With the NFL’s best-ever Championship Sunday looming – at least on paper – it felt like a good time to hop into the memory machine and rank the best conference title games since I can remember. Since I’m <expletive deleted> years old, we start at 1990.
And why am I starting with the AFC? Because as you’ll see, the NFC Championship Game has been vastly superior. In fact, you could legitimately argue that only one of these games would make the NFC’s list. So many blowouts, so little time.
These are my own personal rankings and you can feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments or tell me I’m an idiot via Twitter.
*Links on the score goes to the best highlight videos I could find
7) Steelers 24, Jets 19, 2010 season
As a Jets fan, this is basically a horror show. But for the casual fan, it was a game that turned out to be a lot more exciting than it had any right to be.
The Jets, fresh off the “Can’t Wait!” victory at New England, strolled into their second straight AFC title game and their sixth straight road playoff game in two years. Mark Sanchez was a sparkling 4-1 in road playoff games and after playing the best game of his life in beating Tom Brady, Jets fans, such as myself, had every right to believe this was finally our year.
It was not.
Instead, the Steelers were up 24-0 with just over a minute left in the first half. The Jets finally got their act together in the second half and closed to within the final score in the final minutes but the go-ahead score never came. The game wasn’t exactly a thriller but definitely falls into the “What if?” category because if the Jets had pulled it off, it would have been one of the greatest comeback in sports history. As such, an okay game.
6) Patriots 23, Ravens 20, 2011 season
We remember the end. We remember Lee Evans dropping – or being stripped – of a touchdown catch that would’ve put the Ravens into the Super Bowl. We remember Billy Cundiff missing a field goal that would’ve tied it. It feels like this game should be a bit higher on the list but…the game happened two years ago and I don’t remember anything about it. It wasn’t that memorable and was far overshadowed by the 49ers/Giants game later that night. Still, it was better than #7.
5) Chargers 17, Steelers 13, 1994 season
Who is ready for some Steelers games? Considering the Steelers seemed to play in this game every year for decade, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Steelers have had many brutal losses in the AFC title game but this might take the cake, since the Chargers were really, really not that good. And the Steelers were up 13-3 in the second half and 13-10 going into the fourth quarter.
We all remember the ending and that’s why the game makes the list – the Chargers’ defense, up 4, led by Junior Seau, hanging on by a thread in the pouring rain as the clock ran out. I still don’t know how the Steelers didn’t score. I do know that I was on the edge of my seat and was pretty happy for those Chargers, who ran off the field acting like they had won the Super Bowl.
They knew as well as anyone they had zero chance of actually winning the Super Bowl and their blowout to the 49ers has to be one of the worst, if not the worst, Super Bowl matchup of all time. But they’ll always have Pittsburgh in the rain.
4) Broncos 24, Steelers 21, 1997 season
It doesn’t have the ending that other games on this list have but the storyline of John Elway and the then-upstart Broncos making a Super Bowl run takes this game up a level. It also began the whispers, which would turn into rumblings, and then LOUD YELLING, about Bill Cowher not being able to win the big one.
What I’ll always remember is being stunned by the Broncos throughout that postseason, notably when they ended the NFC’s dominance in the Super Bowl. I didn’t give them a chance in this game, or that game, and they proved me wrong. This game also solidified the fact that Terrell Davis was the best running back in football at the time, going for 139 yards and a touchdown.
3) Steelers 20, Colts 16, 1995 season
Captain Comeback! The 1995 Colts may have been my favorite non-Jets team in NFL history. Led by Jim Harbaugh and a motley crew of nobodies – Aaron Bailey, Ken Dilger, Lamont Warren, etc. – the Colts were heavy underdogs that appeared on the cusp of quite possibly the most remarkable Super Bowl appearance ever until the Steelers finally took the lead with a Bam Morris touchdown.
That set the stage for a frantic, desperate drive by the Colts that ended with Harbaugh’s Hail Mary coming tantalizingly close to being answered, when the ball slipped through Bailey’s hands in the endzone. The Colts, it must be noted, were the equivalent of the Lions at this point, at least two decades removed from any sort of relevance. But then Peyton Manning came along and things changed, but it’s hard to explain to someone under 30 just how lightly regarded the Colts were at this point.
2) Patriots 24, Steelers 17, 2001 season
It is a testament to the Patriots run in 2001 that they played 3 playoff games and this is the third-best, by a mile. The other two they make documentaries about – the Tuck Rule game and the Super Bowl shocker against the Rams. This one? This one gets lost to time, but it shouldn’t.
On the Steelers side, it ended up being the end of Kordell Stewart as he threw 3 interceptions and would eventually be case aside for Tommy Maddux. It furthered the “Bill Cowher can’t win the big one” narrative that would last another five seasons. And it has to be considered the Steelers’ worst loss, even tougher than the Chargers loss in the 1994 title game. Just a tour de force of brutality, especially considering…
Tom Brady got hurt. Yes, the Tom Brady legend never happens if Drew Bledsoe doesn’t come off the bench to save the season. Maybe that’s why Patriots fans tend to ignore this game as the agreed-to story is that Drew sucked and then Tom Brady saved the world. But Drew was there when they needed him and earned his Super Bowl ring more than any backup QB in recent history.
A fun side note: this was the last conference championship game that kicked off in the morning on the West Coast. Starting with the 2002 season, the championship games moved to their now customary 3pm and 6:30pm start, and eventually have grown to see audiences that routinely push 50 million. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the shrewdest moves the NFL has made in the last 20 years. And for a multi-billion dollar business, that’s quite a statement.
1) Colts 38, Patriots 34, 2006 season
What do I really need to say here? Maybe the most exciting professional football game I’ve ever watched in my life – ranked #10 by ESPN on its list of best games of the 2000’s. Like, all games in all sports. The 21-3 Patriots lead. The comeback. The back and forth fourth quarter. The ultimate redemption of Peyton Manning. The motivation for the Patriots 2007 season. This game had it all.
And when you started reading, you knew it would top this list. We can only hope that Brady and Manning deliver like this on Sunday.
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