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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL CONFERENCE TITLE NOTEBOOK

                                      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We at TGS precede the "Super Bowl era" by a full decade, and can recall a time when the pro football season would essentially end after the NFL and AFL championship games, usually contested in late December. (TGS was also in existence for the three seasons between 1957-59 that preceded the existence of the old AFL!) So when the Super Bowl initially arrived for the 1966 season (and yes, it was unofficially referred to as the "Super Bowl" by all media outlets before Pete Rozelle would affix the name permanently to the championship tilt), the AFL and NFL title games became effective semi-final games.

Often, however, the Super Bowl semis have lacked any drama whatsoever. Though, in a departure of form from action in the previous decades, recent NFL conference championship games have offered much more compelling viewing. Indeed, one-sided results have been the exception of late in these showdown games, with the Patriots' 45-7 rout of the Colts in the AFC last season the only real laugher in semi-final action over the past decade.

Thus, there is now a collection of memorable semi-final games for us to recall as we get near the conclusion of our 59th season of publishing THE GOLD SHEET. Which allows us to compile a rather compelling list of the ten best conference title games we recall during the Super Bowl era. And, nowadays, there's a lot of games from which to choose. Following are our TGS Top Ten "best" conference title games from the Super Bowl era (which includes AFL and NFL title games from 1966-69). We rate them inversely, from tenth to first; home team listed in CAPS.

10-1976 NFC, MINNESOTA 24 - L.A. Rams 13...Though the scoreline might not suggest heightened drama, this battle at the old Met in frozen Bloomington was loaded with it, featuring big plays and gritty work by one of Bud Grant's scrappiest Minnesota sides. Though losing the battle at the line of scrimmage all afternoon, the Vikings masterfully manufactured their points, scoring the first ten of the afternoon without gaining any yards, courtesy of blocked kicks. The first seven of those came after the Rams reached the Vikings' 1-yard line in the 2nd Q and were about to settle for a 3-0 lead, when Nate Allen deflected Tom Dempsey's 18-yard FG try into the hands of fellow DB Bobby Bryant, who streaked 90 yards for the game's initial score. Later in the quarter, Viking LB Matt Blair blocked a Rusty Jackson punt, setting up Minnesota at the LA 8, although the Vikes couldn't move the ball an inch and had to settle for a short Fred Cox FG and 10-0 lead at the break. Minnesota's entire offensive output for the day basically consisted of two lightning bolts delivered by big-play deluxe RB Chuck Foreman (still one of our favorites after all of these years), the first of those a 62-yard run in the 3rd Q to set up his own short lunge for a 17-0 lead. After the Rams clawed within 17-13 and appeared to be ready to get the ball back in the final minute as the Vikings grimly held on, it was Foreman to the rescue again, snaring a short and wobbly 3rd-down pass from Fran Tarkenton and dancing his way through traffic for 57 yards to the Ram 12, from where RB Sammy Johnson completed the scoring on a TD run with just 33 seconds to play.

9-2011 NFC, NY Giants 20 -SAN FRANCISCO 17 (OT)...This one was drama-filled for the entire late afternoon and early evening at gloomy Candlestick Park, as the 49ers rode their defense and ground game to the cusp of the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years under new HC Jim Harbaugh, who had authored an amazing turnaround in his first year on the job. In the end, however, San Francisco, whose QB Alex Smith found TE Vernon Davis for two long scores (73 and 28 yards) but who could only complete one pass all game to his wide receivers, left itself no margin for error after a couple of late Kyle Williams punt-return fumbles, first on a stray bouncing punt that glanced off his leg midway in the 4th Q and set the Giants up inside the 49er 30, from where Eli Manning, standing tall in the pocket despite constant pressure and six sacks on the afternoon, hit Mario Manningham with a 17-yard TD with 8:34 to play to put the Giants up 17-14. Williams then partially redeemed himself with a kickoff return to near midfield, providing good field position for a drive that would result in David Akers' tying field goal with just over 5 minutes to play. The game then became a defensive stalemate (eight straight scoreless possessions) until early in the first OT period when Williams fumbled another punt at his 24-yard-line, setting up New York for Lawrence Tynes' game-winning 31-yard FG. It was Tynes' second OT-winning kick in an NFC title game; four years earlier, he had nailed a 47-yarder at Lambeau Field as the G-Men upset the Packers, 23-20.

