Greatest NFC Title Games in NFL History: CDN’s Top 10
LOS ANGELES, January 27, 2022 — The NFC Title Game Trophy is named after Papa Bear George Halas. Halas was the founder, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, originally named the Decatur Staleys. The team has stayed in the family. Halas’s 98-year-old daughter Virginia Halas McCaskey has owned the team since her father’s death in 1983.
The San Francisco 49ers take on the Los Angeles Rams in the 2021 NFC Title Game.
While the Super Bowl is for the ultimate championship, it is often anti-climactic. The focus is frequently on the entertainment spectacle aspect of it rather than the football game itself. People who do not watch football the entire season attend Super Bowl parties. They obsess over the halftime show and even the commercials.
They talk during the game and demand silence during things that have nothing to do with football. The Super Bowl is usually played in a warm-weather city or indoor stadium so the celebrities and other wealthy plutocrats who can afford the tickets can be comfortable.
The Conference Title Games are real football.
The winner goes to the Super Bowl and the loser suffers the pain of being agonizingly close but yet so far. The game is often played in brutally cold weather that tests the mettle of the coaches, players, and fans. The Super Bowl is for casual fans. The Conference Title Games are for Leatherheads.
For those who love football, here are the Top 10 greatest NFC Title Games.
10.) 2011 — Giants 20, 49ers 17, OT —
The Giants were only 9-7, and the 11-4-1 49ers seemed far superior. The 49ers actually outplayed the Giants the entire game, but two fumbled punts killed San Francisco. This would rank higher except the Giants were a very confident bunch from having won it all in 2007. They would go on to win it all again in 2011. Plus, the 49ers pretty much gave the game away.
9.) 2007 — Giants 23, Packers 20, OT —
The Giants were only 10-6. While they did go on the road and beat Tampa Bay and then top-seeded Dallas, Green Bay won their playoff game by 22 points. At home, on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, Brett Favre was expected to get the Packers back to the big game. The Giants outplayed the Packers, and a key interception by Favre in overtime turned out to be his final pass in green and gold. That led to the winning field goal. In the bitter cold, Lawrence Tynes atoned for two earlier misses by nailing a 47 yarder for the win. The Giants would then shock the world by defeating 18-0 New England in the Super Bowl after Eli Manning threw a miracle pass that David Tyree caught off of his helmet. Coach Tom Coughlin and Manning would lead the Giants four years later to another Super win over the heavily favored Patriots.
8.) 2012 — 49ers 28, Falcons 24 —
The 2010 Falcons had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs only to get blasted in the NFC Divisional round by Green Bay. The 2011 49ers on their home field fumbled away the NFC Title Game against the Giants. In 2012, the Falcons went 13-3 for the second time in three years to again have home-field advantage. In the 2012 NFC Title Game, the Falcons led 17-0 at halftime. They took their foot off the gas, a problem that would plague Matt Ryan in the playoffs. Down 28-24, Ryan led the Falcons to a 1st and goal at the 9-yard line in the waning moments. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the man nicknamed Matty Ice, and his entire team went ice cold.
The 2012 49ers and their coach Jim Harbaugh faced off in the Super Bowl against Baltimore, coached by his older brother John Harbaugh.
The 49ers fell behind 28-6 seconds into the third quarter, closed to within 34-29, and had a 1st and goal of their own late with a chance to win. This time it was the 49es who were unable to capitalize on four tries from inside the 10-yard line. The Falcons would reach the Super Bowl in 2016 but blow a 28-3 lead and lose to New England 34-28 in overtime. Ryan is still with the Falcons but his team has been a shell of itself since that Super Bowl collapse.
7.) 2018 — Rams 26, Saints 23, OT —
The 2017 Saints overcame a 17-0 deficit in the Divisional round at the Minnesota Vikings to lead 24-23 with 10 seconds left. From their own 39, the Vikings were hoping to complete a long pass and attempt the winning field goal. Case Keenum then threw what became the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Stefan Diggs caught the ball near the sideline, but the defender missed the tackle. Diggs raced for the touchdown and the 29-24 Vikings victory. So the 2018 Saints were in Super Bowl or bust mode from the beginning of the season. They hosted the NFC Title Game and jumped out to a 13-0 lead over the Los Angeles Rams. This time the roles were reversed as the Saints gave up the big lead.
