The San Francisco 49ers were 8-5 coming into their 1971 season finale against the Detroit Lions on December 19 and in need of a win to clinch the NFC West for the second straight year. Head Coach Dick Nolan’s 49ers had a fine, if erratic, quarterback in 15-year veteran John Brodie. He had good receivers in WR Gene Washington and TE Ted Kwalick, and solid FB Ken Willard had been joined in the backfield by HB Vic Washington, who provided outside speed. Key players in the solid defense were DE Cedric Hardman, LB Dave Wilcox, and CB Jimmy Johnson.
Detroit, coached by Joe Schmidt, had a 7-5-1 record and was out of the running in the NFC Central. QB Greg Landry had a fine year throwing the ball as well as adding the extra dimension of running ability. FB Steve Owens and HB Altie Taylor made for a good backfield tandem and, while there was speed at wide receiver, TE Charlie Sanders was the most consistent of the pass catchers. The defense had talent at linebacker and the backfield, but lacked a pass rush.
It was a clear day at Candlestick Park with 45,580 fans in attendance. San Francisco’s first possession ended with John Brodie going long and being intercepted by CB Lem Barney, who returned it 23 yards to the 49ers’ 41 yard line. With Altie Taylor and Steve Owens carrying most of the load, the Lions reached the 17 before a pass to Taylor resulted in a seven-yard loss and Errol Mann kicked a 31-yard field goal.
The 49ers responded by driving 70 yards in nine plays. Brodie threw to Ted Kwalick for 24 yards to the Detroit 36 and a third-and-eight pass to WR Dick Witcher picked up 21. Brodie finished off the series by connecting with Witcher in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown. Bruce Gossett added the extra point and the home team was ahead by 7-3.
Detroit came back with a ten-play possession that extended into the second quarter. The big play was a Landry throw to WR Ron Jessie that picked up 51 yards to the San Francisco 17. The Lions couldn’t reach the end zone from there, and an apparent scoring run by Landry was nullified by a holding penalty. Mann kicked a 39-yard field goal that narrowed the Niners’ lead to a point.
The 49ers struck back when Vic Washington returned the kickoff 29 yards and FB Larry Schreiber took off for a 23-yard gain on the next play from scrimmage. The drive bogged down at the Detroit 32 and Gossett booted a field goal from 39 yards to extend San Francisco’s margin to 10-6.
The Lions went three-and-out on their next possession and the resulting punt gave the 49ers the ball at their 32. They went 68 yards in five plays as Ken Willard rushed for 10 yards and Brodie threw to Gene Washington (pictured at left), first for 14 yards and then 32 yards after faking an end-around to get the ball to the Detroit 10. From there, Brodie passed to Willard, who made a diving catch at the goal line for a touchdown. Gossett again successfully converted and the Niners were up by 17-6.
The Lions responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive. Landry had a 13-yard run and completed a pass to WR Earl McCullouch for 15 yards in a third-and-five situation. Detroit kept the ball on the ground to go the last 41 yards, with Taylor running for a 14-yard TD. Mann kicked the extra point and the score was 17-13 at the half.
Detroit took the second half kickoff and drove 60 yards in eight plays to take the lead. Owens and Taylor ran for a combined 29 rushing yards to start the series off before a roughing-the-passer penalty added 15 yards to the San Francisco 16. The 49ers continued to hurt themselves as a pass interference penalty moved the ball to the three and, two plays later, Owens plowed the last yard for a touchdown. Mann added the extra point and Detroit was in front by 20-17.
Vic Washington had another good kickoff return, of 27 yards, and the 49ers advanced 66 yards in seven plays. Brodie went long for Gene Washington in the end zone and it was complete for a 30-yard TD. Gossett’s extra point put the Niners back on top at 24-20, but the Lions came right back with another scoring drive. Landry threw to WR Larry Walton for 14 yards in a third-and-four situation and then went long to McCullouch, who beat CB Bruce Taylor for a 56-yard gain to the San Francisco four. A penalty backed the Lions up, but Landry tossed a six-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Sanders. Mann added the PAT and the Lions were back in front by three points after a see-saw third quarter.
The fourth quarter started with Detroit giving up the ball on downs at its own 40 after Landry was stopped short on a fourth-and-inches play. It was a key development, and the 49ers made the most of the break. Brodie completed a 10-yard pass to Schreiber in a third-and-four situation and an offside call on the Lions converted another third down. The nine-play series finally ended when, facing third-and-eight, Brodie couldn’t find an open receiver and ran up the middle untouched for a ten-yard touchdown. Gossett’s extra point put the Niners back on top by four.
The Lions had to punt following their next series and San Francisco put together a time-consuming possession. Willard (pictured at right) carried the ball seven times, gaining 49 yards, before the 49ers gave up the ball on downs at the Detroit 24. However, the clock was down to 1:30. Landry went to the air on first down and LB Frank Nunley intercepted it to snuff out any last hope for the Lions. The 49ers came away with a 31-27 win.
San Francisco had the edge in total yards (357 to 310) and first downs (20 to 18). The 49ers were well balanced on offense, with 186 yards through the air and 171 on the ground. Each team turned the ball over once. The Niners were flagged 8 times at a cost of 72 yards, to five penalties for 35 yards on Detroit.
John Brodie completed 14 of 20 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Ken Willard ran for 81 yards on 15 carries and also caught three passes for 24 yards and a TD. Gene Washington gained 76 yards and scored once on his three pass receptions while Dick Witcher and Ted Kwalick also caught three apiece, for 37 and 32 yards, respectively. Vic Washington gained 38 yards on 14 rushing attempts and was effective on kickoff returns, averaging 26.0 yards on three.
For the Lions, Greg Landry (pictured at left) was successful on 9 of 18 throws for 176 yards and a TD while being picked off once and ran the ball five times for 25 yards. Steve Owens rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, to go over a thousand yards for the year, and Altie Taylor contributed 51 yards on 10 attempts that also included a score. Four receivers caught two passes apiece, with Earl McCullouch gaining 81 yards on his pair. Ron Jessie had the one 51-yard catch.
The win gave the 49ers a 9-5 record and the NFC West title by a half-game over the 8-5-1 Los Angeles Rams. They defeated the Redskins in the Divisional playoff round but, for the second year in a row, lost the NFC Championship game to the Dallas Cowboys. Detroit ended up second in the NFC Central at 7-6-1.
The up-and-down nature of John Brodie’s season was reflected in the fact that he led the NFC in both touchdown passes (18) and interceptions (24). His 387 pass attempts and 2642 yards also topped the conference. Ken Willard led the 49ers in rushing for the seventh consecutive season with 855 yards on 216 carries (4.0 avg.). Vic Washington was right behind with 811 yards on 191 attempts (4.2 avg.) and, adding in pass receiving and kick returning, led the NFL in all-purpose yards with 1986. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl along with Gene Washington, who had a NFC-leading 884 yards on his 46 pass receptions (19.2 avg.).
Greg Landry set a new rushing record for quarterbacks with 530 yards on 76 carries, good for a 7.0-yard average gain (the record was broken the following year by Bobby Douglass of the Bears). As a passer, his 8.6 yards per attempt ranked third in the league. He was also chosen to the Pro Bowl for the only time in his long career that ended in the USFL.