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.
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.
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.