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The Epic Scale, Part 3: Best Playoff Games Ever

Part 1: Was the most recent NFCCG maybe the greatest postseason game of all time? Part 2: Let's start finding out, with Best Playoff Games, Numbers 7-12 Part 3: Countdown concludes with numbers 1-6. Today we find out if The Tip earns the top spot.

Don't fret, this isn't a complete spoiler
Don't fret, this isn't a complete spoiler
Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports

In October, I devised the Epic Scale, a 12-rubric examination of playoff games, with each category weighted a different amount. The 2014 NFCCG, complete with The Tip, Fourth and Seven, multiple jaw-dropping plays, wild dramatic swings, all wrapped up in a fierce, physical rivalry with the whole country watching, scored a remarkable 274 out of 300 possible points.

In December, Part 2 (with collaboration from Tonia L., user 99-percent-sure), revealed that the following games...

Rank Setting and Date Score Epic Scale Grade
12. AFC WC, 1/3/93 Bills 41, Oilers 38 (OT) 242
11. SB XIII Steelers 35, Cowboys 31 249
10. SB XLII Giants 17, Patriots 14 251
9. SB XLIII Steelers 27, Cardinals 23 257
8. SB XXXVIII Patriots 32, Panthers 29 258
7. SB XXV Giants 20, Bills 19 260

...were great, but not the greatest.

Today, as a final installment to help hold us over until the Hawks play again, the top playoff games of all time are put through the grader. Complete with handmade .gifs. from Tonia, who deserves your thanks and props way more than I do.

Methodology Reminder

As said upstream, there are 12 categories:

  • What's At Stake, Drama, and Game-Winning Play are worth a maximum of 40 points apiece;
  • General Team Quality, Big Plays, and Rivalry/Franchise Prestige are each worth up to 30;
  • Historical Meaning, Star Power, and Physicality are each worth up to 20;
  • Statistical Meaning, Controversy, and Viewership are each worth up to 10.

6. 1987 AFCCG: Broncos 23, Browns 20, OT (The Drive) ---- SCORE: 262


A tense, tight game. No team ever led by multiple scores, and ties were had at 10 and 13 before Bernie Kosar found Brian Brennan for 48 yards to put the Browns up 20-13. You probably know the rest. Denver muffed the ensuing kickoff and found itself backed up on its 2 with five minutes to play.

If you don't mind giving the Broncos website a free click, highlights are here.

Then, somewhat anticlimactically but somewhat game-winningly, with a sudden-death 33-yard field goal, kicker Rich Karlis sent the Broncos to the Super Bowl, for a forgettable date against the Giants. It would be the first of three blowout SB losses for Denver. (Better news for them lies right below.)

Imperfect grades in history (8), star power (7), controversy (4) and stats (3) keep this one from climbing the ladder any further. A high rivalry score (27) helped, as did the ferocious physicality of the Browns defense alongside the Mecklenburg-led Broncos.

5. Super Bowl XXXII: Broncos 31, Packers 24 ---- SCORE: 264


Excellent Super Bowl, full of drama and redemption for John Elway (who was able to win one by handing off to Terrell Davis instead of throwing 50 times per game). This one could easily have gone either way, but Denver made a couple of big offensive plays inside of four minutes, then held off Brett Favre inside the Denver 30-yard-line to close out the win.

Perhaps you've heard of the so-called Helicopter Play?

XXXII mainly lost points because there was no meaningful Denver-Green Bay rivalry (we gave it 9 out of a possible 30, solely because each team won a Super Bowl adjacent to this game, which made it determinative as to who repeated), it had no controversy to speak of (just 2/10*), and it didn't get perfect scores in physicality (16) or statistics (7).

* because 10/10 would be some yet not enough to impact the final result

4. 2007 AFCCG: Colts 38, Patriots 34 ---- SCORE: 266


This one contains everything you could want except for controversy and physicality. You've got perfect scores in drama, rivalry, personalities (Manning-Brady Episode MDLXIV) and near-perfect scores in game-winning play, general team quality, big plays and viewership.

