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A Look Through The Years At Former Rutgers Football Alums Performances In NFL Conference Championship Games

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Mo Sanu’s TD and Logan Ryan’s 9 tackles rank highly, plus an almost 100 year old controversy.

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NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons
Sanu’s TD is among very few by Knights alums in conference title weekend.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Two weeks from now on Super Sunday four former Scarlet Knights will be on the field, again. Solid performances for the second week in a row had me thinking where these performances rank among the best conference title games in for Knight alums. For the avid readers of this site, they may have noticed that there was no Knights in the Pros flashback in this weekend’s recap. So instead, the following is a ranking of the conference title game performances of former Knights broken down into three groups; defensive, offensive skill positions, and offensive line which primarily focuses on team performance.

NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list of every Knight to play in a conference title game. Tim Wright for example got in a few snaps in 2015, a 45-7 Patriots win over Indianapolis, but his performance was not as memorable (good or bad) as others. For those paying close attention, you also realized Wright played in the January 18, 2015 AFC title game that happened to follow the 2014 regular season. So for this article, the year is that calendar year the game was actually played, not the year the majority of the regular season games were played that same season.

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Denver Broncos
McCourty made 10 solo tackles, even though the Patriots fell short of Super Bowl XLVIII.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Defense:

1. Devin McCourty - 2014 Patriots (loss): 10 tackles (all solo). McCourty has played in an almost unfathomable 6 straight conference title tilts. Though his stats have been quiet in the last few, his 2014 performance was incredible. Facing the team that set the all-time regular season scoring record, the Patriots would fall 26-16 to Denver. Remember by this time he had moved to safety so it wasn’t like he was just surrendering completions to his man and then wrapping up, he was actually flying around the field making plays. Extra credit that Logan Ryan also made 8 tackles in the same game, so it’s not like he was just cleaning up his fellow Knight’s mess. His other tackle-pass defended[results]: (2012-5-0[W], 2013-4-0[L], 2015-1-1[W], 2016-2-1[L], 2017-4-0[W])

2. Gary Brackett - 2010 Colts (win): Prior to McCourty’s performance, the top defensive statistical performance in a conference championship game was from Gary Brackett, with 8 tackles (one for loss) in 2010 win against the Jets 30-17. Eric Foster in the same game added 3 tackles for good measure. You could argue though Brackett’s team leading performance (7 tackles, 2 for loss) was more impressive in the 2007 win, the famous game when the Colts stormed back from a 21-3 deficit against New England to triumph 38-34. He did not record stats in his first appearance in 2004.

3. Bill Pickel - 1983 Raiders (win): Pickel recorded a memorable sack of David Krieg as the Raiders thumped Seattle back when they were still in the AFC. The then Los Angeles Raiders held a 27-0 advantage at one point dominating their division rivals from start to finish. Seattle had only 167 total yards and 5!?!?! turnovers. Then L.A. annihilated the Redskins 38-9 in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Pickel, Howie Long, and the boys, their 1991 performance against the no huddle Buffalo attack was rather forgettable.

4. Logan Ryan - 2017 Patriots (win): Though he is making headlines for a Nolan Ryan Houston (get it?) throwback jersey, it was his team leading 9 tackles (8 solo) and a pass break up that is the real story. He scored the second best on the Pats defense according to Pro Football focus in this weekend’s 36-17 win over Pittsburgh. This on the heels of his performance against Houston the week before when Ryan scored the highest by PFF of anyone on the Pats defense. As previously mentioned, Ryan also had 8 tackles in the 2014 contest. He added 2 tackles in 2015 (W). and 5 last season in 2016 (L).

5. Jay Bellamy - 2007 Saints (loss): Bellamy gave it his all recording 7 tackles but new Orleans fell short to Chicago in the NFC championship game. The upstart Saints riding the arm of Drew Brees marched into Chicago to face what had been considered the NFL’s top team all season, by everyone other than the late Dennis Green, anyway. Behind the 13 year veteran leadership of Bellamy, the Saints held “Sexy Rexy” Grossman to only 144 yards passing. However, the Saints turned the ball over 4 times and the Bears wore them out on the ground for 196 yards rushing (though on 49 carries). Chicago would fall to the Colts’ Brackett and Foster in the Super Bowl as you will read next week! Bellamy would not win a ring with New Orleans, but was part of the turnaround that saw them eventually bring back the hardware 3 years later oddly enough against Indianapolis.

