Analysis: Top 15 Championship Sunday games in the Super Bowl era
For the casual American sports enthusiast, nothing compares to the pomp and circumstance of Super Sunday — complete with red-carpet celebrity appearances, big-budget TV commercials, endless food spreads, uplifting halftime musical extravaganzas and oh yeah, the Super Bowl itself.
But for the hardcore NFL fan, the best football day likely occurs on Championship Sunday — a long-standing tradition of determining the two Super Bowl entrants in a clean seven-hour window.
Fox Sports South takes a detailed look at the NFL’s 15 most memorable games from Conference Championship weekend, ranking the ones from the Super Bowl era (1966 season-present).
Our original list covered 37 remarkable games and was subsequently pared down to the 15-plus events below:
15. Vikings 14, Rams 10 (1974 NFC Championship)
15a. Steelers 24, Raiders 13 (1974 AFC Championship)
Skinny: How’s this for cool synergy? From 1972-77, the Raiders and Steelers met on the same field 10 times — including four legendary playoff battles. And from 1973-79, the Rams and Vikings — the NFL’s second-best rivalry of the 1970s — also played one another 10 times … including the infamous Mud Bowl (January 1978).
For that 1974 season, the Vikings and Steelers exacted regular-season revenge on Championship Sunday, with Minnesota capitalizing on five Los Angeles turnovers in the NFC title game and Pittsburgh pulling off a road shocker in the AFC championship — just a week after the Raiders ended the Dolphins’ three-year reign as AFC champions in the iconic Sea Of Hands game (or ‘Super Bowl 8 1/2’ to some in the media).
In the Steelers’ victory, rushers Rocky Bleier (123 total yards) and Franco Harris combined for 234 total yards and two touchdowns, while QB Terry Bradshaw completed only four passes to Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Charting 70-plus seasons, this upset undoubtedly stands as the Steelers’ sweetest road triumph.
14. Cowboys 30, 49ers 20 (1992 NFC Championship)
14a. 49ers 38, Cowboys 28 (1994 NFC Championship)
Skinny: From 1992-95, the Cowboys (three titles) and 49ers (one title) ruled the NFL universe, claiming all four Lombardi trophies during that span.
As such, Dallas and San Francisco took turns knocking each other out of the NFC playoffs for three straight seasons (1992-94), with the upstart Cowboys upending the 15-2 Niners in the ’92 championship … and the rebooted 49ers — with Deion Sanders, Gary Plummer, Ken Norton Jr. added to the mix — halting the Cowboys’ dynastic run in the ’94 championship.
For the ’92 title game, where the turf at Candlestick Park never looked worse (and that’s saying a lot), Cowboys QB Troy Aikman (322 yards passing, two TDs), Emmitt Smith (173 total yards, two TDs) and Alvin Harper (three catches, 117 yards) enjoyed monster outings.
And for the ’94 championship … the 49ers sprinted to a 21-0 lead (thanks to two Aikman interceptions) and cruised to a victory — clinching Steve Young’s only Super Bowl berth as a starting quarterback.
13. Bengals 27, Chargers 7 (1981 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Freezer Bowl
Skinny: Given the 20-point margin of victory, this hardly qualifies as one of the most thrilling championship games in recent memory.
However, history still looks kindly on this playoff clash, 32 years later, thanks to a record-breaking wind chill of minus-59 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium.
That Ohio day, weather-wise, ran polar opposite to the Chargers-Dolphins conditions from the previous week — arguably the greatest playoff outing of all time — as the clubs admirably battled through warm temperatures (mid-80s) and high humidity for four-plus hours, with San Diego eking out a 41-38 overtime victory in Miami.
The following Sunday, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts threw for only 185 yards and one touchdown against the Bengals. His two wind-influenced interceptions were drive-killers, halting the momentum of a Chargers offense that accounted for only 301 total yards.
Cincinnati QB Ken Anderson, in turn, was markedly more efficient, passing for 161 yards and two touchdowns, while impressively tossing just eight incompletions on the day.
The Bengals’ victory also marked the first time that owner/GM/NFL innovator Paul Brown had reached the Super Bowl.
12. Giants 23, Packers 20 OT (2007 NFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Other Freezer Bowl
Skinny: There are two enduring images from this classic, serving as one of the coldest games in Lambeau Field history:
1. Brett Favre tossing an overtime interception for his last official pass in a Packers uniform.
2. The visual of Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s red cheeks throughout the second half and overtime, the likely result of ‘frostbite’ exposure to the wind and cold (minus-7 at kickoff).
That aside, the road-ready Giants pulled out a scintillating victory, despite prolonged struggles with the kicking game, to clinch the NFC title and a Super Bowl berth (against the 18-0 Patriots).