8-1998 NFC, Atlanta 30 - MINNESOTA 27 (OT)...Having marched in General Sherman-like fashion through the regular season and Division Playoff round with a high-powered offense that seemed to border on unstoppable, the 16-1 Vikings were expected to have no trouble with the visiting 11-point underdog Falcons in the NFC title game before what shaped up as a highly-anticipated showdown with defending champ Denver in the Super Bowl. But Minnesota's offense, with wideouts Randy Moss and Chris Carter running under QB Randall Cunningham's rainbow throws and outjumping smaller DBs all season, was unable to deliver a knockout blow vs. a scrappy Atlanta side, which spent much of the afternoon on the ropes, but made key plays to provide itself a lifeline. Such as late in the 2nd Q when down 20-7 before a Chuck Smith sack and fumble recovery deep in Viking territory preceded a Chris Chandler-to-Terance Mathis TD pass just before the break to cut the Viking lead to 20-14. Minnesota still seemed in control until the final minutes, when normally-reliable PK Gary Anderson, who had converted 44 straight field goal attempts, missed by inches from 38 yards out with just 2:07 on the clock, keeping the Viking lead at only 27-20. Given one last reprieve, Chandler immediately marched Atlanta to the tying 16-yard TD on another toss to Mathis with 49 seconds to play to force overtime. After stopping the Vikes on their first possession, Chandler quickly moved the Falcs into position to win the game on a 38-yard FG try by Morten Andersen, who didn't miss.

7-2006 AFC, INDIANAPOLIS 38 - New England 34...Spotted a 21-3 lead in the second quarter after New England DB Asante Samuel returned a Peyton Manning interception 39 yards for a TD, the Colts began a painstaking rally that finally culminated in overtaking the Patriots deep in the 4th quarter. Indy had only cut the margin to 21-6 at halftime before shifting gears in the third quarter, when Manning led a pair of quick TD drives after the break to knot the score at 21-21, before the lead began to see-saw for the remainder of the early evening at the RCA Dome. Indy, however, could never claim the lead for good until the final minute of the game when Manning led a breathtaking 81-yard TD drive in which the Colts navigated the first 70 yards in only 19 seconds, helped along the way by a roughing-the-passer penalty, before Joseph Addai gave Indy its only lead of the day with a minute to play. Tony Dungy's defense had earlier kept the Colts in the game when forcing a punt after the Patriots could only take a minute off the clock when nursing a 34-31 lead. Following Addai's score, Indy DB Marlin Jackson intercepted Tom Brady with only 17 seconds to play after New England had reached the Colts' 45-yard line. It was sweet revenge for Manning and Dungy, who had lost playoff games vs. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at Foxborough in 2003 & '04.

6-1966 NFL, Green Bay 34 - DALLAS 27...While the following year's "Ice Bowl" (referenced in a moment) between the Cowboys and Packers is recalled more frequently, in fact, the previous year's showdown on New Year's Day at the Cotton Bowl featured more big plays and fireworks and a finish every bit as dramatic. It didn't take long for the game to hit a crescendo, with Bart Starr marching the Packers for a quick TD on their first possession on a 17-yard TD pass to RB Elijah Pitts, then Jim Grabowski recovering a Mel Renfro fumble on the ensuing kickoff and running it in from 18 yards to put the Pack ahead 14-0 just a few minutes into the game. Dallas, making its first title game appearance, stormed right back to level at 14 apiece before the first quarter ended on TD runs by Dan Reeves (from 3 yards) and Don Perkins (from 23 yards). Vince Lombardi's Packers, however, never lost the lead, regaining the edge in the 2nd Q on a 51-yard Starr-to-Carroll Dale TD pass, then extending the lead to 34-20 into the 4th Q on TD passes of 16 yards to Boyd Dowler (who was famously upended as he crossed the goal line by Cowboy DB Mike Gaechter) and 28 yards to Max McGee. A missed PAT following the McGee TD kept Dallas within two scores, however, and after Don Meredith hit WR Frank Clarke almost immediately thereafter with a 68-yard pass to cut the deficit to 7 midway through the fourth quarter, the big Cotton Bowl crowd came alive with the prospect of only the third overtime game in NFL history. And that looked a fait accompli for a while as the Cowboys got the ball back and marched inside to the Packer one-yard line, where OT Jim Boeke jumped the snap on second down, costing a 5-yard penalty. From the 6, Reeves, with daylight ahead, then couldn't handle a swing pass from Meredith on second down, and on third down TE Pettis Norman made a slanting catch but slipped before getting to paydirt, putting the ball on the two. On fourth down, Packer LB Dave Robinson blew up the play and quickly was on top of Meredith, whose desperate heave into the end zone was intercepted by safety Tom Brown, preserving the Pack's 34-27 win.

