December 31, 2009

1967: Packers Win Third Consecutive NFL Title, Beating Dallas in “Ice Bowl”

Even by the standards of Green Bay, Wisconsin it was exceptionally cold on December 31, 1967. The temperature for the NFL Championship game at Lambeau Field between the hometown Packers and Dallas Cowboys was minus 13 degrees below zero. As if that weren’t enough, a brisk wind out of the north took the wind chill factor down to minus 38. The temperature had dropped so quickly the night before the game that the grid of underground wires, referred to as the “electric blanket”, that was to keep the field from freezing failed – the surface was hard and slick.

Head Coach Vince Lombardi had led the Packers to four NFL championships since arriving in 1959, including the previous two seasons, and was seeking a third in a row – something only the 1929-31 Packers had done (in the pre-postseason era). While the team had retooled along the way, some players were showing their age as well as wear and tear. QB Bart Starr suffered through an injury-plagued season. Rookie HB Travis Williams was sensational returning kickoffs, but journeymen like fullbacks Ben Wilson and Chuck Mercein had to play in the backfield due to attrition. In the new divisional format, the Packers won the Central Division with a 9-4-1 record and advanced to the title game by defeating the Coastal Division champion Rams convincingly, 28-7.

The Dallas Cowboys, under Head Coach Tom Landry, had lost to the Packers in the previous championship game – a close, hard-fought affair at the Cotton Bowl. Despite injuries to QB Don Meredith and HB Dan Reeves along the way, the team won the Capitol Division with a 9-5 record and annihilated Cleveland in the first round, 52-14. Defensively, they were built around five All-Pros in DT Bob Lilly, DE George Andrie, LB Chuck Howley, CB Cornell Green, and FS Mel Renfro.

The Packers were better adapted to playing in the extreme weather conditions, and showed it on their first possession as they drove 82 yards capped by an 8-yard touchdown pass by Starr to split end Boyd Dowler. Key penalties by the Cowboys helped move the Packers along to the early 7-0 advantage.

Green Bay made it 14-0 in the second quarter, again on a Starr to Dowler pass play, this one covering 46 yards (pictured at bottom). But Dallas got two breaks late in the first half. First, Starr was sacked by DE Willie Townes and fumbled, with Andrie picking up the skittering football and rumbling seven yards for a touchdown. Then safety Willie Wood muffed a punt at his 17 yard line, and the Cowboys again recovered. Danny Villanueva kicked a 21-yard field goal, and the Packers led by just 14-10 at halftime.

Green Bay’s offense turned as cold as the weather in the third quarter. CB Herb Adderley recovered a Meredith fumble on the Packer 13 yard line, which prevented a possible Dallas score but nothing more. The Cowboys finally struck with a big play in the fourth quarter, with Reeves successfully decoying the Green Bay defense and firing a halfback option pass to flanker Lance Rentzel that covered 50 yards and put Dallas ahead, 17-14.

For the next ten minutes, the momentum belonged to the Cowboys. They controlled the ball as Meredith (pictured at left) began to hit timely passes. The defense sacked Starr eight times, had not allowed the Packers to go farther than 14 yards in any of their last 10 possessions, and appeared to have the game in hand.

With 4:58 left to go, Green Bay got the ball back at its 31 yard line. Starr threw a screen pass to HB Donny Anderson for six yards, and then Mercein ran for seven and a first down. Starr hit Dowler down the middle for 13 yards. But then Anderson slipped and was tackled for a nine-yard loss. Starr went right back to Anderson, hitting him on consecutive passes to the Dallas 30.

Now it was Mercein catching a short pass and running to his left past Howley, who slipped and fell, and finally going out of bounds at the 11. Mercein ran again, and with Andrie slipping to the ground, went 8 yards to the Dallas three yard line. Anderson ran for two yards and a first down at the one. At this point, the Packers called their first time out. Now it was time for the Dallas defense to make a stand, and two running plays were stopped for no gain.

With 17 seconds left on the clock and stalled at third and goal on the one, the Packers took their last time out. In one of the most daring decisions in pro football history, Lombardi elected to pass up a game-tying field goal attempt and go for the all-or-nothing touchdown. Starr suggested a quarterback sneak on their 31-wedge play (normally a fullback dive). Guard Jerry Kramer had to make the key block on Cowboys DT Jethro Pugh – in the huddle, Starr told him, “Nothing short of the goal. It’s up to you, Jerry.”

Starr took the snap, Kramer made his block on Pugh (with help from C Ken Bowman), OT Forrest Gregg knocked Townes away, and the quarterback fell into the end zone (pictured at top). With Don Chandler’s extra point, the Packers were the champions once again by a score of 21-17.

Bart Starr completed 14 of 24 passes on the day, with two touchdowns and none picked off. Donny Anderson was the leading rusher, although at 18 carries for 35 yards he averaged less than two yards a carry. Chuck Mercein (pictured at right), who ran so effectively on the final drive, gained 20 yards on 6 attempts and caught two passes for 22 more. Anderson and Boyd Dowler both led the team with 4 pass receptions, with Dowler gaining the most yards (77) and scoring twice.

The Cowboys gained 109 yards through the air, with Dan Reeves accounting for 50 of that with his option TD pass. Don Meredith completed 10 of 25 throws for 59 yards with an interception. FB Don Perkins led the rushers with 51 yards on 17 carries, and Reeves added 42 yards on 11 attempts. Reeves also caught three passes for 11 yards, and the speedy split end Bob Hayes also caught three, for just 16 yards. Lance Rentzel, with the one long TD, gained 61 yards on two catches.

Green Bay went on to win the second Super Bowl over the AFL champion Oakland Raiders. But Lombardi stepped away from the sidelines, remaining in the front office for a year before leaving the Packers altogether. Phil Bengston would lead the aging team to a 6-7-1 finish in 1968. Dallas stayed a contender, making it to the postseason in each of the next three seasons until finally winning an NFC title in 1970, the first year of the merger, and a Super Bowl following the ’71 season.

But on a day when they battled the extreme cold as well as the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers played inspired clutch football when they had to, and earned a third consecutive championship.

