On Saturday night, Peyton Manning and the mighty Denver Broncos lost to Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens, and pretty much immediately people were calling it one the biggest chokes in NFL playoff history. But was it?
Sure, the Broncos were the #1 seed in the AFC. Yes they were led by one of the greatest QBs of all time, yes they had home field advantage, and yes they had won 11 games in a row. But the Ravens’ 10-6 record was a little misleading. This is basically the same team that played in the AFC Championship Game last year—and took the Patriots to overtime in that game. So it’s not like this was the 2010 Seahawks or anything.
Thus, while I’m not saying the Broncos didn’t choke—Manning’s OT interception was brutal—I’m not quite ready to make the call on where this one stands among all the others in the history of the NFL. So I thought, today, I’d leave it up to you. Take a look at this list of the other major choke jobs in NFL playoff history, then weigh in. Do the 2012 Broncos belong on the list? And if so, where?
Before we get started, however, let me just preface the list by saying a “choke” comes in many forms. It can be a single player blowing a single, crucial play; it can be a series of crucial errors made by more than one player; or it can be an entire team losing a game everyone on earth thought they should have won. So we’re not really talking about players who simply had bad games, or run-of-the-mill bad plays. Those are way too common. We’re talking about the extraordinary bad games and the extraordinary bad plays.
Got it? Great. Let’s get started.
The 2004 NFC Wild Card Game between the Packers and Seahawks went to overtime and ended on a Matt Hasselbeck pick-six on Seattle's second possession in overtime. That in itself wouldn't be considered choking. It was just an error at an inopportune moment.
However, before overtime began Seattle won the coin toss, then Hasselbeck told the ref, "We want the ball and we're gonna score!" And that is what made his interception an epic playoff choke. The prediction raised the expectations and altered the significance of the outcome.
13. The Prediction
The Chiefs were an NFL-best 13-3 in 1995 and 8-0 at home. Their home game against the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts, therefore, should have been a gimme. Sure, it was frigid that day in Kansas City (try 14 degrees Fahrenheit), making conditions tough to play in. But Indy was a dome team. The Chiefs should have been used to dealing with the elements. They were the best KC team since the 1969 squad that won the Super Bowl.
Nevertheless, on January 7, 1996 the Chiefs lost by a score of 10-7. Ouch.
12. The 1995 Kansas City Chiefs
The John Elway-led Broncos were the #1 seed in the AFC in 1996, having gone 13-3 in the regular season. Everyone thought this might be the year that they finally won the Super Bowl after losing it three times in the late 80s. And first up in the Divisional Playoffs were the Jacksonville Jaguars—a team in only its second year of existence who barely made the playoffs because they won their last 5 games of the season.
The Jags were supposed to be a minor road bump and, sure enough, Denver jumped out to a quick 12-0 lead in the first quarter. But then the Jags came back, and in the process transformed from speed bump to road block. They won the game 30-27, and some feared this might be the 36-year-old Elway's last big-game choke.
Luckily Elway had a few good years left in him, and the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999.
11. The 1996 Denver Broncos
If 49ers wide receiver and punt returner Kyle Williams had made just one bad play against the Giants in last year's NFC Championship Game, he wouldn't have qualified for this list. But he didn't make just one. He made two. And one of those errors—the fumble on a punt return in overtime on his own 24-yard line—cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl.
Of course, it didn't really cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. Not single-handedly, anyway. The rest of them had failed to end the game on their previous two possessions in overtime. Or in regulation, for that matter. But Williams' fumble certainly didn't help. And together with his other fumble, you have to consider this a big-game choke, right?
10. Kyle Williams and the 2011 Niners
The 2012 AFC Championship Game featured a pretty big choke, too. In fact, although Kyle Williams got most of the attention last year, in my book the missed field goal by Billy Cundiff was actually a bigger choke. Why? Because a 32-yard field goal should be pretty much automatic in the NFL. And this 32-yard attempt with only 13 seconds on the clock offered a chance to send the Ravens into overtime against the Patriots. But Cundiff missed wide left. And it wasn't one of those that got caught by some crazy wind. It just missed. Everyone in the stadium and everyone watching at home was sure the game was headed to overtime. Then it didn't.
9. Cundiff and the 2011 Ravens
We move now from a couple of single moment chokes to a whole game choke. The 2005 Indianapolis Colts were a 14-2 offensive juggernaut with a legendary QB in his prime. Anything less than a Super Bowl victory would have been a huge disappointment, and not making it to the AFC Championship Game was simply unthinkable—especially when their opponent was an 11-5 Pittsburgh team with a wet-behind-the-ears second-year quarterback.
