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Friday, December 31, 2010
Pro football games have been played in all sorts of weather conditions, and when it comes to the NFL postseason that has typically meant frigid temperatures and/or snow. The NFC Divisional playoff game on December 31, 1988 was distinctive, however, for the ghostly fog that enveloped the field during the second half and that resulted in the contest being referred to as “the Fog Bowl”.
The host team, the Chicago Bears, had placed first in the NFC Central with a 12-4 record. Under Head Coach Mike Ditka, it was the fifth consecutive season that the club had won in double figures and included a championship in ’85. Defense had been the key to Chicago’s success, and while free agency and injuries had caused some damage, mainstays such as tackles Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton, LB Mike Singletary, and SS Dave Duerson were still around and the unit had allowed an NFL-low 215 points. Injury-prone QB Jim McMahon had gone down at midseason, but backup Mike Tomczak was competent in relief and third-year RB Neal Anderson generated 1106 yards on the ground.
The visiting Philadelphia Eagles, under third-year Head Coach Buddy Ryan (no stranger to the Bears, as he was the defensive coordinator during the Super Bowl season), had not been in the playoffs since 1981. They had won the NFC East with a 10-6 tally and featured a tough, blitz-heavy defense, led by DE Reggie White. The offense was directed by highly-mobile QB Randall Cunningham, who threw for a team-record 3808 yards and ran for 624. Rookie TE Keith Jackson (pictured at right) had an All-Pro season, catching 81 passes, and RB Keith Byars, a better receiver out of the backfield than runner from scrimmage, grabbed 72.
There was no clue at the game’s commencement of what lay ahead. The weather at Chicago’s Soldier Field was clear and temperatures were in the mid-30s at kickoff. The teams traded punts with the Bears scoring first, on their second possession. On a third-and-seven play, Tomczak connected with WR Dennis McKinnon for a 64-yard touchdown.
The Eagles came right back as Cunningham completed passes of 15 yards to WR Mike Quick and 17 to WR Cris Carter to the Chicago 33 yard line. But the drive stalled at the 25 and a 43-yard field goal attempt by Luis Zendejas missed to the left.
Philadelphia got a break, however, when Tomczak went to the air and was intercepted by LB Seth Joyner, giving the Eagles the ball at the Bears’ 30. Following a run by FB Anthony Toney, an 18-yard pass play from Cunningham to Jackson got the ball down to the 11. But after advancing to the nine, two successive apparent touchdown passes were wiped out by holding penalties on Toney. The Eagles ended up with a 43-yard Zendejas field goal.
Now it was Chicago’s turn to mount a drive, and thanks to two Tomczak completions to McKinnon of 14 and 22 yards, the Bears got to the Philadelphia 34. However, Kevin Butler’s 51-yard field goal attempt fell short. The score was 7-3 at the end of the opening period.
The Eagles got another break in the second quarter when Chicago TE Cap Boso fumbled after catching a pass from Tomczak and FS Wes Hopkins recovered for Philadelphia at the Bears’ 14. But on a third-and-seven play, Jackson dropped a pass in the end zone and the Eagles again had to settle for a 29-yard Zendejas field goal.
Chicago’s next possession resulted in a four-yard touchdown run by Anderson that extended their lead to 14-6. It was 17-6 shortly thereafter as Butler kicked a 46-yard field goal. The Eagles got the ball back with just under two minutes remaining in the half, and a 65-yard pass play from Cunningham to Jackson got the ball down to the Chicago five. Once again, a penalty backed the Eagles up and they were unable to get a touchdown in the red zone. Zendejas kicked a 30-yard field goal and the score was 17-9 at halftime.
The first hints of the fog blowing in off of Lake Michigan arrived late in the second quarter, and during the third quarter the field was completely enveloped. For most of the 65,534 fans and the press box-level television cameras, the field was no longer visible, completely cut off by the fog. Referee Jim Tunney chose to continue the game, which was televised from this point by sideline cameras. While accounts vary as to visibility on the field, Tunney said afterward that “I felt the conditions, while not great, were still playable. I could see all 22 players from my position. I occasionally lost sight of the safety, but only for a second or two.”
On the field, the Eagles took the second half kickoff and again drove deep into Chicago territory, but with the ball at the 11 yard line, Cunningham was intercepted by CB Vestee Jackson, who returned it 51 yards. This time it was the Bears coming up empty in scoring position as they drove to the Philadelphia 13 and Butler’s 33-yard field goal attempt was no good when it hit the right upright.
Later in the third quarter, Eagles SS Terry Hoage intercepted a Tomczak pass to give Philadelphia excellent field position at the Chicago 17. But after three incompletions, Zendejas kicked his fourth field goal of the game, from 35 yards. The Bears, with Jim McMahon replacing the injured Tomczak, drove to a 27-yard Butler field goal early in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles had two more possessions, but were unable to score again. The last series, that made it to the Chicago 16, resulted in an interception by CB Maurice Douglass that was returned 47 yards, and from there the Bears were able to run out the clock and win by a score of 20-12.
Philadelphia outgained the Bears (430 yards to 341) and had the edge in first downs, 22 to 14. Chicago turned the ball over more times (4 to 3), but untimely penalties and the inability to score touchdowns proved fatal – likely moreso than the weather conditions. The Eagles were inside the Chicago 26 yard line 10 times and came away with just four field goals.
Mike Tomczak completed 10 of 20 passes for 172 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. Dennis McKinnon caught four passes for 108 yards and a TD. RB Thomas Sanders rushed for 94 yards on 8 carries, while Neal Anderson ran the ball 14 times for 54 yards and a score.
Randall Cunningham (pictured above) threw 54 passes and completed 27 of them for 407 yards, but was picked off three times. Keith Byars caught 9 of those throws for 103 yards while Keith Jackson gained 142 yards on 7 receptions and Mike Quick added another 82 yards on 5 catches. The Eagles had just 52 yards on the ground, with Byars gaining 34 of them on 7 attempts.
How much did the fog affect the outcome? Said Randall Cunningham afterward, “The fog really affected what we wanted to do. If you took your ten-yard dropback, you could only see about fifteen yards.”
Eagles owner Norman Braman, who left his seat in a luxury box for the sideline when it became impossible to see the action, said, “I was right there, and believe me, those officials wouldn’t have known if there were 22 players on the field or 16.”
But as Mike Ditka pointed out, “Half of the game was played in sunshine, and [the Eagles] couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. If they can’t score in the sunlight, that’s not our fault.”
Buddy Ryan added, “There was no reason for the game to be suspended. If this was a baseball game, maybe, but this is football, and you play the game no matter what the weather. The fog was on both sides of the line.”
Mike Quick said simply, “We beat ourselves.”
The Bears were handily defeated by the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Philadelphia made it back to the playoffs in each of the next two seasons under Ryan, but failed to win any games. Many Eagles fans believed long afterward that the club’s best chance of making a Super Bowl run during this particular era disappeared in the fog at Soldier Field.
“I worked three Super Bowls, but I get more questions about the ‘Fog Bowl’ than any of the Super Bowls,” said Jim Tunney, the referee who kept the game going. “I still think we did the right thing.”
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Temperatures in New York City were in the 20s and the field at Yankee Stadium was frozen for the NFL Championship game on December 30, 1956. The head coach of the host Giants, Jim Lee Howell, made the decision to have the players wear sneakers – reminiscent of the 1934 title game (although the sneakers were available prior to, rather than obtained during, the game). While in this instance the Bears did likewise, the result would be similar to the earlier contest.
The Giants had won the Eastern Conference with an 8-3-1 record. The offense, directed by assistant coach Vince Lombardi and led by 35-year-old QB Charlie Conerly, was conservative but effective and contained the consensus league MVP in HB Frank Gifford, who ran for 819 yards and added another 603 yards on 51 pass receptions. Defense was the team’s strength, however, coached by assistant Tom Landry and containing All-Pros in DT Roosevelt Grier, DE Andy Robustelli, and safety Emlen Tunnell. Rookie MLB Sam Huff had an impact, as did veteran newcomers HB Ed Hughes and DT Dick Modzelewski.
As had been the case in 1934, New York’s opponent was the Chicago Bears, leaders in the Western Conference at 9-2-1. George Halas still directed the club as owner, although he had retired as head coach (he came out of retirement in 1958) in favor of longtime assistant Paddy Driscoll. Chicago had the NFL’s leading rusher in FB Rick Casares (1126 yards) and the leading passer, QB Ed Brown (9.9 yards per attempt), who split time with George Blanda. All-Pro end Harlon Hill caught 47 passes for 1128 yards and 11 touchdowns. The defense, anchored by All-Pro middle guard Bill George, was rugged. The two teams had played to a 17-17 tie during the regular season and the Bears were favored coming into the title game.
The Giants were concluding their first season as tenants at Yankee Stadium, and there were 56,836 fans present. New York got off to a quick start as HB Gene Filipski returned the opening kickoff 53 yards to the Chicago 39 yard line. Four plays later, FB Mel Triplett ran 17 yards up the middle for a touchdown (pictured above). It didn’t get any better for the Bears when, on their first possession following the ensuing kickoff, Casares fumbled on the second play and Robustelli recovered for New York at the Chicago 15. Ben Agajanian ended up kicking a 17-yard field goal. Before the first quarter was over, Agajanian kicked for another three points, from 43 yards, after safety Jim Patton intercepted a Brown pass.
