The 25 Most Devastating Conference Championship Losses in NFL History
A few days I came across a video on YouTube purporting to list the ten most devastating losses in NFL conference championship history. I didn’t love their list, but it did inspire me to make my own. Enjoy. (Unless you’re a fan of one of these teams, in which case, I’m sorry.)
25. 1983 NFC: Washington 24 San Francisco 21
After their breakout in 1981 (see #10 below), the 49ers may have thought they could be starting a dynasty, but although Montana and the offense kept pace the following year, the defense took a major step back, and the 49ers fell to 3–6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. In 1983 the 49ers were back in the playoffs at 10–6. In their first playoff game they blew an early lead to the Lions, and trailed 23–17 with under two minutes to go until Montana found Freddie Solomon in the end zone to make it 24–23. The Lions drove back into field goal range, but Eddie Murray missed an easy game winning field goal as time expired to allow the 49ers to survive and advance.
That took them to Washington, where they were huge ten-point underdogs to the 14–2 defending champions. The battle between the last two Super Bowl champs went as expected, with Washington shutting San Francisco out 21–0 entering the fourth quarter. Several 49ers no-showed, most egregiously star rookie Roger Craig, who had just three yards rushing and 15 receiving.
But in the fourth quarter Montana threw three unanswered touchdowns, the first and third to Mike Wilson and the middle a 76-yard bomb to Solomon, and the 49ers tied it up with less than three minutes remaining. But two questionable defensive penalties (pass interference on Eric Wright and then holding on Ronnie Lott) kept a Washington comeback drive alive, and Mark Moseley, 0/4 on the day on field goals (Ray Wersching was 0/2 for SF), hit a 25-yard chip shot to give Washington the lead, and Montana’s Hail Mary was intercepted to end the game.
24. 1990 NFC: N.Y. Giants 15 San Francisco 13
No team has ever threepeated the Super Bowl, but the 1990 49ers were expected to. At 14–2, they entered the NFC Championship as eight-point favorites over the Giants, whose victory over the Bears the previous week was their first playoff win since their lone Super Bowl in ‘86.
The first half was a dreadfully boring field goal fest, ending 6–6. Early in the third San Francisco scored the only touchdown of the day, a 61-yarder to John Taylor, but Matt Bahr’s third field goal pulled the Giants within 13–9 entering the fourth. Montana then got knocked out of the game, and after the Giants gained 30 yards on a fake punt on the following drive, they got into field goal range for Bahr’s fourth of the day. Steve Young took over for San Francisco, but Lawrence Taylor recovered a Roger Craig fumble, the only turnover of the game, and Bahr hit his fifth field goal as time expired to dash the 49ers’ hopes of a threepeat.
23. 2008 NFC: Arizona 32 Philadelphia 25
Philadelphia lost three consecutive NFC Championships earlier in the decade, the last two as home favorites, but none of those games were close. Five years later, as the Reid/McNabb era wound down, the Eagles were once again favorites in an NFC title game, this time by 3.5 points as a road wild card, because the mediocre 9–7 NFC West champion Cardinals had pulled off a pair of surprising playoff wins of their own behind Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.
Warner and Fitz also dominated in the first half against the Eagles, connecting for three touchdowns that gave Arizona a 24–6 halftime lead. But McNabb found Brent Celek for two third quarter touchdowns, and when DeSean Jackson caught a bobbling 62-yard bomb from McNabb for the Eagles third consecutive touchdown, the Eagles took a 25–24 lead. Arizona responded, driving down the field to score a touchdown with just under three minutes remaining. Kevin Curtis dropped a fourth down heave from McNabb on the following possession, and the Cardinals advanced to their only Super Bowl. The following year would be McNabb’s last in Philly, and Andy Reid would never win another playoff game for the Eagles, bottoming out and getting fired after going 4–12 in 2012. But Reid would get back on his feet, and return to this list later on.
22. 2006 AFC: Indianapolis 38 New England 34
Coming into the 2006 season, the narratives about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were set. The Patriots had won three of the past five Super Bowls, despite Brady not being nearly the individual star of Manning. Brady had never even been an All Pro, let alone an MVP candidate, but he had those three rings and a 10–1 postseason record, including two wins over Peyton in ’03 and ’04 by a combined score of 44–17, games in which Peyton combined for one TD and five interceptions.
