NFL

30 NFL Conference Championship Games That Changed Football Forever

Darren - February 2, 2022
NFL

30 NFL Conference Championship Games That Changed Football Forever

Darren - February 2, 2022

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

28. Packers vs. Buccaneers (2021)

Tampa Bay had an exceptional 2020 season. First, they captured the services of Tom Brady. The legendary NFL quarterback signed up after 20 seasons with the Patriots. They knew that they had the chance to become the first team to win a Super Bowl in their stadium. However, they had to win their first three playoff games on the road before their homecoming.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

They traveled to Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship game against the Packers. This was a classic Brady vs. Rodgers showdown so there was added intrigue. In the end, Brady was the victor after a controversial DPI penalty (via CBS Sports). Fans will never forget this moment as they won 36-31. Then, they went to the Super Bowl and defeated the Chiefs in style.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

27. Giants vs. Packers (2008)

Many NFL fans consider this to be one of the all-time great NFC Championship games. The Packers were favorites in this game against Eli Manning’s New York Giants. Green Bay followed the script and took a lead into halftime. But the game wasn’t over and it became a firefight between the two teams. The Packers should have won but couldn’t put the Giants away.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Fans will never forget this game because it was Brett Favre’s final appearance for Green Bay. However, his last pass for the franchise was an overtime interception (via USA Today). Then Lawrence Tynes booted a field goal to win the game for New York. Next, they went to the Super Bowl where they pulled off an unlikely win over the unbeaten Patriots.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

26. Broncos vs. Raiders (1977)

The Raiders blame this defeat on a missed call but that’s not the full story. Oakland played the Broncos at Mile High Stadium in the AFC Championship Game. This was their fifth consecutive title game appearance but Denver was better all season. It was a close game until a turning point in the third quarter. Jack Tatum recovered a Broncos’ fumble but the official didn’t spot it.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

Older fans will never forget this moment because it was a terrible mistake. The official claimed that nothing untoward happened despite the Raiders’ protests. Then, to rub salt into their wounds, Denver scored a touchdown on the next play. Oakland capitulated and was unable to come back into the game (via Bleacher Report).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

25. Cardinals vs. Eagles (2008)

Arizona made the Super Bowl after they won this NFC Championship game. Their blistering attack dissected the impressive Eagles’ defense. They ran rampant for the first half as they led 24-6. Meanwhile, they had 260 yards of offense compared to Philadelphia’s 170. This game threatened to become a blowout as Philly fell away (via Inquirer).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

However, they showed admirable heart to get back in the game. They fought hard to bring the game as close as 25-24. But Arizona and Kurt Warner were too good for them on the day. Warner had a remarkable 145.6 quarterback rating after a brilliant display. Meanwhile, Arizona secured their first Super Bowl appearance but lost to the Steelers.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

24. Cowboys vs. Packers (1996)

This was a scintillating game of football that fans will never forget. Emmitt Smith had a phenomenal day and scored three touchdowns. The Cowboys led for most of the game before Green Bay took the lead. However, they couldn’t maintain it. In the end, Dallas beat them for the third season in a row (via Madison.com).

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

This game was all about Smith as he rushed 35 times for 150 yards. It’s not often that fans witness such a special individual performance. After defeating the Packers, the Cowboys went to the Super Bowl. Then, they toppled the Steelers to cap off their season. This was a great era for ‘America’s Team.’

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

23. Patriots vs. Ravens (2010)

The Patriots love inflicting painful defeats on other teams. They have a long and undistinguished history of such results. Unfortunately, the Ravens were their victims in this NFC title game. New England fans will never forget this because it was a dramatic comeback. But the Baltimore support resents this loss because they came so close (via NBC Sports).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

The Pats scored 10 points in the final quarter to level the game after they fell behind. Then Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal with less than two minutes left on the clock. The 35-yarder soared between the posts and New England traveled to another Super Bowl.