NFL: AFC Championship-New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Freeny scooped up this fumble in last year’s AFC title game.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable mention:

Jonathan Freeny - 2016 Patriots (loss): Jon had a fumble recovery pictured above. Too bad he is injured and won’t play this season again.

Bill Pellington - 1958 Colts (win): NFL title game win in overtime against the Giants. Not sure what the official stats were, but the former Scarlet Knight offensive guard who became a linebacker at the next level had a solid game in what has been dubbed the game of the century.

Justin Francis - 2013 Patriots (loss): A surprise starter, Francis started zero games in the regular season and would never play another down in the NFL after this game. Baltimore had worn out the Patriots front, but with their chances hanging by a thread, Francis made tackles on 4 of 6 snaps eventually forcing a punt. How about that for energy!

Dishonorable mention:

Jamaal Westerman - 2010 Jets (loss) and 2011 Jets (loss): zero sacks, zero tackles, 1 personal foul. Westerman like Freeny after him was a defensive end at Rutgers but shifted to linebacker in the NFL. He established a niche as a 3rd down specialist for the New York Jets and ended up playing in back to back AFC championship games. He did not record a stat other than a roughing the punter penalty (pictured below and very close to a block) that would have resulted in good Jets field position as they had the momentum after breaking through with a touchdown. The comeback would eventually fall 5 points short, 24-19.

2011 AFC Championship: New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
Westerman and the Jets were just short ... again in 2011.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Offensive “skill” positions:

  1. Mohamed Sanu - 2017 Falcons (win): The numbers don’t blow you away, but as you see below, no former Knight has put up eye poppers in the conference title game. Sanu earns the spot as the staring wideout, trash talker who backed it up with Atlanta’s first touchdown on a one handed catch on their first drive. His final stats are solid (5 catches-52 yards, 1 rush - 7 yards, 1 squib kick return for 9 yards) especially on a team that spreads the ball around so well. They were up 31-0 at one point which is the most telling statistic.
  2. Ray Rice - 2013 Ravens (win): It was Rice’s 3rd AFC title game and he saved his best for last as Baltimore finally broke through in a rematch of the year before (Rice had 67 yards rushing in 2012, losing on a missed 32 field goal) to give Ray ... Lewis a Super Bowl birth in his final season. Rice’s numbers weren’t great like his 2010 wild card, but he did manage 19 carries for 48 yards. His 1 TD opened the scoring for Baltimore who needed it to stay in the game before crushing the Pats in the second half. Raymell also added 3 catches for 22 yards. Oddly enough his best opportunity for big yardage came on a 9 yard run where he was tackled by RU alum Justin Francis hustling from behind. In his first appearance in 2009, Rice added 3 receptions for 43 yards but just 1 carry.
  3. Walter French - 1925 Maroons (win): Officially this was not the league title game, but in the the final week of the 1925 season the second place Pottsville Maroons traveled to take on the Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals were 9-1-1 and the Maroons 9-2, but the Maroons went ahead for good on French’s 30 yard rushing touchdown that put them up 14-7 before tacking on another TD to ice it. French was named 1st team all-pro. The team only had 6 offensive touchdowns all season of 30 yards or more, 4 of which were scored by Walter.

Before being handed the trophy, the NFL suspended the Maroons for an illegal exhibition game in Philadelphia which was officially Frankford Yellow Jackets territory. Some claim Frankford and the league accepted the game at the time figuring that the Maroons were sure to lose one of their final 3 games against the league’s top teams: Green Bay, Frankford, and the Cardinals. Pottsville beat the Bears then demolished Frankford behind two TDs by French (the last of which came on a 45 yard pass while already up 42-0) the week prior to the Cardinals game. The Cardinals would go on to play two more unofficial games against weak teams (with players under assumed names) and were declared NFL champs, but it was truly controversial!

