The greatest AFC/NFC Championship Games in NFL history ranked: 'The Catch,' 'The Drive,' Brady-Manning, more
Some of the NFL's greatest games took place during conference championship weekend
Believe it or not, some people enjoy conference championship weekend more than Super Bowl Sunday. Instead of one game, fans get two games between four of the NFL's best teams to determine who gets to play in the Big Game.
Championship weekend has included some of the greatest moments in NFL history, moments that have become pro football folklore while helping grow the popularity of the sport. Before the 49ers, Packers, Chiefs and Titans square off this Sunday for the right to go to Super Bowl LIV, we decided to rank the 10 greatest AFC or NFC Championship Games in NFL history.
10. "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!"
In 1989, the Cowboys were 1-15 and watching the 49ers win their fourth Super Bowl of the decade. Three years later, the rebuilt Cowboys, led by soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, Hall-of-Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, HOF running back Emmitt Smith, HOF receiver Michael Irvin, and HOF pass rusher Charles Haley, would head to a rain-soaked Candlestick Park to face Steve Young, Jerry Rice and the rest of the favored 49ers for the right to play in Super Bowl XXVII.
In a back-and-forth game, the Cowboys put some distance on the 49ers following Smith's fourth quarter touchdown run that stretched Dallas's lead to 24-13. But after Rice's touchdown catch from Young cut the deficit to four points, the Cowboys needed another touchdown to punch their first Super Bowl ticket since 1978. Ironically, a position change between Irvin and fellow receiver Alvin Harper helped create the Cowboys' game-clinching score.
Harper's 70-yard catch set up Aikman's six-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Martin, as Dallas was on their way to three Super Bowl victories over a four-year span.
9. Brady vs. Manning: The final chapter
After four postseason meetings and a slew of regular season matchups, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning faced a final time in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. While Manning was clearly not at his physical peak, he surprised the Patriots with two first-half touchdown passes to Owen Daniels that gave the Broncos an early 14-6 lead. Defense ruled the day, however, as both teams' kickers traded a pair of field goals during the third and fourth quarters. Von Miller had a field day, sacking Brady 2.5 times while also picking off the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Trailing by eight with under two minutes remaining, a 40-yard completion from Brady to Rob Gronkowski set up the duo's four-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left. New England's game-tying, two-point attempt was unsuccessful, however, as Brady's throw to the end zone was tipped and intercepted by Bradley Roby, allowing the Broncos to hold on for a 20-18 win. The Broncos would then win Super Bowl 50 in what would be Manning's final NFL game.
8. Ice Bowl II
After defeating the Buccaneers and Cowboys in the first two rounds, Eli Manning and the Giants headed to frozen Green Bay to face Brett Favre and the Packers in the 2007 NFC Championship Game. Trailing by three points with just over two minutes remaining, two completions from Manning to Steve Smith set up Lawrence Tynes' game-tying field goal with four seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, Corey Webster's interception of Favre set up Tynes' game-winning field goal, as the Giants defeated Green Bay in Favre's final game as the Packers' quarterback. Manning, who connected with Plaxico Burress 11 times for 151 yards in New York's 23-20 win over the Packers, would find Burress for the game-winning score in the Giants' shocking upset win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
7. Parcells' "Giant" Upset
The Giants, who were without their starting quarterback and running back, were the only thing standing between the 49ers and immortality entering the 1990 NFC Championship Game. The 49ers, who had beaten the Giants during the regular season, were trying to become the first team in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls.
San Francisco's dreams came crashing down during the fourth quarter. After Leonard Marshall's crushing hit of Joe Montana knocked Montana out of the game, Lawrence Taylor's recovery of Roger Craig's fumble gave the Giants, who trailed 13-12 with just minutes remaining, a chance to steal the game. Jeff Hostetler, who replaced injured quarterback Phil Simms 14 weeks into the season, completed a pass to tight end Mark Bavaro that set up Matt Bahr's game-winning field goal as time expired. The Giants' "other" backup, running back Ottis Anderson, would rush for 102 yards and a score while helping the Giants pull off another upset win over the Bills one week later in Super Bowl XXV.
6. The Fumble
A year after enduring a heartbreaking loss to Denver in the AFC title game, the Browns seemed destined to settle the score in the '87 AFC title game. With the Browns threatening to win the game in the final minute, running back Earnest Byner, the best player on the field that day, fell victim to a heads-up play by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille, who forced a fumble of Byner just when it appeared that Byner was on his way to scoring the winning touchdown. Instead of scoring the touchdown that would have sent the Browns to their first Super Bowl, Byner fell to his knees while the Broncos celebrated a second straight Super Bowl berth.
