By Aaron Schatz
Special to Page 2

How much are football fans looking forward to Sunday's Titanic clash between the Colts and Patriots? In a poll in Friday's Daily Quickie, over 63 percent of the voters say this is the most-anticipated game of the playoffs -- while only 11 percent cite the Super Bowl.

With Peyton Manning and Indy's high-powered attack trying to avenge last year's AFC title-game loss to the Patriots, it ranks as one of the most-anticipated non-Super Bowl games ever. Has there ever been a conference semfinal game this hyped up?

Probably not. We're used to two weeks of unending hype before the Super Bowl, but there have been a few pre-Super Bowl playoff games that received Super Bowl-like buildup. We've chosen the most eagerly awaited of those games for this list of the most anticipated playoff games since the 1970 AFC-NFL merger, using a mixture of criteria, including great teams, star players, national attention, and pregame trash talk. Particularly if that trash talk came from the coaches and involved spherical metal objects.

10. Baltimore (12-4) at Tennessee (13-3), 2000 AFC Semifinals (Jan. 7, 2001)
This game rivals Sunday's Colts-Patriots tilt as the strongest conference semifinal in NFL playoff history. It matched two bitter division rivals who finished with the two best records and the two top defenses in the NFL. The teams had split their season series, each one winning in the other team's stadium, and the defenses spent the week before the game battling in the press. The Titans even put a tape of Baltimore coach Brian Billick's pep talk to his team on the scoreboard before the game to rile the Tennessee crowd.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Titans running back Eddie George talked trash after nearly every play once the game started -- until Lewis stole a pass out of George's hands and returned it for a touchdown with 6:41 left to ice a 24-10 victory. This wasn't a classic NFL rivarly, so the level of anticipation was a little lower given the teams had been in their cities for only five years and had no national following.

Manning
Peyton Manning was left asking for help from the officials in last year's title game.

9. Indianapolis (12-4) at New England (14-2), 2003 AFC Championship (Jan. 18, 2004)
Last year's Colts-Patriots game was nearly as hyped as this year's year's. Go back to see what was written and you'll notice that the articles read almost exactly like the previews of this Sunday's game. New England had won 13 straight and was unbeaten at home, and no dome team in history had ever won a conference championship on the road. But many pundits thought that Indy's offensive momentum was too much to overcome. Peyton Manning had thrown for 681 yards and eight touchdowns in two playoff games, and the Colts didn't punt in either contest. "The game could come down to one last Manning drive," wrote John Clayton. "With Manning being one of the hottest quarterbacks in NFL history, can the Patriots stop him in one desperate drive?"

Of course, there was no last desperate drive, as the expected close game turned into an easy Patriots victory. In three weeks, Peyton Manning had gone from "can't win the big one" to "unstoppable" and then back to "can't win the big one." Who will he be this Monday?

8. San Francisco (10-6) at Dallas (12-4), 1993 NFC Championship (Jan. 23, 1994)
No two teams have met for a conference championship as often as San Francisco and Dallas, who have faced each other in six NFC title games. Though everyone remembers the three straight matchups from 1992-1994, and Dwight Clark's catch in 1981, many people do not realize that Dallas and San Francisco also faced each other in the first two NFC Championship games after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

This game was famous because of an interview Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson gave a Dallas radio station on Thursday before the game: "We're going to beat their rear ends, and then we're going to the Super Bowl. ... We will win. And you can print that in three-inch headlines." 49ers coach George Seifert allegedly responded by saying, "Jimmy Johnson's got balls. I guess we'll find out soon whether they're made of brass or paiper-mâché." As the legend goes, after the Cowboys once again beat the 49ers for the NFC title, Johnson displayed a pair of brass balls in the locker room.

Kiick
Miami's Jim Kiick scores a third-quarter touchdown.

7. Miami (14-0) at Pittsburgh (11-3), 1972 AFC Championship (Dec. 31, 1972)
Miami was trying to become the first team to complete a perfect season and the 11-3 Steelers were considered the team with the best shot at stopping them. Although the Dolphins had gone 14-0, they had beaten only two teams with winning records, and no team better than 8-6. It seemed Pittsburgh had the momentum: the week before the Dolphins had barely squeezed by Cleveland while Pittsburgh had beaten Oakland with the "Immaculate Reception." (Many fans do not realize that the Immaculate Reception came in one of the seasons Pittsburgh didn't win the title.)

