Last week it was a long trip through 53 game recaps
from the rich history of the Divisional round. But now we move into Conference Championship week, which means we start at 1970. The NFL did not have the AFC and NFC conferences until the 1970 merger.
While the NFL’s Record & Fact Book may include the AFL/NFL Championship games with the AFC/NFC Championship games, we’ll save those for next week, when we get into the league champions. At the bottom you’ll find a preview and picks for Sunday’s games.
That means the Captain had 82 Conference Championship games to look at, but only 16 featured a fourth quarter/overtime win. We’ll visit “The Catch”, “The Drive”, “The Fumble”, a fun trio of Brett Favre interceptions, and the biggest comeback in (any) championship game history. Well that’s nearly half the list right there.
Here is the table of contents for this week:
Conference Championship - Fourth Quarter & OT Wins
W 23-20 OT
at San Francisco
W 30-27 OT
at Green Bay
W 23-20 OT
W 31-28 OT
For a decade filled with unbelievable finishes, the Conference Championship round was a bit quiet in the fourth quarter during the decade of defense. To break the trend, it would take a comeback by the Pittsburgh Steelers to reach their first Super Bowl.
1974: Pittsburgh/Oakland Rivalry
Pittsburgh at Oakland (box)
– From 1972 to 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders would meet in the playoffs all five seasons. It started with “The Immaculate Reception”, and it ended with Oakland advancing to the Super Bowl and claiming their first championship.
In between, the Steelers would lose in 1973 at Oakland in the Divisional round. The very next year they would return, but for the AFC Championship. The Raiders had the No. 1 scoring offense (25.4 PPG), and had already soundly beaten the Steelers 17-0 in Week 3. That day Joe Gilliam was the Steelers’ quarterback, and he completed just 8/31 passes for 106 yards and 2 INT.
The Steelers would eventually make the switch back to Terry Bradshaw, though the regular season results weren’t much improved. They defeated Buffalo 32-14 in the AFC Divisional, while the Raiders escaped with the “Sea of Hands” victory over Miami, 28-26.
That would set up the first of three straight meetings in the AFC Championship between Pittsburgh and Oakland. This was the closest one. The teams were only able to exchange field goals to set up a 3-3 halftime tie.
But in the third quarter, Ken Stabler
was able to find Cliff Branch for a 38-yard touchdown pass and 10-3 lead. Oddly enough, Stabler retired with 19 fourth quarter comebacks and 26 game-winning drives, while Terry Bradshaw
had 19 fourth quarter comebacks and 27 game-winning drives in his career. In the 1970’s, only Roger Staubach had more fourth quarter wins
Just as the fourth quarter began, Bradshaw handed the ball to Franco Harris for an 8-yard touchdown run to tie the game. It would begin a 21-point barrage in the quarter for Pittsburgh. Jack Ham came up with an interception, and Bradshaw then threw the go-ahead touchdown to Lynn Swann. Bradshaw would only complete 8/17 passes for 95 yards in the game, but his touchdown put Pittsburgh ahead for good.
The Raiders were forced to settle for a 24-yard field goal by George Blanda, leaving the deficit at 17-13. Harris put the game away with his 21-yard touchdown run. Harris rushed for 111 yards while Rocky Bleier chipped in 98 yards himself. The Raiders would run the ball 21 times for only 29 yards in the game. Stabler finished with three interceptions.
It was the first time in playoff history a road team scored 21 points in the fourth quarter.
The teams would meet again in the 1975 AFC Championship. At Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers came away with the 16-10 win
, and went on to win their second straight Super Bowl.
Determining who would be the team of the decade had a lot to do with the outcome of these games between the Steelers and Raiders. The Steelers won the series 3-2; leading to two Super Bowl wins compared to one for Oakland. The 1974 AFC Championship was as pivotal as any of them, with the Steelers having to come back in the fourth quarter on the road.
Believe it or not, out of 20 Conference Championship games in the 1970’s, Pittsburgh at Oakland was the only one with a fourth quarter win. The 1980’s would feature five, and they probably have the most lore of all the decades. Three of the games have a distinct name.
1981: The Catch
San Francisco vs. Dallas (box)
– Our first game marked the start of Pittsburgh’s dynasty. It’s only fitting our next game was the starting point for the San Francisco 49ers’ run of dominance in the next decade. The upstart 49ers behind Bill Walsh and a young Joe Montana
would have to get by the established Dallas Cowboys (“America’s Team”) to reach their first Super Bowl.
The game started with San Francisco scoring a touchdown on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Things would not look as easy the rest of the day. The 49ers fumbled on their next drive, which Dallas turned into a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
In the second quarter, Montana’s pass was intercepted with the ball at the DAL 22, but the Cowboys went three and out. Montana came right back with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark. Dallas answered with a 5-yard touchdown run by Tony Dorsett.
After Dallas fumbled a punt, Montana was sacked and fumbled with 1:24 left. It was the third turnover of the half for the 49ers, and they trailed 17-14 at halftime.
Following a pair of three and outs to start the third quarter, Montana’s pass in the red zone was tipped off Lenvil Elliott’s hands and intercepted by Randy White. But the Cowboys responded with a similar play, as now Danny White’s
pass was intercepted.
The game is a classic, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sloppy too. After the interception, San Francisco went 13 yards in four plays to take the lead on Johnny Davis’ 2-yard touchdown run. They led 21-17 as the fourth quarter began.
Dallas settled for a field goal and 21-20 deficit. The 49ers had their fifth turnover as Walt Easley put the ball on the ground. White made them pay with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Doug Cosbie. The Cowboys led 27-21 with 10:41 left.
On the third play of the drive, Montana went deep, but was intercepted by Everson Walls for the sixth San Francisco turnover (fourth by Montana). Walls was just a rookie, but had 11 interceptions in 1981, and two off Montana in this game.
Dallas burned some clock, but could not get close enough for a crucial field goal. They punted the ball back with 4:54 left, and Montana was 89 yards away from the end zone. The legend was about to grow.
nearly stalled on three plays, but Montana converted the 3rd
and 4 with a 6-yard gain to Freddie Solomon. The running game moved the ball to the SF 46, and the 49ers just crossed midfield at the two-minute warning.