5-1987 AFC, DENVER 38 - Cleveland 33...Much like the back-to-back Green Bay-Dallas matchups from two decades earlier, Broncos-Browns from the late '80s usually recalls Denver's win at Cleveland in the 1986 AFC title game featuring "The Drive" led by John Elway (more on that game in just a moment). But the subsequent '87 rematch at old Mile High Stadium was even more wild and featured a finish just as dramatic, remembered more for "The Fumble" by Cleveland RB Earnest Byner as he seemed ready to barrel in for the tying TD inside of two minutes to play. Instead, Byner had the ball stripped by Bronco DB Jeremiah Castille, who recovered the pigskin just outside of the goal line with 1:05 remaining to preserve a 38-31 Denver lead before the Broncos took an intentional safety by punter Mike Horan in the final seconds to account for the final 38-33 scoreline. The game had earlier turned into a donnybrook in the second half after the Broncos had dominated the first 30 minutes when taking a 21-3 lead into the break. But the Browns made halftime adjustments, and QB Bernie Kosar quickly thereafter identified the proper keys with which to attack Joe Collier's undersized Bronco defense, and Cleveland began to quickly chip away at the Denver lead. An 80-yard Elway-to-Mark Jackson pass/run TD temporarily re-established an 18-point lead for the Broncos at 28-10 in the 3rd Q. But by midway in the 4th Q, the Kosar-led Browns had tied the score at 31. Elway then authored a go-ahead drive culminated by a 20-yard TD pass to RB Sammy Winder with 4 minutes to play before the action really became wild in the final moments.

4-2014 NFC, SEATTLE 28 - Green Bay 22 (OT)...
For the first 55 minutes of action, nothing seemed too remarkable in this clash other than the underdog Packers apparently heading to a rather-significant upset as an 8-point dog against the defending Super Bowl champ Seahawks, who seemed unusually sluggish for much of the afternoon. Even when Seattle would score its first touchdown, it needed a bit of trickery, using a well-disguised fake field-goal pass from punter/holder Jon Ryan to tackle-eligible Garry Gilliam to cut the Green Bay lead to 16-7 deep into the 3rd Q. All heck would eventually break loose in what was likely the wildest final minutes in conference title game history. Enduring a brutal afternoon when he would throw four picks and be sacked another five times, Seattle QB Russell Wilson would fire up a desperate TD drive that concluded just outside of the 2-minute warning with his 1-yard scoring run to cut the Packer lead to 19-14. With timeouts exhausted, the Seahawks would need a successful onside kick to retain any serious chance, and when Steven Hauschka's bouncer doinked off the helmet of Green Bay TE Brandon Bostick, Seattle WR/special teams ace Chris Matthews leaped and snared the ball. Suddenly resuscitated, the energized Seahawks would need only a few plays before Marshawn Lynch's 24-yard TD, Seattle's second score in 44 seconds, remarkably gave it the lead, further padded on a madcap 2-point conversion pass by Wilson, a cross-field, desperation heave that was bobbled then secured by TE Luke Willson to give Seattle a 22-19 lead. The conversion was important because Green Bay could do no better than level the score at 22 when Aaron Rodgers led his own desperation drive into position for a 48-yard FG by Mason Crosby with 14 seconds to play. On the first possession of OT, however, Wilson would quickly move the Seahawks into Green Bay territory, thanks to parachuting a 35-yard pass to WR Doug Baldwin on the sideline. On the next play, noting that Packer safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had crowded the line of scrimmage in anticipation of a run, Wilson audibled and would look deep for WR Jermaine Kearse, who had beaten CB Tramon Williams on a "go" route and soon cradled the game-winning 35-yard TD pass.

3-1986 AFC, Denver 23 - CLEVELAND 20 (OT)...This one still resonates today, as it confirmed the aforementioned Elway as a megastar thanks to his late-game heroics surrounding the improbable 98-yard "The Drive" to the tying TD deep in the 4th Q at icy Municipal Stadium, denying what was perhaps Marty Schottenheimer's best Cleveland team of a chance to get to the Super Bowl. A taut battle looked to have finally turned the Browns' way deep in the 4th Q when Cleveland WR Brian Brennan took advantage of a slip by Bronco S Dennis Smith to grab a 48-yard TD pass from Bernie Kosar to put the Browns up by a 20-13 count with just 5:43 to play. Elway, however, had other ideas, even when the Broncs were pushed back to their 2-yard-line after the subsequent kickoff due to a misplay by returner Ken Bell. Denver barely converted a 3rd and 2 on the first set of downs on a 2-yard thrust by RB Sammy Winder. Then Elway went to work, hitting RB Steve Sewell on a couple of clutch passes and then, on 3rd and 18 from the Cleveland 48, connecting with WR Mark Jackson for 20 yards and another first down. On 3rd and 1 from the Cleveland 5 with less than a minute to play, Elway fired a low fastball into the end zone in the direction of Jackson. We don't know how many receivers could have hung on to a ball thrown with that much velocity; even Jackson later admitted it was not an easy catch ("I knew it was coming in hot," said the ex-Purdue wideout). After holding the Browns on their first possession of OT, Elway led a 60-yard march, with a key reception by TE Orson Mobley, to set up PK Rich Karlis' game-winning 33-yard FG, which barely stayed inside of the left upright, to give Denver a 23-20 win and its first Super Bowl trip in nine years.

