10 Best AFC Championship Games in NFL History
January 18, 2012 1 Comment
We are 5 days away from Championship Sunday in the NFL. This Sunday the Ravens and Patriots will be in the 42nd AFC Championship Game. Today I’ll remember the great Championship games from the past. This is not a ranking, these are listed in chronological order.
December 31, 1972 – Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) at Miami Dolphins (14-0)
This was the year of the Dolphins undefeated season. People remember Garo Yepremian fumbling the kick in the Super Bowl and ruining the 17-0 win in their 17-0 season but people forget that the Dolphins were actually trailing in the 2nd half of this game. The Steelers came into the game playing with house money. Just a week before they had beaten the Oakland Raiders on Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception”. The Steelers struck first but it came with a price. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw fumbled the ball near the goal line and it was picked by by guard Gerry Mullins for a touchdown. In the scramble for the fumble Bradshaw had suffered a concussion. The Steelers held the lead until the 2nd quarter when a Larry Seiple punt return set up a 9 yard touchdown pass from Earl Morrall to Larry Csonka. It was tied at 7 at halftime but the Steelers started off strong again in the 2nd half, driving down to set up a 14 yard field goal by Roy Gerela. The Dolphins then inserted Bob Griese into the game at quarterback and his first pass was a 52 yard strike to Paul Warfield to set up a 2 yard touchdown run by Jim Kiick. The Dolphins would never look back. The Dolphins blocked a Gerela field goal attempt early in the 4th and Kiick capped the drive off by adding another touchdown, this one from 3 yards out, to make the score 24-10. The previously concussed Bradshaw would not go down so easily however and he led the Steelers on a touchdown drive that was capped off by a 12 yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Al Young to pull the Steelers within a touchdown. The Dolphins would not let their undefeated season slip by so easily however and they intercepted Terry Bradshaw on his last two comeback attempts. There would be no Immaculate Reception this time and the Dolphins won the game and the right to play in Super Bowl VII. The Dolphins were led by their ground game, amassing 193 yards on the ground, 76 of those from resident loudmouth Mercury Morris. Two weeks later the Dolphins beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl and completed their undefeated season, the only one in league history.
Final Score: Miami Dolphins 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 17
January 4, 1976 – Oakland Raiders (11-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2)
This would be the 4th year in a row that the Raiders and Steelers would play in the playoffs, a streak that began with the Immaculate Reception game in ’72. This one was for the right to play in Super Bowl X. It was a snowy Sunday in Pittsburgh and offense was at a premium early on. Terry Bradshaw was picked off twice in the first quarter. Raiders kicker George Blanda missed his only field goal attempt of the half, from 38 yards out, after the 2nd Bradshaw pick. Steelers safety Mike Wagner intercepted a pass from Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler in the 2nd quarter which set up the only score of the entire first half, a 36 yard field goal by Roy Gerela. The Steelers started to use Franco Harris more in the 2nd half but while the dam was weakening it hadn’t broke yet. Both teams exchanged offensive futility in the 3rd quarter and it remained 3-0 Pittsburgh heading into the final quarter. At the beginning of the 4th quarter the dam finally broke thanks to Franco Harris. The big back took the ball off tackle and ran through a hole and did not stop running until he reached the end zone, 44 yards down field. It was the first touchdown of the game, in the 4th quarter, and the Steelers led 10-0. It seemed like an insurmountable lead for the Oakland Raiders to cover since the Steel Curtain had been smothering them all game, not to mention the raw conditions that the team from California was faced with. Ken Stabler and co. stepped up to the challenge however and Stabler led the Raiders right down the field and capped off the drive with a 14 yard touchdown throw to receiver Mike Siani to pull the Raiders within 3. The Raiders managed to hold the Steelers offense but disaster struck when the Raiders fumbled and Steel Curtain linebacker Jack Lambert recovered the ball at the Raiders 25 yard line. The next play was a perfectly executed throw and catch from Terry Bradshaw to receiver John Stallworth. The Steelers botched the extra point but still led 16-7 with time running out. The Raiders had to punt the ball back to the Steelers but Harris fumbled the ball back to the Raiders as the Steelers offense tried to run out the clock. The Raiders couldn’t get it into the end zone but Blanda nailed a 41 yard field goal and the Raiders recovered the subsequent onside kick with 17 seconds left, trailing 16-10. The last play of the game was a pass to receiver Cliff Branch, who was stopped at the Pittsburgh 15 yard line to send the Steelers to Super Bowl X.