But of course the Colts lost, and it was bad. The Steelers jumped all over them in the first quarter, going up 14-0. Then by the end of the third quarter they were up 21-3.
If it weren't such a terrible game by the Colts, this choke job might not make the list. But, well, here it is at #8.
8. The 2005 Indianapolis Colts
The setting: 1988 AFC Championship Game. Denver Broncos (10-4-1) vs. Cleveland Browns (10-5). No, seriously, the Cleveland Browns. John Elway put the Broncos ahead 38-31 with just 4 minutes remaining, but the Browns marched back down the field to Denver's 8-yard line. They look primed to tie the game. But on 2-and-8, Cleveland running back Earnest Byner fumbles on the 2. Broncos recover. Game over. Cleveland never wins another professional football game.
Okay, that last part's not true. But the rest is. They choked on the 2-yard line with the game on the line. Ouch.
7. The Fumble
Some people call the 1993 AFC Wild Card Game between the Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills "The Comeback," but not me. I call it "The Choke."
You see, the 10-6 Oilers were not favored to win against the 11-5 Bills. But after they went up 35-3 at the start of the 3rd quarter they certainly were. I mean, how on earth could Buffalo come back from a 32-point lead?
However, the Bills did come back. Or rather, the Oilers allowed them to come back—you don't just outscore an opponent 35-3 over 28 minutes of a football game without the opponent sucking. The Bills then won the game in overtime on a field goal. Final score 41-38.
6. The Comeback
There aren't many instances where you can say a pro sports team choked simply because they failed to win a championship. I mean, that's a pretty crazy standard—win everything or else you're a terrible disappointment. But in 2007 the New England Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season. And they didn't just win every game—they dominated. Tom Brady broke the single-season TD record by throwing 50 touchdown passes, and the team set the record for points in a season with 589. So anything short of a Super Bowl win was unacceptable.
Then the New York Giants won the NFC Championship Game—not the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys or 13-3 Green Bay Packers, but the 10-6 Giants. So the Pats were 12-point favorites.
Then they lost.
5. The 2007 New England Patriots
The only other Super Bowl "team choke" on this list? That would be the 1968 Baltimore Colts. They were a whopping 18-point favorites over the New York Jets, and the NFC was widely believed to be vastly superior to the AFC. But Joe Namath made his famous promise that the Jets would win, and they did, 16-7.
4. The 1968 Indianapolis Colts
The Vikings went 15-1 in 1998 and place kicker Gary Anderson didn't miss a single field goal attempt...until the NFC Championship Game, that is.
With the score 27-20 in favor of Minnesota in the fourth quarter, the Vikings drove the ball the Falcons' 20-yard line, setting up a 38-yard field goal just before the 2-minute warning. This should have iced the game. However, Anderson missed.
That was okay, though. The Falcons' field position wasn't that great. All the Vikings had to do was prevent a touchdown for 2 minutes. Totally doable.
Of course, they didn't do it. Chris Chandler led the Falcons down the field, where they scored a game-tying touchdown with 49 seconds left. And in overtime, the potent Randy Moss-led Vikings offense failed to score on any of their possessions before Atlanta finally won on a field goal on their fourth possession.
So while Anderson gets most of the attention for this choke, really the whole Vikings team should be blamed. The NFC Championship was theirs for the taking, but it slipped right through their fingers.
3. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings
The 49ers led the Giants in the 2003 NFC Wild Card Game by the score of 39-38 with just 6 seconds left in the game. However, with those 6 seconds left in the game, it was the Giants who had the ball on the 49ers' 20-yard line. All they needed was a 41-yard field goal to win the game. It wasn't an automatic field goal by any means, but a very doable one.
Unfortunately for the Giants and their fans, they didn't even get to try to kick. The snap from New York's Trey Junkin was no good and the game ended on an incomplete downfield pass by the holder.
2. The 2002 New York Giants
Despite his reputation, I didn't set out to put Tony Romo at the #1 spot. I really didn't. But after I looked at all the big playoff chokes in NFL history, this one just jumped out at me.
Of course, the Cowboys weren't really that good in 2006. They went just 9-7. But their opponents in the Wild Card game were the Seahawks, and they were also just 9-7. More importantly, though, the Cowboys had the ball on the last play of the game on Seattle's 2-yard line, down by just one stinking point. All they needed to win the game was a gimme 19-yard field goal. But as you may very well already know, Tony Romo botched the hold, and the Seahawks won 21-20.
Say what you want about Romo, but as a human being you have to feel sorry for him, right? Just look at this picture.