Solomon picked up 14 yards on a reverse, and then Montana passed 10 yards to Clark and 12 more to Solomon. After an incompletion, Elliott gained 7 yards on a sweep, setting up 3rd
and 3 at the DAL 6. The 49ers took a timeout with 0:58 left.
Bill Walsh called the “Sprint Right Option” play for Montana, and the pass was intended to go to Solomon. But as the ball was snapped, Montana rolled to his right, faced the pressure of Dallas’ rushers, pumped the ball and finally threw a high pass that Clark reached up and snagged out of the air in the back of the end zone. It became simply known as “The Catch”, and it would be the first in a long line
of epic, game-winning touchdown passes for the 49ers.
Some would say Montana was throwing the ball away because of how high it was, but he insists he knew where Clark was. The play would not have been anywhere near as legendary if the 49ers didn’t stop Dallas on their final drive.
Dallas had 0:51 left, and White started the drive with a 31-yard pass to the always dangerous Drew Pearson. The play might have gone the distance had Eric Wright not made a horse collar tackle on Pearson. That was a legal play back in the day, but if it happened now, that’s a 15-yard flag. Still, a much better choice than letting the guy run to the end zone.
Now at the SF 44, White dropped back, but was sacked and lost the ball. The 49ers recovered and that put an end to it. Montana quickly sprinted off the field, as he received a death threat before the game, which may have very well impacted his performance.
The 49ers became the fourth team (and the last team) to win a playoff game with 6 turnovers. Just as they were about to become only the second to win with a turnover differential of -4, it was the sack/fumble on White that sealed the win, and leaving them at a -3 turnover differential for the game.
Dallas wouldn’t return the favor and reach another Super Bowl until 1992, while the 49ers went on to win four in the 1980’s alone. Of all the great moments the 49ers would go on to have, “The Catch” remains the most memorable.
1983: Redskins Avoid Record Collapse
Washington vs. San Francisco (box)
– Two years later the 49ers returned to the NFC Championship, but this time it was on the road against the Washington Redskins, who had won the Super Bowl the previous season and set the league scoring record in 1983.
San Francisco struggled, punting the ball on their first six drives, before missing two 50+ yard field goals, followed by a Freddie Solomon fumble and another punt. Montana was just 9/21 for 68 yards at halftime. The Redskins would take a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter, but that’s when the magic was about to start.
The 49ers had the ball, and Montana threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wilson with 14:37 left. The Redskins would punt, but the 49ers fumbled the punt. This led to another field goal attempt by Mark Moseley, who was the league’s MVP a season ago. Moseley had an awful day, missing his first four attempts (from distances of 34, 38, 41 and 45).
It only took Montana one play to connect with Solomon for a 76-yard touchdown pass. Washington went three and out, and now it took four plays for Montana to go 53 yards, throwing a third touchdown in the quarter to Wilson for the tying score.
With just over half the fourth quarter gone, Montana had erased a 21-0 deficit. But the Redskins would put together a long, controversial drive to win the game. On 2nd
and 10 at the SF 45, Joe Theismamn
threw incomplete to Art Monk, but Eric Wright was flagged 27 yards for pass interference on what appeared to be an uncatchable pass.
Then on a 3rd
and 5 at the two-minute warning, Ronnie Lott was flagged for defensive holding on another questionable play. The Redskins were able to burn more clock, and Moseley finally made a field goal; this time from 25 yards away and just 0:40 left. Moseley finished 1/5 on field goals.
Montana had little time left and his desperate pass was intercepted to end the threat. Montana and the 49ers were just that close to another historic comeback. The Redskins advanced to their second straight Super Bowl, but would lose in embarrassing fashion (38-9) to the Raiders. The AFC wouldn’t win another Super Bowl until 1997.
1986: The Drive
Denver at Cleveland (box)
– Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at several playoff losses involving Marty Schottenheimer. Loser of 13 playoff games, Marty watched the opponent go on a game-winning drive in the playoffs 8 different times. That includes his first five playoff losses, and his last three. We have two left to look at, and they came in consecutive years, and may have been the most heartbreaking of them all.
Certainly none had a more crushing drive than…”The Drive” itself.
Cleveland took an early 7-0 lead, but two interceptions by Bernie Kosar
kept Denver only down by one score. The second interception put the ball at the CLE 9, but the defense held the Broncos to only a field goal.
Kevin Mack made it three Cleveland turnovers on five plays, as he fumbled the ball. Denver went for it on 4th
and goal (who says Coach Dan Reeves was conservative?
), and Gerald Willhite scored a 1-yard touchdown for a 10-7 lead. Mark Moseley (him again) kicked a 29-yard field goal to tie the game at halftime.
After some punts and an Elway interception in the third quarter, the Broncos would take a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Cleveland was already driving, and they finished with a 24-yard tying field goal by Moseley.
Three straight three and outs took place, and Cleveland had the ball back with good field position at their own 48. On a 3rd
and 6, Kosar found Brian Brennan for a 48-yard touchdown pass with 5:43 left. Cleveland had a crucial 20-13 lead, and one or two stops would have sent them to their first Super Bowl.
Enter John Elway
. After a special teams mishap started the Broncos at their own 2-yard line, deep in the “dog pound”, the Broncos were facing a 98-yard field ahead of them, and needing a touchdown. They had 5:32 left and all three timeouts to work with.
Facing a 3rd
and 2 at their own 10, the Broncos used their first timeout. Sammy Winder picked up the 2 necessary yards to convert that all-important initial first down. Two plays later Elway would scramble for an 11-yard gain. He followed that with completions of 22 and 12 yards out to the CLE 40.
But after a first down incompletion, Elway was sacked for an 8-yard loss, setting up a 3rd
and 18 with 1:47 left. Denver used their second timeout, so this was going to be their final opportunity with the ball.
Elway found Mark Jackson for a critical 20-yard strike to convert. Four plays later it was another 9-yard scramble from Elway, bringing up a 3rd
and 1 at the CLE 5 with 0:39 left. Elway went right back to Jackson for the 5-yard touchdown with 0:37 left to complete “The Drive”, much to the dismay of Cleveland fans everywhere.
