Top 10 AFC Championship games in NFL history
This year's AFC Championship game offers a rematch of last year's thriller Chiefs-Bengals, but where does that game rank all time?
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The Bengals and Chiefs will meet again at Arrowhead on Sunday for the second consecutive year to determine the winner of the AFC Championship. Throughout the years, there have been numerous memorable AFC Championship Games. This article lists the top 10 greatest AFC Conference Championship Games of all time.
When is the AFC Championship Game 2022-2023?
The 2022 season AFC Championship game will take place on Sunday 29th of January at 6:30 PM EST, with the Cincinnati Bengals traveling to face the Kansas City Chiefs for the second season in a row.
History of AFC Championship Games
The very first AFC Championship game took place following the 1970 NFL season, following the league's merger with the AFL. The very first game saw the Baltimore Colts defeat the Oakland Raiders 27-17, led by one of the very best, Johnny Unitas.
No other team has played in the AFC Championship game more times than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have made 16 appearances since the merger, winning eight of those matchups. The Buffalo Bills have the longest streak of wins, taking four straight victories from the 1990-1993 seasons, before famously falling short in all four of those Super Bowls.
Who has the best win percentage in AFC Championship Games?
The Cincinnati Bengals have appeared in three AFC Championship games, and won them all, giving them a 100% winning record. They won in 1981 with Ken Anderson, 1988 with Boomer Esiason, and again in 2021 with Joe Burrow. That said, they are yet to win a Super Bowl, coming agonizingly close in 1988, but falling just short.
The Broncos then sit second with an 8-2 record, followed by the Patriots at 11-4, and the Miami Dolphins at 5-2.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest AFC Championship Games in NFL History
- 1979 AFC Championship Game: Houston Oilers @ Pittsburgh Steelers
In the 1979 AFC Championship, the Pittsburgh Steelers were making their sixth appearance in eight years in the twilight of their dynasty run during the 1970s. Pittsburgh welcomed the Houston Oilers with a place in Super Bowl XIV on the line. As it transpired, a controversial call would steal every headline surrounding the game for as long as it will be remembered.
The Steelers held a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter, when Oilers wide receiver Mike Renfro caught a pass in the corner of the end zone, which was originally ruled as a touchdown. However, after review, the officials deemed that Renfro did not have complete control of the ball and thus, the touchdown was disallowed.
The ruling is one of the most controversial ever in the history of the game, largely because of its huge impact on the game, eventually leading to the Oilers going home and the Steelers advancing to the Super Bowl.
- 2017 AFC Championship Game: Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots
The 2017 AFC Championship marked the seventh appearance in a row for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The dominant Brady era had prevailed for many years in the AFC, and New England were back once again, this time with a new challenger in the form of Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars, who had a record of 3-13 in the previous season, made a comeback the following year, reaching the AFC Championship game. The Jags were 7.5-point underdogs with a chip on their shoulder and found themselves with a ten point lead in the fourth quarter against Brady and co, which controversially should have been 17 points.
Linebacker Myles Jack was incorrectly ruled down after recovering a fumble and dashing for the end zone, keeping the game at 10 points. The decision was costly, with Brady mounting a fourth quarter comeback that would see the Patriots win 24-20, ending the Jaguars outstanding run.
- 1981 AFC Championship Game: San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals
The Freezer Bowl, while not being one of the most evenly matched games on this list of AFC Championship games, is still a well-known game in the history of the NFL.
The Cincinnati Bengals would come away with the win in their first appearance in an AFC title game, with quarterback Ken Anderson having an MVP season that also netted him the Comeback Player of the Year award.
It was the coldest game in NFL history, with a kickoff temperature of minus nine degrees, and 27 mile an hour winds that were recorded as feeling like -59.
The previous week, San Diego had played in the scorching heat of Miami, leaving players reportedly dehydrated. Then, they had to play in the freezing cold of Cincinnati, the coldest day in the city's history, ultimately resulting in a 27-7 loss, giving the Bengals their first Super Bowl appearance in the team's history.
Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts famously said that trying to throw footballs that day was like ‘throwing a shoebox in the wind’. Many Bengals fans decided to stay home and watch the game on TV, while others braved the freezing cold conditions to witness their team achieve the unthinkable for the very first time.
- 2015 AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Tom Brady and the Patriots feature here again, this time on the road against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
Manning was in the twilight of his career, and Denver had built a defense that was able to destroy just about any offensive line in the NFL, led by Demarcus Ware and Von Miller.
Brady was intercepted by Miller deep in his own territory with the game at 7-6 in Denver’s favor. Peyton Manning promptly converted that turnover into a touchdown with a beautifully floated ball down the right sideline to tight end Owen Daniels.
The Denver Broncos defense continued to do what they do best, pressuring Brady throughout the game, and eventually forcing another interception.
The game went down to the wire, with Brady and his favorite target Rob Gronkowski bringing the Patriots within two points of a comeback. The two-point conversion attempt was tipped and intercepted by cornerback Bradley Roby, sending the Denver Broncos to Super Bowl 50, which they would eventually win.
The game marks one of the greats between two of the modern era's greatest quarterbacks, but it was the Broncos defense who stole the headlines.
- 1995 AFC Championship Game: Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Indianapolis Colts met the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1995 AFC Championship game, which turned out to be a closely contested match.
