In the 100-plus years of the NFL, there have been some impressive single-game rushing performances by some of the game’s greatest backs. Interestingly, no back has ever topped the 300-yard mark. Several have come very close. In all those thousands of games, who holds the record for most single-game rushing yards in NFL history?
5. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears in 1977 — 275 yards
Seeing Walter Payton’s name on the list should come as no surprise. Until Emmitt Smith came along in the 1990s, Walter Payton was recognized as the NFL’s career all-time leading rusher. Sweetness began his journey to greatness in 1975 as a rookie and on November 20, 1977, Payton set his first of many records when he faced the rival Minnesota Vikings.
In that contest, Payton was questionable to play with the flu and a 101-degree temperature. He came out hot alright. Payton carried the ball 40 times against the Vikings for 275 yards including a 58-yarder. It turned out the Bears needed their ailing back and every single one of his yards that day including a one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter as they won in a close one 10-7.
4. Corey Dillon, Cincinnati Bengals in 2000 — 278 yards
Corey Dillon, who currently sits at No. 20 for most career all-time rushing yards in NFL history, had his biggest single-game output on October 22, 2000 against the Denver Broncos. After three quarters, no one could have predicted Dillon would have an elite day rushing.
The running back staked his claim to the top five all-time single-game rushing performances in the fourth quarter on the strength of two long touchdown runs. On one of his 22 carries for the day, Dillon busted off a 65-yard touchdown run just over midway through the fourth. He then followed it up three minutes later with a 41-yard run and score to become the single-game rushing leader in Bengals history.
3. Jerome Harrison, Cleveland Browns in 2009 — 286 yards
Jerome who? Jerome Harrison is easily the least recognizable name on the list. The diminutive back (5’9″) out of Washington State played seven seasons in the NFL, his highest season total coming in 2009 when he rushed for 862 yards. Not surprisingly, his single-game performance, which still stands as the Browns record, happened during that season and is the most recent top-5 performance on the list.
On December 20, 2009 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Harrison carried the ball 34 times for 286 yards, 99 of those yards coming on two carries in the second half. Harrison busted off his first one, a 71-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, then followed it up with a 28-yarder in the final minute to make his way into the top 5 and win the game for Cleveland, 41-34. Sadly, Harrison’s career was cut short when he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2011.
2. Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens in 2003 — 295 yards
In the third game of the 2003 season against the Cleveland Browns, Jamal Lewis served notice early to the Browns defense on the second play from scrimmage busting through the middle and running for an 82-yard touchdown.
Lewis pounded the Cleveland defense throughout the contest with his bruising style toting the ball 30 times. He started the fourth quarter much like the first when he took the handoff and bolted for a 63-yard score. That day’s performance and single-game rushing record for the Ravens was a highlight for the season, and the momentum catapulted Lewis to a strong season as he finished with 2,066 yards, the third highest total for a season in NFL history.
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings in 2007 — 296 yards
At the midway point of the 2007 season, the Minnesota Vikings were struggling with a 3-4 record. The only real highlight of the season thus far had been the performance of the rookie running back out of Oklahoma, Adrian Peterson.
On November 4, 2007, just three weeks after Peterson had set a franchise record rushing for 224 rushing yards on 20 carries; the rookie etched his name in the history books against the San Diego Chargers. The game started out uneventful, but like most of the backs on this list, Peterson got stronger as the game progressed. Early in the third, Peterson got the ball, broke through several tackles before dashing 64 yards for a touchdown. In the fourth, Peterson added a 46-yard touchdown run.
The Vikings, aware of Peterson’s situation late in the game, tried to get him the record and over 300 yards. On his last carry of the game, he gained three yards to reach 296 and surpass Lewis as the highest single-game rushing total in NFL history.