Final Score: Pittsburgh Steelers 16, Oakland Raiders 10
January 11, 1981 – Oakland Raiders (11-5) at San Diego Chargers (11-5)
This was a battle between division rivals for the rights to head to Super Bowl XV. The Chargers had an aerial attack led by quarterback Dan Fouts and tight end Kellen Winslow. The Raiders and quarterback Jim Plunkett held their own on the offensive side of the ball and they started the game with a bang. On the first drive of the game Plunkett threw a ball that was caught by tight end Raymond Chester and ran in for a 65 yard touchdown. The Raiders intercepted Fouts on his first possession and were poised to take an big early lead. They could not punch it in however and punted the ball back to San Diego. Fouts connected with receiver Charlie Joiner on a 48 yard TD pass to tie the game at 7-7. Plunkett took the next possession down the field in 7 plays, capping it off with a 5 yard touchdown run of his own to make the score 14-7 Raiders. After forcing a three-and-out the Raiders got the ball back and went down the field in only four plays when Plunkett found running back Kenny King for a 21 yard TD throw. It was 21-7 Raiders and there were still 2 minutes left in the 1st quarter. Midway through the 2nd quarter Chargers running back Mike Thomas fumbled deep in Oakland territory, setting the Raiders up for their 4th TD, a 3 yard run by Mark van Eeghen. Fouts re-grouped and engineered a 13 play drive that ended with an 8 yard TD pass to Joiner just before the end of the first half. It was 28-14 Raiders. The Chargers started the second half determined to get back in the game. They went down the field on 12 plays and settled for a 26 yard field goal by kicker Rolf Benirschke. The Raiders could do nothing with the ball and Fouts and co. got back onto the field and went 6 plays to a score, a 6 yard run by running back Chuck Muncie. Just like that the Raiders lead was cut to 28-24. The Raiders got back on track and took the ball down the field on 9 plays and culminated the drive with a 27 yard field goal by kicker Chris Bahr to stretch the lead back to a touchdown. The Chargers went three-and-out and the Raiders added a 33 yard Bahr field goal on their next drive to make it 34-24. Fouts took the Chargers back down the field but they couldn’t get into the end zone either and settled for a 27 yard Benirschke field goal to get back within 7. There was 6:52 left. The Raiders didn’t give up the ball again. They ran 15 plays, all but one on the ground, and the Chargers could do nothing to stop them. By the end all Plunkett had to do was kneel on the ball twice to send the Raiders to Super Bowl XV against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Final Score: Oakland Raiders 34, San Diego Chargers 27
January 11, 1987 – Denver Broncos (11-5) vrs. Cleveland Browns (12-4)
It was a raucous scene at the Dawg Pound in Cleveland. The Browns faithful packed into Cleveland Municipal Stadium on a cold January day hoping to see the Browns secure their first ever Super Bowl appearance. Instead they got “The Drive”. The Browns took an early lead with the only score of the 1st quarter, a 6 yard TD pass from Browns QB Bernie Kosar to receiver Herman Fontenot. The Broncos got on the board early in the 2nd quarter with a 19 yard field goal from Rich Karlis. Denver added their first TD of the game a few minutes later when running back Gerald Willhite went in from 1 yard out to give the Broncos a 10-7 lead. A Mark Moseley 29 yard field goal just before the half tied the game at 10-10. The Broncos came out and added a 26 yard field goal from Karlis in the 3rd quarter to take a 13-10 lead. The Browns tied it up early in the 4th quarter with a Moseley 24 yarder. Cleveland almost exploded with just over 5 and a half minutes to go in the game when Kosar connected deep with receiver Brian Brennan for a 48 yard TD pass, the first Browns TD since the 1st quarter, to give the Browns a 20-13 lead. What made things better was that the Broncos would start their next drive at their own 2 yard line with only 5:32 left in the game. The Broncos plodded their way to a first down, then another as Elway scampered for 11 yards to the Broncos 26. It had been 6 plays already and the 2-minute warning was nearing. Elway connected with scat back Steve Sewell on the next play for 22 yards to the Broncos 48. He hit receiver Steve Watson on the next play down at the Cleveland 40. It was the 2-minute warning. Elway had already lead the Broncos 58 yards with 40 more to go. After an incompletion Elway was sacked on 2nd down to make it 3rd and 18 from the Cleveland 48. Elway made a clutch 3rd down throw to receiver Mark Jackson for 20 yards to the Browns 28, 1st and 10 Broncos. Two plays later Elway made a shovel pass to Sewell who ran 14 yards to the Cleveland 14. There was under a minute left now and the clock kept running. Cleveland fans and players alike were helpless as they watched Elway work his magic. 1st down was an incompletion. After the pressure bore down on Elway during the next play he tucked the ball and ran it 9 yards down to the Cleveland 5. The next play Elway delivered a strike to Jackson in the end zone to tie the game at 20-20. The Browns were stunned. They didn’t get the ball back. Elway brought the Broncos down the field on 9 plays in the 1st possession of overtime and Karlis hit the game winner to send the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
