Wild Card Weekend is for underachievers and party crashers. Championship Sunday is about splitting hairs. The Super Bowl is about the spectacle. Divisional Weekend is for the football lovers. The best eight teams standing proceed to attack each other, and the losers are written out of history. Divisional Weekend is where surging young teams earn their dynasty stripes by managing the pressures that come with a bye week. It’s a red tide wherein coincidental powers clash most aggressively because, at this level, there are no broken brackets.
It is, after all, the most heartbreaking round. Tony Romo in Seattle in the Wild Card round was house money for Cowboys fans all along. Tony Romo at home to the Giants was wasting a 13-3 campaign on a weekend in Cabo San Lucas with Jessica Simpson.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there has been an eight-team playoff table lumped into a Wikipedia entry as the “Divisional Playoffs.” Four-plus decades into the best weekend of football on the calendar is an opportune moment to itemize.
15. Down go the champs
Atlanta Falcons @ San Francisco 49ers, 20-18, ’98-’99
San Francisco 49ers @ Washington Redskins, 20-13, ’92-’93
It’s a footnote, but history will remember Atlanta’s “Dirty Bird” dance–the most infectious touchdown celebration in league history. It made kids that rooted for the ’97 Broncos switch to the ’98 Falcons in the Super Bowl a year later against those same Broncos. For Atlanta to become immortal, however, historians required the blood of a king. Enter Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Terrell Owens the week after Owens made this catch. Atlanta survived at home and simultaneously ended the Young era.[ref]Young played in ’99, but concussions knocked him out of service for good and San Francisco finished the year with a 4-12 record.[/ref] Earlier in the ’90s, Young put the hammer on the Super Bowl-winning Redskins mini Joe Gibbs dynasty. The divisional round is where history means nothing and belts are taken.
14. Sic Transit Gloria
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Redskins, 14-13, ’00-’01
Chicago Bears @ Seattle Seahawks, 27-24 (OT), ’06-’07
Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs, 10-7, ’95-’96
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers, 33-13, ’08-’09
In hindsight, Shaun King, Rex Grossman, Jim Harbaugh, and Kurt Warner’s Cards surge were all embers in the fire.
13. The sea change
Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24 (2OT), ’71-’72
Washington Redskins @ Chicago Bears, 21-17, ’87-’88
San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions, 24-23, ’83-’84
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Denver Broncos, 30-27, ’96-’97
The ’72 Dolphins didn’t roll out of bed and go 17-0. Their ascent required a moment of clarity. The Joe Gibbs Redskins were NFC sultans from ’81 to ’92, capturing four conference title and winning three Super Bowls. The ’87 team played in the year of the union strike which meant three weeks of replacement athletes. For Washington to regain its edge it required a major league effort at Mike Ditka’s Bears. These were the games where you’d watch destiny take over late, and more importantly where you realized that the NFL’s landscape had shifted.
12. Chargers-Dolphins II
San Diego Chargers @ Miami Dolphins, 22-21, ’93-’94
Dan Marino played in the Super Bowl as s second-year player. A decade later, this was the closest Marino got to another one. The ’94 Chargers were an extended hot streak led by trivia answersStan Humphries. San Diego wasn’t built to contend, but the divisional round rewards guts. And don’t for a second think we’re done with the Chargers.
11. Oakland’s ’70s key parties
Oakland Raiders @ New England Patriots. 24-21, ’76-’77
Oakland Raiders @ Baltimore Colts, 37-31 (2OT), ’77-’78
Oakland Raiders @ Miami Dolphins, 28-26, ’74-’75
Oakland Raiders @ Cleveland Browns, 14-12, ’80-’81
Pittsburgh dominated the decade, but Oakland was its beating heart. Think the Knicks in the ’90s–always around to unload improbable runs. The Raiders owned this round.
10. The agony and ecstasy of Cleveland
Miami Dolphins @ Cleveland Browns, 24-21, ’85-’86
Cleveland Browns @ New York Jets, 23-20 (2OT)
Something strange. Something beautiful. Bernie Kosar and Marty Schottenheimer lost three AFC Championships to Denver. Cleveland in the ’80s had no shortage of thrills, spills.