With under two minutes left, the game was tied 20-20 but the Saints were deep in Rams territory.
Drew Brees threw a pass close to the goal line that fell incomplete due to a blatant defensive pass interference penalty that was not called. Had the penalty been called, the Saints could have either gone for the touchdown from much closer or taken the entire clock down and kick the winning field goal. The non-call meant the Saints kicked the field goal with 1:41 left on the clock.
Although the Saints had the 23-20 lead, the Rams would have a chance. Jared Goff led the Rams into field goal position and forced overtime. The Saints got the ball first in overtime but were intercepted. Rams coach Sean McVay took a major gamble in overtime by trying a 57-yard field goal. A miss would give the Saints an excellent field position.
Greg “The Leg” delivered to send the Rams to the Super Bowl. The Rams lost a 13-3 slugfest to New England in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. Saint fans refer to the 2018 NFC Title Game as the “NOLA No-call.”
The 2019 Saints went 13-3 for the second consecutive year but became the first 13-3 team in NFL history to not have a first-round bye.
Green Bay and San Francisco were also 13-3, and they owned the tie-breaker over the Saints. For the second time in three years, the Saints were shocked in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings. This time the game was in New Orleans rather than Minnesota but the result was the same. The Vikings won in overtime 26-20, marking the second straight year the Saints lost at home in overtime, and the third straight year they lost a playoff game on the final play.
The 2020 Saints went 12-4 and won the NFC South for the fourth straight season. In the regular season, they defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice, including humiliating Tom Brady on his home field 38-3. Yet in the 2020 Divisional playoff game in New Orleans, the Saints blew a 20-13 lead under a hail of turnovers and lost 30-20.
After four straight playoff losses including three in a row at home, the window closed.
Drew Brees and Sean Payton arrived together in 2006 and reached the NFC Title Game that year. They won it all in 2009 but never returned to the Super Bowl. After the 2020 season loss to Tampa, Brees retired. One year later after the 2021 season, Payton retired from the Saints. The 2021 Rams returned to the NFC Title Game for the second time in four years and are at home.
6.) 2014 — Seahawks 28, Packers 22, OT —
The defending champion Seahawks were favored to return to the Super Bowl again but played like garbage for 55 minutes. Russell Wilson threw his fourth interception with five minutes left and the Packers still led 19-7 with three minutes left. The Packers then went conservative on offense and soft on defense. When the Seahawks cut the gap to 19-14, the game still seemed over. Then the Seahawks recovered the onside kick and everything changed. Wilson threw another touchdown pass to put the Seahawks up 22-19 with barely more than 30 seconds to play.
That was enough time for Aaron Rodgers to work his own miracle and move the Packers into range for the tying field goal. The Seahawks won the overtime coin toss and never looked back. After 57 awful minutes, Wilson threw his third touchdown pass in the final three minutes and overtime for the stunning comeback.
An emotional Wilson cried after the game, knowing that he needed plenty of luck to avoid being the scapegoat for a home loss.
In the 2014 Super Bowl, Wilson’s luck ran out.
The Seahawks led the New England Patriots 24-14 after three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Tom Brady torched Richard Sherman and the vaunted Legion of Boom defense for two touchdown drives. Wilson led the Seahawks to the New England one-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play.
Rather than handing the ball to Beast Mode running back Marshawn Lynch, Wilson threw a risky pass over the middle into traffic that was intercepted. The Seahawks lost 28-24 in shocking fashion.
As for their NFC Title Game foe, a solemn Rodgers said that his Packers teammates would take the loss to their graves. Rodgers would also lead the Packers to the NFC Title Game in 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2021. The Packers lost all four of those games, including the last two on their home field. Wilson and Rodgers are still playing for their respective teams but still only have one Super Bowl win apiece.
