The conference championship games is the last true football weekend of the season. Yes, they do play football in the Super Bowl, but there is more hype, entertainment and analysis, than actual football played. Plus, the Super Bowl is always played on a neutral site, so that takes away certain elements such as crowd noise and home field advantage out of the equation. So the conference championship games are what’s left for actual football. With that in mind, here are the top 10 AFC Championship games of all time.
January 1, 1978: Denver 20 Oakland 17
Two bitter rivals. A Super Bowl berth on the line. The Broncos were looking for their first Super Bowl appearance. The Raiders were looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The game had a little bit of everything. Including controversy. In the third quarter, the Broncos were ahead 7-3 and had a first and goal from the Oakland 2-yard line. Broncos running back Rob Lytle attempted to dive into the end zone, where he was hit by Raider safety Jack Tatum. The ball popped loose, and the Raiders recovered the football. Or so they thought. Linesman Ed Marion blew the play dead, ruling that forward progress had been halted. However, replays showed that the fumble happened when Tatum contacted Lytle. Therefore, a fumble and Oakland recovery should have been the call. But with instant replay not available in the late 1970s, the call stood. The Raiders were furious with Marion and argued vehemently. That forced Marion to throw a flag, penalizing the Raiders for unsportsmanlike conduct, which moved the ball to the 1-yard line, and giving Denver a first down. On the next play, Jon Keyworth found the end zone, giving Denver a 14-3 lead. The Raiders tried to fight back, but couldn’t overtake the Broncos, as Denver’s Orange Crush defense, withstood the Oakland attack. The Broncos were headed to the Super Bowl. The Raiders went home fuming.
January 6, 1980: Pittsburgh 27 Houston 13
This game was a rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship game, in which the Steelers trounced the Oilers 34-5. This time around, Houston were much more competitive and some thought had a chance to dethrone, the defending Super Bowl champions from Pittsburgh. But it was a controversial call, that doomed the Oilers. Late in the third quarter, with the Steelers ahead 17-10, Houston were at the Pittsburgh 6-yard line, as they looked for the tying touchdown. Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini fired a pass intended for receiver Mike Renfro at the back of the end zone. It was clear from the TV angles that Renfro came down with the football with both feet inbounds. However, the official didn’t have the aid of instant replay, and ruled the pass incomplete. The Oilers were furious, and the drive stalled. Houston did kick a field goal, but the Steelers had the momentum. Pittsburgh scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to seal Houston’s fate. While the Oilers were upset about the call, they should remember that star running back Earl Campbell was held to a mere 15 yards on 17 carries by the Steel Curtain defense. That is a major reason why Pittsburgh won the game. But who knows how the game would have ended up, if Renfro’s catch was ruled good.
January 11, 1981: Oakland 34 San Diego 27
Many thought that 1980 was going to be the year of the Chargers. Led by an explosive offense, San Diego were the experts choice for the Super Bowl that season. Meanwhile, the Raiders were supposed to be on a downward spiral. Many of their star players had retired, or moved on to other teams. But Oakland were getting hot at the right time, and were ready for their trip south, to face their in-state rivals. The Raiders built a 21-7 first quarter lead, thanks to 2 touchdown passes from quarterback Jim Plunkett, and a touchdown run from Plunkett himself. When Mark van Eeghen scored on a 3-yard run to make it 28-7 Oakland early in the second quarter, the game looked to be over. But the Chargers used their high-powered offense, to get back into the game. Just before halftime, quarterback Dan Fouts connected with Charlie Joiner on an 8-yard touchdown reception, to pull the Chargers to within two touchdowns. When the second half started, the Chargers scored 10 points quickly, thanks to a Rolf Benirschke field goal, and a Chuck Muncie 6-yard touchdown run. Suddenly, Oakland’s lead was cut to 28-24, and Jack Murphy Stadium had come alive. But San Diego’s defense could not respond. Plunkett led the Raiders on a time-consuming drive that ended with a Chris Bahr field goal, to extend Oakland’s lead to seven points. The Raiders defense held the Chargers to a three and out, and the offense used that to kick another field goal, to take a 34-24 lead. The Chargers answered with a field goal of their own, to make the score 34-27 Oakland with 6:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Raider defense was exhausted and the offense needed to keep the ball, if they wanted to win the game. Meanwhile, the Charger defense needed a quick stop, so they could give the ball back to Fouts and company, as they were hitting their stride. Fouts never saw the football again. The Raiders used the ground game to smartly run out the clock, as they went on a 15-play drive, running the ball 12 times to run out the clock. Even Plunkett used his legs, as twice he gained first down yardage, using his scrambling ability. The Chargers defense had no answer and the crowd fell silent. The Raiders carried the momentum of this emotional victory into the Super Bowl two weeks later, when they drubbed the Philadelphia Eagles, to win their second Super Bowl title.