Peyton had won two of the previous three MVPs, but was just 3–6 in the playoffs, including those two losses to the Patriots (one of which is #11 below). With the Colts losing to the Patriots in ’03 and ’04 and then losing their first playoff game again in 2005, Peyton had earned a reputation as Dan Marino 2.0 — the best QB on the planet during the regular season, but a guy who couldn’t perform when it mattered. Even as the Colts rolled into New England for the 2006 AFC Championship, Peyton didn’t do too much to dispel that reputation. The Colts won their first two playoff games, but that was thanks to a defense that held their two opponents to a combined 14 points. Manning had one TD and five picks through the first two games.
Unlike the first two New England/Indy playoff matchups, this one was in Indianapolis (in fact, the home team would win all five Brady/Manning playoff games), and this time the Colts were favored, which made it all the worse for the home fans when the Patriots jumped out to a 21–3 lead when Asante Samuel pick-sixed Peyton early in the second quarter. The Colts would come alive in the third quarter, charging back to tie the game thanks to a Peyton rushing TD, a Peyton passing TD, and a Peyton two-point conversion.
For the rest of the game it went back and forth. Brady’s only TD of the game gave the Pats a 28–21 lead entering the fourth, but the Colts tied it on the ensuing drive. After the teams traded punts, each of the next three drives ended in field goals (thanks in part to Reche Caldwell dropping a probable touchdown, his second dropped touchdown of the game), which gave New England a 34–31 lead. With each team going three and out on their next possession, the Colts took over on their own 20 with 2:17 to go. In just four plays Peyton had the Colts in the red zone. Suddenly concerned they might score too quickly, each of the next three plays was a Joseph Addai handoff, with the third giving the Colts a 38–34 lead with 1:02 remaining.
Now it was Brady’s turn, and in three plays he was in Indy territory. But with 24 seconds remaining he threw an interception which sealed the game and flipped several narratives. If he had completed that final drive in the end zone, this Colts loss would be top five on this list. Instead, the Colts went on to win their only Super Bowl since 1970. This was one of the greatest conference championships ever, but the Patriots loss can’t be that high up on this ranking because the Patriots still had three titles in the previous five years.
21. 2017 AFC: New England 24 Jacksonville 20
The 10–6 Jaguars were essentially playing with house money. A 7.5-point underdog, they came into New England for the AFC Championship in a season that had started with zero expectations. Still, when you’re winning 20–10 halfway through the fourth quarter of a conference championship, you expect to go to the Super Bowl. Instead, their offense became comically predictable, running 100% of the time that they had two or fewer WRs on the field and passing 100% of the time that they had three or more WRs on the field. Shockingly, Bill Belichick discovered this code, and Brady threw a game winning touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone with under three minutes remaining to complete the comeback.
20. 1999 NFC: St. Louis 11 Tampa Bay 6 (The “Bert Emanuel” Game)
The Rams came out of nowhere to become the Greatest Show on Turf behind MVP Kurt Warner. The Bucs were a defense-first team whose QB, rookie Shaun King, had only started five games in his career. The Rams were 14-point favorites, but nobody expected it to even be that close. But Warner got picked on the first play from scrimmage, and the Bucs took a 3–0 lead. The Rams got the ball back and drove down the field, but Warner fumbled on the Tampa seven, and the Rams were lucky to recover and kick a tying field goal. The rest of the first half was punts, a missed field goal, a King interception, and a King sack in the end zone which gave the Rams a 5–3 halftime lead.
The Bucs drove down the field to kick a field goal and take a 6–5 lead to start the second half. Each of the Rams next two drives would end in Warner interceptions, so the Bucs held onto their 6–5 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Bucs offense couldn’t do anything, and finally the Rams scored with under five minutes remaining to take an 11–6 lead. The Bucs got the ball back and promptly had their best drive since their opening drive of the half. They got down to the Rams 22, but after a sack, faced 2nd and 23 from the Rams 35. King found Bert Emanuel for an obvious catch that for reasons that will never be understood was ruled incomplete upon review. The Bucs never gained another yard.
19. 1974 AFC: Pittsburgh 24 Oakland 13
The Raiders entered the 1974 postseason having gone 84–21–7 over the previous eight regular seasons, only to have lost four AFL/AFC championships and their only Super Bowl. After a thrilling double comeback 28–26 win over the Dolphins the previous week in “The Sea of Hands Game,” the Raiders were 5.5-point favorites over the Steelers in the ’74 AFC Championship. The 1974 Steelers did not have the aura of the present-day franchise. In fact, they were the most pathetic franchise in professional football. In their first four decades of existence they never made the postseason (other than a play-in against the Eagles in 1947 that they lost 21–0). During World War II they were so pathetic that they had to merge with the Eagles, seasons which count only for the Eagles in the history books.
