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Coming through when it counts – the best individual performances in NFL Playoff history

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 10:00, 4 February 2022 | Updated: 23:09, 10 February 2022

Whether it’s a superstar elevating his game to previously unseen, sometimes unfathomable heights, or an otherwise ordinary role player seizing an opportunity on the big stage, the NFL’s most iconic performances have always come with the stakes at their highest. 

NFL history is chock full of extraordinary athletes and fierce competitors. Some of these players become stars, and some of those players become superstars. A rare few are remembered as all-time greats. However it’s with transcendent postseason performances that legends and folk heroes are made.

Today, we’re taking a journey through NFL playoff history, in search of the most dominant and impactful individual performances. After much thought and deliberation, we’ve settled on the following half-dozen performances (plus a fair few honorable mentions) as the greatest in NFL postseason history:

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Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIII (January 22, 1989)

For as much truth as there is in the ‘it’s a quarterback league’ adage, there is a compelling case to be made that the greatest individual player in NFL history is a wide receiver. There are not enough superlatives to sufficiently sum up the aesthetic, stylistic, athletic and competitive greatness of Jerry Rice.

Well before coaches adopted the pass-happy philosophies that power offensive play today, Rice laid waste to every conceivable receiving record, and set a standard by which all future wide receivers would be judged. Even as the league has fully embraced the power of the pass, Rice’s records remain seemingly untouchable. Among active players, only Julio Jones is within 10,000 yards of Rice’s career mark of 22,895, and only Jones (879), Antonio Brown (928) and DeAndre Hopkins (789) are even halfway to Rice’s 1,549 career receptions. In all of NFL history, only Cowboys great and all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith (175) is within 45 touchdowns of Rice’s 208, and Randy Moss, with 157, is the next-highest receiver on the list.

Fittingly, the NFL’s arguable GOAT also turned in the greatest individual postseason performance at his position. Super Bowl XXIII will always be remembered (with good reason) for Joe Montana calmly and coolly engineering the fourth quarter drive that culminated in a 10-yard Super Bowl-clinching touchdown pass to John Taylor, with just 34 seconds remaining. What’s not mentioned often enough is that none of would have been possible without the game’s MVP, Jerry Rice.

That night in Miami, Rice didn’t just rack up a then-Super Bowl record 11 receptions on 15 targets, for a still-Super Bowl record 215 yards. It was his 14-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter that pulled the Niners level at 13-13. On the next drive, he caught a 44-yard pass that helped set up an unsuccessful field goal attempt. And finally, on that legendary 92-yard drive, three of Montana’s eight completions, for 51 yards, went to Rice – the last of which, a 27-yarder, got the Niners into the red zone, and set the stage for Taylor’s game-winning catch.

In the receiving category, an honorable mention is due to Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, whose performance in Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys was the pre-Rice standard for big-game pass catching. After suffering a concussion in the AFC title game, there was no guarantee that Swann would be able to play in the Super Bowl, with some Cowboys players suggesting that he would play scared. That assertion was, shall we say, unfounded.

Swann not only played in the game, but caught four passes for 161 yards. His 40.3 yards per reception was a Super Bowl record at the time for players with more than one catch, and remains fourth all-time to this day. Among his catches was a 64-yard touchdown that made the score 21-10 (the Steelers went on to win 21-17) and a 53-yarder that still ranks as one of the great highlights in Super Bowl history:

Also deserving a shout is Kellen Winslow, whose performance in the Divisional Round in January 1982, on the road against the Miami Dolphins, may forever rank as the best by a tight end in playoff history. That Winslow set a (since-broken) postseason record with 13 catches, which went for 166 yards and a touchdown is impressive enough. However, those weren’t his only contributions, as Winslow also blocked a potential game-winning field goal attempt by the Dolphins in the final seconds of regulation, sending the game into overtime, where the then-San Diego Chargers won, 41-38. If all of that isn’t enough, Winslow’s departure from the field after the game remains one of the NFL’s most enduring images.

Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts, 2004 Wild Card Round

Granted, this performance did not come in a Super Bowl, with a trip to the a Super Bowl on the line, as part of a Super Bowl run, or even in a close game. HOWEVER…

Having lost each of the first three playoff games of his career, Manning was beginning to attract ‘can’t win the big games’ chatter from fans and the media. This was his playoff breakthrough. In terms of sheer quarterbacking dominance and virtuosity, Manning’s showing in the 2004 Wild Card round (note that ‘2004’ refers to the playoffs following the 2003 regular season) against the Denver Broncos is about as good as it gets.

En route to a 41-10 win, Manning positively dismantled the Denver defense, completing 22 of 26 passes, for 377 yards (that’s a downright silly 14.5 yards per attempt) and FIVE touchdowns, with zero interceptions. It was the first time a quarterback had managed a perfect (158.3) passer rating in a playoff game since 1983 – no one has done it since.

While we’re on the subject, let’s give a quick shout out to the other three members of the ‘perfect game’ club: Terry Bradshaw, ‘Dandy’ Don Meredith and Dave Kreig, as well as the Bills’ Josh Allen, who came about as close s possible (157.7) in Buffalo’s destruction of the New England Patriots in the 2022 Wild Card round.

Manning apparently so enjoyed that dismantling of the Broncos in the Wild Card round that he did it again a year later, this time completing 27 of 33 passes, for 457 yards and four touchdowns (and an interception this time) in a 49-24 win.

Otto Graham, Cleveland Brown, 1950 NFL Title Game

Graham’s showing for the Browns in the 1950 NFL title game against the Los Angeles Rams remains one of the best all-around performances in postseason history. In what was emphatically NOT a passing league, Graham completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns, and led all players in the game with 99 rushing yards on 12 carries.

Most importantly, he delivered when the game was in the balance. He threw the last of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, to cut the Rams’ lead to a single point, 28-27. Shortly after, Graham led the drive that ended with Lou Groza kicking the field goal that sent the Browns home 30-28 winners – and champions.

While we’re at it, let’s honorably mention a few other epic quarterbacking performance from playoff history:

Steve Young, Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young wrapped up one of the greatest individual seasons by a quarterback, in which he’d already won league MVP, by leading the 49ers to a then-record fifth Super Bowl title, in a romp over the Chargers. In the 49-26 (the game wasn’t nearly this close) win, Young completed 24 of 36 passes, for 325 yards and SIX touchdowns, and ran for another 49 yards. To this day, he remains the only player to lead both teams in passing and rushing in a Super Bowl.

Joe Montana, Super Bowl XXIV: The man Young replaced under center in San Francisco. A year after leading the most storied drive in NFL postseason history, Montana put the finishing touches on his legend in January 1990, with the obliteration of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. Montana was magical that day, completing 22 of 29 passes, for 297 yards and five touchdowns, and leading the Niners to two touchdowns in each quarter, the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history, and a fourth Super Bowl win in four tries. It’s worth mentioning that, in his four Super Bowl appearances, Montana threw 11 touchdown passes, no interceptions, and posted a 127.8 passer rating. Incredible.

Sid Luckman (Bears), 1943 NFL Championship: That, nearly eight decades after his signature performance, Luckman remains the greatest quarterback in Bears history probably says as much about the Bears ineptitude at the position as anything. That being said, Luckman was an absolute monster in the 1943 NFL Championship Game. He not only led the Bears with 64 rushing yards on eight carries, he returned two punts for 32 yards and completed 15 of 26 pass attempts, for 286 yards and FIVE TDs, with a pair of interceptions… as a defender.

Kurt Warner

1998 Kurt Warner is the ultimate sports fairy tale: a 28-year-old NFL rookie who, after a stint in NFL Europe, had all but given up his dream of playing professional football. Only a year earlier Warner had been working at a grocery store. However, after getting a call from the St Louis Rams, he teamed up with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt to transform the previously lowly-Rams into ‘the Greatest Show on Turf’.

