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Top 10 Conference Championship Games
By Matt Horkman

1. 1967 NFL Championship: Packers 21 Cowboys 17

There’s almost a mythical cloud surrounding the Ice Bowl. It’s as if it’s the football equivalency to a story from Tolkien. Instead of Hobbits, Wizards, and a Dragon venturing around Middle Earth, this tale features Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, and Lambeau Field. 

Down 14-10 at the end of the third quarter, Dallas took the lead when running back Dan Reeves hit wide receiver Lance Rentzel on a 57-yard touchdown pass. This set the stage for one of the greatest drives in NFL history. With just under five minutes remaining and the temperature reaching negative 20 degrees, Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr needed 68 yards to secure Green Bay’s third consecutive NFL title. Starr was masterful on the drive, completing all five of his pass attempts for 59 yards. He led the Packers all the way down to Dallas’ one-yard line. 

After a Green Bay timeout, Starr ran to the sideline to conference with head coach Vince Lombardi. Starr told Lombardi that he felt he himself had a good chance of simply lunging his way into the end zone. According to Starr, Lombardi said, “Then run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” It’s a testament to Starr’s greatness that Lombardi trusted his judgment enough to green light the play.

In truth, history overrates the play itself. It was just a one-yard plunge. However, the sequence of events leading up to the sneak cemented Starr, Lombardi and the 1960s Packers’ place in NFL history.

Never before was there an NFL game played in weather that cold. 46 years and 13 days later, the ‘67 NFL championship remains the coldest game in NFL history. Despite facing improbable elements, Starr led Green Bay down the field for the game-winning touchdown. That single drive personified Lombardi’s Packers and cemented this game as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- in NFL history.

2. 1981 NFC Championship: 49ers 28 Cowboys 27

While the Ice Bowl marked the climax of a dynasty, the ‘81 championship between San Francisco and Dallas ushered in the start of a new dynasty. Trailing Dallas 27-21 with 4:54 remaining, San Francisco needed to go 89 yards for the win. These were long odds, as nobody goes 90 yards on Tom Landry’s defense. In addition, San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana had already thrown three interceptions in the game.

As the public would soon come to realize, Montana had a knack for overcoming long odds. Utilizing both the run and pass, Montana drove the 49ers down to Dallas’ six-yard line. Facing third-and-3, San Francisco needed a touchdown to win the game, for a field goal did them no good. The play legendary head coach Bill Walsh called was Red Right Tight -- Sprint Right Option. It intended for Montana to roll right and find wide receiver Freddie Solomon in the end zone. If Solomon wasn‘t opened, Montana would have to find wide receiver Dwight Clark.

On the play, Dallas did an excellent job of pressuring Montana, forcing him to lob his pass to the back of the end zone in what appeared to be an attempt to throw the ball away. Clark, however, came from nowhere to pluck the ball out of midair for the touchdown.

Montana denies that he was throwing the ball away, though it’s unlikely he'd ever admit to it. Regardless of whether he was throwing the ball away or not, the play was one of the greatest moments in NFL history, and marked the beginning of 30 years of dominance from San Francisco.

3. 1986 AFC Championship: Broncos 23 Browns 20 (OT)

Many people mistakenly believe “The Drive” was a game-winning drive. However, it was a game-tying drive. That doesn’t make it any less significant, though.

With the game tied at 13, Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar found wide receiver Brian Brennan for a 48-yard touchdown pass to give the Browns a 20-13 lead. Denver’s Gene Lang misplayed the ensuing kickoff, resulting in the Browns being downed at their own two-yard line with just a little over five minutes remaining. John Elway

On the road and down 20-13, Denver quarterback John Elway drove his team 98 yards on 15 plays for the game-tying score. The drive cemented Elway’s place in history as one of the all-time clutch quarterbacks.

In overtime, Cleveland actually won the toss and got the ball first. They went three-and-out after they failed to convert a third-and-2. The Browns punted the ball back to Elway, who drove Denver into field goal position. Denver kicker Rich Karlis kicked a 33-yard field goal to send the Broncos to Super Bowl XXI.