Now we’re missing a lot of the historic drive stats, but the Captain thinks you’d be hard-pressed to find another postseason scoring drive that either tied or won the game that was longer than this 98-yard march engineered by Elway. On the drive, Elway was 6/9 for 78 yards, and carried 2 times for 20 yards.
But remember, “The Drive” only tied the game. It wasn’t the game-winning drive. Instead, we would have our first (and only) AFC Championship game go to overtime, and Cleveland got the ball first. Just like “The Catch”, the opponent still had a chance to overcome the moment and win the game.
The Browns went three and out, unable to gain a yard on the ground on 3rd
and 2. Denver got the ball back at their own 25. Elway would convert a 3rd
and 12 to Steve Watson on a 28-yard pass, and four plays later, Rich Karlis came out and made the 33-yard game-winning field goal.
Denver advanced to the Super Bowl to play the Giants, and it would be their most competitive effort, albeit a 39-20 defeat, in the 80’s. They would come back a decade later, fully stocked and loaded, to complete the job.
Meanwhile, it was another disappointing finish to a season for the Browns, but it wouldn’t be the last.
1987: The Fumble and Washington’s Forgotten Game-Winner
For the first time ever, both Conference Championship games would feature a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, both coming via the touchdown pass. But neither play has taken any real place in NFL lore. Instead, we remember the 1987 season’s Championship Sunday for “The Fumble.”
Denver vs. Cleveland (box)
– Maybe it was only fair we got a rematch one year later between these teams. The venue changed to Denver, and John Elway was the league’s MVP of 1987. Bernie Kosar also had a career year, and a high-scoring game between two of the top 4 scoring offenses in the league was expected.
Early on, it was all Denver as the Browns started turning the ball over just like the previous game. Kosar’s opening-drive pass was intercepted, and four plays later the Broncos were in the end zone. Kevin Mack fumbled on the next drive, and Denver led 14-0 through one quarter.
Denver would go 80 yards to build a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, which they would carry over to halftime. Cleveland finished the second quarter with a three and out, another fumble, and a missed 45-yard field goal. The makings of a classic were not evident.
But it turned quickly in the third quarter, thanks to an interception of Elway by Felix Wright. Kosar threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne to make it 21-10. Just when Cleveland thought they had restored some order to the game, Elway scrambled around before throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson for a 28-10 lead.
Cleveland didn’t roll over and die, as they answered right back with their own 80-yard touchdown drive; Kosar throwing a 32-yard touchdown to Earnest Byner. Denver went three and out, and Cleveland could finally make a real dent into that deficit.
Byner would score a 4-yard touchdown run to pull within 28-24. Denver added a field goal (31-24) just as the third quarter was ending. Cleveland started the final quarter with a 9-play, 86-yard touchdown drive. Kosar threw his third touchdown of the half; this one to Webster Slaughter from 4 yards away to tie the game. The 18-point deficit in the second half was erased.
Each team would punt, with Elway being the punter for Denver on a 4th
and 1 at midfield. When he got the ball back with 5:14 left, Elway completed 3/4 passes for 72 yards and the game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Winder with 4:01 left.
Starting the drive with a Byner run for 16 yards, this was Cleveland’s turn to make a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime; just like Denver did in their place a year ago. Kosar completed two passes to Brennan for gains of 14 and 19 as the two-minute warning hit.
and 10 at the DEN 13, an offside penalty moved the ball five yards closer, and the Browns handed it off to Byner. He gained 5 yards, and as it looked like he was on his way to a tying score, he fumbled the ball, and Denver recovered at their own 3.
Denver took an intentional safety, and Kosar’s Hail Mary attempt was incomplete to end the game. For the second year in a row, Denver advanced to the Super Bowl by breaking Cleveland’s heart. The teams would meet again in the AFC Championship in 1989, but the drama wasn’t nearly as close, and Denver won that game as well. But it’s “The Drive” and “The Fumble” that really define Cleveland’s decade. You’d think “Red Right 88” and the blown 21-3 lead in Miami would be enough.
(Wait, did we forget one?)
Washington vs. Minnesota (box)
– While “The Fumble” dominates the memories of the day, prior to the game in Denver was a meeting between the Redskins and Vikings. Minnesota, 8-7 in the regular season, had an incredible postseason run going. They demolished the Saints (12-3) by a 44-10 score in New Orleans, and then went on the road to stun No. 1 seed San Francisco (13-2) by a 36-24 final.
The Vikings found scoring to be much more difficult this week, as they could only come up with a 7-7 tie at halftime in Washington. The second half began with five straight three and out drives by the teams. Wade Wilson
had his pass deflected and intercepted. The Redskins could only move the ball 4 yards, but kicked a go-ahead field goal.
The teams continued to trade punts, but on their first possession in the fourth quarter, Minnesota drove 52 yards to kick a game-tying field goal with 10:06 left. The Redskins held on a goal-line stand at the 1-yard line to force the kick.
) Timmy Smith would start Washington’s drive with four straight runs. That’s when (criminally underrated) Gary Clark
would convert a 3rd
and 5 with a huge 43-yard reception thrown by Doug Williams
After two runs brought up a 3rd
and 6, Williams went back to Clark for the 7-yard game-winning touchdown with 5:15 left. Williams only completed 9/26 passes for 119 yards in the game, but didn’t throw any interceptions, and found Clark for two big catches for 50 yards on the game-winning drive.
Wilson still had plenty of time, and drove the Vikings down to the WAS 6. But his last three passes would fall incomplete, including a fourth down pass that was dropped by RB Darrin Nelson. Williams was able to run out the clock with kneel downs.
Even though it was a game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship, it’s not a play you really ever see get replayed. The Redskins would beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but little is remembered about these teams in the playoffs beyond “The Fumble” and Washington dropping 35 points on the Broncos in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII.
The 1990’s produced a decade-high 6 different fourth quarter/OT wins. However, most of the games are better known for the failure by the losing team rather than the successful drive by the winning team. Take a look.
