With the conference title games to be set this weekend, I decided to continue my series of articles (Wild Card, Divisional) recapping the greatest conference championship games of all time. These will be divided by conference, AFC and NFC.
1986- Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT)
If Cleveland sports fans haven't suffered enough, John Elway only prolonged their agony.
Elway engineered what is simply known as "The Drive," a brilliantly orchestrated 15-play, 98-yard march with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter with Denver trailing 20-13.
The Browns scored first when quarterback Bernie Kosar threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Herman Fontenot at the end of an 86-yard drive.
The Broncos then scored 10 unanswered points: Rich Karlis' 19-yard field goal and Gerald Willhite's one-yard touchdown.
Cleveland kicker Mark Moseley's 29-yard field goal before halftime tied the score, 10-10. The teams exchanged punts before Kosar completed a 48-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan with 5:43 remaining in regulation, putting the Browns up 20-13.
Following a muffed punt, Elway on "The Drive" led his team from their own two-yard line culminating in his five-yard pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left to tie the game.
On "The Drive," Elway completed 6-of-9 passes for 78 yards (not including a sack of negative-eight yards), including a key 20-yard completion to Jackson on third-and-18. He also added in 20 yards of rushing.
Rich Karlis' game-winning field goal in overtime capped a 60-yard drive after the Browns were forced to punt. The Broncos headed to Super Bowl XXI, falling to the New York Giants.
1987- Broncos 38, Browns 33
Man, Browns fans just can't get a break.
Ernest Byner fumbled what would have been the game-tying three-yard touchdown run with 1:05 left. Byner's fumble ruined an otherwise superb performance, as he finished the game with 67 rushing yards, seven receptions for 120 yards, and two touchdowns.
Though Denver had taken a 21-3 halftime lead, Cleveland stormed back with four second half touchdowns and in the fourth quarter, Bernie Kosar's four-yard touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter tied the score at 31.
John Elway countered with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Winder with 4 minutes left in the game giving Denver a 38-31 lead.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Browns got the ball on their own 25-yard line. Byner started out the drive with a 16-yard burst, and then Kosar completed two passes to Brian Brennan for 33 yards.
Following a six-yard run by Byner, an offsides penalty on Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg gave the Browns a first down on the Broncos' eight with 1:12 remaining in regulation.
The Browns had moved 67 yards in just six plays covering 2:41. On the next play, Byner took the handoff and appeared to be on his way to the game-tying score but he was stripped of the ball by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille and fumbled at the three-yard line.
The Broncos recovered the fumble (Castille made the recovery), gave the Browns an intentional safety, and went on to win 38-33. Denver would go on to lose Super Bowl XXII to the Redskins.
1994- Chargers 17, Steelers 13
In what would be the first of many close home playoff losses for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tony Martin, who out-jumped defensive back Tim McKyer to make the catch and give the Chargers a 17-13 lead with 5:13 left.
The Steelers took a 13-3 edge into halftime following Gary Anderson's 23-yard field goal.
Midway through the third quarter, Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries executed a perfect play action fake and found tight end Alfred Pupunu wide open for a 43-yard touchdown.
Following Humpries' bomb to Martin, Pittsburgh took over from their own 17 marching to the San Diego three to put themselves in position for a potential winning touchdown but Chargers linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked away Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell's fourth down pass intended for Barry Foster which sealed the 14-point second half and an unlikely victory.
The Steelers lost for the first time during the season in which they held a led at halftime; they were 9-0 in 1994 with a halftime lead.
1995: Steelers 20, Colts 16
Pittsburgh finally got over its conference championship hex and defeated the Cinderella Colts following Bam Morris' one-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left.
In the second quarter, Pittsburgh scored a phantom touchdown on quarterback Neil O'Donnell's five-yard touchdown to rookie quarterback/wide receiver Kordell Steward.
Although television replays clearly showed that Stewart clearly stepped out of bounds before catching the pass, it was difficult to determine if he had stepped out on his own, and thus a penalty, or if he was pushed out by a Colts player, and making the score legal.
The touchdown stood and the Steelers took the lead, 13-9.
On the ensuing drive Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh completed a 47-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner to take the lead, 16-13.
Pittsburgh then took the ball with 3:03 left and marched 67 yards to score on Morris' winning touchdown. The drive was aided by O'Donnell's 9-yard completion to wide receiver Andre Hastings on fourth down and 3 from the 47.
Harbaugh's game-winning 29-yard Hail Mary pass was almost completed to Aaron Bailey in the end zone, but it dropped from his lap and Pittsburgh celebrated with the conference title.
2001- Patriots 24, Steelers 17
Drew Bledsoe rose from the ashes to continue the Patriots' magical run to the Super Bowl.
New England upset the heavily favored Steelers without the services of quarterback Tom Brady, who was replaced by Drew Bledsoe. Ironically, Brady replaced Bledsoe following a vicious tackle by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in Week Two.
