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.