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Most Memorable Plays For Each NFC Team

Yesterday, we looked at the most memorable plays for each AFC team. Today, we switch to the NFC, and let’s begin in the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys: Emmitt Smith, with one good shoulder, runs for 10 yards to put Dallas in field goal range against the Giants in week 17, 1993

For a franchise with as proud a history as the Cowboys, there are some painful memories to consider: the Tony Romo bobbled snap against the Seahawks, Leon Lett against the Bills (and Dolphins), the ending of the Ice Bowl, the Tom Brown end zone interception of Don Meredith to clinch the 1966 NFL championship game, the Dez Bryant “incomplete” pass last year, and Jackie Harris starring in the Sickest Man in America.

But when it comes to the Cowboys, the mind immediately goes to the dynasty built in the ’90s. That team cemented its place in the game’s history by repeating as Super Bowl champions in 1993, and much of the credit for the title goes to winning in week 17 against the Giants. A loss in that game would have made the Cowboys a Wild Card team, while a win gave Dallas the number one seed. And that game turned out to be the most memorable of Emmitt Smith’s career. Playing much of the game on shoulder, he totaled a career high 41 touches. Here’s the play in question, and Smith carrying Dallas to victory that day remains the most iconic memory of one of the franchise’s greatest players. A close runner up: the original Hail Mary, from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson against the vikings in the 1975 playoffs. But that game didn’t lead to a Super Bowl championship.

New York Giants: David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII

For a franchise with such a defensive history, when it comes to the Giants and great plays, it’s all about catches: Odell Beckham Jr. against the Cowboys, Mario Manningham against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, Victor Cruz going for 99 yards against the Jets weeks earlier, or any of the long bombs to Homer Jones. Super Bowl XLII featured a Plaxico Burress catch to win the game, but there’s no contest for the greatest play in Giants history.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Miracle at the Meadowlands

Speaking of the Giants, the Eagles have a trio of good options to pick for great plays against New York: a brutal hit by Chuck Bednarik on Frank Gifford, the Original Miracle at the Meadowlands (Herman Edwards returning a Joe Pisarcik fumble for a touchdown in 1978), and Miracle at the Meadowlands II (highlighted by the DeSean Jackson punt return to win the game). Actually, there are more than three: there’s Brian Westbrook’s punt return that saved the Eagles 2003 season, and Randall Cunningham’s touchdown pass after escaping a Carl Banks sack, too.

There’s also Cunningham’s incredible touchdown pass against the Bills, Donovan McNabb’s scramble and throw against the Cowboys, and 4th-and-26. And I’ll give a nod to Steve Van Buren scoring the only touchdown in the 1948 title game. But for me, the Miracle at the Meadowlands remains #1.

Washington Redskins John Riggins touchdown run vs. Miami in Super Bowl XVII

The 4th-and-inches run remains, by far, the most memorable play in Washington football history.

Chicago Bears: Walter Payton’s run vs. the Chiefs in November 1977

Gale Sayers had some incredible highlights, including in his six touchdown game against the 49ers. So too, of course, did Devin Hester. But what more do you need to see than this?

Detroit Lions: Pick your Barry Sanders run

I can confirm that googling “Best Barry Sanders run ever” is a good way to lose the rest of your day. I’m partial to the Sanders run against the Bears that starts this highlight video, although his touchdown run against the Cowboys in the playoffs is a good choice, too. I suppose some might want to argue for Dan Orlovsjky run out of the back of his end zone vs. Minnesota, but I’m going to keep this positive. I’m sure you could find something from Calvin Johnson, too, but the other two memories that came to me were from Matt Stafford: his game-winner against the Browns and his fake spike/QB leap to beat the Cowboys.

Green Bay Packers: Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak vs. the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl

Sorry, Brett and Aaron: it’s hard to top this one.

Minnesota Vikings: Gary Anderson miss in 1998 NFC Championship Game

There are a lot of fun plays in Minnesota Vikings history: Fran Tarkenton, Adrian Peterson, and Randy Moss give the Vikings an all-time great player at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. And all three could produce special highlights (and so did Brett Favre for one special season). I even highlighted two of those yesterday. But unfortunately, the Vikings are more defined by their failure to win a Super Bowl than anything.