December 30, 2009

1995: Eagles Defeat Lions in High-Scoring NFL Postseason Game

The Detroit Lions came on strong in the second half of the 1995 season, winning their last seven consecutive games to finish at 10-6 and in second place in the NFC Central. They had a high-powered offense, directed by QB Scott Mitchell, who passed for 4338 yards and 32 touchdowns. He had excellent receivers, led by WR Herman Moore, who set an NFL record with his 123 pass receptions, and fellow WR Brett Perriman, who also reached triple figures with 108 catches. Together they accumulated 3174 yards between them (Moore with 1686, Perriman adding 1488). And they had the explosive Barry Sanders at running back (1500 yards rushing).

They certainly seemed to be on a roll, and veteran OT Lomas Brown guaranteed a win in the Wild Card playoff game, set for December 30, 1995 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Eagles had also finished at 10-6 and in second place in the NFC East. But while they had an outstanding running game featuring Ricky Watters (1273 yards rushing, 62 catches and 434 yards receiving) and change-of-pace back Charlie Garner, they had the NFL’s 29th-ranked passing offense and were outscored by their opponents over the course of the schedule (318-338). QB Rodney Peete (pictured above), formerly of the Lions, had taken over at quarterback for the benched Randall Cunningham and performed above expectations. The Eagles were a team that played at a high emotional level, as exemplified by first-year Head Coach Ray Rhodes (pictured below), and it had carried them into the playoffs.

The possibility of an offensive explosion in this playoff game was quite real, but no one, including the 66,099 fans in attendance, could have anticipated the number of points that went up on the scoreboard, or that it would be the Eagles scoring so prodigiously.

At the end of the first quarter, the game was tied at 7-7, but in the second quarter Philadelphia exploded for 31 unanswered points. Peete threw two touchdown passes, including a desperation pass on the last play of the first half that turned into a 43-yard scoring reception by WR Rob Carpenter; CB Barry Wilburn returned an intercepted pass 24 yards for a score; and Watters contributed a one-yard TD run. At halftime, the score was 38-7.

It was 51-7 before the Lions, with Don Majkowski having replaced the ineffective Mitchell at quarterback, finally got on the board again. Peete threw his third TD pass, of 45 yards, to Watters and Gary Anderson contributed his second and third field goals of the game. Majkowski then threw the first of his three touchdown passes, of 68 yards to Moore, and hit WR Johnnie Morton on a seven-yard pass play to make the score a slightly-more-respectable 51-21 at the end of the third quarter.

Eagles LB William Thomas capped the Philadelphia scoring with a 30-yard interception return in the fourth quarter, while Detroit put 16 more points on the board in a too-little, too-late effort that made the final tally 58-37.

The total of 95 points beat the previous record of 79 (accomplished twice) by 16 points [ADDENDUM: the record was broken on Jan. 10, 2010 when the Cardinals and Packers combined for 96 points]. The Eagles outgained the Lions, 452 to 422 yards. Rodney Peete showed up his former team as he completed 17 of 25 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. WR Fred Barnett caught 8 passes for 109 yards and a 22-yard TD. Garner led the rushers with 78 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.

The two Detroit quarterbacks threw for 361 yards with four TDs and six interceptions. Moore caught 7 passes for 133 yards, while WR Aubrey Matthews, who caught just four passes all season but replaced the injured Perriman in the first quarter, also had 7 receptions (73 yards). Sanders was a non-factor, accumulating just 40 yards on 10 carries.

Coach Rhodes and defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas used extra defensive backs, including safety Mike Zordich at linebacker, and it worked to fluster Mitchell and derail the Detroit offense (Mitchell pictured below being chased by DE Danny Stubbs).

Afterward, a chastened Lomas Brown said, “Any time you turn the ball over six times, you could play a high school team and you're not going to win. They had the better team today. They beat us convincingly.” (Actually, it was seven turnovers with a fumble added to the pickoffs).

Detroit Head Coach Wayne Fontes acknowledged that the Eagles had beaten the Lions at their own game: "Well, first it was 7-7 and then I turned around and it was 31-7. We're usually that type of team. We're used to getting up on teams like that."

The Eagles came back down to earth in the NFC Divisional playoff game, losing decisively at Dallas. Detroit dropped to 5-11 in 1996, although they made it to the postseason twice more in the following three years, again losing in the first round in each instance.

December 29, 2009

1963: Bears Exploit Turnovers to Defeat Giants for NFL Championship

It was a frigid day at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on December 29, 1963 as the Bears hosted the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game. The temperature at game time was 11 degrees. There were 45,801 fans in attendance to see which team would prevail – the home town club with its outstanding defense, or the visitors and their vaunted passing offense.

The Bears were coached by the 68-year-old “Papa Bear”, George Halas. With a zone defense installed by assistant coach George Allen, Chicago had put together an 11-1-2 record to edge out the Green Bay Packers in the Western Conference. The defensive line was anchored by DE Doug Atkins; the linebacking corps of Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Larry Morris was the best in pro football; and the defensive backfield, led by free safety Roosevelt Taylor, who co-led the NFL with 9 interceptions, was excellent as well. The offense, led by QB Bill Wade, played conservatively but effectively.

The Giants, 11-3 under Head Coach Allie Sherman, featured an aerial attack directed by 37-year-old veteran QB Y.A. Tittle, who had been traded to New York from the 49ers prior to the 1961 season and proceeded to set passing records while leading the Giants to three consecutive Eastern Conference titles. In 1963, Tittle had broken his own record for TD passes, set just the previous year, with 36 (George Blanda had thrown the same number in the AFL in 1961) and led the league with a 60.2 completion percentage and 8.6 yards per attempt. He had a fine receiving corps led by split end Del Shofner and flanker Frank Gifford. The defense was aging but effective.

The Bears had the first possession of the game and ran the ball well until Wade, a good running quarterback, fumbled after a 12-yard carry at his own 41 yard line. CB Erich Barnes recovered for the Giants, and a few plays later Tittle threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Gifford. However, LB Morris rolled into Tittle’s left leg as it was planted to throw, tearing ligaments in his knee. The Giants led, 7-0, but the score would prove to be a costly one (pictured below, Tittle getting set to throw the scoring pass with #33 Morris about to roll into him; #31 is Joe Fortunato).

