The NFL is an offense-driven league, and some of the most memorable games are shootouts. Games where the quarterbacks seem to be fighting just eachother and the defense doesn’t show up, games that end up with scores like 45-42. What were the best shootouts to ever take place in the history of the league?
Honorable Mentions (5)
5. 1990 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Dan Marino vs. Jim Kelly
The 1990 Bills had the No.1 offense in the league, scoring more points than anybody else and finishing with a record of 13-3. A Week 16 win at home over the Dolphins guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Those Dolphins finished 12-4 and had a strong defense but weren’t as high-powered as the Bills. After the Dolphins won their Wild Card game, they played those same Bills in Buffalo for the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
The two teams combined for 923 total yards of offense and 9 touchdowns, and despite the terrible, snowy conditions in Buffalo, 672 of those yards came through the air in a classic game featuring two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Ultimately, the Bills outpaced the Dolphins for a 44-34 win that would ultimately propel them to the Super Bowl.
4. 2004 Week 12 – Carson Palmer vs. …Kelly Holcomb?
Who knew that a Week 12 game between two teams that would combine for 12 wins overall could be so much fun. For the Bengals, it was the last horrible year in their 14-year spell of incompetence and poor play, and for the Browns, they were just bungling around in their 15 year stretch from 1999-2013 in which they only made the playoffs one time. The quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Kelly Holcomb (you read it right) combined for 664 passing yards and 9 touchdowns through the air, as the game slowly progressed into a mad shootout, featuring 12 touchdowns.
The final score was 58-48 in favor of Cincinnati, and it is still the highest-scoring game of all time.
3. 1963 Week 16 – George Blanda vs. Tom Flores
The AFL was a wild place. Offenses ran rampant, and defenses often weren’t regarded as “dominant”. This was no more apparent in a Week 16 game between the Raiders and the Oilers, as the two teams racked up over 1,000 yards of offense and 14 touchdowns. George Blanda passed for 342 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Tom Flores (who was still a player and not a coach intent on ruining the Seahawks) did him better, passing for 407 yards and 6 touchdowns. Coincidentally, this was the second game in Tom Flores’ record for most touchdown passes in two games (11) that Ben Roethlisberger broke about two weeks ago with 12.
After 4 quarters, the score was tied at 49-49, and the Raiders easily ran down the field and kicked a field goal to bring the combined score of the teams to 101, a record that wasn’t broken until…2004, when the Browns and Bengals scored 106. The reason why this game is not on the real list is because of the wide-open style of the AFL, and the stats weren’t as gaudy as some games ahead of it.
2. 1992 AFC Wild Card game – Frank Reich vs. Warren Moon
The 1992 AFC Wild Card game is a hugely popular and well-known game, but not for the reason of it being a shootout. Despite this, veteran backup Frank Reich and Hall of Famer Warren Moon combined for 660 passing yards and 8 touchdowns through the air. The two teams’ combined total yards is the lowest of all on the list, however, sitting at 795. 10 touchdowns were scored during the game, although four of Houston’s were scored in the first half…and Buffalo’s 5 were scored in the second.
Indeed, this game is more known as a comeback than a shootout, and if that wasn’t enough, the numbers aren’t as huge as the others on the list. That doesn’t take anything away from the game itself, however.
1. 1983 Week 1 – Lynn Dickey vs. Archie Manning
This game is probably the least well-known of any on the list, and for good reason. Lynn Dickey and Archie Manning are two quarterbacks that get forgotten in football history, and neither of the teams they played for made the playoffs, with the Packers finishing 8-8 and Houston finishing 2-14.
Nonetheless, the game was a stupendous airshow between the two quarterbacks, as they combined for 700 passing yards exactly and 6 touchdowns. 977 total yards were racked up by the teams, and of course, Green Bay came away with a 41-38 OT victory over Archie Manning’s Oilers.
The Real List
10. 1983 Week 13 – Dave Krieg vs. Bill Kenney
The two quarterbacks basically explain why the game is at #10. Dave Krieg sits at #3 on the all-time fumbles list and Bill Kenney was better suited to be a backup. His career highlight was this game, on a team that finished 6-10.
