Top 10 Most Memorable AFC Championship Games
The Championship Sunday showdown is set in the AFC as the New England Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts for the ultimate NFL prize, the chance to represent the conference in Super Bowl XLIX.
With an exciting game on the menu for Sunday let’s start the week with a satisfying appetizer and look back at 10 of the most memorable AFC Championship games.
January 15, 1995; Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
San Diego Chargers 17 - Pittsburgh Steelers 13
The Steelers entered the game as heavy favorites and played like it to start the game. Pittsburgh drove 67-yards on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to fullback John Williams.
San Diego struggled to move the ball but in the second quarter they finally put a drive together that stalled on Pittsburgh’s 3-yard line. John Carney connected on the 20-yard field goal to put the Chargers on the board.
By the middle of the third quarter two Gary Anderson field goals had opened the Steelers’ lead to 13-3 when San Diego began their comeback.
Off play-action, Stan Humphries connected with tight end Alfred Pupunu to cut the score to 13-10. Then in the fourth quarter wide receiver Tony Martin out-jumped Tim McKyer to complete a 43-yard play and give San Diego their first lead of the game 17-13.
On their final drive, the Steelers drove down to the nine-yard line but San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked away Neil O’Donnell’s final attempt to send the Chargers to their first, and still only Super Bowl.
January 1, 1978; Mile High Stadium, Denver
Denver Broncos 20 - Oakland Raiders 17
The Raiders opened the scoring with an Errol Mann 20-yard field goal to cap their opening drive and Denver answered with a 74-yard touchdown pass from Craig Morton to Haven Moses.
The half ended with the same 7-3 score after Mann hit the upright on a 30-yard attempt and Denver’s Jim Turner missed the mark on a 40-yard try.
In the third quarter Denver’s Brison Manor recovered a Clarence Davis fumble at Oakland’s 17-yard line. The Broncos drove to the two when Rob Lytle attempted a dive into the end zone. Jack Tatum jarred the ball loose and Oakland appeared to recover.
After a discussion the officials ruled that Lyle’s forward progress had been stopped and awarded the ball back to Denver. After a furious argument the Raiders were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. On the next play John Keyworth punched the ball in from one-yard out to give the Broncos a 14-3 lead.
The Raiders kept the game close with two Ken Stabler to Dave Casper touchdown connections but a fourth quarter 12-yard touchdown pass from Morton to Moses was too much for Oakland to overcome.
December 31, 1972; Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
Miami Dolphins 21 – Pittsburgh Steelers 17
The Dolphins cruised through an undefeated 1972 season after being dominated by the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI.
The Steelers were making their first post-season appearance since losing a divisional playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. Their 1972 team was the emergence of a group that would dominate the NFL throughout the decade.
The Steelers scored first when lineman Gerry Mullins fell on the ball in the end zone after a Terry Bradshaw fumble. Bradshaw was injured on the play and didn’t return to the game until the fourth quarter.
In the second quarter Dolphins punter Larry Seiple faked a punt and ran 37-yards for a first down setting up a nine-yard touchdown pass by Earl Morrall to Larry Csonka to tie the score at seven.
After Pittsburgh re-took the lead 10-7 Bob Griese replaced Morrall as Miami’s quarterback. It was Griese’s first game action since Week 5 when he broke his leg.
The move paid off immediately when Griese completed a 52-yard pass that set up a 2-yard Jim Kiick touchdown run for a 14-10 lead. Kiick followed with a 3-yard run on the next possession to extend the lead to 21-10.
Bradshaw returned with about seven minutes left in the game and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Al Young to close to 21-17 but two interceptions on Pittsburgh’s final two drives ended their breakout season.
January 10, 1982: Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati
Cincinnati Bengals 27 - San Diego Chargers 7
The game itself was one-sided. That the game was played at all is what makes it memorable. The air temperature was -9 at game time with a sustained wind of 27-miles per hour. The -37 degree wind chill (calculated at -59 degrees at that time) earned this game the nickname of “The Freezer Bowl”.
The Chargers had beaten the Dolphins 41-38 in overtime in the divisional round the previous week on an 88 degree and humid day in Miami. The temperature extremes from one game to the next left them dazed as they went outside to try and loosen up. Kellen Winslow called the conditions “inhumane”.
