ATLANTA — For the casual American sports enthusiast, nothing compares to the pomp and circumstance of Super Sunday -- complete with red-carpet celebrity appearances, big-budget TV commercials, endless food spreads, uplifting halftime musical extravaganzas ... and oh yeah, the Super Bowl itself.
For the hardcore NFL fan, though, the best football day likely occurs on Championship Sunday -- a long-standing tradition of determining the two Super Bowl entrants in a clean seven-hour window.
11Alive Sports offers a detailed look at the NFL's 20 most memorable games from Championship Weekend, ranking the ones from the Super Bowl era (1966 to the present).
1985: Bears 24, Rams 0
1) The 1985 Chicago Bears (led by coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan) might be among the NFL's greatest single teams -- posting a 15-1 regular-season mark and three blowout victories during the playoffs.
The ultimate irony: The Bears' famed '46' defense dismantled the over-matched Patriots in Super Bowl XX, rolling to a 46-10 victory.
2) For the NFC title game, the Bears blanked Eric Dickerson and the Rams and became the first club in modern-day history to post back-to-back shutouts during the postseason.
3) Hall of Famer Walter Payton -- who notched his final season of 2,000 total yards in 1985 -- rolled for 80 yards against the Rams.
(Incredibly, Payton cracked the 2,000-yard mark in three straight campaigns, covering ages 29 to 31).
4) In the title game, Hall of Famer Richard Dent and the vaunted Bears defense surrendered only nine first downs and 130 total yards against the Rams.
1994: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
AKA: No Three-Peat For The 'Boys
1) The Cowboys (three titles) and 49ers (one) ruled the NFL universe from 1992-95, claiming all four Lombardi trophies.
Dallas and San Francisco also took turns knocking each other out of the NFC playoffs for three straight seasons (1992-94), with the upstart Cowboys upending the 15-2 Niners in the '92 championship ... and the rebooted Niners -- featuring one-year savior Deion Sanders -- halting the Cowboys' dynastic run in January 1995.
2) In that title game, the 49ers sprinted to a 21-0 lead -- spurred on by two early INTs off Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, including a 44-yard pick-six from Eric Davis.
3) Jerry Rice's 28-yard TD reception before halftime helped secure San Fran's fifth NFC title in 13 years and Steve Young's only Super Bowl berth as a starting QB.
This prompted Young to sprint around Candlestick Park in a delirious manner, as if his Hall of Fame career had been validated by that one victory.
2004 AFC: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
AKA: Revenge Best Served Cold
1) On Halloween Day of the 2004 season, the Steelers gleefully ended the Patriots' NFL-record winning streak of 21 games.
Two months later, Heinz Field again served as ground zero for another monumental feat to fall -- with New England killing Pittsburgh's 15-game winning streak in the AFC title game.
2) QB Tom Brady passed for only 207 yards and two scores: He hit Deion Branch and David Givens for first- and second-quarter TDs, boosting the Patriots' lead to 17-3.
A few minutes later, safety Rodney Harrison returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown, effectively clinching the franchise's fourth overall Super Bowl.
3) The Pats would subsequently win Super Bowl XXXIX, capping a run of three Lombardi trophies in four years.
1966 NFL: Packers 34, Cowboys 27
AKA: The Trophy Game
1) The winner represented the all-powerful NFL in the first-ever Super Bowl.
2) This game marked Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr's first 300-yard passing day of the '66 season.
It would also be the only 300-yard game of Starr's decorated postseason career.
3) This championship bout doesn't have the historical pizzazz of The Ice Bowl ... but the Packers and Cowboys amassed 61 points and 785 total yards. By any other standard, this was a brilliant title game.
4) With Dallas sitting on Green Bay's 2-yard line in the final minute, Packers great Dave Robinson forced QB Don Meredith into a game-saving interception.
5) If the Cowboys had won this thriller at the Cotton Bowl ... perhaps the Super Bowl trophy (named after Vince Lombardi) would instead bear the name of Cowboys icon Tom Landry.
In fact, that's exactly what would have happened.
1977 AFC: Broncos 20, Raiders 17
AKA: The Phantom Touchdown
1) The Raiders, the NFL's first club to reach a Super Bowl in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, had one golden shot at collecting back-to-back Lombardi trophies -- the 1977 campaign.
2) With the Broncos leading 7-3 in the second quarter, running back Rob Lytle fielded a goal-line carry but was struck by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who clearly knocked the ball loose before Lytle hit the ground.
Oakland recovered the ball ... but the refs ignored it. Jon Keyworth subsequently scored a 1-yard TD.
It's safe to say: In this modern age of Instant Replay, Lytle's touchdown would have been easily overturned.
3) The non-fumble was the defining moment from a game that wrought remarkably similar with yards passing/rushing, first downs and sacks.
