Steelers fans are a privileged and entitled group. You tell them that something about the team is the best in the history of the NFL, and much like John Mayer in Funny or Die, they don’t even need to know what it is: “That’s enough, I’m sure it’s great.”
I’m normally the same way when it involves my favorite professional football team, but not when it comes to the greatest NFL game with an unofficial name.
I’ve been binge-watching those NFL Network/NFL Films “Top 10” episodes on YouTube recently. In case you don’t know what this show is all about, it takes certain things—greatest coaches, greatest uniforms, greatest rivalries, etc.—and ranks them 10 through one, with one, of course, being the greatest of whatever category they’re ranking.
It’s like my Jeopardy, and I can usually name the best of whichever thing they’re ranking well before the episode is even over. Greatest football family? The Mannings (spoiler alert). Greatest Steeler of all-time? Mean Joe (you better know that if you’re reading this).
Just the other day, I was watching the episode that ranked the greatest NFL games with names. Just to clue you in on the concept, what they were going for was football games that were so epic, they earned unofficial titles. Some examples include the Fog Bowl (a 1988 divisional round playoff game between the Bears and Eagles at Soldier Field in Chicago), The Drive (the 1986 AFC title game between the Broncos and Browns at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium) and the Ice Bowl (the 1967 NFL Championship Game involving the Packers and Cowboys at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field).
When you hear “Fog Bowl,” you not only think about a playoff game that was enveloped in a thick fog in the second half which made visibility damn-near impossible, you remember the fierce rivalry that existed between Bears head coach Mike Ditka and Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan, who was Ditka’s defiant defensive coordinator when Chicago won Super Bowl XX just a few years earlier.
When you revisit The Drive, not only does it bring to mind the incredible 98-and-a-half-yard game-tying touchdown drive orchestrated by Denver quarterback John Elway that sent the AFC title game against the Browns into overtime, you’re reminded that the Dawg Pound had its heart ripped out just when it thought it was about to see its team clinch its first trip to the Super Bowl (something that was a common theme for Browns fans in the 1980s).
And, of course, when you think of the Ice Bowl, it’s not just the minus-13 game-time temperatures that come to mind. It’s the Packers trying desperately to solidify their 1960s dynasty before age caught up to them for good. You think of all of the folks who packed into Lambeau Field and braved perhaps the most brutal weather conditions in the history of the NFL. And, finally, you think of those upstart Cowboys who had their hearts broken by Green Bay in the same game a year earlier and were determined to finally slay the dragon and make it to the Promised Land.
Anyway, as I watched this episode about the greatest games with names, I said to nobody in particular, “It’s the Ice Bowl, mark it down!”
But as the episode neared its climactic ending, I was stunned to discover that the Ice Bowl was second on the list. “Hmmm, that’s odd,” I thought, as I speculated on which game would top the rankings. Considering I hadn’t even seen it mentioned in the “Best of the Rest” post-commercial segments, I figured the Epic in Miami, a 1981 double-overtime divisional round playoff game between the Chargers and Dolphins at the old Orange Bowl, would top the list.
I was wrong.
You know which game with a name topped the list? It was the 1972 divisional round playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders at old Three Rivers Stadium. If you didn’t know—and how could you not?—that contest was decided in the final seconds, when Terry Bradshaw’s fourth-down desperation pass intended for running back Frenchy Fuqua was deflected by someone (we’ll never know who) and wound up in the arms of fellow running back Franco Harris (who may or may not have trapped it), and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m sorry, but how can that game be the greatest one with an unofficial name?
Is the Immaculate Reception the greatest play in the history of the NFL? Absolutely. Is it the greatest nickname for any play in the history of sports? You’ll have a hard time naming one better.
But the game, itself, being the greatest one with an unofficial name? No way.
When you think of that game, what do you think of besides Franco riding in on his white stallion and saving the day? Do you even know that Ken “the Snake” Stabler, the Raiders quarterback, scored a late touchdown that briefly put Oakland in front, 7-6? If you don’t, I don’t blame you. In fact, that very same “Top 10” program has an episode that ranks the most forgotten touchdowns in NFL history, and Stabler’s is on the list.
All we know about that game is that play.
How many times have you seen the Immaculate Reception play? If you’re anything like me, a million. How many times have you watched that divisional round playoff game, or at least the highlights? If you’re anything like me, five... maybe?
I’ve seen The Catch (the 1981 NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Cowboys) dozens of times. As for the Ice Bowl, I’ve watched so many features about that game, I may never again have a girlfriend.
Finally, have you ever called that contest The Immaculate Reception Game? Me either.
My final verdict on The Immaculate Reception Game as the name of that 1972 divisional round playoff match-up between the Steelers and Raiders is not guilty, meaning it’s free to go.
As for the play, itself? It will be in our hearts for life.