The catches were graded on three scores: 1) Degree of difficulty; 2) “Clutch factor”, i.e. how critical to the game’s outcome was the play; and 3) “Rewatchability”—essentially, how easy it is to get lost replaying the moment over and over again.
Every great catch now is measured against what Odell Beckham Jr. pulled off against the Cowboys in Week 12 of the 2014 regular season. There have been other mesmerizing one-handed grabs reminiscent of that Beckham catch—a Jason Avant effort in 2012, Brent Grimes’s gravity-defying interception in 2014, Brandon Lloyd multiple times during his career—but Beckham’s play is generally accepted as the new gold standard.
The only issue: It happened during the regular season. So when, say, Martavis Bryant makes the sort of catch he made in Cincinnati last Saturday night, it requires a different standard to place it in context.
Which brings us to this list of the greatest playoff catches of all time. The catches were graded on three scores: 1) Degree of difficulty; 2) “Clutch factor”, i.e. how critical the play was to the game’s outcome; and 3) “Rewatchability”—essentially, how easy it is to get lost replaying the moment over and over again.
The resulting top 10, plus two:
A huge score on our scale. The only problem: This wasn’t a catch. Or, at least, referee Gene Steratore did not deem it one after taking a second look via replay. Bryant’s reception came on a fourth-and-two, with Dallas trailing the Packers by five late in the final quarter. Had it counted, the Cowboys would have been looking at first-and-goal from the Green Bay 1.
Steratore’s decision handed Green Bay possession, and the NFC North champs ran out the final four minutes. Ironically enough, another Dallas catch under consideration for this list, Butch Johnson’s diving TD in Super Bowl XII, probably would not have counted either under modern rules.
The circumstances of this catch kept it from the top 10—it produced a first down in a playoff game, sure, but the Seahawks failed to score on the drive, and the outcome was decided long after Baldwin’s play occurred. Still ... wow. Baldwin was not in as tough a spot as Beckham, but he still had to turn, elevate and reach as high as he could for the one-handed grab. Oh, and the wind chill wasn’t minus-20 when Beckham made his catch. Did Baldwin even feel the football hit his fingertips?
Remember this one? It’s kind of easy to forget considering what happened next: Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception came two plays and 40 seconds later, swiping a Super Bowl win from the Seahawks. Butler was in coverage here, too, and he managed to get his hand on Russell Wilson’s pass just before it made it to Kearse.
There was more, though. The deflected ball landed on Kearse, who bobbled it and eventually caught it. The play was reminiscent of a Monday Night Football overtime winner by Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman from 2000. Had Kearse made it into the end zone, as Freeman did, this could be up near the top of our list. As is, it’s a footnote to the final result.
9. Lynn Swann, Steelers, Super Bowl X vs. Cowboys
Degree of difficulty: 7.5
Clutch factor: 3
Quite simply, the most iconic catch in Super Bowl history. Swann leaped over top of Cowboys cornerback Mark Washington to make a tumbling, juggling, 53-yard grab. But was it even the game MVP’s best grab that day? Swann also made a spectacular grab along the sideline, elevating over an overmatched Washington again, then tapping both feet inbounds before shielding himself from a hit.
Swann’s more famous grab kept the Steelers from punting from deep in their own territory, but that drive also did not result in any points. His earlier 32-yarder and especially his 64-yard fourth-quarter touchdown made bigger impacts on the outcome.
8. Terrell Owens, 49ers, wild-card round vs. Packers
Degree of difficulty: 6
Clutch factor: 9.5
The throw from Steve Young might have been even better than the catch by T.O. With the 49ers down four with eight seconds left, Young threaded a pass in to Owens, who had uncovered a little space between the Packers' second and third levels. Owens snared it, despite taking hits from both Darren Sharper and Pat Terrell at the goal line. A remarkable ending to a back-and-forth playoff game.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis made a similar play, albeit with less defenders around him, to knock New Orleans from the postseason several years later.
No matter how many times you replay this one, it’s still hard to figure out how Davis came away with the touchdown. The Raiders trailed by five in the final minute of a 1974 playoff game when quarterback Ken Stabler—on first down, no less—fluttered a ball toward the end zone as he was tripped up from behind. There were three Dolphins in the vicinity when the pass came down. The lone Raider, Davis, somehow wrestled the ball into his own grasp, then held on through a fall to the turf. The “Sea of Hands” play sent Oakland to the conference championship.