Mandatory Credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

22. Rams vs. Buccaneers (2000)

Ricky Proehl achieved one of the most iconic moments in St. Louis sports history with this sensational catch in 2000. It sealed a Super Bowl place for the Rams but deserved its moment in the sun. He scored a 30-yard touchdown from a Kurt Warner pass and sent fans into raptures. Viewers will never forget this because it was sensational (via St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Mandatory Credit: Fansided

This wasn’t the highest-scoring game ever because it finished 11-6. The defenses were on top until Proehl broke Tampa’s resistance. Proehl wasn’t even a starter in the first few weeks of the season. But he became an unlikely hero after his eye-catching score. It also signified a Super Bowl appearance for the Rams to put the cherry on top.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

21. Steelers vs. Jets (2011)

Mark Sanchez had a rough time as the Jets’ starting quarterback. But he was almost responsible for a spectacular comeback in this AFC Championship game. The Steelers roared into an early lead before finishing the first half 24-3. However, something took hold of Gang Green during the break. They came back out and began to play for real.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

The problem was that they gave themselves too much work to do. Sanchez threw a couple of touchdown passes to bring the scores closer. Pittsburgh was grateful for the clock because the Jets were all over them. They were able to hold on before the Jets completed their comeback. New York fans will never forget how close they came to a famous victory (via WBUR).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

20. Broncos vs. Patriots (2015)

This was a terrible day for Tom Brady. The Patriots failed to protect him and he paid the price against the Broncos. Denver sacked him four times and these proved costly. He’ll never forget this day because they made him suffer in a way he rarely experienced in his career. It’s not often that teams successfully ruffle Brady’s feathers. However, the Denver defense certainly did.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

They picked Brady off in the dying moments to prevent New England from stealing the game. It was a fabulous moment for the veteran Peyton Manning because everybody wrote him off. This also made him the oldest quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl game. Of course, Brady broke this record with Tampa at the age of 42 (via WBUR).

Mandatory Credit: Associated Press

19. Redskins vs. Vikings (1987)

The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl despite their long history. However, they had a great chance to do so in the 1986 season. But they came up short against Washington. Older fans will never forget this choke because it was a particularly painful defeat (via Star Tribune).

Mandatory Credit: Associated Press

In the end, it was all about the final snap. Wade Wilson allowed a pass to bounce off his hands as he came within inches of being a hero. Sadly, it was a moment that haunted him forever because he couldn’t wrap his fingers around the ball. Finally, the Redskins won the game 17-10. Notoriously, Vikings wideout Anthony Carter ran the wrong route, but fewer people remember that.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

18. Rams vs. Eagles (2001)

St. Louis lost the Super Bowl game against the Patriots in a heartbreaking fashion. But their victory over the Eagles in the NFC title game was spectacular. This was a breathtaking game of football that watching fans will never forget. The Rams led early before the Eagles came back into contention.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Then Marshall Faulk ran rampant with a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter before another in the fourth. His performance left the Eagles with too much to do and the Rams won the game. Sadly for St. Louis, they couldn’t repeat this result in the final but fans will never forget this game (via USA Today).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

17. Seahawks vs. Packers (2014)

The Packers have endured some horrible defeats over the years yet this was especially harrowing. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Green Bay led 19-7. According to Forbes, this set their odds of winning at over 99%. It appeared as though this game was already over but then came the twist. After an interception, this narrowed to 0.1%.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Then the tide turned. Wilson threw his team back into contention with a crucial touchdown pass. Suddenly, the Seahawks took the lead with another score and a field goal. Then the Packers required a brilliant clutch 48-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. But the ending was already written as Seattle won the toss. A single drive later and they won the NFC Championship.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

16. Vikings vs. Giants (2000)

Nobody pretends that Kerry Collins was a world-beater. But the Giants QB was a dependable operator with some massive moments. One of these came in the NFC Championship game. Fans will never forget how he threw five touchdowns against the Vikings. This was a nightmarish evening for Minnesota because nothing they did went right (via Sports Illustrated).

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

New York held them to nine first downs as Collins ran rampant. He was like a gunslinger in the Wild West as he went 28 for 39 in completed passes. In the end, it was a grim 41-0 shutout. Nobody in Minnesota likes to think about this game because it was so one-sided. It also wasn’t much of a spectacle for neutral fans because they want to see a competitive game.

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

15. Panthers vs. Eagles (2003)

The Panthers are a franchise without a ton of success. However, their NFC title game victory over the Eagles was a game that fans will never forget. It was another painful experience for Philadelphia fans because their team lost again. This was their third straight NFC Championship game defeat.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Somehow Jake Delhomme and Carolina conjured up a win. The remarkable aspect of this was that they were just two years out from a 1-15 season. In the end, they dominated the Eagles in a tight 14-3 win. Of course, they came undone against the Patriots but this was a great day for the franchise. It also gave Delhomme some of the credibility he earned (via New York Times).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

