As 2019 turned to 2020, you no doubt saw a bunch of lists celebrating the best of the decade. And if you were like me, you were annoyed, because 2020 is Year 10 of the decade that began with 2011, meaning next year — 2021 — is really when we should be doing our decade retrospectives. Yes, this is the same logic I used when I missed my wife’s 40th birthday celebration and insisted her 41st birthday was the one that should really be celebrated. However, my editors, much like my wife, are not buying that (expletive). So here we are: the 10 best games of the decade.
I tried to do my best, and whether you agree or disagree with the results, I aimed to be as objective as possible. If you don’t believe me, Mitch Trubisky’s six-touchdown game against the Buccaneers last season is nowhere on this list and not even under consideration. But enough of my yammering. Let’s jump into it.
10) Week 5, 2013: Denver Broncos 51, Dallas Cowboys 48
Any game that includes Peyton Manning executing a perfect bootleg for a 1-yard touchdown run — his first rushing touchdown in five years — really needs to be on this list. Though it seemed like a mismatch, with the 4-0 Broncos taking on the 2-2 Cowboys, this game was pretty amazing — had it been on Monday Night Football, it might have been included higher. (I recognize that it would be more fair to judge these games in a vacuum, but I’m also a human being. So back off.) Manning ended up with 414 passing yards and four touchdown passes, giving him 20 passing touchdowns in the first five games of the season. Tony Romo (that’s right, kids; your favorite broadcaster played football, too) finished with 506 passing yards and five touchdowns. He even gave the Cowboys the lead on a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley, putting Dallas ahead 48-41 with 7:19 left. But Manning drove the Broncos down the field, and Denver tied it on Knowshon Moreno’s 1-yard touchdown plunge. Romo threw an interception on the next series (I won’t say it was his fault), setting up Matt Prater’s winning kick.
9) Super Bowl LII: Philadelphia Eagles 41, New England Patriots 33
Looking back at this game, I have to ask: Was this one of the best games of the decade? Or does this game seem so special because the Eagles won their first Super Bowl and first NFL championship since 1960? Maybe both things can be true. I remember looking at the Eagles on the stage for Super Bowl Opening Night, seeing Doug Pederson in his short-sleeved dress shirt, and thinking, "That’s the kind of dad look that makes me feel at ease about the Eagles." You could tell the Eagles had that attitude when they executed the "Philly Special," with tight end Trey Burton tossing a perfect scoring strike to quarterback Nick Foles. Yes, this was a high point in the Legend of Foles, who wrapped an epic run filling in for injured starter Carson Wentz by being selected Super Bowl MVP after throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score to Zach Ertz, against the Patriots in Minneapolis.
And don’t overlook Tom Brady’s 505 passing yards. I was on the sideline watching as he came out on the field with a chance to win it, and it felt like he was just going to pull it off. The Patriots seemed so confident. But then Brady was strip-sacked with 2:09 left, Philly extended the lead to 41-33 on a Jake Elliott kick and Brady went 3 for 8 on a fruitless final possession. I know I began this blurb questioning this game, but as I finish writing it, I’m starting to think it might actually be underrated!
8) 2011 AFC Wild Card: Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23 (OT)
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The zenith of Tim Tebow Mania. There were many other Tebow games I considered putting on this list, (the prime-time win over the Jets certainly comes to mind), but nothing is ever going to match this. Though the Broncos led 20-6 at halftime, you just knew the Steelers were going to rally at some point. Sometimes, as fans of sport, we aren’t allowed to have nice things, and the Steelers always seem like the bad guys in a 1990s teen movie who have to ruin the fun for our heroes. Sure enough, it seemed like this was going to be it — the Steelers forced overtime, and it seemed like Tebow Mania was going out with a whimper.
But on the first play from scrimmage in the extra period, Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on a perfect strike, and Thomas did the rest on an 80-yard touchdown, capping the shortest overtime in playoff history. I remember my wife standing there in front of the TV, dazed, as she dropped a water bottle. She couldn’t believe what she’d just seen. None of us could.
You might be saying to yourself, That’s a great moment, Rank, but not a great game. I would say that’s fair. But you’re wrong. Because this was like a three-hour journey during which we kept expecting the worst — and instead, we were treated to one of the best endings of all time. Like the end of "Teen Wolf." (Go find that movie on a streaming service, Millennials.)