It was 13-0 after the first quarter as Conerly (pictured at right) entered the contest for the Giants. In an unorthodox arrangement, backup QB Don Heinrich typically started and ran the offense for the first couple of series while Conerly studied the defense’s tendencies from the sideline. With the veteran quarterback now directing the attack, New York’s lead was extended to 20-0 three minutes into the second quarter as HB Alex Webster ran three yards for a touchdown.
The Bears finally got a break when a punt was fumbled by Tunnell at the New York 25 and DT John Mellekas recovered for Chicago. A five-play drive was capped by Casares running nine yards for a TD. However, any hopes the Bears might have had of getting back into the game were dashed when the Giants responded by driving 72 yards in five plays, including a pass from Conerly to Webster that covered 50 yards and a 20-yard run by Triplett down to the Chicago two yard line. Webster finished off the possession with another short scoring run, this time from a yard out. Less than two minutes later, Giants guard Ray Beck blocked a punt by Brown that was recovered in the end zone for a TD by DB Henry Moore. The score was 34-7 at the half.
The second half added little of note. The New York defense continued to shut down the Bears, with either Brown or Blanda behind center, and Chicago even switched from the T-formation to the double-wing in an unsuccessful effort to generate offense. The Giants put together a third quarter scoring drive of 80 yards in four plays that ended with a Conerly pass to end Kyle Rote for a nine-yard touchdown (the extra point attempt failed).
New York scored once more, in the fourth quarter, as Conerly passed to Gifford for 14 yards. Backup Bobby Clatterbuck replaced the veteran quarterback at that point and the game ended with the Giants winning by a very convincing 47-7 margin.
The Giants outgained Chicago, 348 yards to 270, and held the Bears to just 67 yards on the ground. Charlie Conerly didn’t need to go to the air often, but was efficient when he did so, completing 7 of 10 passes for 195 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Mel Triplett was the leading rusher, gaining 71 yards on 13 carries with a TD, while Frank Gifford (pictured at left) had 30 yards on five attempts and also caught four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Alex Webster (pictured below right), who had the two short scoring runs among his 12 carries for 27 yards, added another 5 pass receptions for 76 yards.
The Bears went to the air 47 times, with Ed Brown completing just 8 of 20 passes for 97 yards with an interception and George Blanda succeeding on 12 of 27 throws for 140 yards, also having one picked off. Rick Casares gained only 43 yards on 14 carries with Chicago’s lone score, but also had the costly early fumble. Harlon Hill caught 6 passes for 87 yards, but most came after the outcome had been decided. End Jim Dooley added another 6 receptions for 66 yards.
“The frozen field was no excuse,” said Paddy Driscoll afterward. “They just ran on it and we didn’t…we just didn’t have it…the Giants played a great game.”
It was the first NFL Championship for the Giants in 18 years. While the team would make it back to the title game five times in the next seven seasons, the win in 1956 would be their last until the Super Bowl following the 1986 season.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Coming into the AFC Divisional playoff game at San Diego Stadium on December 29, 1979, the odds were not favorable for the visiting Houston Oilers. The team, coached by O.A. “Bum” Phillips, had finished second in the AFC Central with an 11-5 record, good enough to secure a wild card spot. They also won the Wild Card playoff against Denver the previous week, but it was at high cost. QB Dan Pastorini and WR Ken Burrough had gone down with groin and tailbone injuries, respectively, that would keep them out of the game at San Diego (Burrough would come in during the second half, but was used solely as a decoy). Even more significant was the loss of the consensus league MVP, RB Earl Campbell, who had run for 1697 yards and scored 19 touchdowns during the season and would also be unavailable due to a groin injury.
The San Diego Chargers had prospered in their first full season under offensive-minded Head Coach Don Coryell, going 12-4 to win the AFC West. The explosive passing attack was led by QB Dan Fouts, who set a new league record with 4082 yards through the air and included outstanding receivers in WRs John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner as well as TE Bob Klein (rookie TE Kellen Winslow played well until lost seven games into the season with a broken leg). The defense was solid, too, and it seemed certain that they would defeat the crippled Oilers.
All seemed to be going to plan when San Diego scored on its first possession of the game, driving 81 yards in 11 plays. Highlights were a 34-yard pass from Fouts to TE Greg McCrary to the San Diego 43 and, three plays later, a completion to Jefferson for 17 yards to the Houston 26. RB Clarence Williams capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
However, another San Diego drive into Houston territory during the first quarter ended when Oilers SS Vernon Perry intercepted a Fouts pass at his own 18 to shut down the potential scoring threat.
Midway through the second quarter, Perry made a big play on special teams when he blocked a 26-yard field goal attempt by San Diego’s Mike Woods, then picked up the ball and ran 57 yards before being forced out of bounds at the San Diego 28. Five plays later, Toni Fritsch kicked a 26-yard field goal to make the score 7-3.
Before the half ended, Perry struck again, intercepting a second pass; he lateraled to FS Mike Reinfeldt (pictured at top), who picked up seven yards to the San Diego 38 yard line. On the fourth play of the Houston possession, QB Gifford Nielsen ran 18 yards to the San Diego four, and after two more running plays got the ball down to the one. Nielsen threw an incomplete pass to stop the clock and, at that point, Fritsch kicked a field goal. However, the Chargers were penalized for having 12 players on the field and, with the ball moved half the distance, Coach Phillips gambled. He took the points off the board and the Oilers went for it with fourth down and less than a yard to go with 19 seconds left on the clock. It paid off when RB Boobie Clark took a pitchout and found running room to his left to score a touchdown that put Houston ahead, 10-7, at halftime.
The Chargers regained the lead on their first possession of the third quarter. Starting at the San Diego 35, Fouts completed passes of 20 yards to Joiner and 16 to Klein, and with the help of a roughing the passer penalty, the ball was at the Houston 14. Williams ran for six yards and then RB Lydell Mitchell finished off the drive with an 8-yard TD run.
Later in the period, CB J.C. Wilson intercepted a Fouts pass at the San Diego 45. RB Rob Carpenter, who was filling in for Campell although playing hurt himself, was thrown for a one-yard loss and Nielsen threw an incomplete pass. Facing a third-and-13 situation, Nielsen connected with WR Mike Renfro over the middle, who proceeded to break a tackle and run for a 47-yard touchdown. There was 2:05 left in the third quarter, but that would prove to be the end of the scoring.
San Diego had two more shots in the fourth quarter, and both ended in Perry interceptions. With 3:18 left in the game, Perry picked off his third pass at the Houston 35 and his last interception came on a desperation pass by Fouts intended for Jefferson with two seconds remaining in the game. The Oilers came away with a stunning 17-14 win.
The Chargers won the statistical battle, outgaining Houston (380 yards to 259) and accumulating more first downs (25 to 15). However, they also turned the ball over five times (all by interceptions) to just one suffered by the Oilers.
Vernon Perry was the star, intercepting four passes, a NFL playoff-record. He also had the blocked field goal and return that was one of the contest’s most significant plays. Perry had gone undrafted out of Jackson State and played two years with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes before joining the Oilers in ’79. He had intercepted just three passes during the regular season.
“We knew when we signed him as a free agent out of Canada that the kid was a player,” Coach Bum Phillips said of Perry. “If the Canadian League never does anything else for the NFL, they did something for us.”
“We played the pass all the time,” said Perry. “I was surprised he (Fouts) kept coming at me, but I'm glad that he did because I got four of them (interceptions).”
Offensively for the Oilers, second-year QB Gifford Nielsen (pictured at left) performed ably in place of Pastorini, completing 10 of 19 passes for 111 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Campbell-less Oilers still gained 148 yards on the ground, with Rob Carpenter leading the way with 67 yards on 18 carries. Carpenter also caught four passes for 23 yards, while Mike Renfro, with his one long 47-yard TD catch, was the team’s receiving yardage leader.
As for San Diego, Dan Fouts threw for 333 yards as he completed 25 of 47 passes, but he had no touchdown passes and gave up the five interceptions. Bob Klein caught 5 passes for 41 yards while Charlie Joiner had 81 yards on four receptions and John Jefferson was right behind with 70 yards on four catches as well. The Chargers gained only 63 yards on 19 rushing attempts, with Lydell Mitchell gaining 33 yards on 8 carries with a TD and Clarence Williams accumulating 30 yards on 11 rushes, also with a score.
“I've been around football 31 years, and I've never seen a team with more character,” summed up Bum Phillips regarding the Oilers.
“We just made too many mistakes, that's all,” Dan Fouts said from the San Diego perspective. “We didn't play very well and they did.”