The big difference: The Raiders turned the ball over three times, with the Broncos only ceding it once (Craig Morton interception).
1995 AFC: Steelers 20, Colts 16
AKA: The Miracle That Almost Was
1) Leave it to Colts QB Jim Harbaugh, aka Captain Comeback in his playing days, to steal the 20-years-later spotlight from Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Reggie White and Brett Favre on that Championship Sunday.
(Favre and Aikman combined for 562 yards passing/5 TDs in the NFC title game.)
2) Had Colts receiver Aaron Bailey cleanly corralled Harbaugh's Hail Mary to end the AFC title game, it might have marked the second-greatest occurrence in postseason history -- right after Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception.
Instead, we're left with the enduring memory of Bailey losing control of the ball for a nanosecond, under a crush of Steelers defenders attempting to jar it loose.
3) It's worth noting: The Colts didn't have Marshall Faulk on that day.
1976 AFC: Raiders 24, Steelers 7
AKA: The Raiders' Break Through
1) The 1976 Steelers, the two-time defending champions, collected an NFL-record five shutouts on defense (including three straight games) ... and allowed only 28 points in their final nine regular-season outings -- all victories.
2) During the nine-year span of 1967-75, the Raiders made the playoffs eight times, reached the conference title game six times and claimed one AFL title -- with no Lombardi Trophy to show for it.
3) Everything clicked for the 1976 season, though, with the Raiders losing only once all season (a 48-17 thumping at the hands of the Patriots in September).
In the AFC championship, the Raiders held a depleted Steelers offense (sans Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier) to just 220 total yards.
4) Hall of Fame QB Ken Stabler (two TDs vs. Pittsburgh) led Oakland to its first-ever Super Bowl title two weeks later, routing Minnesota, 32-14.
1974 AFC: Steelers 24, Raiders 13
AKA: Prelude To A Dynasty
1) Pittsburgh's road upset in the '74 title game kick-started a run of four championships in six seasons.
2) Hall of Famer 'Mean' Joe Greene has often talked about being in the proverbial 'zone' that day in Oakland, helping Pittsburgh's defense allow just 13 points and 29 net rushing yards.
3) Funny thing about that amazing Dolphins-Raiders clash the week before (dubbed 'Super Bowl 8 1/2' by Sports Illustrated):
It was commonly believed that winner would eventually take the championship. But such hype elicited a memorable response from stoic Steelers coach Chuck Noll: The best team didn't play on Saturday.
4) In the Steelers' title-game win, Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris combined for 234 total yards/2 TDs, while QB Terry Bradshaw completed just four passes.
On the plus side, Bradshaw's pass/acrobatic touchdown catch from rookie Lynn Swann secured the franchise's greatest road victory in history.
1981 AFC: Bengals 27, Chargers 7
AKA: The Freezer Bowl
1) History looks kindly on this classic, thanks to a wind chill of minus-59 at Riverfront Stadium.
2) That weather day ran opposite to the Chargers-Dolphins conditions from the previous week, as the clubs admirably battled through warm temperatures (mid-80s) and high Florida humidity for four-plus hours, with San Diego squeezing out an overtime win.
3) The following week, Hall of Famer Dan Fouts threw for only 185 yards and one TD against the Bengals. His two wind-influenced INTs were drive-killers, halting the mojo of a Chargers offense that netted only 301 yards.
4) Bengals QB Ken Anderson passed for 161 yards and two TDs.
5) Cincy's victory marked the first Super Bowl for owner/NFL pioneer Paul Brown, who hired head coach Forrest Gregg in 1980.
1992 NFC: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
AKA: The Dynasty Swap
2) Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith (173 total yards, two TDs) and Alvin Harper (117 yards) enjoyed superb outings.
In fact, Harper's 70-yard catch -- off a slant pattern late in the game -- helped the go-for-broke Cowboys clinch their first NFC crown in 14 years.
3) This setback marked Steve Young's first title-game defeat as Joe Montana's successor. It also represented the second time in three years a 14-2 Niners squad didn't reach the Super Bowl.
4) The Candlestick Park turf, bludgeoned by heavy rains, was in wretched shape before this showdown -- even with the hands-on treatment of "Sod God" George Toma.
1990 NFC: Giants 15, 49ers 13
AKA: No Three-Peat For Niners
1) Giants backup QB Jeff Hostetler was pressed into duty in Week 15, after Phil Simms sustained a season-ending injury.
2) In the NFC title game, Hostetler engineered five New York scoring drives -- all Matt Bahr field goals.
3) Two signature plays fueled the Giants' comeback:
a) Gary Reasons' 30-yard run off a punt fake;
b) Lawrence Taylor's crucial recovery of a Roger Craig fumble in the fourth quarter -- after Joe Montana was knocked out by a debilitating tackle from defensive end Leonard Marshall.
