The Worst Conference Championship Game Losses In NFL Playoff History

We’ve had five days to digest the results of Championship Sunday—or if you’re a fan in Baltimore and San Francisco, to regurgitate them back up. And a question remains—was the Ravens’ 23-20 loss in New England the most gut-wrenching conference championship game loss in the Super Bowl era of NFL playoff history?

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I can already hear the shouts in San Francisco, who say it wasn’t even the most gut-wrenching loss of January 22, 2012, much less the 46-year history of the Super Bowl era. But I think Baltimore fans get the nod in the agony department for these reasons—

*They blew the game not once, but twice, and both in a span of three plays
*Either play—Lee Evans’ missed opportunity in the end zone to win it, or Billy Cundiff’s shanked 32-yard field goal to tie it would have stood up individually in a Worst Loss Ever discussion. Collectively, they’re a killer 1-2 punch at the heart of the Baltimore psyche.

*The missed field goal literally ended the game, save for a kneel-down. Even when Kyle Williams fumbled the punt away, there was still at least a glimmer for Niner fans to lean on—maybe a sack, maybe a missed field goal, anything. With Baltimore, it was just over. It also can’t be overlooked that while San Francisco handed a chance to win to New York, the Niners never actually had an opportunity to win the game themselves. Baltimore did.
*Historical context matters. For San Francisco this is the just the start of what they hope will be successful run under Jim Harbaugh and they expect to be back. For Baltimore, the phrase “the window is closing” was heard all year long. They’ve been in the playoffs four straight years and a legitimate contender each time. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed showing obvious signs of wear and tear, there’s less certainty about the future, especially for these core players.

So without minimizing the pain of San Francisco fans—the mere fact your team even gets in this discussion means you warrant the empathy of sports fans everywhere—I think Baltimore’s was worse, and we’ll use the above criteria as the measuring stick for this run through other notable championship game losses…

1967 NFL: Green Bay 21 Dallas 17—This was the famed Ice Bowl, where Green Bay’s Bart Starr sneaks it over from the one-yard line to win the game. In favor of this game, it was the second straight year the Cowboys lost the championship on the goal-line (their 34-27 loss in 1966 didn’t qualify because they were still too young, a la the 2011 Niners).

We can’t minimize the defeat on the grounds that Dallas would win the Super Bowl in 1971 and go on to a long run of success that would make them America’s Team. We had no way of knowing that then, and for all we know now, the Ravens might have great years ahead of them. But Green Bay driving into field goal range to potentially tie the game can’t come as a huge shock, and after that, the one-yard plunge doesn’t measure up to the plays that Baltimore lost on.

1974 NFC: Minnesota 14 LA Rams 10—Los Angeles drove it to the one-yard line. A disputed illegal motion play was called on Ram guard Tom Mack and set them back to the six. Now having to throw, the Rams threw an interception in the end zone. With the benefit of history this one’s ugly—LA lost three NFC Championship games in five years and to have an arguable call go against you is a killer. But this was the first of the losses, so it doesn’t rise up to Baltimore pain.

1975 AFC: Pittsburgh 16 Oakland 10: The Raiders went through a lot of frustration under John Madden and we don’t have the benefit of seeing their Super Bowl win one year leader. This one ended with a long pass from Kenny Stable to Cliff Branch into Pittsburgh territory, with Branch being wrapped up as the gun went off. The Raiders just didn’t get as close to winning as Baltimore did last Sunday.

1981 NFC: San Francisco 28 Dallas 27: It was Dwight Clark’s year of The Catch. Joe Montana drives San Francisco 89 yards, starting with 4:54 on the clock and beats the Cowboys on a ball he was trying to throw away that Clark skies for and pulls in by his fingertips. Forgotten is that after the ensuing kickoff, Cowboy receiver Drew Pearson caught a pass at midfield and nearly broke away for the winning score. At the very least, there was time for a couple more plays to get in field goal range, but Dallas fumbled it away the next play. This one meets a lot of criteria, but by this point the Cowboys already had a couple Super Bowl rings in their back pocket, so that minimized the agony a bit.

1986 AFC: Denver 23 Cleveland 20—We’ve got an argument here. Denver drives 98 yards, converts two fourth downs and ties the game at the end of regulation—on the road no less, and then wins it in overtime. If we knew then what we know now—that Cleveland would still be looking for its first Super Bowl and Marty Schottenheimer’s splendid career would be haunted by the lack of one, we could rate this higher. But we didn’t know that then. Cleveland was a lot like San Francisco this year.

1987 AFC: Denver 38 Cleveland 33—This one was featured last week as part of the 1987 Championship Sunday package that, until last Sunday, I would have rated as the best one ever. Trailing 38-31, Cleveland’s Earnest Byner is going in for the score to tie and is stripped at the last minute, in the same way Lee Evans was on Sunday in Foxboro. Taken by itself, this game would lose points because Cleveland was only going to tie, and not win. But on top of the cumulative weight of the previous year, we have ourselves a contender. Ironically, the organizational infrastructure of Cleveland was the one that relocated in 1995 to Baltimore.