At every turn, it was expected that the Warner’s Cinderella story would come to an end. At every turn, Warner & Co. had an answer. Interestingly the two full games that bookend his playoff career – his postseason debut in January 1999 against the Vikings and a crazy January 2010 Wild Card game against the Packers deserve mention as two of the greatest in playoff history:

In his first playoff start, in the Divisional Round following that magical 1998 season, Warner demolished the Vikings, completing 27 of 33 passes, to ten different receivers, for 391 yards and five touchdowns (each to a different receiver) in a 49-37 win, in which the Rams scored 35 unanswered points in the second half. This performance set a tone and, though the offense was not as potent in the Rams’ next two outings, they won both, including Super Bowl XXXIV.

Eleven years later, now with the Arizona Cardinals, Warner notched his final postseason win with a performance for the ages. Against the Packers, who were led by not only Aaron Rodgers but also the NFL’s #2 defense, Warner – in the absence of one of his Pro Bowl targets, Anquan Boldin – completed 29-of-33 passes, for 379 yards, and wound up the game – a 51-45 overtime win – with more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four). His near-perfect (154.1) passer rating remains a playoff-record (and is now third all-time, across both the regular season and the playoffs) for QBs who attempted at least 33 passes.

Timmy Smith, Washington, Super Bowl XXII (January 31, 1988)

Though Doug Williams, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards and 4 TDs, guided Washington to a record 35 points in the second quarter and ultimately won the game’s MVP, there’s a strong case to be made that running back Timmy Smith’s actually had a more profound impact on Super Bowl XXII.

An unheralded rookie out of Texas Tech University, Smith had seen the field in just seven regular season games – none as a starter – in 1987, carrying the ball a total of 29 times, for 126 yards. In two playoff games preceding SB XXII, Smith had featured more prominently, carrying the ball 29 times for 138 yards. However, NOTHING suggested what was to come on Super Sunday.

Upon being informed, just minutes before kickoff, that he’d be starting, Smith found a gear that few running backs are ever able to uncover. He carried 22 times that day, for a Super Bowl record 204 rushing yards, and a pair of touchdowns. His 58-yard second quarter touchdown run put Washington up 21-10 (they’d trailed 10-0 after the first quarter), and his four-yard TD run in the fourth quarter capped off the 42-10 blowout. In between, he ripped off runs of 43, 32 and 25 yards.

And then, just like that (more or less)… he was gone.

The following season, Washington tried to feature Smith, playing him in 14 games, and starting him eight times. However, he managed just 470 yards on 155 carries. He was released by Washington after the 1988 season, and signed with the Cowboys – for all of six carries and six yards. Thus ended the NFL career of Timmy Smith. For one magical day, though, he was a legend.

From an unheralded one-hit wonder to the apex performance of an all-time great running back. Four years before Smith demolished the Broncos on Washington’s behalf, Marcus Allen gashed the vaunted Washington defense in a record performance of his own for the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII.

The defending Super Bowl champions, Washington entered the game as decided favorites, having lost just twice all season. What’s more, Washington had led the NFL in rushing defense during the regular season, allowing a paltry 80.6 yards per game. This was of no concern to Allen, who put on a spectacular show, piling up a then-Super Bowl record 191 yards on just 20 carries, in a 38-9 thumping. Two of those carries ended with Allen in the end zone. One of them, a mercurial 74-yarder in the third quarter, remains one of the most memorable plays – and perhaps the best-ever run – in Super Bowl history:

Finally, a quick shoutout to ex-49ers and Eagles star running back Ricky Watters. In the Niners’ Divisional Round game against the New York Giants in January 1994, Watters carried the ball 24 times for 188 yards, caught five passes for another 46, and became the only non-QB to account for five touchdowns in a playoff game.

