Barnwell: Where Chiefs-Rams ranks in best regular-season games ever
If you missed Monday night’s Chiefs-Rams game, stop reading this and rectify that problem immediately. Do what you have to do. Call in sick to work. Sit in the back of class and watch it without even pretending to pay attention to what’s going on up front. Buy a copy from your sketchy friend. This will still be here when you come back, and you’re going to feel a lot happier having spent three hours in football ecstasy.
It’s going to take the rest of the season to break down what happened. It was the first game in league history in which both teams topped 50 points, and it was somehow decided in the end by punter Johnny Hekker, and Travis Kelce struggling to sustain a block on Samson Ebukam, who might have been the game’s MVP. Both offenses came up with spectacular plays and left opportunities on the field. Both coaches were hitting on virtually every playcalling cylinder imaginable and still struggled with clock management late in the fourth quarter. It was a game that was somehow everything to everyone besides Todd Gurley fantasy owners.
Was it the greatest regular-season game of all time?
I’m not sure there’s a concrete, quantitative way to answer that question. I can’t imagine anyone watching the Rams’ 54-51 win and thinking it wasn’t fun, but I’m sure there are people out there who might prefer a defensive struggle in subzero temperatures. If your football pinnacle is the Seahawks-Vikings game from the 2015 playoffs, live your truth. It’s not for me.
In an attempt to answer this question, I’ve gone back through the history of regular-season contests since the merger to try to find other games that might compare to Monday night’s instant classic. I’m sure a game might have slipped through the cracks, but I was looking for a few key criteria:
The game had to be high-scoring. Sorry, Seahawks-Vikings guy. I set my limits at a minimum of 35 points for each team. Anything less doesn’t compare.
Both teams had to eventually make the playoffs. I don’t want to jinx either team, but I feel pretty confident that the Chiefs and Rams are both going to advance to the postseason come January. I’ll give extra credit to matchups in which we knew both teams were already great, either because they had an excellent record at the time of the game and/or had been to the playoffs the prior season.
There had to be at least one fourth-quarter lead change. I don’t think you can be as excited about a game where one team gets up by multiple touchdowns and another team makes a late run before coming up narrowly short.
The final margin of victory has to be seven points or fewer. Ideally, the losing team needs to have a drive late in the fourth quarter with a chance of winning the game, or the game has to end in overtime.
No ties. I refuse.
The game can’t involve replacement players or take place with backups in Week 17. This rule specifically keeps out the bonkers Lions-Packers game from 2011, when Matt Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in his final start with the Packers before hitting free agency.
I found 17 games that fit the criteria I laid out above, although I admittedly stretched a couple of them to get there. I’ll give you my top 10. If you have different criteria for your favorite regular-season games of all time, that’s fine. These are mine, and while they lean heavily toward the 21st century because of the scoring minimum, I’m comfortable suggesting that the quality of play in the NFL is better than it was in decades past.
Finally, keep in mind that this is the greatest games and not the greatest endings. Otherwise, the winner would have to be the Saints-Jaguars game from 2003 where the Saints successfully pulled off a laterals play for a touchdown, only for John Carney to eliminate them from the playoffs by missing the ensuing extra point.
The Chiefs figure on this list several times, and I’m sorry to report that it doesn’t often go well for them. This was back in Andy Reid’s debut season with the team, with Kansas City starting 9-0 before losing to the Broncos and then in this midseason matchup to the Chargers.
The Chiefs led 28-24 heading into the fourth quarter, but the lead changed hands three times in the final eight minutes and twice in the final 82 seconds of the game. A 60-yard Ladarius Green touchdown put the Chargers up 34-31, but Kansas City profited from excellent field position and scored on a Dwayne Bowe touchdown with 1:22 to go up 38-34. Philip Rivers threw three passes to Antonio Gates and two to Danny Woodhead, but after an Eric Berry sack, Rivers found Seyi Ajirotutu for a 26-yard score with 31 seconds to go for the game winner.