In addition, because home field in the playoffs was rotated among divisions instead of best record, Miami had to go to Pittsburgh. But the Dolphins lucked out when unusually warm weather hit Pittsburgh: game-time temperature was a balmy 63 degrees. Punter Larry Seiple set up the first Miami touchdown with a 37-yard run off a fake punt, and Bob Griese led two long touchdown drives in the second half as Miami won 21-17.

6. Houston (11-5) at Pittsburgh (12-4), 1979 AFC Championship (Jan. 6, 1980)
The Steel Curtain vs. Luv Ya Blue. This was not only a rematch of two division rivals but a rematch of the 1978 AFC title game, won by Pittsburgh 34-5 on its way to a Super Bowl title. The Oilers upset the 12-4 Chargers in the divisional round and since both of the only 11-5 teams in the NFC (Eagles and Cowboys) were upset by the upstart Rams and Bucs, this matchup of the two best remaining teams was considered by most NFL fans to be the "real" Super Bowl. In both 1978 and 1979 the Oilers were able to split their season series with the Steelers, but they just couldn't get past them in the playoffs -- Pittsburgh won 27-13.

5. New York Giants (13-3) at San Francisco (14-2), 1990 NFC Championship (Jan. 20, 1991)
San Francisco and New York both started 10-0, and each win built anticipation for Week 12, when Monday Night Football would present the greatest matchup of undefeated teams in NFL history. Except for one problem: both teams lost in Week 11. That made Week 12 simply a preview of the NFC Championship, and anticipation for the rematch began immediately after the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3.

Taylor
Lawrence Taylor dances after a recovering a fourth-quarter fumble.

The teams finished first and second in fewest points allowed and easily won their divisional playoff games. But with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler standing in for Phil Simms, who had been lost for the season with a foot injury in Week 14, many fans wondered if the Giants would be able to even stay close to the defending champion 49ers. They did -- the defense knocked Joe Montana out of the game and led the Giants into the Super Bowl with a 15-13 win.

4. Cleveland (10-5) at Denver (10-4-1), 1987 AFC Championship (Jan. 18, 1988)
The year before, Denver had beaten Cleveland in overtime after tying the game in the final five minutes with a 13-play, 98-yard march known simply as "The Drive." Cleveland had spent the entire year waiting to get revenge, while Denver had spent the entire year waiting to get revenge for its loss in the Super Bowl. Both teams had great offenses: Cleveland led the AFC in points scored, and Denver led the AFC in yards gained. Cleveland fans expected quarterback Bernie Kosar to feast on a Denver secondary that had been riddled with injuries. But Denver had won its last two games by a combined score of 58-10 and were led by Captain Comeback himself. "John Elway is not God," Browns defensive lineman Al Baker said before the game. "I'm happy we've got 45 men coming to play. I'm glad to be a Brown as opposed to being a guy who plays with Elway."

Unfortunately for Baker, one guy did beat the Browns, and he was wearing a Cleveland uniform: instead of being forever known as "The Rematch" this game became "The Fumble" when Earnest Byner lost the ball on the 3-yard line as he tried to rumble in for the game-tying touchdown in the final minute, and Denver won 38-33.

3. Dallas (12-4) at San Francisco (13-3), 1981 NFC Championship (Jan. 10, 1982)
The ultimate matchup of youth against experience, this game will always be known for "The Catch." Because it was Joe Montana's coming-out party, and the start of the dynasty that dominated the '80s, we think of this game as meaning more now than it did before it was played. But if you judge by television ratings, this game was one of the most anticipated in NFL history, even though it was not a rematch and the 49ers were not yet a team with a large national fanbase.

According to Nielsen, this game had higher television ratings than any other non-Super Bowl playoff game in history. In fact, it is the 43rd highest-rated television program of the 20th century, and its 42.9 rating is higher than the last four Super Bowls.

