It’s not easy sifting through all of the NFL’s rich conference championship game history to find the 10 best from each conference.
There have been some remarkable games through the years to send teams to the Super Bowl. We’re here to rank the 10 best from each conference. Only games after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger were considered (that eliminates the Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys “Ice Bowl,” but let’s get this out of the way — had that been considered it would have been the No. 1 NFC game). The quality of the entire game, and not just a fun finish or historical relevance, carried the most weight. In every instance, the year referenced is the season in which the game was played.
Here are the top 10 AFC title games (and for the 10 NFC title games, click here):
10. The Steelers dynasty arrives
1974, Steelers 24, Raiders 13
It sounds strange now but a Raiders-Dolphins divisional-round playoff game was considered the real Super Bowl in 1974, and the Steelers were an afterthought. Raiders coach John Madden said after the game he thought the two best teams had just played, and Steelers coach Chuck Noll used that to motivate his team.
This game wasn’t a classic thriller, but it was close and hard fought between two great teams. The Steelers defense was incredible, holding the Raiders to 29 rushing yards on 21 attempts and picking off Ken Stabler three times. Eventually they broke open a game that they trailed 10-3 after three quarters. The Steelers’ dynasty was off and running.
9. The non-fumble
1977, Broncos 20, Raiders 17
For the first two-plus decades of Broncos football (B.E. = Before Elway) the 1977 season was by far the highlight. And it peaked with an AFC championship game win over the Raiders. Broncos fans will fondly recall a pair of touchdown catches from Haven Moses, including a 74-yarder, and a strong defensive performance.
Old-time Raiders fans remember something different. In the third quarter, with the Broncos leading 7-3, Broncos running back Rob Lytle was hit by Jack Tatum at the 1-yard line. He fumbled, but the officials didn’t see it. Raiders lineman Mike McCoy recovered it and was headed the other way. “I had a 40-yard head start and I’d like to think I could’ve gone all the way,” McCoy told the UPI, via Raiders.com. Instead the Broncos kept possession, scored the next play and won by three points. It was one of the controversial plays that eventually led to instant replay.
8. Chargers come up short again
1980, Raiders 34, Chargers 27
The Dan Fouts/Don Coryell era Chargers might be the best team to never make a Super Bowl. Their best shot came in 1980.
The wild-card Raiders shocked the Chargers in San Diego. The Chargers had to know something was amiss early on when Raymond Chester caught a deflected pass and took it 65 yards for a fluke touchdown. A couple interceptions by Fouts didn’t help. The Raiders built a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter behind Jim Plunkett (who had a nearly perfect day) and then held off the charging Chargers for the win. It’s one of the toughest losses in Chargers history.
7. Chargers stun the Steelers behind Seau
1994, Chargers 17, Steelers 13
This was a shocker. The Chargers came in as underdogs, and didn’t play well early on. Quarterback Stan Humphries completed one pass for 15 yards in the first half. But the defense kept them in the game, and they eventually hit a couple big pass plays to take the lead. A 43-yard touchdown pass to Tony Martin in the fourth quarter gave the Chargers the lead. The Steelers drove inside the 5-yard line near the end, but linebacker Dennis Gibson put the Chargers in their first Super Bowl by knocking down a fourth-down pass.
The game’s best performance was by Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who had 16 tackles and was all over the field. It was the signature performance of Seau’s incredible career.
6. Miami’s perfect season marches on
1972, Dolphins 21, Steelers 17
The Steelers weren’t yet the great dynasty we remember when they hosted the Dolphins for the AFC title in 1972 (yes, the Steelers were the home team against a Dolphins team that went 14-0 in the regular season).
The Dolphins made some big plays to move on to Super Bowl VII, where they would complete their undefeated season. Bob Griese came off the bench – he was out most of the season due to a broken leg – and hit Paul Warfield in stride for what Warfield turned into a 52-yard gain. That set up one of Jim Kiick’s two short touchdowns. The enduring play from that game probably came from punter Larry Seiple, who saw the Steelers weren’t paying attention to him and took off for a 37-yard gain. That set up a touchdown. Terry Bradshaw missed some time with a concussion, then came back (this wasn’t a big deal in 1972) and threw two awful interceptions in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins were on the way to finishing their perfect season, and there would be brighter days ahead for the Steelers.
