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Ranking the top 10 NFL games of the 21st century; will Bucs-Patriots Week 4 tilt eventually make this list?

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The 21st century of pro football started with a bang. On the final play of the first Super Bowl in the new millennium, Titans quarterback Steve McNair, with his team trailing by a touchdown, completed a slant pass to Kevin Dyson. As Dyson caught the pass, it appeared for an instant that fans were about to witness the first overtime in the 34-year history of the Super Bowl

The Rams-Titans Super Bowl clash is part of our list of the top 10 NFL games that have been played during the 21st century. This list could change quickly, however, as there are several promising games on the 2021 schedule. One of those games is the Buccaneers‘ Week 4 matchup in New England, as Tom Brady will face Bill Belichick and his former team for the first time. 

Honorable mention: 2009 NFC Championship Game

The Saints‘ epic overtime win over the Vikings didn’t make the cut, but that doesn’t take away from its place as one of the greatest games played over the last 20-plus years. In a classic duel between quarterbacks Brett Favre and Drew Brees, it was an interception by Favre late in regulation that opened the door for the Saints’ 31-28 victory. New Orleans then went on to defeat Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. 

10. Hollywood shootout

Patrick Mahomes‘ breakout season included being part of the highest-scoring game in “Monday Night Football” history. In Week 11 of the 2018 season, Mahomes threw for 478 and six touchdowns (while also tossing three interceptions) in leading the Chiefs to 51 points. Unfortunately for Mahomes, then-Rams quarterback Jared Goff led the Rams to 54 points while throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. 

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Ahead 40-30 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Rams withstood three Kansas City touchdowns that included Mahomes’ 73-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill. Los Angeles countered with two touchdown passes from Goff to tight end Gerald Everett, with their second connection giving the Rams the lead for good with 1:49 left. Along with their combined 105 points, the Rams and Chiefs also combined to tally 56 first downs and 1,001 total yards. The Rams went on that season to advance to Super Bowl LIII, while Mahomes captured league MVP honors. 

9. The ‘Tuck Rule’ game

This classic game isn’t solely remembered for the controversial call that aided the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run. With his team trailing 13-10 with 1:50 left, Brady appeared to fumble after getting blindsided by Charles Woodson, his former college teammate at Michigan. But upon further review, the official ruled that Brady’s arm had extended far enough to warrant a passing motion, thus initial call on the field was overturned. Given new life, Brady moved he Patriots into field-goal range, where Adam Vinatieri forced overtime on a 45-yarder. 

In a game that was played in blizzard-like conditions, the Patriots patiently drove from their own 34 to the Raiders 5-yard line on the first possession of overtime. From there, Vinatieri made his fourth field goal of the game — this one a 23-yarder — to win the last game ever played at Foxboro Stadium. It was the final game on the Raiders sideline for Jon Gruden until his return in 2018. 

8. GOAT beats (baby) GOAT 

While it took a while to get going, the first-ever showdown between Mahomes and Brady lived up to the hype. After being held to just one score through three quarters of the 2018 AFC Championship Game, Mahomes led Kansas City on four fourth-quarter scoring drives. The Chiefs appeared to sew up a 28-24 win after Charvarius Ward picked off Brady with 1:01 left. But after an offsides penalty wiped out the pick, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for 25 yards to set up Rex Burkhead’s go-ahead score with 39 seconds left. 

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Despite Mahomes’ late magic to force overtime, everyone seemed to know what was coming. The Patriots won the toss, and Brady methodically dissected Kansas City’s defense before hitting Gronkowski for 15 yards on a crucial third-and-10. Burkhead then finished off the Chiefs with a game-wining, 2-yard TD that put the Patriots in their third consecutive Super Bowl. The Patriots would go on to win their sixth and final Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era. Mahomes and the Chiefs would get their own ring one year later in Super Bowl LIV. 