5.) 2013 — Seahawks 23, 49ers 17 —
These teams developed a bitter rivalry fomented by 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Both teams had nasty defenses. The 49ers were in the NFC Title Game for the third straight year and were the defending NFC champions. The home team usually won this game, and the Seahawks tended to win easily in front of their 12th man home fans. Yet the 49ers jumped out to a 10-0 lead in this game. The Seahawks took a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter but missed a chance to put the game away when they fumbled the ball at the San Francisco one-yard line. Trailing 23-17 late, the 49ers moved into the red zone with less than 30 seconds left on the clock.
In the 2012 Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick had four chances to win the game.
Despite 1st and goal from inside the Baltimore 10 yard line, Kaepernick threw four incompletions and the 49ers lost 34-31. He tested vaunted Baltimore defenders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and they won. In the 2013 NFC Title Game, Kaepernick again had a chance to be the hero. From the Seattle 18 yard line, Kaepernick made the terrible decision to test Richard Sherman, at the time the best cornerback in the game. Kaepernick had avoided Sherman all game, but with everything on the line went at him.
Kaepernick threw to receiver Michael Crabtree, but Sherman made an acrobatic deflection of the pass. Seattle defensive back Malcolm Smith intercepted the ball in the end zone. Again, Kaepernick came up short.
After the emotional win, Sherman blasted Crabtree in an epic rant that left the reporter interviewing Sherman confused. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense crushed the Denver Broncos 43-8 for the first Seahawks Super Bowl win.
The Seahawks got to the Super Bowl the following year but lost in shocking fashion.
The 2014 49ers missed the playoffs due to a hail of injuries to their defense. Their window had closed, and Harbaugh left the team after the 2014 season to coach at his college alma mater Michigan. Without Harbaugh, the 49ers fell apart. Kaepernick suffered multiple injuries in 2015 and 2016 and his play declined. After being benched, Kaepernick antagonized the team and the league by engaging in controversial political activism. Yet his real mistake was opting out of his guaranteed contract after the 2016 season in hopes of getting double the pay. He found no takers, as owners did not want to take on a controversial player with declining skills. He has not played since. Without him but with new coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers quickly rebuilt and reached the Super Bowl in 2019. The 49ers in 2021 reached the NFC Title Game for the second time in three years. Carroll and Wilson are still with the Seahawks, but they have not been back to the NFC Title Game since the 2014 season.
4.) 1998 — Falcons 30, Vikings 27, OT —
The Falcons did go 14-2, but the 15-1 Vikings were one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Randall Cunningham was raining bombs to Chris Carter and Randy Moss with ease. In this game, the Vikings jumped to a 20-7 lead and led 27-20 with a chance to put the game away late. Gary Anderson had not missed a field goal in two years, but his 40-yard try with two minutes left was no good. While Anderson often gets the blame, this should not be the case. The Vikings still had the lead. The defense melted down with John Randall on the sideline injured.
Atlanta tied it, and Dennis Green stunningly had the Vikings take a knee at their own 40 at the end of regulation rather than try a Hail Mary.
Minnesota just missed connecting on a bomb in overtime.
When Morton Anderson hit the winning field goal, Minnesota became one of the greatest teams to never win it all. Vikings fans still cannot believe they lost this game.
The day before the 1998 Super Bowl, Falcons cornerback Eugene Robinson was caught with a prostitute. This came hours after he won an NFL man of the year award. The Falcons were easily defeated by the Denver Broncos in the 1998 Super Bowl. Losing coach Dan Reeves had also lost three Super Bowls when he coached the Broncos.
John Elway defeated his former coach and retired on top.
The Falcons were a one-year wonder, returning to also-ran status in 1999. The 2000 Vikings started 11-2 but lost their last three games to blow home-field advantage. They reached the NFC Title Game for the second time in three years, this time on the road. They were still expected to beat the New York Giants but instead were destroyed 41-0. Neither the Falcons nor Vikings have ever won the Super Bowl.
