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10 greatest Conference Championship games in NFL history

More than any other round of the NFL playoffs, the conference championship has contributed the most named games to the league’s history.

Several of these “The (insert noun here)” games make the list of the greatest conference championship games in NFL history.

So here’s “The List.”

No. 10: Patriots 23, Ravens 20 (2011)

This game gets on the list ahead of a couple of others that were decided by overtime field goals. Those other games didn’t have quite as much drama packed into the final half-minute.

The Patriots led 23-20 with 27 seconds left at Gillette Stadium when cornerback Sterling Moore robbed Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans of a touchdown catch in the end zone.

No problem. All the Ravens had to do to send the game into overtime was make a 32-yard field goal. That’s shorter than the distance of an extra point now.

But Billy Cundiff missed it and the Patriots were on the way to their fifth Super Bowl appearance of this century.

No. 9: Saints 31, Vikings 28, OT (2009)

No list of the greatest conference championship games is complete without a Brett Favre interception.

With the game tied 28-28, the visiting Vikings reached the Saints’ 33-yard line with 19 seconds left. Then the Vikings had to move back five yards because they had 12 men on the field. Favre still had a chance to put the Vikings in position for a game-winning field goal, but he threw an interception.

The Saints won the game on the first OT possession when Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yard field goal. Two years later, a field goal wouldn’t be enough for a sudden-death overtime win on the first possession, but the Saints earned it because they converted a fourth-and-1 from the Vikings’ 43.

Not every coach would have made that call, but it shouldn’t be surprising that Sean Payton did because two weeks later he opened the second half with a successful onside kick that helped deliver the Saints their only championship.

No. 8: Falcons 30, Vikings 27, OT (1998)

This game at the Metrodome had a double-digit fourth-quarter comeback, an overtime finish and a stunning upset.

The Vikings scored 556 points in 1998, at the time an NFL record. However, they became the first 15-1 team to fall short of the Super Bowl because Gary Anderson missed his only field goal of the season.

The 38-yarder would have given the Vikings a 30-20 lead with just over two minutes left. Instead, the immortal Chris Chandler engineered a 71-yard drive. A 16-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis tied the game, and Morten Anderson’s 38-yard field goal ended the game in overtime.

No. 7: Colts 38, Patriots 34 (2006)

What would this list be without a Brady-Manning game?

The host Colts came back from a 21-3 deficit, the biggest comeback in conference championship history. A field goal just before halftime made the score 21-6 and curbed the Patriots’ momentum.

Peyton Manning and the Colts tied it, and the Patriots regained the lead, before the end of the third quarter.

Center Jeff Saturday recovered a fumble by running back Dominic Rhodes in the end zone to tie the game 28-28 early in the fourth quarter. All three Colts touchdowns to that point were unconventional. The first came on a one-yard sneak by Manning and the second on a one-yard pass to tackle-eligible Dan Klecko.

Then the teams traded field goals, and the Patriots got the better of the deal and led 34-31 with less than four minutes left.

The Colts had to punt, then forced the Patriots to punt to set up the game-winning drive with 2:17 left.

A roughing-the-passer penalty put the ball on the 11 with two minutes left, and Manning handed the ball off to Joseph Addai three straight times. Addai’s three-yard TD run made it 38-34 with 1:02 left and the Colts sealed the win on Marlin Jackson’s interception with 24 seconds left.

Manning went on to win his only Super Bowl.

No. 6: Steelers 20, Colts 16 (1995)

Games that can go either way as the clock runs out get favorable treatment on this list.

That was the case in this AFC championship game at Three Rivers Stadium.

Jim Harbaugh threw a Hail Mary from the Steelers’ 29-yard line, and it looked like Colts receiver Aaron Bailey came down with it. But defensive back Randy Fuller knocked it out of his hands. It’s difficult to remember a Hail Mary coming that close to a touchdown without actually being a touchdown.

There was enough of a buildup to that moment to get this game on the list.

Bam Morris’ one-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers the lead on the previous drive. Neil O’Donnell had to complete a fourth-down pass to Andre Hastings with three minutes left to keep the possession going. The Colts had taken a 16-13 lead with eight minutes left in the game on Harbaugh’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner.

The dramatic ending of this game was magnified because the heavily favored Steelers had lost to the Chargers in the 1994 AFC championship game at Pittsburgh. Turner’s touchdown catch gave Steelers fans an “oh-no-not-again” feeling.  But what transpired in the final seconds was the best thing that happened to the Steelers on that field since The Immaculate Reception.

No. 5: Broncos 23, Browns 20, OT (1986)

Two things became famous in this game.

The spotlight of the AFC championship game put the Dawg Pound on the map. Fittingly, it was during a Browns loss.

The other thing that became famous was the Broncos’ 98-yard drive that forced overtime.

It’s become known simply as “The Drive.”

Trailing 20-13 with 5:43 left, the Broncos had the ball at their own two-yard line after a fumbled kickoff.

Then John Elway went to work.

He methodically moved the Broncos up the field, but faced a third-and-18 at the Cleveland 48 after a sack. Elway somehow fielded a snap that bounced off the backside of Steve Watson, who was in motion, and fired a 21-yard pass to Mark Jackson.