History's levers dance on the fulcrum which is this game. Without a win on this date, there are perhaps no Lombardis in Peyton's living room -- unless he borrows a spare from his little brother.

To illustrate how crazy a game it was, Brady's Pats took a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, then held the Colts to a red zone FG as the half ended. Manning shook off an early pick-six to later rush (yes) for a touchdown, and also throw a game-tying teeder to the immortal Dan Klecko.

So of course, New England returns the next kickoff 80 yards, punches it in, and then for the second time that day, a fumble at the goal line is recovered by a teammate for the score. First time it was Logan Mankins bailing Tom "Butterfingers" Brady; this time it's Jeff Saturday falling on a Dominic Rhodes miscue in the end zone.

Steven Gostowski for three, Adam Vinatieri for three more, Gostowski for three more -- all those fourth-quarter FG set up Indy's game-winning touchdown drive, which ends with three consecutive Manning handoffs to Joseph Addai. Just as predicted.

Do yourself a favor and watch the highlights. Who knows, you might even find yourself rooting differently than you did eight years ago.

3. 1982 NFCCG: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 (The Catch) ---- SCORE: 268


There's quite a bit more to this game than Dwight Clark's Go-Go-Gadget-Fingers reception. But let's watch it one more time anyway, nice and grainy.

That took place with :51 left to play in a game that featured:

  • six lead changes
  • six San Francisco turnovers (young Joe had ball security issues)
  • a nullified pick by Ronnie Lott on a questionable DPI call
  • a reverse on the final drive
  • a horse collar tackle that saved a Dallas last-minute TD

Historically and rivalry-wise, you couldn't ask for much more. Cowboys passing the torch to the Niners for the rest of the decade. Dorsett and Landry and Too Tall Jones and Danny White giving way to Joe Montana and Bill Walsh and a revolutionary offensive philosophy.

If you want to alter a grade here or there on this game or the top two, there's easily a case to be made for this one atop the list instead of the others.

2. Super Bowl XXIII: 49ers 20, Bengals 16 ---- SCORE: 273


Everyone who watched it knows how it ends -- Montana guiding the Niners down the field late in the fourth quarter, to wrest the game from the Bengals one last time.

What's particular is how this game hits every high note perfectly. Personalities like Ickey Woods and Boomer Esiason were matched up against Bill Walsh's usual cast of superstars in red and gold.

The big game, after several big clunkers earlier that decade, was full of big plays -- like the kickoff return for a touchdown, Cofer's missed chip-shot FG, Roger Craig accumulating 101 yards receiving. A Romanowski interception leads to a red zone stop leads to a game-tying field goal leads to the KO touchdown leads to Montana tying the game on a four-play explosive drive a minute later. No taking of breaths allowed.

All those dramatic swings mean pro-football-reference's WP graph is stunning throughout the fourth quarter. Take a look here. Four different times in the final 20 minutes, Cincinnati's win probability topped 75 percent.

Jerry Rice cobbled together a decent day with a SB-record 215 yards, winning the MVP for some reason, but it was the immortal John Taylor who caught the game-winning TD with 34 seconds left.

Historically, plenty to like: A repeat champion, perhaps the moment people began seriously talking about Montana as the GOAT, a close one after several blowout title games.

So this is a good spot for our spoiler chart, which will give away the final answer at just the right time.

Rank Setting and Date Score Epic Scale Grade
6. AFCCG, 1/11/87 Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT) 262
5. Super Bowl XXXII Broncos 31, Packers 24 264
4. AFCCG, 1/21/07 Colts 38, Patriots 34 266
3. NFCCG, 1/10/82 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 267
2. Super Bowl XXIII 49ers 20, Bengals 16 273
1. Super Bowl X Steelers 21, Cowboys 17 277

1. Super Bowl X: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17 ---- SCORE: 277

(This one is epic. It comes with moving illustrations even. And we'll do it category by category too, for transparency.)


At Stake - 40. Everything.