There’s Jim Marshall running the wrong way for a touchdown to provide comic relief to the otherwise dark history. There’s Anderson’s miss, Brett Favre’s interception to Tracy Porter, Staubach’s Hail Mary, Darrin Nelson’s drop, and Nate Poole’s touchdown to knock Minnesota out of the playoffs. And Minnesota has been on the field for many of the best plays in franchise history… for other teams: the Chiefs (65 Toss Power Trap), the Falcons (see below), the 49ers (the Steve Young run), and the Cowboys (Hail Mary). But Anderson’s miss remains one of the most painful and shocking moments in franchise history.

Atlanta Falcons: Michael Vick’s overtime touchdown run vs. Minnesota

There are three famous Hail Mary throws in Falcons history, although I can only find decent video of one of there. The first was Steve Bartkowski hitting Alfred Jenkins on “Big Ben Right” — a 57 yard bomb down the right side of the field against the Saints. The next came five years later, when Bartkowski connected with Billy “White Shoes” Johnson in 1983 against the 49ers (video here). And eight years later, it was Billy Joe Tolliver and Michael Haynes combining to again beat San Francisco, this time keeping the 49ers out of the playoffs.

There are a number of highlights from Deion Sanders during his team in Atlanta; also, honorable mention to Vick’s 4th-and-12 touchdown run against Carolina in 2004 to force overtime (Atlanta won, 34-31). I have no idea how his knee didn’t touch the ground. Also, anything involving Atlanta during the 1998 season and the Dirty Bird. But it’s hard to top this run by Vick.

Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith touchdown vs. the Texans

This article is a great resource for Steve Smith fans. The first play most fans will think about is probably the game-winner against the Rams, or maybe the time he scored a touchdown with a broken arm. But this play is just such quintessential Steve Smith, and nothing is more Carolina Panthers than Steve Smith.

New Orleans Saints: Steve Gleason’s blocked punt vs. Atlanta

By many accounts, the Super Dome was never louder than right after Gleason’s block. This was the Saints first home game in New Orleans in over a year, after Hurricane Katrina displaced the team during the 2005 season. Gleason’s block came on Monday Night Football, and was one of those memories that seems to live on for most who saw it either on TV or in person.

Other good candidates: Garrett Hartley sending the Saints to the Super Bowl with a 40-yard kick in overtime of the 2009 NFC Championship Game; two plays in that ensuing Super Bowl: the onside kick by Thomas Morestead recovered by the Saints to start the second half, and Tracy Porter’s pick six to ice the game; and Drew Brees setting the single-season passing yardage record, at home, on Monday Night Football. And we can’t forget about Tom Dempsey hitting a 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions in 1970.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Dwight Smith’s first pick six vs. Oakland in Super Bowl XXVII

The top three memories for me in Tampa Bay history are all pick sixes during the 2002 playoffs: Smith’s first pick six (he added one in the final seconds, too) clinched the game for Tampa Bay, extending the lead to 31 points. Derrick Brooks had a fourth quarter pick six, too, which just seemed appropriate to watch one of the game’s best players dominate on the biggest stage. And I’ve always been fond of Ronde Barber’s pick six against the Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, which send Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals: Kurt Warner’s 64-yard TD to Larry Fitzgerald in Super Bowl XLIII

There aren’t a lot of great options for the NFL’s two oldest franchises. Warner’s touchdown late in the 4th quarter gave the Cardinals the lead and put Arizona on the precipice of winning its first Super Bowl title. Unfortunately, an even more iconic play — Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown to Santonio Holmes — made this play just a footnote in history.

San Francisco 49ers: The Catch

Like Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the 49ers have their iconic moment, and that’s Joe Montana to Dwight Clark to beat Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. In fact, The Catch even spawned sequels: The Catch II, by Terrell Iwens against the Packers, and The Catch III, by Vernon Davis against the Saints. Also, as hinted at in the Vikings section, we can’t just ignore this Steve Young run.

Seattle Seahawks: The Beast Quake

The Seahawks have produced a ton of memorable moments in the last two years alone, and had a handful in their last game. But Marshawn Lynch’s run against the Saints is one of those “you remember where you were when you saw it” plays. Also, it was made even more incredible by the fact that Lynch produced his own sequel.

