The playoffs are the most fun part of any NFL season. Football’s most prominent stars shine brightest. The best NFL players are usually the ones with legendary performances and making their mark on the all-time rankings. We saw an incredible slate of examples during the 2022 Wild Card Round. Despite getting sacked nine times, quarterback Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to a last-second victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers on a blocked punt. Matthew Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams held off the Bucs, all but setting Tom Brady’s retirement plans in motion. Then the Bills and the Chiefs posted what might’ve been the wildest two minutes in NFL history.
But sometimes, postseason performances don’t come from where you might expect them. Legendary NFL playoff games can come from players with no business putting up those numbers or any significant numbers. The NBA, MLB and NHL all have these. Still, since football comes down to one game per round instead of an entire series, it’s far more glaring in the NFL playoffs.
These can show up in any round — some of them even happened in the Super Bowl, but they all will make you say, “wait, that guy did what?!” Here are the most incredible random postseason performances in NFL history.
Best NFL Playoff Performances From Unexpected Players
11. Timmy Smith, Super Bowl XXII (1988)
Smith’s game was probably the greatest ever example of a random playoff appearance until this year. Smith was a fifth-round pick in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, and he had only rushed for 126 yards during the regular season. But when starting running back George Rogers went down with injuries after the NFC Championship Game, Smith got the call.
It didn’t begin well. At the start of the second quarter, the Denver Broncos held a 10-0 lead over DC. Then Smith (and the rest of the Washington offense) went bonkers, putting up 35 points in the second quarter alone and ending the game in the first half. Smith set an NFL record of 204 yards rushing with two touchdowns — and somehow didn’t win Super Bowl MVP (we’ll get to why later in this list).
10. Gabriel Davis, AFC Wild Card (2022)
What in the absolute world happened in January of 2022? The Buffalo Bills-Kansas City Chiefs wild card game had the most insane finish in NFL playoff history, but lost in the gunslinging duel between stars Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes was another performance.
Wide receiver Gabriel Davis, a fifth-round pick who’d never even had a 600-yard receiving season, had one of the all-time “what in the world was that?” playoff games. Davis racked up 201 yards receiving on eight catches with four (!) touchdowns, including two in those frantic last two minutes.
9. Ed Podolak, AFC Divisional Round (1971)
Ed Podolak is another person on this list whose team didn’t win, but none of that was his fault. Podolak never had an 800-yard rushing season or a 500-yard receiving one. Yet, somehow he turned into Marshall Faulk in the 1971 Divisional Game between his Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins. Podolak rushed 17 times for 85 yards and a touchdown, caught eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, and 154 kickoff yards on three returns.
His 349 all-purpose yards are an NFL record that might never be broken. A missed field goal in the game’s waning minutes by kicker Jan Stenerud was the only thing that kept him from a shot at a repeat performance.
8. Ike Hilliard, NFC Championship (2000)
In a game that featured future Hall of Fame wide receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter for the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants wideout Ike Hilliard somehow shone the brightest.
Hilliard was a good receiver during his 11-year career. He’d been a first-round pick, but he never had a 1000-yard receiving season, so 10 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns was unexpected in the season’s biggest game.
Moss and Carter, meanwhile, combined for five receptions for 42 yards and no scores.
7. Vernon Perry, AFC Divisional Round (1979)
Defensive back Vernon Perry of the Houston Oilers was 26 when he broke into the league, was 30 when he left it and never made a single Pro Bowl. He might’ve had the most outstanding defensive performance in NFL playoff history despite this.
Facing a Hall of Famer in San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts, Perry tied a single-game NFL record (regular OR postseason) with four interceptions, even throwing in a blocked field goal.
He’s the single reason the Oilers won this game despite missing starting quarterback Dan Pastorini and Hall of Fame starting running back Earl Campbell.