The teams exchanged punts, and then once again the Bears turned the ball over on a fumble, this time by HB Willie Galimore. With the ball on the Chicago 31, Tittle went for the touchdown on first down, firing to Shofner who had CB Dave Whitsell beaten by five yards in the end zone. The normally reliable All-Pro receiver jumped an instant too late and wasn’t able to make the catch. On second down, Morris intercepted a screen pass intended for HB Phil King and returned it 61 yards to the New York five yard line. Two plays later, Wade scored on a quarterback sneak, and instead of the Giants being up by two touchdowns in the first quarter, the score was tied at 7-7.

The Giants drove downfield once more, with the key play being a 36-yard pass from Tittle to TE Aaron Thomas. But with first and goal on the Bears three yard line, Chicago held and New York had to settle for a 13-yard Don Chandler field goal.

As the game continued through the second quarter, Chicago’s offense couldn’t move the ball against New York’s tenacious defense, but the Giants were unable to score again. Larry Morris once again hit Tittle and aggravated his knee injury to the point that he had to be helped off the field and didn’t immediately return. Chandler missed a field goal attempt, and the score remained 10-7 in favor of New York at the half.

The Bears defense turned another big play in the third quarter - they were on the lookout for screen passes, and DE Ed O’Bradovich cut in front of FB Joe Morrison to pick one off in Giants territory (pictured at right). Aided by a key third down pass completion to TE Mike Ditka, the Bears scored their second touchdown as Wade once again snuck over from a yard out.

After a missed field goal attempt by the Bears in the fourth quarter, Tittle and the Giants mounted one more major drive, moving from their 20 yard line deep into Chicago territory. But CB Bennie McRae intercepted a Tittle pass on third-and-five to end the threat. Still, the Bears were unable to mount a sustained drive to run out the clock and the Giants got the ball back once more at their 16 yard line with less than two minutes remaining.

Tittle connected for three passes that covered 30 yards, and in a third down situation hit Gifford for 15 yards to the Chicago 39. With 15 seconds left, Tittle threw a bomb intended for Shofner, but it was intercepted by strong safety Richie Petitbon and the Bears were league champions with a 14-10 win.

The day truly belonged to the Bears defense, as exemplified by the selection of Larry Morris as the MVP (pictured at top, stopping Joe Morrison) and the awarding of the game ball to George Allen. Of course, as Giants DE Andy Robustelli said afterward, “If Tittle hadn’t been hurt, we’d have won”. The Bears were outgained, 268 yards to 222, and their two touchdown possessions totaled 19 yards thanks to the excellent field position they were given through the interceptions by Morris and O’Bradovich. Bill Wade (pictured passing below left) completed just 10 of 28 passes for 138 yards, although to his credit he threw no interceptions. HB Ron Bull was the leading rusher for the Bears, with 42 yards on 13 carries; Wade was second, with 34 yards on 8 attempts and the two TDs. Ditka and FB Joe Marconi each caught three passes, with Marconi’s 64 yards leading the team (Ditka had 38 yards).

For the Giants, Y.A. Tittle, hampered by the injured knee, completed 11 of 29 passes for 147 yards with one TD and five interceptions. Frank Gifford topped the receivers with three receptions for 45 yards and a score. Joe Morrison also caught three passes (for 18 yards) and was the leading rusher with 18 carries for 61 yards. Most tellingly, Del Shofner caught no passes at all.

The loss was especially galling for Tittle, appearing in his last postseason game (he retired following the 1964 season), but never winning one. The Giants were on the verge of a long decline – this was their sixth championship game appearance in eight years (only the first, in 1956, resulted in a win), but they would not appear in the playoffs again until 1981. The Bears fell quickly from their perch as well, going 5-9 in 1964; they wouldn’t make the postseason again until 1977.

For Halas, it was his sixth – and final – NFL championship, stretching all the way back to 1921. On a frigid day at Wrigley Field, 42 years after leading the Bears to a title for the first time (before there even was a postseason), “the Papa Bear” and his team were back on top once more.

December 28, 2009

1958: Colts Defeat Giants in Overtime for NFL Title in “Greatest Game”

Perhaps no pro football game has received more attention than the NFL Championship game played at Yankee Stadium in New York on December 28, 1958. While it has been characteristically referred to as “the Greatest Game Ever Played”, such a statement is debatable – while it was certainly a very good game, there’s plenty of competition for that highly subjective title. But it was the most significant game in terms of fueling the rise of pro football and cementing its place on network television and in the national consciousness.

The host Giants, coached by Jim Lee Howell, had won the title two years previously and typically contended in the Eastern Conference. They had not had an easy road to the championship game, having won the last four contests of the season to end up in a tie with Cleveland. The last win had in fact been over the Browns in a nail-biting, must-win contest that came down to a late 49-yard field goal by Pat Summerall. The Giants had to then host the Browns once again in a tie-breaking playoff, and won once more, 10-0.

Baltimore was less well known nationally than the Giants, having only come into existence in 1953, and was in the postseason for the first time thanks to the coaching of Weeb Ewbank, who was in his fifth year. They boasted QB Johnny Unitas, who in his third season led the league in touchdown passes (19) and was already being referred to as one of the premier players at his position. Split end Raymond Berry tied for the NFL lead in pass receptions (56), and the Colts could run the ball formidably with FB Alan “The Horse” Ameche and halfbacks Lenny Moore (a great receiver out of the backfield as well) and L.G. Dupre.

There were 64,185 fans at Yankee Stadium and another 40 million watching on tv as the Giants took the early lead on a 36-yard Summerall field goal. But the Colts dominated play for the most part in the first half, and scored twice in the second quarter – on a two-yard run by Ameche and a 15-yard pass play from Unitas to Berry – to take a 14-3 lead into halftime.

It appeared that Unitas and the Colts were going to take decisive control of the game on their first possession of the third quarter, driving to the New York three yard line. But the Giants defense held at that point, and when the Colts went for it on fourth down, LB Cliff Livingston nailed Ameche for a four-yard loss. Momentum now shifted to the Giants, and QB Charley Conerly hit end Kyle Rote on a deep slant; he fumbled at the Baltimore 25, but HB Alex Webster, trailing the play, picked up the loose football and carried it down to the one. FB Mel Triplett scored from there to cut the Colts lead to 14-10.

