Skip to main content

Greatest AFC Title Games in NFL History: CDN’s Top 10

Written By | Jan 26, 2022
Greatest AFC Title Games

Postgame victory celebration as Colts defeat Patriots in 2006 AFC Title Contest. Image via NFL YouTube video. Fair use.

LOS ANGELES — AFC Title Games are fought not only to determine the AFC’s best team. They’re also fought for the annual Lamar Hunt Trophy. Today’s column looks back on AFC history to discover (or re-discover) the Top 10 Greatest AFC Title Games in NFL History.

Lamar Hunt was the Founder of the American Football League (AFL) and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, originally named the Dallas Texans. Perhaps his most lasting claim to fame? He coined the term that forever changed the identity of the AFL-NFL Championship Game. He changed the name of that game to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, NFL history chugs on. Lamar Hunt’s team remains in the family. His 56-year-old son Clark Hunt has owned the team since his father’s death in 2006.

Right now, Clark Hunt’s KC team remains in the thick of pre-Super Bowl action. This Sunday, January 30, 2022, they face the surprising Cincinnati Bengals face the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2021 AFC Title Game.


Also Read: Top 10 NFL Conference AFC-NFC Championship Game upsets


Title Games vs Super Bowls

While the Super Bowl is for the ultimate championship, it is often anti-climactic. Always ubiquitous media coverage frequently hypes the entertainment spectacle aspect of each annual contest rather than the football game itself. As one result, even people who do not watch football games during the regular season find themselves motivated to attend Super Bowl parties. These fair-weather fans obsess over the halftime show and even the traditionally over-the-top (and overly long) commercials. They talk during the game yet demand silence during things that have nothing to do with football. (Like those commercials.)




With an eye toward creature comforts (and overly-high ticket revenue), the NFL usually schedules Super Bowl contests in a warm weather city or climate-controlled indoor stadium. That way, the celebrities and other wealthy plutocrats who can actually afford tickets to the game can luxuriate in comfort and expensive perks.

Lacking all that hype and glamour, NFL Conference Title Games are where real NFL football actually happens. The winner of each conference game goes to the Super Bowl. The loser suffers the pain of ending up agonizingly close to immortality, but yet so far. Conference Title Games often play out in brutally cold weather that tests the mettle of the coaches, players and fans alike.

In other words, the Super Bowl is for casual fans. Conference Title Games are for real Leatherheads. Which brings us to the point of today’s article.

For those who love football, here’s our Top 10 List of the Greatest AFC Title Games in NFL History


10.) 1992 — Bills 10, Broncos 7 —

This brutal game was scoreless at the half. The only Bills touchdown came off of a leaping third quarter deflection and interception for a touchdown. With two minutes left the Bills kicked a field goal to go up 10-0 and seemingly lock up the win. Yet the Broncos led by Gary Kubiak quickly scored a touchdown and then recovered an onside kick. They were approaching field goal range and even had a chance to win, but a late fumble sealed their fate. This game would rank higher on the list had Broncos quarterback John Elway not missed the game due to the flu. The Bills barely survived his backup quarterback. Viewers never saw a playoff game between Elway and Jim Kelly.

9.) 1995 — Steelers 20, Colts 16 —

The Steelers lost a 17-13 home shocker to the San Diego Chargers in the 1994 AFC Title Game. In the waning moments, the Chargers stopped the Steelers on fourth and goal from the three yard line. The 1995 Steelers were the preseason favorite. The Colts started 4-7 before rattling off five straight wins to sneak into the playoffs. They went on the road and dispatched the Chargers before stunning the 13-3 Chiefs 10-7.

Despite being heavy favorites, the Steelers were trailing 16-13 in the fourth quarter when they luckily dodged a would-be interception. After taking a four point lead, the Steelers defense had to avoid a second straight AFC Title Game collapse at home. Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary initially appeared to be caught for a miracle touchdown, but officials quickly and properly ruled that the ball hit the ground incomplete. Steelers coach Bill Cowher cried after the game from joy.