Patriots' Pro Bowl receiver Troy Brown opened up the scoring with a 55-yard punt return touchdown with 3:42 left in the first quarter. Pittsburgh responded by a 30-yard field goal from Kris Brown.
On the next drive, Brady completed a 28-yard pass to Brown at the Steelers 40 but was knocked out of the game on the play following a chop block to his ankle. Bledsoe took over without missing a beat, rushing for four yards and completing three passes to David Patten for 37 yards, the last an 11-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 14-3 lead.
Pittsburgh then drove 52 yards to the 16-yard line to set up Brown's second field goal attempt, but his kick was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and Troy Brown recovered the ball.
After returning it 11 yards, Brown lateraled the ball to Antwan Harris, who ran the remaining 45 yards for a touchdown to increase New England's stunning lead to 21–3.
The Steelers, however, stormed back to cut the lead to 21-17 following a one-yard touchdown by Jerome Bettis and an Amos Zereoue 11-yard run.
Early in the fourth quarter, Adam Vinatieri's 44-yard field goal increased New England's lead to 24-17.
The Patriots then made two critical stops to clinch the victory: First, safety Tebucky Jones intercepted a pass from Stewart and returned it 19 yards to the Steelers 34.
Pittsburgh's defense managed to prevent a first down on the next drive and Vinatieri missed a 50-yard field goal that would have sealed the game, giving the Steelers the ball back on their own 40-yard line, but Lawyer Milloy intercepted a pass from Stewart with 2:02 left to seal the game.
The win would place the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI and showdown with "The Greatest Show on Turf," the St. Louis Rams.
2006- Colts 38, Patriots 34
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were in Peyton Manning's head and after Asante Samuel took an interception for a touchdown and a 21-3 deficit, it seemed the Indianapolis Colts were destined to fall once again to the New England Patriots in the postseason for the third time in four years.
Manning, however, was at home and would not be denied a trip to Miami and Super Bowl XLI. The Colts gained 455 offensive yards, 32 first downs and scored 32 second half points completing the fourth greatest comeback in NFL playoff history.
In the first quarter, the Patriots drove 71 yards to the Colts' four, featuring a 35-yard run by Corey Dillon. On third down, rookie running back Laurence Maroney fumbled the ball into the end zone, where offensive lineman Logan Mankins recovered it for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Colts responded by driving 56 yards and scoring with Adam Vinatieri's 42-yard field goal to cut their deficit to 7-3.
On their ensuing drive, the Patriots drove to a fourth down on the Colts' 34 and rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal, New England decided to go for it and Tom Brady completed a 27-yard pass to Troy Brown. Dillon scored on the next play from seven yards out.
Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Samuel intercepted a pass from Manning and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown, giving New England a 21-3 lead.
Vinatieri finished the next drive with a 26-yard field goal, cutting the score to 21-6 heading into halftime.
On the opening drive of the second half, the Colts marched down the field and scored with a one-yard run by Manning. Then, after forcing a punt, the Colts moved the ball to the Patriots' 32.
Following a pass interference penalty in the end zone, Manning threw a one-yard touchdown to defensive lineman Dan Klecko, who had lined up at the fullback position on the play. Marvin Harrison then caught the two-point conversion pass to tie the game at 21.
This then set off a wild series of events.
Hobbs returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to the Colts' 21. Four plays later, Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Jabar, who made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone.
Although he landed out of bounds, officials ruled that he was pushed out while in the air, and the Patriots took a 28-21 lead.
The Colts then drove to the New England nine-yard line. Rhodes then fumbled the ball at the one-yard line, but center Jeff Saturday recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game.
After an exchange of punts, New England rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski made a 28-yard field goal to give them a three-point lead. The Colts responded with a 36-yard field goal by Vinatieri, set up by Clark's 52-yard reception, to tie the game at 31. Hobbs returned Vinatieri's kickoff 41 yards to the Patriots' 46-yard line.
The Colts defense held on the ensuing drive and Gostkowski kicked a 43-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 34-31 lead with 3:49 left in the game.
New England's defense subsequently forced a punt, but the Patriots ended up punting right back to the Colts after running only a minute off the clock; the key play was a pass defended by safety Bob Sanders on third down-and-four.
Manning started off the winning drive with three consecutive completions for 58 yards, with a roughing-the-passer penalty on the third play adding another 12, moving the ball 70 yards in a span of 19 seconds and bringing up a first down at the Patriots' 11.
Three plays later, Joseph Addai's three-yard touchdown gave the Colts their first and only lead of the game with only a minute remaining.
Brady responded by leading his team to the Colts' 45-yard line, but cornerback Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady's final pass intended for Ben Watson with 17 seconds left, ending the game and sent the RCA Dome into a wild celebration.
Manning finished the game 27-of-47 for 349 yards and a touchdown. Brady completed 21-of-34 passes for 232 yards and a score.
The Colts would go on to defeat Chicago in Super Bowl XLI with Manning winning MVP honors.
The greatest NFC Championship games will come tomorrow.