Greatest comebacks in NFL history

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April 9th, 2020

As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." Below are five teams that took that adage to heart and staged some of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.

5. Dec. 7, 1980, New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers

The 0-13 New Orleans Saints thought they had win No. 1 of the season in the bag when they jumped to a 28-point lead in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers.

Second-year 49ers quarterback Joe Montana had a different result in mind, and kicked off the third quarter with a one-yard touchdown run to make the score 35-14.

Montana then completed a 71-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark and a 14-yarder to Freddie Solomon, before Lenvil Elliott ran the ball in to tie the score at 35-all.

The Saints and quarterback Archie Manning couldn’t find an answer to the Niners’ unexpected surge. In overtime, Ray Wersching kicked a 36-yard field goal to send the Saints home with an 0-14 record.

San Francisco’s 28-point come-from-behind win is the largest in NFL regular-season history. It also marked Montana’s first of 26 fourth-quarter comebacks with the 49ers. He accomplished five more with the Kansas City Chiefs.

4. 2013 AFC Wild Card, Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts

In front of his home crowd for the first time in his playoff career, Andrew Luck cracked under pressure early against the Chiefs. After starting off strong with a 10-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton on the Colts’ first drive, the young QB lost his handle of the offense from there.

The Chiefs led 31-10 at halftime, then extended the lead by another touchdown early in the third quarter, following Luck’s second interception of the game. The Colts quarterback didn’t quit, though. He pushed his team down the field and set up Donald Brown for a 10-yard run into the end zone.

Luck then connected with the running back for a three-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 38-24. Indy’s second-year signal-caller tossed one more interception after that drive, and found his stride just before the fourth quarter.

Luck hurled a pair of touchdown passes and recovered a Brown fumble for another score. In six drives, the Colts put up 35 points and squeaked past the Chiefs, 45-44.

Hilton enjoyed a career day as he tallied 13 catches and 224 yards, the third most by a receiver in a playoff game. He also added two touchdowns, including the 64-yard game-winning reception.

This comeback might have been higher on the list had the Colts carried their momentum into the next game, but the New England Patriots pummeled them, 43-22, as Luck completed just 49% of his passes and threw four interceptions.

3. 2019 Divisional Round, Houston Texans vs. Kansas City Chiefs

2019 Super Bowl champion Kansas City put up three come-from-behind victories in the playoffs, but the most mind-boggling one occurred in the Divisional Round.

In a rematch with the Houston Texans, who beat the Chiefs in Week 6, Kansas City came out cold and dug a 21-point hole in the first quarter, alone. On Houston’s first drive, Kenny Stills scored a 54-yard touchdown after the Chiefs defense blew coverage. Then, the Texans blocked a Chiefs punt for another score, and Tyreek Hill fumbled to set Houston up for one more touchdown.

Early in the second quarter, Kansas City faced a 24-point deficit, but 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes knew his loaded offense could defy the odds. The Chiefs outscored the Texans 28-0 in the second quarter and piled on 41 straight points to notch a 51-31 win.

K.C. matched the fourth-largest comeback in playoff history and became the first team to win a postseason game by at least 20 points after trailing by 20. Mahomes slung five touchdown passes, while Travis Kelce and Damien Williams joined the 49ers’ Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters as the only teammates to score three TDs apiece in a playoff game.

The Chiefs' high-flying offense deserves a ton of credit for the feat, but some blame should also be placed on Texans coach Bill O’Brien’s questionable play-calling, which facilitated Houston's undoing.

2. Super Bowl LI, New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons

The 14-2 New England Patriots opened as slight favorites over the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hoped to secure his first Super Bowl title, while Tom Brady looked to put the Deflategate scandal behind him and grab his fifth ring.

Neither team scored in the first quarter, then Atlanta turned it up, with a Devonta Freeman touchdown run, a 19-yard reception by tight end Austin Hooper in the end zone, and an 82-yard interception return by cornerback Robert Alford.

New England finally hit the board on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, which made it 21-3. Then, Tevin Coleman reeled in a six-yard touchdown pass to give Atlanta a 28-3 lead with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter.

Atlanta never scored again. Instead, Brady stepped up and connected with James White for a five-yard touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Gostkowski sank another field goal, Danny Amendola scored a touchdown, then White ran the ball in to tie the score at 28-all and force overtime.

New England won the coin toss, and White sealed the deal with a two-yard run to cap the score at 34-28. The comeback marked the greatest in Super Bowl history. Until then, no team had come back from more than a 10-point deficit to win the championship game.

The Falcons became the first team to lead by 17 or more points at the start of the fourth quarter in a postseason contest and lose. Before that defeat, teams leading by 17 or more points at the start of the fourth quarter in playoff games had gone 133-0, dating back to 1940.  

Brady made his own history as the first quarterback to earn five Super Bowl titles, and he set a Super Bowl record — which he later broke in Super Bowl LII — for passing yards (446). He also tallied a record 62 pass attempts, 43 completions, and he collected his fourth Super Bowl MVP, the most by any player.

1. 1992 AFC Wild Card, Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers

Speaking of 28-3, the Houston Oilers took that lead into the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills in the ’92 AFC Wild Card Game. Quarterback Warren Moon piled up four touchdowns in the first half, and Bubba McDowell ran an interception back to the end zone to hand the Oilers a 32-point lead early in the second half.

The Bills struggled as Frank Reich filled in for injured Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly, but running back Kenneth Davis sparked a scoring streak in the third quarter. Following Davis' one-yard rushing TD, Reich spat off three quick touchdown passes to cut Houston’s lead to four points before the final quarter.

He found Andre Reed for three straight scores, including one in the fourth quarter, which put Buffalo on top, 38-35. Al Del Greco kicked a 26-yard field goal to tie the game (38-38), but Bills kicker Steve Christie played savior, with a 32-yard game-winning field goal in overtime.

To this day, the Bills’ 32-point comeback is the largest in history. The game is often referred to simply as "The Comeback." Though, in Houston, it’s more common to call it "The Choke."

The Bills went on to play in their third straight Super Bowl that year, where they fell to the Dallas Cowboys. The following season, Buffalo would again lose to the Cowboys on football's biggest stage.

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