3.) 2009 — Saints 31, Vikings 28, OT —
After decades of losing football, the turnaround for the Saints began in 2006 with the arrivals of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. In their inaugural season, they reached the NFC Title Game but lost at Chicago. In 2007, Brett Favre’s final season with the Green Bay Packers ended in the NFC Title Game. At home, Favre threw the interception that out them the game against the underdog Giants. When the Packers refused to guarantee him the starting job in 2008, Favre demanded a trade. He played one forgettable season with the New York Jets and in 2009 ended up with Green Bay’s archrival, the Minnesota Vikings.
The 2009 Saints started 13-0, lost their last three games, and still retained home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The 2009 Vikings started 10-1, stumbled down the stretch, but still finished 12-4.
In the 2009 NFC Title Game, the Vikings dominated statistically but turned the ball over six times.
One Vikings drive ended at the Saint’s one-yard line when a simple handoff from Favre to star running back Adrian Peterson was fumbled away. Despite all the mistakes, Favre led a late touchdown drive to tie the game 28-28. The Vikings got the ball back and had a chance to win in regulation. With seconds on the clock, a field goal try would have been 56 yards. The Vikings ran one more play and it cost them. Favre rolled out and could have run for about five yards, definitely within long field goal range.
Instead, Favre decided to throw back across his body in the middle of the field where only bad things happen. For the second time in three years, Favre’s last pass in an NFC Title Game was intercepted.
The Saints won the overtime coin toss and put the game away.
Brees moved the Saints into field goal range, and they won 31-28. The Saints then shocked the favored Colts in the Super Bowl 31-17 for their first and only Super Bowl victory. Favre never touched the ball in overtime.
Although the NFL overtime sudden death rule had existed since 1974, Favre’s popularity led to a rule change.
Starting in 2010, the first team to get the ball could only end the game with a touchdown. A field goal on the opening drive would give the other team a chance with the ball. In 2021, an overtime playoff game won with a touchdown led to a discussion of further possible tweaks to overtime.
Despite high expectations, the Vikings collapsed in 2010. After a 3-7 start, head coach Brad Childress was fired. Late in the season, Favre had his streak of 321 consecutive games played snapped. After the 2010 season, Favre ended his 20-year career. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. The 2010 Saints went 12-4 but did not win their division. This forced them to play a road playoff game against a Seattle Seahawks team that only went 7-9.
The Saints lost, leading fans to request the NFL change the rules for home field based on who has the better record.
No change was made. A different Vikings team reached the 2017 NFC Title Game, but they lost. Payton and Brees led the Saints to the 2018 NFC Title Game. They also lost. Brees retired after the 2020 season and Payton retired after the 2021 season.
2.) 1981 — 49ers 28, Cowboys 27 —
The Cowboys had significant success in the 1970s, defeating the 49ers in the 1970 and 1971 NFC Title Games. The Cowboys won in all in 1971 and 1977 and reached the Super Bowl in 1975 and 1978 before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 1980 Cowboys reached the NFC Title Game but lost to their hated division rival Philadelphia Eagles. For over a decade, the Cowboys had stepped on and over the lowly 49ers.
In 1979, the 49ers began a new era with coach Bill Walsh, quarterback Joe Montana, and Walsh’s newly installed West Coast Offense.
In the 1980 regular season in Dallas, the Cowboys obliterated the 49ers 59-14. Yet in the 1981 regular season, the 49ers at home blasted the Cowboys 45-14 to signal a possible changing of the guard.
The 1981 NFC Title Game is remembered for its glamorous ending, but it was actually a badly played game.
The teams combined 10 turnovers, six of them by the 49ers.
Yet with five minutes left in the game and the Cowboys leading 27-21, Montana led the drive that would eventually make him a legend.
With about one minute to play, the 49ers faced 3rd and 3 from the Dallas six-yard line. Walsh, nicknamed “The Genius,” was well prepared for this very situation. The play was called “sprint option right.”
Walsh even diagrammed how Montana would “hold it, hold it, hold it” until the very last possible moment and then find Dwight Clark in the end zone. With three defenders including Ed “Too Tall” Jones bearing down on him near the sideline, Montana fired high to the back of the end zone.
