This weekend the Falcons head to a place they have been before: the NFC Championship game. Just getting to the game is quite an accomplishment. As a matter of fact, there are some that feel that winning the conference championship and getting to the Super Bowl is as big as winning the Super Bowl itself.
A note before we proceed. The famous “Ice Bowl” of 1967 is not on the list. That classic Packers and Cowboys conflagration is one of the greatest games ever played. Even though it propelled Green Bay to the second Super Bowl, it was not a “conference championship.” It was the NFL Championship game. The NFL and AFL merged in 1970 creating separate conferences.
Through the years, the conference championship game has provided some memorable, as well as painful, moments for players and fans. Here are the “Top 5” of all time.
5.) January 17, 1988: AFC Championship: Denver Broncos 38, Cleveland Browns 33
The game marked the second straight season Denver and Cleveland met with the winner going to the Super Bowl. The Broncos led 14-0 after one quarter, and 21-7 at the half. The Browns stormed back with a 21 point third quarter and finally tied the game at 31-31 in the fourth quarter. John Elway gave the Broncos the lead right back with a 20-yard touchdown pass with 4:00 minutes left. The Browns then took the ensuing kickoff and moved the ball all the way down to the Broncos’ 8-yard line with 1:12 to go. On the next play, Browns running back Earnest Byner got the handoff and looked to be ready to score. However, he was stripped of the ball at the Broncos’ 2-yard line with 1:05 left. Denver recovered, gave the Browns an intentional safety and danced away with a 5-point win. The Byner miscue is known as “The Fumble,” and unfortunately is how many remember a Georgia native who was one of the greatest NFL running backs of all time. The Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XXII in San Diego where they were hammered by the Redskins 42-10.
4.) January 20, 1991: NFC Championship: New York Giants 15, San Francisco 49ers 13
“End of a Dynasty”
If you witnessed the game or have seen any footage or documentaries, then you know just how hard-hitting it was. The 49ers, under Joe Montanta, were looking to advance to the Super Bowl for the third straight year. This game was a bloody, defensive struggle and even saw Montana get knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter. All the Giants points came on field goals from Matt Bahr. In the fourth quarter, the 49ers led 13-12, and with Steve Young at quarterback, they tried to protect the lead and drain time off the clock. But running back Roger Craig fumbled the ball away with 2:36 to go. The Giants drove the ball back down the field to set up Bahr for the game winner: a 42-yarder as time expired. Many consider this game the “end of a dynasty,” referring to the fact it ended the 49ers run as Super Bowl champs under Montana. However, the 49ers, with Young as quarterback won the Super Bowl again four seasons later. The Giants went on to win Super Bowl XXV by a 20-19 score over Buffalo.
3.) January 17, 1999: NFC Championship: Atlanta Falcons 30, Minnesota Vikings 27 (OT)
After a thrilling 2-point win over San Francisco in the divisional playoffs, the 14-2 Falcons traveled to Minnesota to meet the 15-1 Vikings. Minnesota led for most of the game and, at one time, by 13-points. In the fourth quarter, and leading 27-20, the Vikings drove to the Atlanta 20, setting up a 38-yard field goal attempt for Gary Anderson. Anderson, who had not missed all season…missed. The miss gave the ball back to the Falcons with 2:07 to go. Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler, who passed for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns on the day, led his team back down the field, where a 16-yard touchdown to Terance Mathis sent the game to overtime. On the fourth possession of overtime, the Falcons drove to Minnesota 21-yard line where Morten Andersen kicked a 38-yard field goal to send the Birds to Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, where they lost to John Elway and the Broncos 34-19.
2.) January 11, 1987: AFC Championship: Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20 (OT)
A season before the Browns and Broncos met in the AFC Championship game in Denver (#5 on our list), they met in the AFC Championship game in Cleveland. This is game known for “The Drive.” The drive engineered by John Elway that sent the game into overtime. With 5:43 to go in the game and the scored tied at 13-13, Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar hit Brian Brennan with a 48-yard touchdown pass for a 20-13 lead. On the following kickoff, the Broncos misplayed the ball and had to start from their own 2-yard line. It appeared to be no way the Broncos could come back from the horrible field position, but Elway drove the offense 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game with 37 seconds left to go. The game went into overtime. After forcing Cleveland to punt on the opening drive of overtime, the Broncos marched 60 yards to set up a Rich Karlis 33-yard game-winning field goal. The Broncos headed to Super Bowl XXI at Pasadena where they were drilled by the New York Giants, 39-20.
1.) January 10, 1982: NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27
This back-and-forth classic sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and began the San Francisco dynasty of the 1980’s. With Dallas leading 27-21 in the fourth quarter, a Danny White punt pinned the 49ers at their own 11-yard line with little less than 5:00 to go in the game. Joe Montana drove his team all the way to the Dallas 6. On 3rd-and-3 and with :58 seconds left, Montana threw a high pass into the end zone to Dwight Clark. Clark’s leaping catch became one of the most dramatic moments in NFL playoff history. It is known as “The Catch.” The 49ers still had to hold off the Cowboys who had one last chance to get into field goal range. But a White fumble ended the Cowboys day and propelled San Francisco to Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome. There they beat the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21, the first of five Super Bowl titles for the 49ers over the next 13 seasons.