8.) 1987 — Broncos 38, Browns 33 —

This was the AFC Title Game rematch from one year earlier. This time, the game was in Denver. John Elway led the Broncos to a big lead, but Bernie Kosar led a furious comeback. Trailing 38-31 with time running out, Kosar led the Browns inside the Denver five yard line. Kosar handed the ball to Ernest Byner, who charged toward the end zone for what appeared to be the tying touchdown. Yet Byner had the ball poked out of his hands by cornerback Jeremiah Castille at the three yard line. Byner was not even hit. The tiny poke was recovered by the Broncos, who took an intentional safety to avoid a blocked punt. The game would forever be known as “The Fumble.”

Two years later these teams would meet again in the 1989 AFC Title Game. After two dramatic finishes, the third match was an easy Broncos victory. While the Browns still have never reached the Super Bowl, Byner did get some redemption by winning it all with the 1991 Washington Redskins.

7.) 2015 — Broncos 20, Patriots 18 —

Although Peyton Manning and Tom Brady played epic games against each other for well over a decade, this one was their final face-off. The Broncos started the season 6-0 but stumbled mid-season. Manning missed six games due to an injured foot. The defending champion Patriots started 10-0 but lost four of their last six games due to a depleted offensive line. Both teams finished 12-4. The Broncos had home field due to defeating the Patriots in a regular season game with Brock Osweiler replacing the injured Manning.



The key play in this game was actually a missed extra point by legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri. With the Broncos leading 20-12, Brady led a late rally. With seconds left on fourth and goal, Brady threw a touchdown pass. Yet because of the earlier missed extra point, the Patriots now needed a two point conversion try to tie the game. Brady’s pass was batted up in the air and intercepted. After the game, Manning told Patriots coach Bill Belichick that this was his “last rodeo.” After winning the Super Bowl two weeks later, Manning retired. Brady won several more Super Bowls and is still playing.

6.) 2011 — Patriots 23, Ravens 20 —

These teams played in several big games from 2007 through 2010. The stars of this 2011 game were Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the New England offense and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on the Baltimore defense. John Harbaugh was one of the few coaches who schemed very well against Bill Belichick. The Ravens were driving late and appeared destined to pull off the road upset win. With seconds left, Joe Flacco went to the end zone and had Lee Evans for the winning touchdown. Yet at the last possible moment, unheralded cornerback Sterling Moore chopped the ball out of Evans’s hands incomplete. Despite the drop, the Ravens needed only a 32 yard field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Billy Cundiff missed it. He just choked.

The following year the Ravens had a new kicker named Justin Tucker, who became one of the all time greats. His kick gave the Ravens a 31-30 win over the Patriots in the 2012 regular season. These teams met again in the 2012 AFC Title Game. The Patriots led 13-7 at the half, but the second half was dominated by Ray Lewis and the Baltimore defense for a 28-13 Ravens win. After winning the Super Bowl two weeks later, Lewis retired on top. Tucker in 2021 made an NFL record 66 yard field goal. Brady and Flacco are still playing, although Flacco is now a backup with the New York Jets.

5.) 2018 — Patriots 37, Chiefs 31, OT —

This was a battle between the aging star Brady and the newest NFL phenom Patrick Mahomes. Despite the game being in Kansas City, the Patriots jumped to a 24-9 halftime lead. Mahomes brought the Chiefs back into a 28-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Rex Burkhead then ran for a touchdown to give the Patriots the 31-28 lead with only 39 seconds left. That was enough time for Mahomes to move the Chiefs in position for Harrison Butker to tie the game with a 39 yard field goal. The Patriots won the overtime coin toss and never looked back. Burkhead scored again from two yards out to end the game. Mahomes never saw the ball in overtime.

