It’s not easy sifting through all of the rich conference championship game history to find the 10 best from each conference.
There have been some remarkable games through the years to send teams to the Super Bowl. We’re here to rank the 10 best from each conference. Only games after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger were considered (that eliminates the Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys “Ice Bowl,” but let’s get this out of the way — had that been considered it would have been the No. 1 NFC game). The quality of the entire game, and not just a fun finish or historical relevance, carried the most weight. In every instance, the year referenced is the season in which the game was played.
Here are the top 10 NFC title games (the top 10 AFC games can be found here):
10. Falcons blow a big lead (no, not Super Bowl LI)
2012, 49ers 28, Falcons 24
When the Falcons led 17-0, it looked like the 49ers would fall in the NFC title game again. But San Francisco, led by Colin Kaepernick, turned it on after that. They outscored the Falcons 28-7 the rest of the way. In the fourth quarter they overcame a crucial fumble by Michael Crabtree at the 1-yard line to take the lead on Frank Gore’s second touchdown. The Falcons got to the 49ers’ 10-yard line in the final two minutes, but couldn’t punch it in and the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl. This game doesn’t get brought up often enough. It was really fun.
9. Greatest Show on Turf scores once, but wins
1999, Rams 11, Buccaneers 6
Low-scoring games can be great too. The Buccaneers defense did what nobody else in 1999 could, and that was slow down the Rams. It was a great defense playing perhaps its greatest game. And it still wasn’t enough.
The Buccaneers led 6-5 (seriously) deep into the fourth quarter until a fine 30-yard catch by Ricky Proehl in the end zone with 4:44 left. In the final minutes Buccaneers receiver Bert Emanuel’s catch that grazed the turf was overturned, and that was basically the genesis of the catch rule nonsense that we all hate. This wasn’t the prettiest game, but it was tense.
8. Cowboys take the crown
1992, Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
One of the three classic 1990s 49ers-Cowboys NFC title games had to go on the list. None of the three came down to the final seconds, but the first meeting in the trilogy was a tough battle with plenty of historical significance. On a mushy field, the Cowboys sent a message that they were taking over as the king of the NFC. The 49ers had been the best team in the conference for many years (and would win it again two seasons later), but a loaded Cowboys team truly arrived at Candlestick Park on this afternoon. The 49ers put the pressure on the Cowboys with a late score, but a huge catch-and-run by Alvin Harper late in the game helped put it away. If you ever rewatch this game, you’ll be blown away by the number of Hall of Famers and other star players on both sides.
7. Giants outlast Favre in the cold
2007, Giants 23, Packers 20 (OT)
It seemed like fate that Brett Favre would make one final Super Bowl with the Packers. Instead, this was his final game with Green Bay. On a frigid night, the Giants defense allowed very little, then Favre threw a bad interception to Corey Webster in overtime and Lawrence Tynes kicked a frozen ball 47 yards for the game-winning field goal. Plaxico Burress’ dominant 11-catch, 151-yard game should be noted too, because he was fantastic that day.
6. No three-peat for 49ers
1990, Giants 15, 49ers 13
The 49ers seemed to be on their way to an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl, or at least a great showdown with the upstart Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The Giants wouldn’t let it happen.
The Giants pulled off a remarkable upset with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler thanks to a great defensive performance against a 49ers offense at its peak, and a ball-control style that gave them possession for nearly 39 minutes. Leonard Marshall’s brutal hit on Joe Montana is a big part of the game’s legacy; Montana wouldn’t play his next game until the 1992 season finale, about 23 months later. New York still needed a huge break when the 49ers had the ball at the Giants’ 40 with 2:42 left, with San Francisco leading 13-12. The Giants got that break when Roger Craig fumbled, and Lawrence Taylor recovered. The Giants put together a short drive and Matt Bahr hit his fifth field goal of the game as time expired. That 1990 49ers team was loaded, as good or better than any of the team’s five Super Bowl winners. That loss still stings.
5. Seahawks stage a comeback for the ages
2014, Seahawks 28, Packers 22 (OT)
The tough part about ranking this game is that for three-and-a-half quarters it was not a good game. The Seahawks struggled, the Packers defense played well and the offense scored enough to take a 16-0 lead. A fake field goal for a touchdown was exciting, but with a little more than two minutes left the Seahawks trailed 19-7. And somehow, they won.