6. Tim Tebow, AFC Wild Card Round (2011)
All of Tim Tebow’s career was overblown hype without the numbers to back it up, but this game was the sole exception. The Denver Broncos quarterback had a true to form game from a percentages standpoint with 10 completions on 21 attempts — but every other number was sparkling. The former Heisman Trophy winner put up 316 yards passing and 50 yards rushing with three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).
This was also the first NFL game played with the revised playoff overtime rules designed to make it so the team which won the coin toss would have a harder go of it.
And it didn’t matter, as Tebow ended the game in one play with an 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas, dashing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes.
5. Doug Williams, Super Bowl XXII (1988)
It might seem weird that two of the entries on this list occurred during the same game — let alone on the same offense — but Super Bowl XII was strange. Doug Williams wasn’t exactly a no-name player — he did throw for 3000 yards twice as the starter for the Team That Invented Losing-Era Tampa Bay Buccaneers — but he was one of the biggest underdog QBs in Super Bowl history in a matchup against a future Hall of Famer in John Elway.
The first quarter went pretty much as you might expect. Then, apparently, the universe turned itself upside down, and Doug Williams turned (for one quarter at least) into Joe Montana. In the second quarter alone, he went 9-11 for 228 yards and four TDs, ultimately finishing with what was at the time a Super-Bowl record 340 yards.
It remains the most inexplicable game in Super Bowl history, one where the second half might as well not have even been played.
4. Lamar Smith, AFC Wild Card Round (2000)
The Miami Dolphins have had a lot of excellent running backs during their history, so who has the most rushing yards in a postseason game for the team? Is it Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, Ricky Williams or Ronnie Brown? Nope. It’s Lamar Smith, with only one career 1000-yard rushing season — although, to be fair, it was the season that culminated in this playoff game.
Still, Smith’s performance stands out. Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler threw for 185 yards. Opposing quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts threw for 194 yards. Smith, meanwhile, rushed for 209 yards, ultimately winning the game in overtime on a 17-yard touchdown run.
3. Desmond Howard, Super Bowl XXXI (1997)
It takes a lot for a player to make this list and win Super Bowl MVP despite not playing a single snap on either offense or defense. Still, Desmond Howard’s performance for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI qualifies.
Sure, Howard was the best returner in the league in 1996 — but he was a return man. How much damage could he have really done? 244 yards of it between punt and kick returns, it turns out. Of particular note was Howard’s 99-yard touchdown kick return immediately after New England had pulled within six points.
2. A.J. Duhe, AFC Championship (1982)
A.J. Duhe was somehow both the least and most likely player to wind up on this list. Alone among players here, the Miami Dolphins outside linebacker did make a Pro Bowl during a career in which he had three seven-sack seasons. You would think that would disqualify him, except that as NBC’s Dick Enberg said during the broadcast: “It’s hard to believe A.J. Duhe in six years in the NFL has only two interceptions. He has three today.”
He was the single reason the Dolphins beat the New York Jets in this game — and considering that lone Pro Bowl came two years after this game, I’m going to say this counts.
1. Frank Reich, AFC Wild Card Round (1992)
If you’re looking for the most fantastic NFL game ever played, you might not be able to do better than the 1992 AFC Wild Card Game between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers.
The future Hall of Famer Warren Moon and the high-flying Oilers offense are on one side. On the other: a backup quarterback who’d never started a postseason game.
Frank Reich may be the coach of the Indianapolis Colts now. Still, in 1992, he was a complete no-name forced into starting duties by an injury to future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Reich played like it; early in the third quarter, the Bills trailed the Oilers 35-3.
The second half was a different story. In what became known as “The Comeback,” Reich overcame a more enormous deficit than New England quarterback Tom Brady’s legendary 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
The Bills rattled off 35 straight points, 28 of them alone in a 6:52 span in the third quarter, then won the game in overtime as NBC play-by-play commentator Charlie Jones lost his absolute mind. All told, Reich put up 289 yards and four touchdowns.