On the next possession, Conerly connected on a pass to end Bob Schnelker for 46 yards, setting up the go-ahead touchdown on a 15-yard pass from Conerly to HB Frank Gifford. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, New York led 17-14. The solid Giants defense stopped the next two Baltimore drives. With the clock dipping under three minutes, the Giants faced a third-and-four situation at their own 40 yard line; a first down would all but nail down the win. Conerly handed off to Gifford, who was hit hard by DE Gino Marchetti (who broke his leg on the play) and seemed very close to the necessary yardage; the officials placed the ball just short, and Coach Howell elected to punt.

Don Chandler’s punt was a good one that the Colts were forced to fair catch at their 14 yard line. Now it was Unitas driving the Colts down the field. On a third-and-ten play, he hit Moore for a first down at the 25. With the Giants double-teaming the multi-talented Moore, Unitas found Berry for a diving catch at the 35. Unitas kept going to Berry, who caught three passes for 62 yards on the drive to the New York 13. With the clock ticking down to 30 seconds, Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal (pictured below) to tie the game at 17-17 and set the stage for the first “sudden death” overtime in NFL history.

The Giants won the toss and received, but came up short on a third down Conerly bootleg and had to punt. Baltimore got the ball on their 20 yard line, and from there Unitas directed one of the most famous drives in pro football history. First, L.G. Dupre swept for 11 yards. After a pass intended for Moore was batted away by Giants defensive halfback Lindon Crow, Ameche gained two yards on a draw play. On third-and-eight, Unitas passed to Ameche who just made enough yardage for the first down.

Dupre ran again, but then Unitas was sacked by DT Dick Modzelewski. With a third-and-15 situation, Unitas found Berry on a 20-yard pass play to keep the drive going. Another big gain followed as Ameche rumbled for 23 yards on a trap play to the New York 21 yard line. After a short gain by Dupre, it was Unitas to Berry once again for 12 yards and a first down at the Giants 8. Ameche ran for a yard, and then Unitas surprised the Giants with a six-yard pass to end Jim Mutscheller that put the ball on the one. From there, Ameche ran in for the score (pictured at bottom) and the Colts had a 23-17 win and the championship.

Johnny Unitas completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards with a TD and an interception. Berry was the top receiver with 12 catches for 178 yards and a score, and Lenny Moore had 101 yards on 6 receptions (he had a 60-yard catch in the first half). Alan Ameche led the runners with 65 yards on 14 carries, including the two touchdowns.

For New York, Charley Conerly had a solid performance in completing 10 of 14 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown. Frank Gifford ran for a team-high 60 yards on 12 carries and also led the Giants with three pass receptions, for 14 yards and a TD, although he also fumbled the ball away three times. Kyle Rote accumulated the most pass receiving yards with 76 on two catches, and Bob Schnelker was right behind with 63 yards on his two receptions.

There was plenty of room for second-guessing with a game that was so close and turned on a few key plays. The decision to play for the touchdown rather than a field goal at the end particularly drew speculation, but the fact was that the pass to Mutscheller was a second down play and, with the team on a roll and Myhra not a sure bet to make the kick (the Giants blocked an attempt in the first half), Unitas was not inclined to be too conservative; in this instance, it proved to be a successful strategy and helped to confirm the lanky quarterback’s reputation as a daring field general and skillful clutch performer.

The close calls and second guesses have provided fuel for discussion over the years, but the outstanding performances – especially by Unitas – and the “sudden death” overtime element have long given the game an iconic status. And it surely generated interest in the sport at a time when television was ready to provide more exposure. Maybe, when you put all of the elements together, it truly was “the Greatest Game”.

December 27, 2009

1964: Gary Collins Scores 3 TDs as Browns Upset Colts for NFL Title

The NFL Championship game on December 27, 1964 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was expected to be a classic mismatch. The visiting Baltimore Colts, who had topped the Western Conference with a 12-2 record, were heavily favored over the host Browns, the 10-3-1 winners of the Eastern Conference title.

First and foremost, the Colts had Johnny Unitas at quarterback, and he led a diversified attack that scored a league-high 428 points. HB Lenny Moore, who had nearly been written off as washed up after two injury-plagued seasons, came back in ’64 to score a then-NFL record 20 touchdowns. The defense was opportunistic and played very well as a unit, anchored by DE Gino Marchetti, CB Bob Boyd, and LB Bill Pellington.

Cleveland’s offense, as it had been since 1957, was centered around FB Jim Brown, who led the NFL in rushing for the seventh time in eight seasons with 1446 yards. A new weapon had been added to the arsenal in rookie split end Paul Warfield, who caught 52 passes for 920 yards and teamed up with flanker Gary Collins to make the passing game, directed by QB Frank Ryan (pictured below), more potent. The defense was considered vulnerable against the pass, but solid against the run thanks to the addition of ex-Giant DT Dick Modzelewski.

Both head coaches, Baltimore’s Don Shula and Blanton Collier of Cleveland, were in their second seasons on the job.

There were 79,544 fans present on an overcast, cold, and windy day, and what they saw initially was rather dull as neither team scored in the first half. The Browns had concluded in their film study of the Colts that Unitas was inclined to shuffle in the direction of his primary receiver when setting up to throw, and based their pass defense on taking out that first target on each play and giving the defensive line time to penetrate as the great quarterback looked to secondary receivers. The strategy placed a great deal of responsibility on CB Walter Beach, whose main task was covering Unitas’ favorite target, split end Raymond Berry.

Cleveland’s defensive scheme worked, as Unitas faced a relentless pass rush from Modzelewski; DT Jim Kanicki, who had a tremendous day against Hall of Fame guard Jim Parker; and defensive ends Paul Wiggin and Bill Glass. He was forced to scramble and adjust formations in an effort to get receivers open. The Colts were able to penetrate deep into Browns territory just once, getting down to the 12 yard line, but an attempted field goal by Lou Michaels failed when Boyd, the holder, bobbled the snap.

The Browns, playing conservatively, weren’t able to get anything going in the first half either, but finally broke the scoreless tie in the third quarter. Baltimore punter Tom Gilburg punted, and caught by the brisk wind, the ball traveled only 25 yards. With good field position, Ryan managed to move the Browns into range for a successful 43-yard field goal by 40-year-old placekicker Lou Groza.

The Colts were forced to punt again after their next possession. Baltimore’s defense had been concentrating on taking the area between the tackles away from Jim Brown. Now Coach Collier called for a sweep, and Brown made one of the key plays of the game, running 46 yards to the Baltimore 18. Ryan fired a pass to Collins in the end zone (pictured at top), and the Browns were ahead, 10-0.

