For many years, the Super Bowl was a huge disappointment, bringing huge hype but resulting in a dull game.
However, "Championship Sunday," the day of the AFC and NFC Conference Championship Games, has brought some of the greatest games in NFL history.
They've also brought some of the most crushing and devastating disappointments, and not just to the city that lost, but to the fans of the NFL and viewers of the Super Bowl.
The following are a series of Conference Championship Games that, had they went the other way, would have given us a much better Super Bowl, and in some cases even a different Super Bowl winner.
AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. San Diego Chargers
The Steelers actually dominated this game. Neil O’Donnell threw for 349 yards and the Steelers nearly doubled the total yardage of the Chargers for the game. The Chargers won due to three fluky, yet big plays.
On the final drive, the Steelers moved the ball down to the 3-yard line when O’Donnell spiked the ball with plenty of time on the clock, thus needlessly wasting a down. His final throw to Foster (who was open) was thrown too far to Foster’s inside. If O’Donnell leads Foster with the throw the Steelers win the game.
How it would have changed the Super Bowl: The 49ers would still likely have won, but the game would have been far more competitive than the embarrassment that the Chargers brought. The Steelers were the best team in the AFC in the mid-1990s; however they were still a rung below the Cowboys and 49ers.
More than anything, the Steelers lacked a franchise QB. They may very well have outplayed the 49ers, (similar to how they did against the Cowboys the following season—particularly from the 2nd quarter on) but the margin for error was too small for the Steelers, who would have needed an outstanding effort to win.
AFC Championship Game: Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos
This is the game featuring a moment forever known in NFL lore as “The Fumble.” Earnest Byner was heading for the end zone for the game-tying score when he unexpectedly fumbled, costing the Browns a chance to tie. That play is every bit the example of the all-around effort it takes to be a championship team, executing even the little things.
Browns wide receiver Webster Slaughter’s responsibility on the play was to block Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille. Instead, Slaughter stood by and watched while Castille made the strip and forced the fumble. Granted, since the TD would have only tied the game, it’s entirely possible the Broncos would have won anyway given John Elway’s abilities. But if the game did go into overtime and the Browns won the coin toss, Kosar and Byner were tearing the Broncos apart.
How it would have changed the Super Bowl: This would have been the Browns' year; "the Fumble” was worse than the “Drive" one year earlier. While the '86 Giants were dominant, the Browns balanced offense would have been a really difficult challenge for the '87 Redskins. That Redskins team was not as talented as the '82 and '91 teams.
At the very least, the Browns would have made the 1987 Super Bowl a much better game and would not have been stampeded like the Broncos were.
AFC Championship Game: Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
Unlike the previous games mentioned, the Dolphins did not lose this AFC Championship Game in heartbreaking fashion. The Patriots actually won this game outright as they ran the ball right down the throat of the Dolphins (255 rushing yards) and Tony Eason threw only 12 times and had 3 TDs—the longest of which was 4 yards.
The Dolphins and Patriots split their season series, but the Patriots gave the Dolphins problems. The Dolphins did not have a great run defense, and in the NFL matchups can make a huge difference.
How it would have changed the Super Bowl: The Bears were on a serious roll in 1985 and would have likely won, but it was not for certain. The 46 Defense was constructed to put massive pressure on the QB, but Marino was unmatched in his ability to face pressure and get rid of the ball quickly.
The 46 Defense is not widely used today because it is vulnerable to the spread-open offenses that evolved (and that the Dolphins could execute), but really were not commonplace in 1985. The Dolphins were the only team to beat the Bears in 1985, and while that win was very much motivated by the franchise’s desire to maintain the only undefeated season in history, there was another reality— the Dolphins were a difficult matchup for the Bears.
NFC Championship Game: Minnesota Vikings vs. Atlanta Falcons
Perhaps the most heartbreaking loss of all Conference Championship Games was the 1998 NFC Championship Game. The Vikings exploded to a 15-1 season, which was only the third such time for the accomplishment, and the previous two teams who had held that record won the Super Bowl. The Falcons, however, had the best season in the history of their franchise as well (14-2).
Chris Chandler played the game of his life, throwing for 340 yards and 3 TDs. Still, the Vikings were in position to take a 10-point lead with 2:07 remaining when kicker Gary Anderson, who did not miss a field goal the entire season, missed a 38-yard attempt. Down by a touchdown, the Falcons drove down the field for the tying score and won the game in overtime. To rub salt into the wounds, Vikings LB Dwayne Rudd nearly intercepted a Chandler pass on the final drive.
How it would have changed the Super Bowl: The Vikings vs. Broncos had the potential to be the best Super Bowl ever, with either team capable of winning. It certainly would have been a better game than the one that actually happened. The Vikings were not a “one-year wonder,” having made the playoffs in five of the previous six seasons.
