The 10 Best NFL Conference Championship Games

John Elway The Drive

Media pundits muse that Sunday’s NFL conference title games are the best matchups we’ve seen in years. Since a good set up doesn’t necessarily guarantee an exciting game, let’s look at past championship games that actually lived up to the hype.

Here is a look at the 10 best NFL conference championship games of all-time. And here’s hoping this weekend’s matchups measure up to these.

10. New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, January 22, 2012

Played on a cold, rainy night, the Giants triumphed in this decades-old rivalry on a San Francisco miscue which set up the game-winning kick deep into overtime. New York’s second improbable playoff run in four years ending with a Super Bowl victory over New England was completed a fortnight later.

9. Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers, January 14, 1996

Initially considered a mismatch, the game ended with the Colts just a tipped Jim Harbaugh pass away from a Cinderella Super Bowl appearance. Pittsburgh hosted five AFC title games between 1994-2004, yet this was their only win.

8. New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, January 20, 1991

A Roger Craig fumble with the 49ers leading 13-12 late in the fourth quarter set up Matt Bahr’s 42-yard field goal to deny San Francisco the chance to compete for a third straight Super Bowl title. New York proceeded to beat the Bills in a memorable Super Bowl in Tampa.

7. Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings, January 17, 1999

At home, the 11-point favorite Vikings (15-1 regular season) raced to a 20-7 lead, only to face overtime when Gary Anderson, who had been perfect all season, missed a short field goal with two minutes left in regulation. Morten Andersen was pure from 38 yards in overtime, and Atlanta advanced to their first and only Super Bowl, where they were crushed by Denver in John Elway’s final game.

6. Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos, January 17, 1988

In a strike-shortened campaign, it was a rematch from the previous year, but with Denver hosting this time. The Broncos posted a huge halftime advantage only to see the Browns roar back with 30 second-half points. With Cleveland driving inside the five-yard line for the game tying touchdown in the final two minutes, Earnest Byner coughed up (what is now known as) “The Fumble” and Denver prevailed.

5. Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers, January 10, 1982

A back-and-forth fourth quarter culminated with Joe Montana finding Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone with less than a minute to play. “The Catch,” as the now-famous play quickly became known, catapulted the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and the beginning of the team’s perch as the top franchise of the 1980s.

4. New York Giants at Green Bay Packers, January 20, 2008

On a night with temperatures below zero in Wisconsin, the Giants played their third consecutive road playoff game. The game eventually went into overtime, and after an Brett Favre interception on the first Packers’ drive, Lawrence Tynes sent New York to a date with undefeated New England in Phoenix. The 2007 Giants are arguably the greatest Cinderella story in NFL history.

3. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints, January 24, 2010

Viking heartbreak continued as Minnesota failed again to reach the Super Bowl (for the first time in nearly a quarter-century) when Brett Favre was intercepted late in the fourth quarter while bringing his team into position for a game-winning score. The Saints won on an overtime field goal and beat Indianapolis two weeks later for the Super Bowl crown.

2. Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns, January 11, 1987

The Browns’ misery against the Broncos (three AFC title game losses in four seasons) began when John Elway struck. With the Broncos trailing 20-13 with roughly five minutes to play, Elway drove Denver 98 yards for tying score with 37 seconds left, stunning 80,000 fans via The Drive. After the Broncos forced a Cleveland punt to start overtime, bare-footed Rich Karlis booted a game-winning 33-yard field goal.

1. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, January 21, 2007

A cold night in downtown Indianapolis was made worse when New England bolted to a 21-3 first-half lead, and visions of past playoff failures reappeared for Peyton Manning and the Colts. Indy, however, marched back and took its first lead with one minute remaining when rookie Joseph Addai scored to cap an 80-yard drive. In his first of what would be a lengthy list of playoff failures the next several years, Tom Brady came up short as he was intercepted attempting to take the Pats toward the end zone.

The media tells us Peyton Manning shook his “can’t win the big one” label that Sunday night inside the old RCA Dome, and against Chicago two weeks later to capture his first ring. Will he achieve similar results in a new uniform versus Tom Brady again on Sunday in Denver.

About AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.


  1. My Top Ten: 10. Eagles/Cardinals (’08 – very underrated, Eagles made furious comeback and actually took fourth quarter lead), 9. Cowboys/49ers (’92 – when the Cowboys 90s dynasty started), 8. Colts/Steelers (’94, weird to think of Harbaugh as a QB these days), 7. Giants/49ers (’11, yes the 1990 ‘Gulf War’ game didn’t make my cut, neither did ’07 Giants/Packers), 6. Falcons/Vikings (’98, the second best epic Vikings choke), 5. Browns/Broncos (’87, wasn’t a bad sequel), 4. Patriots/Colts (’06, I can understand it being #2 or even #1), 3. Vikings/Saints (’10, ‘You could take a knee, and kick a 56 yard field goal, THIS IS NOT DETROIT, IT’S THE SUPER BOWL!), 2. Broncos/Browns, (’86, ‘The Drive’, never gets old), 1. Cowboys/49ers (’82, ‘The Catch’, the 49ers announced themselves as being more than a one-year fluke that day).

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      SD/Pitt Jan. 1995 and Phi/Ari Jan. 2009 were my next two choices actually. Honorable mention.

      But when you consider the Pats had won three recent Super Bowls and owned the Colts, including prior postseasons, then came into the Dome as underdogs, demolished Indy the first half, before Indy made a miraculous comeback and held off Brady late to exorcise the demons, I think it’s No. 1. Yes, I lived in Indy then, so understood the situation closer than most, but it was epic. The game marked NE’s first loss in six conference title games too. Have they completely recovered since? :)

      Also, consider three linemen scored touchdowns during the game — two on fumble recoveries in the end zone. Surreal.

  2. Thanks for the walk down memory lane! I’m partial to the ’82 Niners win over Dallas as I had season seats (high up over the end zone where Dwight Clark caught ‘The Pass’ from Joe Montana. Everyone thought the ball was going to sail out of the end zone until Clark jumped and caught the ball with both hands fully extended over his head. (A lot of people forget that Dallas still had time to get into field goal range and win that game, but the 49ers defense stopped them to preserve the victory).

  3. My Top 10 would be the 8 that Brady plays in followed by probably 2 of the Raiders’ or Chiefs.

    NFC means “No F****** Chance” I’m watching that brand of football.

  4. This list obviously has to be kept post-merger, but how about Ice Bowl 12/31/67? No one realizes how close Dallas was to pulling that out. 17 unanswered points, Packers had to drive length of the field now covered in shadows, making it even COLDER. Then final timeout, QB sneak. If that blows up, there would not have been time for another play, that was all-in!

Speak Your Mind