9. Tommy Maddox 4evr
Tennessee Titans @ Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-31 (OT), ’02-’03
Pittsburgh is the league’s most successful Super Bowl-era club because of their enduring levels of competency and luck. That 2002 version had defensive holes across the depth chart–problematic for a team that runs and defends and sells you on those talents–but in ’02 found a temporary groove by leaning on former XLF MVP Tommy Maddox[ref]This has to be on his license plates still.[/ref] and an air-raid defense that, out of nowhere, turned the Steelers into the Dan Fouts Chargers. They overcame a 17-point deficit to upend Cleveland 36-33 in the Wild Card round. Then they played a Super Bowl-pedigree Tennessee side with better talent. Maddox took them through regulation, but in Shakespearean fashion, it was the ever-leaky defense that couldn’t hold up in overtime.
8. Favre in Philly
Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles, 20-17, ’03-’04
This one still hurts. In December ’03, the gun-slinging Brett Favre (everyone’s favorite player unless they were NFC North faithful) lost his father suddenly to a heart attack. Green Bay won five games in a row–including a 33-27 OT win at home to upstart Seattle–and was a sentimental favorite for the Super Bowl. The team traveled to Philadelphia. Ahman Green rushed for 150-plus and that was a franchise postseason record, and the Packers held a 17-14 lead with 1:12 to go in the fourth. On 4th and 26, Donovan McNabb willed the Eagles to a first down. Philly tied and won with back-to-back David Akers field goals.
7. That time the Nuggets beat the Sonics.
Always a winner.
6. Sir Vernon Davis
San Francisco 49ers @ New Orleans Saints, 36-32, ’11-’12
I was in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Washington, D.C., for this one. It was someone’s birthday dinner and the birthday girl did not care about the NFL. No matter, Alex Smith couldn’t move the ball and Drew Brees and the Saints were on fire. Suddenly it’s a shootout and the entire place is hollering like children at the zoo. It was one of those classic moments where the scope and power of the NFL is realized unexpectedly and it’s beautiful. Sports bars reaffirm what you know. But trying to have a nice time at dinner was overshadowed by the power of Vernon Davis‘ game-winning catch and the noise that it made from the back bar and its staff.
5. America’s Team becomes a thing
Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings,17-14,’75-’76
Dallas Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers, 30-28, ’71-’72
Los Angeles Rams @ Dallas Cowboys, 21-19, ’79-’80
There is one true Captain Comeback and his name is Roger Staubach. People hate the Dallas Cowboys because in the ’70s everyone loved the Dallas Cowboys. The first team to integrate. The upstart new money dogs that bombed their way into your living room by routinely coming back on Sundays. This was best exemplified with the ’75 Cowboys, and a 50-yard bomb from Staubach to Drew Pearson. After, Staubach coined the phrase “Hail Mary.” Later, Minnesota QB Fran Tarkenton learned that his father, Dallas, died of a heart attack while watching the game.
4. Why people do not trust Peyton Manning
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos, 38-35 (2OT), ’12-’13
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Indianapolis Colts, 21-18, ’05-’06
San Diego Chargers @ Indianapolis Colts, 28-24, ’07-’08
Peyton Manning is a perfectly fine cold-weather QB. But his most iconic fails occurred in this round. I think there’s something to the fact that Manning has a hard time staying on the field on key third downs as the play-calling gets less aggressive and his dependably pedestrian defense bends and, eventually, breaks.
3. The end of The Show
Carolina Panthers @ St. Louis Rams, 29-23 (2OT), ’03-’04
This one didn’t end. Down 23-20 late, St. Louis mounted a tense drive that culminated with a regulation-tying field goal. Then there were two sudden death OTs. And that’s how you spend two hours in the television aisles of Best Buy.
2. The Epic in Miami
San Diego Chargers @ Miami Dolphins, 41-38, ’81-’82
A 24-point lead followed up 17 unanswered points from the other guys on a sloppy field at the Orange Bowl. Sports Illustrated called it “The Game No One Should Have Lost.” Go read about it.
1. The Tommy Tuck
New England Patriots @ Oakland Raiders, 16-13, ’01-’02
Snow. Landscape shifts. Heroes that still rule the league. Charles Woodson complaining with curse words to reporters after. An old school war of attrition that defined the post-9/11, 21st century National Football League. A lot of us thought the Raiders would blow out New England–this was the Raiders window wherein Jon Gruden turned journeyman Rich Gannon into an eventual NFL MVP a year later–and so I wrote off the game as the weekend’s least essential and went to go see “Black Hawk Down.” Life lesson: Never miss the Saturday night specials.