The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that the Chargers looked to be out of the playoff race. This win only took them to 5-6, but after a loss the following week to the Bengals, Rivers & Co. fired off four straight wins to sneak into the postseason, including a second victory over the Chiefs in Week 17 to get in. They haven’t beaten Reid in nine tries since.
Again, this is a game that looks more impactful in hindsight, given that the Giants would eventually get their revenge on the Packers in the postseason en route to a Super Bowl XLVI win. On the other hand, this game carries extra weight because the Packers were still undefeated heading into the game at 11-0. No team in the league had come this close to beating Green Bay, and the defending Super Bowl champs would make it to 13-0 before falling to the Chiefs.
This one technically didn’t have a fourth-quarter lead change, although it certainly involved some late-game heroics. The Packers led 28-24 as the final stanza began, but after a Lawrence Tynes field goal, a Donald Driver touchdown gave the Packers an eight-point lead with 3:34 to go. The Giants took over and launched a nine-play, 69-yard drive before Eli Manning punched the ball in to Hakeem Nicks for a two-yard score with 1:02 left. Danny Ware’s subsequent two-point conversion tied the score at 35, but Rodgers broke blue hearts by going 4-of-4 for 68 yards in 37 seconds before Mason Crosby hit a 30-yarder to keep the streak alive. Both Manning and Rodgers topped 340 yards and three touchdowns. Rodgers won regular-season MVP. Manning picked up his second Super Bowl MVP award.
Another famous loss the Giants would avenge later in the Super Bowl, I’m comfortable putting this Week 17 game on the list because of the context. The Patriots had locked up the first seed in the AFC, but at 15-0, they were playing for an undefeated season in a game that ended up being simulcast on three networks. The Giants already had clinched the NFC East, but Tom Coughlin famously played his starters to try to prevent the Patriots from setting the mark.
The narrative is legendary, but what’s lost to the story of what came afterward is an excellent game in itself. This was a much different game from Super Bowl XLII, where the Giants harassed Tom Brady in a low-scoring affair. Here, Steve Spagnuolo’s defense sacked Brady only once, and Manning went shot-for-shot with Brady while throwing four touchdown passes. Brady racked up 356 yards and two scores.
The Giants led 28-16 in the third quarter and were clinging to a 28-23 lead entering the fourth, but Brady hit Randy Moss for a 65-yard touchdown to take a 31-28 lead, and after Manning threw his lone interception on the day, the Patriots took advantage of the short field to go up 38-28 with a Laurence Maroney score. The Giants scored on Plaxico Burress’ second TD catch of the game with 1:08 to go to make it 38-35, but the Pats recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal their undefeated regular season. What happened next?
I’m sneaking this one onto the list because it was really a two-point game, but Brandon Graham picked up a fumble on a laterals play with zeros on the clock and returned it for a touchdown. This game is more famous for Carson Wentztearing his ACL and seemingly eliminating Philadelphia’s Super Bowl chances, but you know how that turned out.
Wentz missed the entirety of the fourth quarter, but he still finished with 291 yards and four touchdowns in a blistering shootout. Todd Gurley scored twice, and the Rams picked up a blocked punt for a score to keep things close. A Gurley touchdown with 13:58 to go gave the Rams a 35-31 lead, but Nick Foles led the Eagles back for a field goal, then Chris Long strip-sacked Goff to give the Eagles a short field. The next drive somehow went 10 yards and took up four minutes and 23 seconds, with the Eagles moving backward and hitting a field goal, taking points off the board when Aaron Donald was called for leverage, and then settling for the same field goal later on. Philly then forced a three-and-out and burned just enough clock to put the game out of reach.
