The Pressure of Championship Sunday

by John Furgele

One again, the best football Sunday of the year has arrived and they call it “Championship Sunday.”  Two title games, two crowned champions and then, the two-week waiting period.  Are the AFC and NFC Championship Games more important the Super Bowl?  Of course not, but in many ways, they’re more relevant. It might be the toughest game to win in pro football.  For teams, the goal is to play in a Super Bowl.  In reality, the goal is to win the Super Bowl, but you hear players say and say often that making it to the Super Bowl was the goal at the beginning of training camp.  There are many players and coaches who won the Super Bowl and many more that never played in one simply because they couldn’t help their team win the all-important AFC/NFC Championship Game.


Ask Dan Fouts.  The San Diego Charger never played in the Super Bowl, going 0-2 in back-to-back AFC Championship Games.  Ask Warren Moon, who never even played in one AFC or NFC Championship Game in a 17-year NFL career.  Ask Donovan McNabb, who played in five NFC Championship Games and won only once.  Ask John Madden, the old Raider coach who roamed the sidelines for 10 years and won Super Bowl 11.  Madden will always say that if you make it to the Super Bowl, you have to win it, and Madden did go 1-0 in Super Bowl games.  But, he went 1-6 in AFC Championship Games.  Ask Dan Marino, arguably the greatest passer that the game has seen.  For all his glory and accolades, Marino played in just three AFC Championship Games, going 1-2.  Ask Chuck Knox.  The former LA Ram head man coached in three consecutive NFC Championship Games, but could never beat the Vikings or the Cowboys when it mattered.  He got the Seattle Seahawks to the 1983 AFC title game and lost to the other LA team, the Raiders.


This is game that can crush or elate.  In 2015, the Packers were so close, but blew a lead and lost to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.  This year, they didn’t make it back.  The San Francisco 49ers played in three straight NFC title games.  They lost in overtime to the New York Giants, then beat Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl and then lost at Seattle in the dying minutes of the game when Richard Sherman intercepted a Colin Kapernick pass in the end-zone.  In both of those excruciating losses, the team that beat them went on to win the Super Bowl with the Giants beating New England and Seattle mauling Denver.  Imagine what it must have been like for 49er players watching the Giants beat New England and Seattle destroy Denver?  When you lose in the Divisional Playoffs, you know that there is plenty of work to do; losing in the AFC or NFC Championship Game just hurts.


Ask Cleveland Browns fans about the pain of losing in the AFC Championship Game.  The 1986 Browns led Denver 20-13 in Cleveland late in the fourth quarter, only to see John Elway march the Broncos 98 yards to tie the score and then win the game in overtime.  The Broncos were pounded by the New York Giants in Super Bowl 21, but the Browns fans would have loved that opportunity.  The 1987 AFC Championship Game might have been even harder for fans of the team that plays on the shores of Lake Erie.  Trailing for the much of the game—this time at Denver—the Browns were coming on and momentum was on their side.  Earnest Byner looked like he was heading into the end zone to tie the score only to fumble.  Denver held on for a 38-33 victory to head back to the Super Bowl for a second straight year.  They would lose again, this time to Washington, which certainly provided no relief to those in Cleveland.


The 1989 Browns were also beaten by the Broncos again in Denver and the Cleveland run was over.  In four years, the Browns played in three AFC Championship Games, won none, eventually saw the team move to Baltimore, waited five years to get a team in 1999 and haven’t been relevant since.


Ask Steve Young.  The highest rated quarterback of all-time was just 1-3 in NFC Championship Games, losing to Dallas twice and Green Bay.  And speaking of Green Bay, the gunslinger, Brett Favre won two NFC Championship Games, yet lost two games as well.  The late Ken Stabler played in five straight AFC Championship Games from 1973-1977, yet could only muster victory one time.


Playing in these games should be revered and celebrated, because simply, it is difficult—quite so—to make it to a conference title game.  Favre played 16 seasons in Green Bay and made it four times.  Aaron Rodgers, celebrated by most as the league’s best quarterback, has been the Packers starter since 2008.  In those eight seasons, he has played in two NFC title games, and has the same winning percentage as Favre (25 percent).


