Nowhere is pressure greater than in conference championship games
This weekend's conference championship games bring back the best and worst memories from my NFL management career. That's because I consider this game to be the toughest to win and the most painful to lose. Yes, even worse than losing a Super Bowl, which happened to me twice.
I went to six conference championship games, finishing with a 2-4 record. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were never more evident than in those contests. Fans may think that the divisional playoffs are the best weekend of NFL football, with four games involving top seeds. But most team execs, coaches and players will tell you that this Sunday's conference championship games are much more pressure-filled. After all, a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. Favorite or underdog, it doesn't matter.
With what's at stake, losing this game is excruciating. And winning means far more than the $44,000 bonus the NFL will guarantee each player and coach for playing in the Super Bowl (another $44,000 comes with a Super Bowl win). It means they've accomplished what every team in the league strives for when they say, "We want to be a Super Bowl team."
Of course, you absolutely want to win the Lombardi Trophy. But even reaching the Super Bowl is a dream come true for all associated with the team, especially for those teams who have not been there lately or ever. There is a glow around the franchise as fans clamor for Super Bowl tickets and travel packages. It sets the organization up to cash in with ticket price increases, as well as booming sponsorships and suite sales. Primetime games abound in the following season, which adds excitement.
Not every team belongs in the happy-to-be-in-the-Super-Bowl group. Take the Patriots, who missed out on a perfect season with a loss to the Giants in their last Super Bowl appearance. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company won't be satisfied with anything less than their fourth Super Bowl victory (and wouldn't they love for it to be over the Giants?). But those teams are exceptions.
In my rookie season with the Vikings in 1976 -- with Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters on defense -- we beat the Rams in the NFC title game at sub-zero Met Stadium. It was on to Pasadena and Super Bowl XI, a thrill to be sure, though we lost to the Raiders in that game. Still, I was just a 23-year-old assistant PR director who never thought it would take so long to return to the big game.
I soon learned how tough it was to win that conference championship game, as we lost in Dallas the very next year. Ten years later, our 1987 Vikings won road playoff games as underdogs in New Orleans and San Francisco before falling to the Redskins 17-10 at RFK Stadium. Another heartbreaking loss that ended with an incomplete pass in the end zone on our final play.
Earlier this week, the four remaining teams sent between three and six staff members to Indianapolis, site of Super Bowl XLVI, for meetings with NFL staff to review all logistics for Super Bowl week -- practice facilities, hotels, meeting rooms, computer and video setup, family activities, etc. For two of the teams, all of this prep time will have been for naught. I know that feeling, as I was in charge of team travel and logistics and did all the prep work for a potential Super Bowl trip in that 1987 season, only to see it fall by the wayside.
As VP/GM of the Vikings in 1998, I went through the Super Bowl preparation with our staff after our 15-1 regular season. We were the top-seeded team in the NFC and won our divisional playoff game over Arizona. We had books printed for the players, coaches and staff that went over all pertinent Super Bowl details. We had our travel arranger ready to go with fan packages to Miami. My daughter had to miss the title game, but she wrote me a note that morning: "Sorry to miss the game, but good luck and I know we'll be goin' to Miami." All of which made what followed even more painful.
Losing that NFC Championship Game in my final season with the Vikings was the toughest loss of my career. We were 11-point home favorites over Atlanta. The Metrodome was rocking as fans anticipated the Vikings' first Super Bowl trip in 22 years. We had one of the NFL's top offenses ever, led by NFL MVP Randall Cunningham, with rookie of the year Randy Moss joining All-Pro Cris Carter and Jake Reed at receiver, not to mention Robert Smith running behind an excellent offensive line. The defense was led by Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle.
A 20-7 lead late in the first half was cut to 20-14 when a Cunningham fumble set up a Falcons touchdown. But we were up 27-20 with two minutes to go in the game when our Pro Bowl kicker Gary Anderson -- who was 39 for 39 on field goals that season -- barely missed the probable game-clinching kick wide left from 38 yards. As we watched in shock and horror from our management box, the Falcons drove to the game-tying touchdown and won 30-27 in overtime on Morten Andersen's 38-yard field goal.
I'll never forget the utter misery in our locker room after that game. Helmets thrown, tears shed, the Super Bowl trip to Miami down the drain. It was the sickest feeling I've ever had after a game. We had planned a postgame party at the team hotel, fully expecting to celebrate our NFC title and upcoming Super Bowl. Our owner, Red McCombs, decided not to cancel the festivities after our loss. It was not a good decision, as the party became a proverbial funeral after the death of our season. Player no-shows were plentiful.
But I've always known that life in the NFL is a rollercoaster ride. From the lowest of lows with the '98 title game loss in Minnesota, I found myself back in the pressure-cooker of a conference championship game one year later -- this time on the AFC side after my move to Tennessee.
What a special team and season that was with coach Jeff Fisher, quarterback Steve McNair, running back Eddie George and rookie of the year defensive end Jevon Kearse leading the way. In the first season in Nashville, at a new downtown stadium, we finished 13-3 in the regular season (but second in the division to Jacksonville) and secured a wild-card win over the Bills in the famed Music City Miracle game, followed by a divisional-round win over the Peyton Manning-led Colts in Indy.
After that, it was on to Jacksonville to play Tom Coughlin's Jaguars, who we already had beaten twice in the regular season. Considering the previous year's loss in Minnesota and my 23-year wait to return to the Super Bowl, what followed was the best win of my career. A big second-half rally was keyed by a safety -- on an end zone sack of Jags QB Mark Brunell -- followed by an 80-yard kick return for a touchdown by Derrick Mason. And we were on our way to the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
I have great memories of what followed, starting on our team charter back to Nashville, when we were told that there were 50,000 people waiting at the stadium -- on a freezing night -- for a victory celebration. Super Bowl week was so exciting, as I had close to 40 family and friends in Atlanta.
The loss to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV was painful, especially after our second-half rally fell one yard short when Kevin Dyson was infamously tackled just shy of the goal line on a play that would've sent the game into overtime.
But still, we had made it to the big game. And that was far better than coming up one game short of a Super Bowl appearance -- as happened to me on four occasions and will happen to two of the teams playing this weekend. I'll be empathizing with the losers and knowing the joy of the winners.