January 10, 1982: Cincinnati 27 San Diego 7
This game is commonly referred to as the “Freezer Bowl.” A massive cold front hit the Cincinnati area, as temperatures plummeted to -59 degrees with the windchill factor. This was a major disadvantage to San Diego, as they weren’t used to extreme cold conditions. The week before, the Chargers were playing in the heat and humidity of Miami’s Orange Bowl, and now they had to bundle up, and play in the frigid air of Ohio. San Diego was known for its “Air Coryell” offense, but the passing game would be non-existent, thanks to the biting north wind. Meanwhile, the Bengals possessed a more balanced attack, using the ground game with some passing plays mixed in. This proved to be a winning strategy. The Bengals won the opening coin toss, and elected to have the wind at their backs, so they could get an early jump on the scoreboard. It worked to perfection. The Chargers couldn’t move the ball on the opening possession, and Cincinnati went to work. Jim Breech kicked a 31-yard field goal to open the scoring. The Chargers fumbled the kickoff, which Cincinnati recovered. Two plays later, Ken Anderson hooked up with M.L. Harris on an 8-yard touchdown reception, giving the Bengals an early 10-0 lead. When they switched ends to start the second quarter, the Chargers started to have some success in moving the football. Dan Fouts found Kellen Winslow on a 33-yard touchdown pass, to cut the Cincinnati lead to 10-7. It looked like the Chargers were going to make a game out of it. But the Bengals had other ideas. Cincinnati drove 56 yards down the field on their next possession, that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown plunge from fullback Pete Johnson, restoring the Bengals 10 point lead. The third quarter saw the Bengals defense dominate the game, with help from the cold northerly wind. Fouts had so much trouble throwing the ball, as he lamented later on that the weather greatly affected his play. The Bengals got a second field goal from Breech to make it 20-7. The Bengals sealed the game in the fourth quarter, when Anderson hooked up with Don Bass on a 3-yard touchdown reception. The Chargers were out of it, and the Bengals celebrated in the bitter cold. This game was the second coldest game in NFL history. Only the Ice Bowl in 1967 was colder.
January 11, 1987: Denver 23 Cleveland 20 OT
Commonly known as “The Drive,” this game is just another long list of heartbreaking moments in Cleveland sports history. The Browns were slight favourites in the contest, as the game was held in front of the rabid “Dawg Pound” supporters at Cleveland Stadium. The game was tight and tense throughout, as the teams exchanged leads and momentum throughout. However, it looked like the Browns seized the game, when quarterback Bernie Kosar hit Brian Brennan on a 48-yard touchdown pass, to give the Browns a 20-13 lead, with 5:46 remaining. When Ken Bell mishandled the ensuing kickoff, barely recovering the ball at the 2-yard line, Denver’s odds of winning the game were bleak. The crowd was in an uproar, and Cleveland’s staunch defense was ready to pounce. It was then that the legend of John Elway began. The Broncos quarterback engineered perhaps the most impressive drive in NFL history, going 98 yards on 15 plays. Elway was aided by a strange decision from Cleveland’s coaching staff. Instead of attacking Elway, coach Marty Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Bill Cowher elected to drop back, and play a soft zone defense, not letting the Bronco receivers get past the secondary. This despite the fact the Browns had two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL at the time, in Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. The Browns sat back and played not to lose, instead of going for the win. Denver capitalized on the poor strategy implemented by the Browns. On a 3rd and 18 from the Cleveland 48-yard line, Elway connected with Mark Jackson for 20 yards, and a huge first down for Denver. The crowd was in a state of panic, as Elway continued to charge down the field. With only 39 seconds remaining, Elway and Jackson teamed up on a 5-yard touchdown reception, to tie the game and force overtime. The Browns won the toss, but failed to get a first down on their opening drive. They wouldn’t see the football again. Elway led the Broncos on a 60-yard drive, that was capped off by a 33-yard field goal from Rick Karlis, sending the Broncos to the Super Bowl. The Dawg Pound was in stunned silence as the Broncos celebrated on the muddy turf. Cleveland would have a chance for revenge the following season, but endured more heartache.
