The National Football League has been around since 1920 and over the last 94 years, there have been some epic single game performances. There are some, however, that are just better than all the rest. It could be because of the number of yards passed for, or rushing yards gained, or touchdowns scored, but these ten performances are just a cut above the rest.
It is always hard to narrow down a list to just ten great games. There are so many more that need to be left off for one reason or another. The Randy Moss game on Thanksgiving 1998 didn’t make this list even though he had three catches that all went for touchdowns. This list involves going above and beyond three touchdown catches. There are many on this list that come from games played over fifty years ago when the NFL was a different league, one that didn't only play on Sundays.
Here are the top ten greatest single performances in NFL history.
10 Bob Shaw (Oct. 2, 1950)
It was a Monday when Shaw put together one of the greatest performances by a wide receiver in NFL history while a member of the Chicago Cardinals. Shaw had eight catches for 165 yards and an NFL record five touchdowns. It didn’t look like Shaw was about to have a huge day from his first half where he had just one of his five touchdown catches from quarterback Jim Hardy. In fact, the Cardinals were trailing the Baltimore Colts 13-7 at halftime. Shaw went off with two TD catches in both the third and fourth quarters as the Cardinals scored 48 points after the half to win 55-13. Shaw’s day will always go down as one of the best ever.
9 Y.A. Tittle (Oct. 28, 1962)
On a windy Sunday afternoon at New York’s Yankee Stadium, Tittle showed why he would be a Hall of Famer with seven touchdown passes and 505 yards passing. Tittle’s New York Giants had just a 20-13 lead on the Washington Redskins at halftime but the second half would belong to the six-foot quarterback from Marshall. After Washington pulled within one, Tittle fired off four straight touchdown passes to put the game away. Three of Tittle’s TD throws went to Joe Walton while Joe Morrison caught two more. 500 passing yards is something seen a lot in today’s game, but 50 years ago it was a rare feat.
8 Jamal Lewis (Sept. 14, 2003)
There are few more dominating rushing performances out there like what Lewis did for the Baltimore Ravens against the Cleveland Browns in 2003. Lewis would finish with a then-NFL record 295 rushing yards on 30 attempts and two touchdowns during a 33-13 Ravens win. Lewis had an 82-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game and already had 180 rushing yards by halftime. After a weak third quarter with just 15 rushing yards, Lewis reeled off 100 more in the fourth to break the record held by Corey Dillon at the time. It is a record that would last just four years however, but Lewis proved on that day that he was truly back from a season-ending injury in 2001.
7 Glyn Milburn (Dec. 10, 1995)
Sometimes there isn’t a lot of love given to punt and kick returners. One of the best ever was Milburn, who on this particular Sunday in Denver put together the greatest all-purpose day in NFL history. Milburn rushed for 131 yards on 18 attempts along with catching five passes for 45 more yards. He wasn’t done though, adding 133 yards on five kick returns and 95 more yards on five punt returns for a total of 404 total yards. Milburn’s Broncos lost 31-27 to the Seattle Seahawks that afternoon but it shouldn’t take anything away from what Milburn did. He was a one-man wrecking crew on that day.
6 Brandon Marshall (Dec. 13, 2009)
On this Sunday afternoon 14 years after Milburn’s big day for the Broncos, another Denver player in Marshall had a game for the ages. Marshall caught 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns as the Broncos fell to the then-undefeated Indianapolis Colts 28-16. Marshall’s day broke Terrell Owens’ record of 20 catches in a game that was set in 2000. The record still stands to this date and Marshall has another game in his portfolio where he caught 18 passes which makes him the only player in NFL history with two games of at least 18 receptions. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton completed 29 passes on that Sunday with Marshall catching 72% of those passes.
5 Norm Van Brocklin (Sept. 28, 1951)
The opening game of the 1951 season came on a Friday in Los Angeles. Van Brocklin made it a point of making it an opener to remember. Van Brocklin passed for a NFL-record 554 yards and five touchdowns as the Los Angeles Rams beat the New York Yanks 54-14. Van Brocklin had three touchdown passes by halftime and three of his receivers in Elroy Hirsch, Tom Fears and Vitamin Smith each had over 100 yards receiving. Van Brocklin completed 27 passes on that day for an average of 20.5 yards per completion. It is a record that will be hard to break even in today’s game and Van Brocklin’s name is likely to stay in the record book for a long time to come.
4 Flipper Anderson (Nov. 26, 1989)
Another Rams player 38 years later had the biggest receiving yards night in NFL history in front of a national television audience. Anderson caught 15 passes for 336 yards to break the NFL record for receiving yards in a game. The one thing that earned this record an asterisk next to it for some is that the game went to overtime with the Rams beating the New Orleans Saints 20-17 at the Superdome. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had 329 receiving yards during a game in 2013 which didn’t go to overtime, but the overtime period allowed Anderson to reach the numbers that he did. There is no way to discount what Willie (Flipper) Anderson did on that Thanksgiving weekend.
3 Adrian Peterson (Nov. 4, 2007)
The talents of Adrian Peterson came out in a big way on this Sunday inside the Metrodome as the running back rushed for 296 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries to break the single game NFL rushing record. It didn’t hurt that Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings beat the San Diego Chargers 35-17 on that afternoon either. Peterson was just eight games into his career when he turned the rushing trick. The single game record had been broken twice in the eight years before Peterson’s achievement and the 296 yards was one more than what Jamal Lewis had done four years earlier. Peterson has done some amazing things during his career but this game was the one that sent him into NFL stardom.
2 Derrick Thomas (Nov. 11, 1990)
This list doesn’t include many defensive players, but there is one that can’t be left out of any list for greatest single game performances. Thomas and his seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks is a defensive record that will never be broken. Seahawks’ quarterback Dave Krieg didn’t have a chance on this afternoon as Thomas time and time again got to him for another sack. While Thomas’ Kansas City Chiefs lost 17-16 on that day, the game that he had will go down in NFL lore forever. It was part of a 20 sack season for Thomas, who made the Hall of Fame in 2009 but never got a chance to speak as he passed away in 2000 at the age of 33.
1 Gale Sayers (Dec. 12, 1965)
There is one game that tops all the single game performances on this list. It is the six-touchdown performance by Gale Sayers on the muddy grass at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Sayers did everything on this day with 113 rushing yards on nine carries for four touchdowns. He added two receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown, and topped it off with a dramatic 85-yard punt return in the fourth quarter for his record sixth touchdown of the day. The Chicago Bears beat the San Francisco 49ers 61-20 on that Sunday and Sayers’ final touchdown came with the Bears already winning 47-20. There will be games where players score multiple touchdowns, but the way Sayers moved through the mud and scored in multiple ways puts him safely at the top of this list.