Ranking the 10 best wild card games in NFL history

From the Music City Miracle to the Beast Quake, the NFL wild card round has staged some iconic moments

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These games put the “wild” in wild card weekend.

The NFL introduced its 12-team playoff format in 1990, making way for four wild card playoff games with winners advancing to the divisional round. The league expanded its postseason format to 14 teams in 2020, adding two more games to “Super Wild Card Weekend.”

Over the last 33 postseasons, there have been some unforgettable moments and legendary games. Ahead of the 2023 NFL playoffs, let’s take a trip down memory lane for some of the best contests in wild card history.

Again, we’re chronicling the best wild card games, so some notorious moments in wild card history just missed the cut. While the “Double Doink,” Blair Walsh’s missed field goal and Tony Romo’s fumbled snap were infamous in their own right, these next 10 games were the best of the best.

10. Jan. 5, 2003: Pittsburgh Steelers 36, Cleveland Browns 33

The Cleveland Browns were oh-so-close to getting their first road playoff win since 1969.

The team built up leads of 24-7 and 33-21 but could not hold on against their division rivals. Tommy Maddox threw three second-half touchdowns to pull Pittsburgh back into the game and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’Afala punched in the go-ahead score with 54 seconds left in regulation.

In all, the Browns went 0-3 against the Steelers that season with all three defeats coming by three points. Cleveland got some playoff revenge in the 2020 wild card round, pummeling Pittsburgh 48-37 at Heinz Field.

9. Jan. 8, 2012: Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23 (OT)

One play was all Tim Tebow, Demaryius Thomas and the Denver Broncos needed in overtime to beat the Steelers.

After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter, Tebow and Co. rattled off 20 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a solid halftime lead. The second half was all Pittsburgh, though, as the team outscored Denver 17-3 over the final 30 minutes to force overtime.

The extra period was over in the blink of an eye. Tebow hit Thomas over the middle on the first play, and the receiver fended off cornerback Ike Taylor on his way to an 80-yard, game-winning touchdown.

8. Jan. 4, 2004: Green Bay Packers 33, Seattle Seahawks 27 (OT)

“We want the ball and we’re going to score,” Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said before getting the ball and tossing a score – to the other team.

It was a back-and-forth contest throughout the day at Lambeau Field. Shaun Alexander had three one-yard touchdown runs in the second half, while Ahman Green had two from the same distance. Alexander’s third score helped Seattle tie the game with less than a minute remaining in regulation, leading to Hasselbeck’s famous declaration at midfield.

Seattle called heads for the OT coin toss and won. Neither the Seahawks nor the Packers scored on their first possession, giving Hasselbeck another chance. It was Al Harris who seized the opportunity, though, jumping a third-and-10 pass and running it back for a 52-yard, game-winning pick-six.

7. Jan. 4, 2014: Indianapolis Colts 45, Kansas City Chiefs 44

The Indianapolis Colts’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 wild card round required a lot of Luck.

Indy fell behind 38-10 in the third quarter before their former No. 1 pick led a furious comeback. Andrew Luck threw a pair of touchdowns in the frame to help bring the deficit down to 10. He then made it a three-point game in the fourth quarter after a fumble fell into his arms and he dove into the endzone. Still, the Colts needed a touchdown with under five minutes to play, and they got it when Luck uncorked a 64-yard dime to T.Y. Hilton for the game-winning score.

The game stands as the second-biggest comeback in playoff history.

6. Jan. 10, 2010: Arizona Cardinals 51, Green Bay Packers 45 (OT)

Coming in at No. 6 is the highest-scoring game in NFL playoff history.

It certainly didn’t appear the matchup would be heading for that distinction in the first half, at least not on the Green Bay Packers’ side. Aaron Rodgers and Co. trailed 17-0 in the first quarter and 24-10 at the break.

In the second half, Rodgers’ arm – and the game as a whole – came alive. He tossed four touchdown passes in the final 30 minutes of regulation, including an 11-yard connection to Kevin Havner right after the two-minute warning that tied the game at 45-45. 