7) 2011 NFC Divisional Round: San Francisco 49ers 36, New Orleans Saints 32
I’ve long felt Alex Smith was one of the most underrated quarterbacks of his generation. He got the 49ers to within a game of the Super Bowl with a last-second, 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis that capped a seven-play, 85-yard drive. It was the second time in the final five minutes that Smith rallied the 49ers. The Saints took their first lead of the game on Drew Brees’ 44-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles (all right, it was a catch and run) with 4:02 left in the fourth quarter. Smith brought the Niners right back on the next drive, which he punctuated with a 28-yard touchdown run that gave San Francisco a 29-24 lead. Then Brees hit Jimmy Graham on a 66-yard touchdown (with a successful 2-point conversion) to put New Orleans up, 32-29 — so Smith had to work his magic again. A reminder: This all took place in the final five minutes of the game.
The 49ers also would have been in position to win the NFC Championship Game the following week if not for a pair of botched punt returns, including a crucial fumble in overtime. You kind of wonder where Smith’s career would have ended up if he’d led them to the Super Bowl against the Patriots in those playoffs. But that sounds like a column for another day.
6) 2010 NFC Wild Card: Seattle Seahawks 41, New Orleans Saints 36
Not only was this a great game, but it featured maybe the most iconic moment of the decade. For an entire week, we had to hear about how unfair it was that the 7-9 Seahawks, as winners of the NFC West, got to host the defending-champion Saints, an 11-5 wild-card team. That was the perfect set-up for what was about to happen. With people complaining that much, you just knew the Seahawks were going to find a way to win. And they did, in the most incredible way possible. You can probably close your eyes and visualize Marshawn Lynch lumbering 67 yards for the clinching score. Those on the field will tell you that the ground shook that day. And they weren’t wrong. The Seattle crowd registered on the Richter Scale and beyond.
5) Week 11, 2018: Los Angeles Rams 54, Kansas City Chiefs 51
The Rams and Chiefs were supposed to play this Monday Night Football clash in Mexico City, but due to poor field conditions, the game was relocated to Los Angeles — fittingly, as what resulted seemed like it could have only been produced in the backlot of a Hollywood studio. This was one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory, and strangely, it not only matched the hype but exceeded it. The two teams combined for 105 points, the most in MNF history. There were 14 touchdowns, including six touchdown passes from Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. There were eight lead changes, including four in the fourth quarter. Both Mahomes and the Rams’ Jared Goff went over 400 passing yards.
I covered the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League. I’m involved with the Madden community and even hosted Madden NFL Live on NFL Network. Even by the amped-up standards of those enterprises, this game was bananas. Mostly because, after all that scoring, it came down to a pair of defensive plays by the Rams’ Marcus Peters and Lamarcus Joyner, who each intercepted Mahomes on consecutive series after Goff’s go-ahead 40-yard touchdown pass to Gerald Everett with 1:49 left in the game.
4) 2015 NFC Divisional Round: Arizona Cardinals 26, Green Bay Packers 20 (OT)
This was a classic. The Cardinals rallied from being down 13-7 in the third quarter and — all right, I know that doesn’t exactly pack a huge punch. Not like some of the comebacks still left to talk about here. But there was still a ton of drama crammed into a very short amount of time at the end of this one, which featured not one but two of the most notable players in recent NFL history.
With 1:55 remaining, the Birds went up, 20-13, on a Chandler Catanzaro kick — but with Aaron Rodgers being Aaron Rodgers, you knew something (either stupid or magical, depending on your perspective) was going to happen. First, with the Packers facing a fourth-and-20 from their own 4-yard line with 55 seconds left, Rodgers picked up 60 yards on a miracle pass to Jeff Janis. Then, with 5 seconds left, Rodgers threw a ball that traveled 60 air yards and landed in Janis’ arms for a game-tying touchdown. It was the second desperation, Hail Mary-type heave of the game for Rodgers, and his third of the season. With that, the game went to overtime.
But don’t worry; this game has a happy (or sad, depending on your perspective) ending. The Cardinals won the coin flip in overtime (which they had to redo, because the first flip didn’t flip). Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass on the first play from scrimmage at his own 35-yard line and raced down to the Green Bay 5, running past — by my count — about 50 Packers and the ghost of Vince Lombardi himself. Fitzgerald cleaned it up with a 5-yard touchdown reception on the next play, as if the football gods had to right the wrongs from earlier in the evening. He finished with 176 receiving yards, the second-highest playoff-game total of any receiver 32 or older since 1950, behind only Jerry Rice (who had 183 at age 39 for the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs). It was Fitzgerald’s fifth 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs, tied for the fourth-most since 1950, behind Rice (eight), Julian Edelman (six) and Michael Irvin (six).
3) Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28 (OT)
This game is the reason you never want to be in Atlanta on March 28. Because the Falcons held a late 28-3 lead over the Patriots. (Get it? March is the third month of the year?) And they were on the verge of securing what would have been an amazing triumph for anyone who’s been associated with the franchise — from Tommy Nobis to Steve Bartkowski to Deion Sanders — to celebrate. Heck, it might have made all of those Atlanta Braves failures a little easier to stomach. (And yeah, you won one. But you had Maddux, Glavine, Avery and Smoltz …)
And then Tom Brady happened. Maybe a little Julian Edelman, too.
I was at this game, standing in one of the tunnels (the one Lady Gaga walked through!), and it was surreal watching it all unfold. The Patriots trailed by eight points in the closing minutes and were 91 yards away from the tying score. An improbable catch by Edelman near midfield helped lead to the eventual touchdown and two-point conversion. Though technically either team was still in position to win the first overtime in Super Bowl history, it seemed like the game was over. And it was.
I’ll never forget having to watch the family members of the Falcons who had gathered earlier near the tunnel have to figure out what to do next. They weren’t alone. We all kind of felt that way.
2) 2012 AFC Divisional Round: Baltimore Ravens 38, Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)
Peyton Manning is regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, as evidenced by his inclusion on the NFL 100 All-Time Team. One quarterback who won’t get a sniff at such a list was the best quarterback on the field in this game: Joe Flacco. He completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rallied the Ravens from a late deficit.
The Broncos led 35-28 after Manning’s touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. The teams traded possessions, and then Flacco took over on his own 23 with 1:09 left in the game, going against one of the best defenses in the NFL that season. After an incompletion and a 7-yard scramble, Flacco connected on a third-down deep touchdown strike to Jacoby Jones (!) that had safety Rahim Moore all turned around, sending the game into overtime. (Denver coach John Fox’s decision to head to OT rather than play for the win was puzzling, seeing that they had 31 seconds left and Manning at quarterback. But that second part might kind of explain why Fox didn’t want to try to push it.)
Again, Manning is considered one of the best to ever do it. There is no doubt. But he had a costly interception toward the end of the first overtime in his own territory to set up Justin Tucker’s 47-yard winner in the second overtime, ending one of the greatest games of the decade. (Although I guess that goes without saying, since this is a best-of list.)
1) Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24
The Patriots’ loss to the Titans in the Wild-Card Round last Saturday (their first non-Super Bowl playoff loss since 2015 and their first wild-card loss since 2009) felt so historically significant because of how many times we’ve wrongly written the Patriots off before. Hell, this game is the second on this list during which it seemed like the Patriots were cooked once and for all.
The Seahawks were coming off a complete dismantling of Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the previous Super Bowl. (I actually wanted to include Super Bowl XLVIII on this list because of the impact it had on this game. It’s kind of like how Man of Steel might seem like a bad movie, but when you see Batman vs. Superman, you’re like, "I see the whole picture now, and it’s great.") Which meant Seattle was on the cusp of beating Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive Super Bowls. The ‘Hawks had the Legion of Boom, considered the greatest defense of all-time, operating at its peak. They had a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who is in the conversation about the best quarterbacks of all time.
And then Brady happened. And a little Julian Edelman, too.
Trailing 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter, Brady rallied the Patriots with touchdown passes to Danny Amendola and Edelman, the latter coming with 2:02 left in the game, to put New England up, 28-24. From there, Wilson drove the Seahawks all the way down to the 5-yard line, thanks to a huge 33-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse. And Marshawn Lynch got them to the 1. We all know what happened next. The Seahawks made what has become the most talked-about decision in NFL history, choosing to throw the ball, only to have it intercepted by New England’s Malcolm Butler.
Although that’s just one part of the story. Because after Lynch got to the 1 with 1:06 left, many thought coach Bill Belichick would call a timeout to preserve some time for a potential Brady comeback. But Belichick didn’t. I was there for that game, standing near that end zone (I know, another humblebrag). The stadium was bedlam. Patriots fans were beside themselves, calling Belichick names I can’t repeat here, as the clock continued to tick. But when Butler made that pick, there was jubilation. And recognition that Belichick knew what he was doing the whole time. Because of course he did.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.
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