December 27, 2011

1959: Colts Defeat Giants to Repeat as NFL Champions

The Baltimore Colts had defeated the New York Giants in an overtime classic, one of the most celebrated games in NFL history, in 1958. The two teams were matched up again on December 27, 1959.

The Colts, coached by Weeb Ewbank, came out on top of the Western Conference at 9-3. Star QB Johnny Unitas (pictured behind center above) was, if anything, just getting better at age 26 as he set a league record with 32 touchdown passes while also pacing the NFL with 2899 yards. End Raymond Berry led in pass receptions (66), yards (959), and touchdowns (14) and HB Lenny Moore and end Jim Mutscheller were highly productive as well. FB Alan “the Horse” Ameche continued to provide power between the tackles. The defense might be showing some signs of age but was solid, especially on the line.

Head Coach Jim Lee Howell’s Giants was known for outstanding defense and a conservative offense ably directed by 38-year-old QB Charlie Conerly (pictured below), the NFL’s leading passer who averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. Multi-talented HB Frank Gifford led a good stable of running backs that included FB Mel Triplett, HB Alex Webster, and HB Phil King. 5 ½ -point underdogs, they anticipated a tough defensive battle and would seek to shut down the two Baltimore ends, Berry and Mutscheller.

It was good football weather - cool and crisp – with 57,545 fans at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. The Giants came out passing on their first play as Conerly threw to end Kyle Rote for 20 yards. Gifford followed up with a 22-yard carry, but All-Pro DE Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb sacked Conerly for a 17-yard loss as the Colts defense held and New York was forced to punt.

Baltimore responded with Unitas, faking a handoff and then twice looking to throw short to Berry to his left, passing to Moore for a 60-yard touchdown and the Colts took the early advantage at 7-0.

Late in the first quarter, the Giants were on the move as Triplett gained 28 yards on a run up the middle. Triplett carried again for six more yards and Conerly threw to end Bob Schnelker. The drive made it to the three yard line but stalled when Lipscomb stopped Webster cold on a run into the line and a pass to Gifford behind the line of scrimmage turned into a six-yard loss. Conerly was sacked for the loss of another seven yards and the Giants were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Pat Summerall.

Early in the second quarter, Steve Myhra was wide on a 43-yard field goal attempt for the Colts. New York’s defense was getting to Unitas, but the offense wasn’t able to move on Baltimore’s aroused defense. With time running out in the first half, Dave Sherer punted to the New York 17. It appeared that DHB Carl Taseff had intercepted a Conerly pass, but he bobbled the ball and Schnelker pulled it away for a 48-yard gain to the Baltimore 34. The Giants gained a few more yards before Summerall booted a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to make it 7-6 at halftime, although the Colts thought the kick was wide and the home crowd booed loudly at the result.

The Giants took the lead in the third quarter on Summerall’s third field goal, from 22 yards. It was now 9-7 and New York’s defense had been successful at stopping Unitas, particularly in third down situations, but as the period wound down the tide began to turn.

The turning point came when the Giants advanced to the Baltimore 28 thanks to a 19-yard pass play to Gifford and a 10-yard throw to Schnelker. With fourth-and-inches, Coach Howell decided to forego another field goal attempt and try for the first down. A run by Webster came up short, and the Colts took over.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Colts drove 75 yards in 10 plays. Unitas ran it in himself on a sweep around end behind Moore’s block of LB Cliff Livingston to put Baltimore back in front. Key plays in the drive were a 17-yard pass to Berry in a third-and-eight situation and completion to Moore (pictured below) that gained 36 to the New York 13.

Safety Andy Nelson intercepted a Conerly pass and returned it 15 yards to the New York 15. Two plays later, Unitas threw to rookie flanker Jerry Richardson for a 12-yard TD, and the Colts were in control.

Conerly, who was intercepted just four times during the regular season, was picked off again, by safety Johnny Sample, who returned it 42 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Sample intercepted another pass, this time by Gifford on an option play, that gave the Colts the ball at the New York 27. Myhra kicked a 25-yard field goal to cap Baltimore’s 24-point final period.

The Giants got their only touchdown late in the fourth quarter as Conerly connected with Schnelker from 32 yards out, but by then it didn’t matter. The Colts were the champions for the second straight year by a score of 31-16.

New York outgained the Colts (323 yards to 280) and had more first downs (16 to 13). While Conerly was sacked five times, the Giants got to Unitas on six occasions and the Colts were held to just 73 rushing yards on 25 carries (to 118 for New York on the same number of running plays). However, the inability of the Giants to score touchdowns in the red zone, combined with three turnovers (to none by the Colts), had a significant effect on the outcome.

Johnny Unitas completed 18 of 29 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions; he also scored on the short running play. Lenny Moore gained just eight yards on four carries but caught three passes for 126 yards and a TD. Raymond Berry added 5 receptions for 68 yards and Jim Mutscheller also had five catches, for 40 yards. Alan Ameche was the team’s leading rusher with 31 yards on 9 carries.

For the Giants, Charlie Conerly went to the air 37 times and completed 17 for 226 yards with a TD and the two interceptions. Bob Schnelker (pictured below) had a big day catching the ball with 9 receptions for 175 yards and a score. Frank Gifford ran 8 times for 56 yards and added another 13 on his two catches; he also passed twice, completing one for 18 yards but was picked off on the other.

Baltimore GM Don Kellett summed it up by saying, “We didn’t win it easily, but we won it convincingly.”

Both teams missed the postseason in 1960. The Colts started off well at 6-2 in a bid for a third consecutive title, but lost their last four games to finish at 6-6 and in a disappointing fourth place. They would not return to the postseason until 1964. The Giants contended but ended up in third at 6-4-2 in their last year under Jim Lee Howell. Under his successor, Allie Sherman, they won the Eastern Conference for the next three seasons but failed to win a championship.