In the aftermath of Championship Sunday in the NFL last week, the focus, from a historical perspective has been how the Green Bay Packers gut-wrenching loss in Seattle ranks in heartbreak lore. But let’s not allow the Indianapolis Colts to feel neglected. After being trashed 45-7 in New England, it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum—what are the worst blowouts in NFL conference championship game history?
As we did in yesterday’s post about the most heartbreaking losses, TheSportsNotebook is honoring the five-year window observed by Hall of Fames, making the cutoff point in 2009. The reason is that just how bad a loss was can change—or at least our perception of it can change—by how the team responds in the immediate years after.
This five-year period, allowing a team’s legacy to form more fully, isn’t quite as relevant here as it was in the discussion of heartbreaks, but it can still apply and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll keep the rankings on the same rules. As we go through the list you can get your own sense of where the Colts’ loss in Foxboro will ultimately fit.
It should also go without saying that not all blowout losses are created equal. If it were, we could just rank the games by victory margin and leave it at that. But factors like expectations for the defeated team also have to factor in. That’s an issue that will ultimately mitigate some infamy for this year’s Indy team—a touchdown underdog going in and already having exceeded all expectations for themselves.
I also looked to avoid games that were competitive for a good while before turning ugly the reason games like Chicago’s 39-14 win over New Orleans in 2006 didn’t factor in—the Bears only led 18-14 after three quarters. The same goes for Tennessee’s 33-14 beatdown of #1 AFC seed Jacksonville in 1999. The Jags actually led the game at halftime.
We’re looking for a game like Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, where New England had an early 14-0 lead, a 17-7 halftime lead and it felt larger, the way they dominated play, before immediately scoring after the second-half kickoff and coasting home. So here we go, here’s the Notebook Nine, the nine worst blowouts in conference championship game history….
1975: Dallas 37 LA Rams 7—The Rams were playing at home against the wild-card Cowboys and the game and the Rams didn’t score until it was 37-zip. A running attack that had been a two-headed monster with Cullen Bryant and John Cappelletti was completely shut down.
1991: Buffalo 51 LA Raiders 3—By sheer victory margin, this one was the biggest rout and it was as bad as the score makes it look, right from the start. The only thing keeping the Raiders from the top spot is that at least they didn’t do this in front of their home fans. The Bills were definitely a superior team…just not this superior.
1988: San Francisco 28 Chicago 3—The Bears were the top seed in the NFC and would likely have been favored in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals. Chicago had also manhandled the San Francisco offense early in the year, holding them to nine points. To top it off, a frigid wind, sure to favor the Midwestern home team and slow down Joe Montana, was ripping across Soldier Field. In spite of it all, Montana hit Jerry Rice with an early touchdown pass and it was never a game.
2005: Pittsburgh 34 Denver 17—This was the only time Mike Shanahan ever advanced out of the first round without John Elway as his quarterback and it ended up with the Broncos being completely overwhelmed on their homefield. The Steelers were a wild-card who had to win four in a row to make the playoffs, then win at Cincinnati and after a big upset of top-seeded Indianapolis, Pittsburgh should have been out of gas. Instead, they grabbed an early 10-0 lead, led 24-3 at half and coasted home.
2000: NY Giants 41 Minnesota 0—I could be persuaded into moving this one higher on the list. Even though the Vikings were the 2-seed and on the road in the Meadowlands, this wasn’t a Giant team that was highly respected, at least as a real powerhouse. The Vikings were actually a one-point favorite coming in.
1978: Pittsburgh 34 Houston 5—I’d like to cut the Oilers some slack here. The artificial turf at old Three Rivers Stadium was covered with a sheet of ice and Houston’s big running back Earl Campbell couldn’t get his footing. Pittsburgh was at the peak of their Steel Curtain power. But Houston did turn the ball over nine times—and managed to lose a game by 29 points in which their defense forced five turnovers.
This is a game that seems pretty comparable to this year’s Indianapolis loss—great opponent with a pedigree, and the Oilers, like the Colts, had won two playoff games and were already a success just by getting here. Even the inclimate weather similarity works. No word though, on whether Pittsburgh deflated the footballs in 1978.
1978: Dallas 28 LA Rams 0—Maybe Los Angeles should have just ran whenever they saw Dallas coming to town for a big game. This game was also in the Coliseum. I’d like to rank it number one, simply because it’s so inexcusable to allow this to happen twice in four years on your homefield to the same team. But…the score was only 7-0 after three quarters. Normally that would have absolved the ’78 Rams from being on the list, but I can’t get past the twice in four years thing.
1989: San Francisco 30 LA Rams 3—I swear, I’m not trying to pick on the Rams, but they just come up small in big moments. At least this one happened away from home, and they led 3-0 early. But by halftime it was 21-3 and the rout was on.
1991: Washington 41 Detroit 10—As a Redskins fan I really wanted to rank this team, one of the most underappreciated in NFL history, much higher. But the lead at halftime was only 17-10, so it has to settle for being the last team to make the cut.
Beyond this year’s Indianapolis-New England game, there haven’t been a lot of recent candidates for inclusion on the list as the five-year window passes. We’ve been fortunate to have mostly great games in the conference championship round. But as this list shows, we’ve had our share of clunkers that were never close.