Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ranking the greatest AFC, NFC championship games: A pair of Tom Brady-Peyton Manning duels crack all-time list

Given what we witnessed during the divisional round of the 2021 NFL playoffs, fans could be in for an extremely memorable championship weekend. 

The four survivors from last weekend’s divisional round — the 49ers, Rams, Bengals and Chiefs — will play this weekend for the right to represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl LVI. Among the big storylines entering championship weekend include the Chiefs’ quest at a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, the emergence of Bengals’ second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford’s pursuit of his first Super Bowl appearance, and the continued postseason success of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo

There’s a very good chance that one or both of this weekend’s games will one day crack the following list of the greatest conference championship games in NFL history. Several all-time classics made the list, including a few games that included two of the best quarterbacks in league annals in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

15. 1981 AFC Championship: Bengals 27, Chargers 7 

This wasn’t necessarily a great game, but how well the Bengals played — specifically quarterback Ken Anderson — in sub-freezing temperatures is what made this AFC title game memorable. In a game that was tabbed as “The Freezer Bowl,” Anderson threw two touchdowns while leading the Bengals to their first Super Bowl. Anderson’s passer rating was more than twice the amount of his counterpart, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who a week earlier helped lead the Chargers to an epic double-overtime win over the Dolphins in balmy Miami. 

“Kenny’s advantage was that he threw tight spirals,” said Fouts, who said that throwing that day was like “throwing a shoebox in the wind.” 

“I didn’t always throw spirals,” Fouts said. “In my mind, that was the biggest part of us losing the game.”

14. 2015 AFC Championship: Broncos 20, Patriots 18

Peyton Manning came out firing, while Denver’s formidable pass rush hounded Tom Brady for most of the game. Down 20-12 late in the game, Brady kept the Patriots’ season alive with a 40-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-10 with 54 seconds left. Four plays later, Brady and Gronkowski connected on fourth-and-goal to bring New England to within two points of the Broncos with 12 seconds left, as it appeared that Brady was about to add to his legend of epic comebacks. 

But on the Patriots two-point attempt, Brady’s pass intended for Gronkowski was tipped and intercepted by Bradley Roby, sealing the Broncos’ second Super Bowl berth in three years. Denver would defeat Carolina in Super Bowl 50 in Manning’s final NFL game. 

13. 1995 AFC Championship: Steelers 20, Colts 16 

The Steelers were coming off of a heartbreaking loss to the Chargers in the ’94 AFC title game. Against the Colts, they found themselves trailing 16-13 after Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown. Facing a fourth-and-three late in the game, the Steelers kept their season alive when Neil O’Donnell hit Andre Hastings for a nine-yard gain. On the next play, O’Donnell threw deep to Ernie Mills, who tiptoed the sideline for a 37-yard gain. The catch set up Bam Morris’ go-ahead touchdown. 

With 1:34 left, Harbaugh drove the Colts from their own 16 to the Steelers’ 29-yard-line. Only five seconds were left on the clock when Harbaugh heaved a Hail Mary into the Steelers’ end zone. The ball was deflected several times before falling into the chest of Colts receiver Aaron Bailey. Bailey, who was falling on the ground as the ball hit his chest, was unable to close his arms around the ball before it hit the turf. The incomplete pass gave the Steelers their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1979. 

12. 1992 NFC Championship: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20

This was a changing-of-the-guard game, as the Cowboys dethroned the 49ers as the league’s premier team. The Cowboys held a precarious 24-20 lead after Young and Rice connected on a five-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Instead of going conservative, the Cowboys went for the win as Harper took a slant pass 70 yards to set up Aikman’s game-clinching touchdown pass to Kelvin Martin. The Cowboys offense was buoyed by Smith, who on a muddy track tallied 173 yards and two touchdowns. Dallas went on to rout the Bills, 52-17, to win the franchise’s first championship since 1977. 