This was the Patriots eight straight trip to the AFC Title Game, an NFL record. They have not reached the AFC Title Game since. Meanwhile it was the first of four straight AFC Title Games for the Chiefs. The Chiefs would play all four games at home, also a new NFL record. Two weeks after this 2018 masterpiece, Brady would win his sixth Super Bowl. One year later, the 2019 Chiefs won the AFC Title Game and then their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

In 2020, Brady and Mahomes met again but the stakes were even higher. After 20 years, Brady left New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mahomes’s Chiefs won the 2020 AFC Title Game and Brady’s Bucs won the NFC Title Game. The Super Bowl was a mismatch. Mahomes played injured while his top two offensive tackles were out from injuries suffered in the AFC Title Game. The Buccaneers won easily for Brady’s seventh Super Bowl. The following year Brady’s Buccaneers were knocked out in the Divisional round while Mahomes is one win away from his third straight Super Bowl appearance.

4.) 1980 — Raiders 34, Chargers 27 —

These old AFL rivals split the 1980 regular season series, with the road team winning both games. The Oakland Raiders went to five straight AFC Title Games from 1973-1977, winning their first Super Bowl in 1976. Yet John Madden retired after the 1978 season and was replaced with Tom Flores. The Raiders missed the playoffs in 1978 and 1979.

After the 1979 season, a blockbuster trade between the Raiders and Houston Oilers saw the Raiders send away legend Ken Stabler in exchange for Dan Pastorini, who went to the AFC Title Game in 1978 and 1979 only to fall short. The Chargers were led by Dan Fouts, who ran the high-powered Don “Air” Coryell offense. In the fifth game of the 1980 season, Pastorini suffered a broken leg. Backup quarterback Jim Plunkett, thought by many to be a washed-up castoff, led the Raiders to six straight wins and a playoff birth. Both teams finished 11-5. The Chargers held the tie-breaker.

In the 1980 AFC Title Game, sunny San Diego saw rain. The Raiders jumped out to a 28-7 second quarter lead. By the third quarter, the Chargers were right back in it down 28-24. Leading 34-27 with 6 1/2 minutes left, Plunkett led a time consuming drive. Fouts never got the ball back. Flores and Plunkett became the first Mexican-American head coach and quarterback to win a Super Bowl. One year later the Chargers reached the AFC Title Game again, but that 1981 game in Cincinnati was played in bitter cold. The Bengals defeated the Chargers easily. The Chargers have never won a Super Bowl. Before the 1982 season, Al Davis moved the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. The 1983 Raiders led by Flores and Plunkett won it all again for the Raiders third Super Bowl victory in eight years.

3.) 1986 — Broncos 23, Browns 20, OT —

This was the AFC Title Game that haunts the Browns the most. A dominating defense had the Browns leading 20-13 late. A great punt had the Broncos pinned inside their own two yard line. With the Dawg Pound screaming at John Elway, he engineered what would forever be known as “The Drive.” Little by little, he dissected the Cleveland defense. With less than one minute remaining, Elway threw the tying touchdown with less than one minute to play. The Broncos won in overtime on a field goal. Three times the Browns lost to the Broncos in the AFC Title Game, but this one was at home.

There is no sympathy in football. One week earlier, the Browns hosted a Divisional game against the New York Jets, who started 10-1 and then lost their last five games. The Jets led 20-10 with four minutes left but the Browns found a way to tie the game and win in overtime by the exact same 23-20 score they would lose to Denver. Despite beating the Browns all three times, the Broncos lost all three Super Bowls by wide margins. The Browns have never been to the Super Bowl.

2.) 1975 — Steelers 16, Raiders 10 —

This was the fourth year of a bitter five year feud. In the 1972 Wildcard game in Pittsburgh, the Raiders took a 7-6 lead with 1:13 left in regulation only to lose 13-7 due to the Immaculate Reception. In the 1973 Wildcard rematch in Oakland, the Raiders pounded the Steelers easily 33-14. Yet in 1974 the stakes were raised when the teams met in Oakland for the AFC Title Game. The Raiders led 10-3 after three quarters but the Steelers exploded in the fourth quarter for a 24-13 win. The Steelers went on to win their first Super Bowl.

