Each week, we tune in to watch our favorite NFL teams take to the gridiron to engage in 60 minutes of contained, controlled hand-to-hand combat. Some games are decided well before the last ticks of the clock. Others aren’t decided even then. This is the story of the longest games in the history of the National Football League.
As it happens, the longest games in NFL history are playoff games – during regular season action, a game remaining tied after a15-minute overtime ends in a tie. Since the 1940’s, the NFL overtime has been “sudden death,” mandating the winner is the team which scores first. When moving on in the playoffs or going home is at risk, that score means everything. In retrospect, there can be plays earlier in games that become larger than first thought; scoring opportunities missed, defensive stands that keep drives from advancing. As we will see, more than a couple of these games were tied up in the last drives of regulation and the teams remained knotted from there.
As an interesting aside to this rule, while the perception is that the team with the first possession will usually win, from 1974-2003, 72% of the time both teams had one possession. Three post season games, of twenty, since 1958 have ended on the first possession. While the first possession has not ended the game in the majority of cases, these five games are the statistical outliers in the history of the league.
January 10, 2004 – NFC Divisional Playoff
Time of Game: 75:10
Carolina Panthers 29, St. Louis Rams 23
The St. Louis Rams, known colloquially as “The Greatest Show On Turf,” took the field against the upstart Carolina Panthers who two years before finished the season with an abysmal 1-15 record. The Panthers’ starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme, had been signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent, and cut after the 2002 season whereupon he was signed by the Panthers. Rodney Peete started the season opener, but when he proved ineffective, Delhomme took over and never looked back.
En route to a most improbable Super Bowl run, the Panthers had the unfortunate luck of the draw to face the buzz saw that was the St. Louis Rams.
With less than three minutes left in the 4th quarter, the Panthers had an 11-point lead…but the Rams managed to tie the game on a Marshall Faulk touchdown run, a two point conversion, and a field goal after Carolina botched the ensuing St. Louis on-sides kick. After that last scoring frenzy, the game remained tied into the second overtime. Rams head coach Mike Martz was criticized for going for the field goal without first attempting to win the game, opting to take the chance in overtime in the friendly confines of the Rams’ home stadium.
This is not to say there were not opportunities to end the game sooner: the Panthers first possession ended with a delay of game penalty, resulting in a failed re-kick of a field goal attempt. Had they lost, the Panthers would have beaten themselves – they had committed 13 penalties for 92 yards.
But they did not. Carolina’s Ricky Manning, Jr. intercepted the Rams’ quarterback Marc Bulger at the Carolina 38 yard line – well within field goal range – and capitalized with a Delhomme touchdown pass on the first play of the second overtime, ending the game. The Panthers would meet the Philadelphia Eagles the next week in the NFC Championship game for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Dec. 24, 1977 – AFC Divisional Playoff
Time of Game 75:43
Oakland Raiders 37, Baltimore Colts 31
The Oakland Raiders, defending Super Bowl Champions, went into Baltimore, Maryland to take on the Baltimore Colts. This would be the last playoff game for the Baltimore Colts before they left for Indianapolis seven years later.
The lead changed hands eight times, in what was initially a defensive struggle, but The Raiders scored 14 points in the third quarter and went into the forth leading 21-14. The teams combined to score 24 points in the fourth, ending regulation tied at 31. Notably, with about 2 minutes left in regulation, the Raiders were down by three points. On third down and long, Oakland Quarterback Kenny Stabler hit Wide Receiver Dave Casper, nicknamed “the Ghost,” on a 42 yard post-pattern pass play that has come to be known as the “Ghost to the Post” to set up the game tying 22 yard field goal from the Colts 14 yard line.
43 seconds into the second overtime, Stabler again hit Casper for a 10 yard touchdown pass to send the Raiders to their second consecutive AFC Championship game, where this time they lost to the Denver Broncos.
January 3, 1987 – AFC Divisional Playoff
Time of Game: 77:02
Cleveland Browns 23, New York Jets 20
The New York Jets were largely in control of this game, and after a Freeman McNeil 25 yard touchdown, giving the Jets a 20-10 lead with 4:14 left in the game, the “Dog pound” in Cleveland Stadium became a dour place.
In a January 2, 1987 article, the New York Times identified Mark Gastineau as “the Jet who must make the big play on defense.” On the Browns next drive, Gastineau did made the big play – a roughing the passer penalty on 3 and 24; a costly penalty, giving the Browns a valuable first down. Browns Quarterback Bernie Kosar turned that opportunity into a 68-yard scoring drive.