Against the Packers, receiver Plaxico Burress (11 catches) accounted for 151 of Eli Manning’s passing yards … and Giants rushers Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw each collected 70-plus total yards and one touchdown.
11. Patriots 41, Steelers 27 (2004 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Revenge Game
Skinny: On Halloween day of the 2004 season, the upstart Steelers gleefully ended the Patriots’ NFL-record winning streak of 21 games with a 34-20 home thumping.
Two months later, Heinz Field once again served as ground zero for another hot streak to fall — with New England killing Pittsburgh’s 15-game streak with a road rout in the AFC title game.
For that rematch, Tom Brady passed for only 207 yards and two touchdowns. But the timing of the two scores was paramount to New England running away with everything by halftime.
Brady hit Deion Branch and David Givens for first- and second-quarter scores, boosting the Patriots’ lead to 17-3. A few minutes later, safety Rodney Harrison returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown, effectively clinching the franchise’s fourth overall Super Bowl.
New England would go on to win Super Bowl XXXIX, sealing a run of three Lombardi trophies in a four-year span.
10. Steelers 20, Colts 16 (1995 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Almost Hail Mary
Skinny: Leave it to Jim Harbaugh, aka Captain Comeback in his playing days, to nearly steal the spotlight from Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Reggie White, Robert Brooks and Favre on Championship Sunday (January 1996).
Had Colts receiver Aaron Bailey cleanly corralled Harbaugh’s Hail Mary pass to end the AFC title game in Pittsburgh, it might have marked the second-greatest occurrence in postseason history — right after Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception against Oakland in 1972.
Instead, we’re left with the heartbreaking (or uplifting) sight of Bailey losing control of the Hail Mary for a nanosecond, under a niagara of Steelers defenders trying to jar the ball loose (to borrow a classic NFL Films description).
10a. Cowboys 38, Packers 27 (1995 NFC Championship)
Favre and Aikman combined for 562 yards passing and five TDs … with Smith, Irvin and Brooks amassing 372 total yards and seven TDs in one of the more entertaining championship bouts you’ll ever see.
For once, the game exceeded its preceding megahype.
9. Broncos 20, Raiders 17 (1977 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Fumble That Never Was
Skinny: The Raiders were the first NFL franchise to reach at least one Super Bowl in the 1960s, 70s and 80s; but during that illustrious span, the club only had one truly golden shot at winning back-to-back Lombardi trophies — the 1977 season.
On the heels of Oakland’s world championship for the 1976 campaign, losing just once all season, the 1977 Raiders advanced to the AFC title game and earned a rubber-match encounter with the Denver Broncos, the AFC West champions for that year (both teams knocked each other off at home druing the regular season).
For the championship clash, with Denver leading 7-3 early in the second quarter, Broncos running back Rob Lytle fielded a goal-line carry but was immediately struck by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who clearly knocked the ball loose before Lytle hit the ground.
And even though Oakland had recovered the ball, as well, the referees still ruled that Lytle was down.
On the next play, Jon Keyworth scored a 1-yard touchdown, boosting Denver’s lead to 14-3.
Now, would the Broncos have won the game, even if the officials had the power (back then) to overturn the Lytle ruling, via instant replay? Nobody knows.
But it was the signature moment from a landmark victory for Denver … on a day where both clubs were remarkably similar with yards passing, yards rushing, first downs and sacks.
The only big difference: The Raiders officially turned the ball over three times, with the Broncos only ceding it once (Craig Morton interception).
8. Saints 31, Vikings 28 OT (2009 NFC Championship)
Also Known As … Favre Flounders In The Big Easy
Skinny: On the heels of a remarkable 2009 campaign with the Vikings (4,202 yards passing, 33 TDs), Brett Favre was one across-the-body interception away from leading Minnesota to its fifth Super Bowl.
Instead, his ill-advised pick to Saints cornerback Tracy Porter — with the Vikings approaching field-goal range — opened the gates for New Orleans to capture its only NFC title in 47 seasons.
On that fateful day, Drew Brees threw for only 197 yards (a postseason career low); but his three TD passes were enough to set up the Saints for overtime … and the subsequent game-winning drive immediately after the coin flip.
Vikings fans will recall this epic clash for Adrian Peterson’s inexplicable fumbles and Favre’s last-minute INT in regulation. But NFL execs will remember this outing as the impetus of its revised scoring rules for overtime games (regular season and postseason).
7. Jets 27, Raiders 23 (1968 AFL Championship)
Also Known As … Broadway Joe’s Legend Takes Off
Skinny: The Jets’ thrilling comeback win over the Raiders stands as the second-most significant (on-field) occurrence in AFL history … giving Joe Namath the platform to make the most famous guarantee in sports history.
(The AFL’s most important on-field event? ‘The Heidi Game,’ also pitting the Jets and Raiders in November, unwittingly provided the league a lifetime of free publicity. It also prompted TV networks to create the following unimpeachable rule: NEVER pre-empt pro football!)
