Ranking the Best NFL Conference Championship Games Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2021

Ranking the Best NFL Conference Championship Games Since 2000

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Winning a conference championship game to reach the Super Bowl is exciting enough, but that critical victory can sometimes be a legendary one.

    Since 2000, NFL fans have enjoyed about a dozen outstanding games at that stage of the postseason. The NFC has regularly had dramatic moments and tight finishes, especially in the last decade. And although the AFC has included a fair number of blowouts, its best conference title games of the last 20 years have been incredible.

    While the order is subjective, factors used to determine the rankings include overall competitiveness, iconic moments and final score.

    Note: The year listed is the season of the game played, not the date on the calendar. That is always a year ahead.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2008 NFC: Arizona Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25

    2011 NFC: New York Giants 20, San Francisco 49ers 17 (OT)

    2012 NFC: San Francisco 49ers 28, Atlanta Falcons 24

    2017 AFC: New England Patriots 24, Jacksonville Jaguars 20

    2018 NFC: Los Angeles Rams 26, New Orleans Saints 23 (OT)

8. 2009 NFC: Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Throughout their postseason history, the Minnesota Vikings have endured a handful of painful losses. One of the worst happened against the New Orleans Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

    Late in the fourth quarter, Adrian Peterson rushed in his third touchdown of the contest to pull the score even at 28. Minnesota forced a three-and-out, giving Brett Favre and the offense a chance to seal the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl since 1976.

    As the Vikings inched into field-goal territory, a 12-men penalty pushed them to the edge of Ryan Longwell's range. They trusted Favre to complete a pass and give Longwell a better chance.

    Unfortunately for Minnesota, however, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter snagged an interception and forced overtime.

    New Orleans won the toss, and Drew Brees led a drive that set up Garrett Hartley's game-winning 40-yard kick. The Saints ended up defeating the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

7. 2011 AFC: Patriots 23, Ravens 20

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Despite forcing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots into three turnovers, the Baltimore Ravens fell painfully short in the 2011 AFC Championship Game.

    Baltimore took a slim 17-16 lead in the third quarter and added a field goal to make it 20-16. In the fourth quarter, Brady's short touchdown put New England back in front 23-20.

    Still, the Ravens had three chances to overcome the deficit.

    In the last eight minutes, Joe Flacco tossed an interception on New England's side of the field. Jimmy Smith immediately picked off Brady, and Baltimore drove into scoring territory. Instead of trying a 50-yard kick, though, the Ravens went for a 4th-and-6 at the New England 33-yard line and missed.

    Then, after a New England three-and-out, Flacco and Co. had another drive. They reached the 14-yard line and could kick a field goal to go to overtime.

    As millions of Ravens fans watched in disbelief, Billy Cundiff badly hooked the 32-yard attempt.

    New England celebrated a stunning 23-20 win before losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

6. 2007 NFC: Giants 23, Packers 20 (OT)

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    David Duprey/Associated Press

    It's probably a good thing Favre already had a Super Bowl ring because his interceptions in the 2007 and 2009 NFC Championships would otherwise be even more painful.

    In this 2007 matchup with Eli Manning's Giants, Favre and the Green Bay Packers held a 10-6 halftime lead. The offenses traded scores to begin the second half, and a Mason Crosby field goal locked the score at 20 apiece early in the fourth quarter.

    Really, the Giants gave the Packers every opportunity to win.

    Lawrence Tynes missed two field goals in the last seven minutes, including a 36-yarder as regulation expired. Green Bay won the overtime toss, too. But on the second snap, Giants cornerback Corey Webster intercepted Favre in Packers territory. It was the final pass of Favre's career in Green Bay.

    Tynes hit a 47-yarder and sent New York to Super Bowl XLII, where the Giants ruined New England's perfect season.

5. 2015 AFC: Broncos 20, Patriots 18

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    During the final season of Peyton Manning's career, the Denver Broncos survived a thrilling end to the 2015 AFC title game.

    But a critical play happened much earlier in the game. After the Patriots scored their first touchdown, Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point for the first time in 524 attemptsnine whole years. Because the Pats only managed two more Gostkowski field goals through the third quarter, they eventually trailed 20-12.

    Nevertheless, like the Ravens four seasons earlier, New England had multiple chances to tie. One drive ended at Denver's 16-yard line, and another stalled at the Broncos' 14. Though the Patriots finally found the end zone with 12 seconds remaining, they still needed a two-point conversion to force overtime.

    Brady tried to whip a pass to Julian Edelman, but Aqib Talib tipped the ball, and Bradley Roby brought it down. Denver recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Manning kneeled out the clock.