4) The 1990 49ers were fully equipped to pull off the elusive championship three-peat. But it wasn't meant to be.
5) After capturing his second Super Bowl title, Giants coach Bill Parcells retired the following spring -- before returning to the sidelines in 1993.
2009 NFC: Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)
AKA: Saints March To Super Sunday
1) For his remarkable 2009 campaign, QB Brett Favre (4,202 yards passing, 33 TDs) was one ill-advised, across-the-body interception from leading Minnesota to its fifth Super Bowl.
Instead, his pick to Saints cornerback Tracy Porter -- with the Vikings approaching field-goal range -- opened the gates for New Orleans' first NFC championship in 48 seasons.
2) Quarterback Drew Brees passed for only 197 yards; but his three touchdowns were enough to set up the Saints for overtime ... and subsequent game-winning kick from Garrett Hartley.
3) Vikings fans shall forever dread this loss for the fumble foibles of Adrian Peterson and Favre's last-minute pick.
On the plus, this game subsequently motivated the NFL to revise its scoring rules for overtime.
2006 AFC: Colts 38, Patriots 34
Also Known As: The Comeback
1) On this day, Peyton Manning orchestrated the greatest comeback in Championship Sunday history.
Down 21-3 to New England, Indy rallied for 32 second-half points and broke the Colts franchise's 36-year Super Bowl drought.
2) Strange but true: Manning threw for 349 yards and one touchdown -- but no receivers or tailbacks caught his lone TD pass.
That honor went to a defensive tackle-turned-eligible-receiver-at-the-goal-line, former Patriot Dan Klecko.
3) Colts tight end Dallas Clark posted team-highs with catches (six) and receiving yards (137); and tailback Joseph Addai scored the game-winning TD with 1:02 left.
4) This game marked Manning's first playoff victory over Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
1968 AFL: Jets 27, Raiders 23
AKA: Broadway Joe's Revenge
1) The Jets' comeback win indirectly motivated Joe Namath (middle) to offer the most famous guarantee in sports history.
2) It was also a great follow-up to The Heidi Game -- pitting the Jets and Raiders two months earlier (Oakland victory) -- which unwittingly provided the AFL with a flood of next-day publicity. It also prompted TV networks to declare: NEVER pre-empt pro football!
3) The Jets' struggles in the title game were greater than Super Bowl III (against the vaunted Colts), with New York needing a late Namath-to-Don Maynard TD to claim the league crown. Namath finished with 266 yards passing and three TDs, and Maynard (left) collected two scores.
4) Raiders QB Daryle Lamonica passed for 401 yards and Fred Biletnikoff (right) tallied 190 yards and one TD.
1987 AFC: Broncos 38, Browns 33
AKA: The Fumble
1) Sadly, Earnest Byner's NFL legacy revolves around The Fumble, a heart-breaking play that looked like a touchdown in the latter moments of Browns-Broncos -- only to be stripped by defensive back Jeremiah Castille.
2) Byner (above) accounted for 12,866 career yards and 71 TDs over 14 NFL seasons. In the Denver game, Byner had also notched 187 total yards and two TDs.
3) If Byner had crossed the goal line with the ball intact, knotting the score at 38, it might have been the Browns' greatest rushing score of the Super Bowl era.
Instead, it was one more dark memory from a 12-month cycle that also included The Drive.
4) Broncos QB John Elway incredibly passed for 281 yards and three touchdowns ... off only 14 completions.
2014 NFC: Seahawks 28, Packers 22
AKA: The Brandon Bostick Game
1) The Packers raced to a 16-0 lead midway through the second quarter, giving Green Bay fans the impression of an easy road to the Super Bowl.
Beneath that hubris, there had to be some resentment of the Packers offense getting the ball inside the Seahawks' 5 in the first quarter, only to settle for a pair of chip-shot field goals.
2) Green Bay carried a 19-7 lead deep into the fourth quarter. There was even an interception from Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix ... which should have locked up the game. Instead, it was just another humiliating footnote for the Packers, who might have had the most disastrous final two minutes in Championship Weekend history.
a) For starters, Russell Wilson's touchdown run shrunk the Seahawks' deficit to five points.
b) For the onside attempt, the Packers seemingly had their 'Hands' team all ready to field the bounding kick and clinch the NFC title. However, instead of letting Jordy Nelson field the easily accessible ball, tight end Brandon Bostick leaped high only to boot it on the way down. Seattle ball!
c) The shell-shocked Packers allowed the Seahawks to mow down the field in record time, culminating with Marshawn Lynch's go-ahead touchdown run of 24 yards.
d) Say hello to perhaps the wildest two-point conversion of this century. Wilson avoided the Green Bay rush, while scrambling backwards for a while, before flinging a prayer toward the end zone.