Before the third quarter was over, the Browns struck again, with Collins once more gathering in a pass from Ryan and going 42 yards for a TD on a blown coverage by the Colts. Cleveland made it 20-0 early in the fourth quarter, thanks to another Groza field goal of 10 yards, and finished off the stunning win with a third scoring pass from Ryan to Collins, this one covering 51 yards. The defense harassed Unitas to the end (see picture at bottom), and the final score was an amazing 27-0 shutout.

Collins was the most obvious hero for the Browns, catching 5 passes for 130 yards and the three touchdowns. Frank Ryan completed 11 of 18 passes for 206 yards with three TDs and an interception. Jim Brown ran the ball 27 times for 114 yards and caught 3 passes for 37 more. In all, Cleveland accumulated 339 total yards.

By contrast, Baltimore and its formidable offense was held to just 181 yards by the inspired Browns defense. Unitas completed 12 of 20 passes for only 95 yards and was intercepted twice. Raymond Berry had only three receptions for 38 yards. Lenny Moore led the runners with 40 yards on 9 carries; a telling statistic was that Unitas, forced out of the pocket by the Cleveland pass rush, ran the ball 6 times for 30 yards.

“The Browns secondary forced us to play conservatively, and that wasn’t our style”, said Unitas later. “We wanted to go out and gun ‘em down, but they took that away.”

The championship was Cleveland’s fourth in the NFL, and eighth in all (counting the AAFC). But while the team reached the league title game three more times in the 1960s and the conference championship game twice in the 80s, they have yet to win another.

December 26, 2009

1965: Packers Prevail in Overtime Over Colts for Western Conference Title

The two best teams in the NFL’s Western Conference, the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts, met in a tie-breaking playoff at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on December 26, 1965. The Colts, under third year Head Coach Don Shula, had gotten off to a 9-1-1 start before disaster struck in the 12th week against the Bears as star QB Johnny Unitas fractured his knee and was lost for the rest of the season. Backup Gary Cuozzo stepped in, but was also lost for the remainder of the year in the following game against the Packers with a separated shoulder.

Shula was down to his emergency quarterback, Tom Matte (pictured above). Matte had been a college quarterback at Ohio State under legendary Head Coach Woody Hayes, but that consisted of running the ball and passing only out of necessity. Matte had been converted into a halfback by the Colts, and was a good one, but had thrown only option passes in his four NFL seasons and was certainly underprepared – and lacked the arm strength – to put in significant action at quarterback. Baltimore made a desperation trade for 37-year-old veteran Ed Brown from the Steelers, who came in on obvious passing situations in the season finale; the Colts managed to defeat the Rams while throwing just seven passes (and completing three, all by Brown, including a TD) and end the regular season at 10-3-1.

Green Bay, under Head Coach Vince Lombardi, had won the first six games, lost three of the next five, and then won two (including the game against the Colts in which Cuozzo was injured). Going into the last game of the season, a win would give them the conference title, while a loss and a Colts win would put Baltimore over the top. Instead, they tied the 49ers at San Francisco, and with the Colts winning, found themselves even, also at 10-3-1.

Ed Brown would not be available for the playoff game, so it was all up to Matte, using a wristband that contained the plays that Shula listed for his use in a simplified offense (Matte’s backup was CB Bob Boyd, another non-passing college QB at Oklahoma). Lombardi was determined to keep Matte boxed in by his defensive ends, and had the defensive backs play shallow since long passes were out of the question.

However, it was the Colts getting a huge break on the very first play from scrimmage. Green Bay QB Bart Starr passed ten yards to TE Bill Anderson, who was hit hard by Baltimore CB Lenny Lyles and fumbled. Colts LB Don Shinnick picked up the loose ball and ran 25 yards for a touchdown. Along the way, Starr attempted to tackle Shinnick but was hit by Colts safety Jim Welch and suffered bruised ribs. He would not return to the game.

Zeke Bratkowski (pictured at right) replaced Starr at quarterback, and while he was an accomplished backup, the Colts largely stifled the Green Bay offense during the first half. Their 5-1 defense proved highly effective against the tough Packer running game. The closest they came to scoring prior to their last possession of the half was a missed field goal attempt from 47 yards out by Don Chandler.

Meanwhile, the Colts scored again in the last three minutes of the second quarter on a drive that started on their own 25 yard line. Matte completed a crucial screen pass to HB Lenny Moore on third and eight for a first down at the Green Bay 39 and made it to the eight yard line before the Packers held fast. Lou Michaels kicked a 15-yard field goal. While Green Bay managed to get inside the Baltimore one yard line on their ensuing possession, the Colts stopped them short, with FB Jim Taylor fumbling on fourth down. Baltimore went in at halftime with a 10-0 lead.

The Colts, who had played conservatively out of necessity in the first half and had also avoided mistakes, made a big one in the third quarter. Punter Tom Gilburg bobbled a high snap and attempted to run; he was quickly brought down for a loss at the Colts 35 yard line. The Packers took full advantage as Bratkowski threw 33 yards to flanker Carroll Dale, and shortly thereafter HB Paul Hornung burst over on a one-yard touchdown run.

The Colts clung to their 10-7 lead, stopping two Green Bay drives with interceptions by Boyd and strong safety Jerry Logan. Finally, with time running down in the fourth quarter, Green Bay moved the ball downfield and set up for a 22-yard field goal attempt. The angle was not a favorable one, and after the kick sailed high above the left upright, Chandler shook his head in disgust. But the officials signaled that the field goal was good, and the game was tied with 1:58 remaining.

The contest proceeded to “sudden death” overtime. On their second possession, the Colts got the first scoring opportunity, but due to a bad snap the 47-yard field goal attempt by Michaels missed. Bratkowski then drove the Packers downfield, throwing back-to-back 18-yard passes to Anderson and Dale. At 13:39 into overtime, Chandler booted the game-winning 25-yard kick (no controversy this time), and Green Bay won the hard-fought contest, 13-10.

Tom Matte drew plaudits for accomplishing the most that could be expected in his play as the emergency quarterback – he completed 5 of 12 passes for 40 yards, and while he didn’t throw any scoring passes, he also didn’t give up any interceptions. The Colts ran the ball 47 times for 143 yards, with Matte leading the way with 17 carries for 57 yards; FB Jerry Hill also accumulated 57 yards on one less attempt. The five pass completions were made by two players: TE John Mackey, with three receptions for 25 yards, and Lenny Moore with two catches out of the backfield for 15 yards.