1990: 49ers Fumble Away Three-Peat Opportunity
NY Giants at San Francisco (box)
– During the 1990 regular season, the 49ers and Giants were getting prepared to have an epic Monday Night Football showdown between unbeaten teams in Week 13. Only problem was they both lost in Week 12, and to suspect competition at that. Still, the game between 10-1 teams went on, and the 49ers gutted out a 7-3 victory at home.
After that point the Giants would lose starting quarterback Phil Simms to injury, and had to go with the relatively inexperienced Jeff Hostetler
. The Giants still had the No. 1 defense in the league, and they easily took care of the Bears in the Divisional round, 31-3. Hostetler had a game-manager-esque 10/17 for 112 yards, 2 TD performance.
But this was going to be a much bigger challenge. It’s the San Francisco 49ers, at Candlestick Park, and Joe Montana had just won his second straight league MVP award. The Giants did successfully knock the 49ers out of the playoffs in 1985 and 1986, but the 49ers were the favored team to reach their third straight Super Bowl, and become the first team to ever three-peat.
The game started with long field goal drives by each team, as there were only three possessions total in the first quarter. It was a favored strategy by the Giants back then, and you could argue it’s served them quite well in recent playoff runs under Tom Coughlin, who was coaching the wide receivers for the 1990 Giants.
But back to 1990. Another long field goal drive (8:32 elapsed) put the Giants ahead 6-3. But Montana would take the final minute and get a quick field goal drive to tie the game 6-6 at halftime. Through a half, Montana was 14/18 for 104 yards, and only handed the ball off 3 times for 9 yards. Balance? The 49ers had a 21-to-3 QB-to-handoff ratio going in the first half.
The pass would work right away when the 49ers got the ball back in the third quarter. Montana found John Taylor for a 61-yard touchdown on a one-play touchdown drive. It would be the only touchdown in the game.
The Giants had to settle for Matt Bahr’s 46-yard field goal. The game moved into the fourth quarter, and Bahr would miss a 37-yard attempt with 14:45 left. The Giants still trailed 13-9. The team that lost their starting quarterback was about to play a wild fourth quarter that seen four different quarterbacks take the field.
San Francisco punted, and momentarily Hostetler left the game and was replaced by Matt Cavanaugh, a former 49ers’ backup. Cavanaugh was sacked on third down, forcing another punt.
Montana would also take a third down sack, with the hit by Leonard Marshall
knocking him out of the game. With 9:17 left, Hostetler returned to the game. The Giants would drive 41 yards, but again had to settle for Bahr’s 38-yard field goal.
Steve Young now was at quarterback for the 49ers, and with 5:47 left, it was time to work on the clock as they held onto a 13-12 lead. On the very first play of the drive, Roger Craig fumbled, but the 49ers recovered. It was a sign of things to come.
After Young completed a 25-yard pass, Craig rushed for gains of 6 and 5 yards. The 49ers had a 1st
and 10 at the NY 40. With a little over 2:40 remaining, the Giants probably would have started using their three timeouts after the next snap. The 49ers were two first downs away from that third straight Super Bowl. Even one first down would have dealt a serious blow to the Giants.
And that’s when it happened
. Craig fumbled again, caused by Erik Howard, and Lawrence Taylor recovered the ball. Hostetler had 2:36 left, and the ball at his own 43, only needing a field goal.
One 19-yard gain to Mark Bavaro, and the ball was at the SF 38 with 2:00 left. Ottis Anderson would lose 4 yards on first down, but Hostetler rolled right to find Stephen Baker for a 13-yard gain. The Giants would run the clock all the way down to 0:04, and bring out Bahr for his fifth field goal of the game.
It was a 42-yard kick, and it was good as time expired. Bahr sent the Giants to the Super Bowl, and the quest for a three-peat was over. Montana never started another playoff game for the 49ers, so the Craig fumble essentially brought about the end of that particular era in San Francisco.
1994: San Diego Shocks Pittsburgh
San Diego at Pittsburgh (box)
– The 49ers would return to the Super Bowl four years later, and they’d find out their opponent from this game. San Diego had survived a last-second field goal miss by Miami the week before, and were off to Pittsburgh, who was playing in their first of many AFC Championship games since 1994 (8 to be exact).
The mighty Stan Humphries/Neil O’Donnell quarterback matchup couldn’t have been any less exciting than another Steve Young/Troy Aikman clash in the NFC, but this is the game that turned out to go down to the last play.
The Steelers started the game with a 67-yard touchdown drive that ate up half the quarter. San Diego went three and out on their first two drives, but Barry Foster fumbled in Chargers’ territory. Foster would finish with 20 carries for only 47 yards.
A long drive by the Steelers in the second quarter led to just a punt from the SD 34, and San Diego used a 46-yard pass interference penalty to get their first points of the game with a field goal. The Steelers answered that field goal with one of their own to close the half, leading 10-3. Humphries
was just 1/5 for 15 yards at halftime.
He fell to 1/7 with an interception on the opening drive of the third quarter. The Steelers turned that into a field goal and a 13-3 lead. But finally the offense came alive for San Diego, and it was a 43-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Alfred Pupunu to get the Chargers within 13-10.
After a series of punts, the game was in the fourth quarter. Humphries managed to lead 5 fourth quarter comebacks in the 1994 season, and this would be the biggest. With 9:57 left, San Diego was 80 yards away from the lead. They moved into Pittsburgh territory, but a false start led to a 3rd
-and-14 situation, and the Chargers were out of field goal range.
Humphries threw another one up, and Tony Martin beat Tim McKyer for another 43-yard touchdown. San Diego led 17-13 with 5:13 left.
The Steelers needed to drive 83 yards for the winning touchdown. Neil O’Donnell
completed 7 passes in a row as the clock hit 2:00. Now with the ball at the SD 9, the Steelers could take their time.
Foster would lose a yard on a first down run. O’Donnell threw incomplete on second down, and then just a 7-yard gain to John L. Williams on third down. Now it was 4th
and 3 with the game on the line. O’Donnell went over the middle to Foster, but whiffed on the throw and it was short and incomplete.
San Diego pulled off the major upset, despite being outgained 415 to 226. That 189 yard advantage in a playoff loss would be a record until the final game of our recap this week surpassed it.
