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Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

Smith nearly drops the chip on his shoulder

When I think of the greatest games by a wide receiver in playoff history, my mind always travels to what Steve Smith against the 2005 Bears.  And while that game was remarkable — we’ll get to that in a bit — it’s the context that matters.

In the 2005 regular season, Smith was unstoppable; Dr. Z said that he was “simply the best in the game, filling the dual roles of possession receiver and downfield threat.” But Smith’s dominance was not just anecdotal, of course: Smith led the NFL in receiving yards, and was tied for the league lead in both receptions and receiving touchdowns, all while playing on a team that ranked 28th in pass attempts.

Then, in the first round of the playoffs, Smith caught 10 of 11 passes and scored both of Carolina’s touchdowns in a 23-0 win over the Giants.  And as if all of that wasn’t enough to make the Bears focus their efforts on Smith in the upcoming game, consider that during the regular season, Smith gained 169 yards against Chicago, the most the Bears allowed to any receiver all year.

So yeah, the Bears were game-planning for Smith.  And Chicago seemed pretty well-prepared to stop him: after all, the Bears allowed the fewest fantasy points to wide receivers during the regular season and had not just the top pass defense in the NFL, but one of the best ones in league history. And, in a neat twist of Panthers fate, Chicago’s defense was orchestrated by Ron Rivera, who was the Defensive Coordinator of the Year.

This was the best wide receiver in the NFL, coming off a huge playoff game, going into the Soldier Field to face the toughest defense on the planet.  The over/under was 31 points. The Panthers were held to 3 points in the regular season against Chicago. It was a cold and wet day. And Smith promptly caught 12 of 13 targets for 218 yards, seven first downs, and 2 touchdowns, and also ran 3 times for 26 yards. 

It doesn’t take much convincing to call this the best game by a wide receiver in playoff history: there have been only 8 playoff games since 1960 where a receiver gained 200+ yards, and in half of them, the receiver scored zero or one touchdown. In addition to Smith, the other three games were Calvin Johnson in a loss against the Saints, Reggie Wayne in a blowout against the Broncos, and T.Y. Hilton in the classic against the Chiefs.

I think it’s easy to cite Smith’s game over Johnson’s (a 17-point loss) and Wayne’s (a 25-point win) given the competitiveness of the game.  And while Hilton’s was great, he played a weaker defense, and with Andrew Luck throwing 45 passes rather than Jake Delhomme throwing 33.  So yeah, I’d say Smith had the greatest playoff game1 by a wide receiver2 since at least 1960.3

But for me, the numbers only tell part of the story.  Variance tells us that sometimes, with enough players and enough games, crazy things will happen. But when a superstar takes over the game against a great defense, with all eyes on him, that’s something special. 

In Part 2, I’ll provide some thoughts on a formula for ranking the greatest games by a wide receiver in playoff history. But before we do that, why don’t you let us know what you think of as the best games by a wide receiver in playoff history?

  1. If you want to look at 3-TD games, Fred Biletnikoff‘s 7-180-3 stands out against the Chiefs, but Smith gained an extra 38 yards, was in a more competitive game, and played a tougher defense. So yeah, I’m sticking with this as my vote. Also, Biletnikoff was awesome, and arguably even better the next week against the Jets. []
  2. Only one wide receiver, Anthony Carter against San Francisco, with 257 yards but no touchdowns, has ever matched Smith’s 244 yards from scrimmage in a playoff game since 1960. []
  3. Tom Fears had three touchdowns and 198 yards in a playoff game against Chicago in 1950, so you could argue that Smith didn’t even have the best postseason performance by a wide receiver against the Bears.  You know, if you’re so inclined. []
  • Josh Sanford

    Poor, poor Jerry Rice. Many of his big post-season performances came in games in which his team annihilated its opponent, thereby undermining the credibility of his numbers. I think you are right, when looking at a single greatest post-season game, to factor in the opponent, the competitiveness of the game, etc. However, if you were to do one of your comprehensive reviews of total post-season performances, I am sure Jerry would get his due. And speaking of Tim Duncan, I saw yesterday that he had 164 post-season double-doubles.

    • But Rice’s performance in Super XXIII is on the short list of greatest ever post-season game by a wide receiver: 11 catches on 15 targets for 215 yards and a touchdown. And although John Taylor caught the game-winner, the final drive was largely Rice. He had three receptions for 41 yards, including two spectacular catch-and-runs.

      In fact, I might even put this game no. 1 on the list. It depends on how much weight you put on leverage — the stakes don’t get any higher than a close game in the Super Bowl.

      • Josh Sanford

        I couldn’t agree more. So darn you John Taylor for stealing that game winning TD. That catch was meant for Rice.

  • Richie

    Larry Fitzgerald in the Super Bowl jumps to mind, but he only had 127 yards and the Cardinals attempted 10 more passes than the Panthers did.

