Ram tough: Jim Benton tops them all

Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams caught 10 passes for 303 yards against the Detroit Lions in 1945. Cleveland won the NFL title that season. Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame

Three Super Bowl rings. Numerous individual records. Jerry Rice has many claims to fame. Is the greatest regular-season receiving performance in NFL history one of them?

After sifting through the seasons, we came up with a top-5 list. We rated each performance on a 10-point scale in four categories: importance of game, quality of opponent, impact of performance and miscellaneous factors.

(For a detailed explanation of our criteria, click here. )

And the top performance belongs to ... Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams?

Here are our top five:

Passing | Rushing

No. 1: JIM BENTON, Cleveland Rams | 10 catches, 303 yards

Nov. 22, 1945, vs. Detroit Lions

The NFL in the mid-1940s was much different from today's game. There was a 10-game season and two five-team divisions, and the teams that finished with the best record in each division played in the NFL Championship Game.

The Rams, led by rookie QB and future Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield, were based in Cleveland in 1945. (They moved to Los Angeles the next season and finally to St. Louis after the 1994 season.)

Benton was largely overshadowed by Hall of Famer Don Hutson during his career from 1938-47, but he did make the Pro Football Hall of Fame all-decade team for the '40s. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, he was a large receiver for the era, and he specialized in making difficult catches.

On Nov. 22, 1945, Cleveland traveled to West Division rival Detroit with a 7-1 record, one game better than the 6-2 Lions, with two games remaining in the regular season. A Rams win would all but wrap up a conference title and a berth in the league championship game. A loss would drop them into a tie with Detroit and put the Rams in a must-win situation in the team's final game.

Against the Lions, Benton turned in the performance of his career with 10 catches for 303 yards, smashing Hutson's game record by 66 yards. Benton had a 70-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter as the Rams won 28-21. Nearly three weeks later, Cleveland defeated the Washington Redskins 15-14 in the NFL Championship Game.

Benton's performance held up as the most yards receiving in a game until Kansas City's Stephone Paige broke the record in 1985.

Quote/unquote: ''Bob [Waterfield] can put them anywhere with handles on them,'' Benton once said. ''Whatever I did to get open at the last second, when I do, there comes the ball right when I need it.''

No. 2: FLIPPER ANDERSON, Los Angeles Rams | 15 catches, 336 yards

Nov. 26, 1989, vs. New Orleans Saints

It's hard to ignore the most receiving yards in a game in NFL history. It's impossible to ignore because Anderson's 15-reception, 336-yard performance came in the middle of a playoff race against a divisional opponent on the road.

"I felt like Michael Jordan scoring 60 points out there," Anderson told Sports Illustrated in 1990.

The Rams (7-4) had a five-game winning streak heading into the Week 12 game against NFC West rival New Orleans. The Saints started slowly but had won their previous two games to find themselves in the playoff picture at 6-5.

Los Angeles' leading receiver, Henry Ellard, was sidelined by a hamstring injury and the Rams wondered where the receiving production would come from. Anderson, who had one of the great nicknames in NFL history, had only 19 receptions at that point of the season.

New Orleans took a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter. But after a Buford McGee touchdown closed that gap to seven points, quarterback Jim Everett found Anderson for a 15-yard touchdown to tie the score. In overtime, Anderson's 26-yard catch set up Mike Lansford's winning 26-yard field goal for Los Angeles, which earned a wild-card berth that season.

Anderson, whose real name was Willie, finished the season with 44 catches for 1,146 yards, an astounding 26 yards-per-catch average.

Quote/unquote: "Sometimes you feel like you're throwing a football through the tire of a Hyundai, but that day, with Flipper, it felt like throwing a ball through the tire of a John Deere tractor," Rams quarterback Jim Everett told Sports Illustrated.

No. 3: JERRY RICE, San Francisco 49ers | 14 catches, 289 yards, 3 TDs

Dec. 18, 1995, vs. Minnesota Vikings

No receiving list can be complete without the greatest receiver in NFL history. Jerry Rice had the best season of his 20-year career in 1995 when he had 122 catches for an NFL-record 1,848 yards.