O’Donnell was 32/54 for 349 yards, setting a playoff record for most pass attempts without an interception (surpassed by Drew Brees last year). But his lack of red zone execution and the offense’s overall lack of points kept the game too close, and the Chargers made two huge 43-yard pass plays to beat them.
1995: Hail Favre
Along with 1987, this is just the second Championship Sunday to feature two fourth quarter wins, and both games required a comeback by the home team.
Pittsburgh vs. Indianapolis (box)
– Thanks to the Colts taking care of Kansas City, the Steelers got to host a consecutive AFC Championship game. This one would literally go down to the last play, and the favored Steelers almost lost another one in epic fashion.
Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh
brought his entertaining brand of football that season with four game-winning drives, while Neil O’Donnell was hoping for some redemption. It didn’t start well, as an O’Donnell interception, tipped by Tony Siragusa, led to the Colts kicking an early field goal.
The Steelers trailed 6-3 in the second quarter when they put together a long 17-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. It ended with O’Donnell throwing a 5-yard touchdown to rookie utility man Kordell Stewart, who was playing wide receiver. You can tell he wasn’t a natural, as his foot was out of bounds before making the catch, w
hich should have been a penalty. None was called, and the Steelers led 10-6 at halftime.
The Colts got a 37-yard field goal to start the second half, but missed a 47-yard kick on their next drive. The Steelers made their 36-yard field goal, and led 13-9 to start the fourth quarter.
But the Steelers would also miss their next field goal attempt, and Harbaugh still had 10:57 left. Shades of a year ago, the Colts marched right down the field with Floyd Turner making a 47-yard touchdown catch.
Would O’Donnell lead the comeback this time? His 3rd
-and-5 pass fell incomplete at midfield, and the Steelers had to punt. After the Colts failed to convert a 3rd
and 1 on the ground, O’Donnell got the ball back with 3:03 left.
He would face a 4th
and 3 at the IND 47. It was 4th
and 3 last year that he failed to convert on. This time he made the 9-yard pass to Andre Hastings for the first down. Then it was a 37-yard pass to Ernie Mills down to the one. Two plays later, Bam Morris found the crack for the 1-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left. The Steelers led 20-16.
But Harbaugh had 1:30, a timeout, and 84 yards to go. He completed 3 passes for 38 yards, and scrambled twice for 17 more. A spike with 0:05 left saw the Colts at the PIT 29, with one last chance.
Harbaugh threw the Hail Mary, and for a moment it looked like Aaron Bailey may have caught it, but the pass fell incomplete. The Steelers escaped with one, and it’s probably the most memorable Hail Mary that didn’t work.
Dallas vs. Green Bay (box)
– The Cowboys eliminated Green Bay from the playoffs the previous two seasons, but this was Brett Favre’s
first MVP season, and things were supposed to be different this time.
They were, as the Packers would continue to keep up with the Cowboys. After falling behind 14-3 early on, Favre threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Robert Brooks, followed by a 24-yard touchdown to Keith Jackson for a 17-14 lead.
Dallas would eventually go on a 99-yard touchdown drive to take a 24-17 lead into halftime. The Packers came out in the third quarter and added a field goal, followed by a 1-yard touchdown to Brooks.
Green Bay led 27-24 to start the fourth quarter, which was an uncommon position for the Cowboys to be in, especially at home. On the fifth play of the quarter, Emmitt Smith scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to take a 31-27 lead.
After Edgar Bennett gained 18 yards on a run, Favre dropped back and threw a bad interception that was returned to the DAL 48. Troy Aikman
completed a 36-yard pass to Michael Irvin, and on the very next play Emmitt went 16 yards for a touchdown. Dallas led 38-27 with 9:28 left.
Green Bay would turn the ball over on downs their last two drives, including a 4th
and 38 that Favre threw a slant on for 13 yards rather than unleash a fun bomb.
It was the only game-winning drive of Aikman’s career in the playoffs, but it led to a third Super Bowl in four years. For Favre, he went 0-8 in Dallas in the 1990’s (0-3 in the postseason). This was the biggest loss of them all.
1998: Gary Anderson Chokes
Atlanta at Minnesota (box)
– There are some record-setting streaks you may not want to carry into the playoffs. For if your streak should end there, then you might be go down as the goat. Gary Anderson learned that the hard way.
The 1998 Vikings set a new record with 556 points scored on their way to a 15-1 season. Anderson was a perfect 35/35 on his field goals that season. He got to 39 straight in the NFC Championship. It was certainly an impressive streak, but you’re only as good as your last play, and well…
Atlanta had a sneaky good season (but annoyingly bad celebration dance
) at 14-2, behind career performances from Chris Chandler
, Jamal Anderson, Tony Martin and Terance Mathis.
The teams started by exchanging touchdown drives. The Falcons would fumble on their next two possessions, and Minnesota quickly grabbed a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. They would increase it to 20-7.
But after a sack/fumble on Randall Cunningham
late in the half, the Falcons only had to go 14 yards for a touchdown. They would inch closer in the third quarter with a field goal, but a long Minnesota drive carried into the fourth quarter, and the Vikings led 27-17 with 13:41 left.
Atlanta kicked a 24-yard field goal. The teams exchanged three and outs, Cunningham fumbled a snap, but Chandler’s fourth down pass was incomplete at the MIN 24. With 6:07 left on the clock, the Vikings put together what should have been a game-clinching drive.
Gary Anderson came on for the 38-yard field goal that would have given the Vikings a 30-20 lead with about 2:07 left, and Atlanta down to one timeout. Those are nearly insurmountable odds, unless you can get the quick score and onside kick recovery. Who better to have than the kicker that’s 39/39 up to this point?
Well, as we looked at in the Divisional round, Anderson had a similar situation much later in the game at Denver in 1984 with the Steelers. He missed that kick too, but there simply wasn’t enough time left for Elway to get a touchdown.
Anderson would shockingly miss this kick, and Chandler had 2:07 left to make him pay. The Falcons moved to the MIN 16, and Mathis caught the touchdown with 0:49 left to tie the game. We would have overtime for just the second time in a Conference Championship game.