2. Pittsburgh (10-4) at Oakland (13-1), 1976 AFC Championship (Dec. 26, 1976)
This actually marked the fifth straight season the Steelers and Raiders met in the playoffs, including the previous two AFC Championship games, both won by Pittsburgh. Like this year's Colts and Patriots, they also had played each other in the first game of the 1976 season. The 31-28 Oakland victory is better-known for Oakland safety George Atkinson's vicious blow to the back of Lynn Swann's head, which knocked the Steelers receiver out for two weeks with a concussion. There have been plenty of games where the teams jaw at each other afterwards, but very few of them lead to a courtroom. This one did: Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll called Atkinson "the criminal element in pro football" after the game, and Atkinson filed a $2 million defamation lawsuit against Noll and the Steelers (he lost).

After that ignominious start, the Raiders went 13-1 and avenged their only loss in the first round of the playoffs by beating the Patriots. Meanwhile, the two-time defending Super Bowl champ Steelers started 1-4 but recovered to win their final nine games with the greatest defensive stand since Stalingrad. Five of those wins were shutouts, and in the other four games Pittsburgh gave up 3, 3, 6, and 16 points. In the first round, Pittsburgh went to Baltimore and clobbered the 11-3 Colts, 40-14.

There's one other similarity between this game and the upcoming Colts-Patriots matchup: the defending Super Bowl champions were decimated by injuries. The Steelers lost both of their 1,000-yard running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, in the game against Baltimore, and were forced to start third-stringer Reggie Harrison. Because of these injuries, the game didn't live up to the hype, and the Raiders won easily 24-7.

Young
Steve Young spikes the ball after running in for a third-quarter TD.

1. Dallas (12-4) at San Francisco (13-3), 1994 NFC Championship (Jan. 15, 1995)
This was the third straight NFC Championship game matching these two teams, and Sports Illustrated put Troy Aikman and Steve Young on the cover with the title "The REAL Super Bowl." (No AFC team had won the Super Bowl since 1983.) The NFC Pro Bowl roster for 1994 featured 11 Cowboys and 10 49ers, nearly half the roster of 44 players.

The 49ers had built their defense specifically to beat Dallas, signing linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer, and defensive ends Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson. But the most important player they added was actually on strike -- in a different sport. Deion Sanders had been playing for the Cincinnati Reds, but with baseball shut down, he signed an incentive-laded $1.1 million contract. The 49ers couldn't offer any more money, because they had so little cap space left after signing the other free agents. The idea was that Sanders would play his way to a huge payday in 1995.

Before the game, rumors were all around that the 49ers would fire coach George Seifert if he fell to Dallas for a third straight season. Seifert took things in stride, telling reporters, "If you win the game, the fishing's good, the living's easy, and the angels follow you wherever you tread. If you lose ... death. There's that sense."

The game itself was a bit of a disappointment, as Dallas turned the ball over on its first three drives, with each leading to a San Francisco touchdown. Dallas did rally to make the game close but fell in the end, 38-28. And Deion did get his huge payday for 1995 -- from the Cowboys.

Also receiving votes
Miami at Kansas City, 1971 AFC semifinals -- Christmas Day matchup between AFC's best two teams, the final game at Kansas City's Municipal Stadium, and a passing of the torch from the dominant AFC team of the late '60s to the dominant AFC team of the early '70s. Ended up the longest NFL game of all time, an 82-minute, 40-second double overtime classic.

San Diego at Miami, 1982 AFC semifinals -- a rematch of the prior year's high-scoring overtime classic.

Los Angeles Raiders at Buffalo, 1990 AFC Championship -- Supposed to be an offensive shootout featuring Bo Jackson vs. Jim Kelly, but ended up being a 51-3 rout for the K-Gun offense.

Kansas City at Houston, 1993 AFC Semifinals -- Joe Montana in his first post-49ers season against the "House of Pain" Oilers, who had won 11 straight entering the playoffs. This was the year that defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the face on the sidelines during an ESPN Sunday Night game after the offense went three and out.

Green Bay at Dallas, 1995 NFC Championship -- The Packers had knocked off the defending champion 49ers the week before and wanted revenge after being knocked from the playoffs two straight seasons by Dallas. They didn't get it.

New York Jets at Denver, 1998 AFC Championship -- John Elway's last run vs. The Tuna's shot at leading a third team to the Super Bowl.

Minnesota at St. Louis, 1999 NFC Semifinals -- MVP Kurt Warner vs. Randy Moss in an offensive shootout.

Aaron Schatz is editor-in-chief of FootballOutsiders.com.




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MOST-HYPED PLAYOFF GAMES