LOS ANGELES, January 17, 2017 — The triumphant raising of the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LI will have to wait. First comes the Conference Title Games.
The NFC Title Games Trophy is named after Papa Bear George Halas. The Seattle Seahawks lost this year in the Divisional round, preventing them from being in the game for the third time in four years. Two years ago Seattle pulled off a comeback for the ages against the Green Bay Packers. This year the Packers are back and are at the Atlanta Falcons. These teams met in the NFC Divisional round six years ago in Atlanta with many of the same star players. The Packers stomped the Falcons 48-21 en route to their most recent Super Bowl championship.
The AFC Title Game is for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. This year the Pittsburgh Steelers are at the New England Patriots in a rematch from twelve years ago. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger sparred in the AFC Title Game in Roethlisberger’s rookie season and are now squaring off against each other late in their careers. New England this year set an NFL record by reaching the AFC Title Game for their sixth straight year. In addition to the 2004 season win, the 2001 Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Title Game to launch their dynasty. Pittsburgh lost both previous contests at home and now have to travel to New England for this contest.
Teams fight all year for home field advantage. For the longest time, that did not matter. From 1994 through 2012, a top seed went down in flames short of the Super Bowl every year except 2009. Then for three straight years from 2013 through 2015, both top seeds advanced to the Super Bowl. The 2016 season saw the NFC’s top seeded Dallas Cowboys lose in the Divisional round.
The 2016 playoffs saw very few surprises. The Wild Cards all lost in the opening round. All of the surviving four teams have a realistic chance to go to the Super Bowl. Nothing in these Conference Title Games would count as an upset.
That said, the right to go to the Super Bowl has seen some shocking upsets over the years. Here are the Top 10 Conference Title Game upsets in NFL history.
10.) 2005 AFC — Steelers 34, Broncos 17 — Pittsburgh was only 11-5, and 13-3 Denver had Jake Plummer leading them and looked ready to win it all. Pittsburgh led 21-3 at halftime and stunned the Mile High crowd. This would rank higher except Pittsburgh shocked 14-2 Indianapolis one week earlier en route to winning the Super Bowl.
9.) 2011 NFC — 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.
8.) 1975 NFC — Cowboys 17, Vikings 14 — Minnesota was the two-time defending NFC champions, and a third crown seemed assured when they led 14-10 late. Roger Staubach threw a 50-yard touchdown bomb with less than one minute to play. Minnesota fans insist Drew Pearson pushed off on Nate Wright, getting away with offensive pass interference. The loss kept Minnesota from playing in four straight NFC Title Games. The very religious Staubach said that he said a “Hail Mary” before the play. The name stuck.
7.) 2007 NFC — 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 out-played 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 as the Giants would then shock the world by defeating 18-0 New England in the Super Bowl.
6.) 2003 NFC — Panthers 14, Eagles 3 — Carolina was a good team, but the Eagles were in their third straight NFC Title Game, their second straight one at home. They had lost the previous two and were expected to finally get over the hump. Instead the Carolina defense belted Donovan McNabb, who played most of the game injured. He was rendered immobile. One year later on their fourth try, the Eagles would finally get to the Super Bowl, a game they would lose.
5.) 1990 NFC — 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 7-3 win by the 49ers in San Francisco. The Giants were 13-3, but had backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler playing for the injured Phil Simms. The 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. 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 Giants to the Super Bowl, where again as heavy underdogs to Buffalo they won on the final play. This game cemented the legacy of Bill Parcells.
4.) 1985 AFC — Patriots 31, Dolphins 14 — The 11-5 Patriots went on the road and thrashed the Jets before shocking the top-seeded 12-4 Raiders. They had no chance against Miami. Dan Marino was expected to get the Dolphins to his second straight Super Bowl. He was in the midst of a four-year passing spree that shattered NFL record books. The Dolphins offense had an off day and the Patriots shocked the football world before getting blasted by Chicago in the Super Bowl.
3.) 1998 NFC — 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-yarder with two minutes left was no good. 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 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 perhaps one of the greatest teams to never win it all. Vikings fans still cannot believe they lost this game.
2.) 2002 NFC — Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10 — The Eagles had humiliated the Buccaneers six straight times at home. They had knocked Tampa Bay out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2001, costing Tony Dungy his job. In 2002, Jon Gruden saw his team go into Philadelphia during the regular season and lose 20-10. Andy Reid had to feel good when the Eagles led 7-0 only one minute into the NFC Title Game. The Buccaneers responded and just hit the Eagles in the mouth. Late in the game, Donovan McNabb had the Eagles within striking distance. McNabb was then intercepted by Ronde Barber, who returned it 92 yards for the clinching touchdown. A shell-shocked home crowd saw the final game at Veterans Stadium end in defeat. Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks went to the Hall of Fame, and John Lynch and Ronde Barber may join them in Canton.
1.) 1994 AFC — Chargers 17, Steelers 13 — If ever a team had no business going to a Super Bowl, it was the 1994 Chargers. They started 6-0, went 5-5 down the stretch, and fell behind Miami 21-6 in the Divisional round. San Diego came back and won 22-21 when Miami missed a field goal to win it on the final play. Pittsburgh had a phenomenal defense led by Rod Woodson. San Diego had Stan Humphries, a quarterback with guts who took a beating. The Steelers led 13-3 after three quarters but never put the game away at home. After the Chargers took a four point lead, the Steelers drove to a fourth and goal at the three with little time left. Neil O’Donnell had his pass batted down. Junior Seau and the San Diego defense celebrated their win before getting blasted in the Super Bowl the following week. In a bizarre, tragic and unexplainable phenomenon, the 1994 Chargers have had eight different players from that team die prematurely all under different circumstances.