The Oilers lost the following week in the AFC Championship game to the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, despite a 75-yard Vernon Perry interception return for a touchdown. San Diego went to the postseason in each of the next three seasons, making it as far as the conference championship game in the next two, but never made it to the Super Bowl during the Coryell era.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
In their second season of existence, the Jacksonville Jaguars had gotten off to a 4-7 start. They were performing in typical fashion for a recent expansion team, but then they reeled off five straight wins to finish the year. The Jaguars not only ended the 1996 regular season with a winning record of 9-7, but finished in second place in the AFC Central and qualified for the postseason as a wild card entry.
Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s team featured third-year QB Mark Brunell, who led the NFL with 4367 passing yards and 7.8 yards per attempt. Wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith emerged as outstanding receivers, but it was the running game that keyed the season-concluding winning streak. Veteran RB Natrone Means (pictured above), formerly of the Chargers, gained 364 of his 507 rushing yards in the last five games. The defense benefited from the addition of eleventh-year veteran DE Clyde Simmons (pictured below left) and rookie DE Tony Brackens, as well as rookie LB Kevin Hardy.
The Jaguars went on the road for their first playoff game, facing the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium on December 28. The Bills, coached for the eleventh season by Marv Levy, went 10-6 to end up second in the AFC East. Many of the key players who had helped Buffalo to dominate the AFC at the beginning of the decade were still vital to the club’s success, but were also showing the effects of aging and wear-and-tear, including 36-year-old QB Jim Kelly, 30-year-old RB Thurman Thomas, and 32-year-old WR Andre Reed. Defense had mostly carried the club during the season, in particular DE Bruce Smith, still an elite player at age 34.
There were 70,213 fans at Rich Stadium, a venue where the Bills had never lost a postseason game, on a cloudy day with temperatures in the fifties. Following a punt by Jacksonville, the Bills drove 43 yards in six plays to score the game’s first touchdown on a seven-yard pass from Kelly to Thomas. However, on Buffalo’s third possession the veteran defensive end Simmons intercepted a shovel pass from Kelly that was also intended for Thomas and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
The Bills came right back with a ten-play drive that included four pass completions by Kelly and ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Thomas over right tackle. But the Jacksonville offense, which had not been able to move thus far in the game, was spurred by a 62-yard run by Means to the Buffalo five. The drive stalled there, but Mike Hollis kicked a 27-yard field goal and the score was 14-10 after one quarter.
The Bills had to punt following their next possession but regained the ball when a long Brunell pass was intercepted by CB Thomas Smith in the end zone. Buffalo proceeded to mount another long drive that included three pass completions to WR Quinn Early that totaled 31 yards. But on fourth-and-one at the Jacksonville 16 yard line, Kelly’s attempted quarterback sneak was stopped short.
The Jaguars regained momentum as Brunell threw to TE Pete Mitchell for a 47-yard gain into Buffalo territory and then Means ran for a 30-yard touchdown. Jacksonville was ahead for the first time at 17-14.
The Bills managed a 33-yard field goal by Steve Christie at the two-minute warning while Jacksonville came up empty on its last possession of the half when Hollis was short on a 58-yard field goal attempt on the last play before halftime. The score remained 17-17 at the intermission.
Buffalo’s opening drive of the third quarter resulted in a 47-yard field goal by Christie that put the Bills back in front. The teams traded punts before the Jaguars moved 62 yards in 11 plays, featuring a 27-yard pass completion from Brunell to McCardell, and culminated in a 24-yard Hollis field goal to again tie the game at 20-20.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Buffalo CB Jeff Burris intercepted a partially deflected Brunell pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and 27-20 lead for the Bills. The Jaguars responded by driving 65 yards in 10 plays that resulted in a two-yard TD pass from Brunell to Jimmy Smith, and with the successful PAT the game was again tied.
On Buffalo’s next series, Kelly fumbled when hit by safety Chris Hudson and CB Aaron Beasley recovered for the Jaguars at the Jacksonville 42. Brunell completed passes of 14 yards to Smith and 11 to McCardell in setting up a 45-yard field goal attempt by Hollis that hit the right upright but caromed on through for three points.
Todd Collins replaced the injured Kelly at quarterback for the Bills and was unable to move the team in two possessions while the Jaguars were able to run a minute-and-a-half off the clock. Brackens forced Collins to fumble in the last seconds to nail down the 30-27 win for Jacksonville.
The Jaguars outgained Buffalo (409 yards to 308) although the Bills had the edge in first downs (19 to 18). Buffalo suffered more turnovers (three to two) and only managed to sack Brunell twice as offensive left tackle Tony Boselli (pictured at right) had an outstanding day against Bruce Smith.
Natrone Means had a big day running the ball for Jacksonville, gaining 175 yards on 31 carries with a TD. Mark Brunell (pictured below) completed 18 of 33 passes for 239 yards with a touchdown against two interceptions. Jimmy Smith caught 5 passes for 58 yards and a score while Keenan McCardell gained 76 yards on his four receptions.
In his last game before retiring, Jim Kelly was successful on 21 of 32 passes for 239 yards with a TD and an interception. Quinn Early caught 9 passes for 122 yards, but the Buffalo running game was held to 92 yards on 29 attempts – Thurman Thomas led the way with 50 yards on 14 carries.
Jacksonville advanced to the AFC Championship game after beating Denver in the Divisional playoff round, but the prospect of a Super Bowl between the two 1995 expansion teams (the Carolina Panthers had similarly advanced through the NFC postseason) ended when New England handily defeated the Jaguars for the AFC title (the Panthers also lost the NFC Championship game to Green Bay).
For Buffalo, it was the end of the postseason road in the Levy era. The Bills dropped to 6-10 in 1997, and while they were back in the playoffs in ’98, it was under a new head coach (Wade Phillips), Kelly was retired, and Thurman Thomas only a shell of his former greatness (381 yards rushing for the year).
Monday, December 27, 2010
The Minnesota Vikings had made it to the postseason for the first time in 1968 and were stronger in ’69. On December 27, 1969 they hosted the Los Angeles Rams at Metropolitan Stadium for the NFL Western Conference title.
The Vikings had topped the Central Division with a league-best 12-2 record. Under Head Coach Bud Grant, they featured a strong defense, in particular the line of ends Jim Marshall and Carl Eller and tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen. The offense was conservative and directed by QB Joe Kapp (pictured above) - like Grant, a product of the Canadian Football League. Kapp had his critics, for his technique (especially when passing the ball) was unpolished, but he was a tough and fiery leader who found ways to win, which included running the ball himself (and not shying from contact when doing so).
As was typical of teams coached by George Allen, Los Angeles relied heavily on veteran players, was conservative and run-oriented offensively, and defensively solid. QB Roman Gabriel was the consensus league MVP and kept the turnovers low (he tossed 24 TD passes and only 7 interceptions). The excellent offensive line allowed just 17 sacks. The Rams had won their first 11 games, but lost the last three to finish atop the Coastal Division with an 11-3 record.
There were 47,900 fans present on a 25 degree day in Minnesota. The Rams got the first couple of breaks. After Kapp passed to WR John Henderson for a 12-yard gain, FB Bill Brown fumbled and safety Richie Petitbon recovered for the Rams at the Minnesota 45. On LA’s first play, Gabriel was hit by LB Roy Winston while passing and Eller grabbed the pass for an apparent interception and return for a touchdown, but an offside penalty nullified the play. The Rams, benefiting from the reprieve, drove to a score. RB Larry Smith ran three times up the middle for 19 yards, Gabriel passed to WR Wendell Tucker for eight yards, and FB Les Josephson added five yards on three runs. On a third-and-three play, Gabriel rolled out and passed to TE Bob Klein for a touchdown.
The Vikings came back with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive of their own. Kapp completed four straight passes, including three to WR Gene Washington that totaled 49 yards; the last was for 27 yards to the LA four yard line. HB Dave Osborn leaped over Petitbon and into the end zone for a TD with 3:29 remaining in the first quarter.
The Rams put together another drive, but failed to score when Bruce Gossett was wide on a 38-yard field goal attempt. However, they were more successful on their next possession that consumed 12 minutes of the second quarter. The drive featured screen passes as well as good ground-gaining by the backs, and Gabriel kept it going with a 13-yard run to the Minnesota 47 on a third-down play. This time Gossett was successful on a 20-yard field goal to break the tie with 4:30 left in the half.
Following another punt by the Vikings, Gabriel completed passes of 16 and 18 yards to TE Billy Truax (pictured at left), the second putting the Rams at the Minnesota 22 yard line. Smith and Josephson then ran the ball down to the two. The 13-play, 65-yard possession ended with a Gabriel pass to Truax for a two-yard touchdown. Los Angeles had scored on three of four first half possessions and led at halftime by 17-7.
Minnesota came out fired up for the second half. Still, the Rams looked strong as they took the second half kickoff and Smith ran 12 yards to near midfield, but the drive stalled and they had to punt for the first time.
Kapp completed a 41-yard pass to Washington that put the ball on the LA 12, and a piling-on penalty moved the ball to the six. Kapp scrambled to the one and Osborn dove in for a touchdown that cut the Rams’ lead to 17-14.
The Minnesota defense was playing more aggressively and was stopping the LA attack that had been so effective in the first half. However, the Rams then got a couple of breaks on defense.