But Chuck Noll arrived in 1969 and Terry Bradshaw arrived in 1970 and by 1972 they had their first winning season in a decade, and they won their first ever playoff game (against the Raiders). By 1974 they were hoping to take the next step.
After a nondescript first half ended 3–3, the Raiders scored the first touchdown of the game in the third quarter to take a 10–3 lead entering the fourth. That’s when the Steelers finally woke up, tying the game 10–10 on a Franco Harris eight yard run and taking their first lead 17–10 on a Lynn Swann six yard pass from Bradshaw. The Raiders kicked a field goal to make it 17–13, but Harris scored again, clinching a 24–13 victory. The Steelers would go on to beat the Vikings to earn their first ever championship.
The Steelers would beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship again the following season, the Raiders sixth conference championship loss in eight seasons, but the Raiders would eventually earn their first championship, also against the Vikings, the year after that, in 1976.
18. 2007 NFC: N.Y. Giants 23 Green Bay 20
In what would be Brett Favre’s final season in Green Bay, the 13–3 Packers were heavy favorites to beat the mediocre wild card Giants. After the Packers kicked a field goal to tie it at 20 early in the fourth, the Giants drove the field, only for Lawrence Tynes to miss a go-ahead 43-yard field goal in the freezing wind. The Packers went three and out. The Giants got a first down but quickly punted themselves. The Packers went three and out again. The Giants fumbled the punt return but recovered it, and had the ball with a little over two minutes to go near midfield. They methodically used up the clock, Tynes lined up for a game-ending 36-yard field goal … and missed again. The Packers won the toss, but on the second play from scrimmage in overtime, Favre threw a pick (meaning his last throw in a Packers uniform would be an interception, which would also be true for Favre in New York and Minnesota). Tynes got another chance at a game winning field goal and hit it. At the time nobody really thought it mattered who won this game, though, since the Super Bowl opponent would be the 18–0 Patriots.
17. 1994 AFC: San Diego 17 Pittsburgh 13
Before this game, there were 20 times that a conference title team had outgained its opponent by at least 100 yards; those teams were 20–0. The Steelers dominated this game, outgaining San Diego by 189 yards, a record for dominance in a losing effort that the Vikings would later break (see #3 below). The AFC had lost ten consecutive Super Bowls and the 49ers would end up covering an absurd 19-point spread in the Super Bowl this year anyway, so some might argue that it didn’t really matter who won this game. But the previous game on this list proves that anything can happen in the Super Bowl. And anyway, even making the Super Bowl would have been a critical accomplishment for the Steelers, who hadn’t done much in the previous 15 years. And as the #1 seed and a 6-point home favorite against the nondescript 11–5 Chargers, they should not have blown this game.
The Steelers scored a touchdown on their first possession and would add two Gary Anderson (remember that name) field goals to take a 13–3 lead in the third quarter. But a Stan Humphries 43-yard touchdown pass to something called Alfred Pupunu would make it 13–10. After five consecutive punts, Stan Humphries threw another 43-yard touchdown pass, this one on 3rd and 14, to take a 17–13 lead. The Steelers got the ball back with just over five minutes to go and engineered an 11-play drive that had them goal to go for the go-ahead touchdown. But on fourth and goal from the three, Neil O’Donnell’s pass was knocked away by Dennis Gibson, allowing San Diego to kneel three times in the shadow of their own end zone to advance to their only Super Bowl, where they would be humiliated by the 49ers.
16. 2000 AFC: Baltimore 16 Oakland 3
In hindsight the 2000 Ravens would be remembered as one of the greatest defensive teams of all time, but going into the playoffs, the Raiders were the class of the league. While the Ravens were a wild card, the Raiders had the best record and best scoring differential in the NFL. Journeyman QB Rich Gannon had been picked off the scrap heap by Jon Gruden the previous season, and suddenly at age 35 was the best QB in the NFL. The Raiders were 6-point favorites over Baltimore, but Gannon threw two early interceptions to Baltimore. While the Ravens defense was great, they had no offense to speak off, and it was still 0–0. However, early in the second quarter, Trent Dilfer found Shannon Sharpe on 3rd and 18 from his own four yard line, and Sharpe ran all the way for a 96-yard touchdown. On the next possession, Tony Siragusa flattened Gannon, knocking him out of the game. His backup Bobby Hoying would throw another two picks, and the Raiders had no chance, losing 16–3.
