Best of the best, worst of the worst: The NFL's highest and lowest moments

Yahoo Sports
The ultimate goal. (Getty)
The ultimate goal. (Getty)

Yahoo Sports is running down the best and worst moments from every franchise in the NFL. Ten moments per team, 32 teams … that’s a lot of highs and a lot of lows. We encourage you to check them all out (best for each team here, worst for each team here), but here, for your reading and arguing pleasure, are the best of the best, and the worst of the worst. These are the moments that made us love football, and the moments that made us want to throw a football through our television screens. Some, we experienced live; others, we only know from highlights. First, the moments that make football great:

5. Joe Namath’s Guarantee

Joe Namath was “Broadway Joe” long before his first snap in the pros, long before the Jets advanced to Super Bowl III against the Baltimore Colts in 1968. But despite the great collegiate career at Alabama and early success in New York, Namath had a lot to prove coming from what was viewed as the inferior American Football League. The Colts were 18-point favorites in Super Bowl III, but that didn’t discourage Namath, who said, “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” Turns out, Namath was right. The New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, and won Super Bowl III, the first and only championship for a franchise that was established nearly 60 years ago. It served notice that the upstart American Football League was a viable challenger to the NFL, and helped validate the leagues’ merger several years later.

4. Russell Wilson’s Super Bowl Interception

Trailing by four points in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIX, Seattle found itself at the New England one-foot line. On second down, Wilson gunned a slant to receiver Ricardo Lockette on a broken pick play, only to have it picked off by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. One of the NFL’s greatest franchises made the greatest possible play in the greatest game of the year. Moments rarely get any bigger than that.

3. The David Tyree Helmet Catch

The Patriots arrived in Arizona in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLII with history on their minds; despite Spygate, despite the weight of an ever-growing target on their collective back, they’d made it to the desert unscathed: 18-0, having posted the NFL’s first 16-0 regular season. The underdog New York Giants, whom New England beat in the regular-season finale, were supposed to just be happy to be there. Except, well, the Giants weren’t willing to just roll over. Late in the low-scoring game, with New England leading 14-10, the Giants faced third-and-5 from their own 44, and the Patriots’ defense got to Eli Manning quickly – but were never able to bring him down, and despite Jarvis Green getting a good grip on Manning’s jersey, which may have constituted “in the grasp,” the play continued. Manning stayed on his feet and chucked the ball up toward the middle of the field. David Tyree – who’d had just four catches all season – jumped for the ball and pinned it to his helmet, holding on even as New England safety Rodney Harrison tried desperately to pry it away. Harrison couldn’t, and four plays later, the Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 35 seconds remaining. The Patriots couldn’t get in field-goal range, ending their bid at a perfect season. All told, the Tyree catch is arguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history, though not if you ask Patriots fans.

2. The Immaculate Reception

The NFL itself voted this play the greatest in league history, and it’s become the de facto moment that kicked off the Steelers’ modern-era dominance. Trailing Oakland by a point in the 1972 Divisional playoffs, Pittsburgh faced a 4th-and-10 on its own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining. Head coach Chuck Noll called 66 Circle Option, a pass play over the middle intended to target running back John Fuqua. The ball ended up in the hands of a different running back instead. Raiders safety Jack Tatum charged toward Terry Bradshaw’s desperation heave and collided with Fuqua, knocking the ball back about 10 yards and into the hands of rookie Franco Harris, who plucked it from near the turf and smoked Oakland’s stunned defense down the left sideline and into the end zone. It gave Pittsburgh its first playoff win in franchise history, and while the season ended at the hands of the immortal 14-0 Dolphins a week later, irreversible momentum had been established. The play has been steeped in controversy ever since it took place, too. Did the ball only touch Fuqua, which therefore would have nullified Harris’ catch? Did the ball hit the ground first after the deflection? All we know for sure is it counted, and it’s one of the greatest moments in Steelers history.

1. The Catch

With under a minute left in the 1981 NFC championship game and upstart San Francisco trailing mighty Dallas by six points, a young Joe Montana delivered the most iconic pass of his storied career, and the most celebrated in NFL history. Montana rolled right, back-pedaled away from three Cowboys defenders and lofted a pinpoint touchdown pass to a leaping Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone. The third-down pass didn’t just propel the 49ers to their first championship. It also launched a 14-year dynasty during which San Francisco won its division 11 times and captured five Super Bowl titles. As long as there’s football, there will be replays of The Catch, and that’s exactly as it should be.

And now, the other side of the coin. For this compilation, we’ve focused only on on-field woes; missing a field goal doesn’t really compare, in real-world importance, to actual tragedy. But these are wrenching enough. And we didn’t even include 0-16 (twice), 28-3, or the Music City and Minnesota Miracles. Steel your hearts and prepare for pain.