First, on a drive deep into Los Angeles territory, FS Ed Meador intercepted a Kapp pass at the four yard line. He returned it to the 19 and fumbled, but the Rams maintained possession. However, LA couldn’t move and had to punt again. But Kapp was intercepted a second time, by Petitbon, to give the Rams excellent field position at the Minnesota 36.
It seemed as though Los Angeles might be able to add another touchdown, but a pass to Truax at the five fell incomplete, thus forcing the Rams to go for three rather than adding a crucial seven points. Gossett was good from 27 yards to make the score 20-14 in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings put together a 65-yard drive as Kapp completed three straight passes for 40 yards to the LA 19, two of them to Brown out of the backfield, and eventually scoring a touchdown himself on a two-yard bootleg with 8:24 left to play.
Now with a one-point lead at 21-20, the fired-up Vikings stopped CB Ron Smith on the 12 yard line on the ensuing kickoff return. On the next play, Eller (pictured at right) went around All-Pro OT Bob Brown to hit Gabriel, fading back from his 12 yard line. Catching him at the two, Eller drove him into the end zone and tackled him for a safety. Minnesota’s lead was now three points.
The Rams got one more possession after the safety and, starting at their 15, advanced to the Minnesota 44 before Page intercepted a Gabriel pass to nail down the 23-20 win with 31 seconds remaining.
The statistics indicated the closeness of the contest as the Vikings outgained the Rams by just 275 yards to 255 while LA had the edge in first downs by just 19 to 18.
Joe Kapp completed 12 of 19 passes for 196 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, and ran for 42 yards (all in the second half). He had set up all three Minnesota touchdowns with outstanding passing and, beyond the statistics, displayed outstanding leadership in bringing the Vikings from behind. Gene Washington caught four passes for 90 yards and John Henderson also caught four, adding another 68 yards. While Kapp was the team’s leading rusher, Dave Osborn had 30 yards on 13 attempts to top the running backs.
In defeat, Roman Gabriel (pictured at left) completed 22 of 32 passes for 150 yards with two TDs and one interception. Larry Smith, playing with a broken nose for much of the game, led the running attack with 60 yards on 11 carries and caught 6 passes for an additional 36 yards. Les Josephson had 7 receptions for 41 yards while Billy Truax gained a team-leading 47 yards on 5 catches that included a touchdown.
“We lost because the Vikings were better than we were in the second half,” a disappointed Coach George Allen said. “I have never seen a team come so ready to play as we were and lose. It's hard to believe.”
The Vikings went on to easily beat the Browns for the NFL Championship, but they were upset in the last pre-merger Super Bowl by the AFL-champion Kansas City Chiefs. In the next 13 seasons under Bud Grant, Minnesota made it to the postseason 10 times. By the time the Rams next appeared in the playoffs, in 1973, both Allen and Gabriel had moved on.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
The NFL Championship game on December 26, 1960 featured two clubs that had not vied for titles since the 1940s and had not been expected to contend in ’60. The Philadelphia Eagles, leaders of the Eastern Conference with a 10-2 record, had been perennial also-rans since winning back-to-back championships in 1948 and ’49. Representing the Western Conference, the Green Bay Packers had been through many years in the doldrums after last going the distance in 1944.
The Eagles had steadily improved since the arrival of Buck Shaw as head coach in 1958 who, at age 61, was hoping to retire with a championship. 34-year-old QB Norm Van Brocklin (pictured above), who also came to Philadelphia in ’58 in a deal with the Rams, was seeking to do likewise. The quarterback known as The Dutchman was the key to the offense and had an MVP year in 1960. While the running game was ordinary, the passing attack was not as Van Brocklin had a good corps of receivers in diminutive flanker Tommy McDonald and ends Pete Retzlaff and Bobby Walston. Chuck Bednarik, a former All-Pro linebacker who had moved exclusively to center in recent years, had been forced to play both ways due to injuries in the linebacking corps and provided leadership, as well as outstanding performance, to the defense. Two rookies, HB/FB Ted Dean and LB Maxie Baughan, also contributed to the team’s success.
Green Bay was benefiting from the guidance of second-year Head Coach Vince Lombardi. After posting a 7-5 record in 1959, the first winning tally for the club in 12 years, the Packers had started off at 4-1 in ’60, lost three of four, and then won their final three games to vault past the Lions, 49ers, and Colts with an 8-4 tally. HB/PK Paul Hornung scored a record 176 points and, in combination with FB Jim Taylor, was part of a running attack that ranked second in the league. QB Bart Starr was still a work in progress, the receiving corps good, and the offensive line outstanding. The defense was tough, particularly the line and linebackers.
With the addition of temporary seating, there were 67,352 fans filling Philadelphia’s Franklin Field for the title contest and the weather was sunny and in the mid-40s. Things did not start out well for the Eagles when Van Brocklin tossed a swing pass that HB Bill Barnes couldn’t hold on to and was intercepted by Green Bay DE Bill Quinlan at the Philadelphia 14 yard line. Three running plays gained eight yards, and Lombardi chose to go for the first down on fourth-and-two at the six. The Eagles defense stopped Taylor short and Philadelphia took over on downs.
However, the reprieve was a short one when Dean, at the end of a ten-yard run, fumbled the ball back to the Packers at his own 22. Handing off to Hornung and Taylor, Green Bay got down to the eight yard line, but an offsides penalty backed the Packers up and two passes by Starr into the end zone were incomplete. Hornung kicked a 20-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 3-0 lead.
The Eagles were only able to get one first down during the opening period, but the defense was showing an ability to stop Green Bay’s inside running game in key situations. Heading into the second quarter, the Packers drove into Eagles territory and reached the 14 yard line. Once more the possession stalled at that point and Hornung kicked a 23-yard field goal to make the score 6-0.
Philadelphia’s passing game came alive midway through the second quarter as Van Brocklin completed a 22-yard pass to McDonald down the middle and then threw to McDonald again, this time on an outside route that resulted in a 35-yard touchdown. With Walston’s successful extra point, the Eagles led by a point (McDonald pictured below).
After getting the ball back, Van Brocklin completed a 41-yard pass to Retzlaff to the Green Bay 33. A swing pass to Dean gained 22 more, but the next three passes were incompletions and Philadelphia settled for a 15-yard Walston field goal. With time running out in the first half, the Packers responded with a 73-yard drive to the Eagles’ seven yard line, but Hornung missed a 14-yard field goal attempt on the final play before halftime. Philadelphia held a 10-6 lead at the intermission.
In the third quarter, the Packers once again moved the ball well and faced a third-and-two situation at the Eagles’ 26. In a key play, Hornung was not only stopped short but knocked out of the game when he suffered a shoulder injury after being hit hard by Bednarik. With Green Bay bypassing another field goal attempt (Hornung was at least temporarily unavailable for kicking as well as playing halfback), the Eagles stopped Taylor and regained possession.
It seemed as though the Eagles might add to their lead as Van Brocklin completed passes of 33 yards to McDonald and 25 to Walston. But at the Green Bay four he threw a pass that was intercepted by CB John Symank.
The Packers didn’t move on their next possession, but end Max McGee, who was also the team’s punter, ran out of punt formation for a 35-yard gain to the Philadelphia 46. Starr followed up with a 17-yard pass to TE Gary Knafelc, and after runs by Taylor and HB Tom Moore (Hornung’s replacement) for first downs, McGee caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Starr. Hornung’s kick put the Packers back in the lead by a 13-10 score.
However, Dean returned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the Green Bay 39. The Eagles kept the ball on the ground as they drove to a first down, but Van Brocklin was sacked by LB Ray Nitschke for a seven-yard loss. However, The Dutchman recovered with a 13-yard pass to Barnes and then Barnes carried for a five-yard gain and first down at the nine.
With the Packers expecting a pass, Van Brocklin handed off twice to Dean, the second resulting in a five-yard run for a touchdown (pictured below). The successful extra point gave the Eagles a four-point lead with 5:21 to play.
Green Bay battled back, but McGee fumbled after catching a 12-yard pass from Starr at the Philadelphia 48 and Bednarik recovered for the Eagles. Getting the ball back at their own 35 with less than three minutes remaining on the clock, Starr completed four passes on a drive that also included a nine-yard run by Taylor. But at the Philadelphia 22 and with time for only one play, Starr, seeing his deep receivers covered in the end zone, dumped a pass off to Taylor who charged down to the 10, was slowed by DB Bobby Jackson, and then finally wrestled down by Bednarik as time ran out. The Eagles had held on to win, 17-13.
The Packers significantly outgained the Eagles with 401 yards to 296 and had 22 first downs to Philadelphia’s 13. They also turned the ball over just once, to three suffered by Philadelphia. But the Eagles took better advantage of their opportunities.
Norm Van Brocklin completed 9 of 20 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and six of those completions covered 22 yards or more. Tommy McDonald caught three passes for 90 yards and a TD while Bobby Walston also caught three, for 38 yards. Ted Dean led the running game with 54 yards on 13 carries, including the game-winning touchdown, caught a pass for 22 yards, and had the key 58-yard kickoff return.