Tight end Luke Willson would answer his namesake's prayer with the two-point reception.
e) The Wilson-Willson connection brought the Packers' deficit to three points. If they had stopped the Seahawks on that final two-pointer, then Mason Crosby's 48-yard field goal would have been a game-winner ... instead of merely forcing overtime.
3) On Seattle's opening possession for overtime, Jermaine Kearse's 35-yard touchdown quickly ended the craziness of the previous quarter. As such, the Seahawks were now in possession to claim back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
2007 NFC: Giants 23, Packers 20 (OT)
AKA: Favre's Last Packers Pass
1) There are two enduring images from one of the coldest games in Lambeau Field history:
a) Brett Favre tossing an overtime pick for his last official pass in a Packers uniform.
b) The visual of Giants coach Tom Coughlin's icy-red cheeks, the result of exposure to the wind and cold (minus-7 at kickoff).
2) The road-ready Giants pulled out a scintillating victory, despite a few kicking problems in the waning moments.
3) Against the Pack, receiver Plaxico Burress (11 catches) accounted for 151 of Eli Manning's 251 passing yards ... and Giants rushers Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw each collected 70-plus total yards and one touchdown.
4) Two weeks later, Manning and the Giants would topple the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl.
1998 NFC: Falcons 30, Vikings 27 (OT)
AKA: Miss Heard 'Round The World
1) The 15-1 Vikings amassed a then-NFL record 556 points. That explosion coincided with rookie Randy Moss's 17 touchdowns.
2) The Falcons struck first, with RB Jamal Anderson corralling a TD pass from QB Chris Chandler. The Vikings then rolled to four straight scores, highlighted by a TD from Moss.
3) With Minnesota up 27-20 late, Gary Anderson (perfect for 1997-98 up to that point) missed a middle-distance kick, keeping the door ajar for a Falcons comeback. On Atlanta's next drive, Chandler found Terance Mathis for his second TD, forcing overtime.
4) After some stalled drives in overtime, Chandler and Co. did enough to set up Morten Andersen for the game-winner in OT ... with the lefty kicker clinching the greatest win in Falcons history.
1986 AFC: Broncos 23, Browns 20 (OT)
AKA: The Drive
1) John Elway's most legendary playoff appearance was highlighted by a 98-yard TD journey against the Browns, forcing overtime (above).
2) Elway executed a number of crucial pass plays on the famed TD drive, despite only finishing with 244 yards passing and one TD (hitting Mark Jackson). To wit, not a single Denver pass-catcher tallied four receptions on the day.
3) The Browns playmakers were more fruitful, with QB Bernie Kosar (259 yards passing, two TDs), Kevin Mack (114 total yards), Herman Fontenot (66 yards/1 TD) and Brian Brennan (72 yards/1 TD) enjoying stellar outings.
4) Regarding the controversial kick in OT: We're still awaiting hard video evidence that Rich Karlis's game-winning field goal actually sailed through the uprights.
1981 NFC: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
AKA: The Catch
1) This classic launched the 49ers' dynasty under Bill Walsh (three championships from 1981-88), along with Joe Montana's reign of four Super Bowl rings.
2) The Cowboys and 49ers exchanged the lead six times, with Montana implausibly hitting a leaping Dwight Clark on the game-winning touchdown -- otherwise known as The Catch.
3) Clark might not be a folk hero today if 49ers CB Eric Wright hadn't executed a season-saving, horse-collar tackle on Drew Pearson during the Cowboys' final drive.
Collar tackles were legal in 1981 ... otherwise, we'd have permanent images of Pearson running past/through the Niners for a 77-yard touchdown.
4) Dallas would reach three straight NFC title games from 1980-82, losing all three.
1967 NFL: Packers 21, Cowboys 17
Also Known As: The Ice Bowl
1) Who can forget CBS-TV announcers Ray Scott, Jack Buck and Frank Gifford, pretending not to be affected by the minus-15 temps?
Or Hall of Fame wideout Bob Hayes running pass patterns with both hands in his pockets?
Or Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer executing the most famous block in NFL history -- enabling Bart Starr to seal the game on a QB-sneak touchdown?
(Interesting note: If Starr hadn't scored on that third-down play ... the timeout-less Packers likely wouldn't have had time for another scoring attempt. Thank goodness we didn't have Twitter during the Vince Lombardi era.)
2) The Ice Bowl produced 16 Hall of Famers -- including Lombardi, Starr, Kramer, Hayes, Tom Landry and Cowboys GM Tex Schramm.
3) Back then, the NFL didn't assign playoff venues based on record. The L.A. Rams (11-1-2) had to travel to Green Bay (9-4-1) for the first round (the Packers thumped 'em, 28-7).
The Packers were also lucky the NFL didn't have wild-card teams in '67. The Colts also notched a league-best 11-1-2 mark ... but lost the Coastal Division tiebreaker to the Rams.
(Baltimore had defeated Green Bay during the regular season.)