11. 2013 NFC Championship: Seahawks 23, 49ers 17

This was a throwback to a bygone era. A hard-hitting, defensive-fueled grudge match, Seattle took its first lead on Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse one minute into the fourth quarter. With 3:43 left, the 49ers drove 60 yards on the strength of five completions from quarterback Colin Kaepernick that included a fourth-down completion to Frank Gore

The 49ers’ reign as NFC champions ended when Kaepernick’s end zone pass for Michael Crabtree was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by Malcolm Smith. The pick overshadowed a gutsy performance by Kaepernick, who ran for 130 yards that included a 58-yard run that set up the 49ers’ first score. Seattle’s offense received big performances from Marshawn Lynch (109 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries) and Doug Baldwin (106 yards on six receptions).

Both defenses received championship-level individual efforts. For the 49ers, pass rusher Aldon Smith had two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, while linebacker NaVorro Bowman had 14 tackles and a forced fumble. Wagner had 15 tackles to go with his game-winning pick. Safety Kam Chancellor had 11 tackles and an interception for Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary. 

10. 2007 NFC Championship: Giants 23, Packers 20 (OT) 

In a game played in sub-zero temperatures, the Giants prevailed behind Plaxico Burress’ 11 receptions and Corey Webster’s overtime interception of Brett Favre. The pick set up Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal, as the Giants went on to upset the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. 

The bitter defeat was the final game for Favre in a Packers uniform. New York’s stingy defense, led by Michael Strahan, fellow defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, and linebacker Antonio Pierce, held the Packers’ offense to just 13 first downs and 264 total yards. Conversely, the play of Manning, Burress and running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw allowed the Giants to control the clock for just over 40 minutes. 

9. 2014 NFC Championship: Seahawks 28, Packers 22 (OT) 

Trailing 16-0 at halftime, the Seahawks cut their deficit to five points on Russell Wilson’s short touchdown run with 2:13 remaining in regulation. Seattle then successfully converted the onside kick, setting up Marshawn Lynch’s go-ahead touchdown run. While the Packers did mange to force overtime on Mason Crosby’s 48-yard field goal, the Seahawks punched their Super Bowl ticket when Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard score on the sixth play of the extra period. The defending champion Seahawks would come up just short in their bid to repeat as champions. The Packers won just one playoff game from 2015-18 before making return trips to the title game in 2019-20. 

8. 1987 AFC Championship: Broncos 38, Browns 33 

After a heartbreaking AFC title game loss to the Broncos the previous year (more on that later), the Browns were trying to play the role of spoiler late in the rematch. Cleveland’s comeback was spearheaded by quarterback Bernie Kosar and running back Earnest Byner. On their final drive, the Browns appeared to be on the verge of tying the game after driving inside the Broncos’ 10-yard-line. 

With their season on the line, Cleveland ran a draw for Byner, who found space on the right side of the defense. While Byner initially appeared to score the game-winning touchdown, Browns fans were immediately sucker punched after realizing that Byner had fumbled the ball two yards short of the end zone. The Broncos recovered Jeremiah Castille’s forced fumble, and were on their way to Super Bowl XXII. 

7. 2018 AFC Championship: Patriots 37, Chiefs 31 

Tom Brady’s ninth AFC championship game win came at the expense of Patrick Mahomes, who this Sunday will look to lead the Chiefs to their third consecutive conference title. The Chiefs’ AFC championship tally would already be at two if not for Brady, who led the Patriots’ offense on a 13-play, 75-yard drive in overtime that was capped off by Rex Burkhead’s two-yard touchdown run. 

Moments earlier, Brady had been bailed out by Dee Ford, who was ruled offsides on the play that saw Brady throw an interception to Charvarius Ward. On the ensuing play, Brady found his longtime partner in crime, Rob Gronkowski, open for a 25-yard gain. The completion set up the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown, which was countered by Harrison Butker’s game-tying field goal with 11 seconds left in regulation. 