4. 2006 AFC Championship: Colts 38 Patriots 34

For many younger fans, this game probably tops their list. You have the two best quarterbacks of the last 15 years, two Hall of Fame coaches, and a comeback for the ages.

Down 21-6 at halftime, Indianapolis outscored New England in the second half by 19 points to capture their first AFC title in the Manning Era

In a matter of moments, Manning drove the Colts 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown. He completed three long passes and was aided by a roughing the passer penalty. The Colts took as much time off the clock as they could and scored with exactly a minute remaining.

With two timeouts left, New England quarterback Tom Brady got the ball back and had an opportunity to send his team to its fourth Super Bowl in six years. However, with 24 seconds remaining, Indianapolis cornerback Marlin Jackson completed one of the most significant comebacks in NFL history by intercepting Brady's pass.

Imagine Peyton Manning’s legacy if Indianapolis hadn’t mounted an 18-point comeback to win the ‘06 AFC title. Imagine Tom Brady’s legacy had New England hung onto win that game. Simply put, this game altered NFL history.

5. 1998 NFC Championship: Falcons 30 Vikings 27 (OT)

Led by a high-octane offense, Minnesota finished the regular-season as just the third team in NFL history (1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears) with 15 regular-season wins. After demolishing Arizona in the divisional round, the Vikings set their sights on Atlanta.

Overshadowed all season, the Falcons entered the game as double-digit underdogs. They were down 20-7 nearing halftime and the game seemed outreach, but a Randall Cunningham fumble inside Minnesota territory allowed them to cut the lead to 20-14 before half. 

With two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Minnesota was up 27-20. The Vikings trotted kicker Gary Anderson out for a routine 38-yard field goal attempt. Anderson, who was 35-for-35 on field goal attempts in 1998, missed the kick. Go figure. The Falcons tied the game and sent it into overtime.

Anderson’s missed kick is one of the crucial points of this game, but people fail to realize that Minnesota’s offense possessed the ball twice in overtime, yet weren’t able to advance the ball into field goal range. The Falcons won the game when kicker Morten Andersen booted a 38-yard field goal (not kidding) and spoiled a dream Super Bowl matchup pitting these 15-1 Vikings against the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

6. 2007 NFC Championship: Giants 23 Packers 20 (OT)

After upsetting the No. 1 seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round, the Giants turned their attention to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship. It was cold (negative 1 degree) and the Packers had a young, hungry team surrounding legendary quarterback Brett Favre.

The game started slow, but heated up after Favre connected with fan favorite Donald Driver for a 90-yard touchdown. The catch-and-run was the longest play in Green Bay postseason history. The Packers took a 10-6 lead into halftime, but the Giants went ahead after scoring on the first possession of the second half. The teams exchanged blows before it was a 20-20 game late in the fourth quarter.

New York kicker Lawrence Tynes had an opportunity to kick the Giants to the Super Bowl at the close of regulation, but missed the kick. It was his second miss of the fourth quarter, as he missed a 43-yard kick with 6:53 remaining.
Brett Favre
Green Bay won the coin toss and gave the ball to Favre. Two plays into overtime, New York cornerback Corey Webster intercepted a Favre pass intended for Driver. The Giants did very little on the ensuing drive, but Tynes trotted out for the field goal anyways. This time he connected from 48 yards out, sending the Giants to the Super Bowl.

Favre’s overtime interception was his last throw as a Green Bay Packer.

7. 2009 NFC Championship: Saints 31 Vikings 28 (OT)

Two years later, Favre was back in the NFC title game, but this time he donned purple instead of green. All season long, Minnesota and New Orleans were the two best teams in the NFC, so it was refreshing to see the two top seeds play for the conference’s title. 

The Vikings had a number of opportunities to not only win this game, but also comfortably beat the Saints. They out gained New Orleans 475-257, they ran 82 plays in the game, and possessed the ball for over 35 minutes.

Turnovers, however, kept the Saints in the game. With the score tied at 21, Minnesota’s star rookie Percy Harvin fumbled the ball inside Vikings’ territory to set the Saints up with the go-ahead touchdown. Minnesota battled back to tie the game at 28, setting the stage for the biggest turnover in Vikings’ history.