After three punts, the Falcons took the fourth possession of overtime at their own 9. Chandler found TE O.J. Santiago for gains of 15 and 26 yards. They moved the ball to set up their own 38-yard field goal, and their Anderson (Morten Andersen that is), was good for the game-winner.
The Vikings vs. Broncos could have been an excellent Super Bowl, but instead the underdog Falcons snuck in after the perfect kicker offered up a missed field goal that only Scott Norwood can outclass in terms of ending his team’s season.
While Anderson’s kick was so bad, the all-time great offense of the Vikings does deserve blame for a sloppy game, and two ineffective overtime possessions. Of course, why was this game even in overtime again?
1999: Rams Break the Mold
St. Louis vs. Tampa Bay (box)
– Dome teams aren’t supposed to win Super Bowls. Defense wins championships. There were some interesting theories tested in the 1999 playoffs, when the St. Louis Rams took their No. 1 offense against Tampa Bay’s elite defense.
On the very first snap from scrimmage, Kurt Warner
threw an interception. The Buccaneers only got a field goal out of it, but they showed right away things were going to be difficult for the league’s best offense. Little did anyone know just how difficult it’d become.
The Rams answered with a long field goal drive to tie the game. They would take the rare 5-3 lead in the second quarter after a bad snap led to a safety. But the Rams missed the 44-yard field goal, and the game went to halftime at 5-3.
Tampa Bay came out in the third quarter and moved the ball 66 yards, but had to settle for a field goal, and a 6-5 lead. When it looked like the Rams would get their offense going, a holding penalty pushed them back, and Warner threw an interception with the ball at the TB 24.
Moving into the fourth quarter, the Rams had the ball back, but Warner threw his third interception of the day. But the underrated St. Louis defense played a very good game against Tampa Bay and their rookie quarterback, Shaun King
. They forced another three and out, and then King threw an interception with 8:01 left. The Rams had the ball at the TB 47.
It was getting late, and Warner, who had yet to lead a game-winning drive or comeback in his brief NFL career, needed to get things going on this golden opportunity. Some runs by Marshall Faulk would set up a 3rd
and 4 at the TB 30.
Warner dropped back, and Ricky Proehl was able to beat his man and make a 30-yard touchdown catch. It was the only touchdown in the game. The two-point conversion failed, but the Rams had a 11-6 lead with 4:44 left.
The Buccaneers were driving late, but a sack of King on first down brought up a 2nd
and 23 from the RAM 35. That’s when the infamous “Bert Emanuel” play happened, as it looked like Emanuel made the catch, but the nose of the ball was touching the ground, and replay officials overturned it to an incomplete pass.
Twelve years later and no one still knows for sure what a catch is in the NFL.
King’s passes fell incomplete on third and fourth down, and the Rams had gutted out a tough win thanks to their defense making up for an off-day by the offense. Defense may win championships, but the 1999 Rams could play defense too, and in the end, the better offense put more points on the board.
Kurt Warner pulled off a rarity: he was the first quarterback since former Rams’ QB Vince Ferragamo to have his first career fourth quarter comeback and game-winning drive in the postseason. Danny White (1978 NFC Divisional vs. Atlanta) also had his first game-winning drive in the playoffs, as did Mark Sanchez (2009 AFC Divisional at San Diego; 4QC too).
The 2000’s brought us to the era of great Super Bowl finishes, and some of the wildest Wild Card games. But as for Championship Sunday, we had to wait until the 2006 season before we got a four-year streak of a game-winning drive. But what a game it was…
2006: The Pinnacle of Colts/Patriots
Indianapolis vs. New England (box)
– Almost hard to believe it was five years ago, but the pinnacle of the Colts/Patriots rivalry took place in the 2006 AFC Championship. The Patriots won both playoff meetings in 2003-04 in snowy Foxboro, but this was the only time they met in Indianapolis.
It took road wins by both teams against the top two seeds to get here. The Colts got the No. 3 seed by virtue of their 27-20 win at New England (No. 4 seed) in the regular season. With the Chicago Bears already in the Super Bowl, these teams were playing for the right to beat Rex Grossman, so it sure felt like the real championship game for that season.
The game began with each team punting. On their second drive, the Patriots would face a 4th
and 1 at the IND 48. Bill Belichick made the decision to go for it, and Corey Dillon rushed for 35 yards. On a 3rd
and 1, Tom Brady
fumbled the snap, and guard Logan Mankins was able to recover it for a touchdown. The rare sight of an offensive linemen scoring a touchdown would be seen again later.
The Colts settled for a field goal after a holding penalty stalled their drive. The Patriots would again roll the dice on a fourth down. This time it was a 4th
and 6 at the IND 34. Brady quickly passed to Troy Brown who gained 27 yards. Dillon rushed for a 7-yard touchdown on the next play, and the Patriots led 14-3.
Two plays later, Peyton Manning
went to Marvin Harrison, but Asante Samuel (as he often does) read their play well and jumped the pass for a 39-yard interception touchdown. Just like that it was 21-3 in the second quarter. The Colts lost 20-3 the last time they played the Patriots in the playoffs.
With the crowd stunned, Manning was sacked to force a 3rd
and 24 from the Colts’ own 3. He was almost taken down again, but threw a deep pass that Harrison could not complete the catch on. The Colts had to punt it back after a three and out.
The first critical moment in the comeback happened here. The Patriots had the ball as deep as the IND 27, but penalties and then a sack on 3rd
and 21 led to a punt instead of more points for New England.
The Colts took over at their own 12, and the next critical moment happened. On 3rd
and 10, Manning found Reggie Wayne for an 18-yard gain. Had they gone three and out again, things may have played out much differently. Instead the drive would continue down into the red zone, but the Colts had to settle for a field goal. It wasn’t pretty, but 21-6 wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and the Colts would get the ball first to start the second half.
It was a 14-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to start the half, with Manning running in the quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line on third down for the score. The Patriots went three and out, and just like that the Colts had a chance to tie the game.
Manning started the drive with a 25-yard pass to Dallas Clark, followed by a 19-yard run from Dominic Rhodes. Pass interference on Ellis Hobbs put the ball at the one, and Dan Klecko, the former New England defensive lineman, caught a touchdown pass. The Colts went for two, and Harrison made a great catch to tie the game. Three straight scoring drives, including back-to-back 76-yard touchdown drives, had erased the 18-point deficit.