January 17, 1988: Denver 38 Cleveland 33
If the previous year’s game was known as “The Drive,” the following is known as “The Fumble.” Early on, it looked like it would be a blowout in Denver’s favour. With a raucous crowd at Mile High Stadium behind them, Denver jumped out to a 21-3 halftime lead and looked to be in control. The Browns did score a touchdown on their opening possession of the second half, but the Broncos responded when John Elway found Mark Jackson on an 80-yard touchdown pass, it looked like Denver had the game won. But the Browns fought back. Bernie Kosar connected with Earnest Byner on a 32-yard touchdown reception, to pull the Brown to within 11 points. Then after a three and out from the Broncos, the Browns quickly drove the field, which Byner capped off with a 4-yard touchdown run. Denver did kick a field goal to close the third quarter with a 31-24 lead, but the Browns had the momentum. A long 87-yard drive by the Browns was finished smartly, when Kosar found Webster Slaughter from 4 yards out to tie the game. The Broncos replied with a long drive of their own. Elway finished the drive, with a 20-yard touchdown strike to Sammy Winder, giving the Broncos a 38-31 lead. The Browns started their next drive at their own 25-yard line. Kosar engineered a superb drive, mixing up the run with the pass. Byner was a central figure on the drive, gaining 24 yards on the ground. With the ball on the Denver 8-yard line with 1:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Browns were going to return the favour to Denver from the previous season. Kosar handed the ball to Byner, who seemed to have a clear path to the end zone. As Byner reached the 2-yard line, Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille stripped Byner of the football and recovered the fumble. Byner never saw Castille, as Slaughter missed his assignment to seal off Castille, giving Byner the hole to the end zone. NBC announcer Dick Enberg said during the broadcast: “And wasn’t it ironic that Denver got the ball back at the 2-yard line? Wasn’t it just one year ago where the Broncos were on their own two before putting together what became The Drive? The game was especially heartbreaking for Byner, who had a brilliant game otherwise. Byner had 7 receptions for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns, while gaining 67 yards on the ground. If it wasn’t for Byner, the Browns would have been blown out of Mile High Stadium. Just another heartache for Cleveland.
