This championship weekend has all the makings of a classic, with the AFC title game being played between teams with a combined 10 Super Bowl rings (the most ever in a title game) and the NFC pitting the two hottest quarterbacks in the league. They'll have a lot to live up to, as the NFL has been blessed with at least one classic championship game in every year of the decade. Will Pittsburgh-New England or Green Bay-Atlanta end up on our list of the 15 best championship games in NFL history?
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1981 NFC Championship game
The Catch. On one of the most celebrated play in NFL history, San Francisco's Dwight Clark went up in the back of the end zone to catch a missile from a young Joe Montana and give the 49ers a 28-27 lead over the Cowboys with less than a minute left in their back-and-forth title game. Rule: If your game has a nickname, it's going to be pretty high on lists like these.
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1967 NFL Championship: Packers 21, Cowboys 17
Case in point. What we remember most about the Ice Bowl is the bitter cold - temperatures were in the negative teens - but the game itself was just as memorable as the weather. Two iconic coaches playing a rematch of a classic championship game from the year before and it all coming down to one play with 13 seconds left. Bart Starr's goal-line sneak is immortal, but lost in retellings of the story is the fact that Green Bay was without a timeout and had Starr been stopped, Green Bay might not have been able to get off a fourth-down play. The early history of the Super Bowl era may have been changed forever. (Technically this was not an NFC championship game as it happened before the AFL/NFL merger. For our purposes, it's the same thing.)
2006 AFC Championship game: Colts 38, Patriots 34
By and large, Tom Brady's Patriots owned Peyton Manning teams (Brady didn't own Manning, though; they were two competitors on two separate playing fields). In addition to woes against the Pats, Manning's teams didn't do well in the playoffs due to both weak Colts defenses and a noticeable decline in Manning's postseason play. The 2006 title game looked no different. Indy trailed 21-3 and rallied to tie the game before a wild final 7 1/2 minutes that saw four go-ahead or tying scores, including a Joseph Addai touchdown with one minute left that gave the Colts their first lead and sent Manning to his first Super Bowl.
1987 AFC Championship game: Broncos 38, Browns 33
The Fumble. (See below.)
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1986 AFC Championship game: Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT)
The Drive. The first of the two Denver-Cleveland AFC Championship games is more revered -- a 98-yard touchdown drive by a future Hall of Famer to force overtime with 37 seconds left will do that -- but in terms of game quality The Fumble was the rare sequel that outdid the original. (The Empire Strikes Back, Toy Story 2, The Dark Knight make that list. The Godfather II does not -- don't buy the hype.) The first game was a sloppy effort. Before The Drive, Elway was downright mediocre, a fact that's always made that piece of NFL history a little less impressive. (Throw for more than 175 yards and don't have a pick and maybe you don't need that drive, John.) The '87 rematch, conversely, was a shootout in which Denver quickly shot down hopes of revenge by getting out to a 21-3 halftime lead. But the Browns stormed back with four touchdowns in just over 15 minutes to tie the game at 31. Elway led another drive (this time 75 yards) to take the lead and Bernie Kosar almost matched him with a 75-yard TD drive of his own, but on the final play Earnest Byner took a handoff from the eight, got past the defense and looked like he was about to score the game-tying touchdown, until the ball was somehow stripped from behind to force the titular turnover. The Drive was a new pain for he Browns. The Fumble became the embodiment for an entire fanbase. Cleveland has only won two playoff games since.
2013 NFC Championship game: Seahawks 23, 49ers 17
It's really hard to place recent games into historical context. Which moments will be remembered in five years or 10 or 50? The aforementioned run of great championship games leaves any number of choices to rank this high, and though we'll see some of the other ones later, the Richard Sherman/Michael Crabtree game has to be No. 1 from the recent past. It included Seattle forcing three fourth-quarter turnovers, a 35-yard Russell Wilson touchdown pass on fourth-and-7 and the game's final competitive play - Sherman deflecting a pass into the hands of teammate Malcolm Smith. The postgame rant in which Sherman called out Crabtree became an insta-classic and perhaps was a bit of overcompensation -- Sherman was actually beat by Crabtree on the play, but Colin Kaepernick's pass was so short that Sherman was able to get his hand on it for the deflection.