St. Louis Rams: The Tackle – Mike Jones on Kevin Dyson in Super Bowl XXXIV

The Rams have a lot of great memories from the GSOT — heck, Marshall Faulk can produce his own highlight reel, along with Ricky Proehl’s catch against the Bucs and Isaac Bruce’s go-ahead, 73- touchdown (that proved to be the game winner) in Super Bowl XXXIV, too. One play I always loved this one where Torry Holt escorted Az-Zahir Hakim down the field: it typified the Rams of those days, where it felt like the offense had 13 players on the field. Before 1999, the Rams had some great moments, too: Eric Dickerson could match Faulk highlight for highlight, while Flipper Anderson going into the tunnel is a pretty iconic memory, too.

But how can you pick anything other than The Tackle?

As always, your thoughts are more important than mine. I’d love to hear your favorite mo hear your favorite memories.

  • Duff Soviet Union

    I’m not sure if it should have been first, but one you missed for New Orleans is the “River CIty Relay” against Jacksonville. The fact that Carney missed the tying extra point was just perfect. Just quintessential pre-Brees Saints.

  • I was interested to see what you would pick for the Seahawks. I’m glad you did not go with that one play from last year’s Super Bowl. They have too many great iconic plays in their favor to go negative. I actually think number one is Sherman’s tip, because it led to their first Super Bowl victory and because it prompted one of the most memorable post-game interviews ever. Over at jimzornslemma.com I list the most iconic plays by franchise, but they all involve the Seahawks. Check it out if you’re a Seahawks fan… or even if you’re not.

    • Wolverine

      Interesting read, even for non-Hawks fans. Watching highlights from that Lions-Seahawks game in 2012 is always bittersweet for me. While the Seahawks shut down Megaron, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles took advantage and had excellent games. They looked like they had so much promise. Such a shame that Young could never deal with his mental illness, and is now in jail. Broyles could never stay healthy, and was just waived yesterday.

  • Chris

    How could you not write about the Steve Smith TD grab in 2OT against the Rams for the Panthers?

  • Wolverine

    Lions fan, here. Maybe Barry Sanders’ great runs all blend together for me, but I forgot about that one against the Bears. The ones you mentioned are good ones. Here are some other ones, but unfortunately,like the Orlovskly play, there are a lot of negatives.

    1)The 1991 season still stands as the most successful season in Detroit since Bobby Layne left town, so any memory from that season would qualify, IMO. The one that stands out to me is Mel Gray returning a punt for a TD in game 15 to clinch the win against the Packers (the last time the Lions beat the Packers on the road), which also clinched a playoff spot.

    2)Calvin Johnson’s TD catch in triple coverage in that crazy week 4 comeback against the Cowboys (most people remember that game for Romo’s pick sixes, but it was also the game that Megatron really became Megatron).

    3)The one I can’t forget, no matter how much I want to, is the 2000 season when Paul Edinger made a 54 yard FG to knock the Lions out of the playoffs, and usher in the Matt Millen Error, err, I mean Era.

    4)Another negative that my dad keeps talking about is when the Eddie Murray missed an easy game winning FG in the waning seconds against the 49ers in the 1983 Divsional Playoffs.

    5)Not really a play, but Phil Luckett’s overtime coin toss gaffe on Thanksgiving Day against the Steelers.

    6)Brett Favre’s impossible game-winning TD in the 1993 Wild Card game, where he scrambled all the way to the right of the field, then threw off his back foot, across his body, to throw a long TD pass to Sterling Sharpe. The Lions lose, 28-24. On a sad note, that play probably ended Erik Kramer’s career in Detroit. I can’t imagine the Lions would have gone after Scott Mitchell if Kramer had won his second playoff game in a Lions uniform.

    Kramer has had a tragic life after his playing career, but most Lions fans still appreciate the pleasant memories he gave us. He still stands as the only Lions quarterback to win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era (And he did win it. He didn’t just hand off to Barry…he was a fantastic passer in that game).