Rice's best season also saw his best individual game and one of the best of all time as the wide receiver torched the Vikings for 14 receptions for 289 yards and three touchdowns. Rice averaged 20.6 yards per reception in the 49ers' 37-30 victory.

On their way to their fourth straight NFC West division title, the 49ers faced a Vikings team in Week 16 that, at 8-7, remained alive in the playoff hunt. The 49ers jumped to a 21-0 lead behind touchdowns from Rice of 8 and 46 yards. Steve Young found Rice again for a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to stretch San Francisco's lead to 27-10. The 49ers were able to hold off Minnesota's late comeback attempt for the win.

Rice accounted for more than half of the 49ers' 467 total yards and outgained the Vikings by himself. The game was one of four 200-plus yard receiving games in the Hall of Famer's career.

Quote/unquote: "I can't comment on eras that I didn't perform in, but the era I performed in, Jerry Rice is the best football player to play in that era." -- NFL great Deion Sanders

No. 4: JIMMY SMITH, Jacksonville Jaguars | 15 catches, 291 yards, 3 TDs

Sept. 10, 2000, vs. Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens' defense, one of the best in league history, gave up only 165 points in the regular season, but 36 of those came in Week 2 against the Jaguars and Jimmy Smith.

Smith's performance wasn't a case of a player padding stats in a loss. The Pro Bowler caught 45- and 43-yard touchdown passes to give Jacksonville an early 17-0 lead. After the Ravens fought back from a 16-point deficit to take a 32-29 lead in the fourth quarter, Mark Brunell found Smith for a 40-yard touchdown to give Jacksonville the lead with 1:45 remaining.

The Ravens regained the lead on a Shannon Sharpe touchdown and won 39-36.

Yes, it was only the second game of the season and yes, the Jaguars would eventually finish the season a disappointing 7-9, but Smith's day against the eventual Super Bowl champions merits a spot in our top five.

Smith finished his career with 862 receptions for 12,287 yards receiving. Not bad for a guy who was cut by Dallas and caught on with the expansion Jaguars in 1995 after his mother sent coach Tom Coughlin a binder of press clippings to help him earn a tryout.

Quote/unquote: "Jimmy is not one of the most acclaimed guys, but he's one of the most respected receivers in the game." -- then-Jaguars VP of player personnel James Harris at Smith's retirement news conference in 2006.

No. 5: TERRELL OWENS, San Francisco 49ers | 20 catches, 283 yards

Dec. 17, 2000, vs. Chicago Bears

Throughout his career, Terrell Owens' on-field performance has often been weighed down by off-the-field baggage.

But it's hard to ignore the controversial receiver's record-breaking game against the Bears. Owens hauled in 20 catches from Jeff Garcia for 283 yards, the sixth-best yardage total of all time. The 20 catches in a game broke a 50-year-old record of 18, held by Tom Fears. (With 21 catches against the Colts last season, Brandon Marshall surpassed Owens' record.)

Owens' showing doesn't rank higher because it came in a meaningless game. The Niners and Bears were below .500 and out of playoff contention late in the season. But Owens' performance did unofficially signal the changing of the guard in San Francisco, as T.O. became the 49ers' No. 1 receiver over Rice.

Quote/unquote: "I know hands-down I'd be close to Jerry Rice's records if I had been with quality quarterbacks like he had. He had Joe Montana and he finished with Steve Young. That wasn't a dropoff." -- Owens in a January interview with USA Today

Honorable Mention

  • Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings (Nov. 26, 1998): He had only three catches, but all three were TDs (51, 56 and 56 yards) in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day win against Dallas.

  • Stephone Paige, Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 22, 1985): He set an NFL game record with 309 yards receiving against San Diego, since broken by Anderson in 1989.

  • Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos (Nov. 25, 2009): He set the game receiving record with 21 catches (for 200 yards and two TDs) against Indianapolis.

  • Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts (Oct. 6, 2003): Eleven catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns in a dramatic come-from-behind OT win over the Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." The Colts trailed 35-14 in the fourth quarter.