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The Epic Scale, Part 2: Measuring the greatest playoff games of all-time

Back in October, I wondered if the Hawks-Niners NFCCG was the best postseason game of all time. A 12-category scale seemed to confirm it... until our crack team examined another dozen celebrated playoff contests.

Greatest moment of a great career
Greatest moment of a great career
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

People are always ranking the greatest games, but they never show their work.

At Field Gulls, we show our work, dang it. This post is a follow-up to when I wondered aloud, back in October, if the 2014 Hawks-Niners NFCCG was the best playoff game in league history. In a few minutes you'll have your answer, incomplete as it may be, because teasing and delayed gratification are the best this world has to offer.

Important note 1: This piece is co-authored with longtime Field Gulls reader Tonia L., who you might also know by her username "99-percent-sure." (You probably know her, because she usually says brilliant things and likes to throw in gifs.)

Important note 2: Tonia and I combined to put 17 epic playoff games through the grader. We trimmed the list of finalists to just 12, six of which are detailed today and six of which will be revealed as the playoffs begin next month.

Important note 3: The grader is 12 weighted categories. I devised the scale in this post two months ago and have not altered it to fudge the results. As tempting as that might have been.

Important note 4: The Holy 2014 NFCCG scored a 272 out of 300.

With that out of the way, just one more delay. There are cool games that didn't make the final 12.

2012 Divisional Playoff (Niners 36, Saints 32) scored a 232; Super Bowl XXXIV (Rams 23, Titans 16) scored a 237; 2010 Divisional Playoff (Cardinals 51, Packers 45, OT) scored a 239; 1999 NFCCG (Falcons 30, Vikings 27) scored a 240.

Ah, but the games that did make it, here they are at last...



Jan. 3, 1993











At Stake (x4) 32 40 40 40 40 40
Drama (x4) 40 24 40 40 40 40
Game-winning play (x4) 40 20 32 36 40 40
Team quality (x3) 27 30 27 24 27 30
Other big plays (x3) 24 30 27 30 30 30
Rivalry/prestige (x3) 12 21 18 9 9 12
Historical meaning (x2) 20 20 20 20 14 18
Star power (x2) 16 20 18 18 14 14
Physical nature (x2) 8 16 18 16 16 16
Statistical meaning (x1) 10 8 8 5 9 8
Controversy (x1) 3 10 3 9 9 2
Viewership (x1) 10 10 10 10 10 10
TOTAL 242 249 251 257 258 260

Let the countdown commence!

12. 1993 Divisional Playoff, Bills 41, Oilers 38 (OT) ---- SCORE: 242

(Tonia L)

Historically, this is probably the signature victory for the Buffalo Bills of the Kelly-Smith-Levy era, mainly because they fell short in all four of their Super Bowls. It feels like a necessary addendum to that story, which elevates it in historical importance a little. The 32-point comeback remains unmatched statistically, and it was very dramatic to watch, but most of the comeback took place during a prolonged offensive explosion in the third quarter, and it didn't have a back-and-forth feel as the Oilers managed only a tying field goal in response to the Frank Reich touchdown brigade.

The game also involved eight Hall of Famers, including coaches. However, the collapse-prone Oilers were a good team, not a great team, and this game wasn't a rivalry matchup loaded with hard hits and memorable plays for each side.

(Bonus: The game did have its share of controversial calls, untimely penalties and win-probability-swinging turnovers, which are well detailed in the wikipedia article linked here.)

Did anyone mention this one comes with gifs? The resilient Bills never did manage to snaggle a Lombardi in four Super Bowl trips, but they did leave their lasting mark on NFL lore, with this 35-0 second-half burst.






But also


And finally


That happened.

11. Super Bowl XIII, Steelers 35, Cowboys 31 ---- SCORE: 249


This game had plenty of big plays, controversy, and lots of historical import. Two undeniably great teams were consciously competing for the label of "Team of the 70's," with big personalities and loads of Hall of Fame stars shining -- or smack-talking, in the case of Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson -- on the national stage. Everyone knew this was a big game, even for a Super Bowl. The thing is, nostalgia slightly clouds people's memories of this one: the Steelers win probability was over 67% for the entire second half, reaching above 99% when Franco Harris put Pittsburgh up 28-17 with eight minutes left.

If you're looking for more memorable plays by big-time stars, there's even footage of White's Big Giant Cast fumbling the ensuing kickoff, which led to Lynn Swann putting the Steelers up big 40 seconds later. NFL Films made much of the fact that the valiant Cowboys hadn't given up yet, scoring two garbage-time touchdowns, but in real life, we knew the game was over long before they failed on that onside kick with 23 seconds left. So this game loses 36 combined points in the game-winner and drama categories.