35-year-old Chuck Bednarik (pictured at right) had an outstanding performance in his two-way role. Of the game’s 142 plays, he was on the field for 139 of them and made several key defensive plays, including the game-clinching stop of Taylor on the last play.
For the Packers, Bart Starr was successful on 21 of 34 passes for 178 yards with a TD and no interceptions, but his longest completion of the day was for 20 yards. Jim Taylor gained 105 yards on 24 carries and accumulated another 46 yards on 6 catches. Paul Hornung ran the ball 11 times for 61 yards and caught four passes for 14 before having to leave the game (other than for placekicking). Gary Knafelc also caught 6 passes and gained 76 yards.
The Packers came back from the title game loss to win the next two NFL championships, and posted an extraordinary five in nine seasons under Lombardi. Things did not go as well for the Eagles. Buck Shaw retired following the title game, as did Van Brocklin. Assistant coach Nick Skorich was elevated to the head coaching job and, while the Eagles with Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback came close to winning the Eastern Conference in ’61, from 1962 on the club fell into a long dry spell. They did not return to the postseason (other than the meaningless Playoff Bowl) until 1978.
Norm Van Brocklin, having gone out on top to conclude his Hall of Fame playing career, had fully expected to succeed Shaw as head coach of the Eagles. When he didn’t, the embittered Dutchman became the first coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
The two teams meeting at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis on Christmas night, December 25, 1989, were both trying to secure playoff spots in the season’s final week of play. The Minnesota Vikings, under Head Coach Jerry Burns, had been tied with Green Bay atop the NFC Central at 9-6 and, with the Packers having won the day before, needed a victory to win the division (they had the advantage over Green Bay in the division record tiebreaker and would not be able to gain wild card entry with a second place finish). The visiting Cincinnati Bengals, coached by Sam Wyche, were 8-7 and couldn’t win the AFC Central, but still had a chance at a wild card spot.
The Vikings had been underachieving contenders the previous two years, considering the talent on the roster, and had swung a huge deal during the season to obtain RB Herschel Walker from Dallas (ultimately, the Cowboys profited far more than Minnesota). But while unbeatable in the Metrodome, they had gone 2-6 on the road, including an overtime loss the previous week at Cleveland. After making an initial splash, Walker proved to be ill-suited in an offense which further suffered from QB Wade Wilson’s inconsistency and injury-plagued performances by WR Anthony Carter and TE Steve Jordan, who had held out during training camp (contract issues were a significant behind-the-scenes problem). Defense had kept the Vikings alive, in particular the play of DE Chris Doleman (pictured at top) and DT Keith Millard, who led an outstanding pass rush.
Cincinnati had won the AFC Championship in 1988, losing a close Super Bowl contest to the 49ers, but FB Ickey Woods, the key to the ground game in ’88, went down for the year in the season’s second contest. After getting off to a 4-1 start, the Bengals played inconsistently despite the presence of QB Boomer Esiason (pictured at left), wide receivers Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, TE Rodney Holman, and RB James Brooks. The undersized defensive line had difficulty mounting a pass rush, although the backfield, led by SS David Fulcher, was formidable.
The Vikings started off well as Wilson passed to RB Rick Fenney for a 26-yard gain on the game’s first play from scrimmage and proceeded to drive 65 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 31-yard field goal by Rich Karlis. Following a Cincinnati punt, Minnesota marched to another Karlis field goal, of 37 yards, and held a 6-0 lead after one quarter.
It appeared that Minnesota might take decisive control in the second quarter as Karlis booted two more field goals, from 22 and 42 yards, and in between, following an interception of an Esiason pass by safety Darrell Fullington, Wilson tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Fenney. The score was 19-0 midway through the period. The Bengals finally got on the board, however, thanks to a 10-play, 77-yard drive that was capped by Esiason’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Brown.
Cincinnati got the ball back once more in the last two minutes of the half, and Esiason came out throwing but, after the Bengals had driven into Minnesota territory at the 43, he was intercepted by LB Scott Studwell. A 50-yard pass play from Wilson to WR Hassan Jones got the Vikings down to the Cincinnati seven, and Karlis, who had already tied the existing league record with a seven-field goal performance earlier in the season, booted his fifth, from 24 yards. It was 22-7 at the half, but could have been far more lopsided.
Three plays into the third quarter, the margin narrowed as Esiason connected with Holman for a 65-yard touchdown. While it was now 22-14, both offenses bogged down, and the Vikings sacked Esiason three times and forced two fumbles. After the second fumble recovery, Minnesota drove to the Cincinnati 15 but Fenney fumbled and DE Jason Buck recovered for the Bengals to snuff out the threat.
Near the end of the period, Vikings LB Mark Dusbabek intercepted Esiason at the Cincinnati 43, but the ensuing possession failed to add to the Minnesota lead when, now into the fourth quarter, Karlis missed a 52-yard field goal that hit the right upright and bounced away.
The Bengals drove down the field, converting a third-and-fifteen situation with an Esiason completion to McGee for 18 yards. Five plays later, the quarterback threw to RB Craig Taylor for an 18-yard touchdown, and with the successful extra point by Jim Breech, Minnesota’s lead was now down to one point at 22-21.
It was the turn of the Vikings to put together a long drive and, helped along by three penalties on the Bengals, they got down to the one yard line. On a fourth-and-goal play, Coach Burns passed up the easy field goal and chose to go for the touchdown - he was rewarded when Wilson completed a pass to reserve TE Brent Novoselsky for a TD. The successful PAT by Karlis put Minnesota up by eight points.
The teams traded punts and, with just over three minutes remaining, Cincinnati took over on its own five yard line and began to move methodically down the field. Esiason was successful on his first eight passes and a 17-yard completion to McGee on fourth-and-two took the Bengals to the Minnesota 22 yard line. The drive stalled, however, and an apparent fourth-down scoring pass to Brown was wiped out by a penalty. The Vikings held on to win by a score of 29-21.
The Bengals outgained Minnesota (309 yards to 274) and had the edge in first downs (26 to 24), but also gave up five turnovers, as opposed to one by the Vikings. Minnesota’s pass rushers sacked Esiason six times (Chris Doleman accounted for four of them), although the Bengals got to Wilson on four occasions (LB Reggie Williams had two).
Wade Wilson (pictured at right) completed 19 of 35 passes for 303 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Anthony Carter caught 7 passes for 118 yards and Hassan Jones added another 90 yards on four receptions. Rick Fenney led the team in rushing with 62 yards on 17 attempts and also grabbed 5 passes for another 51 yards and a TD. Herschel Walker gained just 43 yards on 12 carries.
Boomer Esiason, playing catchup almost all the way and being hit often, went to the air 54 times and had 31 completions for 367 yards with three touchdowns but also three interceptions. James Brooks had a typically productive day leading the team with 93 yards on 15 carries and also catching 12 passes for 66 more yards. Eddie Brown gained 109 yards on 6 catches with a TD and Rodney Holman contributed 84 yards on his three receptions that included a touchdown.
Minnesota won the NFC Central with the resulting 10-6 record but lost badly to the 49ers in the Divisional playoff. At 8-8, Cincinnati ended up not only out of the postseason but at the bottom of the AFC Central (the three other teams all made it into the playoffs, although Houston and Pittsburgh were only a game better than the Bengals at 9-7. The Steelers would have been eliminated had Cincinnati won).
Boomer Esiason was the top-rated passer in the AFC (92.1 rating) and also threw the most touchdown passes (28). He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year.
James Brooks ran for a career-high 1239 yards on 221 carries for an AFC-leading 5.6 average (the highest among NFL running backs as Eagles QB Randall Cunningham led the league with a 6.0 average). His 1545 yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the NFL. He, too, went to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive time and third of an eventual four.
Chris Doleman led the NFL with 21 sacks and was a consensus first team All-NFL selection as well as being named to the Pro Bowl for the third (of an eventual four) straight years. Teammate Keith Millard ranked third with 18 as Minnesota ended up recording a total of 71 sacks, the second-most in NFL history.
Despite playing in just 13 games, the barefoot-kicking Rich Karlis (pictured at left) had a career-year in leading the NFL with 31 field goals, out of 39 attempts. He had played seven seasons with the Broncos but was a late preseason cut following a contract dispute. Following his big year, Karlis held out again in 1990 and the Vikings, after picking up Donald Igwebuike off waivers from Tampa Bay, chose to let him go. He signed on with the Lions during the season, covering for injured veteran Eddie Murray for six games, but was let go when Murray returned. It proved to be his final year in the NFL.
Friday, December 24, 2010
The AFC Divisional playoff game on December 24, 1977 featured the Oakland Raiders, defending NFL champions, against the Baltimore Colts, three-time AFC East title-winners who had not been able to make it past the first round in the previous two postseasons.
The Raiders, coached by John Madden, finished second in the AFC West with an 11-3 record that, while it put them behind the upstart Denver Broncos, still qualified for the playoffs as a wild card entry. While there was a gnawing feeling that Oakland was beginning to slip, the club was still formidable. The offense was more run-oriented, and FB Mark van Eeghen placed at the top of the AFC with 1273 yards while the team as a whole also led the conference in ground-gaining. With QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler (pictured above), wide receivers Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff, and TE Dave Casper, the Raiders could still pass effectively.
