25 Most Memorable Conference Championship Games in NFL History

Gordon BlockContributor IIIJanuary 17, 2012

25 Most Memorable Conference Championship Games in NFL History

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    The conference championships are the chance for the best to prove their worth. Only one game away from a spot in the Super Bowl, it's always telling to see how the best players and units respond to the added pressure and expectations of being in the big game.

    The spotlight is on. Who will step up and shine?

    Using a complex, non-scientific formula combining game stats, highlight reels and criteria that seems to make sense to me as I write this, this list will break down the best conference championship games in NFL history.

    Here are the Top 25 conference championship games in NFL history.

25) 1999 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: St. Louis Rams 11, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6

    Breakdown: This matchup of the so-called Greatest Show on Turf offense of the Rams and the stingy defense of the Buccaneers was a mostly defensive battle. The Bucs, coached by Tony Dungy, stifled the Rams offensive effort for most of the day.

    However, the Rams were able to take the lead in the game on a fourth quarter pass from quarterback Kurt Warner to wide receiver Ricky Proehl (who had been relegated to fourth on the depth chart earlier in the year).

    Taking the 11-6 lead, they would never look back as they punched their ticket for Atlanta.

24) 2011 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Pittsburgh Steelers 24- New York Jets 19

    Breakdown: The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to breath easily after surviving a furious rally from the New York Jets. Down 24-3 at halftime, the Jets scored 16 straight points to make things interesting. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez looked his best as he moved the offense for a pair of touchdowns.

    While they had the momentum in the second half, they didn't have enough time to complete the comeback. The Steelers were able to close out the clock, allowing them to escape with the win.

23) 1997 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Denver Broncos 24- Pittsburgh Steelers 21

    Breakdown: All the Denver Broncos needed was a final first down in order to run out the clock, but were running out of plays. In the huddle facing a 3rd-and -2, Broncos quarterback John Elway told his tight end Shannon Sharpe to "get open" in an improvised route.

    The strategy worked, as Sharpe pulled in an 18-yard completion that gave the Broncos the first down, and in essence the game. The Broncos were also boosted by a 139-yard performance by running back Terrell Davis

22) 1977 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Denver Broncos 20- Oakland Raiders 17

    Breakdown: One of the best games in this tight rivalry between the Broncos and Raiders was changed dramatically on an blown call at the goal line.

    Broncos running back Roby Lytle appeared to have fumbled at the goal line when he was hit by the Raiders Jack Tatum. The Raiders would have had an easy touchdown return going the other way, but inexplicably the play was called dead.

    The ref determined that Lytle's forward progress had been stopped before the fumble. Even worse, the Raiders were penalized for arguing the missed call with the referee. 

    Denver would score on the next play, and the points from that score would be the difference in a very tightly fought game.

21) 2001 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: St. Louis Rams 29- Philadelphia Eagles 24

    Breakdown: The Rams, limited offensively in the first half, got big performances from quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk.

    While the Eagles led for the first half, they failed to keep that momentum up against the Rams' attack. 

    The Eagles had one final shot to win the game, getting possession at their own 45-yard-line with a few minutes left, but the Rams were able to intercept a Donovan McNabb pass to seal the victory.

20) 2010 NFC Championship

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    Outcome: Green Bay Packers 21- Chicago Bears 14

    Breakdown: The Bears would have pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history had they been able to close the gap with the Packers in the 2010 NFC Championship matchup.

    Losing starting quarterback Jay Cutler to injury (some accused him of faking), and disappointed by second stringer Todd Collins, the Bears put the game in the hands of rookie Caleb Hanie.

    He lead an early scoring drive, bringing the game to within seven points, 14-7. While he then threw a pick-six, he responded to the mistake by leading another drive which ended with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett, bringing the deficit back to within seven. While the Bears didn't win, Hanie stepped up admirably into a tough situation and surprised many.

    The Packers also got a good day from its quarterback Aaron Rodgers, even if his stat line didn't prove it, and their defense was a major reason for the win.

19) 1980 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Oakland Raiders 34- San Diego Chargers 27

    Breakdown: With the Raiders holding a lead late into their AFC Championship with the Chargers, they pulled off one of the best drives possible in terms of burning the clock.

    Needing to protect their lead and a worn out defense, the Raiders were able to burn the final 6:43. Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett rushed for two first downs in order to keep the drive alive.

    Plunkett would finish the game with 261 passing yards and two touchdowns.

