LAS VEGAS — Some of the most compelling viewing in recent NFL seasons has come in Super Bowl prequels, since 1970 contested as AFC and NFC Championship games.
There was a period when the conference titles were decidedly non-compelling, however, especially for much of the 1980s and into the early ’90s when AFC and NFC title games mirrored Super Bowls of the era and usually featured one-sided results. That pattern mostly would change into the new millennium, up until the past two years, when we’ve seen three lopsided wins in conference title games and only one nail-biter (Patriots-Jaguars last season). Still, those blowouts have been the exception of late in these showdown games, as only seven of the 20 conference title clashes over the past 10 seasons have been decided by double-digit margins.
It’s fascinating to recall that the biggest blowout in pro football history occurred in the 1940 NFL title game when George Halas’ Chicago Bears stepped on the throat of the Washington Redskins (who had beaten Halas three years earlier in the championship battle) by a whopping 73-0 count.
In a four-year span in the mid ’50s, NFL title games produced scorelines of 56-10 (Browns over Lions in 1954), 38-14 (Browns over Rams in 1955), 47-7 (Giants over Bears in 1956), and 59-14 (Lions getting their revenge on the Browns in 1957). It was more of the same throughout much of the 1960s, with NFL title games featuring romps such as 37-0 (Packers over Giants in 1961), 27-0 (Browns over Colts in 1964), 34-0 (as the Colts gained revenge over the Browns in 1968), and 27-7 (Vikings over the poor Browns again in 1969). Meanwhile, old AFL title games featured some lopsided results, as well, including wipeouts such as 51-10 (Chargers over the Boston Patriots in 1963), 23-0 (Bills over Chargers in 1965), 31-7 (Chiefs over Bills in 1966), and 40-7 (Raiders over Oilers in 1967).
Results of conference championship games once again tilted to the home teams the past five years when they would score straight-up wins in each and cover eight of 10 (including New England failing to clear the nine-point hurdle against Jacksonville last January). Home underdogs have won twice that span — Denver 20-18 over New England three years ago and Philadelphia 38-7 over Minnesota last season.
The home/favorite trends had not been so pronounced in the preceding years, especially in the NFC, where home teams lost outright in three straight and failed to cover four conference title games in a row prior to 2013. Six years ago, both road teams (Baltimore in the AFC, San Francisco in the NFC) won outright, for the first time in conference title tilts since the 1997 playoffs.
Though underdogs covered both conference title games last season, favorites continue to hold a point-spread edge in these affairs since the merger year of 1970 (52-41-2), although, as mentioned, their dominance has been a bit less pronounced in recent years, with the ’dogs covering nine of the past 14 conference title battles over the past seven seasons.
Among point-spread category trends in AFC and NFC championship battles, note that “intermediate/high” chalk teams (those laying between seven and 9¹/₂ points) still stand 16-8 ATS in conference championships since 1970, even with the Patriots falling short a year ago. Double-digit favorites, however, are only 4-8 ATS. Home teams have won straight up more than two-thirds of the time since the merger (66-of-96). Conference title “total” trends are not especially pronounced, though have leaned slightly “Over” (35-28-1 since 1986; three of four “Over” the past two years).
Acknowledging the earlier references to historical one-sided results in these games, note that even with the closer conference title clashes in recent years, almost half of the AFC and NFC championship battles since 1970 (44-of-96) have been decided by 14 points or more, with nearly two-thirds (60-of-96) being decided by double digits.