15. 1968 AFL: N.Y. Jets 27 Oakland 23
The Raiders were the dregs of the AFL in the early 60s, but got good just as the Super Bowl era began. After losing the second Super Bowl to the Packers 33–14, they seemed headed back there the following year. But after they and division rivals Chiefs both finished 12–2, they had to play an extra playoff game while the 11–3 Jets got a week of rest. Then, absurdly, the Jets got to host the better team the following week. Nevertheless, the Raiders led the Jets in Shea Stadium 23–20 late in the fourth. But Joe Namath led the Jets down the field, thanks to a 52-yard bomb to Don Maynard, and capped it off with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Maynard to give the Jets a 27–23 victory, which they would follow up with their historic upset in the Super Bowl two weeks later. This was the first of three consecutive years in which the Raiders were favorites in the championship game yet lost.
14. 1987 NFC: Washington 17 Minnesota 10 (The “Darrin Nelson Game”)
The Vikings overcame mediocre scabs in a strike-shortened season to make the playoffs at 8–7. Then, proving that they were better than their record, they went into New Orleans and destroyed the 12–3 Saints 44–10, before heading to San Francisco to beat up the 13–2 49ers 36–24. Having won by a combined 46 points games in which they were combined underdogs of 17.5 points, the oddsmakers wisened up, and 11–4 Washington was just a three-point favorite in the conference title game. The game was close throughout, with the teams trading touchdowns and then field goals to make it 10–10 late in the fourth. A Gary Clark touchdown gave Washington a 17–10 lead, but the Vikings drove right back down the field, and QB Wade Wilson found an open Darrin Nelson in the end zone for a game-tying touchdown on fourth down, only for Nelson to drop an easy catch that could have sent the game to overtime.
13. 1967 NFL: Green Bay 21 Dallas 17 (The “Ice Bowl”)
The Packers and Cowboys faced each other in the NFL title game for the second year in a row. The Packers were two-time defending champs, seeking the NFL’s first ever threepeat. The Cowboys, seven-point underdogs, were seeking their first championship. The game was played on the coldest New Year’s Eve in the history of Green Bay, with a game-time temperature of -15 °F and average wind chill of -48 °F. When Lambeau’s turf-heating system broke down, the entire field turned into a sheet of ice. (One fan in the stands would die from exposure.)
Two Bart Starr touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler gave Green Bay an early 14–0 lead. But the Cowboys came back without their offense getting a single first down, thanks to a pair of Packers fumbles. A Willie Townes strip-sack of Starr was returned by George Andrie to make it 14–7, and a muffed punt by Willie Wood allowed the Cowboys to recover in the Green Bay red zone and kick a field goal to end the half down 14–10.
The third quarter belonged to the Cowboys, but a Don Meredith fumble ended their first drive, and sack followed by a missed field goal held them scoreless until Dan Reeves threw a 50-yard touchdown on a halfback option to give Dallas a 17–14 lead early in the fourth. The Packers missed a field goal and the Cowboys punted, giving the Packers one last drive with 4:50 remaining and the wind chill down to -70 °F. Starr led the Packers down the field, culminating in a 1-yard sneak behind a block by Jerry Kramer for the winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining, which was incredibly risky, because the Packers had no timeouts remaining, and had he been stuffed, they’d have lost the game.
12. 2015 AFC: Denver 20 New England 18
This was the final Peyton/Brady matchup. The Patriots were defending champs and so again did not have that much to feel bad about. But Peyton was on fumes, could barely throw, and had been benched earlier that season. The game was in Denver, but New England was favored. But while Peyton fluttered two early TDs to Owen Daniels, Brady was hit an absurd 20 times and threw two second quarter interceptions, and Denver led 20–12 late in the fourth. New England ran an 11-play drive into the Denver red zone, only to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 16 and fail. After Denver went three and out, New England again drove into the Denver red zone, only again to fail on 4th and goal. After Denver again went three and out (including an incomplete pass by Peyton on third down, which allowed the Patriots to save a time out for one final drive), New England drove into the Denver red zone for the third time in six minutes. On this drive they converted two fourth downs, the second being a touchdown to Gronk with 12 seconds remaining. But needing a 2-point conversion to tie (because Stephen Gostkowski had missed his first extra point in nine years on the Patriots’ first touchdown), Brady didn’t see a wide open Gronk and was picked off. After the onside attempt failed, Brady lost to Peyton Manning in an AFC title game for the third time. But again, it can’t hurt that much given that the Patriots already had four rings, including one the previous season.
