Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the best Championship Sunday rushing performances in NFL history.
On Jan. 19, 2020, San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert zigged and zagged through the Green Bay Packers' defense to help power a 37-20 victory in the NFC Championship Game -- and in doing so, he etched his name in the record books.
Mostert carried the ball 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the only player in NFL postseason history with at least 200 rushing yards and four rushing TDs in a game. In fact, the performance gave Mostert top billing in several major categories (rushing yards, rushing TDs and scrimmage yards) in a conference championship game since the 1970 merger, according to NFL Research. In what felt like a track meet for Mostert, he ran with ease through gaping holes, thanks in part to his blockers' execution and coach Kyle Shanahan's perfectly crafted scheme. This type of monster performance doesn't happen unless every player works in unison, and they did that day.
Which running back will have the next big Championship Sunday performance?
I've gone back and forth on this several times, but ultimately, I think Green Bay's Aaron Jones will show out against Tampa Bay. It won't be an easy task against the league's top-ranked run defense, which allowed just 80.6 rushing yards per game in the regular season. Though the Packers surpassed that average mark in the teams' Week 6 meeting by compiling 94 collective rushing yards, Jones was held to a measly 15 yards on 10 carries. That ain't gonna cut it this time around, especially with the Bucs' defense playing extremely well and potentially getting Vita Vea (who's been out since Week 5 with an ankle injury) back in their defensive line rotation.
Remember, Aaron Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions -- the most in a game all season for the MVP candidate -- in the loss to Tampa, so I'm afraid Sunday's outcome rides on my guy Jones. Playing in Jones' favor is his career postseason production and the fact that he's coming off a big Divisional Round performance in which he racked up 113 scrimmage yards, including a statement run of 60 yards on the first play from scrimmage after halftime and a 1-yard TD plunge that ended the drive. Jones thrives in the playoffs as a playmaker out of the backfield, averaging 87.3 scrimmage yards and totaling five touchdowns in three career playoff games.
Games this late in the postseason are when legacies are made, and a record-setting rushing performance is what Jones and the Packers need to secure a spot in Super Bowl LV.
Speaking of legacies, I want to highlight three more running backs (each now retired) for their superb performances in past conference title games.
There are a lot of NFL players who never get a chance to play in the postseason, let alone in multiple conference championships. Everyone talks about Davis' spectacular Super Bowl performances, but his efforts on Championship Sunday were equally impressive. In the 1997 AFC title game against Pittsburgh, Davis was the game's leading rusher with 139 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run for the game's first points, on 26 totes to help the Broncos advance to Super Bowl XXXII. And, of course, they won the Lombardi Trophy behind another big day from Davis, the game's MVP.
Davis was even more impressive the next year with 2,000 rushing yards in the regular season. He again dominated in the postseason, recording 167 yards -- fourth-most rushing yards in a conference title game since the 1970 merger -- and a touchdown on 32 carries in the 1998 AFC Championship Game. That followed with another 100-yard rushing performance to help Denver win its second Super Bowl in as many seasons. He was one of the best one-cut runners and made the most of his opportunities, especially in the postseason. When recently writing about unofficial Hall of Fame requirements for running backs, I pointed to Davis' playoff résumé as the thing that ultimately earned him a gold jacket. He was that good during Denver's Super Bowl runs.
The Seahawks pulled off a comeback for the ages to beat the Packers in the 2014 NFC title game, scoring 15 points in the final 2 minutes of regulation and adding a game-winning TD drive in overtime. One of the miraculous parts about this comeback was how the Seahawks didn't stray away from Lynch and the rushing attack -- the bread and butter of the offense in those years. The Packers built a 16-0 lead by halftime while holding Lynch to just 37 yards on nine carries and limiting the entire Seattle offense to 59 yards. During the late comeback, Seattle leaned on Beast Mode, who finished with 157 rushing yards -- averaging a remarkable 7.5 yards per carry in the second half and overtime. He also ripped off a rumbling 24-yard touchdown run the way only Beast Mode could to give Seattle its first lead of the game with 1:25 left in the fourth. He finished with 183 scrimmage yards (ninth-most among running backs in a conference title game since the 1970 merger) in a win that left Russell Wilson extremely emotional and gave the Seahawks a shot at back-to-back Lombardis. (Still too soon, 12s?)
I gotta be honest: I wasn't a big NFL fan back in the day. But I do remember watching the Bills just dominate in the early 1990s. Those teams were absolutely loaded, and I loved watching them duke it out with opponents in the snow. Thomas was an integral part of a franchise that made four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, with his best Championship Sunday performance coming in the 1993 season. Facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1993 AFC title game -- which also ended up being the final conference championship game Thurman would play in -- the Hall of Fame running back absolutely torched the defense with 33 carries for 186 yards and three rushing touchdowns (tied for second-most in a conference championship game since 1970, behind only Mostert's four). Adding two catches for 22 yards, Thomas is one of just five running backs in history to have at least 200 scrimmage yards in a conference title game.
Side note: Thomas scored a rushing touchdown in each of the four Super Bowls Buffalo appeared in during the decade, but unfortunately, it was never enough to win it all.