Elway eventually threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Jackson to send the game to overtime. Rich Karlis booted a 33-yard field goal to punch the Broncos’ ticket to Super Bowl XXI. Holding for Karlis was future Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, who on Sunday will try to lead the Broncos to a record-tying eighth Super Bowl.

No. 4: Giants 15, 49ers 13 (1990)

This one beats all those conference championship games that were decided by a field goal in overtime because of simple mathematics.

Those other games would have gone on if the field goal was missed in OT. When Giants kicker Matt Bahr lined up for a 42-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds, the Giants trailed the 49ers 13-12 at Candlestick Park. If he made the field goal, the Giants would win. If he missed, the 49ers would win.

Bahr made the field goal, his fifth of the game, and the Giants’ five field goals beat the 49ers’ two field goals and a touchdown. The 49ers had won two straight Super Bowls but were foiled in their quest for a three-peat.

The 49ers had that one-point lead and could have run out the clock. It likely would have been them and not the Giants handing the Bills the first of four straight Super Bowl defeats if Roger Craig hadn’t fumbled the ball away in 49ers territory with two minutes left.

Leonard Marshall knocked Joe Montana out of the game in the fourth quarter, but not before Montana threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor in the third quarter. The Giants then pulled to within a point on two Bahr field goals. The second one was set up by a fake punt. Linebacker Gary Reasons ran for the first down.

All those twists and turns and the dramatic ending were enough to put this game right behind two games with memorable nicknames.

No. 3: Packers 21, Cowboys 17 (1967)

Any game played in temperatures that dip 18 degrees below zero will be remembered forever.

What really makes this game at Lambeau Field one of the greatest conference championship games of all-time is the gutsy play call that won the game.

The Cowboys came back from a 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Packers had the ball inside the Cowboys’ one-yard line with 16 seconds left. They had no timeouts, so a running play would have been risky with the seconds ticking off the clock. But that didn’t stop Vince Lombardi and the Packers from calling a running play.

Bart Starr took it in behind the blocking of center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer and the Packers won the game and went on to win their second straight Super Bowl.

This was before these games were known as “conference championship” games because it was before the merger. The Cowboys and Packers were playing for the NFL championship for the right to meet the AFL champion.

Even if it wasn’t a “conference championship,” this game has a more iconic name: The Ice Bowl.

No. 2: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 (1981)

This game pioneered the practice of naming historic football games, at least when it comes to conference championships.

Dwight Clark called it a “double catch,” according to the New York Daily News, because he said the ball bounced off one palm and he was able to rein it in with the other.

“The Double Catch” would be a little too cumbersome, so this play is just called “The Catch.”

Clark’s leaping, six-yard touchdown reception from Joe Montana in the back of the end zone gave the 49ers a 28-27 lead with 51 seconds left at Candlestick Park. It was the sixth lead change of the game, and there was no guarantee it would be the last because the Cowboys drove to the 49ers’ 44-yard line needing just a field goal.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if the Cowboys had come back to win against these upstart 49ers. They went to the Super Bowl five times in the 1970s while the 49ers were making their first playoff appearance in nine years.

But Lawrence Pillers sacked Danny White and the ball came loose. Jim Stuckey recovered and the 49ers were on their way to the first of four championships in the next nine years.

While this was the start of the 49ers’ glory days, it also signaled the end of the Cowboys’ reign as America’s Team. No franchise will ever take that moniker from the Cowboys, but their era of NFC dominance was over.

No. 1: Seahawks 28, Packers 22, OT (2014)

Could this be a recency bias?

Like most of the games on this list, the 2014 NFC championship game in Seattle features a comeback. But none of those other comebacks were as dramatic and unlikely as this one.

The Seahawks trailed 16-0 late in the third quarter and needed a trick play just to get on the scoreboard. Seattle lined up for a field goal, but faked it and punter Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass offensive lineman Garry Gilliam to make it 16-7.

The Packers added a field goal to make it 19-7 and the game seemed over when Morgan Burnett intercepted Russell Wilson with 5:13 left. However, the Packers were more conservative in this game than their highest-ranking fan, House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Not only did the Packers settle for field goals twice in the first half from the Seahawks’ one-yard line, but Burnett didn’t try to advance the interception even though he had nothing but daylight in front of him. That could have cost Green Bay at least three points because Burnett could have put the Packers in field-goal range.

Instead, the Packers lost two yards on three running plays from their own 43, and the Seahawks got the ball back with four minutes left. Wilson’s one-yard run pulled them to within 19-14 with 2:13 left.

Then came the onside kick. If this were football as the rest of the world knows it, Brandon Bostick would have made the proper play. But there’s no such thing as heading the ball in American football. It went through Bostick’s hands and off his helmet and the Seahawks recovered.

Marshawn Lynch ran 24 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:33 left. But that only gave the Seahawks a one-point lead. They had to go for two. Even the two-point conversion added to this game’s memorable factor. The play seemed dead and Wilson was all the way back to the 19-yard line to avoid the pass rush, but he heaved the ball across the field and tight end Luke Willson came up with it.

It turned out the Seahawks needed those points because the Packers sent the game into overtime with a field goal.

Faced with a third-and-7 from the Seattle 30, Wilson completed a 35-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, and followed that with the game-winning 35-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse to send the Seahawks to their second straight Super Bowl.

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