Dave Krieg passed for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns while Kenney passed for 311 and 4 touchdowns. Curt Warner carried the Seahawks as well, rushing for 207 yards and 3 touchdowns. The game featured 961 total yards of offense, 59 first downs and 12 touchdowns, as the game went into a 48-48 tie. In OT, the Seahawks finally ended the marathon with a field goal to knot the final score at 51-48 in favor of the Seahawks.
The game is low because the stats aren’t as massive as others on the list, the quarterbacks weren’t that great and the game is somewhat under the radar.
9. 2003 Divisional Playoffs – Peyton Manning vs. Trent Green
Trent Green, who is now a broadcaster, is a quarterback who was hot and cold throughout his career. However, in 2003, he was definitely hot, leading the Chiefs to a 13-3 record behind a high-powered offense. They won a game against Brett Favre’s Packers that barely missed the list, a 40-34 OT win in Lambeau Field.
The Colts were led by Peyton Manning, who was young at that time, and were a scrappy team with a really, really good offense. The two teams met in a divisional playoffs game in Arrowhead Stadium and duked it out in a historic game.
Peyton Manning passed for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns while Trent Green threw for 212 and a single touchdown, but the Chiefs offense was bolstered by Priest Holmes running all over the place and a 92-yard Dante Hall kick return touchdown.
What makes this game so amazing is that it was only the second game in NFL history not to feature a punt in the entire game. The Chiefs had a good enough offense to pull it off, while the Colts probably were too scared to punt to Dante Hall (who was having an awesome season), and were forced to keep their offense rolling.
Nonetheless, the Colts won the game 38-31 in what (in my opinion) is one of the best playoff games ever.
8. 1983 Week 6 – Dan Marino vs. Joe Ferguson
Dan Marino’s first professional start gets onto the list for a multitude of reasons. A, it was a fabulous rookie outing, B, it was an awesome young gun/old gun shootout against Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson, and C it was a precursor for Miami’s entire 1984 season.
As I said, Dan Marino made his first NFL start in Week 6 at home against the Buffalo Bills. Miami would go on to make the playoffs and the Bills would go 8-8 (and consequently 2-14, twice), but Buffalo got the better of both Marino and the Dolphins that day.
Joe Ferguson was nearing the end of his career, and really, this was his last really good game. In 1984 he couldn’t stop turning the ball over and then was shipped off to Detroit.
Ferguson passed for 419 yards and 5 touchdowns while Marino threw for 370 yards and 4 touchdowns. The teams combined for 976 total yards of offense, 59 first downs and 10 touchdowns. At that time, Miami had a running game that wasn’t being held up by schlubs like Bobby Humphrey and Mark Higgs, so that helped the team along as well.
The game went into OT notted at 35-35, and Joe Ferguson moved Buffalo down the field for a Joe Danelo field goal that ended up being Buffalo’s first win in the Orange Bowl since 1966.
7. 1994 Week 1 – Drew Bledsoe vs. Dan Marino
Before the Patriots were a so-called “dynasty” that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since being caught cheating, they were still runts of the NFL that had endured several seasons of awful football in the early 1990’s. 1993’s No.1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe’s best success came early on in his career, and 1994 was a prime example of it. This was a Bill Parcells team, and to be in games with scores like 38-35, 31-28, and a 26-20 OT win against the Vikings in which Bledsoe threw 70 passes without an interception is very, very impressive. In Week 1, the game was played in Miami, and coincidentally 1994 was the year Joe Robbie stadium was converted into a multi-purpose stadium, with intent of the Marlins playing there. What resulted was a muddy, soupy mess of a field that was terrible for football once it rained on the baseball dirt. It had rained before Week 1, and as a result the teams couldn’t run the ball or kick. The two teams passed and passed, leading to one of the most exciting games ever.
Dan Marino was coming off a season-ending achilles tear in 1993, and his return was certainly memorable. He threw for 473 yards and 5 touchdowns, while Bledsoe threw for 421 yards and 4 touchdowns. The two teams game 3 yards shy of cracking the 1,000 combined yardage mark.
