Ranking The Worst Losses In Conference Championship Game History
Earlier this week, I touched on where the Green Bay Packers devastating loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday would rank among the annals of heartbreak in NFL conference championship game history. I put a couple other candidates out there, but wanted to give this subject more exhaustive treatment. What follows is a list of the nine most devastating losses in conference championship game history.
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I’m going to begin by clarifying one important ground rule. Here at TheSportsNotebook, our extensive museum of sports history articles honors the five-year waiting period observed by Hall of Fames before writing about a team or event. In that way, the legacy can take fuller shape. I decided to adopt that same rule here, meaning our cutoff point is after the 2009 season.
The reason for this is that I realized one of the difficulties in ranking the Packers’ loss is that we don’t know what its ultimate legacy will be. If the team never wins another Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, this loss will sting that much more.
On the other hand, what if Green Bay comes back next year and goes on a redemptive run, a la the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s NBA playoffs? Then the pain of this year’s loss is mitigated,at least
By allowing the five-year window, we can rank teams whose legacies are mostly developed and you can start speculating on where Green Bay’s defeat—along with a few others that we’ll touch on below from recent seasons—will fit in this list. But for now, here is The Notebook Nine, the nine worst losses in a conference championship game.
1998 Minnesota Vikings: This was a juggernaut of a team. They were 15-1 and blowing people out in the process. Minnesota led the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 in the fourth quarter and trotted out reliable Gary Anderson for a field goal that would ice it. Anderson, obviously kicking indoors in perfect conditions, missed a makeable kick. Atlanta drives it down, ties the game and wins in overtime.
Minnesota reached one more NFC Championship Game in 2000, but never had a better shot at winning the Super Bowl then with this team. That failure—along with the fact this is a franchise that has never won the Super Bowl, nor even reached it since 1976, only adds to how bad the ’98 loss was. I still consider this the gold standard of heartbreak.
1986 Cleveland Browns: You can make a good argument for this one to be in the top spot. The Browns were the top seed in the AFC and had the Denver Broncos down 20-13 late in the fourth quarter and backed up on their own 2-yard line. Then John Elway mounts “The Drive”, including converting a 3rd-and-18 on a windy day in the Dawg Pound. Denver wins in overtime.
Cleveland has never even made a Super Bowl, much less won one. They suffered another crushing loss to Denver a year later. The only reason they rank second on the list is that the ’86 Browns weren’t quite the juggernaut the ’98 Vikings were.
1990 San Francisco 49ers: Our first two teams come from suffering cities desperate to win a Super Bowl. San Francisco certainly isn’t that, but this game still qualifies. The 49ers led the New York Giants 13-12 late in the game and were running out the clock. Roger Craig fumbled. New York drove for a winning field goal.
The nature of the loss is bad enough, but what elevates this game is that San Francisco was going for a third straight Super Bowl win. Their heartbreak in this game is akin to what the undefeated New England Patriots suffered in 2007 in the Super Bowl itself—it’s not the fans had never experienced glory, but they got “thisclose” to really making history and had it taken away from them both teams. Oddly enough, both times by the Giants.
1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh was a solid favorite over the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers had a top defense and they led the Bolts 13-3 in the second half. Somehow, the Steelers gave up two long touchdown passes to the immortal Stan Humphries and found themselves down by four points. Pittsburgh drove to the three-yard line and had one last play to win it, but Neil O’Donnell’s pass fell incomplete
By this point, it had been fifteen years since the Steelers had won their last Super Bowl under Chuck Noll. They had not been back since. This was also part of a stretch where Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher kept finding ways to lose playoff games at home—the Steelers were eliminated at home three times from 1992-97, and lost home conference championship games in 2001 and 2004. They reached the Super Bowl in 1995, but it took until 2005 for this generation of Steeler fans to get a ring.
1981 Dallas Cowboys: Dallas was on the road in San Francisco and led the upstart 49ers 27-21 with about five minutes left. San Francisco had the ball on their own 11-yard line. Then Joe Montana led a last drive that was culminated with a fantastic leaping catch by Dwight Clark in the end zone, that would arguably become the most famous Sports Illustrated cover of all time.
This game is a classic case of why the five-year waiting period helps. At the time, it just seemed like the Big Bad Cowboys of Tom Landry had taken a tough loss and would surely just come right back for more. In fact, this was the second of three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game for Dallas, and Landry would never again reach the Super Bowl.
1995 Indianapolis Colts: By the merits of the game itself, you can make a case this one should rank higher. The Colts, with Jim Harbaugh at quarterback, were holding onto a 16-13 lead in Pittsburgh, in spite of the Steelers having gotten an officiating break when Kordell Stewart’s catch in the end zone was ruled a touchdown with replays showing his foot was out of bounds.
Indy had Pittsburgh in a 4th-and-3, but that was converted. Then a 37-yard pass to Ernie Mills put the Steelers on the doorstep and they cashed it in. Harbaugh rallied his team one more time and got them in positon to throw one last jump ball into the end zone. The ball got to receiver Aaron Bailey who appeared ready to come down with it, but he juggled it just enough for the ball to hit the ground.
Since the Colts would not become relevant again until Peyton Manning came to town more than a decade later, why isn’t this game ranked higher? Because Indianapolis was a #5 seed and the expectations just weren’t there.
