It’s not over ’til it’s over. Furthermore, when you’re down, you’re not necessarily out. Those are just two of the many sayings that teach us never to quit. And though they hold a lot of value in how people conduct their lives, they also mean a lot in the world of sports. Football, a game of ebbs and flows, relies on momentum.
Finding ways to make big plays is what talented teams do to pull out victories in tough contests that start as dominating performances for opponents. The impossible comeback has become a staple in the National Football League over the past several decades. At the center of many of these classic events are the field generals who took their franchises to places they never thought they’d be. Here are five quarterbacks who staged the greatest comebacks in NFL history.
1. Frank Reich
Back when the Buffalo Bills were relevant — in the early 1990s — quarterback Jim Kelly was the man who led his team to many tough wins. Late in the 1993 NFL season, he got injured right before the playoffs began, leaving backup quarterback Frank Reich to step in as the starter. The Bills faced the Houston Oilers in the wild card round of the AFC playoffs, the same team that injured Kelly and handily beat the Bills the week before, by a score of 27-3.
Many Buffalo fans were pessimistic about their chances to win with Reich as QB. And when the Oilers jumped out to a 32-point lead early in the third quarter, all hope was lost. That is, until Reich brought the Bills all the way back with three second-half touchdown passes, which actually put Buffalo in the lead until Houston took the game to overtime with a field goal. In OT, Steve Christie kicked a 32-yard field goal to give Buffalo a 41–38 win. The Bills would eventually advance all the way to Super Bowl XXVII, where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
2. Jeff Garcia
Quarterback Jeff Garcia, a guy not known for his comebacks, found a way to bring his San Francisco 49ers back from a 24-point third-quarter deficit to beat the New York Giants in the 2003 NFC wild card game. Outspoken wide receiver Terrell Owens chipped in with nine catches, 177 yards, and two TDs. The crucial play of the game was when the Giants botched a 41-yard field goal that would have won the contest. But the Niners came out with a 39-38 win, giving them a victory in a game laced with various twists and turns.
3. Peyton Manning
He’ll go down as one of the greatest QBs in NFL history, but Manning will also be known as a player who knew how to endure tough games and pull out victories. The 2007 AFC Championship game is a great example of his legacy. His Indianapolis Colts took on Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and looked as though they were going to be beaten in a bad way. Manning, who lost to the Pats in two previous meetings in the playoffs, had to overcome a 21-3 deficit.
Putting together two touchdown drives early the second half, he was able to tie the game at 21. Then, after the teams went back and forth in the scoring column, Brady threw a late-game interception that would give the Colts a 38-34 victory. Manning would go on to win his first Super Bowl, against the Chicago Bears. Though this game would seem less impressive compared to other comebacks, the Patriots were one of the most dominant teams of the 2000s, and they had Manning’s number until he was able to pull off this important victory in a playoff atmosphere.
4. Joe Montana
Considered by many to be the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Joe Montana had his share of dramatic wins. One of his early gems was the comeback he engineered against the New Orleans Saints in 1980. It was only his second season in the league, but Montana showed the late-game heroics needed to be an All Pro. Down 35-7 at halftime, Montana led his team on a 28-point run to take the game to overtime. A 36-yard field goal in the extra quarter gave the Niners a huge win. Montana’s stat line was 24-of-36 passing for 285 yards and two touchdown passes.
5. John Elway
In another game that only had a small deficit for the comeback team, it was a dramatic victory that would put Denver Broncos legend John Elway on the map. Down 20-13 to the Cleveland Browns with 5:32 left in the 1987 AFC Championship game, Elway put together a 15-play, 98-yard touchdown drive that sent the game into overtime. It’s still considered by many fans as one of the most clutch performances of all time, partly because it began on the Broncos’ 2-yard line and spanned most of the 100-yard football field. Nowadays, it’s simply known as “the drive” to those in the know.