Surprisingly, the parameters of what makes an NFL game good are almost universally agreed upon. In a world where people are divided on everything, no one will fight you when you say this year’s playoffs have sucked. We’ve all noticed the absence of close games, incompetent play on both sides of the ball, and a complete lack of tension in the fourth quarter. Nobody is clamoring for more of it.
The hope is that, this weekend, Super Bowl LI will give the fans what they want: high drama, interesting storylines, and highlight reel plays. But these playoffs have left me jaded. With such rock-bottom expectations for the big game, I decided to go back and relive some of the great games this season did provide. For now, here are the top ten games of the 2016 season. Perhaps Atlanta-New England can earn its spot here?
Best Games of 2016 Season
10. Week 1: Panthers at Broncos
After 267 games, it’s easy to forget that the very first one was pretty special. The culmination of over seven months of waiting ended with a memorable debut for Trevor Siemian, as the Broncos proved last season’s Super Bowl was no fluke, beating the Panthers again to open the 2016 season.
Cam Newton and Carolina were better equipped for Denver this time around, out-gaining the Broncos on offense and winning the turnover battle. But the Panthers couldn’t get revenge for their Super Bowl 50 loss, after (coincidentally) Graham Gano shanked a 50-yard field goal to win it.
There were a lot of close games this season that ended with field goals made or missed, but Denver’s 21-20 win gets preference. Not just because it was the first game, but because it featured a lengthy touchdown run by a fullback.
9. Week 9: Bills at Seahawks
This game gets remembered most for the completely botched handling of Dan Carpenter’s field goal attempt to end the first half, but don’t let that brief moment of incompetence cloud what was otherwise an insane 30 minutes of football. The Bills and Seahawks combined for 45 first-half points, punctuated by a pair of one-handed grabs by Jimmy Graham.
Defense dominated the second half, as the teams combined for nine sacks in the game. But the Bills, who were basically playing for their season, wouldn’t go away until the final seconds. Tyrod Taylor led his team down to the red zone, but his fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and Seattle won 31-25. Perhaps if he completes that comeback, the Bills brass enters the offseason a lot higher on Taylor?
8. Week 1: Raiders at Saints
We were supposed to see a different Raiders team this season, and 59 minutes into the year, Oakland rewarded those who believed they were ready to make the jump. After trading touchdowns with the red hot Saints offense all day, head coach Jack Del Rio knew he didn’t want to take his chances with an overtime coin toss. So after Seth Roberts scored a touchdown late to pull the Raiders within one, ol “Black Jack” decided to go for two and the win.
Derek Carr’s fade to Michael Crabtree for the game-deciding points capped off an incredible offensive day in which New Orleans and Oakland combined for 993 total yards. While this game left something to be desired for fans of defense, it signified that the Raiders would be one of the most fun teams to watch this season. (But not enough to crack this list again.)
7. Week 13: Chiefs at Falcons
The only thing more exciting than seeing an offense win on a two-point conversion is seeing the defense do the same. That was how Eric Berry put a stamp on this surprisingly thrilling interconference game.
After Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 28-27 lead in the fourth quarter, Atlanta opted to go for two. Just a few years ago, this would’ve been a zero-risk play. But a rule change in 2015 (allowing the defense to score on a two-point conversion attempt) meant that, when Berry intercepted the ball, he could take it 98 yards the other way and give Kansas City the lead back. The Chiefs managed to run out the clock from there and win 29-28.
Winning the game in such an absurd way seemed normal for Kansas City on that particular day. Berry had already scored on a pick six, and the Chiefs added a touchdown on a 55-yard fake punt by Albert Wilson.
6. Week 14: Cowboys at Giants
Anytime a rivalry takes center stage, it always helps a game feel better than the score may indicate. So while the Giants 10-7 win over Dallas may not look like much, it was a heated affair featuring some of the best defensive football played all season. The Cowboys offense had been nearly unstoppable to that point, leading the team on an 11-game win streak. But on a chilly night in East Rutherford, both offenses were downright offensive, as Steve Spagnuolo and Rod Marinelli’s units stole the Sunday Night spotlight.
Both teams mustered just 260 yards and had three turnovers. The difference-maker was Odell Beckham Jr. making something out of nothing, while Dez Bryant made a crucial mistake.
That game helped the Giants stake a claim to the title of best defense in football, as well as “team no one wanted to play in the playoffs.” Of course, after one little detour to Miami, New York ended the season with a very different narrative.