Drama - 36. Dallas' WPA was over 50% for most of the game, until the Steelers blocked a 4th-quarter punt for a safety.

Their WPA actually fell to zero after Swann's 64-yard TD reception with 3:31 left, but Dallas drove down and scored very quickly (on a 34-yard pass to Percy Howard) to make it 21-17, then held the Steelers and got the ball back at their own 38 with 1:22 left. Dallas' late-game WPA peaked at 30.8% after a pass to Preston Pearson gave Dallas a first down at the Steelers' 37 with about 38 seconds left.

Game-Winning Play - 40. It definitely came down to the last play after an impressive late-game Dallas comeback, with Staubach throwing three 37-yard Hail Mary attempts into the Steelers' end zone (one of which hit Percy Howard on the helmet).

Team Greatness - 30. Twelve Hall-of-Famers played in this game, not including the coaches/owners. These two teams played in nine Super Bowls during the 1970's.

Memorable and Big Plays - 30. Several of them frequently appear in generic NFL highlight reels. Like:

and also

Rivalry/Prestige - 18. This game kicked off the dynamic of Dallas and Pittsburgh competing to reach the same Super Bowl victory milestones (becoming the third team to win two Super Bowls, becoming the first to win three, and becoming the second to win five). It was a different type of rivalry that mattered more to the fans than the players, probably, though there seemed to be bad blood between the teams whenever they matched up.

I distinctly remember that it was a real thing during that era, though -- you really couldn't be a fan of both teams if you started following football after this game. They also used to play in the same division in the early/mid 1960's, but that's not much of a factor. The only reason this isn't a perfect 20 is because it takes place before the rivalry blossomed.

Historical Meaning - 20.

Personalities - 18.

Physicality - 20. Bradshaw even got knocked out of the game on that Swann TD pass, which almost cost the Steelers the game when they couldn't run out the clock.

Statistical Significance - 8. Flip the result of this game or SB XIII, and the Cowboys are probably the "team of the 1970's," with three SB wins in five appearances. Swann also set a receiving yards record (4-161) with three spectacular highlight-reel catches, a record which lasted for more than a decade.

Controversy - 7. Should the Steelers have gone for it on fourth down from the Dallas 40 inside of two minutes, instead of punting? Almost a huge clock management fail for Chuck Noll that would have impacted his coaching legacy. Also, Cliff Harris taunted Roy Gerela after a third-quarter field goal miss, which seemed to inspire the Steelers to play even harder (especially Jack Lambert). There is evidence, even!

This is treated as a focal point in the highlight film. But the outcome wasn't really impacted by any questionable calls (unlike the Bennie Barnes interference call in SB XIII).

National Attention - 10.

And that makes 277.

In The Interest Of Transparency

All the grades.

Category 'The Drive' SB XXXII Pats-Colts 'The Catch' SB XXIII SB X
At stake (x4) 40 40 40 40 40 40
Drama (x4) 40 40 40 40 40 36
Game-winning play (x4) 40 40 36 36 36 40
Team quality (x3) 27 30 27 27 27 30
Other big plays (x3) 27 30 27 24 27 30
Rivalry/prestige (x3) 27 9 30 30 21 18
Historical meaning (x2) 16 20 18 20 20 20
Star power (x2) 14 20 20 18 20 18
Physical nature (x2) 16 16 10 16 18 20
Statistical meaning (x1) 3 7 7 4 8 8
Controversy (x1) 4 2 2 4 6 7
Viewership (x1) 8 10 9 9 10 10
TOTAL 262 264 266 267 273 277

So, A Redundant Verdict

The 2014 NFCCG's score of 274 almost held up. It'll have to "settle" for being "only" the second-best postseason game in league history. (EDIT: user Snow Hawk caught my clerical error of giving the NFCCG a 272 in this conclusion, and that's been fixed. Thanks Snow.)

If that puts a chip on your shoulders, Hawks, well then, our deepest apologies, go beat the last little game ahead of you this postseason. Or next. We'll wait.