The fan frenzy was quickly brought down a notch when Hobbs returned the kickoff 80 yards to the IND 21. On a third down, Brady found Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone. Tony Dungy challenged, but the catch was upheld and New England went back up 28-21.
The Colts continued to move the ball at will against Belichick’s No. 2 defense, but like the Patriots earlier, nearly lost the ball near the goal line early in the fourth quarter. Rhodes fumbled the freakin’ football, and it was recovered by Jeff Friday
for a touchdown. (You have to click that one to understand.)
Each team would then go three and out. A facemask penalty would give the Patriots the ball at the IND 43. They moved it 33 yards before Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 28-yard go-ahead field goal.
Manning hit Clark with a 52-yard pass over the middle to start the next dive, but the Colts too would settle for a field goal. Adam Vinatieri kicked it from 36 yards to tie his former team at 31. Another long kick return by Hobbs gave the Patriots the ball at the NE 46, and they moved 29 yards to set Gostkowski up for a 43-yard field goal with 3:49 left.
The Colts went three and out, and Manning hit his thumb on the lineman’s helmet on the last pass. He told backup Jim Sorgi to “get ready”, which was probably the most action Sorgi’s heart ever went through in his career.
New England had a chance to take down the clock, but Brady’s pass on 3rd
and 4 was nearly intercepted by Bob Sanders, and the Patriots had to punt. It was now-or-never time for Manning and the Colts. There was 2:17 left, 80 yards to go, and one timeout left.
Manning started with an 11-yard pass to Wayne. Then on his suggestion, a pass to backup TE Bryan Fletcher, which didn’t work. But Fletcher had another idea that Manning liked, and they went back to him on the next play. Manning faded back while throwing the pass and Fletcher caught it for a 32-yard gain, even getting out of bounds with 2:01 left. They gained 43 yards in 16 seconds.
The next play was another pass to Wayne, who let the ball come up in the air and nearly lost control of it. Tack on 12 yards for roughing the passer, and the Colts had a first down at the NE 11. They would uncharacteristically keep it on the ground all three plays, and Joseph Addai walked in for a 3-yard touchdown on third down with 1:00 left. Colts led 38-34.
Brady got the ball back with 0:54 left at his own 21, and still with two timeouts remaining. Completions of 19 and 15 yards moved the ball to the IND 45 with 0:24 left. That’s when CB Marlin Jackson made a name for himself in playoff history by jumping Brady’s pass for a game-ending interception.
The 18-point comeback is the largest in any championship game in NFL history. The Colts scored 32 points in the second half. As the meetings continued, the games never got as big as an AFC Championship, and many new faces kept showing up, making this game the highlight of the decade’s best rivalry.
2007: Maybe Favre Just Wanted to Get Warm?
NY Giants at Green Bay (box) –
The wind chill was -23, the venue was Lambeau Field, and this was supposed to be an advantage for the Packers. Except, these days no one really cares to play in such extreme conditions, especially not a 38-year old quarterback trying to win one last ring.
The Giants took Green Bay’s game-opening punt and held the ball for 7:48 to put a field goal on the board. After some three and outs, the Giants would add another field goal for a 6-0 lead. But on the very next play, Favre found Donald Driver for a 90-yard touchdown pass.
Green Bay added a field goal before halftime, and Eli Manning
was sacked on 4th
and 8 at the GB 34 (no Hail Mary this time). Manning would overcome an interception in the third quarter, as it was wiped out by an illegal contact penalty on Al Harris. The drive ended with Brandon Jacobs scoring a 1-yard touchdown.
The Packers answered with Favre’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Donald Lee. Ahmad Bradshaw capped off a 57-yard touchdown drive for the Giants, with his 4-yard score to give the Giants a 20-17 lead.
On the second play of the fourth quarter with the ball at the NY 31, Favre threw an interception (stop laughing), but the joke was on New York’s defense, as R.W. McQuarters fumbled the ball after Ryan Grant knocked it away. The Packers recovered at the NY 19. Grant would lose 7 yards on a third down run, and Mason Crosby kicked a 37-yard game-tying field goal.
The Giants were faced with a 4th
and 6 at the GB 34 with 8:12 left. They went for it, and Eli’s pass to Steve Smith came up a yard short. However, Charles Woodson was penalized for pass interference, and the Giants got a first down.
They wouldn’t get another on the drive, and Lawrence Tynes came on to begin his kicking odyssey. His 43-yard attempt was wide left with 6:49 left. Green Bay would go three and out on their next two drives.
With 2:15 left, Ahmad Bradshaw apparently had a dagger of a 48-yard touchdown run to start the next drive, but it was called back for holding. The Giants would move to the GB 18 with 0:04 left. Tynes came out for just a 36-yard attempt, but on the difficult night, he was once again wide left, sending the game to overtime.
Green Bay won the toss, but it only took two plays before Favre threw another poor interception. The Giants had the ball at the GB 34 after the pick. They would only gain five yards before sending Tynes out, and after missing from 43 and 36, Tynes made the game-winning 47-yard field goal to send the Giants to the Super Bowl.
The last pass Favre threw in his legendary Green Bay career was a back-breaking interception in overtime of the NFC Championship. The Giants have won the last two playoff games played at Lambeau Field.
2008: Warner Does It Again
Arizona vs. Philadelphia (box)
– Arizona’s unlikely run to the Super Bowl was clinched with their home win over a familiar face to the NFC Championship from Philadelphia. In 2001, the Eagles would make the first of four straight appearances in the NFC Championship, as Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb
lost 29-24 to Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams. Now with their fifth appearance in the game, it was another matchup against Warner, but this time he was with Arizona.
Larry Fitzgerald had a postseason for the ages, and he started the game with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Warner. In the second quarter it was Fitzgerald filling up the highlight reel with a 62-yard touchdown on a tricky flea-flicker. Fitzgerald came up with yet another touchdown to build a 24-6 lead at halftime for Arizona.