18) 2008 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Arizona Cardinals 32- Philadelphia Eagles 25

    Breakdown: Cardinal wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald gets what Larry Fitzgerald wants. 

    He had a field day in the 2008 NFC Championship, burning the Philadelphia Eagles for 152 yards and three touchdowns as the Cardinals would surprise everyone again with a standout offensive performance.

    However, the Cardinals' win came only after a huge comeback from the Eagles, with quarterback Donovan McNabb bringing the team back from 18 points down earlier in the fourth quarter to take the 25-24 lead.

    The Cardinals were able to advance with a touchdown pass from quarterback Kurt Warner to running back Tim Hightower with just under three minutes left.

17) 2010 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: New Orleans Saints 31- Minnesota Vikings 28

    Breakdown: An overtime heartbreaker for the Vikings, this game had plenty of offensive fireworks. With the two teams putting up over 700 yards of offense, the Vikings outgained the Saints dramatically. 

    However, it wasn't enough, as the Saints were able to capitalize on the opening overtime possession and finish it with a field goal.

    The outrage following the game prompted the NFL to change the overtime rules to end this kind of finish, and was implemented for the first time on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow's overtime touchdown the other weekend.

16) 1995 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Dallas Cowboys 38, Green Bay Packers 27

    Breakdown: Facing a fourth quarter deficit of 27-24, the Dallas Cowboys got a great performance from its offense, primarily from running back Emmitt Smith. 

    Smith would end the game with 150 yards and three touchdowns. An interception returned by Dallas cornerback Larry Brown for a touchdown would seal the outcome.

    It would be the third straight year the Packers would fall in the playoffs to the Cowboys.

15) 1972 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Miami Dolphins 21, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

    Breakdown: (Cut to 4:40 of this clip)

    Carrying on their perfect season, the Dolphins were boosted by the return of quarterback Bob Griese, who had previously been sidelined with a broken leg.

    After not scoring in the first quarter, they would tally up a touchdown in each remaining quarter to take the win.

    The game is also memorable for the fake punt from Larry Seiple, which would set up a Dolphin touchdown.

14) 1987 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Washington Redskins 17, Minnesota Vikings 10

    Breakdown: A defensive battle until the end, the Vikings had a shot to tie the game late. Inside the Redskin's 10-yard line, they just couldn't find a way to score. With a fourth down pass falling incomplete, the Redskins were able to take over and run out the clock.

    It was an impressive day for Washington's unit, who limited the Vikings to 76 rushing yards and had eight sacks for the day.

13) 2007 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: New York Giants 23, Green Bay Packers 20

    Breakdown: While the Giants' overtime victory (and subsequent defeat of the Patriots in the Super Bowl) is the big story, this game was also the last for quarterback Brett Favre as a Green Bay Packer.

    He ended it on a low note, throwing this unremarkable pass for an interception in overtime. With excellent field position, the Giants barely had to move in order to set up the game-winning score, a tricky 47-yard field goal from kicker Lawrence Tynes.

12) 1991 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Buffalo Bills 10, Denver Broncos 7

    Breakdown: A defensive struggle through the end (with a lot of missed field goals as well), this was as hard fought of a conference championship game as possible.

    The Bills' only touchdown would come on an interception return from Carlton Bailey off Broncos quarterback John Elway.

    The Bills were able to later seal the game by recovering a fumble from Broncos running back Steve Sewell.

    (Also interesting: This game featured current Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who replaced an injured Elway.)

11) 1994 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: San Diego Chargers 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 13

    Breakdown: While the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated almost every statistical category in this contest, the San Diego Chargers were able to escape with a solid win after two unanswered touchdown scores in the second half.

    While the Steelers were right at the Chargers' goal line with a little bit of time left, a fourth-down pass from Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell to running back Barry Foster was tipped away by linebacker Dennis Gibson.

10) 1992 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Dallas Cowboys 30, San Francisco 49ers 20

    Breakdown: A star-studded battle on both sides of the ball, the Dallas Cowboys were able to get the win thanks to some impressive play from quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith.

    Aikman threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns, while Smith added over 150 total yards to the team's effort. Most importantly, the Cowboys defense forced four critical 49ers turnovers.

    The Cowboys would win comfortably, even though they had only one more yard of total offense.

9) 1995 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Indianapolis Colts 16

    Breakdown: Cut to 7:35 of this video clip. Watch the play. 

    It does not get any closer than that.

    (Notably, the quarterback for the Colts, Jim Harbaugh, will get a shot at conference championship game glory as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.)