Rodgers’ hot streak – along with the Packers’ season – came to an abrupt end in overtime. He missed an open Greg Jennings on the first play of OT, which could have won Green Bay the game. Instead, Rodgers fumbled the ball two plays later and Karlos Dansby returned it for a game-winning Cardinals touchdown.

5. Jan. 5, 2003: San Francisco 49ers 39, New York Giants 38

Michael Strahan and the New York Giants felt pretty good with 20 minutes left in the 2002 NFC wild card round. Teammate Matt Allen, the San Francisco 49ers and the referees had other plans, though.

The Giants took a 38-14 lead late in the third quarter and had a 38-22 lead when Strahan told Terrell Owens – who finished with nine receptions, 177 yards and two touchdowns – to check the clock. San Francisco wound up going ahead 39-38 with a minute left, but New York was able to get the ball into field goal range with a chance at a win.

From 41 yards out, Allen botched the snap on the attempt before lofting a pass towards the endzone. While the Giants clamored for pass interference, the team was flagged for an ineligible man downfield, sending San Francisco to the next round.

4. Jan. 8, 2011: Seattle Seahawks 41, New Orleans Saints 36

We’ve entered nickname territory.

In 2011, Marshawn Lynch sent the city of Seattle into delirium and the Seahawks into the divisional round with the “Beast Quake.”

Rewinding back a bit, the Seahawks squeaked out an NFC West title with a 7-9 record and earned the chance to host the 11-5 New Orleans Saints in the wild card round. Seattle proved it could hold its own with the Saints, though, taking a 34-20 lead into the fourth quarter.

New Orleans climbed back early in the fourth to make it a 34-30 game before Lynch sealed the deal with one of the most electrifying runs in NFL history. The running back shed tackle after tackle before making a celebratory dive for the endzone and cementing a Seattle upset. 

3. Jan. 3, 1999: San Francisco 49ers 30, Green Bay Packers 27

Before T.O. torched the Giants on the wild card stage, he sent the Packers packing.

The 1998 wild card battle between the 49ers and Packers came down to the wire. Brett Favre found Antonio Freeman for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, forcing Steve Young and the 49ers to execute a two-minute drill to save their season.

San Francisco had the ball at the Green Bay 25-yard line with eight seconds left and capped off the game with “The Catch II.” Young rifled in a pass down the middle to Owens, who held on in the endzone to give the 49ers a 30-27 win.

2. Jan. 8, 2000: Tennessee Titans 22, Buffalo Bills 16

Tennessee Titans fans witnessed a miracle during the 1999 AFC wild card round.

The Titans took a 12-0 lead into halftime against the Buffalo Bills before allowing 13 unanswered points. The two teams exchanged field goals in the final minute, setting up a Buffalo kickoff with 16 seconds left and a one-point lead.

What happened next is etched into NFL lore. Lorenzo Neal corralled the ball and handed it to Frank Wychek. The tight end shuffled to his right, turned left and then threw the ball to Kevin Dyson, who crouched, reeled in the pass and raced up the sideline for a Titans touchdown. The pass was considered a legitimate lateral, allowing “The Music City Miracle” to stand.

Despite the heartbreaking defeat, it hasn’t been all bad for the Bills on wild card weekend …

1. Jan. 3, 1993: Buffalo Bills 41, Houston Oilers 38

Before the New England Patriots’ famous comeback from a 28-3 deficit, their division rival pulled off “The Comeback.”

The Bills were down 28-3 at halftime to the Houston Oilers in the first round of the 1992 playoffs. Things got worse when Bubba McDowell scored a pick-six to make it 35-3 Houston in the third quarter.

Then, Buffalo turned on the burners.

The Bills scored 35 unanswered points, including three touchdown connections between Frank Reich and Andre Reed. It took a fourth-quarter field goal from Houston’s Al Del Greco to even get the game to overtime, where Bills kicker Steve Christie won the game with a 32-yard field goal.

To this day, it remains the biggest comeback in NFL history.

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