    • Tom

      I’d put that game up there for sure. 7 receptions, 8 targets, 2 TD’s, 127 yards…not too shabby. And although I know clutch/big WPA plays probably aren’t part of Chase’s formula, it’s hard to ignore the impact of that 64-yard catch and run TD that put the Cards on top.

      • You want clutch/big WPA plays, check out Ricky Proehl.

        • Tom

          I’ll check him out…he did have a fumble against the Pats in the SB, that’s all I can remember about him (probably wasn’t watching enough football in those days).

          • sacramento gold miners

            Ricky Proehl helped save the Rams in the 1999 NFC Title Game against Tampa Bay, he caught the winning TD pass. The Buccaneer defense smothered St. Louis for nearly the entire game, but couldn’t answer Proehl’s TD after a possible Bert Emanuel catch was overruled.

  • Tom

    Chase – any thoughts on using Neil’s Championship Leverage for this (as you did for quarterbacks)? If you had two receivers with the exact same stat line, but one receiver played in a Wild Card game, the other, the Super Bowl, would we say the SB game was “better”? Does it even make sense for receivers? Does it make sense for a single game even?

    • That might be the way to go, although it would be placing a really heavy emphasis on SB games. It’s worth looking at, I think, in part 3 (part 2 has already been written!).

      • Tom

        True, the emphasis might be too much, and I’m thinking maybe it’s not even appropriate for receivers…

  • As a Seahawks fan, I remember being terrified of Steve Smith in the 2005 NFC Championship. Fortunately, the Panthers were down to their 4th-string running back for most of the game and the Seahawks were able to completely blanket Smith and hold him to just 5 catches for 33 yards on 11 targets.

    Of course, the ‘Hawks made the mistake of punting to him once, and he took it to the house — he was still Steve Smith, after all.

    • Flex On My Ex

      I’m still haunted by this game. Every time a RB goes down i drift back to having a practice squad running back in the biggest game.

    • tn05

      Funny thing – we weren’t planning to have him return punts. He was so angry from being blanketed that he basically demanded he get to return the punt. And he got a punt return TD, of course.

      Fun fact: For the 2005 postseason, Steve Smith led the league in receptions, yards, receiving yards per game, receiving touchdowns, punt return TDs, overall TDs, points scored (the only other non-kicker besides Larry Fitzgerald to accomplish that this century, and he did it with one less game), and all-purpose yards.

  • Adam

    I’m with Chase, it has to be Smith vs the Bears. The context is too overwhelming for any other choice.

    I don’t think it’s fair to penalize a receiver because his team won in a blowout; teams don’t pass more with a big lead, they pass far less. But receivers on the losing end of a blowout should be docked for garbage time stat padding.

  • Tom

    Swann in SB 10 isn’t too bad either: 4 catches, 7 targets, 161 yards(!) and 1 TD.

    • Stat line sounds kind of like Demaryius Thomas versus the Steelers…with some lefty throwing him the ball.

      • Tom

        Hahaha…you’re right on! 4 for 7, 204 yards (wow), 1 TD. Damn, that Tebow year was fun.

  • Tom

    Instead of thinking of great receiver performances, I started thinking of great defenses in the playoffs. Here’s two guys that might at least make it into the top 20:

    The Colts’ Pierre Garcon in 2009 against the Jets. The Jets were first in the league that year in ANY/A allowed, 3.5. Garcon caught 11 passes on 15 targets, 151 yards and 1 TD. Not stunning numbers, but pretty darn good considering it was against one of the best defenses since the merger.

    The Cowboys’ Preston Pearson in 1975 against the Rams. 7 catches (no target info, but we can watch the game on YouTube!), 123 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Rams pass defense, based on ANY/A, was #5 that year, they were #1 in points allowed.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Preston Pearson was kind of a trailblazer in terms of his effectiveness as a third down back, he was a key part of the Dallas offense for years. Great pickup by Dallas, Pearson was a seldom-used Steelers RB.

  • Obviously the 1960 cutoff for game finder limits studies like this, so we don’t get performances like Tom Fears in the 1950 divisional game or Raymond Berry in the 1958 title game. Still figured those are worth a mention in the comments.

  • Clint

    What about this game from Larry Fitzgerald? Caught 9 of 10 for 150+ and 3 tds on 28 passing attempts. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200901180crd.htm

    There are a lot of good games here. No love for Eric Moulds? Haha. His game was actually pretty impressive though. Then Jerry Rice at age 39 with 183 yds. Crazy!
    http://www.pro-football-reference.com/tiny/86vsE

  • sacramento gold miners

    Plaxico Burress also had a spectacular postseason receiving game in the 2007 NFC TG at Green Bay. Playing in -23 wind chill, Burress abused the Packer secondary for 11-151 yards, helping the Giants advance to the Super Bowl.