Eight in the Box: Greatest divisional-round performances since 2002
Last year’s divisional round made for thrilling television. The Ravens nipped the Broncos only after a late-game prayer was answered, Colin Kaepernick ran wild, the Falcons broke Seattle’s hearts, and New England held off multiple Houston comeback attempts.
Before we find out what’s in store this season, Eight in the Box reminisces on some of the finest divisional-round performances since expansion and realignment in 2002.
Honorable mention: Donovan McNabb vs. Green Bay, 2003 playoffs (21-of-39 for 248 yards and two TDs; 107 yards rushing).
A decade before another quarterback on our list ran wild against the Packers, McNabb made up for the dismal play of his line — Green Bay sacked him eight times in this game — to lead his team to an overtime victory. The Packers led 14-0 on a pair of Brett Favre-to-Robert Ferguson touchdown passes before McNabb kicked it into gear. He erased that deficit with two TD tosses of his own: one to Duce Staley, another to Todd Pinkston.
The Eagles also needed a drive at the end of regulation to force the tie after trailing 17-14. That possession included the now-famous 4th-and-26 conversion from McNabb to Freddie Mitchell, which kept Philadelphia’s hopes alive in miraculous fashion. McNabb completed two more passes and scrambled for three yards on the remainder of the drive, thus putting David Akers in position for a 37-yard, game-tying field goal.
(Note: Remaining games on the list are in chronological order.)
8. Edgerrin James vs. Priest Holmes, 2003 playoffs (349 combined total yards, four TDs).
Like McNabb’s Eagles, Indianapolis’ season ended on Championship Weekend in the 2003 postseason. But the Colts also needed a sensational individual effort to make it that far.
They turned to running back Edgerrin James, who engaged in a thrilling duel with Kansas City’s Priest Holmes during a 38-31 Colts win. James rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including the score that eventually stood as the game-winner; Holmes piled up 176 yards on the ground with two TDs of his own and caught five passes for another 32 yards.
Those performances overshadowed the 304-yard, three-touchdown effort by Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning, as well as the electrifying day put forth by Kansas City kick returner Dante Hall. He averaged 29.7 yards on seven attempts, buoyed by a 92-yard return touchdown.
7. Steve Smith vs. Chicago, 2005 playoffs (12 catches for 218 yards, two touchdowns).
During the height of the Jake Delhomme era, the former Panthers quarterback turned to arguably the franchise’s greatest player ever to pull out a 29-21 win over the Bears. The 2005 season was the finest in Smith’s long career. He led the league with 103 catches, 12 touchdown receptions and 1,563 yards receiving.
And the Bears had no answers for him in the divisional round. Smith opened the scoring by catching a 58-yarder from Delhomme, then helped keep a Chicago comeback at bay with another touchdown in the third quarter. His final receiving stats still stand as franchise records.
6. Darren Sproles vs. Pittsburgh, 2008 playoffs (168 return yards, 91 yards receiving, one TD).
The San Diego Chargers lost this game to the Steelers 35-24, but Sproles did whatever he could to prevent that outcome. He laid the groundwork for a stellar day early, returning the opening kickoff 18 yards, getting the nod on San Diego’s first run play, then moving the chains with a 12-yard reception. And though Pittsburgh limited the Chargers’ No. 1 back to just 15 yards rushing, Sproles continued to make his impact in a variety of ways.
His touchdown, a 62-yarder with two minutes left, was a case of too little, too late for San Diego. It did, however, put the icing on the cake for Sproles’ impressive all-around effort.
5. Sidney Rice vs. Dallas, 2009 playoffs (six catches, 141 yards, three TDs).
Rice was on the receiving end for three of Brett Favre’s four touchdown passes in a 34-3 romp over Dallas. He found the end zone twice before halftime, on 47- and 16-yard receptions. Later, a 45-yard score helped the Vikings pull away in the fourth quarter. The game was Rice’s one and only three-TD showing in his NFL career — spanning 78 regular-season outings and five postseason contests.
4. Tramon Williams vs. Atlanta, 2010 playoffs (one tackle, two INTs, one TD).
This was the game — a 48-21 Packers upset of the top-seeded Falcons — that really launched Aaron Rodgers’ time as the unquestioned star of Green Bay’s offense. He torched Atlanta for 366 yards and three touchdowns on an 86.1 completion percentage.
But it was Williams’ 70-yard interception return for a touchdown before halftime that really swung the pendulum in Green Bay’s favor. The Packers led 21-14 at the time, with the Falcons driving to either cut into that lead or force a halftime tie. Instead, Williams jumped a Matt Ryan pass to Roddy White and housed it for a 28-14 cushion.
That was Williams’ second pick of the quarter. Moments before, he had snufffed out another promising Atlanta drive by picking off Ryan in the end zone. Rodgers completed a TD pass to James Jones on the ensuing drive, and the Packers never coughed up the lead again.
3. Tom Brady vs. Denver, 2011 playoffs (26-of-34 for 363 yards and six TDs).
The Season of Tebow came to a crashing halt as the Patriots coasted to a 45-10 win over Denver en route to an AFC championship. Brady threw the game’s lone interception late in the first quarter, but by then his team already led 14-0 on a pair of touchdown passes. Five of his six TD tosses came before halftime, with Rob Gronkowski reeling in three. Brady’s sixth and final scoring strike, which put New England up 42-7 in the third quarter, found Aaron Hernandez.
2. Vernon Davis vs. New Orleans, 2011 playoffs (seven catches, 180 yards, two TDs).
One of the more thrilling playoff games in recent memory was decided when Davis nabbed a 14-yard TD pass from Alex Smith in traffic, nearly replicating Terrell Owens’ legendary postseason score vs. Green Bay more than a decade earlier. Davis’ catch came with just 14 seconds left on the clock and capped off a mesmerizing back-and-forth fourth quarter. Each team scored on its final two possessions, with Jimmy Graham pushing New Orleans in front on a 66-yard score with 1:48 left.
San Francisco quickly moved back into field-goal range on a 47-yard Smith-to-Davis connection, which only set the table for the thrilling conclusion.
1. Colin Kaepernick vs. Green Bay, 2012 playoffs (17-of-31 passing for 263 yards, 181 yards rushing, three total TDs).
Kaepernick had seven NFL starts under his belt heading into this one, but it was his record-setting showing vs. the Packers that really announced his arrival to the league. The 49ers’ young QB started off in shaky fashion, with a pick-six that gave the Packers a 7-0 lead. He bounced back on the next possession to run for a 20-yard score, part of the greatest playoff rushing performance ever from a quarterback.
Kaepernick fired two touchdown passes in the second quarter, both to Michael Crabtree, and handed San Francisco the lead for good with a 56-yard scamper in the third quarter.