5. The Russell Wilson Super Bowl interception (again)

Wait, didn’t we just list Seattle-New England as one of the best moments in NFL history? Yes indeed, because this is that rare moment, that rare play, that ascends to the heights of both agony and ecstasy. If you’re a Seahawks fan, this was your last real chance at a dynasty. If you hate the Patriots, this was the chance to render that team 3-3 in Super Bowls and put them on their heels. And if you’re a fan of sane offenses, you have to wonder: why didn’t the Seahawks just run the dang ball?

4. The Heidi Game

As the clock struck 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, Nov. 17, 1968, NBC’s East Coast broadcast of a regular-season matchup between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets abruptly ended after six lead changes and nearly four quarters. The Jets were leading the Raiders 32-29 when the previously scheduled children’s movie “Heidi” began airing. The problem, of course, was that the game wasn’t over and millions of viewers missed the Raiders’ rollicking comeback. Despite 65 seconds left in the game and the Raiders set to receive, NBC executives couldn’t get word to the switch operator to stick with the game instead of going ahead with the made-for-TV film.

For the irate fans who missed the ending, they missed the nine seconds that will live in Raiders lore forever. With 1:05 on the game clock, Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica dropped back to pass and fired to Charlie Smith, who reeled it in for a 43-yard touchdown. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Jets returner Earl Christy fumbled and Raiders RB Preston Ridlehuber, (yes, that’s his real name) sprang into action to recover the ball and ran it into the end zone to complete the thrilling sequence of events that half the United States missed. The Raiders had scored 14 points in nine seconds and NFL Sundays would be forever changed, as now TV contracts include a clause that local games must air until their conclusion. One of the most embarrassing moments in NFL history unintentionally set the stage for the NFL-is-everywhere world in which we now live.

3. Tuck Rule

A play that lives in infamy, for everyone but Patriots fans. On a snowy night in the 2001 AFC Divisional playoffs, the Patriots were down 13-10 at home to Oakland, with under two minutes to play. On a first-down play from the Raiders’ 42, Tom Brady’s former Michigan teammate, Charles Woodson, strip-sacked him, untouched on a corner blitz. Brady lost the ball, the Raiders’ Greg Biekert fell on it, and it looked like the Patriots were done. But referee Walt Coleman’s crew determined that Brady was in the process of passing the ball when he lost it, invoking the little-used “tuck rule.” The play went down as an incomplete pass, Brady completed a 13-yard pass to David Patten to get New England in field-goal range, and Adam Vinatieri made a 45-yard field goal despite the wintry conditions to tie the game. Vinatieri hit a 23-yard kick in overtime for the win. Coleman hasn’t officiated a Raiders game since, and the NFL voted to repeal the tuck rule in 2013. That game set the stage for the Patriots to claim their first Super Bowl championship, and it marked the first in a long line of claims that the NFL is biased for/against the Patriots dynasty, depending on who’s doing the complaining.

2. Scott Norwood’s Wide Right

In perhaps one of the most heartbreaking sports moments of all time, the Bills squandered their first and best shot at Super Bowl glory when they missed a late field goal attempt. Trailing the New York Giants by one point with eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV, Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s 47-yard attempt sailed wide right. It had plenty of distance, just not the accuracy. It was the Bills first of four consecutive Super Bowl loses, and turned out to be the closest they would get to winning one, as they lost by 13, 35 and 17 points in the Super Bowls to follow. It remains the epitome of hope-to-heartbreak in the NFL.

1. Death on the Field

It’s the nightmare of every NFL franchise—a player dying on the field. On Oct. 24, 1971, Lions wideout Chuck Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack in a game against the Chicago Bears. In a feature on Hughes’ legacy, former Yahoo Sports writer Les Carpenter described the player’s final moments at Tiger Stadium: “He caught a 32-yard pass and was instantly hit high and low by two Bears. He crawled up and ambled back to the huddle. A couple of plays later Hughes ran down the field – a decoy on a pass that went to Charlie Sanders. He stopped, turned and headed toward the huddle. At the 15-yard line he locked eyes for a moment with legendary linebacker Dick Butkus, then his eyes rolled in the back of his head and he collapsed on the turf. For a moment many of the players thought he was faking an injury, a common practice in those days. But then Butkus waved wildly toward the benches.” It was later revealed that the heart attack was actually the second one he suffered that year. Hughes wasn’t a star, which might have been why the incident didn’t rock the NFL similar to issues like CTE today. But the death lingers for the Lions, as it’s the only one to have happened in the league during a game. Without a doubt, it marks the worst on-field moment in the NFL’s history.

Make sure to check out the rest of Yahoo Sports’ Best and Worst Moments for all 32 NFL teams! 
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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