Brady eschewed his running game for most of the Patriots’ game-winning overtime drive. He threw eight consecutive passes, the final one a 15-yard completion to Gronkowski. The completion set up Burkhead’s second touchdown of the night, as the Patriots left Arrowhead Stadium with their fourth AFC title over a five-year span. Brady’s performance overshadowed Mahomes, who threw three touchdown passes in his AFC Championship game debut. 

6. 2009 NFC Championship: Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT) 

In a classic championship game, neither team ever led by more than seven points, and the score was tied on four different occasions. The Vikings, following Adrian Peterson’s third touchdown that tied the game, were in position to win it after advancing to the Saints’ 38-yard-line with 19 seconds left in regulation. But in what would be his final pass of the game, Favre’s third-down pass intended for Sidney Rice was intercepted by Tracy Porter, forcing overtime. In overtime, two penalties against the Vikings’ defense, coupled by Pierre Thomas‘ two-yard run on a fourth-and-1 play, set up Garrett Hartley’s game-winning field goal. New Orleans would go onto defeat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, with Porter’s pick-six of Peyton Manning sealing the Saints’ 31-17 win. 

5. 1998 NFC Championship: Falcons 30, Vikings 27 (OT) 

In one of the most surprising upsets in NFL postseason history, Atlanta’s “Dirty Birds” overcame a 13-point deficit to stun the Vikings, who went 15-1 during the regular season. Ahead 27-20, Gary Anderson, who did not miss a field goal during the regular season, missed a 38-yard attempt with 2:07 left. The Falcons fully capitalized on Anderson’s miss, as Chris Chandler hit Terance Mathis for the game-tying touchdown with 57 seconds left in regulation. 

After winning the coin toss, Minnesota was forced to punt after Randall Cunningham’s third-down pass to rookie sensation Randy Moss fell incomplete. The teams would then exchange punts before two Chandler completions to tight end O.J. Santiago and two runs by Jamal Anderson set up Morton Anderson’s game-winning, 38-yard kick. The Falcons’ luck, however, ran out in the Super Bowl, as John Elway and the Broncos coasted to a 34-19 win. The Vikings are still in search of their first trip to the Super Bowl since January of 1977. 

4. 1990 NFC Championship: Giants 15, 49ers 13 

“There will be no three-peat.”

Those words were famously proclaimed by former CBS/Fox play-by-play analyst Pat Summerall after Matt Bahr’s 42-yard field goal gave the Giants an upset win over the defending two-time champion 49ers. In one of the most physical football games ever played, the 49ers suffered a crushing blow when Giants lineman Leonard Marshall knocked Joe Montana out of the game with about 10 minutes left and the 49ers ahead, 13-9. After the Giants cut the deficit to one point, Lawrence Taylor gave his offense the ball back when he recovered 49ers halfback Roger Craig’s fumble in Giants territory. 

Jeff Hostetler’s completions to Mark Bavaro and Stephen Baker, and a pivotal two-yard run by Ottis Anderson on a third-and-1 play, helped set up Bahr’s game-winning field goal as time expired. Hostetler, Anderson, Bahr, and the Giants’ physical defense each played a role in the Giants’ upset win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The loss was the final playoff start for Montana with the 49ers, who fell painfully short of becoming the first team in history to win three straight Super Bowls. 

3. 1986 AFC Championship: Broncos 23, Browns 20, OT (1986)

The 1980s Browns lost three AFC title games in a four-year span to the Browns. While each loss was painful, the first one was undoubtedly the hardest to swallow. 

With the score tied at 13, Bernie Kosar’s 48-yard pass to Brian Brennan gave the home team a 20-13 lead. After watching its defense surrender the big play, Broncos fans watched in agony as their special teams botched the ensuing kickoff before jumping on the ball at their own 2-yard-line. John Elway, displaying the savvy that would eventually put him in the Hall of Fame, meticulously moved the ball against the Browns’ stingy defense. 

After a short throw and two runs gave the Broncos a first down, an 11-yard run by Elway and a 22-yard completion to Steve Sewell got Denver near midfield. On third-and-18 on the Browns’ 48-yard-line, Elway stood tall before firing a 20-yard dart to Mark Jackson. The Broncos avoided a disaster on the play, as Elway was about to catch the shotgun snap after it incidentally hit a receiver in motion. 