14. Chiefs vs. Bengals (2021)

Cincinnati fans will never forget this game for several reasons. First, they went 30 years without winning a playoff game. Then, they made it to the AFC Championship against Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. This was already a major challenge because the Chiefs were Super Bowl favorites. Joe Burrow came of age in this outstanding title game (via Vavel).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Then it became even more difficult because the Chiefs soared into an 18-point lead. Nobody gave the Bengals a chance at this point but they didn’t give up. They battled back before the game went to overtime. Next, the Chiefs won the coin toss. The writing appeared to be on the wall after Patrick Mahomes’ heroics against the Bills. But he threw an interception and the Bengals made them pay.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

13. Broncos vs. Browns (1987)

It may seem surprising to younger NFL fans but Cleveland had a good team in the eighties. They made back-to-back AFC title game appearances in 1986 and 1987. However, they suffered successive defeats to Denver. They were out for revenge in this match after the previous year’s disappointment. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Broncos didn’t bow down (via New York Times).

Mandatory Credit: SBNation

Denver led this game for significant chunks but Cleveland didn’t give up.Quarterback Bernie Kosar had an excellent game as he tried to conjure up some magic. Finally, they came within a score of winning the game. It appeared as though they had the game-winning touchdown but Earnest Byner fumbled the ball two yards short of the end zone.

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

12. Bears vs. Packers (2011)

Arguably, Chicago is the franchise that has treaded water the longest without an elite quarterback. They faced the Packers in 2011 with Jay Cutler as their starter. Nobody pretends that he was elite but he was the best of a bad bunch. But an injury compromised him and the Bears pulled him in the third quarter. Up stepped third-stringer Caleb Hanie on the biggest stage of his career.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Hanie only threw 14 passes in the NFL before this game. Fortunately, he didn’t let his team down as he went 13-for-20 and almost won his team the game. However, the Bears weren’t able to finish the comeback. In the end, Green Bay had too much in the tank for them. The question is what would have happened if Hanie started the game? (via Bleacher Report)

Mandatory Credit: Denver Post

11. Broncos vs. Steelers (1998)

This was a glorious season for the Broncos where they won the Super Bowl. First, they had to beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. Denver lost to the Steelers during the regular season so they were out for revenge. But they were full of confidence after a victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round. However, they were up against it from the start as they fell behind early.

Mandatory Credit: Denver Post

It didn’t matter because they had Terrell Davis, who rushed for 139 yards. Meanwhile, their defense was like a brick wall as they intercepted Kordell Stewart four times. Finally, John Elway found Shannon Sharpe to end the pain for Denver. The Super Bowl stole its thunder but this was also magnificent (via CBS Sports).

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

10. Giants vs. 49ers (1990)

The Giants conquered the mighty 49ers in this classic clash. They faced each other in the 1990 NFC Championship game. Watching fans will never forget the way Lawrence Taylor knocked Joe Montana out of the game. We mean this in the most literal sense because ‘Joe Cool’ went unconscious after the brutal hit. The Giants were definitely up for this one.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

It was the beginning of the end for the 49ers after a period of dominance (via USA Today). They relied heavily on Matt Bahr’s impressive kicking. He scored some crucial field goals to help the Giants secure the win. Furthermore, it helped them to a Super Bowl clash against their state rivals Buffalo. They were victorious that day too.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

9. Patriots vs. Chiefs (2018)

New England inflicted another cruel defeat on an AFC rival in 2018. This time their victims were the Chiefs after a brutal overtime period. Kansas City was the better team throughout this game but they failed to seal the deal. This proved costly because Tom Brady is one of the best clutch players in NFL history. In the end, the quarterback made the difference (via Boston.com).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

The game went to overtime and Brady proved to be clinical. It’s usually the case that teams win the game after winning the toss. This one was no different as Brady proved to Patrick Mahomes that he is peerless. Kansas City fans will never forget the agony of this defeat. Fortunately, they rebounded the following season and won their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

8. Saints vs. Vikings (2009)

Brett Favre was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He helped the Packers to a Super Bowl but he should have had more than one ring. Unfortunately, he choked more often than not and threw crucial interceptions when they counted. A classic example came for the Vikings against the Saints. Favre threw a pair of interceptions and cost his team dearly.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Saints fans remember this game fondly because it helped them to their first Super Bowl. However, it wasn’t all Favre’s fault. That’s because New Orleans deliberately tried to take him out of the game. The Bountygate scandal emerged after this victory and resulted in multiple suspensions. In the end, it was another sickening loss for the Vikings as their Super Bowl misery continued (via The Vikings Gazette).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

7. Broncos vs. Browns (1986)

John Elway was responsible for one of the most iconic quarterback plays of the decade in this thriller. The Broncos trailed the Browns in the AFC title game. The clock ticked down as Denver began to run out of time. Finally, with 37 seconds left, they finished a remarkable 98-yard touchdown drive. Suddenly, the two teams were tied(via ESPN).