The game came down to the final drive, and Harbaugh had driven the Colts from their own 16-yard line down to the Steelers 30. With just five seconds left, Harbaugh heaved a deep ball towards the end zone, which bobbled around multiple times before landing right into the chest of Colts receiver Aaron Bailey.
Bailey couldn’t wrap his arms around the ball as he fell to the ground, and the pass was incomplete, sending the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh thought that Bailey had caught the ball and looked totally bewildered as he removed his helmet amidst the Steelers celebrations.
- 1987 AFC Championship Game: Cleveland Browns @ Denver Broncos
The game was an end-to-end thriller and a high scoring affair between Broncos legend John Elway and the Browns great quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Denver had taken a 21-3 lead by half time, but the Browns turned it around and muscled their way back into the game. The second half was a sensational back and forth between two excelling quarterbacks, and as the clock wound down, the Cleveland Browns found themselves with the football and driving.
Cleveland drove inside the Denver Broncos ten-yard line, before calling a run play for Earnest Byner. The Browns running back squeezed through a gap towards the end zone, seeming to score at first glance, before Cleveland fans realized he had fumbled the ball two yards short of the goal line, and it had been recovered by the Broncos.
The game is now known simply as ‘The Fumble’ and is one of the most unfortunate moments in the history of Cleveland sports.
- 2018 AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs
Football fans enjoyed the 2018 Championship game, where the seasoned veteran Tom Brady faced off against the rising star Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes was making his debut appearance in the AFC Championship in just his first season as the team’s starter, having earned a spot in the Pro Bowl and First Team All Pro honors.
The game was thrilling, with the Patriots ahead 17-7 in the first three quarters, but the fourth quarter was unforgettable. Mahomes led the Chiefs to a comeback, both teams scored 38 points in the fourth quarter alone, the game ended in a 31-31 draw at the end of regulation.
In overtime, Brady skillfully guided the Patriots into Chiefs' territory and handed the ball off to running back Rex Burkhead on second and goal, securing a trip to the Super Bowl for the Patriots.
- 2021 AFC Championship Game: Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs
The inaugural AFC Championship matchup between Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes, as well as the first time the Bengals and Chiefs faced off in a title game, was highly anticipated and lived up to expectations. Mahomes confidently led the Chiefs to the AFC title game, making this the fourth consecutive appearance for the team since he became the starting quarterback in 2018.
Joe Burrow had just completed his first full season as the Bengals starter after having his rookie year cut short by a nasty knee injury. The Bengals had outperformed all expectations and came into Arrowhead Stadium as the underdog.
The Chiefs established a strong lead early in the game, with a score of 21-10 late in the first half. Cornerback Eli Apple's goal-line tackle on Tyreek Hill as time expired prevented the Chiefs from widening their lead and instead, kept the game close. This sparked a comeback performance in the second half, ultimately sending the game into overtime.
Kansas City won the toss, giving Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense the football and a chance to send the franchise to the Super Bowl should they find the end zone. However, Mahomes was picked off on just the third play of overtime, and Bengals kicker Evan McPherson would eventually kick the game winner that sent Cincinnati to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1988 season.
- 1986 AFC Championship Game: Denver Broncos @ Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns were the favorites going into the 1986 AFC Championship game in which they hosted John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
Bernie Kosar was coming off a stellar year, the Broncos were the visiting team, and the Browns Dawg Pound was fired up for the game. Cleveland was convinced that this was their moment, and that only intensified as they got out in front in the game.
The Browns went 20-13 in front with a Bernie Kosar deep ball to Brian Brennan, which he caught under pressure just a few yards short of the end zone and ran in for a score. The stadium erupted as Cleveland fans believed they had done it, but John Elway and the Broncos had different plans for the history books, and the game known as ‘The Drive’ was born.
Due to a muffed kick return, Denver had recovered the ball on their own two-yard line, leaving Elway with 98 yards to cover and the task of scoring a touchdown.
He proceeded to lead the offense down the field, calling his own plays and eventually throwing a touchdown to Mark Jackson that tied the game. In overtime, he proceeded to spoil Cleveland's party, guiding the Broncos into field goal range and an eventual game winning kick.
‘The Drive’ is one of Elway's most prominent moments in a very well decorated career from one of the game’s most prestigious quarterbacks. It makes for the perfect ending to one of the best AFC Championship Games in history.
- 2006 AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots @ Indianapolis Colts
The greatest AFC Championship game ever just so happens to also be the greatest all-time matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
The Patriots traveled to Indianapolis to face Manning’s Colts, in a game that held a lot of weight in the legacy of Peyton Manning.
At the start of the game, the Patriots took a commanding lead. With the score at 14-3, Manning attempted a pass to his right, but it was intercepted by Asante Samuel who returned it for a touchdown, putting the Colts in a deficit of 21-3.
During the second half, Peyton Manning solidified his status as one of the all-time greats with a commanding performance as quarterback. He took control of the game and led the Colts to an impressive comeback, tying the score at 21-21.
After a back and forth between two of the greatest quarterbacks, Manning led a scoring drive while down 34-31 that resulted in running back Joseph Addai carrying the football over the line to give the Colts the lead late in the fourth.
Brady would then throw a game-ending interception on the following drive that sent the Colts to the Super Bowl, sending the Colts fans into hysteria. Manning and co. would go on to defeat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, securing Peyton Manning's first ring.
It’s perfectly fitting that the greatest four quarters in AFC Championship game history were played out between two of the best to ever grace the conference since its inception, and on this occasion, it was Peyton Manning who came out on top.