With the Patriots leading 35-32 and Miami faced with a 4th and 6 out of field goal range and with limited time, Dan Marino dropped back and threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Irving Fryar to ultimately win the game for Miami 39-35.
6. 1983 Week 7 – Lynn Dickey vs. Joe Theismann
It’s pretty surprising to see yet another 1983 game on the list, and even more surprising to see Lynn Dickey’s name pop up twice in an all-time shootouts list.
People who expected a blowout between the defending NFL champion, 541-point scoring Washington Redskins and the NFL’s worst defense in the 3-3 Green Bay Packers were treated to the highest-scoring game in Monday Night Football history, a game that pitted Joe Theismann against the lesser-known Lynn Dickey.
Theismann threw for 398 yards and 2 touchdowns, rushing for the rest in a 552 total-yard equation while Dickey threw for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns, forced to throw with a slowed running game that only netted 51 yards. Joe Theismann commented in an NFL Top 10 episode:
We scored, I held for the extra point, walked back to the bench and got a Gatorade cup.
Russ Grimm walks over to me and says “Let’s go.”
I said “We just scored…!”
He says “So did they. Let’s go.”
Howard Cosell joked during the game, “The coaches had a meeting a little while ago, they agreed that the first to 50 wins.”
Ironically, neither team got to 50, but the Redskins had a perfect opportunity. With the Packers leading 48-47, Washington had the ball last and continued to drive effortlessly down the field. Mark Mosely lined up for a 47-yard field goal and missed, handing the Packers an incredible win over a team that would eventually finish 14-2 and reach the Super Bowl.
5. 1992 Week 2 – Steve Young vs. Jim Kelly
NFL Top 10 ranked this game #10 in their shootouts list, which I think is blasphemy. The game is at least Top 5, and that’s where it sits on this list.
The Bills had lost the Super Bowl in both 1990 and 1991, and were looking for a third trip back. They would indeed ultimately make it there, but that’s not the point here. Buffalo had gotten to those Super Bowls with a quick-strike, no-huddle offense known as the K-Gun. Opponents caught up a little bit in 1992, handing them nearly as many losses (5) as they had in both 1990 and 1991 combined (6). However, it was still unbelievable and high-octane, and it helped them reach their third Super Bowl.
The 49ers, meanwhile, had almost faced the Bills in their 1990 Super Bowl. They lost a heartbreaker in the 1990 NFC Title game to the Giants, and failed to make the playoffs in 1991 thanks to the 11-5 Saints and 10-6 Falcons forcing them out with a 3rd place finish in the NFC West. In 1992, they had one of the greatest teams in franchise history, and would eventually finish 14-2 but fail to reach the Super Bowl again. They had the highest scoring offense in the league, and it certainly showed against Buffalo.
Although the combined points scored of the game (65) leaves something to be desired compared to other games on the list, it was completely out of this world. Steve Young threw for 449 yards and 3 touchdowns, shockingly without the help of Jerry Rice, who left the game with a concussion in the first quarter. Buffalo’s Jim Kelly passed for 403 yards and 3 touchdowns, as the teams combined for 1,086 total offensive yards, a total that tied for 3rd most at the time. Buffalo came back from a 24-13 hole at halftime to take a 34-31 lead, but giving San Francisco the ball and enough time for a final drive.
A holding penalty knocked the 49ers back on 3rd down which put the unreliable Mike Cofer 47 yards away from a winning field goal. Cofer barely missed it wide to the right, handing the Bills a win in the first game ever played in NFL history not to include a punt.
4. 1981 Divisional Playoffs – David Woodley/Don Strock vs. Dan Fouts
I think the 1981 playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers is the best playoff game ever. But that’s just me.
The Dolphins were actually led by two quarterbacks at the time, the mediocre David Woodley and Don Strock, one of the best backups in the league. Woodley wasn’t great, throwing for 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but he could run, rushing for 4 touchdowns and over 200 yards on the ground.