6. Franco Harris, Steelers, wild-card round vs. Vikings
Degree of difficulty: 2
Clutch factor: 10
Harris’s grab did not have the acrobatic brilliance that others did (see: Martavis Bryant, below). What it did have, though, was both the allure of being both astonishing and controversial. The Steelers’ running back just happened to be in the exact right place at the right time after a collision between Pittsburgh’s Frenchy Fuqua and legendary Oakland defender Jack Tatum. Harris caught Terry Bradshaw’s pass off a ricochet and raced to the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown as time expired.
Should it have counted? From the NFL’s rule book that year (1972): “If a defensive player touches pass first, or simultaneously with or subsequent to its having been touched by only one eligible offensive player, then all offensive players become and remain eligible." Had the pass hit Fuqua, and only Fuqua, Harris’s grab would have been illegal. But since the ball appeared to hit Tatum as well, it was good.
5. Martavis Bryant, Steelers, wild-card round vs. Cincinnati
Degree of difficulty: 10
Clutch factor: 2
Only that Bryant’s catch became overshadowed by the fourth-quarter insanity of this game keeps it from ascending the list higher. In the corner of the end zone, Bryant turned and somehow managed to pin the ball to the back of his thigh as he somersaulted out of bounds. “As far as playoffs, this one’s going to make the all-time list” of best catches, CBS announcer Jim Nantz opined as the replay rolled.
There may still be some debate as to whether or not this actually should have counted. Bryant was ruled to have possessed the ball in time to get both feet down, but it was extremely close to being an incompletion.
4. Dwight Clark, 49ers, NFC championship vs. Cowboys
Degree of difficulty: 4
Clutch factor: 10
If Clark stood 6'2" or 6'3" instead of 6'4", this play probably goes down as an incompletion. With the 49ers trailing Dallas by six in the final minute, QB Joe Montana rolled right under pressure, desperately looking for a receiver in the end zone. He found Clark, who reversed field along the back end line and presented a target. Montana lofted one to him and an outstretched Clark reeled in the now-famous reception.
“As I started back across, [Dallas defensive back] Everson Walls was right beside me, he had me covered,” Clark told the NFL Network years later. “And I remember seeing the ball coming and thinking, ‘Wow, that's pretty high.’ ”
The 49ers won the game, 28–27, then beat Cincinnati in the Super Bowl.
This was just absurd. Manningham’s tip-toeing grab along the sideline launched what would be a game-winning drive for the Giants. How he managed to stay inbounds and hold onto the ball is almost as unfathomable as how Eli Manning dropped this pass in to begin with. Manningham’s catch was a show-stopper but this arguably was the best throw in Super Bowl history.
2. Santonio Holmes, Steelers, Super Bowl XLIII vs. Cardinals
Degree of difficulty: 7.5
Clutch factor: 10
Speaking of great throws ... how did Ben Roethlisberger manage to find Santonio Holmes here? His receiver was tucked behind multiple Cardinals defenders in the back corner as Roethlisberger pumped and then fired, unleashing a pass that at first seemed like it would sail harmlessly out of bounds. Instead, Holmes extended about as far as was humanly possible while still keeping his toes inbounds. Even the hit by Arizona’s Aaron Francisco couldn’t jar the ball loose.
The reception came with 35 seconds left and Pittsburgh held on for a thrilling 27–23 victory.
1. David Tyree, Giants, Super Bowl XLII vs. New England
Degree of difficulty: 8
Clutch factor: 9.5
Huge score in that final category for Tyree’s grab, which might be the most replayed single play in NFL history. You surely know it by now. With the Giants down four and facing a third-and-five, Eli Manning pulled off an inexplicable escape in the pocket—Jarvis Green had him by the back of the jersey—and heaved one deep for Tyree, who had position on Rodney Harrison. Fighting off Harrison’s efforts to swat it away, Tyree pinned the ball against his own helmet and kept it from touching the ground as he bent back toward the turf.