If you want to accuse me of recency bias, that’s fine. This game fits my criteria. Both these teams are likely to make the postseason. They’re perennial playoff teams with a history in their own right, including a classic that narrowly missed out in Week 1 of the 2017 campaign. Its fourth quarter had two lead changes and a 75-yard Tyreek Hill touchdown that tied the score at 40-40, only for Rob Gronkowski to bring in a 39-yard catch that set up the Patriots for a game winner from Stephen Gostkowski. If anything, it probably deserves to be higher.
I generally shied away from Week 1 games because we don’t have a great sense of how teams are going to look over the course of a full season in the opener. (As a reminder, remember that the Bucs beat the Saints 48-40 in Week 1 of this very season.) In this case, though, we had a compelling matchup between a Broncos team that was one disappointing season removed from back-to-back Super Bowl victories, and a Rams team that had taken up the slack in their absence and anointed themselves as the Greatest Show on Turf.
As shows go, the TWA Dome saw a wild one after raising a Super Bowl banner. We saw some of the issues that would plague the Rams in 2000; while St. Louis had three 100-yard receivers on the day, Kurt Warner threw three interceptions — the Rams would rack up 35 giveaways by the end of the season. One of those picks went to Terrell Buckley with 6:35 to go, giving a Broncos team that trailed 35-20 with 19 minutes to go a 36-35 lead. A 30-yard Marshall Faulk run set up a 1-yard vulture from Robert Holcombe, though, and the Rams’ defense sacked Brian Griese twice to force the Broncos into a desperate incompletion on fourth-and-33 and end things.
Fifteen weeks later, the Rams played another classic tilt as they jockeyed for playoff positioning with Tampa Bay. Both these teams were in the wild-card hunt and were coming off playoff runs the previous season, but the matchup seemed like a fight between Mike Martz’s offense and Tony Dungy’s defense, with the Bucs ranking fifth in defensive DVOA.
Instead, we saw the Bucs lean on their oft-frustrating offense for a huge game. Warrick Dunn racked up 198 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns, including a 52-yard run that put the Bucs up 31-21 at the end of the third quarter. Warner threw three interceptions again, but he was money in the fourth quarter. He brought the Rams back within three points by leading a seven-play, 73-yard drive, and after Shaun King threw an interception in the Rams’ end zone, Warner hit Torry Holt for a 72-yard touchdown to go up 35-31.
The Rams held on a fourth down and needed a first down to seal the game, but Martz got curiously conservative and ran three times with Marshall Faulk for a three-and-out. King took the Bucs 80 yards in 79 seconds, including a fourth-and-4 scramble to extend the game, before Dunn punched in a game-winning score. Warner, who had been 6-of-6 for 143 yards in the fourth quarter, tossed an interception to John Lynch with 34 seconds to go to end the game.
This was a mammoth matchup between two perennially competitive teams that were playing at a high level. Tom Landry’s Cowboys were 7-0. The Raiders, who had three games in 1983 that either qualified for this list or came close, came in at 5-2. Tom Flores’ team had just changed quarterbacks, swapping out Jim Plunkett for Marc Wilson after the latter signed a five-year contract extension.
Reports from the time basically paint this game as chaotic fun. The Raiders turned the ball over six times and won, thanks in part to a fake field goal just before halftime that resulted in a pass interference penalty in the end zone. The score was 31-24 at the half, and while the scoring died down after halftime, it included some late drama. Los Angeles led 34-24 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys scored two touchdowns on a pass from Danny White and their fifth fumble recovery of the evening.
A field goal brought the Raiders back to 38-37 with 9:40 to go, only for White to toss a ball up into double coverage for an interception. Wilson took over on his own 25-yard line inside of four minutes and drove the Raiders to the 8-yard line before a fourth field goal from Chris Bahr gave the Raiders a two-point win.
Outside of this one taking place early in the 1989 season, it had just about everything you could hope for from a classic. This was a matchup of two future Hall of Famers at quarterback, with Jim Kelly and Warren Moon in their respective primes. The two teams had a history, as the Bills had beaten the Oilers during the 1988 playoffs. Their most famous playoff game would come three years after this, when Frank Reich launched The Comeback in a 41-38 victory during the 1992 postseason.