Two plays later, a screen pass to Sewell got the Broncos to the Browns’ 14-yard-line. Three plays later, facing a third-and-one on the Browns’ 5-yard-line, Elway took the shotgun snap, waited for Jackson to break free from his defender, and threw a dart that Jackson was able to corral in the end zone. The score, which came with 32 seconds left in regulation, capped off what is known in NFL history as “The Drive.” 

In overtime, Denver’s defense quickly gave the ball back to Elway, who got the Broncos past midfield on a 22-yard completion to tight end Orson Mobley. After losing two yards on the next two plays, Elway started to run, which formed Denver’s defenders to move up to honor him. But before crossing the line of scrimmage, Elway stopped, then hit an open Steve Watson, who caught the 28-yard pass before falling out of bounds. The play set up Rich Karlis’ game-winning field goal, as Elway and the Broncos were on their way to Pasadena for Super Bowl XXI. It was the first of five Super Bowl appearances for Elway, who lost his first three Super Bowls before retiring with back-to-back titles. 

2. 2006 AFC Championship: Colts 38, Patriots 34 

After recent playoff losses to the Patriots, the Colts found themselves staring at a 21-3 deficit midway through the second quarter of the 2006 AFC Championship Game. But following Asante Samuel’s 39-yard pick-six of Peyton Manning, the Colts scored the game’s next 18 points that included a touchdown pass from Manning to lineman Dan Klecko. The Patriots went back ahead before another Colts lineman, center Jeff Saturday, tied the score after pouncing on a fumble in the end zone. 

Trailing 34-31 with 3:49 left, two completions from Manning to Reggie Wayne sandwiched Manning’s 32-yard completion to Bryan Fletcher. Fletcher, a seldom-used tight end, had lobbied for Manning to look his way earlier in the game. After reaching the Patriots’ 11-yard-line, Manning called three straight runs for rookie running back Joseph Addai. Addai’s third carry resulted in the go-ahead touchdown with 1:02 left. 

Brady, whose late-game prowess was already legend by this point, passed his team beyond midfield before throwing a game-ending interception to cornerback (and fellow Michigan Man) Marlin Jackson. The Colts would go onto win their lone Super Bowl with Manning under center. In Denver, Manning would win two more AFC title games against the Patriots while retiring with a 3-1 record against the Brady/Belichick Patriots in conference championship games. 

1. 1981 NFC Championship: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 

Despite a dominant Week 6 win over the Cowboys, the 49ers trailed “America’s Team” by six points following Danny White’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Doug Cosbie. Needing to travel 89 yards in less than five minutes, the 49ers relied on several sweeping runs by Lenvil Elliott, two clutch catches in traffic by Freddie Solomon and Solomon’s 14-yard run on a reverse. Facing a third-down on the Cowboys’ 6-yard line, Montana rolled right before he was met by three Cowboys defenders. Facing the pass rush, Montana lofted the ball to a spot in the end zone where he hoped Dwight Clark would be. Clark, who caught a 20-yard touchdown pass earlier in the game, was indeed at the spot Montana hoped he would be. The reliable receiver jumped in the air, snared Montana’s pass out of the sky and slammed the ball in the end zone. 

With Candlestick Park already in celebration mode, the 49ers’ defense still had to stop the Cowboys’ offense, who got the ball back at their 25-yard line with two timeouts and 51 seconds left. The crowd got tense after White hit Drew Pearson for 31 yards on the Cowboys’ first play. But on the next play, White lost the ball after getting hit by Lawrence Pillers. The ball was scooped up by Jim Stuckey, who in his arms held the 49ers’ first Super Bowl ticket. 

“You just beat America’s Team,” Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall’ Jones told Montana, as recalled by Clark two decades later. “Well,” Montana replied, “you can sit at home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl.” 

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