There is an old John Madden saying that the Conference Championship Games are better to watch than the Super Bowl because it is all about the game and less of a spectacle. With a berth in the big game on the line, there have been some memorable moments since the 1970 league merger. And these are our top 10 moments.
10 – Harbaugh’s Heave
1995: Pittsburgh 20-16 Indianapolis
Throughout their 1995 campaign, the Colts had a habit of getting into tight games decided by one score. When they travelled to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh it was no different to the rest of their season and the game came down to the final play once again. With Pittsburgh up 13-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh (who will feature later in this list as a coach), threw a long touchdown pass to give the Colts the lead. With the game on the line Neil O’Donnell drove the Steelers down and running back Bam Morris scored the eventual winner with 1:34 to go. There was still more drama to come however as the Colts got in range for a desperation Hail Mary attempt. For a second it looked like the miracle would occur with a touchdown however the ball hit the ground and the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl.
9 – The End of the Eras
1990: New York 15-13 San Francisco
For most of the 1980s, the NFC was ruled by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Bill Parcells and the New York Giants had been one of San Francisco’s regular postseason opponents during that decade, facing off three times in the lead up to this game. San Francisco held a 2-1 advantage in head to head meetings but the Giants were aiming to stop them from completing an unprecedented three-peat of Super Bowl Championships.
This game would come to be known as the end of several eras in both franchises. For the Giants, Parcells would resign at the end of this season while the 49ers would begin the transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young. A physical defensive battle saw both quarterbacks forced to leave the game after vicious hits, although Jeff Hostetler would return to the field. It would all come down to the final play of the game as Giants kicker Matt Bahr kicked his fifth field goal of the game to send the Giants to the Super Bowl. Funnily enough that game would also come down to the final kick of the game as Bills kicker Scott Norwood sent his game winning attempt wide right.
8 – Brady vs Manning: The Finale
2015: Denver 20-18 New England
The final meeting between the two best quarterbacks of the 2000s took place in Brady’s house of nightmares in Denver. Manning came into this game a shell of his former self, barely held together through injuries making one final ride in his 17-year career. This was a rematch of a November classic which went to overtime and was the reason Denver was able to host this game.
The Broncos struck first with a touchdown pass from Manning to Daniels before the Patriots responded with a run by Steven Jackson, however a missed extra point would later play a big role. Throughout the game the Broncos defensive line gave Brady a beating throughout the game continually hitting him at every opportunity.
With Denver leading 20-12 Brady was able to construct a drive that ended with a touchdown pass. The game came down to a two point conversion which Denver stopped giving Manning bragging rights in his last meeting with his biggest rivals. Denver would go on to win the Super Bowl over Carolina in San Francisco.
7 – Favre Throws it Away
2009: New Orleans 31-28 Minnesota (OT)
The last time the Minnesota Vikings were in the NFC Championship they travelled to New Orleans to face the top-seeded Saints. It was a classic back and forth duel between Drew Brees and Brett Favre, who was experiencing a career resurgence at age 40. Unfortunately for Minnesota they would be left to rue a series of turnovers throughout the game that would end their season here.
The teams would go back and forth with neither side leading by more than seven throughout the game. With the scores tied at 21 going into the fourth quarter, the Saints took advantage of a Percy Harvin fumble and went up 28-21. Favre would not be outdone however, driving the Vikings back down for the tying score and they got the ball back with just 2:42 to play. After moving onto the edge of field goal range, Favre made a massive mistake trying to force a pass and was intercepted by Tracy Porter. It would have brought back memories of his final pass as a member of the Packers two years earlier in the NFC Championship which was an interception. New Orleans took the ball in overtime and won the game on a field goal.
6 – Anderson Misses & Anderson Makes!
1998: Atlanta 30-27 Minnesota (OT)
At 15-1 the Vikings were the most entertaining team in the NFL going up and down the field at will. In the NFC Championship they faced the second seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Metrodome. Their high-flying passing attack was held (somewhat) in check after setting up a 20-7 lead. Atlanta began to roar back but with the score at 27-20 with just over two minutes to play, the Vikings were in range for a 38-yard field goal to set up another two-score margin.
It all came down to the kicker who had not missed all season, what could possibly go wrong? Well plenty as it turned out, the kick went wide left and Atlanta drove down to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime. Maybe this weekend will give them some sort of redemption.
5 – Wide Left
2011: New England 23-20 Baltimore
A heavyweight fight in the truest sense of the word as the Patriots and Ravens traded blows in Gillette Stadium. An uncharacteristically poor performance from Tom Brady where he threw three interceptions and struggled against a rabid Ravens defence. On the goal line with just over eleven minutes remaining Brady ran the ball in while taking a hard shot from Ray Lewis.