January 15, 1995: San Diego 17 Pittsburgh 13
A shocker in Pittsburgh. The Steelers came in as huge favourites, and many observers thought the Steelers were the only team in the AFC, to have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. The Chargers were coming off an emotional win over Miami the previous week, and some thought they were just going to be content in reaching the AFC Championship game. Rain fell throughout the game, but it was surprisingly mild, as temperatures reached the low 60s. Pittsburgh scored on their opening possession, driving 67 yards down the field. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell finished the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to John L. Williams, giving the Steelers an early 7-0 lead. The rout was on. Or so many thought. The Steelers dominated the time of possession and held the football for most of the first half. But the Charger defense, led by linebacker Junior Seau, kept the Steelers at bay. Seau was sensational all game, spending the majority of the game in the Steeler backfield, stuffing the run while thwarting the pass. The teams exchanged field goals, as Pittsburgh went into halftime with a 10-3 lead. The Steelers caught a big break early in the second half as Rod Woodson’s interception gave Pittsburgh the ball deep in San Diego territory. However, they could only muster a field goal giving Pittsburgh a 13-3 lead. The Chargers were outplayed, but were still in the game. San Diego bounced back on the ensuing drive, as quarterback Stan Humphries found a wide open Alfred Pupunu, who went 46 yards for the touchdown, clawing the Chargers to within three points. The crowd at Three Rivers Stadium was getting nervous, as the Steelers let the Chargers hang around. San Diego hit their biggest play with 5:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. Humphries dropped back to pass, and spotted receiver Tony Martin, who had a step on Steelers cornerback Tim McKyer. Humphries fired a perfect pass that Martin hauled in over a leaping McKyer, giving San Diego its first lead of the game. The Steelers had one last chance, as O’Donnell led Pittsburgh down the field. With Pittsburgh facing a fourth and goal from the 3-yard line, O’Donnell dropped back, and intended a pass to Barry Foster at the goal line. Linebacker Dennis Gibson batted down the pass, and the Chargers had pulled off the upset. It was the first time in franchise history that the Chargers were heading to the Super Bowl. The Steelers had to wait for next season.
January 14, 1996: Pittsburgh 20 Indianapolis 16
For the second straight year, Three Rivers Stadium would host the AFC Championship game. For the second straight year, the Steelers would be huge favourites, as the oddsmakers listed Pittsburgh as 11 point favourites. For the second straight year, the game was a thriller. The Colts received the first break of the game as linebacker Jeff Herrod intercepted Neil O’Donnell’s first pass attempt. It led to an Indianapolis field goal, and the early lead for the Colts. The teams exchanged field goals, when controversy ensued late in the first half. Pittsburgh was facing a third and goal from the 5-yard line. O’Donnell found Kordell Stewart in the end zone, giving the Steelers the lead at halftime. However, replays showed that Stewart had stepped out-of-bounds before coming back into play, and making the catch. Stewart should have been flagged for ineligible receiver, but the call was missed on the field. Instant replay was not in use at the time. That debate would rage on for another three years. The teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter, which gave the Steelers a slender 13-9 lead into the fourth quarter. The Steelers had a chance to put the game away, after a long punt return by Andre Hastings. But Norm Johnson missed a field goal attempt, giving the Colts great field position. They capitalized on it as Jim Harbaugh connected with Floyd Turner on a 47-yard touchdown pass, giving the Colts a 16-13 lead. The fans at Three Rivers Stadium were wondering if history was going to repeat itself. But the Steelers had something left. The Steelers marched 67 yards down the field, with O’Donnell hitting Ernie Mills on a 37-yard pass, that placed the ball on the 1-yard line. Bam Morris powered his way into the end zone, giving the Steelers the lead with under two minutes remaining. The Colts had one last chance as Harbaugh matriculated his way down the field to the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with 5 seconds remaining. On the final play of the game, Harbaugh fired a Hail Mary pass, hoping for a miracle. The ball was tipped around and fell into the chest of Colts receiver Aaron Bailey. It looked like Bailey had caught the ball, but the ball slipped through his hands and hit the turf. The Steelers had survived a monumental scare, while the Colts went home after nearly pulling off a miracle.
