Memories of the best conference championships

by Gary Shelton on January 20, 2017 · 0 comments

in general

Start with this: There are twice as many conference championship games as Super Bowls.

Naturally, there are twice as many golden memories.

Keep that in mind as you watch this weekend's Conference Title Games. Often, these are the games you are going to remember as much as that dance in the confetti. The Super Bowl, until recently, has been without drama.

But the conference title games? They're often classics, a drama played out beneath the goalposts.

And the best memories?

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1. The Catch

Football was rewritten when Dwight Clark  jumped up, oh, about 20 feet or so to pull in Joe Montana's 6-yard touchdown pass in the back of the Dallas end zone back in January 1982, it was more than a great sports moment. It was the dawning of the 49ers' dynasty. Some forget the play capped an 89-yard drive by the 49ers, the kind Montana would repeat throughout his career.

2. The Drive

John Elway drove his team 98 yards in the Cleveland cold to tie the January 1987 AFC title game with 39 seconds to play, helping to establish his legend along the way. The final play was a 5-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson right in front of the Dawg Pound, a section of boisterous Browns fans who threw dog biscuits at the field throughout the game. Denver went on to win the game in overtime. (Personal memory: The press elevator became stuck on the way to the field. It finally made it just before "The Drive" began.)

3. The Ice Bowl

Vince Lombardi's final Packers team wasn't his best. It was aging and injured, and in the December 1967 NFL title game, a lot of advantages belonged to the Dallas Cowboys. Still, the Packers won in minus-20 degree temperatures. The winning play, of course, came when Bart Starr wedged into the end zone on a sneak with 16 seconds to play.

4. The Pick

I know, I know. When you're talking about great moments, some people expect them to be accompanied by black-and-white game films. Still, Ronde Barber's 92-yard interception return against the Eagles in January 2003 belongs on any list of great moments. For one thing, it propelled the Bucs toward their Super Bowl victory a week later. For another, it was the final scoring play at Veterans Stadium, a place that had been a graveyard for the Bucs. For a third, it's still the best play in Tampa Bay history.

5. The Vindication

As good as they have been in the regular season, the Colts have struggled in the postseason, especially against the Patriots. By the time Indy played New England in the January 2006 title game, coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning had heard criticism they couldn't win big games. And when the Colts fell behind 21-3, it seemed the snipes would continue. But the Colts roared back to win that game, and Manning was spectacular in the second half and led his team on a 68-yard drive to take the lead with one minute to play.

6. The comeback

The Super Bowl seemed a long way off for the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. Seattle trailed Green Bay 16-0 at halftime and 19-7 with four minutes left. The Seahawks charged back to tie after recovering an onside kick with 2:19 to play. Russell Wilson, who had four picks, hit Jermaine Kearse on a 35-yard touchdown for the victory.

7. The Tough Guy

Back in January 1980, Jack Youngblood played every snap of the Rams' 9-0 victory over the Bucs with a broken leg. No matter who you were pulling for, that's legendary stuff.

8. The Fumble

One year after John Elway broke the Browns' hearts with "The Drive," Earnest Byner broke them again by fumbling as he seemed on his way toward the end zone. The Browns trailed 38-31, but Denver cornerback Jeremiah Castille (a former Buc) stripped Byner of the ball at the 2-yard line. In some ways, the Browns never recovered.

9. The Call

Explain it to me one more time? Why, exactly, didn't Bert Emanuel's catch count in the January 2000 NFC Championship Game between the Bucs and the Rams?

10. The Choke

Back in 1998, the Vikings looked unstoppable. But the best thing about that Viking team was kicker Gary Anderson, who had had a perfect season. He had made all 39 of his field goals and all 67 of his extra points. But Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal that would have closed out the game against the Falcons, and somehow, the Vikings found a way to lose in overtime.

11. The Save

San Francisco had Seattle on the ropes until Richard Sherman tipped away a pass intended for Michael Crabtree that led to an interception with 22 seconds left to preserve 23-17 victory in 2014. Sherman then blistered Crabtree in a post-game interview.

12. The Drop

To this day, Minnesota fans argue about how much blame to assign to running back Darrin Nelson, who let a ball go through his arms at the Washington goal line in the NFC title game following the 1987 season. The Redskins' Darrell Green had something to do with the fourth-down play, and there is a question of whether Nelson could have gotten into the end zone. Still, the Vikings would have had a first down with 45 seconds or so to play.

13. Gored

Time was, things were different for the 49ers, and for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who led the 49ers from a 17-0 deficit for 28-24 win over Atlanta back in 2013. The Falcons are in the same position, entering another conference title game.

14. The Heist

No way New England should have won this one back in 2012, but the Patriots did. Ravens' receiver Lee Evans seemed on the verge of scoring until Sterling Moore knocked the ball free. Bill Crudup kicked the winning field goal with 11 seconds to play.

15. The Little Brother

Eli Manning wrote his legacy in the playoffs. He certainly added a chapter in 2012, when his two touchdowns led the Giants from behind twice. The game was decided when San Francisco's Kyle Williams fumbled a punt and set up the Giants' winning field goal.

16. The Turnover I

Brett Favre, on his last pass as a member of the Green Bay Packers, threw an interception late in regulation to lead Lawrence Tynes' to kick a field goal. Tynes had missed two field goals earlier.

17. The Turnover II

Brett Favre was a great quarterback who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. But in 2010, it was Favre's interception with the Vikings in field goal range that led Minnesota to lose a 31-28 game to the Saints. The Saints won in overtime.

18. Before the Guarantee

Before Joe Namath's bravado beat the Baltimore Colts, it did in the Oakland Raiders in a 27-23 victory back in 1968. Namath threw three touchdown passes to beat Oakland, setting up his guarantee against the Colts.

19. The Defense

In 1991, the New York Giants kept finding ways to win throughout the playoffs. In particular, a 15-13 win over San Francisco was impressive. The Giants' Leonard Marshall knocked Joe Montana out of the game, and their defense held the 49ers to only 39 yards rushing in a 15-13 victory.

20. The Stand

The Green Bay Packers led the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 in 1966, but the Cowboys had a first-and-goal at the Green Bay 2. A tie game appeared certain. But the Packers, with help of a five-yard penalty, kept the Cowboys at bay. On fourth down, Tom Brown intercepted a pass to clinch the win.

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