What is it about a touchdown that causes overgrown defensive ends to breakout in theatrical dance moves and suburban alpha males to openly embrace their equally-uncomfortable-with-physical-contact friends? Is it the thrill of victory? The impossibility of the conquest? The adrenaline of the moment? In truth, it’s all of these things and the 10 touchdowns on this list exemplify these qualities better than any plays in NFL history.
10. Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns — January 11, 1987
The touchdown itself was probably not worthy of a highlight reel — Broncos QB John Elway simply tossed a five-yard pass to Mark Jackson. It’s the drive itself that earns this play a spot on this list. Trailing by seven with a little over five minutes left on the clock, the unflappable Elway led his team downfield over the course of 15 plays. Hammering the Browns defense, the hall of fame quarterback and his Broncos refused to go to a fourth down even once on what is now known as “The Drive” before triumphantly ending up in the Browns' endzone. The game did not end on this play, but Denver did take the victory in overtime.
9. New Orleans Saints vs. Jacksonville Jaguars — December 21, 2003
As is the case with many of the great plays on this list, the New Orleans Saints were in need of a miracle. Losing by seven with six seconds on the clock, the squad was on their own 25-yard line with few options left. Hoping for something to happen, QB Aaron Brooks tossed the ball 40-yards downfield to Donte Stallworth who then threw a lateral to Michael Lewis who when tossed it to Deuce McAllister who then flicked it to Jerome Pathon who ran 21 yards for an unbelievable touchdown. Still, in spite of all the ensuing theatrics, the Saints actually lost the game after a botched extra point kick.
8. Miami Dolphins vs. New York Jets — November 17, 1994
Dan Marino was a confident quarterback and a strong team leader, but that didn’t stop the Miami Dolphin from being cunning. Down 24-21 to the New York Jets in November of 1994, Marino was at the Jets’ 8-yard line with 22 seconds on the clock and no timeouts left. With the pressure on, the QB shouted “Clock! Clock!” from behind his offensive line and made a motion as though he was about to spike the ball — a move which would’ve stopped the clock and set the Dolphins up for a possible field goal. The Jets defense, thinking Marino was going to abandon the play, fell out of position. Instead, the hall of famer dropped back and threw a beautiful pass to Mark Ingram for the touchdown and the win.
7. Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants — November 19, 1978
The interesting thing about a list of “great” touchdowns is that to some fans these plays represent their team’s worst moments. Such is the case with this 1978 debacle. Ahead of the Eagles 17-12 with possession of the ball and only seconds to go in the game, the Giants could have easily run out the clock and secured the victory. Instead — in what many fans have dubbed the worst coaching decision of all time — they ran a handoff play, which fullback Larry Csonka botched. With the ball loose, Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards snatched it and ran it in for a shocking game winning touchdown. To many, the moment became known as “The Miracle at the Meadowlands,” but to Giants fans it’s simply “The Fumble.”
6. Tennessee Titans vs. Buffalo Bills — January 8, 2000
A classic nail biter, the Tennessee Titans were down 16-15 to the Buffalo Bills with only 16 seconds left to play in this 2000 “wild card” playoff game. Receiving the kickoff, Titan Lorenzo Neal handed the ball off to tight end Frank Wychek who then threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson. With the seconds ticking away, Dyson ran the ball 75 yards downfield, through the Bills line, scoring a touchdown that was so incredible it earned the nickname “The Music City Miracle.” It was a spectacular play, but it was no fluke — the Titans coaching staff actually designed the run and performed it regularly during practice.
5. Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings — December 28, 1975
The play that gave birth to the term “Hail Mary” for a long, hope-it-finds-a-receiver’s-hands bomb, the frantic pass that Dallas QB Roger Staubach threw in the closing moments of the Cowboys 1975 divisional playoff game against Minnesota required an act of God. Down 14-10 with 24 seconds remaining, the legendary Quarterback reportedly closed his eyes, said a Hail Mary to himself and desperately launched the ball downfield to Nate Wright. The cornerback nearly dropped the pass, but somehow — perhaps divine intervention — held on for the winning touchdown.
4. Miami Dolphins vs. Oakland Raiders — December 21, 1974
A classic game in the eyes of most NFL fans, the 1974 AFC Playoff showdown between the dominant Miami Dolphins and the hardscrabble Oakland Raiders was tense, brutal and exciting down to the final seconds. Trailing 21 to 26 in the final quarter, Raiders QB Kenny Stabler began a long march downfield to the Miami endzone. They used all their timeouts in the process and finally fought their way to first-and-goal, but the touchdown wasn’t going to be easy. “The Snake,” cool as always, rocketed the ball into a mess of Dolphins defenders — in what has now become known as “The Sea of Hands”— where running back Clarence Davis had positioned himself. Launching himself over three defenders, Davis snagged the ball and held onto it for an amazing, game winning reception.
3. Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers — December 31, 1967
Famously known as “The Ice Bowl,” the 1967 NFL Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers was played in absolutely brutal conditions. With the temperature hitting a reported -44 degrees with the wind-chill and the turf slick with ice, the Packers reached third-and-goal with 16 seconds to play. Down by 3, QB Bart Starr took it upon himself to win the game, electing to run the ball on the treacherous field — a play the Cowboys would never expect. Moving in tandem with center Ken Bowman, Starr famously blasted through Cowboys defensive tackle Jethro Pugh and crossed the goal line, bringing his team a championship win in dramatic fashion.
2. San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys — January 10, 1982
Out of all the receptions in NFL history, this is the one that is known as “The Catch.” In a familiar make-or-break moment, the 49ers were down by 6 with less than a minute to go in their 1982 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys. After driving his squad 89 yards down field, quarterback Joe Montana was having difficulty getting a pass off — especially with the 6-foot-9 Ed “Too Tall” Jones in his face. Desperate, Montana launched an overarching bomb that looked destined for the cheap seats. Instead, receiver Dwight Clark leapt into the air and pulled the pigskin out of the sky with his fingertips. San Francisco won the game and went on to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders — December 23, 1972
A touchdown so spectacular that its nickname referenced the birth of Jesus Christ, “The Immaculate Reception” was such an impossible feat that it has been called the greatest AND the most controversial play in the history of the NFL by the organization itself. Down by a point on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds to play and no times outs, the Steelers needed a miracle — and they got one. Pressured by the Oakland defense, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a bomb downfield, which John "Frenchy" Fuqua barely caught before Raider Jack Tatum nailed him, sending Fuqua and the ball flying through the air. But before the pigskin could hit the turf, it was snagged, astoundingly, by fullback Franco Harris who ran it in for the game winning touchdown. Raiders fans still question the legitimacy of Fuqua’s initial catch, but Steelers fans have erected a monument to Harris’ reception in their airport.