January 21, 2007: Indianapolis 38 New England 34
In their previous two playoff meetings, the Patriots had dominated the Colts, thoroughly frustrating Peyton Manning. The Patriots used a suffocating defense and the snowy weather in Foxboro, to their advantage as they eliminated the Colts in 2003 and 2004. However, the one big change to this game was the venue. The climate controlled RCA Dome in Indianapolis was the site for this encounter and the Colts would have their partisan supporters cheering them on. However, it looked like the Patriots would continue their mastery over the Colts early on. New England dominated the first half, and went into the locker room with a 21-6 lead. The Colts needed to make adjustments, or they would have their season ended again by the Patriots. The Colts responded on their opening possession of the second half, marching 76 yards on 14 plays, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run from Manning. The Colts defense stepped up by forcing a three and out. Indianapolis got the ball back and Manning engineered a 6-play, 76-yard drive, that was finished off by a Manning 1-yard touchdown pass to defensive lineman Dan Klecko, who reported as an eligible receiver on the play. Manning then hit Marvin Harrison on the two point conversion, tying the score at 21-21. The Patriots quickly responded. Ellis Hobbs returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards, setting up the Patriots at the Colts 21-yard line. Five plays later, Tom Brady hit Jabar Gaffney on a 6-yard touchdown pass, giving the Patriots a 28-21 lead. The Colts responded with a 7 play, 67-yard drive that stretched into the fourth quarter. Running back Dominic Rhodes fumbled at the 1-yard line and a mad scramble ensued. The ball squirted into the end zone, where Colts centre Jeff Saturday pounced on the ball, and gave the Colts the tying touchdown. Both teams went on field goal binges as the Patriots Stephen Gostkowski nailed 28 and 43 yard field goals, while Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri split the uprights from 36 yards. The Patriots held a 34-31 lead with 2:49 remaining, with the Colts taking possession of the ball at their own 20-yard line. Manning did his thing, leading the Colts on a drive that took very little time off the clock. Within 19 seconds, the Colts were at the New England 11-yard line, looking to take the lead. The Colts used the clock wisely, winding the clock down to exactly 1 minute remaining, before Joseph Addai ran untouched from 3 yards out, giving the Colts their first lead of the game. The Patriots had one last chance and with Tom Brady at the helm, they were confident they would strike. However, there would be no miracle for New England. Marlin Jackon intercepted a Brady pass in Colts territory, as Indianapolis finally got the proverbial monkey of its back. The Colts went on to defeat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, two weeks later.
January 22, 2012: New England 23 Baltimore 20
A battle between contrasting styles. The Patriots high-powered offense versus the menacing Ravens defense. A chilly Gillette Stadium was the venue for this classic encounter, as both teams came into this contest very confident that they would win. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted a 29-yard field goal, for the only points scored in the first quarter. The Ravens tied the game early in the second quarter, as Billy Cundiff split the uprights from 20 yards out. The Patriots responded with a 10 play, 75-yard drive, that was capped off by 7-yard touchdown run from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Ravens countered immediately, marching 80 yards on 8 plays. The drive finished when Joe Flacco hooked up with Dennis Pitta on a 6-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. Gostowski booted his second field goal of the game late in the first half, and the Patriots went into halftime with a 13-10 lead. The Patriots had a great chance to take control of the game early in the second half, as they embarked on a 74-yard drive, to open the second half. But the Ravens defense stiffened, and the Patriots had to settle for Gostowski’s third field goal of the game. This seemed to jolt the Ravens to life, as they slowly but surely started to gain a foothold on the contest. The Ravens took the lead later in the quarter as Flacco connected with Torrey Smith on a 29-yard touchdown pass, that shocked the Patriots fans. A Cundiff field goal late in the quarter gave the Ravens a 20-16 lead going into the final period. If the Ravens defense could play up to their standards, they would be going to the Super Bowl. But the Patriots had Tom Brady, who delivered when it mattered. New England marched 63 yards on 11 plays that Brady himself finished as he sneaked into the end zone from a yard away, giving New England a 23-20 lead. The Patriots now needed their defense to step up. They did as Baltimore was stopped on a 4th and 3 at the New England 30-yard line. The Ravens did have one last chance as Flacco led the Ravens on a desperate drive. Twice, Flacco threw to the end zone. Both times, Patriots safety Sterling Moore knocked the ball away, forcing a field goal attempt. Cundiff came on to try a 32-yard field goal to force overtime. It should have been a sure thing. It wasn’t. Cundiff’s kick hooked left of the upright to the horror of the Ravens sideline. The Patriot fans went crazy, as they knew their team was heading to the Super Bowl. In a game hyped up as being the offense versus the defense, it was special teams that ended up deciding this game.
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