Playing in place of the injured Bart Starr, Zeke Bratkowski completed 22 of 39 passes for 248 yards with two picked off. TE Anderson led the receivers with 8 receptions for 78 yards. The Colts held the Packers to 112 yards on 39 carries, a 2.9-yard average for a team that had a 3.4 average during the regular season. Jim Taylor led the club with 60 yards on 23 carries.

The Packers defeated the defending champion Cleveland Browns the next week to win the NFL Championship. The Colts came up empty in the postseason for the second consecutive season, but considering the situation at quarterback, they could hardly be faulted for getting as far as they did. Their consolation was to beat up on Dallas in the Playoff Bowl, 35-3, with Matte tossing two touchdown passes to complete his stint as a quarterback (he played seven more seasons as a halfback).

December 25, 2009

1971: Dolphins Defeat Chiefs in Longest NFL Game

The Miami Dolphins came to Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium for an AFC Divisional playoff game on Christmas Day, December 25, 1971, having never defeated the Chiefs in six attempts. An expansion team in 1966, the Dolphins made the postseason for the first time just the previous year, in Head Coach Don Shula’s first season with the team. Kansas City, under Head Coach Hank Stram, had won three AFL championships over the previous decade and the Super Bowl following the 1969 season.

Both teams had 10-3-1 records during the regular season. Miami, winners of the AFC East, featured a strong ground game led by power-running FB Larry Csonka (1051 yards) and halfbacks Jim Kiick and Eugene “Mercury” Morris. Bob Griese, rapidly developing into an outstanding quarterback, could keep defenses honest by throwing to deep threat WR Paul Warfield and possession receiver Howard Twilley. Kansas City, top team in the AFC West, featured veteran QB Len Dawson passing to WR Otis Taylor (57 catches, 1110 yards) and a good stable of running backs that included HB Ed Podolak, FB Wendell Hayes, HB Warren McVea, and FB Jim Otis; the defense was well-seasoned.

The Chiefs certainly appeared to be the more experienced team as they scored on their first two possessions, delighting the 50,374 fans present, and taking a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Jan Stenerud kicked a 24-yard field goal and then, after LB Willie Lanier intercepted a pass by Griese, Dawson threw a seven-yard TD pass to Podolak.

However, the Dolphins came back on the next series. The Chiefs were having success stopping Csonka and Kiick, so Griese threw to Warfield for a 23-yard gain to the Kansas City 21 yard line. Griese went to the air again, with a 16-yard strike to TE Marv Fleming, that set up their first touchdown on a one-yard plunge into the end zone by Csonka. The Dolphins tied the score before the half when they recovered a Podolak fumble deep in Chiefs territory and Garo Yepremian booted a 14-yard field goal.

In the third quarter, it was the Chiefs putting on an impressive show of ball control as they drove 75 yards over ten minutes on 15 plays, capped by Jim Otis crashing over from a yard out. Miami came right back again, with Griese throwing key passes to Twilley and Warfield and Kiick scoring on a one-yard TD run (pictured). It was 17-17 after three quarters.

Both teams traded turnovers, with Miami LB Nick Buoniconti recovering a fumble and Chiefs LB Jim Lynch intercepting a pass deep in his own territory. Miami’s zone defense had been neutralizing the Kansas City deep passing game, but Dawson connected with rookie WR Elmo Wright for 63 yards, and Podolak ran the final three yards to put the Chiefs back in front midway through the fourth quarter, 24-17.

The Dolphins came back with a 76-yard drive, with Griese hitting Warfield on passes of 17 and 26 yards, and Twilley catching a pass at the Chiefs five yard line. Fleming caught the resulting five-yard TD from Griese, and with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the score was tied again. However, it appeared that the home team would prevail when Ed Podolak ran the ensuing kickoff back 78 yards, finally being caught by Dolphins CB Curtis Johnson at the Miami 22. The Chiefs were well within Jan Stenerud’s range and conservatively ran the clock down to set up for the field goal attempt. In a stunning development, the typically dependable Stenerud hooked the kick to the left and missed. The game went into overtime.

Kansas City won the toss, and once again Podolak came through, returning the kickoff to the Chiefs 46 yard line. The Chiefs again drove to within Stenerud’s range, but Buoniconti blocked the 42-yard attempt for the Dolphins. It was Miami’s turn to try a field goal, but Yepremian’s attempt from 52 yards failed.

The game proceeded into an additional “sudden death” period. The Dolphins got the ball back, and on a misdirection play, Csonka rumbled 29 yards to the Kansas City 36. Now it was Miami’s turn to maneuver for a field goal, and this time it was Yepremian successfully connecting from 37 yards (pictured at top). The longest game in NFL history, which went 7:40 into the sixth period of play (22:40 altogether into overtime), was finally over, and a 27-24 win for the Miami Dolphins.

The Chiefs outgained the Dolphins offensively, 451-407. Ed Podolak (pictured at right) was truly the player of the game, putting on a spectacular show with 350 total yards (85 yards on 17 carries with a TD rushing, 110 yards on 8 pass receptions, 154 yards on three kickoff returns, and one yard on two punt returns). Dawson completed 18 of 26 passes for 246 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Elmo Wright, like Podolak, had over a hundred receiving yards (104 on three catches) thanks to the long reception in the fourth quarter. Wendell Hayes ran for an even 100 yards on 22 carries.

Larry Csonka (24 rushes for 86 yards and a TD) and Jim Kiick (15 carries for 56 yards and a TD) were the workhorses for Miami. Bob Griese completed 20 of 35 passes for 263 yards with a TD and two interceptions. Paul Warfield led the receivers with 7 catches for 140 yards.

Miami went on to beat the Baltimore Colts for the AFC Championship, but lost in the Super Bowl to Dallas. They were still a team on the rise. Kansas City, however, was on the way down and would not appear again in the postseason until 1986.

December 24, 2009

1967: Joe Namath Becomes First 4000-Yard Passer in a Season

The New York Jets finished the 1967 season against the Chargers at San Diego Stadium on December 24, winning 42-31. Third-year QB Joe Namath completed 18 of 26 passes for 343 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. With his second consecutive 300-yard passing game (he threw for 370 yards in a loss at Oakland the previous week), he finished the year with 4007 yards, a new AFL record (Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen bested his own NFL record with 3747 yards that same season).