The Jets went three-and-out in their next possession, setting up a final drive for the Browns. With seven seconds left in regulation, a 37-yard pass play from Kosar to Receiver Webster Slaughter set up the game tying field goal by Mark Moseley.
After the Jets punted on their first overtime possession, the Browns drove to the Jets’ 5 yard line, where despite the apparent sure victory, Moseley missed a 23-yarder wide right.
After a series of punts shared between the teams, Kosar again led the Browns on a 60-yard drive, ending the game two minutes, two seconds into the second overtime on a 27-yard field goal.
In that game, Kosar set post season records for completions, attempts, and passing yards.
December 23, 1962 AFL Championship
Time of Game 77:54
Dallas Texans 20, Houston Oilers 17
In the Super Bowl era, no game has gone into overtime. One game – Super Bowl XXXVI – was won by scoring on the final play of the game.
Three games came close to ending on a score: Super Bowl XXV, where the Bills’ Scott Norwood missed a chip shot field goal wide right as time expired giving The Giants the game and the title; Super Bowl XXXVIII where essentially the same script as that of Super Bowl XXXVI played out, but because seconds remained on the clock, it resulted in a last second kickoff opportunity for the Panthers; and Super Bowl XXXIV where the Tennessee Titans’ Kevin Dyson came one yard short of a game winning touchdown. Interestingly enough, the Titans are the current incarnation of the Houston Oilers, the team at the wrong end of another championship game classic. The AFL records were incorporated into the NFL records at the merger of the two leagues in 1970, and thus this game qualifies as the second longest game in NFL history.
The Houston Oilers were the only champion the AFL had produced up to that point and had won those championships going away – in 1960 against the Los Angeles Chargers 24-16 and again in 1961 10-3 over those same Chargers.
The Texans dominated the first half of the game, but the Oilers – demonstrating their championship pedigree – scored 17 unanswered points in the second half and knotted the game at 17 at the end of regulation. The teams played the first overtime in a scoreless duel and in so doing went into the record books as playing in the first ever double overtime game in pro football history.
Two minutes, fifty-four seconds into that historic double overtime, The Texans’ Tommy Brooker kicked a 25-yard field goal to win the game.
If the coincidence of the Oilers being involved in this game was interesting, the next game is even more interesting. By the end of the 1963 Season, the Dallas Texans had found they could not compete with the NFL’s entry, the Dallas Cowboys, and pulled up roots for Missouri, where they became the Kansas City Chiefs.
Dec. 25, 1971 – AFC Divisional Playoff
Time of Game: 82:40
Miami Dolphins 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24
In 1971, The Dolphins were a very good 10-3-1 and on a Super Bowl run. The Kansas City Chiefs were also 10-3-1 after coming off a good 7-5-2 run in 1970. While the Chiefs were coming down from their Super Bowl apex in 1969, the Dolphins were on the cusp of greatness and would go undefeated in 1972 en route to three consecutive Super Bowls. This game, though pitted these two in an epic battle of a passing torch, ending only after it became the longest game in NFL history.
The Chiefs’ eventual Hall of Fame kicker – the only kicker in the hall of fame – Jan Stenerud, missed a 31-yard field goal attempt with 35 seconds left in regulation and had a 45-yard field goal blocked in the first overtime.
Oh how this game could have gone differently. With the Chiefs leading 10-7 in the second quarter, a trick play was called – the play was designed to snap the ball to Stenerud who would attempt a run for the first down. The Dolphins had lined up for the field goal, leaving the center of the field open clear to the end zone. While the play was drawn up as a fake, Stenerud had behaved so convincingly that Jack Rudnay, the center, was fooled and snapped the ball to the holder, who was not expecting it, necessitating an actual attempt…which was missed.
This game it would be another kicker, Miami’s Garo Yepremian, to kick the game winner – 7 minutes, 40 seconds into the second over time period.
This would be the first time in seven attempts that the Dolphins had beaten the Chiefs and the only time they had led in the game was with that last field goal to end it. The Chiefs running back Ed Podolak had 350 all purpose yards in the losing effort in one of the single most impressive playoff performances ever and since.
Where most modern football games will run about 4 hours from kick off to the final tick due to television times out, replay challenges, and other play stoppages, this extravaganza of eighty-two and a-half game minutes lasted three hours, twenty-one minutes in real time.
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