    The Broncos gave Manning a storybook finish, toppling Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

4. 2014 NFC: Seahawks 28, Packers 22 (OT)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Given the context of the 2014 NFC Championship, the Seattle Seahawks had no business winning this game. On one good leg, Aaron Rodgers helped Green Bay to a 16-0 halftime lead and a 19-7 advantage with four minutes to play in regulation.

    The Packers forced five turnovers, intercepting Russell Wilson four times. Seattle even had to recover an onside kick, which almost never happens.

    But it did. Somehow, everything came together perfectly for the Seahawks down the stretch.

    Morgan Burnett didn't return a late interception as far as he could've. Brandon Bostick botched an onside kick recovery. Seattle converted a two-point conversion that meant Crosby's field goal with 19 seconds remaining only forced overtime rather than winning it for Green Bay.

    In the extra session, Seattle won the toss. After picking up a critical 3rd-and-7, Wilson and Jermaine Kearse connected for a game-winning 35-yard touchdown.

    New England clipped the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX thanks to Malcolm Butler's goal-line interception.

3. 2013 NFC: Seahawks 23, 49ers 17

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Seattle had a flair for the dramatic in the Legion of Boom era.

    One year before they knocked off the Packers, the Seahawks had a brilliant fourth quarter to eliminate NFC West rival San Francisco. The 49ers entered the frame up 17-13, but Seattle's charge began with a 35-yard touchdown from Wilson to Kearse on a 4th-and-7 early in the fourth.

    Midway through the quarter, Kam Chancellor picked off Colin Kaepernick. Steven Hauschka then added a field goal, giving the Seahawks a 23-17 advantage with 3:43 to play.

    Needing a touchdown to win, the Niners drove to Seattle's 18 yard-line. Kaepernick lofted a pass for Michael Crabtree down the right sideline, but Seattle corner Richard Sherman deflected the ball into the waiting arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith.

    The play led to Sherman's iconic postgame interview in which he called Crabtree a "sorry receiver."

    Seattle closed out the season with a 43-8 demolition of Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

2. 2018 AFC: Patriots 37, Chiefs 31 (OT)

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Brady passed the AFC's metaphorical torch to Patrick Mahomes during the 2019 season. But on this night, the Hall of Famer's team outlasted Kansas City's young superstar in epic fashion.

    Through three quarters, New England had a 17-7 lead. Kansas City quickly surged ahead thanks to a pair of touchdown passes from Mahomes to Damien Williams and held a 21-17 advantage before an absolutely wild last four minutes.

    Sony Michel's rushing score put the Patriots in front 24-21 with 3:32 remaining. Five plays later, Williams scored again to give the Chiefs a 28-24 lead with 2:03 left. New England countered with a six-play drive that resulted in a short touchdown from Rex Burkhead and a 31-28 edge with 39 seconds left. Mahomes only needed 31 seconds; Harrison Butker drilled a 39-yarder to force overtime.

    Following that 38-point fourth quarter, the Patriots won the toss. Remarkably, they converted three straight 3rd-and-10 situations before Burkhead sealed the victory with his second touchdown.

    New England beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the sixth and final of Brady's championships with the Pats.

1. 2006 AFC: Colts 38, Patriots 34

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    WINSLOW TOWNSON/Associated Press

    Nine years before their epic showdown in Peyton's final season, Manning and Brady played a legendary AFC title game.

    Thanks to Asante Samuel's pick-six in the second quarter, the Patriots built a 21-3 lead. Indianapolis only mustered a field goal before the break to make it 21-6. Although that deficit didn't last long, the second half was packed with drama.

    Indianapolis scored on its opening drive, forced a three-and-out, scored again and evened the game at 21 with a two-point conversion. Brady's touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney handed the Pats a 28-21 lead, but the Colts evened it again when center Jeff Saturday recovered a fumble in the end zone. (Amazingly, Patriots left guard Logan Mankins had done the same in the first quarter.)

    After the offenses traded punts, New England edged ahead on Gostkowski's 28-yard field goal. Colts kicker and former Patriots hero Adam Vinatieri answered with a 36-yarder, but Gostkowski's 43-yarder pushed New England to a 34-31 lead with 3:53 left.

    Two punts later, the Colts had the ball with 2:17 to play, needing a touchdown to win or a field goal to tie.

    They executed Plan A.

    Manning completed three throws for 57 yards, and a roughing-the-passer penalty set up Indianapolis' winning score. Joseph Addai punched in a three-yard touchdown for a 38-34 win.

    Marlin Jackon's interception officially sealed the victory, and the Colts toppled the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

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