2009 Minnesota Vikings: The game was tied 28-28 in spite of a myriad of Minnesota mistakes. Brett Favre had them on the move for a winning field goal and they had nudged into the range of kicker Ryan Longwell, especially playing indoors in New Orleans. Then a delay of game penalty pushed them back and forced a decision to throw.
Favre rolled to his right and there was about 10 yards of space for him to run up, step out of bounds and set up the last-play field goal. Instead, he threw it across his body into the middle of the field where Tracy Porter intercepted it. New Orleans won the coin toss in overtime and quickly got a field goal to win.
We’ve already covered the sad Viking history. This game has added on to it the fact that this was the last overtime game under the old rules, where just winning a coin toss and getting 40 or so yards to get in field goal range was sufficient. Favre never saw the ball after that fateful pass.
2006 New England Patriots: The Patriots had already won plenty by this point, with three Super Bowls in the previous five seasons. But anytime you set a record for the biggest blown lead in a conference championship game—they were up 21-3 on the road in Indianapolis, it’s going to hurt.
What makes this loss stand out more is that the winner had a virtual lock Super Bowl trophy, as the Chicago Bears were just token opposition in a year the NFC was awful. And New England has not won once since 2004. What perhaps mitigates this loss is that this was not a vintage Tom Brady/Bill Belichick team—they had serious problems at receiver and a flu bug swept the team in the week prior to the game.
1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is an underrated loss, the kind I always enjoy finding when researching stuff like this. Tampa Bay, coached by Tony Dungy, led Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams 6-5 in the fourth quarter. Warner threw a touchdown pass with less than five minutes left to take an 11-6 lead, but Tampa Bay drove back.
Shaun Hill threw what looked to be a completed pass to Robert Meacham inside the red zone, one that would have set up a first down situation. But it was ruled incomplete, a ruling that even with replay remains hotly disputed. In the end, the coach and team would each eventually win a Super Bowl—but only after Dungy went to Indianapolis and Jon Gruden won it in Tampa.
Those are the Notebook Nine. Honorable mention goes to the following—
*1987 Cleveland Browns—A goal-line fumble by Earnest Byner with the Browns trailing 38-31 in Denver added to the legacy of heartbreak in Cleveland. It doesn’t make the list because it would have only forced overtime and Cleveland played from behind the whole way.
*2007 Green Bay Packers—Favre’s final game as a Packer and he threw an underthrown interception in overtime that sealed his team’s fate in a game they played at home and were a solid favorite over the New York Giants. The weakness? They never got in a really great positon to win the game. It seemed like New York took over the game in both trenches and Green Bay was just hanging on.
*2008 Baltimore Ravens—Trailing 16-14 in Pittsburgh, the Ravens got the ball late in the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco, then a rookie, threw a Pick-6 to Troy Polamulu. It doesn’t make the list because the Ravens played from behind most of the way, were a #6 seed without expectations and ultimately won a Super Bowl with this cast of players in 2012.
*1974 Los Angeles Rams—They lost in Minnesota 14-10 and the game is remembered for a controversial illegal motion play on Tom Mack when the Rams had 1st-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Forced to throw, an interception in the end zone followed.
Had this happened late in the fourth quarter, I’d have put it in the Notebook Nine. But there was still plenty of game left, the Vikings built a 14-3 lead and the Rams never again got in a real positon to win it.
That’s the cast that this year’s Green Bay Packers and the others that have lost conference championship games since 2009 are looking to break into. If it seems like we’ve had a lot of great championship games in recent years, you aren’t imagining things. I count five teams that can break into this list after we let their legacy become a little clearer:
The 2011 and 2013 San Francisco 49ers: In ’11, they lost in overtime at home to the Giants with a fumbled punt being the difference. In ’13, they went to Seattle, blew a ten-point lead, gave up a 4th-and-13 touchdown pass and then saw their last drive stopped on an interception in the end zone.
Furthermore, with Jim Harbaugh leaving, the legacy appears to be that of missed opportunity, coupled with the Super Bowl loss of 2012. There’s a good chance at least one, if not both of these conference title game defeats make it into the Nine.
2011 Baltimore Ravens: Trailing New England 23-20, the Ravens first saw Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone (or more accurately, have it stripped away, but it’s still a play an NFL receiver has to make). Then Billy Cundiff missed the chip-shot field goal that would have sent it to overtime.
This is another game where the five-year wait is creating a different impression than existed at the time. In the moment, I saw an old team, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, whose window was closing. True enough, but I was a year too early. They mustered up a Super Bowl run a year later, coming right back through Foxboro on a redemptive run. This 2011 loss probably still is agonizing enough to make the list, but it lost steam as a candidate for the top spot.
2012 Atlanta Falcons: They had a 17-0 lead at home on San Francisco and blew it. Even trailing 28-24, they drove into the red zone at the end of the game, but couldn’t get it done. Head coach Mike Smith is now fired and Atlanta seems eons away from the Super Bowl, a place they’ve only been once and have never won. This is another game that looks destined for “better” things when it’s time for a formal ranking.
And finally we come to the 2014 Green Bay Packers. This one is going to make the list in five years. How high up it gets will depend a lot on what happens between now and then. Right now though, my gut instinct is to say at least third and no worse than fifth. The sheer nature of how the loss unfolded is bad enough. It’s up to the current cast of players and coaches to make it just one bad event in a plot that ultimately ends well.