Baltimore, under Head Coach Ted Marchibroda, had won nine of the first ten games before a late three-game losing streak nearly cost the club the division title. But the Colts finished 10-4 (beating out Miami, also 10-4 and out of the playoffs, due to a better record in the conference) and featured an explosive offense directed by QB Bert Jones, who ranked second in the NFL with 2686 passing yards, and all-purpose HB Lydell Mitchell, who ran for 1159 yards and caught a league-leading 71 passes. The defense featured a good line that recorded 47 sacks and included DT Mike Barnes and DE John Dutton.
There was a sellout crowd of 59,925 fans at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for the Christmas Eve contest. Both teams played cautiously in the first half. Oakland HB Clarence Davis ran for a 30-yard touchdown in the first quarter on the team’s fourth possession. Colts SS Bruce Laird tied the game in the second quarter with a 61-yard interception return. Just prior to the end of the half and following a Jones pass to WR Freddie Scott for 27 yards, Toni Linhart kicked a 36-yard field goal to give Baltimore a 10-7 advantage at the intermission.
The Raiders regained the lead on their first possession of the third quarter as Stabler, following a 40-yard pass play to Branch, followed up with an eight-yard touchdown throw to Casper to cap a five-play, 70-yard drive. But the Colts came right back as WR Marshall Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for a TD and 17-14 lead for the home team.
Laird intercepted Stabler for the second time, but the Colts couldn’t mount anything and were forced to punt. Raiders LB Ted Hendricks blocked David Lee’s kick, which was recovered by LB Jeff Barnes, and Oakland turned it to immediate advantage as Stabler again threw to Casper for a touchdown, this time covering 10 yards. The score was 21-17 in favor of the Raiders after three quarters.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Colts drove 79 yards to the Oakland one, helped along by Jones passes of 20 yards to WR Glenn Doughty and 21 yards to Mitchell, plus a pass interference call on rookie CB Lester Hayes in the end zone. The Raiders defense stiffened and stopped three straight running attempts, but on fourth down RB Ron Lee finally plunged in for a touchdown (the first of the game by the Colts offense; pictured at left) and, with the successful PAT, Baltimore was back in front at 24-21.
Oakland came back again, starting with HB Carl Garrett’s 44-yard kickoff return to midfield. Stabler threw to van Eeghen for 23 yards and then a pass interference call in the end zone moved the ball to the one yard line. From there, RB Pete Banaszak plunged over for the TD. But less than two minutes later, the Colts again took the lead in the back-and-forth game as Jones threw passes of 16 yards to Lee and 30 to ex-Raiders TE Raymond Chester. Lee, following a 14-yard carry, ran 13 yards for his second touchdown of the game and a 31-28 score.
Coming down to the last two minutes in regulation, Stabler threw a pass that Casper had to adjust his route to get to and, making an outstanding basket catch, gained 42 yards to the Baltimore 14. Three running plays failed to net a first down, and with 29 seconds remaining Errol Mann booted a 22-yard field goal to tie the score at 31-31.
The game went into overtime, and neither team was able to score in the first OT period, although Mann attempted a 48-yard field goal that was blocked. Oakland’s defense reasserted itself and, in three possessions in overtime, the Colts never advanced beyond their own 40.
Finally, the Raiders put together a 58-yard drive in which they converted two third downs along the way. One of them came on a diving catch by Branch in a third-and-19 situation following a sack as Stabler completed five of six throws. Stabler, facing a second-and-seven situation, connected with Casper for the third time with a game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass at 43 seconds into the second period of sudden death. Oakland came out the winner by a score of 37-31. It was the third-longest game in NFL history up to that time.
The Raiders outgained the Colts, 491 yards to 301, but also turned the ball over four times, to none suffered by Baltimore. But while the Colts rushed for 187 yards (to 167 for Oakland), the Raiders defense held Baltimore’s potent passing attack to just 114 yards, sacking Bert Jones six times.
Ken Stabler completed 21 of 40 passes for 345 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions (both by Bruce Laird). The 34-year-old veteran Fred Biletnikoff led the Raiders with 7 catches for 88 yards while Cliff Branch gained 113 yards on his 6 receptions. Of course, all four of Dave Casper’s catches were big ones, with the three TDs and the long reception that set up the game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter; he gained 70 yards (Casper pictured at right). Mark van Eeghen paced the running attack with 76 yards on 19 attempts.
Bert Jones (pictured at bottom) had a rough day against the rugged Raider defense as he completed just 12 of 26 passes for 164 yards with no touchdowns, although he also had none intercepted. Lydell Mitchell led the Colts with 67 rushing yards on 23 carries and also caught three passes for 39 yards. Freddie Scott gained 45 yards on his two receptions.
“My line gave me plenty of time," Jones said afterward. "But so often there was nobody to get the ball to. They covered us perfectly.”
“I don't know if it was the toughest game I've ever been in but it was a frustrating one,” Dave Casper summed up. “We'd go ahead and then they'd go ahead. It seemed like it would go on that way forever.”
As for playing for the touchdown in overtime rather than a field goal, John Madden said, “It was second down and I figured we'd go for the touchdown. If that failed, I was going to put Pete Banaszak in for the third down, and if we didn't score or get the first down on that, we'd kick a field goal.”
Oakland went on to lose the AFC Championship game to Denver by a 20-17 score. With significant injuries striking down Bert Jones, who had played so well during the three-year stretch from 1975-77, the Colts collapsed in 1978. The loss to the Raiders proved to be the franchise’s last postseason appearance in Baltimore – by the time the Colts next appeared in a playoff game ten years later, following the 1987 season, they were located in Indianapolis.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The two teams that met in a NFC Divisional playoff on December 23, 1972 were familiar to each other from recent postseason action. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers had met the previous two years for the NFC Championship, with Dallas coming away the victor on both occasions.
The Cowboys, winners of the last Super Bowl and coached by Tom Landry, were not coming into the game as NFC East champions in this instance - they had placed second to the Redskins with a 10-4 record and were in the playoffs as a wild card entry. QB Roger Staubach missed most of the season due to a shoulder injury, although he was available for the playoffs – Craig Morton performed capably in his absence. RB Duane Thomas was dumped off to San Diego during the season due to behavioral issues, but RB Calvin Hill had gained 1036 yards. The offensive line was exceptional, the defensive line in transition due to age and injuries. Indeed, if the defense was a cause of concern, it was because of advancing age.
The 49ers, under Head Coach Dick Nolan, won the NFC West for the third straight year, finishing at 8-5-1. They, too, lost their starting quarterback along the way as 37-year-old John Brodie suffered an ankle injury in the fifth game and didn’t return until the finale. Steve Spurrier, ex-Heisman trophy winner and first round draft pick in 1967, came off the bench and went 6-2-1 in relief (although he needed help from Brodie in the season’s last game). WR Gene Washington and TE Ted Kwalick provided outstanding targets for the passing game, while the running attack was adequate (at best). The offensive line was solid. Defensively, the line, despite injuries, led the NFL with 46 sacks while LB Dave Wilcox and CB Jimmy Johnson were key performers.
It was a sunny day at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and the 59,746 fans in attendance received an immediate thrill when HB Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys responded with a 37-yard Toni Fritsch field goal, and the first quarter ended with the 49ers ahead by 7-3.
San Francisco drove from its six yard line into Dallas territory, highlighted by a long pass play from Brodie to Gene Washington, but another long pass by Brodie was intercepted by safety Charlie Waters at the Cowboys’ one yard line.
Craig Morton had started the game at quarterback for Dallas, and on the possession following the interception he fumbled the ball away when hit by DE Tommy Hart and CB Windlan Hall at his own 15 yard line. RB Larry Schreiber (pictured at right) scored a one-yard touchdown shortly thereafter to put the Niners up by 14-3.
Schreiber scored another short TD, set up by LB Skip Vanderbundt’s interception of a Morton pass at the Dallas 32, before the Cowboys scored again on a 45-yard field goal by Fritsch. Before the second quarter was over they also got a touchdown on a 28-yard pass from Morton to WR Lance Alworth. San Francisco led by 21-13 at the half.
Early in the third quarter, the Niners failed to extend their lead when Bruce Gossett missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. While the 49ers got the ball back on another Vanderbundt interception, they had to punt. Jim McCann managed to angle the kick out at the five yard line and it led to another big break created by the opportunistic San Francisco defense. Hill fumbled on his own one yard line after being hit by DT Charlie Krueger and the result was Schreiber’s third one-yard TD of the game that put the 49ers ahead by 28-13.
Dallas wasn’t moving the ball and was being done in by turnovers. Just before the end of the third quarter, Coach Landry chose to make a change at quarterback and inserted Staubach.