McNabb fumbled on a sack to start the second half, but the defense finally forced a stop. McNabb drove the offense 90 yards, finishing with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek. Arizona again went three and out, and McNabb went back to Celek for a 31-yard touchdown. David Akers missed the extra point, leaving it a 24-19 deficit.
On their first possession of the fourth quarter, McNabb found DeSean Jackson for a 62-yard touchdown. The important two-point conversion pass failed, but the Eagles had erased an 18-point road deficit for a 25-24 lead with 10:45 left.
Arizona methodically worked the ball down the field. Tim Hightower had a 6-yard run on a 4th
and 1 at midfield. With 2:59 left, the Cardinals were facing a 3rd
-and-goal at the PHI 8. Warner found Hightower for the touchdown pass, and then got the two-point pass to Ben Patrick for a 32-25 lead.
McNabb had 2:53 left, one timeout, and needed to go 80 yards. After a 19-yard pass to Brian Westbrook put the ball at Arizona’s 47, McNabb’s last four passes would all fall incomplete. Arizona went three and out, but the Eagles had only nine seconds left, and their lateral-filled finish went nowhere as Jackson fumbled on the last play of the game.
The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since, and it remains the best playoff win the Cardinals have had in the Super Bowl era.
Kurt Warner joins John Elway as the only quarterbacks to have two game-winning drives in the Conference Championship round. He is the only quarterback to throw two game-winning touchdowns and have two fourth quarter comebacks in this round.
2009: Once, Twice, Three Times Favre'd
New Orleans vs. Minnesota (box) –
It was one last shootout for the old gunslinger. The very successful season for the Vikings came to a close with a trip to New Orleans for the NFC Championship. They were the two best teams in the NFC all year, and it was only fitting this was the game we’d get on Championship Sunday.
As expected, it was offensive fireworks right away. Three straight touchdown drives started the game, with Minnesota taking a 14-7 lead. Each team would cool down momentarily with a three and out, but Drew Brees
came right back with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson to tie the game.
After a series of punts, Reggie Bush muffed a punt for the Saints, and the Vikings took over at the NO 10. However, Adrian Peterson would not get the handoff cleanly and the Vikings fumbled with the ball four yards away from the end zone. We had a 14-14 tie at halftime.
A big kick return for the Saints set up a short field, and four plays later they were in the end zone on Pierre Thomas’ 9-yard run for a 21-14 lead. The Vikings responded with an 80-yard drive that ended with Peterson’s 1-yard touchdown run.
The Saints went three and out, and Favre had the ball in Saints’ territory. That’s when he took a shot on his ankle, and was intercepted. Favre was on the field in pain, but would of course play through it until the bitter end. There’s a picture of the ankle injury on the internet, but be careful when searching for pics of Favre’s body. You never know what might pop up or out.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Percy Harvin fumbled, giving the Vikings their third turnover of the game. The Saints only had to go 7 yards for Brees to throw a 5-yard touchdown to Bush for a 28-21 lead.
Facing a 3rd
and 10 at the 50, Favre fired a pass to Bernard Berrian for a 30-yard gain. But two plays later Berrian fumbled at the NO 10. The Saints would go three and out. Minnesota finally held onto the ball and put together a 57-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. Again, the Saints would go three and out.
With 2:37 left, Favre had the ball at his own 21. After completions of 10 and 20 yards, Chester Taylor ripped off a 14-yard run to the NO 33. Two more runs would gain no yards, and the Vikings began to make mistakes. They were flagged for having 12 players on the field on offense, which pushed the ball back to the 38 with 0:19 left. Minnesota still had one timeout left.
That’s’ when Favre made one of the biggest mistakes of his career, and helped carve out some postseason lore for Tracy Porter. Favre scrambled to his right, and instead of running for a few yards and using the timeout to try a 50-yard field goal, Favre threw across the middle of the field, right to Porter for the interception.
Even a play that gained no yards would have at least saved a 55-yard field goal attempt. It was the gunslinger shooting himself in the foot one more time. The game went to overtime, and the shot proved to be fatal. The Vikings never got the ball back. The Saints, with the help of some shaky penalties moved the ball to the MIN 22. That’s where Garrett Hartley came out and made the 40-yard field goal to send the Saints to their first Super Bowl.
Minnesota had outgained the Saints 475 to 257. The 218 yard advantage is the most ever in a playoff defeat. The five turnovers killed Minnesota, as is often the case. For the third time in his career, Favre threw a fourth quarter interception either before or after the opponent’s game-winning drive in the NFC Championship.
2011 Conference Championship Preview
We’re down to four teams, and cases can easily be made for each team to win this weekend.
– The Ravens are the first team in the 16-game era to never allow more than 1 TD pass in all 16 games (link
). Baltimore’s 6-1 (.857) record against quality opponents
compared to New England’s 0-2 record is tied for the second largest difference in the playoffs since 1970. Teams that are at least +5 in quality wins against their opponent are 9-4 in the playoffs since 1970, with the Patriots having the last two losses
. The Ravens have 3 road playoff wins by 18+ points since 2008 (one in each of the last three seasons).
– Riding a 9-game winning streak, scoring at least 27 points in every game. The maligned defense has yet to allow more than 27 points in any game this season (34 vs. Buffalo included a pick six thrown by Brady). Came back from 20-10 deficit in fourth quarter for 23-20 overtime win vs. Ravens in 2010.
– Have won four straight games by 15+ points. Allowed 16+ points in each of first 14 games (7-7) this season. Have allowed 14, 14, 2 and 20 points since (4-0). Eli Manning has third highest postseason road rating (100.1) in NFL history.
– Have 43 takeaways and 11 giveaways in 17 games this season. Have had at least a fourth quarter tie in all 17 games (led in 16/17 games). Despite running game producing 14 carries for 50 yards, came back from 13-12 deficit early in fourth quarter to beat Giants 27-20 this year.
While we’ve only seen two seasons where both road teams won on Championship Sunday, if there were ever two teams to pick to pull it off, these are the ones. Let’s roll that dice and go with 3-point road wins with each team scoring in the 20’s.
Baltimore 26, New England 23
NY Giants 27, San Francisco 24
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He’s watched just five of these 16 games live when they happened. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.