Namath thus became the first 4000-yard passer in either NFL or AFL history, and the only one to do so in a 14-game season (the record was first broken by San Diego’s Dan Fouts in 1979). Including the Chargers game, he had six 300-yard performances and one of 400 yards during the season. In addition to passing yards, he also led the AFL in pass attempts (491), completions (258), yards per attempt (8.2) and, on the negative side for the second year in a row, interceptions thrown (28). His 26 touchdown passes ranked second.

Overall, the season was a disappointing one for the Jets. After getting off to a 7-2-1 start, New York appeared to be cruising toward the Eastern Division title, but three straight defeats, including a stunning loss at home to the lowly Broncos, knocked them out of contention. Injuries to running backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell had a significant effect, forcing the team to over-rely on Namath’s passing and, thus, setting the stage for damaging interceptions as a result. There were also weaknesses in both the defensive line and backfield.

Namath, naturally, was the focus. A celebrity as well as a much-hyped passer out of college, he couldn’t help but draw attention, and his skills were outstanding. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he had size, plus a strong and accurate arm that was made all the more potent by his quick release. He read defenses well, was a charismatic team leader, and stood tough in the pocket while taking many a hard shot from opposing defensive linemen. At the same time, Namath was not yet a seasoned quarterback, and while he could put up big numbers, he could also be erratic and try to force passes into coverage. In a tie against Houston, he passed for 295 yards but gave up six interceptions.

Namath came into pro football with one bad knee, injured in college; it required surgery before he ever played for the Jets, and again in 1966. Following the ’67 season he underwent surgery on his left, or “good”, knee. The resulting limitation on his mobility made him all the more prone to taking hits, yet he never missed a game because of injury in the five seasons prior to 1970 (after which time missed due to wear and tear increased significantly).

It helped that he had two excellent receivers to throw to: veteran flanker Don Maynard, who caught 71 passes for a league-leading (and career-best) 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and third-year split end George Sauer, who led the AFL in pass receptions with 75 and accumulated 1189 yards with six scores.

New York ended up at 8-5-1 and in second place in the Eastern Division, a game behind the 9-4-1 Houston Oilers, who succeeded with a solid ground game and strong defense. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, who had built a championship team in Baltimore over the course of five seasons in the 1950s, took some heat for the late collapse by the Jets, but all would be forgiven the following season.

December 23, 2009

1962: Dallas Texans Defeat Oilers in Overtime for AFL Championship

It was a gray, blustery day on December 23, 1962 as the Houston Oilers hosted the Dallas Texans in the AFL Championship game at Jeppesen Stadium. The Oilers, champions of the Eastern Division with an 11-3 record, had won the first two league championships and were looking to make it three straight. Under Head Coach Frank “Pop” Ivy, the team’s third coach in spite of their success, Houston had started slowly and was 4-3 at midseason, but won seven consecutive games to complete the regular season and get past the Boston Patriots. 34-year-old veteran QB George Blanda passed for 27 touchdowns, but also threw an astounding 42 interceptions. Stubby FB Charley Tolar (5’7”, 198 pounds) ran for 1012 yards and flanker Charley Hennigan led the receivers with 54 receptions for 867 yards and 8 TDs.

The Dallas Texans, owned by AFL founder Lamar Hunt, easily won the Western Division for the first time, also with an 11-3 tally (the second place Denver Broncos were a distant 7-7). Head Coach Hank Stram benefited from the arrival of QB Len Dawson, who led the league in passing after having ridden the bench in five NFL seasons. The Texans also had a thousand-yard rusher in flashy HB Abner Haynes (1049 yards and 13 TDs) and a well-balanced squad on both sides of the ball.

There were 37,981 fans filling the small stadium as Dallas dominated the first half. After Tommy Brooker booted a 16-yard field goal to give the Texans a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, Haynes (pictured at left) scored twice in the second quarter, first on a 28-yard pass from Dawson and then on a two-yard run. The Texans used two fullbacks in the backfield, Jack Spikes and rookie Curtis McClinton, with Haynes often moving out to the flank, and the combination provided excellent ball control. The half ended with the Texans holding a 17-0 lead.

However, in the second half it was all Houston. Blanda threw a 15-yard TD pass to TE Willard Dewveall in the third quarter and kicked a 31-yard field goal in the fourth period. When Tolar scored from a yard out with six minutes left, the score was tied at 17-17, and after a last-ditch Blanda field goal attempt was blocked by Texans LB Sherrill Headrick, that was how it stood after 60 minutes of play.

When it came time for the coin toss to start off the overtime period, Haynes made an error that could have cost Dallas the game. Due to concerns regarding the kicking game, Coach Stram had decided to kick off to start overtime, and instructed Haynes, the offensive captain, to take the wind advantage if he won the toss. The Texans did indeed win the toss, but when asked by referee Harold “Red” Bourne what his choice was, Haynes responded “We’ll kick to the clock”. Only the “we’ll kick” part mattered, and Houston was now able to get both the ball and the wind to start the “sudden death” overtime.

Blanda came out throwing, but on the first possession was intercepted by Dallas safety Johnny Robinson. The Texans were unable to capitalize and punted the ball back to the Oilers, and Blanda used short passes to methodically move the Oilers downfield. With time winding down in the fifth period, the veteran quarterback had the team in field goal range at the Dallas 35 yard line – Blanda was also one of the better kickers in the league, and with the wind at his back victory appeared to be in reach. But a second-down pass intended for Hennigan was intercepted by DE Bill Hull, who returned it 23 yards to midfield.

The first overtime period ended after the Texans ran their first play, and as the game continued into another extra period, they began to move down the field and now had the wind at their backs. On a crucial third and eight play, Dawson passed to Spikes for 10 yards to the Houston 38 yard line. Dawson then handed off to Spikes, who ran 19 yards for a first down at the 19, easily in field goal range. After a couple of short, safe runs to help line up the field goal, Brooker successfully booted it from 25 yards at 2:54 into the sixth period of play (pictured at top), and the Dallas Texans were the AFL champions with a 20-17 win.