The 1975 AFC Title Game was in Pittsburgh, and it was played on a block of ice. Raiders owner Al Davis angrily accused the Steelers of purposely letting the field get brittle. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, a fierce rival of Davis, insisted that both teams had to play on the field. Davis retorted that the Steelers ran the ball up the middle while the Raiders relied on the deep passing game. The field therefore clearly favored the Steelers. After three quarters of brutal football, the Steelers only led 3-0. With seconds left, the Steelers led 16-10. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler launched a bomb to Cliff Branch. Branch caught the ball at the five yard line but got no further as the cock ran out. The Steelers went on to win their second Super Bowl.

These teams met a third straight year in the 1976 AFC Title Game, this time in Oakland and the Raiders got revenge 24-7 en route to their first Super Bowl victory. The Steelers won two more Super Bowls in 1978 and 1979 while the Raiders won two more Super Bowls in 1980 and 1983. This feud lasted over a decade, but the 1975 AFC Title Game may have been the height of the hatred.

1.) 2006 — Colts 38, Patriots 34 —

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were by far the two greatest quarterbacks of their era. They were among two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Most of the time, Brady got the better of Manning. Brady’s New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004. The Patriots knocked out the Colts in the 2003 AFC Title Game and the 2004 Divisional round on the way to winning it all. Manning led the 2005 Indianapolis Colts to a 14-2 record only to see them shocked at home in the Divisional round by Pittsburgh.

In 2006, the Colts and Patriots met in a game for the ages. This time the Colts had the home field advantage. Yet when Manning had an interception returned for a touchdown, the Patriots led 21-3 in the second quarter. Manning was used to the quick strike offense, but he began leading a pair of very long drives that kept Brady off the field. The first drive only resulted in a field goal before the half, but the Colts got the ball to start the third quarter. Their second straight long drive got them within 21-13.

The Patriots defense was already exhausted. The game was 21-21, 28-28, and 31-31. When Brad gave the Patriots a 34-31 lead, the Colts appeared ready to tie the game again and send it to overtime. Yet the Colts noticed in the second half that the New England defense could not stop the run. Despite Manning being a passer for the ages, the Colts ran the ball down the Patriots throats. Joseph Addai ran it in with one minute left to give the Colts the lead. That was plenty of time for Brady to lead another comeback, but this time Brady was intercepted. The Colts finally vanquished their foe. Manning went on to win his first Super Bowl.

The Patriots with Brady reached the 2007 Super Bowl after a perfect regular season but lost. The 2009 Colts with Manning reached the Super Bowl and lost. The Patriots reached the 2011 Super Bowl with Brady and lost. Manning joined the Denver Broncos. In 2013 Both Manning and Brady led their teams to the AFC Title Game in Denver. The Broncos won but lost the 2013 Super Bowl. Brady led the Patriots to the 2014 Super Bowl, and this time they won.

Brady and Manning again led their teams to the 2015 AFC Title Game, again in Denver. Again the Broncos won. This time they won the 2015 Super Bowl and Manning retired on top. He is now in the Hall of Fame. Brady won two more Super Bowls in New England in 2016 and 2018 and a seventh Super Bowl in 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As of now Brady is still in the league. Yet this rivalry becomes a one-sided affair without the 2006 shootout, the first place winner in this year’s Top 10 list of the Greatest AFC Title Games in NFL history.

 

Eric Golub

Brooklyn born, Long Island raised and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a politically conservative columnist, blogger, author, public speaker, satirist and comedian. Read more from Eric at his TYGRRRR EXPRESS blog. Eric is the author of the book trilogy “Ideological Bigotry, “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.”