What you're seeing above: After Franco Harris scored to make it 28-17 with seven minutes left, the cast-clad Randy White (why was a guy with a thumb cast out there on the return team again?) fumbled the kick, leading to a Lynn Swann touchdown pass 40 seconds later that effectively iced the game.

10. Super Bowl XLII, Giants 17, Patriots 14 ---- SCORE: 251

(John Fraley)

Mostly famous for the David Tyree helmet catch, this game had a lot going for it in each category outside of controversy. The Patriots were 18-0 and gunning for that elusive perfect season; the Giants were a surprise entry into the game, having inched into the postseason on the "strength" of a 10-6 finish; Tom Brady was bidding for "Best QB Ever" honors; Eli Manning was on playoff fire, with no picks in the playoffs that year and a passer rating well over 100; The Giants physical defensive line harassed Brady and stymied the Patriots offense all day; a game-ending and history-icing pass to a wide-open Wes Welker fell improbably incomplete; there was Brady-Manning and New York-Boston and two iconic franchises; and a stunning upset victory.

Basically, almost everything.

Plaxico Burress, not Tyree, actually caught the game-winner with 39 seconds left, giving Brady some desperation drive time, but New England went nowhere on a series of sacks and incomplete passes.

One pic seems necessary:

9. Super Bowl XLIII, Steelers 27, Cardinals 23 ---- SCORE: 257


This is easily the score that took me the most by surprise. It only suffers in two categories -- everywhere else it hits all the right notes, all 8s, 9s and 10s except for a poor 3 in rivals/prestige and a mediocre 5 in statistical significance.

Stars? Warner, Fitzgerald, Roethlisberger, Polamalu.

History? Steelers earned their sixth ring and Warner's bid for a second title with a different team.

Big play? Harrison's 100-yard pick six that ended the first half, on which he might or might not have actually scored. Fitz's go-ahead score. The Santonio Holmes ballet catch in the final minute. A sack-fumble to end it.

Controversy? Plays were reviewed, including the one just referenced. Dubious, crucial penalties litter the box score.

Drama? That fourth quarter was insane. The Cards went from 8 percent win probability to 89 percent to 5 percent -- in 2:02 of game time.

8. Super Bowl XXXVIII, Patriots 32, Panthers 29 ---- SCORE: 258


It was a breathless back-and-forth in this one... in the even-numbered quarters, at least. In the first and third quarters, the teams went scoreless -- in fact, there was no score for the first 26:55, in a game dominated by two physical defenses. Then, somehow, 24 points in the last three minutes of the second quarter. Naturally, the third quarter was scoreless. Then, somehow, 37 points in the fourth quarter, culminating in Adam Vinatieri's second title-winning kick, this time with 0:04 left.

Some historic overtones: Carolina's first trip to the Big One, after going 1-15 the previous season and New England cementing its legacy as a possible dynasty with its second Lombardi.

868 yards of offense, few turnovers, Bill Belichick going for it on fourth down, Deion Branch and Muhsin Muhammad playing "can you top this," and a slew of big hits, all on the biggest stage. All this one needed was a more star-studded squad or marquee franchise or rival to act as Brady's sparring partner, and it would have easily passed 270 and challenged for Best Postseason Game Ever.

Yes, it's also the "Wardrobe Malfunction" game. Get your own link.

Regular highlights are definitely worth it if it's been 15 years since you saw this show.

7. Super Bowl XXV, Giants 20, Bills 19 ---- SCORE: 260


Super Bowl XXV: Giants 20, Bills 19. Score: 260. It's still one of the greatest Super Bowls to watch, a fairly hard-hitting, tense battle of two 13-3 squads that featured five lead changes, lots of big plays (Ingram's third-down conversion, Thomas' clutch runs) and a decisive 47-yard field goal attempt by a kicker who hadn't hit one over 40 on grass all year.

Wide right.

It loses points mainly on the lack of history and rivalry between the two teams (despite them both being associated with New York state) and a lack of controversy (2 of 10 points), along with a few good-but-not-perfect scores in other categories.

Your Turn

Part three, with the top six playoff games ever, is planned for the first week of this year's playoffs. Until then, please disagree vehemently in the space below. In fact, if you'd like to grade a game that didn't make the cut, such as the "Sea of Hands" game or that dramatic, vicious, heartbreaking, weird Saints-Vikings NFCCG from 2010 or a particularly memorable Seattle playoff victory/defeat, then go (hawks) right ahead.