11. 2003 AFC: New England 24 Indianapolis 14
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady met in the AFC Championship four times (three of which are on this list) and Peyton won three of them, but his only loss was the most painful loss of the four games. Manning had never won a playoff game before the 2003 season, but he was basically perfect in the first two rounds, 44/56 for 681 yards and eight TDs and no picks (literally a perfect QB rating in one of those games). With the league MVP arriving in New England for his first ever conference championship in that form, the Colts had high expectations, but it would be a snowy disaster.
Peyton threw four picks (three by Ty Law) and the Colts were shut out 15–0 in the first half. They pulled within 21–14 with 2:24 remaining on Peyton’s sole TD of the game, but the ensuing onside kick failed. The Patriots then did them a favor, going three and out, including incomplete passes on 2nd and 3rd downs that allowed the Colts to save two timeouts. But Peyton went 0–4 on the following drive. The Patriots took over on the Indy 20 with 1:41 to go and the game was seemingly over.
The Colts spent their final two timeouts, but on 3rd and 5, the Patriots could basically kneel and let Adam Vinatieri kick a game clinching 34-yard field goal. Instead, Brady fumbled on third down, and Dwight Freeney’s recovery seemed to give the Colts one last chance. But on review Brady was deemed down, and Vinatieri indeed kicked a field goal to make it 24–14. The Patriots went on to win their second Super Bowl in three years, while Peyton’s short two-game run of playoff excellence came crashing down.
10. 1981 NFC: San Francisco 28 Dallas 27 (“The Catch”)
The 1981 49ers featured Joe Montana in his first season as a full-time starting QB for a team that hadn’t won more than eight games in a decade. In fact, among teams that dated back before the AFL, the 49ers were arguably the most pathetic franchise in NFL history. When you think of the pre-80s 49ers, think of the pre-70s Steelers (see #19 above) or the pre-whenever-in-the-future-the-Lions-are-good-Lions.
Meanwhile, the 1981 Cowboys had transitioned at QB from all-timer Roger Staubach, under whom they had made four Super Bowls in the previous decade, winning two, to good-but-not-great former punter Danny White, under whom they would lose three consecutive NFC Championships from 1980–82. The middle one was the heartbreaker.
Although the 49ers had the better record and were at home, the Cowboys were still three-point favorites, probably due to Tom Landry’s team’s longer track record than Bill Walsh’s. Montana might’ve made his first Pro Bowl in 1981, but Danny White put up similar numbers that year, and the only true superstar on either offense was Dallas’s All Pro RB Tony Dorsett, who had his career year, with 1971 yards from scrimmage in the regular season and another 134 in the 38–0 divisional romp over Tampa Bay.
The teams went back and forth all game, with seven lead changes. A 21-yard touchdown pass from White to Doug Cosbie gave the Cowboys a 27–21 lead early in the fourth quarter. But Montana led San Francisco back, finding Dwight Clark over rookie cornerback Everson Walls for The Catch with 51 seconds remaining. (Walls had eleven tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the game, and before The Catch would probably have been the game’s MVP.)
But the game wasn’t over. On the very first play of the Cowboys next drive, White found Drew Pearson down the middle for 31 yards, and if not for an incredible one-handed shirt-grabbing tackle by Eric Wright, Pearson would’ve run into the end zone for a score. Instead, White was strip-sacked on the next play, clinching the game for the 49ers.
While The Catch birthed a 49ers dynasty, the Cowboys would lose the conference championship by two touchdowns the following year and then wouldn’t be back for another decade, so although they didn’t realize it at the time, this was the apex of the 1980s Cowboys.