2-NFL 1967, GREEN BAY 21 - Dallas 17...In our years of publishing TGS, we're not sure there was ever a more landmark game than this "Ice Bowl" at Lambeau Field, where temperatures began the afternoon at -15 Fahrenheit and cooled as the day progressed. To that point, man had never been tested against the elements like this in a football game, only to be topped by pulsating drama in the final minutes as Vince Lombardi's Packers sought an NFL title three-peat and fifth crown in seven seasons. Green Bay jumped out to a 14-0 lead by early in the 2nd Q on TD passes of 8 and 46 yards from Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler, and the game looked to be beyond the reach of Dallas, which was having significantly more trouble coping with the elements. From the middle of the 2nd Q onward, however, the Cowboys found a new resolve, their "Doomsday Defense" suddenly stonewalling the Green Bay offense and scoring the Cowboys' first TD when DE George Andrie raced 7 yards with a Starr fumble on a sack, cutting the deficit 14-7. Game on. Down 14-10 at the start of the 4th Q, Dallas HC Tom Landry pulled a trick play out of his hat (or hood, as it was this icy that day), with Dan Reeves lofting a 51-yard TD to WR Lance Rentzel on a halfback option pass to amazingly put the Cowboys ahead, 17-14. Long before the 4th Q, however, the field had frozen, and Dallas seemed to be having more trouble with its footing. The Cowboys' Danny Vilanueva punted the Packers to their 32, where they would start a final drive with just 4:40 to play. By that time, however, Green Bay had regained an advantage because it at least knew where it wanted to run and throw; with no traction, the Dallas defenders could only react. And Starr, with help from RBs Donny Anderson and midseason pickup Chuck Mercein, moved the Packers deep into Dallas territory. But the Cowboys made a final stand at the 1, stopping a couple of Packer runs on first and second downs. With 16 seconds to play and no timeouts, Lombardi eschewed the tying field goal and went for six instead, with Starr doing the honors on a QB sneak (with the key block actually thrown by C Ken Bowman, and not G Jerry Kramer as NFL lore suggests). There would be no comebacks for Dallas in the final 13 seconds; the 21-17 Green Bay win, the last triumph at Lambeau in Lombardi's career, still rates as one of the NFL's all-time classics.

1-1981 NFC, SAN FRANCISCO 28 - Dallas 27...A back-and-forth classic also recognized by a simple phrase as would be the Broncos-Browns clashes later in the decade; the key play in this one would instead simply be referred to as "The Catch" while referencing the spectacular grab made by WR Dwight Clark of a floating Joe Montana 3rd and 3 pass from the Dallas five-yard-line with 51 seconds to play to put the 49ers ahead, 28-27. Although the drama was hardly finished that dreary and overcast afternoon at Candlestick Park, as QB Danny White moved the Cowboys into 49er territory with a 31-yard pass over the middle to WR Drew Pearson, who almost shook free for an even longer gain. At the San Francisco 44 and not far from the field goal range of PK Rafael Septien, Dallas instead went backwards when 49er DT Lawrence Pillers raked the ball from White's grasp on the next play, causing a fumble that was recovered by DE Jim Stuckey to save the day for San Francisco. The game was also symbolic, heralding the arrival of Montana and HC Bill Walsh as the most important partnership of what would be a 49er decade in the 1980s, while the Tom Landry Dallas dynasty hinted at the first signs of slippage. The thriller, televised by CBS, was also the final football game announced by the legendary Vin Scully, the longtime (and still!) Los Angeles Dodgers announcer who had signed up with CBS in 1975. Scully would eventually hook up with NBC while continuing his long-running gig with the Dodgers.

