by John Furgele
America loves football, the big game and of course, the Super Bowl. Last year’s Super Bowl game between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks was watched by 111 million people, and the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game was viewed by 33 million more. Be that as it may, is there a better Sunday of the year than conference championship weekend?
By 11 pm Sunday, we will know the participants for Super Bowl 49 and the hype will begin in earnest and will last for 14 consecutive days. But, the AFC and NFC Championship Games are in many ways, the last true weekend of the NFL season, and on this day, there will be two champions crowned.
I grew up in Western New York and lived in both the big cities, Buffalo and Rochester. It was during this time (1990-1994) that the Buffalo Bills started their magnificent run of AFC championships. As we all know, the Bills lost the Super Bowl four straight times and Western New York had to suffer the post-Monday hangover that came with losing that game. But, those Bills won AFC Championship Games four times in a row, beating the Los Angeles Raiders, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs in succession. The Bills kept winning conference titles and kept losing Super Bowls, and thus, in an unfortunate way, became the laughingstock of America. They lost their first appearance by one point, then were blown out twice and then lost 30-13 in a game that they led 13-6 at halftime.
I remember the first AFC Championship Game the Bills participated in during that four in four run. It was 1991 and it was a mild Western New York day. The week before, the Bills beat Miami 44-34 in a snowstorm and were the heavy favorites against the Raiders. My friends and I had tickets in the upper bowl on the 48 yard line, the result of camping out overnight to get those tickets in the pre-internet/order online era. The Bills buried the Raiders 51-3 in the early game we drove home to watch the NFC Championship Game featuring the New York Giants and defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, a game won by the underdog Giants 15-14 thanks to great defense and five field goals by Matt Bahr.
There was something magical about that AFC Championship Game. It was such a great feeling, a feeling of accomplishment by the players and one of pride for the fans. Even though the “Big Game,” was one week later (for that particular year), there was a surreal feeling of calm and appreciation of what just happened. Sure, it doesn’t last long. The next day, the players had to begin to refocus to get ready for the ultimate championship game, the Super Bowl. But, that’s what makes the conference title games very special. For a moment, there are two teams that can sit back, look at what they did and rejoice in what they did. Because it’s not the ultimate trophy, the ultimate prize, most fans and certainly most players can’t celebrate it as such. But, playing in one and certainly winning one is not that easy. Winning an NFC or AFC Championship Game is very hard to do. Think about it. There is the off season, training camp, four or five relatively meaningless preseason games, then 16 games over 17 weeks. To even play in a championship game takes a lot of things, one of which is luck. Teams that make it to a conference title game had to avoid major injuries to major players and with the sheer brutality that is the NFL, it is almost impossible to do.
The writers, broadcasters and others that cover sports and pro football in particular love labels. They enjoy labeling a player as the greatest, the most clutch, or the one who comes up small in the big moment, the big game. They also love lists. The top ten this and the top ten that. There are those that rank Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of all time because he won four Super Bowls, and overrate Joe Namath with his 173 touchdown passes and 220 interceptions because he won one. Those same people will knock Dan Marino, who despite all the passing accolades never won the big one. Furthermore, he only played in three AFC Championship Games in his 17 year career which underscores my point of how hard it is to even play in conference title games, let alone the Super Bowl.
When he retires, Peyton Manning will have most of the passing records, but despite his brilliance only played in three AFC Championship Games. To me, that’s the litmus test: not how many Super Bowls you played in and won, but how many conference title games that you took your team to. Warren Moon never played in one and for that reason he loses points on the rankings scale. John Elway played in six, winning five and thus gets high marks for those accomplishments. We all remember the two Super Bowls he won at the end, but playing in six title games is a heck of an accomplishment. Say what you want about Donovan McNabb, but the man played in five NFC Championship Games, and though he won only one (and lost the Super Bowl) that, to me, bolsters his Hall of Fame campaign if there is one to bolster.
That’s why Tom Brady is to be lauded. Sunday’s game against Indianapolis will be Brady’s eighth trip to the AFC title game, and he is 5-2 in the previous seven. Brady was 5-0 before losing in the 2012 and 2013 seasons to Baltimore and Denver, so Sunday he will be trying to avoid a threepeat.
It’s tough for the fans of the four teams to think this way. They’re going to be rooting for their team to win the AFC and NFC Championship Games and part of them will be worried about winning the Super Bowl two weeks later. For some reason, losing the Super Bowl is devastating. It shouldn’t be, but it is. The teams that lose the conference championship game don’t get ridiculed like those who do the same in the Super Bowl. It’s almost as you go from conference champion to 32nd best team in four hours.
It is my hope that you, as a fan, enjoy “Championship Sunday,” and come 11 PM, sit back and enjoy what two teams accomplished in the cities of Foxboro and Seattle. Worry about the Super Bowl later, much later and take solace that two champions have been crowned in one day, a special day indeed.