San Diego, meanwhile, had stormed through the league with an incredible passing offense known as Air Coryell that netted almost 30 points per game. Their defense, however, was terrible. They gave up 24 points per game, and the pass defense was atrocious, ranking last in the leauge.
In the game, Woodley started for Miami, but completed only 2 for 5 passes for 20 yards and an interception. Predictably, he was pulled for Don Strock, but the Dolphins fell behind 24-0 after just the first quarter. Miami came storming back, however, behind the 403 passing yards and 4 touchdowns of Don Strock. The numbers were also courtesy of San Diego’s horrible pass defense. San Diego’s Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Fouts, threw for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns. The two teams totaled 1,036 total yards, and although Miami launched a furious comeback that tied the game at 38-38 and sent it into OT, Uwe von Schamann had game-winning kicks blocked as regulation time expired and on Miami’s first possession in overtime. San Diego ultimately won the game 41-38 in a game that is now known as “The Epic in Miami”.
3. 2009 Wild Card playoffs – Aaron Rodgers vs. Kurt Warner
In a game that seems more recent than it is, the Packers and Cardinals faced off in the 2009 NFC Wild Card playoffs in “The Toaster” (University of Phoenix Stadium) for an all-time playoff game that featured both career performances and high stakes.
Aaron Rodgers had had a stupendous season for the Packers, and it carried over into the playoffs. Rodgers threw for 423 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading Green Bay to 493 total yards of offense.
Kurt Warner was nearing the end of his career, and much like Joe Ferguson in 1983, this was his last really good game. Warner was aging, and this playoff game was his last hurrah. “Graybeard” threw for 379 yards and 5 touchdowns, throwing only 4 incompletions and racking up 531 total yards of offense for the Cardinals.
The game would feature 13 touchdowns and 1,024 yards of offense, and was a 45-45 tie at the end of regulation time. The Packers had a brilliant opportunity to win the game, but an Aaron Rodgers overthrow to a wide-open receiver cost the Packers the game.
Three plays later, Rodgers was sacked and fumbled the ball, and was forced to watch Karlos Dansby race down the field with it and score for Arizona, winning the game 51-45 for the Cards.
2. 2013 Week 5 – Peyton Manning vs. Tony Romo
The Broncos had the best offense ever in 2013, scoring 606 points and finishing with a 13-3 record that put them in the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Tony Romo had another one of his blundering years, one that wasn’t helped by one of the worst defensive seasons in recent memory. The Cowboys ultimately finished 8-8.
Tony Romo rose to the challenge against Denver, though, passing for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns, a career performance in front of a home crowd that wasn’t helped along by a terrible rushing game, one that the Cowboys only ran for 16 yards.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos, meanwhile, continued their unstoppable offensive onslaught, passing for 414 yards and 4 touchdowns and racking up 517 yards. The two teams combined for 1,039 yards and 96 regulation points.
The two teams went into overtime, and Manning calmly drove the Broncos down the field for a 29-yard Matt Prater field goal that won the game for the Broncos, 51-48.
1. 1986 Week 3 – Ken O’Brien vs. Dan Marino
Ken O’Brien was selected 24th overall by the New York Jets in 1983, 3 spots ahead of Dan Marino, and the New York fans were about to tear the hotel down. O’Brien had a successful career, not compared to Dan Marino, but he always tried to best Marino when they faced off. 1986 was their best shootout.
In the game, O’Brien passed for 479 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Jets piled up 581 total yards, while the then-mulleted Dan Marino threw for 448 yards and 6 touchdowns, the running game only supplying 37 yards. The two teams combined for 1,066 yards and 59 first downs, and the game went into a 45-45 tie at the end of regulation time after a last-second Ken O’Brien touchdown pass.
The Jets got the ball in OT, and O’Brien threw a long rainbow pass to Wesley Walker to win the game for the Jets, 51-45. The loss was emblematic of the late 80’s Dolphin teams, a brilliant offense ruined by consistently crappy defense.
The game featured 13 total touchdowns, and considering the offensive level of the rest of the league, it easily ranks as the best shootout in NFL history.