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?
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]