7. Peyton’s revenge 

For all his greatness, Peyton Manning was dangerously close to entering “greatest quarterback to never win a Super Bowl” territory as he entered his eighth season in Indianapolis. And after losing the two previous playoff games to the Patriots, Manning found himself down 21-3 to New England in the ’06 AFC Championship Game following Asante Samuel’s pick-six. The Colts didn’t panic, however, as Manning led Indy on three consecutive scoring drives that included his touchdown pass to former Patriots defensive tackle Dan Klecko. 

Trailing 34-31 with just over three minutes left, Manning led the Colts on an 80-yard drive that was capped off by rookie Joseph Addai’s 3-yard score. And while Manning completed several big passes on the drive, his biggest was a 32-yard completion to seldom-used tight end Bryan Fletcher, who pleaded with Manning to look his way several times before their big connection. 

With Manning (literally) praying on the Colts sideline, the Indianapolis defense answered his prayers when Marlin Jackson picked off Brady with 24 seconds left. The Colts did something no other AFC team had been able to do to that point: beat a Brady-led team in a championship game. Indianapolis followed up its epic win by defeating the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. 

6. Beast Mode?

There are mixed feelings about the Patriots‘ 28-24 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Some argue that a truly great game doesn’t end on a bonehead play-call that costs a team a championship. Others don’t subscribe to that logic, including CBS Sports Senior Writer and Pick Six podcast host Will Brinson, who has this game atop his list of Super Bow classics. 

Seattle, the defending champion, had the Patriots on the ropes entering the fourth quarter. But Brady, as he has done countless times over his career, led his team from the jaws of defeat to the thrill of victory. Down by 10 points, a pair of Brady touchdown passes gave the Patriots a four-point lead with 2:02 left. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson responded with a jaw-dropping, 33-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse that saw Kearse deflect the ball in the air before he pulled it in just yards away from the end zone. But to the shock of everyone, Pete Carroll called for a pass on second-and-goal from the Patriots’ 1. Instead of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 102 yards and a score on 24 carries, Wilson’s pass attempt for Ricardo Lockette was picked off by Malcolm Butler, sealing the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl win during the Brady-Belichick era. 

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5. Silence of the Rams 

Despite boasting the NFL‘s “Greatest Show on Turf,” the Rams’ impending dynasty never materialized. Dick Vermeil’s abrupt retirement was one reason why, but the main reason why the Rams didn’t become a dynasty was because of an up-and-coming dynasty that resided in Foxborough.

While no one knew it at the time, Super Bowl XXXVI was the start of the longest sustained run of excellence by an NFL franchise. A 14-point underdog, the Patriots took a shocking 14-3 lead into halftime following a pick-six by Ty Law and Brady’s first-ever Super Bowl touchdown. The lead swelled to 17-3 before Kurt Warner and the Rams offense finally broke through, scoring two late touchdowns to tie the score with 1:30 left. 

Instead of playing for overtime, the Patriots went for the win. After three short completions, Brady’s 23-yard completion to Troy Brown on a crossing route got the Patriots deep inside Rams territory. Another short completion set the stage for Vinatieri, who drilled his 48-yard field-goal attempt as time expired. 

4. One yard short

We alluded to this classic game in our intro, and it comes in at No. 6 on our list. Throughout the ’99 season, the two dominant narratives were the Rams’ meteoric rise with former arena league quarterback Warner and (to a significantly lesser degree) the Titans’ quick rise up the AFC food chain behind McNair, running back Eddie George and rookie pass rusher Jevon “The Freak” Kearse. 

It seemed fitting that those two teams would face each other in Super Bowl XXXIV. But as is often the case with championship games, it took a while for this game to get going. The Rams led 9-0 at halftime, and extended their lead to 16-0 on a Warner touchdown pass to rookie Torry Holt. With the game threatening to get out of hand, the Titans turned to McNair and George, who spearheaded Tennessee’s comeback. After two George touchdown runs, kicker Al Del Greco’s 43-yard field goal tied the score with 2:12 left. 