It also debunked the myth the Baltimore Colts (arguably the greatest team to not win a championship) were an indestructible machine, worthy of being 20-point favorites in Super Bowl III and incapable of falling to a pass-happy club from a supposedly inferior football league.
If Baltimore had to scrap and fight to beat Cleveland in the NFL title game … perhaps the David vs. Goliath buildup to the Super Bowl wouldn’t have been so pronounced; and maybe, just maybe Namath doesn’t get provoked into guaranteeing victory at some random banquet in Miami, four days prior to kickoff.
(Strange but true: Miami Herald scribe Edwin Pope was the only writer to publish a story immediately off Namath’s impromptu prediction.)
In hindsight, the Jets’ struggles in the AFL title game were greater than Super Bowl III, with New York needing a late Namath-to-Don Maynard touchdown to claim the league championship. A few plays prior, Namath executed a long bomb to Maynard, after the Hall of Fame receiver beat Raiders cornerback George Atkinson on a deep sideline pattern.
For the day, Namath finished with 266 yards passing and three touchdowns, with Maynard collecting six balls for 118 yards and two scores.
For the Raiders, quarterback Daryle Lamonica passed for 401 yards and Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff tallied seven catches for 190 yards and one touchdown.
6. Broncos 38, Browns 33 (1987 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Fumble
Skinny: Unfortunately, Earnest Byner’s NFL legacy revolves around The Fumble, a play in which he was seemingly cruising for the end zone in the latter moments of Browns-Broncos — only to be stripped by Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille.
It’s sad on two fronts: For his exemplary career, Byner accounted for 12,866 total yards (8,261 rushing) and 71 touchdowns over 14 NFL seasons. And for that famed ’87 title game, preceding the infamous fumble, Byner had notched 187 total yards and two TDs (22 touches).
In short, if Byner had crossed the goal line with the ball intact, knotting the score at 38, it might have ended up as the Browns’ greatest rushing touchdown of the Super Bowl era. Instead, it was one more dark memory from a 12-month cycle that also included The Drive.
For the Broncos, QB John Elway (281 yards passing) tossed three touchdowns off only 14 completions, with Sammy Winder (106 total yards, one TD), Mark Jackson (four catches, 134 yards, one TD) and Ricky Nattiel (five catches, 95 yards, one TD) each finding the end zone against the Browns.
5. Colts 38, Patriots 34 (2006 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … Peyton’s Finally Does It!
Skinny: Championship Sunday for the 2006 season was doubly fascinating, in hindsight.
For that day’s opener (New Orleans-Chicago), heading into the fourth quarter, the Bears were clinging to an 18-14 lead and desperately seeking a way to control the Saints’ troika of Drew Brees (354 yards passing, two TDs), tailback Reggie Bush (151 total yards, 1 TD) and receiver Marques Colston (five catches, 63 yards, 1 TD) … before pulling away with three late scores to seal the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth in 21 years.
The nightcap took the cake, prestige-wise, with Peyton Manning orchestrating the greatest comeback in Championship Sunday history. Down 21-6 to New England, Indy rallied for 32 second-half points and broke the Colts’ 36-year Super Bowl drought.
Strange but true: Manning threw for 349 yards and one touchdown — but no receivers or tailbacks caught his lone TD pass. That honor went to a defensive tackle-turned-eligible-receiver-at-the-goal-line, former Patriot Dan Klecko.
4. Falcons 30, Vikings 27 OT (1998 NFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Miss Heard ‘Round The World
Skinny: The Vikings were a viable powerhouse in that 1998 season, amassing a then-NFL record 556 points (predating the ’07 Patriots), registering 12 blowout wins and dismantling the opposition by 16.2 points per game.
As luck would have it, that explosion also coincided with receiver Randy Moss’s NFL debut: 69 catches, 1,313 yards and 17 TDs.
Perhaps more impressive, the offense didn’t supremely click until after backup QB Randall Cunningham (3,704 yards passing, 35 total TDs) took over in Week 3 (due to Brad Johnson’s injury).
Of course, Minnesota ‘s championship hopes were dashed by Atlanta in the NFC title game, precluding a titanic clash with the eventual champion Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII (John Elway’s triumphant swan song).
In the NFC title game, the Falcons struck first, with running back Jamal Anderson corraling a 5-yard touchdown pass from QB Chris Chandler. The Vikings then rolled to four straight scores (two TDs, two field goals), highlighted by Moss’ 31-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Atlanta answered with a touchdown before halftime (Terance Mathis), setting the stage for one of the most exciting second halves of any championship game in this survey.
With Minnesota up 27-20 in the fourth quarter and just a few minutes left on the clock, kicker Gary Anderson took the field for a routine kick (40-plus yards).