The real drama of this game, and the reason it made the list is on the Ravens final possession. On the Patriots 14 with 26 seconds remaining Joe Flacco threw the ball to Lee Evans in the corner of the end zone. For a split second it looked like Evans would pull the ball in and the Ravens would be going to the Super Bowl but Patriots backup Sterling Moore knocked the ball loose. Two plays later Billy Cundiff came onto the field to tie the game. Unfortunately for him, there would be no shining moment as the kick went way wide to the left.
4 – Don’t You Ever Talk About Me!
2013: Seattle 23-17 San Francisco
For three quarters, it looked like the 49ers would be returning to the Super Bowl however the Seahawks mounted a fourth quarter rally that produced one of the most memorable post game moments. This game was the high point of the rivalry between the NFC West opponents and San Francisco built a 10-3 halftime lead in a defensive struggle. Teams traded touchdowns before a Seattle field goal reduced the deficit to send it to a critical fourth quarter.
There were signs that the final 15 minutes would not go San Francisco’s way losing their lead on the second play of the quarter. Later, they lost one of their defensive leaders Navarro Bowman to a gruesome leg injury and Seattle got a field goal following Colin Kaepernick’s first interception of the day. San Francisco drove the subsequent possession into Seattle territory giving them a shot at the game winning touchdown. Kaepernick’s throw to the right side of the end zone was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by Malcom Smith. That also sparked one of the best post game interviews you will see.
3 – Denver’s Dog Double
1986: Denver 23-20 Cleveland (OT) & 1987: Denver 38-33 Cleveland
Yes, technically this is two games but the double gut punch that the Denver Broncos handed to the city of Cleveland is best explained in one part. It all started at Cleveland Stadium at the end of the 1986 season with the top seeded Browns hosting John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Up 20-13 with Denver trapped on their own two-yard line, it was looking good however keeping in line with the fortunes of the Cleveland, Elway orchestrated a surgical drive to tie the game with 37 seconds left. Denver made a stop in overtime and drove down for a winning field goal attempt.
Twelve months later, this time in Denver, The Drive was followed up with The Fumble. Denver jumped to a 21-3 halftime lead and were looking good for another trip to the Super Bowl. Cleveland rallied to bring the game back to a 31-31 tie. Elway would not be outdone however responding with a touchdown drive to put Denver back into the lead. As Browns running back Ernest Byner was on his way in for the tying score he fumbled the ball and Denver recovered. If there was any consolation for the Browns here, Denver lost both Super Bowls to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
2 – The Emerald City Miracle
2014: Seattle 28-22 Green Bay (OT)
Seattle were looking to go back to back as Super Bowl champions however they faced a Green Bay Packers side that had been on the end of some heartbreaking losses at their hands. However a hobbled Aaron Rodgers brought the Packers back to the site of the infamous Fail Mary play from two seasons earlier looking for a shot at redemption.
By all logic a team should not win a game when they throw four interceptions and lose a fumble however Green Bay’s biggest error is they did not put Seattle away when given the chance. Four times in the opening half, Green Bay got down inside the Seattle 25 but had to settle for three field goals and one touchdown.
The final four minutes of regulation brought about a flurry of activity. Seattle took over on their own 31 trailing 19-7 and Russell Wilson drove the ball right down the field for a touchdown to bring them within five. All that Green Bay had to do was recover the onside kick and they would go to the Super Bowl but Brandon Bostick mishandled the ball giving Seattle possession. Marshawn Lynch gave Seattle the lead and just about set off another earthquake with his go ahead touchdown run.
A wild two point conversion made the deficit three points but Rodgers was not finished. He took over and drove the Packers right down for a 48 yard field goal to send this game to overtime. The only way Seattle could guarantee a win on the opening possession was to score a touchdown and Wilson threw a laser down the middle to Jermaine Kearse.
1 – Manning Has His Moment
2006: Indianapolis 38-34 New England
Brady vs Manning is a recipe for a memorable game and Manning’s first postseason triumph tops the list. In many eyes, this was the true Super Bowl for the 2006 NFL season as these sides were playing for the right to beat Chicago in two weeks’ time. For the first half, it looked like this would follow the script of previous games with the Patriots jumping out to a 21-3 lead. The scars of previous playoff exits were ready to burst open but there was one big difference this time, it was in Peyton’s House.
What unfolded next was a flurry of action as the Colts powered back to tie the game at 21-21 before the Patriots regained the lead going into the fourth quarter. In line with the crazy nature of the game, Colts center Jeff Saturday tied the game up again recovering a fumble in the end zone before the teams exchanged field goals to once again level the scores at 31. Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots up by three with under four minutes remaining before Manning had his moment. Manning did the bulk of the work to get there but it was a three yard run by Joseph Addai to give Indianapolis a lead they would not relinquish.