Originally written in August 2016
This month the NFL are beginning to release 96 original broadcasts of classic games (3 per team) on their YouTube channel which were voted for by fans from a shortlist over the summer. Each Friday until December three new games will be released on their Free Game Friday channel here.
Whilst there are some stark omissions of some significant historical teams, such as any game from the dominant Steelers of the 1970’s, the games still offer a great journey through some of the most exciting or defining games in semi-recent NFL history. I’ve selected my five favourite of the ones to watch out for either because they are so historically significant, involve legendary players at their peak, or are just very exciting to watch (or usually a mixture of all three…!)
Watch. This. Game. It isn’t especially significant in an historical sense as it’s just a Monday Night Game in the middle of the 1994 regular season but the game has everything. Two of the best quarterbacks of their generation with one in his final season. Joe Montana and John Elway both showcase their brilliance.
A rivalry that dominated their division in the decade (in fact the 90’s Chiefs are one of the very, very good, forgotten NFL teams). One of the greatest line-backers in history, Derrick Thomas. The classic Monday Night Football commentary booth of Al Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf. Five turnovers. An incredible see-saw of an ending surmised by the classic Dierdorf line “Lord, you can take me now, I’ve seen it all!”
It is a Monday Night classic that has it all.
For a long time considered one of the greatest and iconic NFL games in history, even now it is still a thrill to watch. The Air-Coryell Offense is at its peak going up against Don Shula’s Dolphins in Miami. The game lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes in 76 degree heat with a humidity of 80%, making it feel more like 88 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first quarter is Air-Coryell at its best, the second quarter rally by the Dolphins possibly a hint at why this talented Chargers team could never quite manage it to a Super Bowl. The rest of the game swings back and forth with tension right up until the final points.
Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow (the senior version!) has a performance for the ages on both offense and special teams, the photo of his shattered body being helped off of the field at the end of overtime is one of the iconic NFL shots; he was said to have lost 13 pounds over the course of the game.
The game is a really fun watch and who doesn’t love seeing the ol’ Hook and Ladder executed to perfection?!
The 12-0 Bears came into the week 13 Monday Night Football game in absolute top form. The 46 Defense had started the season quite slowly but by now was formidable. They had given up just three points in their last three games and the offense (often underrated by historians) was rated second best in the league as they had gone a combined 104-3 in those three games. There probably hasn’t been a better team in the Super Bowl era than the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Going unbeaten for the season laid out in front of them appeared realistic, surpassing the ’73 Miami Dolphins 17-0 with a potential 19-0 record. Sure, quarterback Jim McMahon was out injured again, but by now the defense were winning games on their own and they still had Walter Payton to fall back on when needed. The toughest game left on their schedule was this one against, as fate would have it, the 8-4 Miami Dolphins but understandably the Bears feared no-one and opposing quarterbacks were the ones running for their lives.
As it happens, Dan Marino was able to do what no other quarterback would that season, roll-out away from pressure and gain constant big plays downfield by targeting the weakest point of the Bears defense, the cornerbacks. Marino, despite holding multiple passing records, has often called this game his greatest achievement ‘beating the Bears on Monday night!’
As a side note, Frank Gifford, Joe Namath & OJ Simpson proved having a booth full of superstar ex-pros won’t automatically make a great commentary team.
The 14-2 Broncos (and reigning Super Bowl champions) and the 15-1 Vikings were destined to meet each other in the Super Bowl. It was probably going to be the best match-up of teams on paper since Super Bowl 19. The NFL had rarely seen an offense like the Vikings, dripping with big plays and storylines. Randall Cunningham was having a comeback season of the ages. Randy Moss was having the greatest season a wide receiver has had before or since. The Vikings offense playing out one of the all-time great seasons and only the surprising Dirty Bird Falcons, fresh off of upsetting the 49ers, stood in the way of a trip to Miami for the big game.
The ending is well documented, especially in Minnesota still, but what transpires before is a genuinely thrilling Championship Game classic. And no list of great NFL games would be complete without at least one providing the legendary commentary duo of Pat Summerall and John Madden.
This is still the greatest comeback in NFL history. The immortal words of the Houston game radio announcer with the Oilers up 35-3 early in the third quarter fresh off of a pick 6 ”The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”
The game features two offenses that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s NFL. Frank Reich was standing in for an injured Jim Kelly running the K-gun offense with Hall of Famer Warren Moon marshalling the Oilers Run and Shoot. Coming in the middle of Buffalo’s incredible achievement (and it only becomes more so the further away from it we get) of getting to four straight SuperBowls, this game is a great insight into the characters and talents of that team. It’s also a great reminder of what a fun watch the Oilers of this era were and how the NFL lost one of its great uniforms when they rebranded to the Titans upon relocating to Tennessee. Great comebacks are one of the best things in sport, and this one is the greatest.
And five more if you have time…
- Cowboys at Bears 1985 – Ok this isn’t exactly a classic as it’s such a one sided game but it’s often a game pointed to (such as in Ron Jarworski & Greg Cosell’s book ‘The Games That Changed the Game’) as a defining moment in the coming together of the 46 Defense. If you never saw the Buddy Ryan defence first time around then take some time to watch this awesome display.
- Dolphins at Jets 2000. Monday Night Miracle – Another classic NFL game. Very one sided before a crazy comeback in the 4th quarter by Al Groh’s NY Jets who looked abject for much of the game. Hopefully the NFL have chosen ABC’s feed of the game and not used an old Channel 5 one from the UK broadcast which cut to the 6am news just as the game was going into overtime!
- Super Bowl 25 – The ‘wide right’ end is NFL folklore. The coaching job Bill Belichick does on the Bills K-gun offense is as good as anything seen in the 50 years of SuperBowl games. Just from an x’s and o’s education this is a must watch.
- Cowboys at 49ers 1981 NFC Championship Game (Jan ’82) The Catch – The game that birthed one of the greatest franchise dynasties in NFL history. Great to watch Montana come of age against their rivals the Cowboys who were nearing the end of their great 70’s team.
- Packers at 49ers 1998 (Jan ’99) Wildcard – Great game, great ending. Steve Young and Brett Favre, two of the game’s best ever.