Thousands of touchdown passes have been thrown in NFL history. But only a few—each tossed in the waning seconds of a pressure-cooker playoff game—have earned nicknames that have withstood the test of time. Here are five of the most miraculous NFL touchdown passes of all time:
1. The Immaculate Reception | December 23, 1972
THE STAGE: Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC divisional playoff game, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Entering the game, the Steelers—founded in 1933—had never won a playoff game.
With 22 seconds left, Oakland had a 7-3 lead, and the Steelers had the ball at their 40-yard-line. On fourth down, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, a future Hall of Famer, threw a desperation pass down the middle for running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The ball was on target but so was Oakland safety Jack Tatum, who smashed into Fuqua as the pass arrived.
The ball richocheted seven or eight backward toward Steelers rookie running Franco Harris, a future Hall of Famer, who was running downfield after blocking. Harris caught the ball inches off the ground and, without breaking stride, sprinted into the end zone for the winning 60-yard touchdown. The crowd went crazy.
After a brief review, officials kept the original touchdown call. The play remains controversial—if the ball had hit Fuqua last, the touchdown would have been declared an incomplete pass according to NFL rules at the time. The NFL did not adopt an instant replay review system until 1986.
WHAT THEY SAID AFTERWARD: “I can’t believe it. I saw it and I can’t believe it. When (Harris) scored, my damn brain was gone.”—Steelers guard Bruce Van Dyke, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“If the officials really knew what happened, they’d have called it right away. But first they went into a huddle. That has to mean they didn’t know.”—Raiders coach John Madden.
WHAT WAS WRITTEN: “After 40 endless years of spilling salt and breaking mirrors and walking under ladders, the Steelers were smiled upon by a benevolent fate.”—Pittsburgh Press sportswriter Phil Musick
2. The Sea of Hands | December 21, 1974
THE STAGE: Miami Dolphins-Oakland Raiders divisional playoff game, Oakland (California) Coliseum.
This game was already on the verge of classic status when the Dolphins took a 26-21 lead with two minutes left. Then Raiders quarterback Ken “The Snake” Stabler, a future Hall of Famer, moved his team down the field against the highly ranked defense of the Dolphins, who were only two years removed from their 17-0 season—the only perfect season in NFL history.
Taking the snap from the Dolphins’ 8-yard-line, Stabler looked to his left for receiver Fred Biletnikoff, another future Hall of Famer, in the back of the end zone. With Biletnikoff covered and pressure coming, Stabler took off to his left. Miami defensive lineman Vern Den Herder closed from behind, finally grabbing Stabler and pulling him down.
At the last possible moment, Stabler lofted the ball toward running back Clarence Davis, who was covered by linebackers Larry Ball and Mike Kolen. All three players raised their hands for the ball. When the sea of hands parted in the end zone, Davis pulled in the ball, withstanding a fierce hit from defensive back Charles Babb and a late hit by linebacker Manny Fernandez to give the Raiders a 28-26 win.
The following week, Oakland lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, 24-13.
WHAT THEY SAID AFTERWARD: “I didn’t get all I wanted on that last pass, but I didn’t want it back. … I’m happy as hell it was our turn to win.”—Stabler, according to the Oakland Tribune.
“…the toughest loss I’ve ever suffered as a coach,”—Dolphins coach Don Shula, a future Hall of Famer, told reporters.
WHAT WAS WRITTEN: “Everyone said it would be the Game of the Year, but it turned out to be a game for the ages.”—Oakland Tribune sportswriter Tom LaMarre
3. Hail Mary | December 28, 1975
THE STAGE: Dallas Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings NFC playoff game, Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Minnesota
With 24 seconds left, Minnesota led, 14-10, and the Cowboys had the ball at midfield. Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, a future Hall of Famer, took the snap and waited for Drew Pearson to get far enough downfield. Then he launched a high, arcing pass even though Pearson was well covered by Minnesota’s Nate Wright. Pearson, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021, slowed at the Minnesota 5-yard line and waited for the ball.
With his back to the quarterback, Wright collided with Pearson, who appeared to push him. But interference wasn’t called on either player, and Pearson withstood the collision, caught the ball against his hip and strolled into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
“It was a Hail Mary pass,” Staubach told reporters after Dallas’ 17-14 win. “I just threw it up there as far as I could.” The name stuck.
WHAT THEY SAID AFTERWARD: “The chances on a play like that are slim and none.”—Pearson told reporters.
“I thought I had an interception. I had position. I wasn’t thinking anything else. I felt myself pushed.”—Wright told reporters.
WHAT WAS WRITTEN: “It was a miracle play … a one in a million shot. As it turned out it may have been the biggest shot the Dallas Cowboys have ever fired in a crucial game.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Roger Kaye
4. The Catch | January 10, 1982
THE STAGE: Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game, Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
In waning minutes, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, a future Hall of Famer, directed a drive to the Cowboys’ 6-yard line. On third down with 58 seconds left and his team trailing 27-21, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh called “Change Left Slot—Sprint Right Option,” a play designed for wide receiver Freddie Solomon. But Solomon slipped on the play, forcing Montana to scramble to his right and look for another receiver.
As three Cowboys closed on the quarterback, Clark, the 49ers’ 6-foot-4 wide receiver, sprinted toward the back right corner of the end zone. Montana lofted a high pass that barely cleared defensive back Everson Walls and came down in the hands of the leaping Clark, who landed just in bounds with the winning touchdown.
The Cowboys still had a chance to win, but Dallas quarterback Danny White’s fumble was recovered by the 49ers in the waning seconds.
WHAT THEY SAID AFTERWARD: “I knew it was a high pass, but I didn’t know how high until I saw the replays.”—Clark, who told the San Francisco Examiner the team had run the play in practice.
“This is the worst I’ve ever felt,”—White, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
WHAT WAS WRITTEN: “Hollywood would have rejected this script.”—San Francisco Examiner columnist Art Spander.
5. The Minneapolis Miracle | January 14, 2018
THE STAGE: New Orleans Saints-Minnesota Vikings divisional playoff game, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis
Trailing New Orleans, 24-23, Minnesota was down to its last play from scrimmage from its 39-yard line. With eight seconds left, quarterback Case Keenum took the snap on “Seven Heaven,” a play the team had practiced hundreds of times during training camp.
Keenum threw a dart to wide receiver Stephon Diggs, who was covered by cornerback Marcus Williams. As Diggs made the leaping catch, Williams collided with cornerback Ken Crawley, and Diggs spun and sprinted toward the end zone for the winning score as time expired.
Saints players had to be called from locker room for the mandatory point-after touchdown attempt. Only eight of them were on the field as Keenum knelt to end the game.
WHAT THEY SAID AFTERWARD: “Things like this just don’t happen.”—Diggs told reporters
“I knew the situation. You’ve got to make sure you make the play.”—Williams told reporters.
WHAT WAS WRITTEN: “Do you believe in miracles?”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan