20 Best Game-Winning Plays in NFL History

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Football fans remember where they were when it happened. The jaw-dropping play. The final heave. The incredible finish. The comeback that makes no sense. The “did you just see that?!” sequence. We’ve collected 20 of the most unbelievable finishes in NFL history, and attempted to subjectively rank them from No. 20 to No. 1. This list accomplishes two important things: it lets us relive all of these fabulous moments yet again, and it gives us plenty of fodder for debate as to what’s too high, what’s too low, and what’s missing. Let’s begin, shall we?

20. The Walk-Off Punt Return (Watch It)

Eagles returner DeSean Jackson ran a punt back 65 yards as time expired to shock the Giants 38-31 on December 19, 2010. Philadelphia trailed 31-10 with eight minutes to play before storming back with four straight touchdowns for the win. On the final punt, Matt Dodge wasn’t able to kick it away from Jackson (as instructed), and, after dropping the ball initially, Jackson recovered and took it to the house (once he ran sideways along the goal line for a while for good measure).

19. Down 21 With 4 to Play? No Problem (Watch It)

In 2003, Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to a 38-35 overtime win at Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football. What made the result so remarkable was that the defending champion Buccaneers led the game by three touchdowns with only four minutes remaining. Manning and the Colts caught fire late, though, completing one of the most unexpected comebacks in NFL history and giving ex-Bucs coach Tony Dungy a victory in his return to Tampa.

18. Steelers Get Tebowed in OT(Watch It)

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

For a quarterback who had gone three straight starts without throwing for 200 yards in a game, a playoff matchup with the vaunted defense of the defending AFC champion Steelers seemed like a nearly impossible task. While Broncos QB Tim Tebow had received an unprecedented amount of hype and attention — and to be fair, had led his team on a six-game regular season winning streak to put a playoff berth within reach — the odds of him beating Pittsburgh with his arm seemed slim to none. Of course, Tebow merely threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to stun the Steelers 29-23, giving him a total of 316 passing yards in the game and the highest passer rating in Broncos postseason history. It was the fastest ending to an NFL overtime game ever, taking all of 11 seconds.

17. He Did What?(Watch It)

In November 2000, Packers wideout Antonio Freeman beat the Vikings 26-20 in overtime on a touchdown catch that basically confused everyone who watched it live. A deep pass from quarterback Brett Favre was deflected by Vikings CB Chris Dishman, and the football seemed to fall harmlessly to the ground. However, an alert Freeman (who was laying on the turf at the time) grabbed the pass, jumped to his feet, and jogged into the end zone to give Green Bay the victory. Legendary play-by-play man Al Michaels was left to ask: “He did what?” on national television as the Packers celebrated an unlikely game-winning play.

16. Leon Lett + Thanksgiving + Snow =(Watch It)

On a snowy Thanksgiving Day in 1993, Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett had a holiday to forget. With the Cowboys up a point, the Miami Dolphins attempted a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Although Dallas blocked the kick and should have won the game, Lett slid in and touched the loose ball, setting off a free-for-all near the end zone. Miami recovered, earning a second chance to ruin the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving, and this time, kicker Pete Stoyanovich came through. Final score, courtesy of Lett’s gaffe: Miami 16, Dallas 14.

15. 4th and 26(Watch It)

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You can forgive the Packers for thinking they had a January 2004 playoff game in Philadelphia when the Eagles lined up for a 4th and 26 play at their own 26 with only 72 seconds remaining. Yes, that’s correct: it was 4th and 26. Donovan McNabb had some magic left, though, completing a 28-yard pass over the middle to Freddie Mitchell that moved the sticks. The odds-defying play kept Philly’s drive alive, leading to a David Akers field goal that tied the game in the final seconds. Philadelphia went on to win 20-17 in overtime.

14. Wide Right(Watch It)

The Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s. By far, the most painful had to be the first one. Bills kicker Scott Norwood had a 47-yard attempt on January 27, 1991 to make his team champions, and the kick went — say it with us — ‘Wide Right.’ Buffalo came up on the wrong end of a 20-19 score against the Giants. Although Norwood pointed out later to Sports Illustrated that less than 50 percent of NFL kicks from that distance are successful, the final play missed field goal that decided a Super Bowl will still go down as one of the more unbelievable finishes in football history.