Fans thought Montana was throwing the ball away. Out of nowhere, Clark made a leaping catch, came down with both feet down inbounds, and then spiked the ball high in the air. Jones told Montana that he just “beat America’s team.” Montana, now forever the new Joe Cool, replied that Jones and everyone else could “watch the Super Bowl at home with the rest of America.”
Yet “the catch” would not even be remembered had the 49ers lost.
The Cowboys trailed 28-27 but still had quarterback Danny White, who had led many comebacks after his legendary predecessor Roger Staubach retired two years earlier.
One minute was plenty of time. White quickly led the Cowboys to midfield and was one more completion from long field goal range. Yet with 30 seconds left, White was strip-sacked and the 49ers recovered the fumble to lock up the win.
The 1981 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals for their first Super Bowl victory. The 1982 Cowboys reached the NFC Title Game for the third straight year but lost all three on the road. Their 1982 loss was at the Washington Redskins. The 1983 49ers reached the NFC Title Game but also lost at Washington on a late field goal set up by a controversial defensive pass interference call. The Cowboys dynasty finally began to decline. Tom Landry was the only coach the Cowboys had ever known from 1960 through 1988, but after a 3-13 season, he was fired when new owner Jerry Jones brought in Jimmy Johnson.
The 49ers started a dynasty of their own, winning it all again in 1984 and 1988 with Walsh and Montana leading the way.
Walsh retired after the 1988 season, but Montana under new coach George Seifert would win it all again in 1989. In Montana’s final season in San Francisco, he would lead the 49ers to the NFC Title Game but fall short. These teams would meet again in three straight NFC Title Games from 1992 through 1994, with the Cowboy winning it all in 1992 and 1993 and the 49ers winning their fifth Super Bowl in 1994.
The 1995 Cowboys won it all for their fifth Super Bowl when the 49ers lost a home stunner in the Divisional round to Green Bay and some raw wild man quarterback named Brett Favre. Despite five Super Bowls apiece, neither team has won the big game in the last 26 years. The Cowboys and 49ers played plenty of big games over several decades, but the 1981 NFC Title Game with the pass from Montana to Clark is what will last forever on NFL Films.
1.) 1990 — Giants 15, 49ers 13 —
Both teams started 10-0, lost their 11th game, and played one of the greatest games in Monday Night Football history, a tough 7-3 win by the 49ers in San Francisco. The rematch was even more brutal. The Giants were 13-3, but had backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler playing for the injured Phil Simms. The 14-2 49ers had won the last two Super Bowls and were expected to easily three-peat.
Instead, the Giants knocked Joe Montana out of the game and harassed backup Steve Young. Leonard Marshall blew up Montana with a blindside hit so brutal that Lawrence Taylor remarked, “I thought he killed him.”
Giants coach Bill Parcells gambled successfully on a fake punt in the third quarter to keep the Giants within striking distance.
This game changed NFL history since the injury to Montana effectively ended his career in San Francisco and led to his being traded to Kansas City.
With time running out, the Giants’ defense blasted Roger Craig, forcing a key fumble. Matt Bahr kicked his fifth field goal on the final play to send the 1990 Giants to the Super Bowl, where again as heavy underdogs to Buffalo they won on the final play. These two victories cemented the legacy of Bill Parcells, who retired from the Giants after the Super Bowl only to coach several other teams over the next 20 years.
The 49ers would win their fifth Super Bowl in 1994 but nothing since. Steve Young finally got the monkey off his back after losing NFC Title Games in 1990, 1992, and 1993. The 49ers lost in the big game in 2012 and 2019. The Giants fell apart after Parcells left. The Giants reached the Super Bowl again in 2000 but lost. They won it all in 2007 and 2011. Parcells took two teams to the Super Bowl, three teams to the Conference Title Game, and four different teams to the playoffs. He also led the fifth team to the playoffs as team president rather than a coach.
While the 1986 Giants dominated the league, the 1990 Giants won more than the most brutal Conference Title Game ever played. They also won the best one.
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