NFL Analysis


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Ranking the Top 10 NFL Playoff Moments in History

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the thrilling world of NFL playoff history, where magic unfolds before our eyes every postseason. The NFL playoffs always keep us entertained, from jaw-dropping catches to improbable defensive plays.

So, sit back, relax, and dive into the best moments from NFL playoff history. For this piece, we are focusing on singular plays that everyone remembers. The greater the stage, the higher the ranking.

Lasting impact matters, too, so expect plays that alter NFL history to appear higher on the list. So without further ado, here are the top 10 NFL playoff moments:

Ranking Top 10 NFL Playoff Moments

10. Demaryius Thomas Touchdown vs. Steelers

The Denver Broncos were 7.5-point home underdogs against the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. With Tim Tebow at quarterback, it was nearly a given the Broncos would be one-and-done in Round 1 of the 2011 NFL playoffs.

However, after a 366-yard performance by Tebow, the Broncos got the game to overtime. And on the first play in overtime, Demaryius Thomas took a dig route 80 yards to the house to knock off Pittsburgh in Round 1.

The image of Thomas running away from the entire Pittsburgh defense in overtime will live on as one of the best moments in playoff history. This play (and game) was among the most surprising because it happened in the Wild Card Round.

Still, the Broncos were knocked out of the playoffs the following week, so it’ll stay at No. 10.

9. Beast Quake Run vs. Saints

Do you remember where you were during the greatest single run in postseason history?

Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run helped seal a massive upset for the Seattle Seahawks in Round 1 of the 2010 playoffs. After sneaking into the playoffs at 7-9, the Seahawks were 10-point home underdogs against the 11-5 Saints with Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run, which featured nine broken tackles, helped the Seahawks take a 41-30 lead with less than two minutes remaining on the clock. The crowd noise during that run was loud enough to register on a seismic station, hence the name “beat quake.”

8. James Harrison Pick-Six vs. Cardinals

There are only a few defensive plays on this list, but you knew we had to include James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Right before halftime, Harrison dropped into coverage and picked off Kurt Warner, and the rest is history. His 100-yard return seemed to take forever, but he eventually made his way to the end zone in what turned out to be a potential 14-point swing.

The only reason this play isn’t higher is that it took place in the second quarter. Every other game on this list had its best moment in the fourth quarter or overtime.

7. The Minneapolis Miracle

It might have only been the Divisional Round, but Stefon Diggs’ walkoff touchdown against the Saints remains one of the most improbable plays in NFL history.

With the Vikings down by one with just 10 seconds remaining, they held the ball at their 39-yard line with no timeouts left. And on third and 10, Case Keenum found Diggs down the left sideline. Diggs caught the pass, turned upfield, and ran the rest of the way to the end zone untouched.

That play allowed the Vikings to return to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the Brett Favre era and remains one of the best game-ending plays in NFL history. You'll probably never hear a stadium louder than when Diggs turned upfield with no one else in sight. It was quite the moment.

6. Immaculate Reception

Trailing by one on fourth and 10 from their own 22-yard line, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed a miracle to beat the Oakland Raiders during the 1972 playoffs. Terry Bradshaw threw a pass over the middle to John "Frenchy" Fuqua, but he was hit at the moment the ball arrived by Jack Tatum.

The ball ricocheted into the hands of Franco Harris, who took the ball into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. This is one of the best plays in playoff history, but it isn’t higher because it took place in the divisional round, and Pittsburgh lost to Miami the following week.

This play did help the Steelers win their first-ever playoff game so that counts for something.

5. The First Hail Mary

Down by four with just 32 seconds left, the Dallas Cowboys' championship hopes and dreams were on the line. Roger Staubach heaved a pass down the right sideline to Drew Pearson, hoping for a wild completion.

Pearson made the catch and got into the end zone, and the Cowboys took a 17-14 lead against the Vikings in the NFC Divisional Round. Staubach coined the phrase "Hail Mary” as the Cowboys advanced to the NFC Championship Game and eventually the Super Bowl.

4. The Music City Miracle

Of all the plays listed here, the most improbable was the Music City Miracle.

The Tennessee Titans trailed the Bills by one in the 1999 playoffs and had just 16 seconds left to save their season. Rather than trying a Hail Mary or something else on offense, the Titans devised a brilliant plan on the kickoff return.

The entire special teams unit ran to the right side with Frank Wycheck, who proceeded to throw the ball all the way across the field to Kevin Dyson. Was the lateral legal? That question haunts Bills fans to this day, but Dyson took the ball 75 yards and into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

The Titans would continue that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl and nearly beat the “Greatest Show on Turf” that year. The Music City Miracle remains one of the wildest plays in NFL history and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

3. David Tyree’s Helmet Catch

Just how important was David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII? If that play never happened and Eli Manning’s third-and-5 pass was incomplete, the Patriots become the first team in NFL history to go 19-0, giving Tom Brady his fourth Super Bowl win in seven seasons.

Instead, the New York Giants knocked off one of the greatest teams in NFL history, all because Tyree secured a 32-yard pass to the side of his helmet. We still aren't sure to this day how Tyree managed to catch that pass, but this play remains one of the greatest in Super Bowl history.

2. “The Catch” By 49ers TE Dwight Clark

You can make a strong case this should be No. 1 because it helped the San Francisco 49ers win their first Super Bowl and launched one of the greatest dynasties in sports history.

Joe Montana and the 49ers faced a third-and-3 from the Cowboys' 6-yard line, down by six with under a minute remaining in the NFC Championship Game.

Montana rolled to his right, and his pump fake got several defenders to leave their feet, including Ed “Too Tall” Jones, the NFL's tallest player. Everyone in the stadium and watching at home thought Montana was throwing the ball out of the end zone to avoid a sack.

Instead, Dwight Clark snagged the pass in the back of the end zone, giving the 49ers a one-point lead. Montana became the face of the NFL after the 49ers beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl, and the rest is history.

1. Malcolm Butler's Interception vs. Seahawks

No play in a Super Bowl was as dramatic or impactful as Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The Seahawks were just one yard away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls and taking down Brady and the Patriots.

With just 23 seconds left, Russell Wilson threw a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette, which was picked off by Butler at the goal line. The Patriots kneeled out the clock, sending the Seahawks' potential dynasty into a tailspin.

Without Butler's play, the Seahawks might have been the team of the 2010s, and Wilson still might be the quarterback in Seattle. The Patriots won their first Super Bowl since 2004 and reignited New England's dynasty.