The score remained tied for 18 seconds. One the first play of their ensuing possession, the Rams took the lead when Warner, despite heavy pressure from Kearse, lofted a deep pass that was pulled in by Isaac Bruce, who then raced past the Titans secondary for a 73-yard score. McNair, who set a still-standing Super Bowl record for rushing yards by a quarterback (64 on just eight carries), willed the Titans to the Rams’ 10-yard line with five seconds left. On the final play of regulation, McNair hit Dyson on a crossing route on the Rams’ 5-yard line. As Dyson was pulling in McNair’s pass, Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who started the play shadowing tight end Frank Wycheck, turned his head back at the last second. Jones quickly lunged at Dyson, who stretched the ball (with his right and left arm) to the goal line. Jones, however, was able to get Dyson on the ground before the ball hit the goal line, securing the Rams’ first and last Super Bowl victory. 

3. ‘Sixburgh’

Determined to play better than he had in his first Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger did his part in helping the Steelers build a 23-7 fourth quarter lead over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Big Ben and the Steelers were also aided by James Harrison’s remarkable 100-yard interception return on the final play of the first half. 

While they had largely dominated the Cardinals offense for three quarters, the Steelers defense fell victim to two Warner to Larry Fitzgerald touchdown passes in the game’s final stanza. The second connection, a 64-yard strike through the teeth of the Steelers defense, gave Arizona a 23-20 lead with 2:37 left. 

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Pinned at his own 10-yard line, Roethlisberger evaded the Cardinals pass rush before hitting receiver Santonio Holmes for a key 14-yard gain. Several plays later, Holmes’ 40-yard catch-and-run set the stage for one of the greatest catches in NFL history. With 42 seconds left, Holmes skied to the air to pull down Roethlisberger’s pass in the back corner of the end zone. Holmes, who won the game’s MVP award, also managed to keep both feet in bounds while giving the Steelers a 27-23 lead. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s forced fumble of Warner moments later sealed the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl victory. 

2. 28-3

No team had ever come back from a deficit larger than 10 points in the Super Bowl’s first 50 editions. In Super Bowl LI, the Patriots — somehow — managed to overcome a 25-point deficit en route to their fifth Super Bowl win of the Brady-Belichick era. In the process, the Patriots also laid claim to the first overtime victory in Super Bowl history.

While two scores had cut its deficit to 28-12, the comeback truly started with Dont’a Hightower’s strip-sack of Matt Ryan with 8:31 left. The Patriots scored to make it a one-possession game less then three minutes later. After a Falcons punt and a ridiculous catch by Julian Edelman, the Patriots forced overtime on James White’s touchdown and Danny Amendola’s two-point conversion catch. 

The Super Bowl’s first overtime period lasted less than five minutes. With the Falcons defense reeling, Brady put them out of their misery with four completions that set up White’s game-winning score. Along with helping his team complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, Brady was awarded his record fourth Super Bowl MVP award following New England’s 34-28 triumph. 

1. 18-1

Brady recently said he would gladly give away two of his Super Bowl rings in exchange for the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl XLI. Along with the prospect of watching a team try to join the ’72 Dolphins as the NFL’s only undefeated teams, the Patriots went up against a Giants team that needed to win three road playoff games just to reach the Super Bowl. 

A 12-point underdog, the Giants’ formidable pass rush allowed them to hold Brady and the Patriots’ explosive offense to just one score for the game’s first 57 minutes. But after Brady hit Randy Moss for a 6-yard score (giving the Patriots a 14-10 lead), Giants quarterback Eli Manning responded when he completed the most bazaar pass in Super Bowl history. After nearly getting sacked, Manning threw 50-50 pass downfield to David Tyree, a little-known receiver who caught the Giants’ first touchdown of the game. Guarded intently by veteran safety Rodney Harrison, Tyree managed to corral Manning’s pass and sticking it to the side of his helmet. The improbable 32-yard completion set up  Manning’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. 

In a game that was dominated by defense, it was fitting that the Giants defense put its stamp on the game by forcing a turnover on the Patriots’ final possession. With their 17-14 victory, the Giants pulled off the NFL’s greatest upset since the Jets‘ 16-7 win over the Colts in Super Bowl III. In the process, they denied the ’07 Patriots of having the distinction of being the NFL’s only 19-0 team. 


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