Dan Fouts had trouble gripping the ball and was only able to throw for 185 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. With Fouts limited the San Diego high-powered offense never could get in gear.
For the Bengals, their offensive linemen decided to play the entire game in short sleeves. Quarterback Ken Anderson was able to control the ball well enough to complete 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.
Cincinnati placekicker Jim Breech may have faced the biggest challenge that day. He connected on two field goals, from 31 and 38-yards, and two extra points while kicking a ball that felt as solid as a brick. Two days later he had a large bruise on his foot as a result.
January 14, 1996; Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Steelers 20 - Indianapolis Colts 16
The Colts opened the scoring when linebacker Jeff Herrod intercepted a tipped Neil O’Donnell pass and returned it to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. The Indianapolis drive failed and Cary Blanchard came out for a 34-yard field goal attempt. Blanchard’s kick bounced off the right upright and over the crossbar to give the Colts a 3-0 lead.
Near the end of the half, trailing 6-3, the Steelers drove 80-yards in 17 plays. Kordell Stewart converted three third downs with his running and an O’Donnell to Stewart 5-yard touchdown pass with 13-seconds left in the half gave Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead.
The Colts were trailing 13-9 in the fourth quarter when quarterback Jim Harbaugh threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner to take back the lead 16-13.
The Steelers jumped back ahead 20-16 with 1:34 remaining when Bam Morris punched the ball in from 1-yard out.
On their final drive Indianapolis advanced to the Steeler 29-yard line. With five seconds left Harbaugh lofted a pass into the end zone. Wide receiver Aaron Bailey nearly came down with the ball but it hit the turf before he could pull it in.
January 11, 1981: Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego
Oakland Raiders 34 - San Diego Chargers 27
The game opened with a pair of long scoring plays. Oakland's Jim Plunkett hit Raymond Chester for a 65-yard touchdown followed by a 48-yard Dan Fouts to Charlie Joiner strike to tie the score at seven.
Oakland followed with three touchdowns to extend their lead to 28-7 early in the second quarter but no lead could be considered safe against San Diego’s “Air Coryell” vertical offense.
A Fouts 8-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Joiner and a 6-yard Chuck Muncie run sandwiched around a 26-yard Rolf Benirschke field goal tightened the margin to 28-24.
With just under seven minutes left in the game and San Diego losing 34-24 Benirschke connected on a 27-yard field goal to draw the Chargers back to a one touchdown deficit. There was still time but San Diego would fail to get the ball back for a final drive.
With their defense exhausted the Raiders took the kickoff and held the ball for 15-plays to grind the final minutes off the clock and seal the victory.
January 17, 1988; Mile High Stadium, Denver
Denver Broncos 38 - Cleveland Browns 33
This game is best remembered for the play known as “The Fumble.”
Denver jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Cleveland’s Matt Bahr kicked a field goal two minutes into the second quarter but Denver answered with an 80-yard drive, finished by a one yard touchdown run by Gene Lang to make the score 21-3 at halftime.
Four plays into the second half Browns’ defensive back Felix Wright intercepted John Elway. Kosar converted that turnover into points with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne.
Denver struck back when Mark Jackson took a short pass from Elway 80-yards to extend Denver’s lead to 28-10.
Cleveland responded with two Earnest Byner touchdowns to pull the Browns within four at 28-24. Rich Karlis ended the third quarter scoring with a 38-yard field goal to give Denver a 31-24 lead going into the fourth.
In the fourth quarter an 87-yard drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter tied the game at 31.
The score stayed tied until four minutes left in the game when Elway threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to running back Sammy Winder for a 38-31 lead.
The Browns took the kickoff and drove 67-yards in six plays. On Denver’s eight-yard line with 1:12 remaining in the game Earnest Byner took a handoff and appeared to have scored the game tying touchdown but the ball had been stripped by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille, who recovered the fumble on the three.
As time ran out Denver punter Mike Horan ran the ball out the back of the end zone for a safety to seal the 38-33 victory and break the hearts of Browns fans for the second straight year.
January 21, 2007; RCA Dome, Indianapolis
Indianapolis Colts 38 - New England Patriots 34
The Patriots had eliminated the Colts from the playoffs twice in the previous three seasons and the two had played some of the most intense and exciting regular season games in the NFL since 2003.