13. The Fail Mary (Watch It)

With replacement officials in place due to an NFL referee lockout, Seattle beat Green Bay 14-12 in a controversial 2012 Monday Night Football game. Trailing 12-7, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate as the clock ran out, but Tate didn’t appear to have clear possession of the ball — at least not as much as Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings did. Was it a touchdown? Was it an interception? The two officials on the scene signaled two different things, and a lengthy delay ensued before the Seahawks were finally awarded the catch, the score, and the win. In a not-at-all related note, the lockout of the league’s officials would “coincidentally” end later that week.

12. River City Relay (Watch It)

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In a 2003 game that had it all, the New Orleans Saints used not one, not two, but three laterals on the final play to complete a ridiculous 75-yard touchdown and keep their playoff hopes alive. The score pulled the Saints within 20-19 and left them only a John Carney extra point away from forcing overtime. The NFL considers the extra point ‘almost automatic,’ as the equivalent of a 20-yard field goal from the center of the field has a success rate of over 99 percent in the last 10 years. Don’t tell that to Carney, who shanked the kick, giving Jacksonville a one-point win despite the chaos of the final play and eliminating New Orleans from playoff contention.

11. The Catch(Watch It)

One of the most famous plays in football history came on January 10, 1982 in the NFC Championship Game. The San Francisco 49ers edged the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 on an iconic play that will live forever as ‘The Catch.’ With 51 seconds to play, Niners receiver Dwight Clark leaped in the back of the end zone to snag a high throw from quarterback Joe Montana who had eluded the Dallas rush, double-pumped, and then lofted the ball above a trio of oncoming defenders. Montana told 49ers.com years later, “Dwight and I practiced this thing in training camp and Dwight never caught the ball on this play until then.” The dramatic victory propelled San Francisco to the Super Bowl, where the 49ers would win their first of four titles in a nine-year span.

10. The 63-Yard Kick (Watch It)

Down through the years of NFL history, there have been many remarkable field goals to win a game. Still, none of them tops the then-record 63-yard kick at the horn by a man born without a full complement of 10 fingers and 10 toes. Saints kicker Tom Dempsey lifted his team to a 19-17 win over the Lions with the longest kick any NFL fan had ever seen — one of only two victories New Orleans managed the whole 1970 season. (Also deserving honorable mention among kicks from the wrong side of midfield: Buccaneers kicker Matt Bryant nearly equaled Dempsey’s heroics 36 years later with a 62-yard game-winning kick as time expired against the Eagles.)

9. The Helmet Catch (Watch It)

Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images

The New England Patriots could taste history in Super Bowl XLII. Their bid to finish as the NFL’s first undefeated champions since the 1972 Dolphins was looking good, as Bill Belichick’s team held a 14-10 lead with just over a minute to play — but then David Tyree happened. The Giants wide receiver made a highlight reel 32-yard third-down catch after quarterback Eli Manning somehow eluded a near-certain sack in a play that football fans will never forget. Tyree pinned the ball to his helmet in mid-air to give the Giants a big gain and a first down on a drive that finished with a go-ahead touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. New York won the game 17-14, spoiling the Pats’ dreams of perfection.

8. Kramer to Rashad (Watch It)

One of the most notable game-winning Hail Mary passes in history came in a Minnesota-Cleveland game on December 14, 1980. The Vikings clinched a playoff trip on a 46-yard score as the clock hit zero. Tommy Kramer’s pass was first deflected, and then calmly — nonchalantly, even — grabbed by a single hand of Ahmad Rash?d to punch Minnesota’s ticket to the postseason. The one-handed catch gave the Vikings, who had trailed by two touchdowns with five minutes to go, a dramatic 28-23 win.