In a classy gesture, Morton went to Staubach as he warmed up and told him “I have confidence in you. You can win.” But it didn’t seem that the move would change the Cowboys’ fortunes when he threw an incompletion and was sacked. Staubach fumbled when hit by DT Bob Hoskins and the 49ers recovered. It appeared once again that they would pad their lead, but Gossett missed another field goal attempt, this time from 32 yards.
The next possession went better for Dallas as Hill ran 48 yards on a draw play. After Staubach completed a pass to WR Billy Parks (pictured at left), Fritsch kicked a 27-yard field goal to narrow San Francisco’s margin to 28-16 – less than two touchdowns.
With the clock down to nearly two minutes left to play, and following a bad punt by the 49ers’ McCann that gave the Cowboys good field position at the San Francisco 45, Staubach began completing passes, two to FB Walt Garrison for 16 yards and two to Parks that included a 20-yard touchdown. The drive had run off just 32 seconds and Dallas was now down by only 28-23.
Fritsch came through with a well-executed onside kick that San Francisco WR Preston Riley briefly handled but was recovered by CB Mel Renfro for the Cowboys. On the first play, Staubach looked to pass, couldn’t find an open receiver, and scrambled 21 yards. He then completed a pass to Parks, who ran out of bounds at the 10 with 56 seconds to go, for a gain of 19 yards.
On the next play, with the 49ers blitzing, Staubach threw to his secondary receiver, WR Ron Sellers, who was open in the middle of the field in front of the goal post. Sellers scored (pictured at top), and the Cowboys took the lead.
The 49ers had one last chance with 52 seconds to work with. It seemed as though Brodie might yet salvage the game as he completed three passes, but an apparent 23-yard toss to Riley that would have put San Francisco in field goal range was called back due to a holding penalty. Brodie was intercepted by safety Charlie Waters on the next play, thus sealing the 30-28 comeback win for Dallas.
The Cowboys rolled up 402 yards, to 255 for the Niners, and also led in first downs with 22 to San Francisco’s 13. But they had turned the ball over five times, nearly burying themselves, although none came during the spectacular fourth quarter comeback. Dallas also gave up five sacks (Morton once, Staubach four times) while not getting to Brodie at all.
Roger Staubach (pictured at right) completed 12 of 20 passes for 174 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in just over a quarter of action. Previously, Craig Morton was successful on 8 of 21 throws for 96 yards with a TD and two picked off. Billy Parks led the receivers with 7 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. Calvin Hill gained 125 yards rushing on 18 carries.
For the 49ers, John Brodie threw 22 passes and completed 12 of them for 150 yards with no TDs and two interceptions (both by Charlie Waters). Preston Riley caught 4 passes for 41 yards while Gene Washington had 76 yards on three receptions. Vic Washington, in addition to running the opening kickoff all the way for a score, also ran for 56 yards on 10 carries, although Larry Schreiber was the workhorse for the Niners with 26 attempts for 52 yards and the three short TDs.
“It's the best comeback we've had since I've been in Dallas,” said Tom Landry, who showed uncharacteristic emotion afterward.
The stunning win didn’t spur the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl, however. They lost the NFC Championship game to Washington. San Francisco, having fallen short in the playoffs for three consecutive years, went into decline and didn’t return to the postseason until 1981.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
The first season of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) culminated in the Championship game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on December 22, 1946. There were 41,181 fans in attendance on a cold and windy day to see if the Browns could cap their outstanding initial year with a title.
Under Head Coach Paul Brown, Cleveland had roared through the Western Division for a 12-2 record. QB Otto Graham (pictured above), a rookie ex-single wing tailback out of Northwestern, had proven adept at operating in the T-formation. Ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli were outstanding, as was the running game led by FB Marion Motley and HB Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones. The Browns were every bit as sound defensively and did not allow an opponent to score in double digits in the first six games of the season (eight overall). In short, they scored the most points (423) and gave up the fewest (137).
The New York Yankees won the Eastern Division with a 10-3-1 tally under Head Coach Ray Flaherty, who had twice led the NFL’s Redskins to titles. Operating a single-wing offense, they had former Brooklyn star Ace Parker as the passing tailback and rookie Orban “Spec” Sanders, the AAFC’s leading rusher (709 yards). Other ex-NFL veterans who contributed heavily were G Bruiser Kinard and FB/LB Pug Manders. End Jack Russell led the receiving corps.
The Browns had not lost to an Eastern Division team during the course of the 14-game season, including the Yankees, a club they defeated twice (once by shutout). They were heavy favorites coming into the game – which proved to be a motivating factor for New York.
It was the Yankees scoring first in the opening period. Following FB/DB Eddie Prokop’s interception of a Graham pass that he returned to the Browns’ 34 yard line, Parker threw a 16-yard pass to Russell and Sanders ran 14 yards to the four. The Cleveland defense held and New York came away with a 21-yard field goal by Harvey Johnson (pictured at left).
A Cleveland drive to the Yankees’ three yard line came up empty, but the Browns came back in the second quarter with a 70-yard possession that was capped by a two-yard run by Motley. Graham completed five passes for 55 yards along the way. The score was 7-3 at the half.
Following a missed field goal attempt by Cleveland’s Lou Groza, the Yankees regained the lead in the third quarter thanks to an 80-yard possession that ended with Sanders plowing in for a touchdown, also from two yards out. The extra point attempt was missed, holding New York to a lead of 9-7.
It seemed as though the two-point margin might be enough for the upset, but the Browns put together a drive in the fourth quarter that culminated in a Graham pass to Lavelli for a 16-yard touchdown. Along the way, “Special Delivery” Jones made a shoestring catch to keep the drive alive at the New York 42. After missing on a pass intended for Speedie at the goal line, Graham threw to Lavelli who lateraled to HB Don Greenwood for an eight-yard gain. Following a seven-yard run by Jones and an 11-yard gain on a lateral to HB Tom Colella, Graham threw the TD pass.
New York wasn’t done yet, and Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff to the Cleveland 45. Tackle Lou Rymkus threw Prokop for a 12-yard loss, but Parker regained the yardage on a pass to end Perry Schwartz. However, Parker’s next throw was intercepted by Graham to snuff out the threat. The Browns won by a score of 14-9.
Cleveland outgained the Yankees (325 yards to 146) and had the edge in first downs (18 to 10). The vaunted New York rushing attack was held to just 65 yards on 29 attempts. The Yankees turned the ball over twice, while the Browns did so once on the early interception.
One of Cleveland’s problems was that Lou Groza, suffering from an ankle injury in the season finale against Brooklyn, had an uncharacteristically bad day kicking the ball, missing field goal attempts from 20, 42, and 48 yards. Chet Adams also was wide on a 37-yard try.
Otto Graham completed 16 of 27 passes for 213 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie each caught six passes, with Lavelli gaining 87 yards and scoring a TD while Speedie had 71 yards. Marion Motley (pictured at right) ran for 98 yards on 13 attempts that included a 51-yard carry in the third quarter and a score.
Ace Parker, who came under a strong pass rush throughout the game, was successful on 8 of 18 passes for 81 yards and had the one late interception. Spec Sanders was the leading rusher for the Yankees with 55 yards on 14 carries and a TD. Jack Russell caught 5 passes for 58 yards.
The championship season was just the beginning for the Browns, who would dominate the AAFC in its four years of existence before moving on to the NFL.
The game was the last for Ace Parker, who had starred for six years in the NFL before coming to the AAFC. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
The 1952 NFL season ended with both the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams tied atop the National Conference with 9-3 records, necessitating a playoff game. The clubs met at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium on December 21 to determine who would represent the conference against the Cleveland Browns for the league championship.
The Rams were the defending league champions and had made it to the title game three consecutive years as either the Western Division champ (1949) or champion of the renamed National Conference (1950 and ’51). There had nevertheless been organizational turmoil early in the season as Joe Stydahar, the head coach since 1950, resigned after a bad loss in the opening game and assistant Hamp Pool (with whom Stydahar had been feuding) was elevated to the top job. After getting off to a sluggish 1-3 start, LA won eight straight games. The Rams still boasted the league’s most explosive offense that included quarterbacks Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, receivers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, and the NFL’s leading rusher, FB Dan Towler.
Detroit, meanwhile, was a team on the rise under second-year Head Coach Buddy Parker. The offense was led by QB Bobby Layne, who had been obtained in 1950 and proved to be an excellent fit with his passing and leadership abilities. Star all-purpose HB Doak Walker missed time due to injury, but HB Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer (pictured at left) ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing (457 yards). 30-year-old veteran FB Pat Harder (pictured at top) had been obtained from the Cardinals, with respectable results, although more due to his blocking than running. End Cloyce Box led the league in touchdowns with 15. The defense was especially tough, with a backfield that was perhaps the best in the NFL.
There were 47,645 fans present on a cold, foggy day in Detroit. The Lions scored on their first possession, following an uncharacteristically poor punt by Van Brocklin. The Rams were double-teaming Box, as well as Walker out of the backfield, so Layne threw passes down the middle to big (262-pound) end Leon Hart that gained, first, 22 yards and then 13. Harder capped the 52-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run and successfully kicked the extra point to make it 7-0.
