Just like the wild card, the divisional round features four playoff games and is one of the most anticipated weekends in not only the NFL season, but the entire sports calendar.
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The divisional round has entertained NFL fans every season since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Many games are considered NFL classics. The eight playoff teams playing this weekend have a few classics of their own that we would like to share with you.
Here’s a look back at classic playoff games featuring each of the teams playing this weekend:
Having played in 24 divisional-round games, the Steelers have played in many memorable matchups.
No one will ever forget the “Immaculate Reception,” which took place on Dec. 23, 1972, and was the very first divisional round game for the Steelers. In that game, Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and ran into the end zone in the final seconds on a fourth down play to defeat the Raiders.
I had to mention that game because of its significance in Steelers and NFL history, but my top Steelers divisional round memory is one that fans might not think of often.
In 1984, Pittsburgh was coming to an end of their dominant 1970s teams and players that had seen them win four Super Bowls. Gone were Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Mel Blount, Mean Joe Green, Jack Ham and L.C. Greenwood.
That season the Steelers finished with a 9-7 record, just the fourth time they finished with fewer than 10 wins in a full regular season since their dominance started in 1972. However, it was still good enough to win the AFC Central.
In the divisional round, they traveled to Denver to take on the Broncos and second-year quarterback John Elway. The Broncos finished with a 13-3 record and were winners of the AFC West.
Mark Malone started for the Steelers at quarterback, and his mistakes cost Pittsburgh early on. Malone fumbled on each of the Steelers first two possessions, the second of which led to Elway connecting with Jim Wright for a touchdown.
Despite struggling offensively, the Steelers defense was still excellent. They held Denver the rest of the half and took a 10-7 lead as the second quarter ended.
Elway got the Denver offense back on track in the third quarter, leading the Broncos to 10 straight points to take a 17-10 lead. Malone then led the Steelers on a game-tying drive, culminating with a 10-yard touchdown pass to NFL Offensive Rooke of the Year Louis Lipps.
The Steelers defense dominated Elway and the Broncos in the fourth quarter, forcing them to punt on each possession. The Steelers running game came alive in the final minutes of the quarter, as Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie ran through a tired Denver defense, setting Gary Anderson up for a 32-yard field goal. However, the ordinarily reliable Anderson missed, giving Elway and the Broncos the ball back with just under three minutes remaining.
Eric Williams was just in his second season in Pittsburgh after being selected in the sixth round of the 1983 NFL Draft out of North Carolina State. Williams endeared himself to Steelers nation when he intercepted Elway’s pass and ran it back 30 yards to the Broncos 2-yard line. Frank Pollard then pushed his way across the goal line with 1:59 remaining to give the Steelers a lead they would not relinquish.
The Steelers ran for 169 yards in the win while holding Denver to just 51 rushing yards and 250 total yards. The joy in Pittsburgh was short-lived, however, as the next week, the Steelers fell to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins 45-28 in the AFC Championship Game.
Keeping with the Denver Broncos theme, the Jaguars divisional playoff memory goes back to Jan. 4, 1997. Jacksonville was in just their second season in the NFL and had already defeated the Bills in the Wild Card round.
Like the Steelers, the Jaguars were facing a John Elway-led Broncos team that finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and champions of the AFC West. Denver also had a fierce running attack led by Terrell Davis.
After falling behind 12-0, the Jaguars scored 23 consecutive points, thanks to the running of Natrone Means and excellent play from Mark Brunell, to stun the crowd at Mile High Stadium.
Trailing 23-12 in the fourth quarter, Denver cut the lead to 23-20 when Elway led a 61-yard touchdown drive. The Mile High Stadium crowd was ready to intimidate the young Jaguars as they took over hoping to put the game away.
Showing incredible poise, Brunell led the Jaguars down the field and stared at a third and six from the Denver 16 with 3:44 remaining. The third-year quarterback then put the game away with a brilliant lob pass to Jimmy Smith, ending Denver’s hopes of getting Elway back to the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
Everyone who follows the NFL knows precisely the moment when the New England Patriots fortunes changed from mediocre to exceptional. It is easy to forget that the Patriots were once just like everyone else in the NFL. For the first 31 years of their existence since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the Patriots had won only six postseason games. Eleven times the Patriots finished with double-digit losses in a season. There was once a time when the Patriots were mortal.
On Jan. 19, 2002, the Patriots and everything everyone knew, changed. New England hosted the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Round. The Patriots won the AFC East for just the fifth time in team history. For only the second time they finished with the number two seed in the AFC, earning them a first-round bye and home playoff game.
The weather was perfect for football. Snow covered the field, and it kept falling more robust as the game went on, yet it was a comfortable temperature. Fans watching on television felt like they were watching an NFL classic just from the scenery.
While everyone remembers the “Music City Miracle” and the Titans run to Super Bowl 34, Tennessee has a few more postseason memories that their fans cling to.
On Jan. 11, 2002, the Titans hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round. The Titans finished 2002 with an 11-5 record and champions of the newly formed AFC South.
The 2002 AFC Divisional Round matchup was the first time the Titans would be facing the Steelers in the postseason since moving their franchise to Tennessee. While they were the Houston Oilers, they met the Pittsburgh Steelers three times in the postseason and lost all three games.
In one of the craziest, most physical games in NFL playoff history, the Titans suffered injuries to many key players. Eddie George, who led the Titans with 1,165 rushing yards and 12 TD, was lost to a concussion in the first quarter. Quarterback Steve McNair missed two plays in the fourth quarter after having a chunk of skin ripped off the top of his thumb on his throwing hand.
After taking an early 14-0 lead, the Titans allowed 20 straight points by Pittsburgh to fall behind 20-14. The two teams then exchanged fourth-quarter leads before Titans kicker Joe Nedney tied the game with 5:40 remaining. Nedney had a chance to end the game in regulation but missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired.
In overtime, things escalated to complete craziness. After Tennessee won the coin toss, McNair guided the Titans down the field to the Pittsburgh 13-yard line. Nedney was called on to kick the game-winning 26-yard field goal.
Nedney’s first attempt prompted fireworks after it sailed through uprights, but it didn’t count because the Steelers called a timeout. He kicked it again, but missed, only Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington was flagged for running into the kicker. Finally, on his third attempt, Nedney connected, sending the fans at Adelphia Stadium home happy.
Many of the Steelers felt the running into the kicker should not have been called, and pointed to several other calls during the game that went against them, including a 64-yard punt return by Antwaan Randle El that was called back because of a penalty. Nonetheless, the Steelers were heading home, and the Titans were moving on.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, their season ended one game short of the Super Bowl when they lost to the Oakland Raiders, 41-24, in the AFC Championship Game.