1987 NFC: Washington 17 Minnesota 10: A great game, whose ending is recapped in the ’87 feature, but the Vikes were only going to tie and not win.

1990 NFC: NY Giants 15 San Francisco 13: If you want to talk about the greatest conference championship game ever played, this one’s got a case. And San Francisco losing a bid for a third straight Super Bowl title is certainly gut-wrenching. But still….when you’ve won the last two, losing this game can’t be the worst ever.

1994 AFC: San Diego 17 Pittsburgh 13: Neil O’Donnell’s last pass into the end zone is batted down on 4th-and-3 and leads to the offseason slogan of “Three More Yards” that would carry the Steelers the whole next season. Bill Cowher’s operation in Pittsburgh was still in its infancy though, so there weren’t enough gut-wrenching playoff defeats on the books to make this one the straw that broke the camel’s back.

1995 AFC: Pittsburgh 20 Indianapolis 16: Ironically Jim Harbaugh was on the losing end here, this time as quarterback. Indy controlled the game throughout, but a tough call on a catch that looked out-of-bounds, set the Steelers up for the go-ahead score late. Finally on the last play Harbaugh’s Hail Mary to the end zone looked caught, but was bobbled and the Steelers survived. Indy’s got themselves a good case—ironically another instance of the teams with the best cases having some kind of tie to the city of Baltimore, past or future—but there weren’t enough playoff appearances prior.

1998 NFC: Atlanta 30 Minnesota 27 (OT): It’s impossible to overstate how good this Minnesota team was. They were 15-1 and just leveling people in their wake. A franchise that had never won a Super Bowl, and not even been to one since ’76, was primed to cap off a run of playoff appearances that began in 1992 and finally take the next step. Leading 27-20, Pro Bowl kicker Gary Andersen, as lights out a kicker as there was, missed a field goal that would have clinched it, and the Falcons win in overtime. Folks, I think we have a new leader.

1999 NFC: St. Louis 11 Tampa Bay 6: Just losing a game with a  score this ugly has to make poor Tampa and Tony Dungy a candidate. They kept high-powered Kurt Warner under control the whole game on the road and only a tough call late, where a catch was ruled incomplete on a late drive, kept Tampa out. If we’d known then that Tampa would lose the next two years in the playoffs and Dungy would be fired we would give this game more weight. Of course if we’d known that Tampa would win the Super Bowl with Jon Gruden in 2002 and Dungy would win with Peyton in 2006, we’d feel much better. Either way, not in the class of ’98 Minnesota, ’87 Cleveland or ’11 Baltimore.

2006 AFC: Indy 38 New England 34: The Patriots blew a 21-3 lead here, but given that they won three Super Bowls from 2001-04, I can’t elevate this one any more than I already have just by putting it on the list.

2007 NFC: NY Giants 23 Green Bay 20 (OT): It was Brett Favre’s final game as a Packer, and there was a general feeling at the time that this would be the case, so that only magnified the drama. And I’ve got a friend who attended this game personally and the bitter cold and biting wind made the game a miserable experience to attend and see a loss. But the bottom line is this—the Giants outhit the Packers in both trenches all game long and what’s amazing to me today is not that Green Bay lost, but how in the hell they got to overtime to begin with.

2008 NFC: Arizona 32 Philadelphia 25: I think this one’s going to be underrated in NFL history. The Eagles had a 25-24 lead in the fourth quarter, after rallying from 24-6 down. The Eagles had a history of conference championship game losses, losing in this round each year from 2001-03, and while they got past the hurdle in 2004 they still didn’t win the Super Bowl. Arizona’s fourth quarter drive to win it didn’t come at the bitter end, so the game doesn’t have the last-second or overtime quality you want in a worse loss, but this is the darkhorse candidate.

2009 NFC: New Orleans 31 Minnesota 28 (OT): Minnesota’s back again. So is Favre. The Vikes are driving for the winning score. Favre rolls right. All he has to do is take the ten yards in front of him step out of bounds and kick the field goal. Instead he throws a pass back across his body into the middle of the field where it’s picked off. The Saints win in overtime. Both player and team lose their last chance at a Super Bowl on an utterly hideous play that mars an otherwise brilliant season from Favre and gutty game. Because the Vikes were on the road and a 4-point underdog, I can’t put this game up with their 1998 loss. And because the only blew it once, they still trail this year’s Ravens who blew it twice. But this is a High-Level Agony game.

There’s the roundup. I’m submitting 1998 Minnesota as the worst conference championship game loss ever and leave you with a quote from a relative who lives in Minnesota and is a lifelong Vikings fan, who said when he died he wanted six Viking players to be his pallbearers—“That way they can let me down one last time.” Today, Baltimore fans are empathizing.