Final Score: Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20
January 17, 1988 – Cleveland Browns (10-6) at Denver Broncos (11-4-1)
What could be sweeter than stewing for a year after giving up “The Drive” only to come back a year later, in Denver, and come up with a “Drive” of your own. If only the football gods saw things the same way as the Browns. The Browns and Broncos were back at it a year later vying for a spot in the Super Bowl, this time in Denver. The Broncos started quick at home, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives to go up 14-0. The Browns got on the board early in the 2nd with a 24 yard field goal by kicker Matt Bahr to cut the lead down to 14-3. The Broncos wouldn’t relent however and running back Gene Lang took the ball into the end zone from a yard out to give the Broncos a commanding 21-3 lead going into halftime. The Browns kicked off the scoring in the 3rd quarter when Kosar hit receiver Reggie Langhorne with an 18 yard TD pass, their 1st TD of the game. The Broncos responded yet again on the very next play when Elway hit Mark Jackson with an 80 yard TD pass to give the Broncos a 28-10 lead. The Browns did not give up however and running back Earnest Byner found the end zone on back-to back possessions with TD rushes of 32 and 4 yards to make the score 28-24 Denver. Rich Karlis added a field goal at the end of the quarter to make the score 31-24 with still one quarter to play. The Browns tied it up early in the 4th when Kosar hit receiver Webster Slaughter with a 4 yard TD pass. Elway was still relentless and took the Broncos down the field in three plays and hit running back Sammy Winder with a 30 yard TD pass to put the Broncos back up a touchdown with 3:53 left in the game. Revenge time. The Browns were about to turn the tables and have a “Drive” of their own. Kosar maneuvered them down the field and reached the Denver 8 in 7 plays. There was less than 15 ticks left on the clock. Kosar handed the ball off to Byner who saw daylight and attacked the open hole to the end zone. Cornerback Jeremiah Castille was the only one between Byner and the end zone. Byner made a move on Castille who could do nothing but lunge for him. Byner put his head down and ran through the hit. He wound up in the end zone, the ball didn’t. Castille had stripped the ball out of Byner’s hands as he ran past him and then jumped on top of the ball at the 3 yard line. Denver took a safety and Cleveland’s heart was broken again. It was supposed to be perfect symmetry. They would do to the Broncos what the Broncos did to them only a year earlier. Instead we got “The Fumble” to go along with “The Drive”. That would be the Browns last appearance in the AFC Championship game.
Final Score: Denver Broncos 38, Cleveland Browns 33
January 12, 1992 – Denver Broncos (12-4) at Buffalo Bills (13-3)
The Broncos were back, appearing in their at-the-time unprecedented 4th AFC Championship Game in 6 years (a feat the Bills would better by the end of the 1993 season). The Bills had hosted the prior AFC Championship game and routed the Raiders 51-3. They still had the sour taste of the last minute Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the New York Giants in their mouths from the year prior. The Bills K-Gun offense had been tearing up the league but the Broncos defense was not intimidated. The Broncos smothered the Bills vaunted offense and held them scoreless for the entire first half. They intercepted quarterback Jim Kelly twice. Meanwhile the Bills were playing bend but don’t break defense. The Broncos made it into Buffalo territory on all 5 of their first half possessions. Kicker David Treadwell missed three field goals and they failed to reach field goal range on the other two. The score was tied 0-0 at the half. The Bills pass rush was relentless and early in the 3rd quarter they got to Elway for a 3rd time and he suffered a deep thigh bruise. Elway would have trouble moving around in the pocket from there. Later in the 3rd quarter the Broncos were back on offense, still having held the Bills scoreless. On the 2nd play of the drive Elway attempted to throw a screen pass to back Steve Sewell. The ball was tipped in the air by Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright and linebacker Carlton Bailey grabbed it from the air and scampered 11 yards into the end zone for a TD, breaking an Elway tackle on the way. Elway’s injury worsened on the play and backup QB Gary Kubiak replaced him. The Bills set up a 44 yard field goal by Scott Norwood to go up 10-0 with 4:18 left to go in the game. Kubiak tried his best Elway impression and led the Broncos on an 8 play, 85 yard drive that ended when Kubiak scored from 3 yards out on a quarterback draw play. The Broncos recovered the ensuing onside kick with under two minutes left but Bills cornerback Kirby Jackson sealed the game with a forced fumble and recovery. The Bills would go on to their second Super Bowl in a row and John Elway would have to continue to search for that elusive ring.
