The NFL’s conference championship (semifinal) games always capture my imagination.
In many cases, it’s where the two best teams in the league face off, even if they still move on to face a weak opponent from the other conference in a largely ceremonial Super Bowl. Most of the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboy match ups from the early 1990s fall into this category. So these conference games represent the de facto league championship game.
In other cases, there are some teams that just can’t catch a break, like the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets, despite numerous, and often successive, championship game appearances. Without at least a Super Bowl appearance, these teams fall by the wayside of NFL history.
The forgotten championship
In all cases, the loser quickly disappears from the public’s memory – unlike the Super Bowl participants who have at least a moment’s glory on the national stage – despite an excellent season up to that point.
Do you remember how dominant the Browns were in the late 1980s? Or the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1970s?
A second chance at three hours
I often contemplate what NFL history could have looked like, had the NFC and AFC championship games gone the other way and the losers instead advanced to the Super Bowl.
See the full results below, starting with the 1970 season, with the winner shown in bold. I assume the conference that won the real Super Bowl also wins the alternate match up, though admittedly this is unlikely in several match ups. My observations follow the results.
|Super Bowl||AFC team||NFC team|
|V||Oakland Raiders||San Francisco 49ers|
|VI||Baltimore Colts||San Francisco 49ers|
|VII||Pittsburgh Steelers||Dallas Cowboys|
|VII||Oakland Raiders||Dallas Cowboys|
|IX||Oakland Raiders||Los Angeles Rams|
|X||Oakland Raiders||Los Angeles Rams|
|XI||Pittsburgh Steelers||Los Angeles Rams|
|XII||Oakland Raiders||Minnesota Vikings|
|XIII||Houston Oilers||Los Angeles Rams|
|XIV||Houston Oilers||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|XV||San Diego Chargers||Dallas Cowboys|
|XVI||San Diego Chargers||Dallas Cowboys|
|XVII||New York Jets||Dallas Cowboys|
|XVIII||Seattle Seahawks||San Francisco 49ers|
|XIX||Pittsburgh Steelers||Chicago Bears|
|XX||Miami Dolphins||Los Angeles Rams|
|XXI||Cleveland Browns||Washington Redskins|
|XXII||Cleveland Browns||Minnesota Vikings|
|XXIII||Buffalo Bills||Chicago Bears|
|XXIV||Cleveland Browns||Los Angeles Rams|
|XXV||Los Angeles Raiders||San Francisco 49ers|
|XXVI||Denver Broncos||Detroit Lions|
|XXVII||Miami Dolphins||San Francisco 49ers|
|XXVIII||Kansas City Chiefs||San Francisco 49ers|
|XXIX||Pittsburgh Steelers||Dallas Cowboys|
|XXX||Indianapolis Colts||Green Bay Packers|
|XXXI||Jacksonville Jaguars||Carolina Panthers|
|XXXII||Pittsburgh Steelers||San Francisco 49ers|
|XXXIII||New York Jets||Minnesota Vikings|
|XXXIV||Jacksonville Jaguars||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|XXXV||Oakland Raiders||Minnesota Vikings|
|XXXVI||Pittsburgh Steelers||Philadelphia Eagles|
|XXXVII||Tennessee Titans||Philadelphia Eagles|
|XXXVIII||Indianapolis Colts||Philadelphia Eagles|
|XXXIX||Pittsburgh Steelers||Atlanta Falcons|
|XL||Denver Broncos||Carolina Panthers|
|XLI||New England Patriots||New Orleans Saints|
|XLII||San Diego Chargers||Green Bay Packers|
|XLIII||Baltimore Ravens||Philadelphia Eagles|
|XLIV||New York Jets||Minnesota Vikings|
|XLV||New York Jets||Chicago Bears|
|XLVI||Baltimore Ravens||San Francisco 49ers|
- The New York Giants never reach the Super Bowl. The New England Patriots appear only once (and win).
- The Vikings, Lions, Eagles, Chargers, Oilers, Panthers and Seahawks each win at least one Super Bowl.
- San Francisco still wins 5 Super Bowls, but also loses 3 times. Oakland wins 5 (including 3 in a row, which has never happened in Super Bowl history) and loses two.
- The Browns make it to 3 Super Bowls but lose all of them. The Jets make 4 but win only one.
- There is an expansion team meeting the year after both new teams joined the league, when the Carolina Panthers defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys still meet two times.
- The Bears go 3-0, representing the best overall Super Bowl record.
- The Buffalo Bills still don’t win a game.
- There are lots of interesting local rivalries. Los Angeles and Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
It would also be interesting to consider alternate MVPs, though I’d limit this to quarterbacks, since defensive or special teams players reflect a strong individual performance rather than the overall team strength. Kenny Stabler and Joe Montana would probably lead the MVP tally.