9. 1986 AFC: Denver 23 Cleveland 20 (“The Drive”)
Late in the fourth quarter Cleveland broke a 13–13 tie on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar. After Denver muffed the ensuing kickoff, John Elway and the Broncos took over on their own two yard line with 5:32 to play. They got the ball into Cleveland territory by the two-minute warning. But after an incompletion and a sack on the first two plays following the two-minute warning, Denver faced 3rd and 18 from near midfield. No problem for Elway, who found Mark Jackson for 20 yards. Five plays later Elway found Jackson in the end zone for a game-tying TD. Cleveland was 3–0 in overtime that season and won the toss, but couldn’t score on their opening drive, and Denver would win in overtime.
8. 2013 NFC: Seattle 23 San Francisco 17
The Seahawks entered 2013, Russell Wilson’s second season, never having won a title. In fact, they had only twice played in a conference championship. But behind Wilson and Marshawn Lynch and especially the Legion of Boom defense, Seattle was the best team in the NFC. The second best team in the conference was their division rival, the 49ers. Coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh had hated each other when coaching at USC and Stanford, and it continued in Seattle and San Francisco. Harbaugh’s 49ers had suffered devastating defeats in each of the previous two seasons: the 2011 NFC championship to the Giants and Super Bowl XLVII to the Ravens. Would their third time be the charm in Colin Kaepernick’s first full season at QB? Losing the division to Seattle meant San Francisco’s path would be on the road. They beat Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau and then Cam Newton in Charlotte, setting up the much anticipated matchup with Seattle, who dispatched Drew Brees and the Saints the previous week.
Seattle was four-point favorites at home, but the game started out poorly for the favorites when Russell Wilson was strip-sacked by Aldon Smith on the first place from scrimmage. The 49ers made it 10–0 in the second after an incredible 58-yard run by Kaepernick. Marshawn Lynch would tie the game with a 40-yard beastquake in the third quarter, but it took Kaepernick just 6 plays to score the go-ahead TD. Seattle got their first lead of the game on a 35-yard Jermaine Kearse TD early in the 4th. Each of the next three drives ended with turnovers: a Kaepernick strip-sack fumble, a Wilson fumble, a Kaepernick pick. Seattle added a field goal to make it 23–17, so San Francisco took over on their own 22 with 3:32 remaining needing six. The previous year their Super Bowl-winning drive stalled at the five. Could they go five yards further to make a return trip? Kaepernick drove them into the red zone, where he looked for Michael Crabtree matched up with Richard Sherman. Sherman knocked it away into the hands of Malcolm Smith, whose interception sealed San Francisco’s third consecutive season-ending stomach punch loss, leading to Sherman’s epic postgame interview.
7. 2018 AFC: New England 37 Kansas City 31
The Chiefs had the MVP and the best offense in the league (and in my opinion were the best team in the NFL), while the Patriots seemed to be at the end of their dynasty and were easily the worst of the four teams remaining. But the Chiefs completely no-showed the first half, and were down 14–0 at halftime, their first scoreless half of the season.
The Chiefs came storming back in a scintillating second half. The fourth quarter alone witnessed 38 points, including three Damien Williams touchdowns. The first pulled KC to with 17–14, as close as they’d been since the opening drive. The second gave them their first lead at 21–17 and the third gave them back the lead 28–24 with 2:03 remaining in a drive that took just 83 seconds after the Patriots had retaken the lead on the previous possession.
But had they left too much time on the clock for Tom Brady? Seemingly not, when Brady threw a game-ending interception (his third of the day) with just a minute remaining. But wait! One of the KC lineman was deemed to have lined up offsides, giving the Patriots one last shot. The next play Brady converted a third down with a 25-yard pass to the single-covered Gronk, and then Rex Burkhead immediately scored, giving the Patriots a 31–28 lead with 39 seconds remaining.
But now it was the Patriots who had left the Chiefs too much time on the clock! Pat Mahomes completed two passes for 48 yards to get to the New England 21, and with eleven seconds left, rather than trying one last pass, the Chiefs settled for a field goal which sent the game to overtime. As he did in each of his previous OT playoff games, Tom Brady won the toss, and the other team never touched the ball. Kansas City’s first AFC championship in 25 years ended in defeat. They still have never won the AFC (their Super Bowl IV victory was as the final winners of the AFL).
6. 2011 NFC: N.Y. Giants 20 San Francisco 17 (The “Kyle Williams Game”)
The 2011 Giants were a garbage team that made the 2007 Giants look like a juggernaut. The 2007 Giants had a great defense. The 2011 Giants had a bottom quartile defense. They were 7–7 until winning their last two games to sneak into the playoffs. Then they were legitimately impressive, beating two stronger opponents with a combined record of 25–7 by a combined score of 61–22.
