January 6, 2011
The Detroit Lions were appearing in the Playoff Bowl for the third straight year on January 6, 1963. While it was a meaningless postseason exhibition game, it still attested to the fact that they had placed second in the NFL’s Western Conference from 1960-62. Detroit did so again in ’62 with an 11-3 record, third best in the NFL.
Representing the Eastern Conference were the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had gone 9-5 in their sixth season under Head Coach Buddy Parker – the same coach who had led the Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in 1952 and ’53. The Steelers had won six of their last seven games and were largely a veteran club. QB Bobby Layne was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, and it was 34-year-old Ed Brown, formerly of the Bears, who would be starting against the Lions. Ninth-year FB John Henry Johnson had the finest season of his distinguished career, rushing for 1141 yards. Split end Buddy Dial was a potent deep threat, while TE Preston Carpenter was chosen for the Pro Bowl. Savvy veterans, center Buzz Nutter and DT Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, were also picked for the Pro Bowl, and other key contributors over 30 were DT/DE Ernie Stautner and LB George Tarasovic. Lou Michaels, a placekicker as well as defensive end, set a new NFL record with 26 field goals.
Detroit had demolished the Steelers during the regular season by a 45-7 margin, but that was at the beginning of the year and before they began to reel off wins. Coached by Parker’s successor, George Wilson, the Lions were renowned for their defense that included tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras, MLB Joe Schmidt, and the league’s best secondary with cornerbacks Dick “Night Train” Lane and Dick LeBeau and safeties Yale Lary and Gary Lowe. The offense continued to be a problem, and the acquisition of QB Milt Plum (pictured above) from Cleveland during the previous offseason, although an improvement, did not fully resolve the issue.
There were 36,284 fans for the nationally-telecast game at Miami’s Orange Bowl, the game’s best attendance to date (and exceeding the 35,000 threshold that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle stated was necessary for Miami to continue hosting the event). The Steelers were also debuting a new (and now familiar) black helmet design, having worn gold helmets previously.
The Detroit offense looked good in the first quarter, twice driving into field goal range. The first possession included passes by Plum of 20 yards to split end Gail Cogdill and 14 to flanker Pat Studstill. However, Wayne Walker missed a 29-yard field goal attempt. The second drive began just before the end of the scoreless opening period as FB Ken Webb ran for 32 yards (the longest carry of the day) to just past midfield. Plum passed the team down to the 18, and this time Walker was successful on a field goal attempt from 27 yards.
The Steelers couldn’t get beyond their 40 yard line until midway through the second quarter when they put together an 11-play drive for a touchdown. A pass interference call on a third-and-16 play got the drive moving, and a 19-yard pass from Ed Brown to Carpenter gained 19 yards, followed by a 26-yard throw to Dial for another 26 down to the Detroit 19. HB Dick Hoak scored on a six-yard run and the Steelers led by 7-3.
The Lions again drove into Pittsburgh territory, but LB Tom Bettis intercepted a pass by Plum at the goal line. However, Detroit LB Carl Brettschneider returned the favor by intercepting a Brown pass and returning it 32 yards to the Pittsburgh 34; the Lions capitalized with a 20-yard TD pass from Plum to Webb in the last minute of the half. It was 10-7 in favor of Detroit at the intermission.
In the third quarter, Pittsburgh’s Michaels tied the score at 10-10 with a 40-yard field goal. Following an interception of Plum by safety Clendon Thomas, Michaels tried another field goal but missed from 38 yards.
The Lions came back as Plum connected with HB Dan Lewis on a 74-yard pass play to the Pittsburgh five. Webb scored his second TD shortly thereafter on a two-yard run, and Detroit was ahead to stay.
In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh DB Glenn Glass intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards to the Detroit 35. However, blitzes by the Lions defense resulted in sacks that pushed the ball back to the 47 and the Steelers came up empty.
Brown was replaced at quarterback for Pittsburgh midway through the fourth quarter by Layne, appearing in the last game of his illustrious career, and ironically against the team that he had quarterbacked so successfully from 1950 through the second game of the ’58 season. Having just turned 36, the old pro might have been broken down physically, but still had competitive fire and provided some excitement as he sought to bring the Steelers from behind. He completed three passes to get Pittsburgh to the Detroit 21 yard line. However, two long throws by Layne fell incomplete as the Lions defense held. A field goal attempt by Michaels was blocked.
Detroit tried to extend its lead on the following possession, but a 32-yard field goal attempt by Walker was partially blocked and fell short, setting the stage for one last try by Layne and the Steelers. A final drive to midfield ended when Layne was intercepted by Yale Lary, essentially finishing the contest. Detroit won by a score of 17-10.
For an exhibition game, there was plenty of hard hitting and several players went down with injuries. John Henry Johnson suffered an apparent concussion, and Pittsburgh DB Willie Daniel broke his jaw while OT Dan James injured his leg. Detroit’s Ken Webb was knocked out when hit by Lipscomb.
The Lions won, despite giving up three interceptions and missing two of three field goal attempts. However, they registered six sacks in all and intercepted two passes while also blocking a field goal attempt.
Milt Plum was selected as the game’s MVP as he completed 16 of 29 throws for 274 yards and a TD (the yardage total ended up being the highest in the 10-game history of the Playoff Bowl). Dan Lewis (pictured at left) had 115 receiving yards while Ken Webb gained 47 yards on the ground to lead the club.
For Pittsburgh, Ed Brown completed 5 of 12 passes for 82 yards while Bobby Layne (pictured below) was good on 4 of 8 throws for 69 yards. Dick Hoak was the leading rusher with 64 yards.
Bobby Layne’s next stop was the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years later. Tragically, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who appeared in the Pro Bowl the following week, died from a drug overdose in May.
With the win over the Steelers, the Lions were victors in all three of their Playoff Bowl games. They would not appear in the contest again (the last was played following the 1969 season), but the three wins were the most by any team.