    • 7) Opening game of the 1999 season against the Seahawks in Seattle, the first regular season game of the post-Barry Sanders Era, the Seahawks run a flea-flicker on the first play from scrimmage. The Lions blow it up and the sack the quarterback for eight-yard loss. Detroit goes on to win the game on the back of WR Germane Crowell’s 7-141-2 day and the D-line’s six-sack performance. OK, that probably wasn’t a huge moment in Lion’s lore, but I remember it well, because it was one of the few times I got to see my Seahawks in person. Stupid Charlie Batch.

      • Wolverine

        Can you believe that I was so distraught about Barry Sanders retiring that I didn’t bother going to a sports bar (was living in Chicago at the time) to watch that game? Looking at the rest of the roster I just assumed the Lions would go 2-14. As I watched the week 1 scoreboard while watching the local game, I was like “Wtf? They’re actually going to be competent?”

        They started 6-2 (including an improbably comeback victory against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams), before injuries took their toll and they collapsed down the stretch, backing their way into the 3rd Wild Card at 8-8. Bobby Ross was a really underrated coach as far as getting Chicken Salad out of Chicken you know what.

        • Yeah, I remember the Lions got off to an unexpectedly hot start the year after Barry retired. According to many pundits, the reason was that other players on the team were forced to “step up” in his absence, to which John Madden replied (paraphrase): “Why didn’t they step up while Barry was around. They could have been a great team!”

    • sacramento gold miners

      Always like to see the name of Mel Gray brought up, he was one of the elite returners in NFL history. Gray was one of the many USFL players who were signed by NFC teams, the NFC seemed to collect more talent out of the USFL than the AFC.

      • Wolverine

        I loved Mel Gray. He was the Devin Hester of the 1990’s. I would always scoot to the edge of my seat whenever the Lions received a kickoff or punt. Really exciting player to watch.

  • TN

    The only one of these that I’m sure you’ve gotten wrong is for the Cowboys. Staubach’s Hail Mary, ending a playoff game, is far better remembered than Emmitt Smith with a non-touchdown run in a regular season game.

    For the Bears, I’d also add Jim McMahon coming off the bench against the Vikings on Thursday Night Football in 1985 and throwing a 70-yard TD to Willie Gault on his first play.

    • Agreed, it’s nuts not to go with the Hail Mary. I don’t think this is even close.

      • I have no illusions as to what the general view is here. For me, though, I rarely think about the Hail Mary. I think more about the end zone interception and Starr’s QB sneak to cost Dallas back to back Super Bowls, or Larry Brown’s pick six vs. Neil O’Donnell, or any number of Emmitt/Irvin/Novacek/Deion plays. And then I think of the modern Cowboys. And while I think “hey, the ’70s Cowboys were great” I mostly think of their Super Bowl plays against the Steelers or the terrible Colts game. The Hail Mary, while undoubtedly awesome and probably insanely memorable at the time, doesn’t seem to hold up for me. Again, not sure why, but I think Dallas not winning the Super Bowl that year plays a big part in it (i.e., it wasn’t Flacco to Jones).

        I do think of that Emmitt game against the Cowboys as the quintessential Cowboys “memory” and then I fudged things a bit to make it a play.

        • Yeah, I think your last sentence gets to the heart of the disagreement. The Emmitt’s-shoulder game was certainly memorable, but I don’t think you can isolate any one play and say it compares to The Hail Mary. A 10-yard run to set up a field goal attempt is not a memorable play. The undisputed most famous Hail Mary in the history of professional football is way ahead if we’re talking about “most memorable plays“.

  • Richie

    Re: Steve Smith

    Sometimes it’s so frustrating to think “what could’ve been”. Smith had a great career. But what would his career have looked like if he got to play with a great QB and/or another good receiver on the other side to help him out?

    That might be an interesting list to come up with: Great players who may have been even greater if they had some help.

  • Andrew Healy

    These are awesome. For the Bears, I kind of like the Wilber Marshall fumble return in the NFCC as an iconic play to symbolize the ’85 Bears defense with Dick Butkus cackling joyously: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpxjT1oZT9g

  • Todd M. Pence

    I think for the Seahawks, “The Tip” trumps “the Quake”.