With the 2015 NFL season officially behind us, we take a moment to look back on the most exciting games of the year. From Aaron Rodgers’s Hail Mary, to Bill Belichick’s coin toss decision, to Aaron Rodgers’s other Hail Mary, these are the ten best games of the season.
The Lombardi Trophy is safely in the hands of the Denver Broncos, which means the 2015-16 NFL season is officially behind us. But before we start making bold predictions and proclamations about 2016, let's stop and look back at some of this past season's most exciting moments. From Aaron Rodgers's Hail Mary to Bill Belichick's coin toss decision to Aaron Rodgers's other Hail Mary, these were the ten best games of the season, listed in order of the most recent.
AFC Championship Game: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
We were all fools for thinking the 17th (and final?) meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would somehow fail to live up to the billing. The NFL abides a lot of bad football, but its crown jewel quarterback duel wasn’t going to wilt under the spotlight of over 50 million viewers just because of a meaningless thing like logic. Manning threw two touchdown passes in a throwback to the old days, and Rob Gronkowski was just unstoppable enough down the stretch to nearly salvage a frantic day for Brady in the face of Denver’s relentless rush and a hostile crowd. No Manning-Brady Bowl has been decided by a slimmer margin. —Eric Single
NFC divisional round: Cardinals 26, Packers 20 (OT)
Can you think of a five minute span in football that compares to the ending we saw in the Packers-Cardinals NFC divisional round matchup? From the fourth-and-20 completion that led to the Packers’ Hail Mary—both to Jeff Janis—to the coin that didn’t flip and Larry Fitzgerald’s incredible 75-yard reception which led to his shovel-pass game-winning touchdown, this game simply had the most mindblowing end of any matchup this season. And the cherry on top was that beloved veteran Fitzgerald emerged as Arizona’s hero that night. —Bette Marston
Week 16: Jets 26, Patriots 20 (OT)
Blowing a 14-point second-half lead to a Patriots team with little (but not nothing) to play for may have been a little too on the nose even for Jets fans, a group well-versed in the poetic ways a season can crumble before their eyes. But then Bill Belichick stunned everyone with his decision to kick after winning the overtime coin toss, and Ryan Fitzpatrick made him pay by turning first to Quincy Enunwa and then to Eric Decker to lock up a win that put the Jets in the driver’s seat for a wild-card spot. —ES
Week 16: Falcons 20, Panthers 13
As they built their 14–0 start to the regular season, the Panthers were so consistent that it wasn’t hard to separate the “difficult” games from the “easy” ones. A three-game stretch against the Titans, Redskins and Cowboys? Easy ones (average margin of victory: 21.3). Road trips to New Orleans and New York? Difficult ones (a pair of three-point wins in heart-stopping shootouts). Two weeks after throttling the Falcons 38–0 at home, Carolina seemed ready to follow script in Cam Newton’s return to his hometown. But the faintest of playoff hopes, a defense with answers for Newton’s transcendent talent and the league’s leading receiver combined to help Atlanta deal the season’s last remaining perfect team its first loss.
Julio Jones victimized the Carolina secondary and turned in the best game of his ridiculous season: nine catches on 11 targets for 178 yards and one memorable touchdown. The way he skied to pluck a jump ball away from a flailing Luke Kuechly to put the Falcons ahead for good in the third quarter with a 70-yard score drove home this truth: Jones is one of the difficult ones. —ES
Week 15: Panthers 38, Giants 35
Sure, the (then) 6–7 Giants nearly came back to hand the (then) undefeated Panthers their first loss, but this game will undoubtedly be remembered for the drama surrounding Odell Beckham Jr.’s meltdown of epic proportions. Beckham suffered several early drops, and the constant spats with CB Josh Norman made him lose all remaining composure. Beckham earned three personal-foul flags, and many thought that then-Giants coach Tom Coughlin should have pulled the star wide receiver, especially since he was ineffective throughout most of the game—which, nearly through the third quarter, New York trailed 35–7.
