This is Championship Weekend in the NFL, the Sunday where we find out who's going to the Super Bowl … and who will be completely forgotten all together. It's strange how quickly the teams who lose in the conference championship games vanish from our memory; the Super Bowl is massive and all-encompassing in that it washes away the teams who just missed making it. Even if you lose the Super Bowl, you'll be remembered. But lose in the conference championship game … poof.
This is a shame because often the conference championship games -- played on a home field rather than the sterile environment of a Super Bowl venue -- are so much more exciting that the Big Game itself. This Sunday is actually a far better day for NFL fans than the Super Bowl, but we never think back at it that way. 'Tis the nature of the beast: Even when the games are better, the earlier the playoff round, the quicker they slip out of the public consciousness.
So we take a moment, in advance of Sunday's games, to look back at the conference championship games of this decade. We are starting with 2010, even though that's not technically this decade, so we have an even 10.
10. January 24, 2010: Indianapolis Colts 30, New York Jets 17
A rather dull game that somewhat inexplicably featured a rookie Mark Sanchez against a in-his-prime Peyton Manning. Few thought the game would be close, and it wasn't.
9. January 23, 2011: Green Bay Packers 21, Chicago Bears 14
Not to say this wasn't a high-quality game, but the Bears ended up trying to mount a final game-tying drive behind the quarterback stylings of Caleb Hanie. It's really a shame: These two rivals had probably dreamed of meeting in a conference championship game for decades, and once they finally got one … it came down to Caleb Hanie.
8. January 20, 2013: Baltimore Ravens 28, New England Patriots 13
The Ravens got revenge after their crushing AFC title game loss the year before with a surprisingly thorough wipeout of the Patriots in Foxborough. You probably know this game mostly for Ray Lewis crying at the end. That happened a lot in those playoffs.
7. January 19, 2014: Denver Broncos 26, New England Patriots 16
What might well end up being the final Manning-Brady playoff battle ended up in Peyton's corner. The Broncos played so well in this game that they were heavy favorites in the Super Bowl … speaking of things that happened for the final time.
6. January 20, 2013: San Francisco 49ers 28, Atlanta Falcons 24
The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead at home, but Colin Kaepernick -- who was still known mostly for being the late-season replacement for Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh's pet project -- was outstanding in leading the comeback. This was that brief moment when we thought Kaepernick, and the 49ers, were the future of the league. People were so happy in San Francisco.
5. January 23, 2011: Pittsburgh Steelers 24, New York Jets 19
A generally underrated game, forgotten mostly because the Jets didn't quite come all the way back at Heinz Field. The Steelers jumped out to a 24-0 lead in front of a freezing, frenzied crowd -- and I mean freezing; I was there, and it was as cold as I've ever been at a sporting event. But Sanchez, who played the best game of his life, led the Jets to 19 unanswered points. The Steelers eked out one last first down to run out the clock, but ask anyone who was there: If the Jets had gotten the ball back, the way Sanchez was playing, they were winning that game. It's funny to think how history might have been different, if they had completed the comeback.
4. January 22, 2012: New York Giants 20, San Francisco 49ers 17
This is the Kyle Williams game, when the poor 49ers punt returner fumbled twice, each costing the 49ers dearly. The worst was the fumble in overtime that essentially handed the Giants the win. As you can see, 49ers fans did not handle this play well.
3. January 22, 2012: New England Patriots 23, Baltimore Ravens 20
Certainly the most controversial game on this list: Lee Evans' overturned touchdown is something Ravens fans still grouse about. (Though in the age of Dez Bryant losing his catch because of the "Calvin Johnson rule," the call seems less egregious today.) The real goat, of course, was Billy Cundiff, who hadn't missed a field goal in the fourth quarter in two years and then shanked an easy 32-yarder that would have sent the game into overtime.
2. January 19, 2014: Seattle Seahawks 23, San Francisco 49ers 17
It's tough to do much better than the final play of this game, featuring an outstanding tip incompletion forced by Richard Sherman in the waning seconds, pushing the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl in eight years. This also allowed Sherman to uncork one of the great postgame rants of all time, turning him into the superstar he still is a year later. Anything that inspires this has got to be high on the list:
1. January 24, 2010: New Orleans Saints 31, Minnesota Vikings 28
Not only did this game get the Saints to their first-ever -- and still only-ever -- Super Bowl, it featured perhaps the most definitive Brett Favre play of all time. Favre, running around, like a gunslinger out there, throwing a horrible interception and costing the Vikings a chance at a game-winning field goal. This play sums up Favre, the Minnesota Vikings and the absolute madness of conference championship games. Super Bowl, or no Super Bowl … no one will ever forget that play. It makes your soul hurt just watching it. (Warning: Strong language, naturally.)