While the Browns are still searching for their first Super Bowl appearance, Byner, who tallied 187 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in Cleveland's 38-33 loss, would catch a touchdown pass for the Redskins during Washington's win over Buffalo four years later in Super Bowl XXVI. His quarterback in Cleveland, Bernie Kosar, would also eventually win a ring with the Cowboys in 1993.
5. Harbaugh's Hail Mary
This game would probably be No. 1 on this list had Aaron Bailey been able to come up with Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary on the final play of the 1995 AFC Championship. But the sheer fact that Bailey and the Colts came just inches short of pulling off a miracle still makes this one of the greatest championship games in NFL history. The game, even before Harbaugh's Hail Mary, was full of drama that included Ernie Mills' balletic, 37-yard catch moments earlier that set up Bam Morris' game-winning touchdown run. The Steelers, a year after losing in the AFC Championship Game at home, advanced to their first Super Bowl in 16 years. The Colts, conversely, would have to wait 11 more years before getting their Super Bowl moment.
4. Manning's Miracle
After falling to New England in the 2003 and '04 postseasons, Peyton Manning's Colts appeared destined to fall to 0-3 in the playoffs against the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Patriots after falling behind 21-3 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. This Colts team, however, wouldn't be denied, as two Manning touchdowns and center Jeff Saturday's fumble recovery in the end zone helped tie the score less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Trailing 34-31 late in the quarter, Manning engineered a scoring drive that ended with running back Joseph Addai's three-yard touchdown run with a minute left. Brady quickly drove the Patriots into Colts territory before Marlin Jackson came up with the game-winning interception.
After beating the Patriots, the Colts would win their first Super Bowl after moving to Indianapolis, as Manning earned MVP honors following the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears.
3. The Ice Bowl
While it isn't technically an NFC title game, the 1967 NFL Championship Game was simply too good to be left off this list. A year after defeating the Cowboys in the '66 title game to advance to Super Bowl I, the Packers, in minus-15 degree weather, found themselves trailing late in the game following Lance Rentzel's 50-yard touchdown pass to Dan Reeves on a gadget play. Undaunted, Bart Starr led the Packers on a game-winning drive that ended on his infamous one-yard touchdown run with just seconds left. Had Starr been stopped on the play, it's unlikely that the Packers would have had time to get their field goal team on the field in time to attempt the game-tying kick. Despite the risk, Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi decided to go for the win, as Starr -- behind a key block by Hall of Fame lineman Jerry Kramer -- gave the Packers a 21-17 win en route to a second consecutive Super Bowl victory.
2. The Drive
Already a budding star, John Elway etched his place in NFL lore after completing one of the most iconic drives late in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. Trailing 20-13 and backed up near his own end zone (and with Cleveland's fabled Dawg Pound ringing in his ears), Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards on a drive that culminated with his five-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson. Denver carried its momentum into overtime, winning the game on Rich Carlos' 33-yard field goal.
"The Drive" served as Elway's signature moment for nearly a dozen years until his helicopter leap helped propel the Broncos to an upset victory over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
1. The Catch
Tom Brady, this century's most accomplished quarterback, was in the stands when Joe Montana -- the greatest quarterback of his generation -- completed his infamous, game-winning pass to Dwight Clark in what will forever be known as "The Catch" that won the 1981 NFC Championship Game. After Danny White gave the Cowboys a 27-21 lead late in the fourth quarter, Montana led the 49ers on an 89-yard drive that ended with his six-yard touchdown pass to Clark, who torched Dallas's defense that day to the tune of eight catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
The 49ers' 28-27 win not only ended the Cowboys' reign atop the NFC food chain, it began their own run of dominance that included four Super Bowl wins in the 1980s and five world championships in a 14-year span.
Pick Six Newsletter
Get the day's big stories + fun stuff you love like mock drafts, picks and power rankings.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
The Clemson star, who has declared for the 2020 NFL Draft, is truly position-less but special
Henry and the Titans have received some bulletin board material ahead of Sunday's game
Aaron Rodgers will look to find a little magic in his home state
The 49ers need Garoppolo to play safe, efficient football and their defense to win the war...
Cleveland is entertaining the idea of turning to the Shanahan coaching tree
Details on how the new head coach might fill out his first staff in Cleveland
The Packers managed to hold on against the Seahawks on Sunday night
Not even a 24-point lead was safe for Houston at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday
Live scores, highlights and updates from the Jaguars vs. Colts football game