This is what we're talking about in terms of history: Kyle Williams should probably be remembered as one of the greatest goats ever. Instead, this game is barely remembered and rarely discussed. (Williams surely appreciates it.) He fumbled two punts in the 2011 NFC title game -- one when he didn't clear out and the ball caromed off him and the other in overtime when he had the ball stripped, setting up the game-winning field goal by New York. It was perhaps the first major sporting goat moment in the Twitter era, and users lived up to the lowest of expectations.
Back when rivalries were rivalries and the players hated their opponents as much as the fans did, Redskins vs. Cowboys was the most hostile matchup in sports. At the end of the day, Army and Navy share a mutual respect. George Allen, Joe Bugel, John Riggins and other Redskins legends hated the Cowboys as much as Tom Landry and Danny White hated them. The rivalry was starting to simmer when the teams met in the 1972 title game, but 10 years later it was at full boil in the '82 NFC championship. With 54,000 fans literally shaking RFK Stadium with a "we want Dallas" chant before the game, Dallas overcame an early deficit to get down one possession with six minutes remaining. Then Dexter Manley, who loathed the Cowboys most of all, blitzed White and deflected his pass up in the air where it was snagged by Darryl Grant for a game-clinching touchdown. Forget the domes. Forget the stadiums designed to maximize and manufacture sound. Forget the 80,000-seat palaces. No NFL stadium has ever been louder.
The 15-1 Vikings had a chance to go up 10 points late on a field goal by kicker Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a single kick all season. The field goal would have basically clinched a trip to the Super Bowl. You know what happens next. How the Vikings aren't considered an NFL version of the Red Sox or Cubs, I'll never know. Maybe it's the lack of self-pity.
The first of Brett Favre's two game-changing NFC Championship interceptions came on another historically cold day at Lambeau. After Green Bay took the ball in overtime Favre uncharacteristically floated a pass to Donald Driver that was intercepted by Corey Webster and eventually led to a game-winning field goal for New York. More characteristically, Favre had locked in on Driver, missing the fact that three of his receivers were wide open.
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1990 NFC Championship game: Giants 15, 49ers 13
With Jeff Hostetler in for Phil Simms and the Niners going for their third straight Super Bowl title, San Francisco was a huge home favorite to win the NFC. The teams had played a 7-3 game earlier in the year, and the championship was another defensive throw-down. Hostetler almost got hurt on a dirty, low hit that caused Lawrence Taylor to say after the game, "I let [Jim Burt] know that if they play like that they were going to lose a quarterback, too." They did. Leonard Marshall wrapped up Montana a few possessions later and pounded him into the turf, breaking his hand, cracking his ribs and bruising his sternum. New York ended up winning on a last-second field goal by Matt Bahr, who kicked five in the game.
The second of Brett Favre's two game-changing NFC Championship interceptions came with the Hall of Famer in Minnesota and facing third-and-15 with 19 seconds left and the ball on the New Orleans' 38. Favre dropped back, pump faked and threw a wobbly, off-balance pass that was picked off by Tracy Porter. Had Favre put the ball down and run with it, he'd have gotten 5 or 6 yards to set up a potentially game-winning 50-yard field goal. Instead, the game went to overtime and the Saints kicked a field goal on the opening possession. Two months later, the NFL changed the overtime rule to say that the kicking team would get a possession if the receiving team made a field goal. One of the four teams that voted against the rule: the Minnesota Vikings.
2011 AFC Championship game: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
With 27 seconds left, Lee Evans caught what would have been a go-ahead pass in the end zone, got two feet down but then had the ball stripped by New England's Sterling Moore. Watching it in slo-mo, you could make the case that Evans caught it. Watching it in real time (as every replay should be judged), it was a bang-bang play that definitely looked like an incompletion. With the chance of victory in regulation dashed, the Ravens needed a chip-shot field goal to force overtime. But Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yarder to give the Patriots the win. Baltimore would get revenge one year later.