Final Score: Buffalo Bills 10, Denver Broncos 7
January 15, 1995 – San Diego Chargers (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The reign of the Buffalo Bills was coming to an end and the Chargers and Steelers met in the AFC championship game to determine the first new AFC Champion in 4 years. The Steelers defense that year made fans reminisce about the old Steel Curtain of the 70’s. The Steelers struck first in the game when quarterback Neil O’Donnell hit running back John L. Williams with a 16 yard TD pass. The Steelers D shut out the Chargers in the 1st quarter. The Chargers got on the board early in the 2nd when kicker John Carney hit a 20 yard field goal to make it 7-3. Steelers kicker Gary Andersen added a 39 yard field goal of his own before halftime and the Steelers led it 10-3 at the half. Andersen connected on a 23 yarder in the third to stretch the lead to 13-3. The Chargers were struggling all day to move the ball against the Steelers D but San Diego QB Stan Humphries stepped up his game in the 3rd quarter. He connected with tight end Alfred Pupunu for a 43 yard TD strike to pull the Chargers within a field goal. The Chargers defense held up their end of the bargain, holding Pittsburgh scoreless well into the 4th quarter. Humphries struck again with 5:43 left in the game when he found receiver Tony Martin for a 42 yard touchdown. The Steelers had one last effort to win the game if they could score a touchdown on the final drive. O’Donnell led Pittsburgh all the way down to the Chargers’ 3 yard line where they had one last do or die 4th and goal play from the 3. O’Donnell dropped back for his final pass of the game and tried to get the ball to running back Barry Foster in the end zone. The ball was tipped by Chargers linebacker Dennis Gibson and fell to the ground. The Steelers season was over and the Chargers were headed to Super Bowl XXIX.
Final Score: San Diego Chargers 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 13
January 14, 1996 – Indianapolis Colts (9-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Steelers were back at it a year later, this time playing host to the upstart Indianapolis Colts who had beaten the Chargers and the Chiefs on the road in the first two weeks in the playoffs. The Colts were led by young QB Jim Harbaugh, who will coach the 49ers this weekend in the NFC Championship game. Colts kicker Cary Blanchard kicked off the scoring in the 1st quarter with a 34 yard field goal to make it 3-0 Colts. Steelers kicker Norm Johnson added a 31 yard field goal of his own to tie the game at 3. Blanchard struck again the the 2nd quarter, giving the Colts a 6-3 lead but Neil O’Donnell put the first touchdown on the board when he found rookie slash receiver Kordell Stewart for a 5 yard TD pass. The score was 10-6 Steelers at the half. Blanchard struck again in the 3rd, cutting the Pittsburgh lead to 1. A Norm Johnson 36 yarder pushed the Steelers lead back to 4 at 13-9. The fourth quarter started and the teams traded possessions until Harbaugh finally stepped up with a big play. He hit receiver Floyd Turner with a 47 yard TD pass to give the Colts their first lead of the game at 16-13. The Colts were 8 minutes away from their first Super Bowl berth as the Indianapolis Colts but the Steelers weren’t going away. With just over 3 minutes left O’Donnell got the ball and took the Steelers down the field and running back Bam Morris pushed in from a yard out to give the Steelers a 20-16 lead. Harbaugh had one last chance and little time left. He moved the ball quickly down to the Steelers 29 yard line with 5 seconds left. He had time for one more heave into the end zone. He pulled back and threw it towards wide receiver Aaron Bailey but the Steelers knocked it down and were headed back to the Super Bowl. The Colts lost their best chance and would have to wait more than a decade until they finally broke through to reach the Super Bowl.