CONFERENCE TITLE HISTORY

Some of the more compelling viewing in recent NFL seasons has come in conference championship games. That certainly has not been a constant since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, however, especially during a period of time in the '80s and into the early '90s when conference title games usually featured one-sided results. But those blowouts have been the exception of late in these showdown games, as only three conference title clashes over the past seven seasons have been decided by double-digit margins. Along the way we have been treated to some instant classics, including last January's aforementioned NFC title game between Green Bay and Seattle, won by the Seahawks in OT, 28-22, after 18 points were scored in the final two minutes of regulation! However, the last thre AFC title games have lacked much sustained drama, with Baltimore (three years ago) and Denver (two yars ago) scoring comfortable wins over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's New England, before the Patriots would rout Indianapolis, 45-7, last season (and triggering the infamous "Deflate-gate" episode in the process).

For a while, however, we wondered if we were ever going to see a competitive conference title game or Super Bowl. Especially throughout much of the '80s, in particular a stretch of three straight NFC title games (49ers over Bears in 1984, Bears over Rams in 1985, and Giants over Redskins in 1986) that resulted in dominating shutouts for the victors, all basically doing the same thing thereafter in the Super Bowl. Those results, however, were nothing new; historically, championship-level battles, whether they be for conference crowns (since 1970), AFL-NFL in the early Super Bowl era from 1966-69, or other league title games in the pre-Super Bowl days, have often featured lopsided results.

We have always found it fascinating that the biggest blowout in pro football history occurred in the 1940 NFL title game when George Halas' Chicago Bears stepped on the throat of the Washington Redskins (who had beaten Halas three years earlier in the championship battle) by a whopping 73-0 count! (And, no, TGS was not around to cover that game!) In a four-year span in the mid '50s, NFL title games produced scorelines of 56-10 (Browns over Lions in 1954), 38-14 (Browns over Rams in 1955), 47-7 (Giants over Bears in 1956), and 59-14 (Lions getting their revenge on the Browns in 1957). It was more of the same throughout much of the 1960s, with NFL title games featuring some romps such as 37-0 (Packers over Giants in 1961), 27-0 (Browns over Colts in 1964), 34-0 (as the Colts gained revenge over the Browns in 1968), and 27-7 (Vikings over the poor Browns again in 1969). Meanwhile, old AFL title games featured some lopsided results as well, including wipeouts such as 51-10 (Chargers over Patriots in 1963), 23-0 (Bills over Chargers in 1965), 31-7 (Chiefs over Bills in 1966), and 40-7 (Raiders over Oilers in 1967).

Results of conference championship games once again tilted to the home teams and favorites the past two years when they would score straight-up wins in each and cover three of four (the exception last year's Packers cover at Seattle). Those home/favorite trends had not been so pronounced in the preceding years, especially in the NFC, where home teams lost outright in three straight and failed to cover four conference title games in a row. Three years ago, however, both road teams (Baltimore in the AFC, San Francisco in the NFC) won outright, for the first time in conference title tilts since the 1997 playoffs.

Favorites continue to hold a pointspread edge in these games since the merger year of 1970 (49-38-2), although, as mentioned, their dominance has been less pronounced in recent years, with the dogs covering six of the last ten conference title battles over the past five seasons. Among pointspread category trends in AFC & NFC championship battles, note that "intermediate/high" chalk (those laying between 7-9 1/2 points) stands 16-7 vs. the number since 1970. Home dogs, of which Denver is one this week, are 8-8 vs. the line. Host teams have won straight up two-thirds of the time since the merger (60 of 90). Conference title "total" trends are not especially pronounced, though we've seen "unders" in six of eight games the past four seasons.

Acknowledging the earlier references to historical one-sided results in these games, please note that even with the closer conference title clashes in recent years, almost half of the AFC & NFC championship battles since the 1970 merger (40 of 90) have been decided by 14 points or more, with nearly two-thirds (56 of 90) being decided by double digits.

Following is a list of pointspread breakdowns of AFC & NFC Championships since 1970.

CATEGORY/RESULT

Favorites/Underdogs (one pick 'em)... 49-38-2
Favorites straight up... 60-29
Favored by 1-3 points... 12-10
Favored by 3 1/2- -6 1/2 points... 17-13-2
Favored by 7-9 1/2... points 16-7
Favored by 10 or more... 4-8
Home teams straight up... 60-30
Home teams vs. spread... 49-39-2
Home favorites vs. spread ...41-30-2
Home underdogs vs. spread... 8-8
Home pick'em vs. spread... 0-1
Overs/unders (since 1986)... 31-26-1

MARGINS OF VICTORY

1-3 points... 12
4-6 points... 14
7-10 points... 13
11-13 points... 11
14 or more... 40


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