2011 NFL Playoffs: 10 Best AFC Championship Games Ever
Can you believe it folks, the 2011 NFC and AFC Championships are upon us, coming to a television set near you some time this weekend (Sunday, people, Sunday).
The games this year are set to be some of the most exciting in league history, with the Chicago Bears matching up against the Pack Attack, and the New York Jets facing off against Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That's all fine, but before we start to weep with anticipation for the games coming up this weekend, we should first take a look at the great games of the past, if only for establishing a basis for comparison.
So, since my particular arena happens to be the AFC side of the league, let's take a look at the 10 best AFC Championship games of all time.
10. 2006 AFC Championship: Peyton Manning Comes Up Big for the Colts
Despite coming out slow and falling to a 21-3 deficit, the Indianapolis Colts were not to be turned back by the New England Patriots.
The Colts came storming out of halftime, scoring 32 points in the second half on their way to a 38-34 win that saw them through to the only Super Bowl win of the Peyton Manning Era for Indianapolis.
Their 18 point comeback was the largest in NFL playoff history, but it wasn't all about offense (although 455 yards of offense and 32 first downs are nice).
The big play came with only a few seconds left on the clock, when Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson intercepted a pass from Tom Brady to ice the game.
9. 1977 AFC Championship: Ed Hochuli Strikes 30 Years Early
I'm sure most Chargers fans remember an incident a few years back when the Chargers were playing the Broncos, and an interesting ruling on a fumble turned a win into a loss.
If you don't remember, at least remember that the referee's name is Ed Hochuli. You'll get the joke eventually.
At the end of the third quarter, the Broncos were up 14-3, a score that came on the wings of an interesting call.
Legendary Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum hit running back Rob Lytle in mid-air, forcing a fumble that was presumably recovered by the Raiders. However, the referees ruled that Lytle was down prior to the fumble, and lack of instant replay back in the 70s meant that the ruling could not be overturned.
The Broncos went on to score a touchdown and win the game, despite the best efforts of the Raiders to make a comeback.
8. 1980 AFC Championship: Raiders Hold On to Beat the Chargers
This game was never short on excitement.
Rivalry games are always great, but this one sticks out in the storied history between the Chargers and the Raiders.
The Raiders started out by jumping up to a 21-7 lead on the wings of two passing touchdowns, one of which was tipped twice and still taken in for a 65 yard score, and one running touchdowns by former Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett. The lone score for the Chargers was a 48 yard pass from Dan Fouts to Charlie Joiner.
The Chargers came out roaring after halftime, though, scoring on their first two possessions and cutting the Oakland Raiders down to a four point lead at 28-24. It was not in the cards for the Chargers to win that day, though.
The Raiders rode two field goals and a 6:43 time of possession in the final quarter, during which Jim Plunkett had several key third down conversions, to ice the game and send their division rivals packing.
7. 1994 AFC Championship Game: Lightning Strikes in Pittsburgh
Everyone loves a good comeback, and this one is is particularly meaningful.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had a 13-3 lead at one point during this contest, but two touchdown passes from Stan Humphries, the second of which came with 5:43 left in the game, put the Chargers up 17-13, a score which stuck for the rest of the game.
The Steelers made a huge effort to get back into it, driving the ball down to the three yard line, but their fourth down pass was tipped and fell incomplete, sending the San Diego Chargers to their second Super Bowl in franchise history, which they ended up losing.
The Chargers have not been back since, but the impact of this game on the franchise is huge, because they finally managed something that they could not under Don Coryell—they reached the Super Bowl.
6. 2001 AFC Championship Game: Drew Bledsoe's Last Hurrah
Most people remember the 2001-2002 season as the season of the Tuck Rule and the emergence of Tom Brady out from behind Drew Bledsoe.
In fact, the Tuck Rule game seems to take a lot of attention away from what happened the very next week.
After leading them to a dramatic upset of the Oakland Raiders, Tom Brady once again took control of the New England offense, and the Patriots certainly seemed to ride that moment through most of the game.
The teams were deadlocked until receiver Troy Brown took a re-punt to the house in the final minutes of the first quarter, which was followed quickly by a Pittsburgh Steelers field goal. That would be the last time the Steelers scored until the third quarter.