It was seemingly academic, in the sense that Anderson hadn’t missed a field-goal attempt or PAT with the Vikings in two years.
But his missed kick kept the door ajar for a Falcons comeback. On Atlanta’s ensuing drive, Chandler (340 yards passing, three TDs) found Mathis for his second touchdown of the day, forcing overtime at the Metrodome.
After some stalled drives in OT, Chandler and Co. did just enough to set up Morten Andersen for the game-winning kick … with the lefty kicker splitting the uprights and clinching the greatest victory in Falcons history.
For the NFL Films "Missing Rings" documentary, chronicling the 1998 Vikings, Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter admitted that "he didn’t want to play football again" after the heartbreaking loss to the Falcons.
It was, of course, only a short-term reaction to a gut-wrenching defeat.
3. Broncos 23, Browns 20 OT (1986 AFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Drive
Skinny: We couldn’t celebrate a listing of unforgettable Championship Sundays without a salute to John Elway’s most legendary playoff appearance, via The Drive — a 98-yard TD journey against the Browns to force overtime in the AFC title game (with five minutes remaining).
If there’s been a more pressure-packed drive in NFL history — where the opposing quarterback was deep in his own territory and hounded by inhospitable fans — one doesn’t come to mind.
Which brings us to the controversial kick in overtime: If anyone can produce hard video evidence that Rich Karlis’ game-winning field goal actually sailed through the uprights … please let us know.
You know what’s weird about that final box score? Elway executed a number of crucial pass plays on the overtime-forcing TD drive, but only finished with 244 yards passing and one touchdown (the Big One to Mark Jackson — five yards).
And not a single Denver pass-catcher tallied more than three receptions on the day.
The Browns playmakers were more fruitful, with QB Bernie Kosar (259 yards passing, two TDs), Kevin Mack (114 total yards), Herman Fontenot (seven catches, 66 yards, one TD) and receiver Brian Brennan (four catches, 72 yards, one TD) enjoying stellar outings in defeat.
Brennan scored the go-ahead touchdown that immediately preceded The Drive, falling to the ground after catching a Kosar sideline pass … and then sprinting to the end zone before Broncos safety Dennis Smith could down him in the red zone.
2. 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 (1981 NFC Championship)
Also Known As … The Catch
Skinny: This game kicked off the 49ers’ dynasty under Bill Walsh (three championships from 1981-88), along with Joe Montana’s reign as the most dominant quarterback of the 1980s (four titles).
It also served as the beginning of the end for the Tom Landry-led Cowboys, in terms of the club slowly eroding from championship contention.
Yes, Dallas would reach three straight NFC title games for the 1980-82 seasons (dropping all three); but the ’81 club likely represented their greatest shot at Lombardi Trophy greatness in the 1980s.
For Landry’s final five years in Big D (1984-88), the Cowboys had a 36-43 record.
As for the championship bout, the Cowboys and 49ers exchanged the lead six times, with Montana hitting a leaping Dwight Clark on the game-winning touchdown reception (from six yards).
Of course, Clark might not be a folk hero today if 49ers cornerback Eric Wright hadn’t executed a season-saving, horse-collar tackle on receiver Drew Pearson on the Cowboys’ final drive.
Luckily for San Fran, horse-collar tackles were legal in 1981 … because it might have gone down as one of the most infamous defensive blunders in NFL history if Pearson runs past the 49ers for a 77-yard touchdown in the final seconds.
1. Packers 21, Cowboys 17 (1967 NFL Championship)
Also Known As … The Ice Bowl
Skinny: The Packers’ most significant victory of all time also cemented Lambeau Field’s status as an iconic sports venue.
Who can forget the images of CBS announcers Ray Scott, Jack Buck and Frank Gifford standing on the sidelines before kickoff, half-heartedly pretending not to be affected by the minus-15 temperatures?
Or Cowboys receiver and future Hall of Famer Bob Hayes running pass patterns with both hands in pockets?
Or the sight of Jerry Kramer executing the most famous block in NFL history — enabling Bart Starr to win the game on a QB-sneak touchdown in the final seconds?
The Ice Bowl eventually produced 14 Hall of Famers — including coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry and Cowboys GM Tex Schramm — a list that curiously doesn’t include Kramer, one of the most heralded offensive guards in football lore.
Of course, the Packers were extremely fortunate to host a championship bout that season. Back then, the NFL didn’t assign playoff venues based on overall record.
The Los Angeles Rams, even with their league-best 11-1-2 record, had to travel to Green Bay for Divisional Playoff Weekend (the Packers thumped ’em in the cold, 28-7).
The Packers were also lucky the NFL didn’t have wild-card teams in 1967. That season, the Baltimore Colts also posted a league-best 11-1-2 mark … but lost the Coastal Division tiebreaker to the Rams.
No postseason whatsoever.