L.C. Greenwood, Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl X (January 18, 1976)

Though sacks did not become an official statistic until 1982, serious efforts have been made through film study to compile a comprehensive, if unofficial record. These efforts allow us to now say, rather confidently, that L.C. Greenwood had a Super Bowl-record four sacks as Pittsburgh topped the Cowboys to win their third Super Bowl in five years, by a 21-17 score.

Greenwood didn’t merely accumulate a bunch of sacks, though. He thoroughly terrorized the Cowboys and quarterback Roger Staubach. Greenwood sacked Staubach and forced a fumble on the first play of the game. He then brought Staubach down for a 12-yard loss in the second quarter. Then he ended the ‘Boys’ first drive of the fourth quarter with a sack. Then, on the last drive of the game, as the Cowboys tried to pull off a dramatic comeback,  Greenwood sacked Staubach on a second down play, before making a tackle to stop Dallas just short of a first down on the next play.

Let’s also take a moment to celebrate Vernon Perry of the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans), who hauled in a playoff-record FOUR interceptions in a 1979 Divisional Round game against future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and the Chargers. The Oilers needed every last bit of that awesome performance, as, without starting quarterback Dan Pastorini and legendary running back Earl Campbell, they emerged 17-14 winners, and advanced to the AFC title game.

This next one may earn me a bit of pushback, but I feel like I’m on firm footing here.

Though efforts are certainly being made, it’s difficult to quantify the achievements of defensive players from the league’s past. As we just noted, sacks weren’t tracked as a stat until 1982. Combined tackled came about in 1987, but weren’t broken out as ‘solo’ or ‘assisted’ until 1994. Tackles for loss came about in 1999, and QB hits have only been tracked officially since 2006. Thus, to declare that someone ‘set the record’ for QB hits in a playoff game is to speak about only a decade and a half.

That being said, in January 2016, as the monumentally great Denver Broncos defense was carrying Peyton Manning to a second Super Bowl title, in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, DeMarcus Ware positively terrorized Tom Brady. Though the Cowboys great only wound up with half a sack and two tackles in the game, he was constantly getting to Brady and putting a body on him. He hit Brady seven times to be exact, and was the agent of chaos most responsible for Brady’s 27 for 56, two-interception, 56.4 QB rating game.

Ed Podolak, Kansas City Chiefs, 1971 AFC Wild Card Round

We round out our list by recognizing a couple of standout performances by special teamers.

First, let’s spare a thought for Eddie Podolak, the only player here whose handy work came in a losing effort. A solid, versatile, reasonably productive dual-threat running back and returner for much of the ’70s, everything came together for Podolak, individually at least, in a Divisional Round game against the Dolphins on Christmas Day 1971.

That day, Podolak carried the ball 17 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. He also caught eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also returned three kickoffs for 154 yards, including a 78-yard return in the game’s final minute of regulation, to set up a potential game-winning field goal attempt for Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud. Unfortunately for Podolak and the Chiefs, Stenerud missed that attempt, and the game went into overtime. After each team’s kicker missed a field goal in the extra period, the Dolphins connected a 37-yarder in double overtime, to secure a 27-24 win end the longest game in NFL history.

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, though Podolak can take a bit of comfort in the fact his 349 all-purpose yards remain the single-game postseason record, and the fifth highest single-game mark in NFL history.

Finally, our final honorable mention, for the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI, Packers return man Desmond Howard. Though he didn’t actually touch the ball on offense, Howard was the Pack’s deadliest weapon against the Patriots, with six punt returns for 90 yards and four kickoff returns for 154 yards. Howard had punt returns of 32 and 34 yards in the first half, which set up, respectively, the Packers’ first touchdown, and a field goal that put them up 20-14. Most notable, however, is his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter, immediately after a Pats’ TD, to put the Packers up 35-21 – the score by which they’d ultimately win the game. 

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