(Montana/Clark photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers)
(Drew Bledsoe photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
Talk of Fame Network
When you can define a game by one or two words, you know you have witnessed the very heights of a sport.
The heights of the NFL have been reached in conference championship games with the Drive, the Catch and the Ice Bowl. In this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll, we’re asking our listeners and readers to vote on the greatest conference title game of the Super Bowl era. We offer up six choices with Hall-of-Fame players littered throughout the candidates. So here are your options. Take your pick:
1967 Dallas-Green Bay. Fittingly, this game was dubbed the “Ice Bowl.” It was played in Green Bay on a frozen field with a temperature of minus-15 and a wind chill of a minus-48. The Cowboys and Packers shivered for 60 minutes through this one before Bart Starr won the game for Green Bay on a quarterback sneak on a third-and goal at the Dallas two-foot line in the game’s closing seconds for a 21-17 victory. Starr was sacked eight times, and the Cowboys scored their only offensive touchdown on a Dan Reeves halfback pass to Lance Rentzel. But Starr drove the Packers 68 yards with the game on the line for the winning touchdown.
1975 Oakland-Pittsburgh. Another cold weather affair, this was the fourth consecutive playoff meeting between the two AFC rivals. The wind chill was a minus-9 in Pittsburgh, and cold hands led to 12 turnovers, including seven by the victorious Steelers. Linebacker Jack Lambert recovered three fumbles for the Steelers. George Blanda kicked the final field goal of his 26-year career, a 41-yarder in the final minute to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 16-10. Marv Hubbard then recovered the onside kick to give the Raiders one more play, one more chance. Ken Stabler hit Cliff Branch with a 37-yard pass to the Pittsburgh 15, and he tried to get out of bounds to stop the clock but was brought down by Mel Blount as time ran out.
1981 Dallas-San Francisco. The Catch. The day the Dallas dynasty of the 1970s ended, and the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s began. Ten fourth quarter points gave the Cowboys a 27-21 lead and, with 4:54 left in regulation, the 49ers found themselves at their own 11-yard line. But Joe Montana maneuvered the 49ers 83 yards in 11 plays to the Dallas 6 with 58 seconds remaining. Montana took the snap, but the designated receiver on the play, Freddie Solomon, was covered. So Montana rolled out of the pocket and drifted right, lofting a high pass that allowed Dwight Clark to make a leaping grab over Everson Walls at the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
1981 San Diego-Cincinnati. Frostbite. On that same day in 1981, across the country in Cincinnati, the warm-weather San Diego Chargers braced for an AFC title game in minus-9 degree temperatures, with a wind chill of minus-38. The Chargers were an offensive-centric team. Air Coryell led the NFL in offense and passing that season with a aerial circus that featured Hall-of-Famers QB Dan Fouts, WR Charlie Joiner and TE Kellen Winslow. Fouts led the NFL with 4,802 passing yards and 33 touchdowns that season, an average of 300 yards and two-plus touchdowns per game. But the weather conditions took the air out of the football and the San Diego offense. Fouts completed only 15 of 28 passes for 185 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions as the Bengals prevailed, 27-7.
1986 Denver-Cleveland. The Drive. A 21-year championship game drought in Cleveland appeared to be over when Brian Brennan caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar with less than six minutes remaining. A fumbled kickoff then left the Broncos at their own 2-yard line. But Elway engineered a 15-play, 98-yard drive over the final five minutes, completing six of nine passes for 78 yards, and also scrambled twice for 20 yards. Elway capped the drive with a 5-yard bullet pass to Mark Jackson on a slant with 30 seconds remaining, tying the game at 20-20 and forcing an overtime. Cleveland won the coin toss and chose to receive but went three-and-out. Elway then drove the Broncos 60 more yards in nine plays for the game-winning field goal, a 33-yarder by Rich Karlis. Elway threw for 128 yards on Denver’s final two possessions.
2001 Patriots-Steelers. The New England dynasty begins on a pass from Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots lost their $100-million quarterback, Bledsoe, in the second game of the season with a life-threatening sheared blood vessel in his chest. That turned the job over on an interim basis to Tom Brady, but his rapid development as a quarterback made the assignment permanent. Brady went 11-3 as a starter to steer the Patriots to the AFC title game in Pittsburgh. Bledsoe was healthy, but he no longer had a spot in the lineup…until Brady was injured late in the second quarter. Bledsoe came on in relief and completed three passes, all to David Patten for 36 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown strike. It was the only offensive TD the Patriots would score that day. New England also returned a punt and a blocked field goal for touchdowns in a 24-17 victory over the Steelers.