There was no further scoring in the opening period, but, following a miss by Waterfield on a 34-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, Detroit put together a six-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Harder running for a four-yard TD. The possession was highlighted by two passes to Walker, one from Layne for a 50-yard gain and the other an option pass by Hoernschemeyer that went for 24 yards and put the Lions in scoring position. The Rams finally got on the board near the end of the half when Van Brocklin tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Fears that capped a seven-play drive following an interception and made it 14-7.
Early in the third quarter, Van Brocklin threw a pass to end Bob Carey at the Detroit 40 that looked to be a big play in the making, but Carey fumbled and safety Yale Lary recovered for the Lions. Detroit made the most of the break as Walker threw a halfback option pass to Hart in the end zone for a 24-yard TD. Shortly thereafter, a 43-yard field goal by Harder (who had kicked all of the extra points as well) increased Detroit’s margin to 24-7.
The Rams fought back with an 80-yard drive deep into Lions territory, highlighted by a 47-yard run by HB Skeets Quinlan, but after getting a first down on the six yard line, four straight runs into the line by Towler were stopped and LA was forced to turn the ball over on downs at the Detroit one.
However, in the fourth quarter Los Angeles got a break when Layne went to the air deep in his own territory and was intercepted by middle guard Stan West, who returned it to the Detroit 20. Waterfield replaced Van Brocklin at quarterback and shortly thereafter Towler scored from five yards out to cut the Lions’ margin to 24-14. It was a three-point game when LA’s Verda “Vitamin T” Smith returned a punt 56 yards for another TD.
With the game coming down to the last minute, the Rams had the ball at their own 11 but a pass from Waterfield, intended for Hirsch, was instead intercepted by LB LaVern Torgeson at the LA 30. Hoernschemeyer scored a nine-yard clinching touchdown and the Lions won the game and division title by a score of 31-21.
Detroit outgained the Rams by 365 yards to 307 and had the edge in first downs with 18 to LA’s 15. While the Lions gave up more turnovers (four to three), the two fumbles and the last-minute interception were more costly to Los Angeles.
Pat Harder was the player of the game for Detroit as he ran for 72 yards on 8 carries, including two touchdowns, and caught a pass for six more yards. Adding up the two TDs, one field goal, and four extra points, he accounted for 19 points.
Doak Walker (pictured above right) ran for 29 yards on 7 attempts, caught two passes for 75 more yards, and threw a touchdown pass. Bob Hoernschemeyer gained 49 yards on 11 rushes, including a TD.
Bobby Layne (pictured below) completed 9 of 21 passes for 144 yards and was intercepted four times. The Lions made good use of their two halfback option passes that totaled 48 yards and directly scored one touchdown while setting up another. Leon Hart was the leading pass receiver for the Lions with 5 catches for 86 yards and a TD.
For the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin completed 15 of 19 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and none intercepted while Bob Waterfield added 3 of 9 for 13 yards and was picked off once. Tom Fears led the receivers with 7 catches for 76 yards and a TD while Crazylegs Hirsch had 5 receptions for 45 yards. “Deacon Dan” Towler ran for 54 yards on 13 carries and had one touchdown.
The game truly marked a changing of the guard in the West (the conferences would be renamed Western and Eastern in 1953). The Lions went on to defeat the Browns for the NFL Championship in ’52 and won the Western Conference again in 1953 and ’54 (in all instances they faced Cleveland in the title game, winning again in ’53 but losing in 1954). The Rams did not return to the postseason until 1955.
Pat Harder played one more season in 1953. While a good fullback, his kicking made him significant to two championship teams (the 1947 Cardinals as well as ’52 Lions) and he was the NFL’s scoring leader in three consecutive seasons (1947 to ’49). Harder retired with 531 career points that included 38 touchdowns, 35 field goals, and 198 extra points.
The playoff game against the Lions was the last for Bob Waterfield (pictured below). The quarterback who led the Rams to their first championship in 1945 while the franchise was still in Cleveland, he had also been a good defensive back during the single-platoon era and was one of the league’s best kickers as well. Waterfield was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
Monday, December 20, 2010
The NFC Central title was on the line on December 20, 1981 as the Detroit Lions hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Pontiac Silverdome. For the Lions, under Head Coach Monte Clark, it was auspicious to be playing at home – they were undefeated there thus far in ’81 and had beaten the Vikings impressively by a 45-7 score the week before. But both teams were 8-7, highlighting the mediocrity of the division.
Detroit may have been unbeatable in the Silverdome but had been far less successful on the road, going 1-7 (including a loss at Tampa). Starting QB Gary Danielson went down for the year in the fourth game and, after backup Jeff Komlo proved inadequate, Eric Hipple, who had seen no action in his 1980 rookie season, took over and played surprisingly well. He had good receivers to throw to in wide receivers Freddie Scott and Leonard Thompson, as well as TE David Hill. But even more significant was RB Billy Sims, the star second-year player out of Oklahoma who was among the rushing leaders. The defense was best against the run and featured DT Doug English, DE Dave Pureifory, LB Ken Fantetti, and FS Jimmy Allen.
Head Coach John McKay’s Buccaneers had come out of nowhere to win the division in 1979, regressed in ’80, but were now contending again. They had won three of their last four and a big part of it had been the performance of QB Doug Williams, particularly when passing to deep-threat WR Kevin House (pictured at left). TE Jimmie Giles was also a Pro Bowl-quality player. The defense may not have been as formidable as in ’79, but it was still anchored by star DE Lee Roy Selmon (pictured at top) and the backfield was tough to pass against.
There was a big crowd of 80,444 on hand to see if the Lions could remain dominant at home and make it to the postseason. The Bucs scored first with a 40-yard field goal by Bill Capece in the opening period, but Detroit went ahead 7-3 thanks to a nine-yard touchdown run by Hipple in the second quarter.
It appeared that the Lions would add to the margin as they again drove deep into Tampa Bay territory, but Hipple’s pass intended for Scott was intercepted by safety Cedric Brown at the three yard line and returned to the 16. On the Bucs’ first play, Williams lofted a pass to House that resulted in an 84-yard touchdown. Rather than being ahead by seven to ten points, Detroit was down by 10-7 at halftime.
Eddie Murray tied the score for the Lions with a 47-yard field goal with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. But as the game entered the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay took command with 10 points in a span of 70 seconds.
First, Capece broke the tie with a field goal 12 seconds into the final period. The biggest play of the game came on the following Detroit possession. In a third-and-10 situation, Selmon hit Hipple from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by NT David Logan, who gathered the ball in on one hop off the artificial surface and ran 21 yards for a touchdown. From 10-10, the Buccaneers now held a 20-10 lead.
Still, the Lions, urged on by the enthusiastic crowd, came back and drove to the Tampa Bay 13. But once again Hipple was intercepted by Brown, this time in the end zone. While Detroit managed to score once more with 1:21 remaining as Hipple connected with Thompson for an eight-yard TD, it was too late. The Bucs came away with a 20-17 win and the division title.
The Lions outgained Tampa Bay (340 yards to 276) and also had the edge in first downs (21 to 11). But they turned the ball over three times, to none suffered by the Bucs, and that was the key to the outcome.
Doug Williams completed just 8 of 19 passes for 172 yards, but that included the long touchdown pass and he tossed no interceptions. Kevin House caught only one pass, but it was for 84 yards and a TD. RB James Owens was the club’s leading rusher, with 61 yards on 17 carries, and also caught two passes for 49 yards that included Tampa Bay’s second-longest completion of the day, of 35 yards. Jimmie Giles caught two passes as well, totaling 19 yards.
Eric Hipple (pictured at right) was successful on 18 of 28 passes for 205 yards, but his one touchdown was offset by two costly interceptions. Billy Sims was held to 76 yards on 19 carries and caught three passes for 39 more. RB Dexter Bussey had a team-leading four catches out of the backfield for 32 yards, while Freddie Scott gained 56 yards on his three receptions.
The 9-7 Buccaneers traveled to Dallas for the Divisional playoff, and lost convincingly by a 38-0 score. Detroit’s 8-8 tally tied for second with Green Bay.
Doug Williams (pictured below) passed for a career-high 3563 yards and had 19 touchdown passes as opposed to 14 interceptions. His 7.6 yards per attempt ranked seventh in the league, as did his 3.0 percentage of interceptions.
Eric Hipple led the NFL in both yards per attempt (8.5, tied with Denver’s Craig Morton) and yards per completion (16.8). He threw for 2358 yards with 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. While he created some excitement early on, his nine-year career ended up being decidedly average.
Kevin House capped a breakout season with the long scoring catch against Detroit. Following a quiet rookie season in which he had one reception, House caught 56 passes for a career-high 1176 yards (21.0 avg.) and 9 TDs in ’81.
Billy Sims placed third among NFL rushers with 1437 yards on 296 carries (4.9 avg.) that included 13 touchdowns.
Cedric Brown ended up with nine interceptions, tying him for third in the NFL with Detroit’s Jimmy Allen, among others. In nine seasons, all spent with Tampa Bay, he intercepted 29 passes to rank third in franchise history to date. Few were bigger than the two against the Lions.