Rookie 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took over a 6–10 team that hadn’t had a winning record in a decade and in his first season led them to 13–3, their best record in 14 years. In the divisional round they blew a 17–0 lead against the also-13–3 Saints, only for Alex Smith to find Vernon Davis in the end zone with 9 seconds remaining for a thrilling come-from-behind 36–32 victory. But given how well the Giants had played the previous two weeks, they were only two-point underdogs.
The game started with another Smith-Davis touchdown, this one for 73 yards. The Giants responded with ten second quarter points to take the lead at the half. Smith found Davis again in the third quarter, and the game was still 14–10 in the fourth when the Giants punted. The 49ers regular punt returner Ted Ginn was hurt, which left those duties to Kyle Williams (not the lovable Bills DT, but the son of White Sox GM Kenny), who had already muffed a trick play in the first quarter. Williams let the punt graze his knee and the Giants recovered and quickly scored to take a 17–14 lead.
After the 49ers tied it at 17, with 2:22 to go Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled the ball in his own red zone, but the refs decided his forward progress has stopped, a non-reviewable call. Instead of the 49ers taking over in game winning field goal range, the Giants punted, and San Francisco would never get back in Giants territory again.
The game headed to overtime. Neither team did anything on the first three overtime possessions, but Kyle Williams fumbled away another punt, and the Giants quickly kicked a game winning field goal, breaking the 49ers hearts in the NFC championship yet again.
5. 2014 NFC: Seattle 28 Green Bay 22 (The “Brandon Bostick Game”)
For most of this decade the Packers were Aaron Rodgers and little else, but that was enough to have them overcome being 8.5-point underdogs to the defending champs on the road and hold a 16–0 halftime lead, which was still 19–7 late in the fourth quarter when Russell Wilson threw an interception that seemed to all but end the game. But the Packers went three and out and Seattle used two timeouts to keep four minutes on the clock. Wilson then drove down the field, running it in to make it 19–14 with two minutes to go. All the Packers needed to do was recover the onside kick and they were safe, but a Brandon Bostick bobble allowed Seattle to recover, and Marshawn Lynch ran the Seahawks into the lead. A miraculous Russell Wilson two-point conversion then extended the lead to three. But the Rams had scored 15 points too quickly, which gave Aaron Rodgers enough time to drive Green Bay into range for a game tying 48-yard field goal. Unfortunately for the Packers, Seattle won the overtime coin toss and walked off.
4. 1987 AFC: Denver 38 Cleveland 33 (“The Fumble”)
After the way the previous season ended and the way the ’87 season began, with scabs playing the first three games while the real players were on strike, Cleveland was even more desperate in this conference championship rematch than they had been the year before. The Broncos jumped out to a 21–3 lead at halftime. After the Browns scored to start the third, Elway escaped and found Mark Jackson for an 80-yard touchdown made it an 18-point game again. But Cleveland scored three more touchdowns to tie it at 31–31 in the fourth. An Elway pass to Sammy Winder made it 38–31 with six minutes to go, when the Browns got the ball back and drove down the field. On second and five from the 8-yard line with 1:12 remaining, Earnest Byner took a draw and seemed headed into the end zone, when he fumbled on the one yard line. Denver recovered, took an intentional safety, and won 38–33.
From a win probability perspective The Fumble wasn’t as dramatic as The Drive, because even if Cleveland had scored, Denver would’ve been tied at home, getting the ball back with a minute to go in regulation, plus overtime. But because of the built-in pain of the previous season, this one is worse for Cleveland fans.
3. 2009 NFC: New Orleans 31 Minnesota 28 (The “Bountygate Game” a/k/a “Twelve Men on the Field”)
The Vikings outgained New Orleans 475–257 (breaking the record set by the 1994 Steelers for largest conference championship margin for a losing team). They had more than double as many first downs as the Saints. But it was turnovers (and the Saints cheating, of course) that would do them in. They had an absurd six fumbles and were net -4 in turnovers.
The Vikings ended the first half on the Saints four yard line, where a Favre/Peterson muffed handoff resulted in a fumble recovery by New Orleans, ending the half 14–14. The second half started as the first half did, with the teams trading touchdowns to make it 21–21. After a Saints punt, the Vikings drove into field goal range, where Brett Favre threw an interception on a play on which he was hit late high and low. No roughing the passer was called, so instead of the Vikings having a new set of downs in the New Orleans red zone, the Saints got the ball. Drew Brees went three and out, but Percy Harvin promptly fumbled, and New Orleans started a drive at the Vikings seven yard line, scoring quickly to take a 28–21 lead.