New England drove 75-yards on their first possession, scoring on a Logan Mankins fumble recovery in the end zone.
On their next drive, leading 7-3, the Patriots went for it on fourth and six at Indianapolis' 34. They converted when Tom Brady connected with Troy Brown for a 27-yard completion. Two plays later Corey Dillon scored on a 7-yard run to make the lead 14-3.
Two plays after the kickoff, Asante Samuel intercepted a Peyton Manning pass and returned it 39-yards for a touchdown to put the Patriots up 21-3 which the Colts cut to 21-6 at the end of the half.
Indianapolis struck for two quick touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half. Peyton Manning scored on a 1-yard sneak and tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Dan Klecko. The two point conversion tied the game at 21.
Ellis Hobbs returned the ensuing Indianapolis kickoff 80-yards to the Colts 21-yard line. Four plays later Brady threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney to re-take the lead 28-21.
The Colts came right back to tie the score at 28 when Ray Rhodes fumbled on a run at the 1-yard line. Center Jeff Saturday recovered the ball in the end zone for the touchdown. An exchange of field goals tied the score at 31 then the Patriots added another to take a 34-31 lead with 3:49 left.
With a little over two minutes left in the game, Indianapolis took possession on their own 20. They drove to the New England three with 1:02 left, then Joseph Addai punched the ball in to give the Colts their first lead of the game 38-34.
On New England’s final possession Brady was intercepted by cornerback Marlin Jackson at the Indianapolis 35 to clinch the game for the Colts.
January 22, 2012; Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
New England Patriots 23 - Baltimore Ravens 20
Both offenses struggled early. It was 3-3 early in the second quarter after placekickers Stephen Gostkowski and Billy Cundiff traded chip-shot field goals.
After that, the game see-sawed back and forth with neither team able to open any wider than a six-point lead.
The Patriots drove 75-yards finishing with a seven-yard Benjarvis Green-Ellis touchdown run. The Ravens answered back with an 8 play, 80-yard drive capped by a Joe Flacco to Dennis Pitta touchdown pass to tie the score at 10.
New England closed the first and opened the second half with field goal drives to open a 16-10 lead.
Baltimore responded with a long drive that took 11 plays and 5:28 seconds off the clock and was highlighted by a 29-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith. A fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff set-up Cundiff’s second field goal of the game to give the Ravens a 20-16 lead.
After Danny Woodhead returned the kickoff to the New England 37, Tom Brady led the Patriots on an 11-play drive. Brady’s one-yard touchdown dive put New England back in front 23-20.
Both teams traded interceptions then a New England punt gave the Ravens the ball on their own 21 with 1:44 left in the game.
After driving to the Patriots’ 14 Flacco took two shots at the end zone. The first appeared complete to Lee Evans but Sterling Moore knocked it away at the last moment. Moore also broke up Flacco’s second attempt to Pitta to set the stage for a game tying field goal attempt.
With 15-seconds remaining Cundiff’s 32-yard attempt sailed wide left while the team watched stunned, their season finished.
January 11, 1987; Cleveland Stadium, Cleveland
Denver Broncos 23 - Cleveland Browns 20
This game became known for "The Drive", John Elway's 98-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 20 and force overtime.
The Browns scored first on an 86-yard drive capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to running back Herman Fontenot. Denver recovered to take a 10-7 lead helped by three consecutive Browns turnovers. Then, with less than a minute remaining in the half, Mark Moseley hit a 29-yard field goal for Cleveland to tie the score at 10.
The game was tied at 13 when, with 5:43 remaining in the fourth quarter when Kosar completed a 48-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan to give the Browns a 20-13 lead.
Ken Bell of the Broncos misplayed the ensuing kickoff and finally dove on the bouncing ball at Denver’s two-yard line. Elway stole what appeared to be a sure Cleveland victory with a 15-play drive that needed only three third down conversions. The tying score came on a 5-yard touchdown catch by Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left in the game.
After the Broncos forced Cleveland to punt on their first possession in overtime, Elway drove the Broncos to the Cleveland 16-yard line. Rich Karlis’ 33-yard field goal attempt slid just inside the left upright to seal the 23-20 victory.