Last Sunday’s conference championship games were exciting and gave us one of the five best of all time. There have been dozens of outstanding conference championship games over the years, but in looking over them, only a handful are etched in NFL lore.
Before we dive into this list, we say goodbye to the 1999 NFC Championship Game between the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings had gone 15-1 and set a then-NFL record by racking up 556 points thanks to an offense powered by quarterback Randall Cunningham and wide receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter. However, those that called this game a major upset forget that the Falcons had put together a 14-2 record thanks to a run-oriented, ball-control approach: the perfect foil for Minnesota's high-powered attack.
As the clock wound down, Minnesota had a chance to potentially put the game away for good when its own veteran kicker, Gary Anderson, lined up for a 38-yard field goal with a little more than two minutes to go. Anderson, who had not missed a field goal all season (Let's pause to appreciate that before focusing on the negative), had the distance, but his kick went wide left. The newly energized Falcons drove down the field and tied the game at 27-27 with 49 seconds left. In overtime, the teams traded punts before the Falcons put together a drive that culminated in a 38-yard field goal by future Hall of Famer Morten Andersen and the win.
Now, here are the five best conference championship games of all time.
5. Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20 (OT)
Jan. 11, 1987 – Cleveland
The “Legend of John Elway” was born on this day. Tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter, Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar tossed a 48-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan to put his team ahead 20-13 with 5:43 to go. On the next play, Broncos returner Ken Bell muffed the kickoff and had to fall on it on the 2-yard line. Over the next five minutes and 15 plays, Elway led his team from dire straits to glory, marching 98 yards and never facing fourth down. He tied the game with a five-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, Denver forced Cleveland to punt on its first possession and then Elway again drove his team down the field and kicker Rich Karlis put his team in the Super Bowl with a 33-yard field goal. Thirty years later, “The Drive” remains one of the most famous moments in NFL history.
4. Cincinnati Bengals 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24 (OT)
Jan. 30, 2022 – Kansas City, Mo.
The Chiefs' offense was clicking on all cylinders as they built a 21-3 second-quarter lead and a third straight trip to the Super Bowl seemed eminent. Then Cincinnati stymied Kansas City's offense and Joe Burrow and the Bengals methodically chipped away at the lead. A 52-yard Evan McPherson field goal gave the Bengals their first lead of the game at 24-21 with 6:04 left to play.
On the final drive of regulation, Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to Cincinnati's 5-yard line, but two consecutive sacks pushed Kansas City back to the 26 with three seconds left. Harrison Butker booted a 44-yarder to send the game into overtime.
As they did in their win over Buffalo the week before, the Chiefs won the coin toss. This time, Mahomes threw a long pass to Tyreek Hill, but it was batted away by Jessie Bates into the arms of safety Vonn Bell who returned it to the Bengals 45-yard line. Cincinnati took the ball to Kansas City's 13-yard line, where McPherson's 31-yard field goal sent the franchise to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than 30 years. The victory also tied the 2006-07 Indianapolis Colts for the largest comeback (18 points) in conference championship history (see No. 1).
3. Seattle Seahawks 28, Green Bay Packers 22 (OT)
Jan. 18, 2015 – Seattle
The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks looked like birds of a different feather when Green Bay took a 16-0 halftime lead. When the Packers still led 19-7 with less than four minutes to go, it looked like Seattle would be watching the Super Bowl at home. Then suddenly, the Seahawks seemed to find their groove.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw four interceptions that day, led Seattle on a 69-yard drive that was punctuated with a one-yard touchdown run to close the lead to 19-14. With just one timeout left, Seattle attempted an onside kick that went straight up in the air, bounced off Packers tight end Brandon Bostick’s helmet and into the arms of Seattle’s Chris Matthews. Four plays later, Marshawn Lynch ran 24 yards into the end zone. On the two-point conversion attempt, Wilson was forced to scramble before connecting with tight end Luke Willson to put Seattle up 22-19 with 1:25 left in the game.
That was still plenty of time for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who drove his team into field goal range. Mason Crosby booted a 48-yarder to send the game into overtime. Seattle got the first possession, and drove to Green Bay’s 35-yard line. There, Wilson hit wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, who found his way into the end zone to finish off the come-from-behind win.
2. San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27
Jan. 10, 1982 – San Francisco
The Cowboys had dominated the NFC since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 and the 49ers had put together its first winning season since ‘72. While this game has attained mythical status, it actually was pretty sloppy with San Francisco committing six turnovers and Dallas coughing it up three times. Nevertheless, the Cowboys scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and the 49ers got the ball on its own 11-yard line down 27-21 with 4:54 left in the game.
San Francisco drove all the way down to Dallas’ six-yard line where it faced third-and-3 with 58 seconds left. Unless you have not watched television in the last 30 years, you know what happened next. San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana took the snap but his primary receiver was covered and Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Larry Bethea were breathing down his neck. Montana moved to the sideline and slung a pass to the back of the end zone that was snagged out of the air by wide receiver Dwight Clark to put the 49ers ahead for good. "The Catch" is considered to be a watershed moment for both franchises.
1. Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34
Jan. 21, 2007 – Indianapolis
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning had a history of not performing well in the playoffs and New England and Tom Brady were his arch-nemeses. The two teams had upset the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds the week before, bringing the AFC Championship Game to Indy for the first time.
But even with the home-field advantage, it looked like more of the same when the Patriots jumped out to a 21-3 lead. However, the Colts did not buckle this time. Kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed a 28-yard field go to close the lead to 21-6 at halftime. Then Manning threw a touchdown pass and ran for another to tie the game at 21-21 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
What followed was a good old-fashioned shootout, with it appearing that the last team to have the ball would win. Down 34-31 with less than three minutes, the Colts drove 66 yards and a three-yard TD run by Joseph Addai put Indianapolis up 38-34 with a minute to play. Brady drove the Patriots down to the Colts' 45-yard line, but Marlin Jackson intercepted his next pass. In addition to the classic storyline, the Colts' comeback is tied for the largest in conference championship history.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.