8) 1983 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Washington Redskins 24, San Francisco 49ers 21

    Breakdown: The only postseason meeting between coaches Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs was a thrill ride right to the finish.

    Both teams had plenty of chances in their opponents red zones, but were each let down by their kickers, who missed on multiple tries during the day on the muddy field. The Redskins were successful on several trick plays during the course of the game.

    The final drive leading to Washington's winning score was aided by a pair of costly Niner penalties, which helped set up Mark Moseley for a 25-yard winning field goal with only 40 seconds left. He put it through, ignoring his four misses during the day.

    The Niners would get one more shot, but were intercepted.

    The Redskins would go on to get trounced by the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XVI, 38-9

7) 1986 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20

    Breakdown: Better known as "The Drive," Broncos quarterback John Elway led his squad on a 98-yard touchdown drive, tying the game with only 37 seconds left.

    Only a few minutes later, kicker Rick Karlis booted through a 33-yard field goal, ending the game and breaking the hearts of Browns fans everywhere (not the first time, and definitely not the last time Cleveland sports fans found themselves disappointed and heartbroken). 

6) 1998 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Atlanta Falcons 30, Minnesota Vikings 27

    Breakdown: Kicker Gary Anderson picked the worst possible time to miss his first field goal of the season, in overtime of the Vikings' NFC Championship against the Atlanta Falcons.

    The Falcons, taking the ball back, would win on a field goal of their own.

    The loss ended one of the best seasons in NFL history, with the Vikings putting up an impressive 15-1 record.

5) 1987 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Denver Broncos 38, Cleveland Browns 33

    Breakdown: Better known as "The Fumble," the Cleveland Browns had the winning score in their hands until they literally and figuratively dropped the ball.

    On the Broncos 3-yard line, running back Earnest Byner let go of the ball when hit by defensive back Jeremiah Castille. The fumble ruined an otherwise spectacular performance by Byner, who had compiled over 180 total yards and two touchdowns.

    Unfortunately, he will be more remembered for the error more than any of his positives in that game.

4) 2006 AFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34

    Breakdown: The Indianapolis Colts and their quarterback Peyton Manning got over their losing struggles to the New England Patriots, staging an 18-point comeback, the largest comeback in a conference championship game ever.

    To make this happen, the Colts received a classic performance from Manning who threw for 349 and a touchdown (along with a rushing touchdown) to spur the win. They also were helped by the defense, who made some key plays near the end to seal the win (particularly Marlin Jackson's interception of Tom Brady).

    With time running low, Manning orchestrated a beautiful game-winning drive. Starting by moving the offense 70 yards in 19 seconds (thanks to some penalties), a Joseph Addai touchdown would give the Colts their first lead with only a minute left.

    Boosted by the win, the Colts charged into the Super Bowl, defeating the Chicago Bears in what would be Manning's only Super Bowl win.

3) 1982 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27

    Breakdown: (Move the clip to 6:10)

    There's not too much to say about this game, other than it's The Catch. When a simple action like that is capitalized like this, you have to know the game is special.

    Dwight Clark's end-zone catch from quarterback Joe Montana would be the difference, as the score would give the Niners a one-point win over their long-time rival.

    It was unbelievable then, and the play's legacy still lives on today (New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, then four years old, was in attendance at Candlestick Park for the game).

2) 1990 NFC Championship Game

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    Outcome: New York Giants 15, San Francisco 49ers 13

    Breakdown: A physical battle which saw devastating hits and injuries to both teams' starting quarterbacks, the game came down to one of the biggest clutch kicks in NFL history.

    Set up by a Roger Craig fumble, the only turnover of the game, Giants kicker Matt Bahr had a must make kick from 42 yards out.

    Make it, and the Giants advance. Miss it, and the team goes home. 

    Bahr was able to put it through, and the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl.

1) 1967 NFL Championship Game

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    Outcome: Green Bay Packers 21, Dallas Cowboys 17

    Breakdown: Better known as the Ice Bowl, this matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys is one of the most intimidating games imaginable. I'm getting chilly just watching the game clip. 

    Playing in a windchill that at times went under negative-50 degrees Fahrenheit, both teams would struggle to move the ball, particularly in the air. After the game, several players would report experiencing frostbite and hypothermia.

    Despite the conditions, the Packers were able to get the win on a goal line rush from quarterback Bart Starr.

    While the victory was a championship in its own, the Packers would go on to win Super Bowl II against the AFL Champion Oakland Raiders 33-14 the following week (in much warmer Miami).