Donovan McNabb may never make the Hall of Fame, but his five NFC Championship Game appearances spanning from 2001 to 2008 warrant something don’t they?  He played in more conference title games than Dan Marino, Steve Young, Brett Favre and his five equaled those of Jim Kelly (4-1) and Ken Stabler (1-4).  While the Buffalo Bills’ gained notoriety for losing four straight Super Bowls from 1990-1993, the Eagles played in four straight “NFC Super Bowls,” winning once, in 2004.  Both teams should be lauded for many reasons, mainly because what they did is remarkably hard.


From 1969-1977, the Minnesota Vikings were regular guests in the NFC Championship Game and won titles in 1969, 1973, 1974 and 1976 while losing in 1977.  They had success in four of those games and gave their fans high hopes heading into the Super Bowl, where they just seemed overmatched and bewildered every time.  But, take nothing away from those Vikings teams.  Winning a conference championship game requires at least two wins in the playoffs and when you compile postseason records of coaches and organizations, you will see that the wins and losses are close to .500.  Even the great Tom Brady has lost more AFC Championship Games than Super Bowls by a score of 3 to 2.


As for the Vikings, it would take them 10 years to reach another NFC Championship Game when the Wade Wilson led team lost in the waning seconds to the Washington Redskins when Darrin Nelson dropped a pass at the goal line in a 17-10 loss.  They didn’t make it there again until 1998 when their 15-1 team led by Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter and Randy Moss led Atlanta 27-20 late and were a Gary Anderson 38-yard field goal away from salting the game away.  Naturally, Anderson missed; the Falcons tied the game and won 30-27 in overtime.  The 2001 Vikings got back and were blown away by the Giants.


The Conference Championship Game is an agonizing game to play, even more so than the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl is the final game; once you’re there, you’re there and you know that the season will end around 10 pm ET.  But losing in the penultimate game–the conference title clash–can stick with players and coaches for years to come.  Two weeks later, you’re home while the team that beat you is playing in the final game of the season.


When teams play for the AFC/NFC Championship Game, they are in essence, playing for two championships; the conference title of course, and the NFL championship.  If you win the conference title game, you get a chance to win another title game.  So, in a warped way, the conference championship game is two championships rolled into one.  As we know, losing the Super Bowl is the ultimate downer, and falling back on the conference title, while not often celebrated is an achievement.  The loser of a conference title game can’t claim anything.


The conference championship game loser has nothing but despair.  A good season, yes, but no championship and no shot at another one.  That has to be tough, very tough.  The aforementioned Buffalo Bills never won a Super Bowl, but they did win four AFC championships and when that happens, it is banner-worthy.   The Cleveland Browns, as good as they were from 1986-1989 and have no such championship banners.


The two conference title games this Sunday offer interesting perspectives.  In the NFC, we have two quarterbacks who have never played in such a game, so something has to give.  Will the veteran, Carson Palmer, finally get a chance to play in the NFL Championship Game (Super Bowl) or will the up-and-comer, Cam Newton get his opportunity?  The loser can think they’ll get back, but it’s easier said than done.  Ask Dan Marino, who went to two straight in 1984 and 1985 and then waited seven years before reaching another.  And, remember the above-mentioned Warren Moon, who at least can claim five CFL Grey Cup titles on his resume.


The AFC offers us the two veterans, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Both have won AFC titles (Brady 6, Manning, 3) and both have won Super Bowls (Brady 4, Manning 1), and like the NFC game, something has to give here.  This will be the fourth time that Brady’s Patriots have played Manning’s Colts/Broncos with Manning holding a 2 to 1 title game advantage.  That gets overlooked because of Brady’s Super Bowl conquests, but in the back of Brady’s mind it is noted.  Brady will always be ranked above Manning because of his Super Bowl exploits, but if Manning’s team wins Sunday, the Manning backers would have significant ammo in saying that in four AFC Championship Games, Manning beat Brady three of four times.  That would make for a compelling debate, wouldn’t it?


The AFC Championship Game.  The NFC Championship Game.  They don’t have special names with a roman numeral behind it, but it’s a game that has two championships attached to it; the one Sunday and another one two weeks later.


That’s why it’s the best football Sunday of the year.


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