5. Denver hangs on in final Manning-Brady Bowl
2015, Broncos 20, Patriots 18
The final Peyton Manning-Tom Brady game wasn’t a classic shootout. But it was tense. Manning got the Broncos off to a nice start with a couple touchdown passes to Owen Daniels, and it seemed like the Broncos were hanging on for dear life the rest of the way.
The Broncos’ fantastic defense hammered Brady the entire game, but Brady kept coming back. Even though the Patriots didn’t win, it was one of Brady’s gutsiest performances. He hit Rob Gronkowski on an amazing 40-yard pass and catch on fourth-and-10 with a little more than a minute left. Brady hit Gronk on a great play in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal. But the Broncos’ defense saved the day when they tipped and picked off a two-point conversion to the middle of the field.
4. Harbaugh’s Hail Mary falls just short
1995, Steelers 20, Colts 16
This game is best remembered for one play, Jim Harbaugh throwing it to the end zone on the final play and the ball barely rolling off of Aaron Bailey’s body before he could haul it in. But it was a highly entertaining game before that fantastic finish.
The Steelers needed to rally late to avoid another AFC title game disappointment. They hit a late fourth-and-3, then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills on a long pass down the sideline to the 1-yard line (it’s funny to watch that play in context of today’s catch rule madness; Mills’ catch would never have counted today because he didn’t come close to surviving the ground … you can see it here at 1:40) and that set up the go-ahead touchdown.
3. “The Fumble”
1987, Broncos 38, Browns 33
The second Broncos-Browns showdown was arguably better on the whole than the more famous first AFC title game meeting. It’s known as “The Fumble,” for the inexplicable fumble by Earnest Byner as he was going in for a game-tying touchdown with a little more than a minute to go. However, the game was a lot more than that one gaffe.
The Broncos were cruising, up 21-3, when Bernie Kosar got red hot. He threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns and the Browns tied it 31-31. Then John Elway led Denver to a fourth-quarter touchdown to take the lead. That’s when Byner entered NFL infamy. It’s a bit unfortunate the game is remembered for one mistake, because it was a heck of a battle throughout.
2. “The Drive”
1986, Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT)
John Elway’s career was clearly on the rise in 1986, but he didn’t start to become a Broncos legend until “The Drive.”
The Broncos took over on their own 2-yard line with 5:32 to go, needing a touchdown to take the Browns to overtime. The Cleveland crowd was loud all game, adding to the challenge. And methodically, Elway marched the Broncos. There were three third-down conversions, including a 20-yard pass on third-and-18, and a touchdown to Mark Jackson on third-and-1 with 31 seconds left. In all, it was 15 plays, 98 yards and likely the most famous single drive in NFL history. Clevelanders still haven’t gotten over it.
The Broncos won on a Rich Karlis field goal in overtime, sending the Broncos to their second Super Bowl. The game was tense throughout, then started to get great on Cleveland receiver Brian Brennan’s dramatic touchdown to give the Browns a 20-13 lead. That set up Elway’s first truly iconic NFL moment. Those 98 yards alone makes it one of the greatest games in NFL history.
1. Manning finally gets to a Super Bowl
2006, Colts 38, Patriots 34
If you wanted to make an argument for this being the greatest game in NFL history, I’d listen. The backstory set up a classic. It was Peyton Manning trying to finally get over the hump against the Patriots, with the better team and home-field advantage. Then the Colts fell behind 21-3 on an Asante Samuel pick-six early in the second quarter. It seemed Manning would have to wait again.
But the Colts kept chipping away. The comeback featured a touchdown catch from defensive lineman Dan Klecko and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a score by center Jeff Saturday. The game-winning Colts drive was vintage Manning, and had one hold-your-breath moment when Reggie Wayne fumbled up in the air but the ball landed back in his hands. Joseph Addai scored the go-ahead touchdown on a run with a minute left. Tom Brady was picked off shortly after that. Manning finally had slain the dragon. You won’t find many games more entertaining than this one, in any sport.
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