We all remember what happened next. The Giants reeled off four touchdowns to level the game at 35 (of course, OBJ pulled in the tying touchdown), putting the Panthers’ then-undefeated streak at risk. But a Graham Gano field goal as time expired allowed Carolina to remain perfect. Once again, New York let a win slip through its fingers. And for his recklessness, Beckham was suspended for the Giants’ following game. —BM
Week 13: Packers 27, Lions 23
Green Bay was desperate. They were about to suffer their fifth loss in six games—on national television, at that—to their divisional rival Lions, which would seriously damage their playoff hopes. Detroit had leapt out to a 20–0 lead, but some quick Green Bay drives brought the score to 23–20. The game seemed over when the Packers got the ball on their own 21-yard line with 23 seconds to go, and as the clock hit 0:00, Aaron Rodgers was sacked. But a facemask call against the Lions gave Green Bay an untimed down, and what happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Rodgers avoided a near-sack and hurled a 61-yard bomb downfield, where tight end Richard Rodgers stepped right into the ball’s path to catch the game-winning touchdown. There’s no doubt that the longest Hail Mary touchdown pass in NFL history—later voted the NFL’s play of the year—is responsible for keeping the Packers’ season alive. —BM
Week 10: Cardinals 39, Seahawks 32
This game gets high marks for its seesaw momentum shifts—both teams enjoyed separate runs of 19 unanswered points lasting fewer than 10 minutes of game time. It also gets high marks for the way neither side of the marquee matchup backed down: The Seahawks’ defense kept forcing Carson Palmer turnovers over at key times, and Carson Palmer kept slinging the ball around the field. It gets high marks for the deciding touchdown coming on a draw play, of all things. But more than anything, this game makes the list because of Drew Stanton’s endearingly goofy sideline celebration, which provided the runaway NFL Vine of the Year and the purest expression of joy we could have ever hoped to glimpse in the corner of the screen as Andre Ellington tightroped to pay dirt. —ES
Week 8: Saints 52, Giants 49
The jaw-dropping, record-breaking statistics in this shootout were plenty enough to earn it a spot on this list. The quarterbacks combined for 850 passing yards and a league-record 13 touchdown passes—Brees threw for 505 yards and seven TDs (tying an NFL record) and Eli Manning threw for 350 yards and six TDs. The teams earned a combined 64 first downs, and punted only six times. But what made this game all the more surprising was that both teams got off to lackluster starts to the season and were hindered by injuries and general lack of skill. Watching the offensive explosion here revived hope for both clubs. —BM
Week 7: Redskins 31, Bucs 30
“You like that?!” Yeah, we like this game, too. Tampa Bay cruised out to a 24–0 lead, but Redskins QB Kirk Cousins decided that enough was enough, and he took matters into his own hands. In the second half, he completed 21 of 25 passes and three touchdowns to steal the game from underneath the floundering Bucs. Cousins's 33 total completions and his 124.7 passer rating were both a career-high. Looking back, this game served as a turnaround point for Cousins and the Redskins. After that 24-point comeback, the biggest in team history, he carried his team to a 6–4 record after their bye, which was enough to secure the NFC East title. —BM
Week 5: Bengals 27, Seahawks 24 (OT)
Week 5’s slate of games was so weak that this matchup of the undefeated but untested Bengals and the staggering Seahawks needed to carry the entire early window of Sunday’s action, and somehow, it did. These teams even punted three times in overtime so that as many regional audiences as possible could be redirected to Paul Brown Stadium. Andy Dalton led the Bengals back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter, mixing in an ungainly five-yard quarterback sneak too beautiful for description that cut the lead to three. Along the way, Seattle rookie running back Thomas Rawls (169 yards, one touchdown) and Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert (eight catches, 90 yards, two touchdowns) sent the message that they were not weapons to be trifled with. —ES