The Vikings drove back into the New Orleans red zone again, only for Bernard Berrian to fumble, returning the ball to New Orleans, who again went three and out. The Vikings drove down the field and scored again to tie it at 28. After yet another New Orleans three and out, The Vikings again drove the ball into field goal range. On third and goal with 25 seconds left the Vikings were flagged for 12 men on the field. On offense. On 3rd and 15 Favre had room to run, but instead threw it against his body into the middle of the field, where he was again intercepted. Instead of the Vikings lining up for a game-winning field goal, they were headed to overtime in a conference championship again. This time the Vikings never even touched the ball. Thanks to two pass interference calls, the Saints got into field range, and Garrett Hartley sent them to the Super Bowl.
A few days later the NFL announced that there should’ve been a roughing the passer flag thrown on Favre’s first interception, which would’ve given the Vikings first and ten inside the red zone. A few months later the NFL changed their playoff overtime rules. From now on, if the first team to get the ball scored a field goal, the other team would still get the ball.
2. 2018 NFC: L.A. Rams 26 New Orleans 23
Generally I take into account a team’s previous championship history when making these rankings, which is why teams that have never won a Super Bowl like the Vikings and Browns are so high, and teams with recent success like the Patriots and Packers (and 49ers of the ’80s and ’90s) are lower. But the 2018 Saints are ranked this high despite having (undeservedly) won a Super Bowl in the previous decade because their win probability would have been north of 95% had the referees not made the most egregious referee error in NFL history. That is compounded by the fact that they lost the previous season on the Minneapolis Miracle (a game in which the Saints’ win probability fell from 97.4% to 0% on the final play) and were the favorites to go to the Super Bowl entering the game.
The Saints losing their 13–0 first quarter lead hurts, but all anyone will remember about this game is the non-call. Instead of the Saints being able to run the clock out and kick a game winning field goal with almost no time left, they gave the ball back to the Rams with enough time for the Rams to kick their own field goal, of 48 yards, to send the game to overtime. In OT Brees threw an interception, and Greg the Leg hit a 57-yard field goal to win.
1. 1998 NFC: Atlanta 30 Minnesota 27 (The “Gary Anderson Game”)
The 1998 Vikings were one of the greatest teams in history. They were only the third 15-win team ever. They set the all-time NFL record for points in a season. Their rookie WR Randy Moss had 17 touchdowns among a host of rookie records. Their kicker, Gary Anderson, had the first perfect season in NFL history, going 59/59 on extra points (the most extra points without a miss) and 35/35 on field goals (more than double the previous record for the most field goals without a miss). In total, Anderson had the most points by a kicker in a single season in history, and he also went 5/5 on extra points and 2/2 on field goals in the Vikings’ first playoff game.
They came into the NFC Championship against Atlanta as eleven-point favorites. The Vikings built up a 20–7 lead late in the second quarter, when Randall Cunningham was strip-sacked deep in his own territory with a minute to go (a play after the refs missed pass interference on Atlanta), allowing Atlanta to score a 14-yard touchdown on the next play to make it 20–14 entering the half.
The Vikings offense slowed down in the second half, but still led 27–20 with two minutes to go, when Anderson trotted out for a 38-yard field goal that would clinch the game. Instead he hooked it left and then Atlanta immediately drove down the field for a tying touchdown (a play after Robert Griffith dropped a game-ending interception).
The Vikings got the ball back with 49 seconds to go and then, despite having the greatest offense ever to that point in NFL history, Dennis Green infamously decided to have Cunningham kneel and play for overtime. (After the game Green would cite Cunningham’s fumble at the end of the first half as an excuse.) The Vikings actually won the toss and got the ball first in overtime, but punted. They stopped Atlanta and got the ball again … but punted. The historic offense had run cold at the worst possible time. On the second Falcons overtime drive Chris Chandler found O.J. Santiago for two passes totaling 41 yards and got Atlanta in range for a Morten Andersen field goal attempt from the exact spot on the field where Gary Anderson had just missed. The #1 kicker of all time did not make the same mistake as the #2 kicker of all time, and the Vikings’ dream season was over.