Seattle scored, got an infamous onside kick recovery off Packers tight end Brandon Bostick’s hands, then scored again (and got a miraculous two-point conversion) to take an improbable lead. Then the Packers fought back, with Aaron Rodgers driving his team in the final 1:25 for a game-tying 48-yard field goal by Mason Crosby. In overtime, the Seahawks won the toss and scored the game-winner on a 35-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse. It was one of the most amazing comebacks ever, and if we’re just judging the final few minutes of regulation and overtime, it would be even higher up the list.
4. Vikings dream season ends
1998, Falcons 30, Vikings 27 (OT)
The Vikings’ loss in the 1998 season’s NFC title game still seems like a massive upset, but that probably is a disservice to the Falcons. Atlanta had a fine 14-2 regular season and were strong on both sides of the ball. Still, it didn’t seem like they had a chance against the Vikings.
Minnesota had an incredible season, going 15-1 and setting a then-NFL record with 556 points. Randy Moss scored 17 touchdowns in one of the great rookie seasons of all time. They looked unbeatable, and it seemed they were on their way to the Super Bowl when they took a 20-7 lead in the first half. But the Falcons fought back, and Gary Anderson missed his first kick of the entire season in the fourth quarter. That would have put Minnesota up by 10. The Falcons took advantage, marching downfield to tie the game. Then Falcons kicker Morten Andersen won it in overtime. Minnesota took its place as probably the greatest team in NFL history to not make a Super Bowl, and we can only wonder how great a Vikings-Broncos Super Bowl would have been that season.
3. Saints clinch first NFC title in OT
2009, Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)
The Superdome rocked for the entirety of this classic. The ultimate legacy of this game might be that it was at the heart of the Saints “Bountygate” controversy. No matter your beliefs on that scandal, this much is undeniable: The Saints pounded Brett Favre from beginning to end, and Favre kept coming back for one of the toughest performances you’ll ever see from a quarterback.
Favre’s story that season probably should have had a better ending. The Vikings outplayed New Orleans for the most part. Turnovers killed the Vikings. Despite early mistakes, the Vikings were still in position to kick a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. Then there was a 12 men in the huddle penalty that will make any Vikings fan nauseous to this day. Favre, trying to get the Vikings back in field-goal range, rolled right and threw back to the middle the field, where his pass was picked off by Tracy Porter. In overtime, kicker Garrett Hartley sent the Saints to their first Super Bowl with a game-winning field goal, and it produced some amazing fan reaction videos.
2. Richard Sherman saves the day
2013, Seahawks 23, 49ers 17
Hopefully as years go on, this game won’t be lost to history. Because it was phenomenal. It featured two great, loaded teams at their peaks. It was as competitive of a game as you’ll see. Neither team gave any ground.
The 49ers led 10-0 early but the Seahawks battled back. A dramatic 35-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse on fourth-and-7 in the fourth quarter gave the Seahawks the lead. Colin Kaepernick drove the 49ers to Seattle’s 18-yard line (also getting a fourth-down conversion on the drive), then he threw deep to Michael Crabtree. The pass was tipped on a great play by Richard Sherman and intercepted by Malcolm Smith trailing the play. Sherman’s fired-up postgame interview with Erin Andrews is probably remembered most vividly than the game itself, which is too bad.
1. “The Catch”
1981, 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
There aren’t many more iconic images in NFL history than Dwight Clark going up in the back of the end zone to haul in Joe Montana’s pass to win the 49ers’ first conference championship. It wasn’t the cleanest game – Montana had three interceptions, and there were nine total turnovers from both sides – but it’s obviously a classic. The great play that has been mostly forgotten is 49ers cornerback Eric Wright’s tackle after “The Catch.” Drew Pearson caught a deep pass down the middle and had an open field in front of him, but Wright managed to barely hang onto the back of Pearson’s jersey and get him down. If not for that, we might remember Pearson’s play as “The Catch.”
The 49ers’ dynasty truly started with this win, and it remains one of the best games in NFL history.
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