jones and D.D. Lewis. Montana heaved a pass that for all appearances looked like it was going to sail past the end zone. But tight end Dwight Clark, the second option on the play, leaped up about 12 feet (or so it seemed) and snagged the pass for a touchdown. That tied the game at 27 until Ray Wersching nailed the most important PAT in team history.
With that catch, the 49ers advanced to their first Super Bowl. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals for the first of four NFL titles in the ’80s. The dejected Cowboys made it back to the NFC title game during the strike-shortened 1982 season but lost to the hated Washington Redskins. They didn’t win another playoff game for the remainder of the 1980s.
The Greatest Game Ever Played – Colts vs. Giants, December 28, 1958
Remember the days the NFL didn’t finish their season right before baseball started? Me neither.
This game hearkens back to the days before playoffs as we know them. The 9-3 Baltimore Colts rolled into Yankee Stadium as winners of the Western Division. The 9-3 New York Giants won the Eastern Division after defeating Cleveland in a tie-breaking playoff, 10-0. Although the Colts dominated the Giants statistically, they squandered a 14-3 lead and actually fell behind, 17-14, in the fourth period.
A 20-yard Steve Myhra field goal evened the score at 17 with seven seconds to play, and that’s how the fourth quarter ended. Seeing as it would be pretty crappy to end a championship game with a tie (this isn’t soccer after all), the stage was set for the first sudden-death overtime game in NFL playoff history. Most of the players hadn’t even heard of overtime, so new was the concept.
The Giants won the coin toss but failed to do anything with the ball. Baltimore – led by the legendary John Unitas – took the ball on their own 20 for the ensuing drive and bullied an exhausted Giants defense down the field for 13 plays. With an estimated TV audience of 45 million glued to their sets, the Colts won the game when fullback Alan Ameche plunged one yard for a touchdown.
Most fans and historians point to this game as the catalyst for the NFL’s popularity explosion in the 1960s. America’s growing appetite for football led to the creation of an entirely new league – the American Football League – in 1960.
The Colts and Giants met again for the 1959 championship, and Baltimore took their second-straight NFL title. After a few seasons of struggle the Colts fired head coach Weeb Ewbank and replaced him with Don Shula. They did OK for themselves throughout the ’60s. The Giants went on to appear in and lose three more NFL championships in the ensuing four seasons. They fell off a cliff in 1964 and didn’t make the postseason again until 1981. Oh by the way, here’s some fun trivia. The offensive and defensive coordinators for New York’s ’58 squad? Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
The Snowplow Game – Dolphins vs. Patriots, December 12, 1982
The odd, strike-shortened 1982 season got even odder. Don Shula brought his 4-1 Dolphins into New England’s Schaefer Stadium for an AFC East showdown with Ron Meyer’s 2-3 Patriots. A major snowstorm all but guaranteed a low-scoring affair, which this game certainly was. With nine inches of snow on an already frozen artificial playing surface, the game was scoreless through the first 55 minutes. That’s when New England found itself in field goal position on the Miami 16, and that’s when Mark Henderson became a Patriots hero.
Henderson, a convicted burglar on a work-release program, was part of the stadium’s maintenance crew. His task was to keep the sidelines and yard markers clear of snow, a fruitless effort on that day. Meyer, whose team had already missed one field goal due to the horrendous conditions, found Henderson and ordered him onto the field with his tractor. Backup QB and holder Matt Cavanaugh led Henderson to the spot where he would take the snap and Henderson obliged by clearing a swath. Placekicker John Smith nailed a 33-yard field goal and New England won the game.
Shula was furious, but there was nothing he could do about it. The NFL banned the use of snowplows prior to kicks for the next season. The “plow” itself, was actually a John Deere tractor with sweeping broom attached. The broom was mothballed when the Foxboro field was converted to natural grass. During the Patriots’ final regular-season home game in Schaefer/Foxboro, Henderson saddled up once more and rode the tractor and broom onto the field to the cheers of fans. Their opponent? The Dolphins.
- DeSean Jackson: What Did Coach John McVay Think of Jackson’s Punt Return? (bleacherreport.com)
- 2011 NFL Playoffs: The 10 Best NFC Championship Games of All Time (bleacherreport.com)