The arrival of Randy Moss and re-emergence of Randall Cunningham saw the team put it all together. The Falcons, on the other hand, truly came out of nowhere to go 14-2, and the Anderson miss was not the only good fortune the Falcons had come across that postseason. One round earlier in a divisional round matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, Steve Young’s 2 INTs (one on the 3-yard line) drastically changed the game.
By the Super Bowl, all of their good breaks had been used up and Murphy’s Law landed on Atlanta. Super Bowl XXXIII was a letdown of a game when it could have been the most exciting ever.
AFC Championship Game: Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans
The Jaguars are a perfect example of how quickly forgotten a successful team can be when they fail to reach the Super Bowl. Despite it being only their fifth year in existence, Jacksonville reached the playoffs four consecutive times after their inaugural season and reached the AFC Championship in only their second season.
In 1999, the Jaguars had the best record in the NFL (14-2). As mentioned previously, matchups are critical, and the Jaguars did not match up well with the Titans (they suffered their only two regular season losses to Tennessee).
Similar to the Dolphins and Patriots in 1985, the actual AFC Championship Game was never in doubt as the Titans won easily 33-14. But outside of that, the Jaguars were the league’s best team. They were perfectly balanced on offense and had the league’s No. 1 defense. Consider how they ended the careers of two NFL greats, Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino, in the playoffs a week before, obliterating them 62-7.
How it could have changed the Super Bowl: At first glance, this seems to be a bit of a cheat. This game did feature “The Tackle” after all. However, lost in the hype of the final play are three facts:
- The Rams drove to within the Titans' 20-yard line four times, only coming away with 3 FGs. The Titans were fortunate not to have been blown out early.
- One of the Titans' TDs was clearly not a TD as Eddie George’s knee was down before he fought his way into the end zone.
- The final play would only have resulted in a tie, although the way Titans fans seem to tell it, they would have won if Dyson had scored.
Despite the excitement of the final drive, the game was almost entirely controlled by the Rams, and it was remarkable that the game was even close. The Jaguars would have been far more challenging for the Rams, a team that was much more known for “The Greatest Show on Turf” than for the win/loss record of their opponents, which was 93-163 (the weakest of any Super Bowl Champion). They were also the benefactors of a highly controversial call (Bert Emmanuel’s overruled catch) in the NFC Championship, which helped propel them into the Super Bowl.
NFC Championship Game: Minnesota Vikings vs. New York Giants
The 2000 NFC Championship Game looked on paper to be a mismatch. The Vikings (eight playoffs in nine years and only a year removed from going 15-1) had one of the league’s most prolific offenses with Randy Moss, Chris Carter and Robert Smith being weapons for the young franchise QB Daunte Culpepper. The Giants, by comparison, appeared to be a mediocre team that was more of an anomaly. Their 2000 season was the only season in a 10-year span in which they were a legitimate contender.
What happened on that field on Sunday, January 14, 2001, could not easily be explained as the Giants destroyed the Vikings 41-0. It was more than a simple bad day on the field; the Giants were not a team 41 points better than the Vikings. The Vikings were defeated also in their minds; they would never be the same again.
How this could have changed the Super Bowl: It’s hard to imagine how a team destroyed 41-0 would have managed to perform any better against the Ravens than the Giants did. The Ravens were simply playing at a different level. Considering that they were considerably more mentally tough than the Vikings, they would have still won.
But if the Vikings did not implode on themselves, they would have brought something that the Ravens had not faced all year long. The quarterbacks the 2000 Ravens played against were largely abysmal. They didn’t have to face a real “Franchise QB” who was dangerous with his arm the entire season. The Vikings would have been the only truly dynamic offense the Ravens would have faced all season, and it could have made for a far more interesting and competitive Super Bowl.
AFC Championship Game: Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos fielded some very competitive teams in the late 1970s and had the best season in the history of the franchise (both AFL and NFL) in 1977. They had to play against the NFL’s three best teams, the Steelers, Raiders and Cowboys, and beat the Steelers and Raiders in both the regular and postseason.
The AFC Championship Game featured a play that was as controversial as any, but has inexplicably been long forgotten—a fumble by Denver on the 2-yard line was negated by a premature whistle. Replays clearly showed a fumble, and Oakland defensive lineman Mike McCoy began returning it for an easy touchdown. However, the 14-point swing never occurred. The Raiders scored to narrow the game to 14-10, but a Stabler interception led to a Broncos touchdown, and despite outscoring the Broncos 14-6 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos won the game.
How this could have changed the Super Bowl: While the Steelers were the unofficial “Team of the Decade” for the 1970s, there were two challengers to that title. Both Oakland and Dallas had classic games vs. the Steelers, but never against each other. This could have been one of the greatest Super Bowls in history, featuring two of the NFL's best teams, each with completely contrasting images and styles. The defending champion Raiders were likely at a disadvantage here, as age was beginning to set in on their largely successful run of the 1970s. But either way, this would have been a brilliant Super Bowl.