7. Holy Roller (Watch It)

“The most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play.” That’s how the Oakland Raiders’ 21-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers was described by announcer Bill King in real time, as Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler purposefully fumbled the ball forward to avoid a game-ending sack with his team trailing by six points. The loose football was pushed toward the goal line by Raiders back Pete Banaszak, and Dave Casper ultimately fell on it in the end zone (after kicking it there himself). The bizarre finish led to a rule change in the offseason to ensure the intentional fumble wouldn’t become a normal scoring mechanism going forward.

6. Santonio Holmes Gets His Feet In (Watch It)

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, the Super Bowl XLIII matchup of the Steelers and Cardinals featured two lead changes in the final three minutes of the game. After Arizona’s Kurt Warner connected with Larry Fitzgerald on a 64-yard strike to put the underdog Cards ahead with 2:47 left, the Steelers responded. Ben Roethlisberger marched Pittsburgh down the field, getting into the red zone on a 40-yard pass to Santonio Holmes. Two plays later, Big Ben found Holmes again on a six-yard scoring pass in the back corner of the end zone. A fully-extended Holmes managed to get two feet (or at least tips of two toes) inbounds on one of the most unforgettable Super Bowl plays ever. Pittsburgh won the game 27-23.

5. The Greatest Game Ever Played (Watch It)

The 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants is widely regarded as ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played.’ The Colts were victorious in the first-ever NFL overtime game, although the players had no idea an extra period was in store when Baltimore hit the game-tying field goal late in the fourth-quarter, since overtime had never existed before that day. (It’s possible the referees had no idea either.) The classic game was finally decided by an Alan Ameche one-yard scoring run, which gave Baltimore a 23-17 victory. This 1958 thriller is credited with a dramatic increase in the popularity of the league that has continued to the present day.

4. Miracle at the Meadowlands(Watch It)

“I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Why do teams kneel in a victory formation to run the clock out instead of handing the ball off? It’s because something like this could happen. The Eagles escaped with a 19-17 win over the Giants in November 1978 when New York quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled while trying to get the ball to Larry Csonka. The beneficiary of the Giants’ gaffe was Philadelphia defensive back Herman Edwards, who snatched the ball up and raced 26 yards to pay dirt for a stunning two-point victory. New York offensive coordinator Bob Gibson was fired the very next day.

3. How ‘The Hail Mary Pass’ Got Its Name (Watch It)

Jeff Haynes/Getty Images
Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

Whether Cowboys wideout Drew Pearson pushed Nate Wright down or the Vikings cornerback fell of his own accord, the end result is still the same. Dallas eliminated Minnesota 17-14 in a December 1975 playoff game on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach. Pearson was able to hold the ball against his hip as he spun away from Wright for the deciding touchdown. The controversial no-call made Pearson unpopular enough in the Land of Lakes that he would use a fake name on future airplane trips to Minnesota, according to Pro Football Talk. Staubach said later that, “I just threw it and prayed.” He described the desperation throw as a ‘Hail Mary Pass,’ and the name stuck.

2. Music City Miracle (Watch It)

Trailing 16-15 with seconds remaining in an AFC playoff game on January 8, 2000, the Tennessee Titans needed a miracle — and they got one. Lorenzo Neal fielded a short kickoff, handed to Frank Wycheck, and the rest is history. The ensuing lateral from Wycheck all the way across the field to Kevin Dyson provided one of the most improbable NFL victories ever. Dyson raced 75 yards up the left sideline with a convoy of blockers in front of him to propel the Titans to a 22-16 win. The play was originally drawn up for Derrick Mason, but both Mason and his backup were out, so it’s Dyson whose name will be associated with the Music City Miracle forever.

1. Immaculate Reception(Watch It)

Perhaps no NFL finish is more well-known or more replayed than the end of the Steelers-Raiders playoff game in 1972. Pittsburgh went well over 59 minutes without a touchdown, but on a 4th-and-10 play in the final seconds, Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and rumbled sixty yards for the go-ahead score. Although there is still debate about whether Harris’s teammate John Fuqua touched the ball before it bounced Franco’s way (which would have nullified the touchdown according to the rules), the play stood and the Steelers prevailed by a score of 13-7.