Dishonorable mention:

LJ Smith, 3 appearances, 3 catches: LJ Smith joined the Eagles as a playmaker they hoped would help them get over the hump and finally reach the Super Bowl. They did in 2005, their 4th consecutive title game appearance but LJ only had one catch (following his 1 catch game the year before). He played in another NFC title game later in his career and again only caught one ball. That said, he performed better in the Super Bowl which will be covered next week.

Super Bowl XLVI - Media Day
Underwood put new meaning in Super Bowl “buzz” but would not play in the game.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Statless but not forgotten:

Tiquan Underwood 2012 Patriots W): He did not make a catch in the conference title game and ended up being “cut” hours before the Super Bowl despite being a sensation at Super Bowl media day. He was replaced on the active roster by Alex Silvestro who we will cover closer to the big game when onthebanks reviews the former Knights who participated in the world’s biggest annual spectacle.

James Jenkins, 3 career playoff runs with Washington including one title game appearance as a rookie in 1992, no catches: He probably belongs with the offensive linemen below because his 10 year NFL career as a blocking tight end had him only catch 15 total passes (though 7 went for TD). In the 1992 NFC title game the Redskins rolled up 345 yards of offense with no turnovers and did not allow a single sack.

Ray Lucas accumulated no stats in two AFC title games The first one he played on special teams for the New England Patriots in 1997 on their way to the super bowl. In 1999 he was a backup quarterback on the wrong end of a loss against Denver covered below with Harry Swayne’s contributions.

Chargers V 49ers
Swayne played in 4 conference title games (winning 3).

Offensive line:

  1. Jeremy Zuttah 2014 Ravens (Loss): Even though his team lost, it was not the fault of the offense. Baltimore allowed 0 sacks and put up 428 yards of offense in this one but fell to New England 35-31. It is the only conference title game appearance for Jeremy.

2. Anthony Davis 2013 49ers (win) 1 sack 373 total yards: This was Atlanta’s last title game appearance where a last minute offensive drive fell short. San Francisco’s offense was efficient in the 28-24 win. Davis and the Niners bookended their win with a loss the year before (2012: 3 sacks, ran for 150) and after (2014: 2 sacks, 161 rushing yards)

3. Harry Swayne 1999 (Win), 3 sacks, 331 yards: The defending champs started slow against the New York Jets, but eventually wore them out at altitude to secure a second straight Super Bowl berth. Swayne played in three other AFC title games; 1995 Chargers (win) 1 sack/222 yards, 1998 Broncos (win) as backup, and 2001 Ravens (win) 2 sacks/282 yards.

4. Shaun O’Hara 2008 Giants (Win): 2 sacks, 311 yards, the offense did just enough. In what turned out to be Brett Favre’s last game for Green Bay, the G-men would triumph behind a spirited defensive effort in freezing temperatures. O’Hara would win another ring for the 2012-13 Giants on injured reserve.

5. Darnell Stapleton 2009 Steelers (Win): The rookie was part of a line allowed 4 sacks, with minimal rushing yards but Pittsburgh did just enough to punch their ticket 23-14 to Super Bowl XLI. Stapleton would injure himself before the following season and never play another game in the NFL. At least you could say he went out a winner!

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Stapleton and the boys did just enough to reach the Super Bowl, which they later won.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Honorable mention

Bob “Nasty” Nash, 1920 and 1921. The NFL would not have an official championship game until 1933, but Nash started on back to back title winning teams in 1920 (Akron Pros) and 1921 (Buffalo All-Americans). Nash was the first NFL player ever to be traded as Akron shipped him to Buffalo for cash (including the part of the gate receipts of their contest). In 1921 he was named all-Pro as a left tackle the year the forward pass really took off after the success of a guy who became rather famous at the college level, George Gipp. The Gipper was famously played in the movie by future president Ronald Reagan.

Nash would play another 4 years in the NFL before ending his career in 1925. He was considered one of the best tackles of his era and his agility was on display as he had the first fumble recovery TD in NFL history. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown as well. Remember back then, everybody played both ways until the last 60 minute man hung ‘em up, Chuck Bednarik.

AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots
Francis got a surprising start and delivered.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images