5. Week 12: Chiefs at Broncos
Unlike the Giants-Cowboys, no one would have batted an eye if this rivalry game ended 10-7. Instead, the Chiefs and Broncos finished 30-27, and truly was a four-quarter thriller. (The first quarter sucked, but a wacky overtime more than made up for it.)
Tyreek Hill had a hat trick with a rushing, receiving, and return TD, while Von Miller and Justin Houston both notched a trio of sacks. In a game that sent Denver on a spiral out of a playoff spot, coach Gary Kubiak wasted Siemian’s best day as a pro ultimately with a poor coaching decision late. Instead of taking the tie, Kubiak elected to go for a 62-yard game-winning field goal late in OT. Brandon McManus missed the kick, and Kansas City turned the short field into a bank shot walk-off.
4. Week 10: Cowboys at Steelers
Call it skepticism or just being a curmudgeon, but it took me longer than most to buy into the Cowboys’ dynamic rookies. This was the game that buried any and all doubt surrounding the abilities of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. A pair of good rookies don’t win this game. Heck, a lot of veterans wouldn’t have been able to drive the field for a late field goal. Prescott and Elliott showed their greatness by doing one better.
In a see-saw affair, the Steelers offense couldn’t be stopped, except when it came to two-point conversions. Pittsburgh went 0 for 4 on the day, meaning when Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown on a fake spike with 42 seconds left, it only put the Steelers up 30-29. With all three timeouts, Prescott responded and got Dallas in field-goal range, before Elliott said “screw it, this is easier.”
It was an unbelievable game that could go right alongside those classic Cowboys-Steelers battles from the 70s.
3. Week 10: Seahawks at Patriots
It’s no coincidence that Week 10 saw the NFL’s ratings shoot back up to normal, considering two of the four best games of the year happened that weekend. The night cap edges out Cowboys-Steelers just slightly, because it concluded with a hilarious reversal of the now infamous Super Bowl XLIV ending.
Seattle and New England traded scores throughout, with no team holding more than a seven point-lead all night. LeGarrette Blount thumped his way to three touchdowns, but the Patriots pass rush made the Seahawks’ futile offensive line look like “the Hogs” reincarnate.
Late in the fourth, New England was down 31-24 but had the ball at Seattle’s one-yard line with three tries to get in. The Pats helped Pete Carroll get off the hook (slightly) for his play-calling two years ago, as two straight runs couldn’t break the plane. On fourth down, a fade to Gronk sailed long, and the Seahawks had exacted some measure of revenge.
2. Week 16: Ravens at Steelers
You can always reserve a spot on a games-of-the-year list for Baltimore and Pittsburgh, since it’s so rare for this rivalry to disappoint. But this year’s Week 16 game was like ordering the Kobe beef and getting a side of lobster for free. (I would assume, anyways; I can’t afford either.)
The Ravens visited the Steelers with the AFC North title on the line, on Christmas no less, and jumped out to a 20-10 second-half lead. Then, with the season on the line, the Triple Bs were at their absolute best. Pittsburgh finished the game with three-straight touchdown drives, claiming the lead on an Antonio Brown touchdown with nine seconds left.
Adding to the drama was the fact that the Steelers were out of timeouts. Had Brown not broken the plane, the game was likely over.
1. Divisional Playoffs: Packers at Cowboys
All you need to do is watch the final two minutes of this game to see why it was the year’s best. With 1:38 left in the game, Mason Crosby knuckled through what seemed like a game-winning field goal from 56 yards. But just 90 seconds later, he’d be called upon to make another kick of over 50, and this time it did decide who moved on. It was a truly remarkable end to a game that is sure to go down as one of the best in NFL playoff history.
Not to sell the first 58 minutes short, because they were pretty great, too. Green Bay raced out to 21-3 lead, and just as the calls for Tony Romo started coming, Prescott led Dallas on a furious comeback. Aided by a defense that intercepted Aaron Rodgers for the first time in two months, the Cowboys tied the game at 28, before things got really wild.
The play everyone will remember from this game was Rodgers’ almost nonchalant 36-yard bomb to Jared Cook to put the Packers in range for the winning field goal. The great thing about the game being decided on this play was that nobody screwed up. It wasn’t a big error on the Cowboys end. It was simply an incredible throw that few who have ever played the game could make.
And when you stack it up against the rest of a disappointing postseason, it only helps this game stand out even more.