Mandatory Credit: Bleacher Report

They carried this momentum into overtime as they opted to receive the ball. Then, the Broncos scored a field goal to win the game and earn a Super Bowl place. However, ‘The Drive’ was the real story of this game. It’s a play that is immortalized in NFL history because it’s an example of football at its best. Elway was crucial in this clutch situation because a lesser quarterback may have wilted.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

6. Falcons vs. Vikings (1998)

Gary Anderson will never forget this game because of his awful miss. The placekicker maintained a perfect record throughout the regular season. Then he came up against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. He had the chance to be the hero but instead ensured his place in infamy. It’s a shame because he was a consistent and talented player. But those are the breaks.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Many consider this to be the most heartbreaking field goal, miss, in NFL history. All he had to do was kick the ball over from 38 yards to seal the win for Minnesota. It appeared to be a formality before he hit it wide left. Then, Atlanta dragged the game to overtime. Ironically, their kicker Morten Andersen won them the game. This rubbed salt into Anderson’s wounds (via Yahoo! Sports).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

5. Colts vs. Patriots (2006)

Tom Brady has been involved in some classic quarterback duels and usually, he is the winner. The New England Patriots were a clinical winning machine for most of his tenure. However, there were exceptions as this game proves. He met his match in Peyton Manning in the 20006 AFC Championship. This didn’t seem likely because the Pats led 21-3 at one point (via Fansided).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

The Colts showed great heart because they rebounded from a pick-six and scored 18 straight points. Finally, the fans had a game that they will never forget. Manning recovered from his earlier mistake and threw multiple touchdowns. Meanwhile, Brady had one of the few major costly blips of his career. An interception ended the game as well as New England’s hope of a Super Bowl appearance.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

4. Steelers vs. Colts (1995)

This title game was close throughout its entirety. In the end, it was a harrowing defeat for the Colts after a late Bam Morris touchdown. They tried a Hail Mary in the dying moments but it didn’t pay off. Instead, it was Pittsburgh who won the game and a place in the Super Bowl. It’s also likely that Aaron Bailey will never forget his failed catch.

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

That moment surely haunts his dreams because the ball slipped through his fingers. If he caught it, Indy would have won the game. Instead, the Steelers held onto a narrow 20-16 victory. Title games are all about fine margins but this took it to the extreme. It was an amazing moment for Steel City but it could have been so different (via 247 Sports).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

3. Cowboys vs. 49ers (1992)

Some title games are more significant than others because they represent the start of a dynasty. That was the case in this NFC Championship. America’s Team hadn’t won a Super Bowl since 1977. They were on track to break their duck but they needed to overcome San Francisco first. This wasn’t going to be easy because the 49ers were the best team of the ’80s.

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Fans will never forget this game because it felt like a changing of the guard. Dallas clung desperately to a tight lead when they made a brave call. Some might even call it foolhardy because it could have gone very wrong. But they opted to seal the win instead of holding on. Troy Aikman threw a spectacular game-winning touchdown to Kelvin Martin (via CBS Sports).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

2. Seahawks vs. 49ers (2013)

Seattle fell behind early in this game but steadied the ship quickly. Russell Wilson didn’t play brilliantly for the Seahawks but it didn’t matter. Colin Kaepernick couldn’t deal with the 49ers’ defense because they were on top. They forced the Niners’ quarterback into a pair of crucial interceptions. In the end, these proved to be the difference between the two teams (via SBNation).

Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports

Meanwhile, it sealed Seattle’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2005. Fans will never forget this season because they were rampant. After winning the conference title, they crushed Peyton Manning’s Broncos. It’s also a painful memory for San Francisco fans because of the nature of the defeat. However, the Seahawks were too balanced for them to overcome.

Mandatory Credit: Sports Illustrated

1. 49ers vs. Cowboys (1981)

This NFC Championship game was one of the greatest of all time because of ‘The Catch’. It finished 28-27 after a dramatic series of events. The Cowboys took an early lead but couldn’t hold onto it. Joe Montana’s men came roaring back into contention and lit up Candlestick Park. This was a game for the ages because both teams showed a do-or-die attitude (via Sportscasting).

Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports

However, in the end, there could only be a single winner. San Francisco fans rejoiced after a Danny White interception. This was a historic moment that they will never forget because it signified their first Super Bowl trip. Then, they became one of the greatest teams of the decade. This was also a major step toward superstardom for Joe Montana.

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