Final Score: Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Indianapolis Colts 16
January 27, 2002 – New England Patriots (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
The New England Patriots came out of nowhere during the 2001 season. It was coach Bill Belichick’s 2nd season with the Pats and Tom Brady’s 1st as a starter. He came in for Drew Bledsoe in week 2 of the season and never looked back. Bledsoe got healthy after about 6 weeks and was relegated to clipboard duty for the rest of the year. The Pats were coming off of the infamous Snow Bowl in Foxboro and were looking for their first AFC title in 5 years. The Steelers and Pats traded punts for the first 11 minutes of the game. The Steelers defense was harassing the Pats young QB. An illegal procedure penalty forced the Steelers to re-kick a punt and Troy Brown made them pay by scampering 55 yards untouched to the end zone to make it 7-0 New England. The Steelers took the ball and went on a 10 play, 65 yard drive that set up a 30 yard Kris Brown field goal to make the score 7-3. With just over a minute left in the half the Patriots were driving. On a 3rd and 8 play Brady dropped back and connected with Brown on a 20 yard strike. The 3rd down conversion was not without a price however as Brady was grasping his knee on the ground. Steelers linebacker Joey Porter had hit him low and he was hurt. Drew Bledsoe ripped off his jacket like a superhero and trotted into the game. He led the Pats down before the half and hit receiver David Patten with a 15 yard TD pass to give the Pats a 14-3 halftime lead. The Patriots special teams helped them again in the third quarter. Defensive lineman Brandon Mitchell blocked a Kris Brown field goal attempt and Troy Brown picked up the ball. Kris Brown and punter/holder Josh Brown jumped on Troy Brown’s back. Troy Brown in turn lateraled it to defensive back Antwan Harris who ran 49 yards for the TD. The only thing more amazing than the actual play was how many Browns were involved in it. 21-3 Patriots. The Steelers quickly bounced back and showed some life for once in the game. QB Kordell Stewart drove the Steelers downfield to set up a 1 yard Jerome Bettis touchdown to make the score 21-10. After a Pats three and out returner Troy Edwards set the Steelers up at the New England 32. 4 plays later running back Amos Zereoue ran it in from 11 yards out to make the score 21-17. The Patriots took the ball in the 4th quarter and Bledsoe led them on a time consuming 5+ minute drive that culminated in a 44 yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to stretch the lead back to a touchdown at 24-17. That was all that the Pats defense needed. They stuffed the Steelers on their last two possessions and safety Lawyer Milloy sealed the deal by intercepting Kordell Stewart on the last drive for the Steelers to send the Patriots to the Super Bowl to play the mighty St. Louis Rams and try and culminate their dream season.
Final Score: New England Patriots 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 17
January 21, 2007 – New England Patriots (12-4) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Peyton Manning was one of the most prolific passers in NFL history but he had a reputation for not being able to win the big one. Manning would star in the regular season but would always falter on the road to the Super Bowl, twice to Tom Brady and the Patriots. This was the first time he played them at home however and it looked as things might finally go Peyton Manning’s way but the Pats, as always, came in relentless. The Patriots struck 6 minutes into the game when Tom Brady drove the Pats down the field and guard Logan Mankins recovered Brady’s fumble in the end zone to give the Pats an early 7-0 lead. Manning responded with a 13 play drive that culminated in a 42 yard field goal by former Pats kicker Adam Vinatieri. The Pats kicked it into high gear in the 2nd quarter. Brady lead a 10 play drive, including a 27 yard pass play on 4th and 6 from the Indy 34, and Corey Dillon took it in from 7 yards out to make it 14-3. Just three plays later Manning was intercepted by Asante Samuel who took it back 39 yards for a TD and a 21-3 lead. The Colts and Pats traded punts after that and Manning finally got the Colts going downfield in the two-minute drill before the half. After 14 plays the Colts settled for a 26 yard Vinatieri field goal and it was 21-6 New England at the half. Manning took the Colts down the field on a 14 play drive to start the 2nd half and scored it himself on a 1 yard sneak to make it 21-13. After the Indy defense forced a three-and-out Manning once again took the Colts down the field. After 7 plays Manning threw a 1 yard TD pass to fullback Dan Klecko and then connected with Marvin Harrison on a two-point conversion to tie the game at 21-21. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs took the ensuing kickoff 80 yards down to the Indy 21. Five plays later Brady connected with receiver Jabar Gaffney on a 6 yard TD pass to give the Pats a 28-21 lead going into the 4th. Manning started the 4th quarter with an 8 play drive that ended when center Jeff Saturday recovered a Dominic Rhodes fumble to tie the score at 28-28. The teams traded punts and Brady took the Pats down the field on 6 plays to set up a 28 yard field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowki. Manning followed up with 5 plays to set up a 36 yard Vinatieri field goal. 31-31. After another nice Hobbs return set the Pats up Gostkowski was called on for 43 yard field goal, which he hit to give the Pats a 34-31 lead with 3:53 remaining in the game. The Colts and Pats exchanged punts and Manning and the Colts went onto the field with 2:17 left trailing by 3. Manning finally got his big play, a 32 yard pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher to set the Colts up deep in Pats territory. Four plays later running back Joseph Addai punched it in from 3 yards out to give the Colts a 38-34 lead with 1:02 remaining. Cornerback Marlin Jackson ended any comeback threat when he picked off a Brady pass with :24 left in the game. Manning went in to take a knee and secure his first Super Bowl berth.
Final Score: Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34
Will this week’s game knock one of these gamesout of the top 10? Check back on Friday for my prediction.