Sunday’s astonishing beyond-the-last-second Miami victory over New England was one of the great finishes in NFL history, a 69-yard lateral-and-dodge fiesta that will live on in Dolphins lore forever. But how does it stack up against the finest finishes in NFL history? Let’s discuss.
We’ve chosen the 10 greatest finishes in NFL history, and by finishes, we mean exactly that: last play, game over, everybody go home. No kneeldowns, no final kickoffs. So the Montana-to-Clark Catch doesn’t make this list, nor does the Immaculate Reception or the Music City Miracle or Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-clinching interception. If the Miami victory taught us nothing — besides “don’t let Gronk try to tackle” — it taught us that a game’s not over till it’s over. These plays here? These made sure the game was over.
10. Air Tebow
There was a time — a very brief time, but a time — when Tim Tebow was one heck of a fine NFL quarterback, and he was never better than in a 2012 wild-card playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the very first play of overtime, Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for a walk-off 80-yard game-winning touchdown, capping a 316-yard, two-touchdown performance. So what if it was Tebow’s lone true highlight in the NFL? It’s one of the best finishes ever.
9. Cleveland’s drought-ending Hail Mary
On the final play of a Halloween 1999 game between the Browns and the New Orleans Saints, Tim Couch threw a pass that deflected off two Saints before landing in the hands of teammate Kevin Johnson. The 58-yard Hail Mary was more than just a single victory — it was Cleveland’s first win in 1,409 days, the first win for the “new” Browns. The team had gone 0-7 in its first season in Cleveland since 1995, and Couch’s Hail Mary seemed to portend good days were ahead. They weren’t, not for many decades, but at least this was a pretty throw.
8. River City Relay
New Orleans was pinned at its own 25-yard line, down seven points with only seconds remaining against the Jaguars in 2003. Quarterback Aaron Brooks threw a pass to Donte Stallworth that set off a furious, three-lateral sprint to the end zone. Brooks himself cleared a path for Jerome Pathon to score and close the game to within one point with zeroes remaining on the clock. But John Carney missed the extra point, a heartbreaker of an ending to one of the best plays in NFL history.
7. Garrison Hearst’s overtime rumble
In the annals of all-time great rushing touchdowns, this one by the 49ers’ Hearst against the Jets in 1998 has to rank right up there. Pinned at their own 4 in overtime, San Francisco turned to Hearst, who thundered 96 yards, shrugging off, stiff-arming, crushing and outrunning the entire Jets squad for the victory. Still astonishing two decades later.
6. Fail Mary
Touchdown? Interception? Both? On the final play of a 2012 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, with Green Bay leading 12-7, both Seattle’s Golden Tate and Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings came down with Russell Wilson’s Hail Mary pass. One referee called it a catch, another a touchback. After discussion, they decided on simultaneous possession, meaning it was Seattle’s ball, and Seattle’s victory. The play, botched by replacement referees, helped hasten the end of a lockout of established refs.
5. Miracle at the New Meadowlands
Down 21 points to the hated New York Giants with eight minutes left in a crucial Week 15 game in 2010, all seemed lost for the Eagles. But Michael Vick lit up the Giants for three touchdowns in those final minutes. Tied at 31 and playing for overtime, the Giants made the decision to punt the ball to DeSean Jackson. It didn’t go so well for New York. Jackson bobbled the punt at his own 35-yard line, gathered it, and sprinted all the way to the end-zone line, where he ran sideways, Madden-style, to ensure that no time would remain on the clock. Masterful.
4. Miracle in Motown
Never count out Aaron Rodgers, and never give him an extra down. Time had apparently run out against Rodgers and the Packers in 2015 with the Lions leading 23-21, but a dubious facemask call gave Rodgers one last chance from his own 39. Rodgers heaved a satellite-scraping pass up and through the Lions defense, right into the arms of Richard Rodgers. (Aaron Rodgers would repeat the feat later that year in the playoffs against Arizona, only to lose in overtime.)
3. Holy Roller
The play that rewrote a thousand rulebooks. With 10 seconds remaining and down six points in a 1978 game against the then-San Diego Chargers, the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler eluded a sack by fumbling the ball forward. Running back Pete Banaszak also knocked the ball forward, right into the path of tight end Dave Casper, who kicked and knocked it into the end zone, where he fell on it for a touchdown. The extra point gave Oakland a 21-20 win. Was the rolling football deliberate trickeration, or convenient clumsiness? Either way, the NFL changed its rules shortly thereafter to prevent fumble-forwards. Too bad.
2. Miami Over New England
We could call this the “Miami Miracle” (lame and unimaginative; enough with the “Miracle … ” nicknames), we could call it the “Drake Relays,” or we could just call it the best play of 2018. Down 33-28 with seven seconds remaining, the ball on their own 31, Miami unleashed a play to rival Cal-Stanford, minus the band. One pass, two laterals, 11 missed tackles, and then Kenyan Drake raced into the end zone for a drop-the-mic walkoff win. Simply brilliant, and if it had happened in the postseason, it’d be at the top of the list.
1. Keenum To Diggs
In an unbelievable capper to a truly magnificent divisional playoff game early in 2018 — one with four lead changes in the final 3:01 — the Vikings lined up on their own 39-yard line for one last play against the Saints down 24-23. Quarterback Case Keenum found a leaping Stefon Diggs, who eluded the tackle of Saint Marcus Williams and scooted into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. Some Minnesota fans still haven’t stopped shouting.
Honorable mentions: Michael Vick’s overtime-ending run for Atlanta versus Minnesota; Chester Marcol’s blocked-kick touchdown for Green Bay versus Chicago; David Garrard’s batted-down-for-a-touchdown Hail Mary for Jacksonville against Texas; and your own favorite, which you can list below.
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