Brady was knocked out of the game midway through the second quarter, but Drew Bledsoe kept things going smoothly, setting up another Patriots touchdown and increasing the lead to 14-3.
The second half opened with a bang as Tedy Bruschi picked up a fumbled snap, but the subsequent drive went nowhere for the Pats. Their turnover on downs on that series led to a 52 yard drive to the 16 yard line, where Kris Brown attempted his second field goal.
It was blocked.
Troy Brown recovered the ball and lateraled it to Antwan Harris after 11 yards, who returned it for a touchdown.
Needless to say, the game continued with big plays to the point where the Steelers pulled within a touchdown and threw a pick. Then they stopped the Pats who missed the 50 yard field goal to ice the game, and subsequently threw another pick.
This game had it all.
5. 1981 AFC Championship: The Freezer Bowl
The score may make it seem like this game wasn't interesting (the Cincinnati Bengals beat the San Diego Chargers 27-7), but this game really wasn't about the score.
It was about the temperature.
Sure, a lot of people talk about the temperatures during various games at Lambeau Field, but the real record holder for coldest game in NFL history took place at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1982 AFC Championship Game, where temperatures dipped to -37 degrees Fahrenheit (with wind chill).
There were a couple of other interesting things about this game aside from the temperature.
For one, it came at the height of the Air Coryell era in San Diego, an era that failed to produce a championship for legendary head coach Don Coryell.
It also solidified the idea that warm weather teams just can't take the cold.
4. 1993 AFC Championship Game: The Streaking Bills
This game wasn't a particularly interesting game, with the final score being quite slanted in favor of the Buffalo Bills (the Bills ended up beating the Kansas City Chiefs 30-13).
The amazing thing about this game is that it was the fourth consecutive AFC Championship for the Buffalo Bills, a feat which may never be repeated again.
We'll forget the fact that the Bills lost all four of those Super Bowls (sorry Buffalo fans, but it had to be mentioned...).
3. 1972 AFC Championship Game: Just Another Stop on the Road to Perfection
Sure, this game was interesting. The final score was 21-17, and there was plenty of back-and-forth during the game.
That isn't what was really important here, though.
This game is one of the most meaningful games in NFL history, because it was the second to last step to the only perfect season in league history.
The Miami Dolphins ended the 1972-1973 season with a perfect 17-0 record, capped with a win over the Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
This game was just another stop on the road to Perfectville, population one.
2. 1986 AFC Championship Game: The Drive
No team was ever ahead by more than 10 points in the entirety of this game, but that isn't what made it so great.
It all really started in the fourth quarter, when Bernie Kosar, then the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, tossed a 48 yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan, putting the Browns up 20-13 with 5:43 left on the clock.
That wasn't the only obstacle they put between the Broncos and victory, though. The Browns then proceeded to pin the Broncos deep in their own territory, forcing them to start their drive from the two yard line.
John Elway then proceeded to add another chapter in the lore of Cleveland sports history by driving the ball 98 yards downfield in just over five minutes, drawing the game even with 37 seconds left on the clock.
The Broncos stopped the Browns on their first possession in overtime, and a 33 yard field goal sent them to the 1987 Super Bowl.
1. 1987 AFC Championship: The Fumble
The late 80s just weren't nice to the Cleveland Browns, were they?
Only a year after their crushing overtime loss to the Denver Broncos in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, the two were facing each other once again for the AFC Super Bowl berth, and this time, it was personal.
Somehow, despite the extra motivation that the Browns were riding, they came out of the gates flat, going into halftime down 21-3.
The Browns were not to be deterred though, and came storming back to bring themselves within a touchdown of tying the game with 3:53 left on the clock.
The Browns drove the ball all the way down to the eight yard line, when it happened.
The Browns thought they had it, and they would have, had it not been for Earnest Byner fumbling the football. It was recovered by the Broncos at the three yard line.
This game had it all: big point runs, comebacks and game changing plays. The 1988 AFC Championship game doesn't win the No. 1 spot by leaps and bounds, but to me, it is certainly deserving of the spot.