Back in 1989, though, we saw two explosive offenses trade body blows in the Astrodome. Both Moon and Kelly topped 330 passing yards. To put things in context, this was just one of six games during the entire 1989 season in which both quarterbacks topped 300 passing yards in the same contest. Kelly chipped in five touchdown passes, and while Moon actually threw more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one), he was responsible for one of Houston’s three rushing scores. The Bills returned a blocked field goal for one touchdown, while the Oilers responded by taking a blocked punt to the house.
The late-game swings push this game toward the top of the list. The Bills led 34-24 in the fourth quarter after Kelly hit Andre Reed for a 78-yard touchdown, but their lead didn’t last. The Oilers scored two touchdowns to go up 38-34, but the Bills responded with a 26-yard Thurman Thomas score to make it 41-38.
From there, chaos reigned. The Oilers started their drive with a pass to Haywood Jeffires, who had the ball dislodged by Nate Odomes and returned into the end zone by Darryl Talley for what looked to be a game-sealing score, but the referees ruled that Jeffires’ forward progress had been stopped. Houston continued its drive on a sideline catch in which Curtis Duncan was initially ruled out of bounds before the officials conferred and overruled the side judge who made the initial call. With no replay to review the call, the Oilers stalled out after a false start and Tony Zendejas kicked a 52-yard field goal (in an era where those were hardly chip shots) to push the game into overtime.
Things did not get any less dramatic in overtime. The Oilers drove into field goal range for Zendejas in the extra period. His 43-yard attempt was blocked, but Houston was bailed out by an offsides call on the Bills. Zendejas then pushed his 38-yard attempt wide left, marking the fifth kick he had missed in nine tries over a two-week span. He didn’t lose his job and picked up steady work until 1995. We’re too hard on kickers these days. The Bills took over and Kelly hit two passes for 33 yards before Reed took a short throw 28 yards to the house to win an epic up-and-down encounter.
I think you can credibly make a case that this was the best regular-season game ever. The scoring, obviously, was at another level. L.A. and Kansas City were 9-1 heading into the game, which in itself is a rare matchup of dominant teams. Both had the majority of their stars healthy and active, although the Chiefs might very well look back at their two losses so far this season and wonder if they would have won with a healthy Eric Berry, given how Rob Gronkowski picked apart now-waived backup defensive back Josh Shaw in Week 6, and the Rams went after Daniel Sorensen for their final two scores Monday night.
What makes this game stand out is the sheer scope of the late-game drama. This is the only game on the list that had four lead changes in the fourth quarter, and that included the Chiefs coming back from a 10-point deficit at the beginning of the period. In most cases, when a fourth quarter had multiple lead changes, it usually included one team scoring at the very end of the game without leaving its newly trailing opponent a meaningful shot at winning the game. The Chiefs went down 54-51 with 1:49 left and actually had two realistic shots of setting up for a game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal, only for Patrick Mahomes to be intercepted twice.
The numbers are almost comical. Mahomes threw for 478 yards and six touchdowns, becoming the second quarterback in league history to post two six-touchdown games in a single season. Jared Goff was good for 413 yards and four scores of his own. Between 1990 and 2009, there was exactly one regular-season game in which both quarterbacks topped 400 passing yards, a Dolphins-Patriots game that is an honorable mention here.
The two teams combined for 14 touchdowns, which is one more than the Bills have scored in 10 games this season and as many as the 1991 Colts scored over an entire 16-game season. The defenses were overmatched and still managed to impact the game by combining for three touchdowns. The game had the highest posted point total (63.5) in league history and it went over that total by 41.5 points.
Saying it lived up to the Game of the Year hype is obvious. Looking a step further, it seems eminently reasonable to suggest that we just witnessed the greatest — or at least the most exciting — regular-season game in NFL history.
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