The score was 28 a piece and the Vikings were driving to give kicker Ryan Longwell (also a former Packer) an opportunity to win the game at the end of regulation. They were at the 33-yard line, so you’d expect running back Adrian Peterson to get the ball in an attempt to position Longwell for an easier kick. The Vikings inexplicitly had 12 players in the huddle, though, which cost them five yards and setup third-and-15 instead of third-and-10. More important, it took a 50-yard kick and made it a 55-yard kick. The Vikings had no choice but to have Favre throw. As he did two years prior, Favre threw an interception. The Vikings never saw the ball again, as New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yard field goal in overtime to win the game.

8. 1987 AFC Championship: Broncos 38 Browns 33

For the second consecutive season, Cleveland and Denver met for the right to go to the Super Bowl. And for the second consecutive season, Cleveland and Denver played a classic.

The year prior was a more defensive-oriented game, but the ‘87 AFC title game featured more scoring. The Broncos were up 21-3 at halftime, but Cleveland stormed back and tied the game midway through the fourth quarter.

Elway led the Broncos on an 81-yard touchdown drive to give Denver a 38-31 lead. With 3:53 remaining, Cleveland needed to go 75 yards to tie the game. Kosar, who played a remarkably good second half, quickly led Cleveland into Denver territory.

After a Denver penalty, Cleveland was inside Denver’s 10-yard line. Instead of passing, the Browns opted to run a draw with running back Earnest Byner. Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille reached in and stripped the ball from Byner. The Broncos recovered, gave the Browns a safety, and went onto to play in their second straight Super Bowl.

9. 1966 NFL Championship: Packers 34 Cowboys 27

A year before the Ice Bowl, Dallas and Green Bay met at the Cotton Bowl for the right to represent the NFL in Super Bowl I.

The Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, in large part because Dallas fumbled a kickoff. The Cowboys -- as they did all game -- fought back to tie the game at 14.

Trailing 34-27 in the fourth quarter, Dallas got the ball and quarterback Don Meredith drove the Cowboys to Green Bay’s two-yard line. On fourth down, Green Bay linebacker Dave Robinson pressured Meredith, forcing him to heave the ball into the end zone, where Green Bay safety Tom Brown intercepted it with 28 seconds remaining.
 
With respect to the Ice Bowl, this game is the origin of the rivalry between Green Bay and Dallas. The Packers and Cowboys have played six times in the playoffs, with Dallas holding a 4-2 record over Green Bay. However, the Packers won the first two, in large part because of Starr.

His brilliance in the Ice Bowl goes without saying, but Starr was magnificent in the ‘66 NFL title game, completing 19-of-28 passes for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns. A week later, Starr led the Packers to a 35-10 victory over Kansas City in the first Super Bowl.

10. 1992 NFC Championship: Cowboys 30 49ers 20

In the 1990s, Dallas and San Francisco appeared in six of the 10 NFC title games, facing each other three times. Dallas won in ‘92 and ‘93, while San Francisco won in ‘94. The best of those games was the ‘92 NFC title bout on a slick Candlestick Park surface. The 49ers were 14-2 and coming going through a changing of the guard. Montana missed the entire season with a back injury, so they turned the team over to quarterback Steve Young, who responded with an MVP season.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, were fresh on the scene. They had been to the playoffs the year before, but many prognosticators believed it was just not quite their time. They were wrong.

The game nearly started with a bang, as on San Francisco’s opening possession, Young connected with legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice for about a 68-yard touchdown. However, an offensive holding penalty negated the score.

Nevertheless, San Francisco still took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter. They surrendered their lead, though, when Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman hit running back Emmitt Smith for a 16-yard touchdown.

The 49ers wouldn’t go away and they seized momentum after a five-yard touchdown by Rice. With about four minutes remaining, Dallas got the ball at about their 20-yard line with Candlestick Park rocking.

On the first play of the drive, everybody was expecting a run to Smith. However, offensive coordinator Norv Turner dialed up a pass play and Aikman hit wide receiver Alvin Harper for a gain of 69 yards on the play. Three plays later, Aikman found wide receiver Kelvin Martin for a six-yard touchdown to secure victory and a place in the Super Bowl.

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