Going 17:54 into overtime, the game was longer than the first postseason contest to go into “sudden death” (the 1958 NFL Championship game). That record fell in 1971, and was ultimately bested in turn by a 1984 USFL playoff game that went 33:33 into overtime.

Houston outgained Dallas by 359 to 237 yards. Dawson played conservatively, completing 9 of 14 passes for 88 yards and a TD – and most importantly, with no interceptions. The Texans, however, ran the ball effectively, accumulating 199 yards on 54 attempts; Spikes (pictured at bottom) led the team with 77 yards on 11 carries, with McClinton doing more of the heavy work at 24 rushes for 70 yards. Haynes led the receivers with three catches for 45 yards and a TD (and dodged a place in sports infamy when the Texans pulled out the win).

Blanda went to the air 46 times, completing 23 for 261 yards and a score, but also threw five interceptions. TE Dewveall and HB Billy Cannon both caught six passes, with Dewveall leading all receivers with 95 yards and scoring once. The Oilers gained just 98 yards on 30 rushes, with Tolar being limited to 58 yards on 17 attempts and a TD.

The AFL championship victory was the end of the road for the Texans; after battling the NFL’s Cowboys for attention in Dallas for three seasons, Lamar Hunt chose to move the franchise and they became the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963. The loss for Houston also signaled a change; the team had losing records over the next four seasons before returning to a league championship game in 1967.

December 22, 2009

1957: Lions Come from 20 Points Behind to Defeat 49ers in Conference Playoff

On December 22, 1957 the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, tied for first place in the NFL’s Western Conference at 8-4, met in a playoff game to decide the title. The Lions, coached by George Wilson after Buddy Parker (who had led the team to back-to-back championships in 1952-53) quit the team during the preseason, had their typically outstanding defense and an offense that had utilized a co-quarterback system with both Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote – depth that paid off when Layne went down for the remainder of the year with a broken leg.

San Francisco, coached by former star quarterback Frankie Albert, had gotten off to a 5-1 start, lost three straight at midseason, and then went undefeated in the last three games. QB Y.A. Tittle led the NFL in completion percentage (63.1) and end Billy Wilson led the league in pass receptions (52). HB Hugh McElhenny and FB Joe Perry were an effective backfield tandem. DT Leo Nomellini and LB Marv Matuszak anchored the defense.

There were 60,118 fans in attendance on a clear, sunny day at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. The 49ers struck first on a 34-yard “Alley Oop” touchdown pass to rookie end R.C. Owens, taking advantage of his outstanding leaping ability, this time jumping higher than Detroit defensive halfback Jim David in the corner of the end zone to stake San Francisco to a 7-0 lead (pictured at left). On their next possession, still in the first quarter, Tittle connected with McElhenny on a touchdown play that covered 47 yards.

The Lions drove the ball 61 yards, culminating in a four-yard TD pass from Rote to end Steve Junker that cut the 49ers’ lead to 14-7 in the second quarter. But the Niners responded with an 88-yard drive of their own that ended with a 12-yard scoring throw from Tittle to Wilson. The Lions fumbled the ball away at their own 41 yard line, allowing San Francisco to score once more before the end of the half, on a 25-yard Gordie Soltau field goal. At halftime, the 49ers held a formidable 24-7 lead.

During the intermission, the Lions players could overhear the celebrating 49ers in the neighboring locker room. It motivated them to step up their play in the second half, although that wasn’t apparent when McElhenny took off on the first San Francisco possession for a spectacular 71-yard run to the Detroit seven yard line. However, in one of the key developments of the game, the Lions defense held the 49ers to a Soltau field goal rather than a touchdown. While the score now stood at 27-7 in favor of the Niners, the tide was about to turn.

While Detroit didn’t score on the next possession, they got a break when the Niners got the ball back and Tittle fumbled at the Lions’ 27 yard line. LB Bob Long recovered for Detroit, and nine plays and 73 yards later HB Tom Tracy scored from a yard out. The 49ers went three-and-out and were forced to punt, and Detroit’s offense came up with a big play with Tracy bolting up the middle for a 58-yard touchdown run (pictured at top). The Lions were now down by just 27-21, still in the third quarter.

Detroit’s aroused defense stopped the 49ers again, and the offense came roaring down the field once more, with Rote connecting on a 36-yard pass play to Junker to the San Francisco 15 yard line. HB Gene Gedman tied the score with a two-yard touchdown run, and Jim Martin’s extra point gave the Lions the lead, 28-27, less than a minute into the fourth quarter.

The 49ers had four more possessions in the game, but they resulted in four turnovers (a fumble and three interceptions). Martin kicked a 13-yard field goal to stake Detroit to a four-point lead at 31-27, and the aggressive Lions defense made it hold up. LB Roger Zatkoff intercepted a last-ditch Tittle pass to seal the win.

Tracy led the runners with 86 yards on 11 carries, including the two TD runs. Rote (pictured below) completed 16 of 30 passes for 214 yards with a TD and an interception. Junker led the team in both pass receptions (8) and yards (92) and a score. For the losing 49ers, McElhenny gained 82 yards on 14 carries, thanks to the long run in the third quarter, and caught 6 passes for another 96 yards and a touchdown. Billy Wilson had an excellent pass receiving day with 9 catches for 107 yards and a TD. But while Tittle completed 18 of 31 passes for 248 yards with three touchdowns, it was the three interceptions that proved disastrous in the end (it would be the first of several postseason disappointments for the Hall of Fame QB).

As Detroit’s Coach Wilson said later, “The 49ers might have scored all those points too quickly. They became clock watchers and abandoned everything that had worked for them”. While it may have been a case of San Francisco turning conservative, the Lions defense certainly deserved credit for stiffening up after allowing the long run to McElhenny to start the second half and then playing very opportunistically thereafter.

Detroit went on to decimate the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game by a 59-14 score. The 49ers, who were playing in their first NFL postseason game since joining the league from the AAFC in 1950, would not return to the playoffs until the 1970 season.

December 21, 2009

1980: Earl Campbell Has 4th 200-Yard Rushing Game of Season

The Houston Oilers nailed down a wild card playoff spot when they hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the Astrodome on December 21, 1980. By pulling out a 20-16 win, they finished with an 11-5 record along with Cleveland atop the AFC Central; however, the Browns won the division due to a better conference record.

Appropriately, it was RB Earl Campbell scoring the winning touchdown, on a three-yard run. With 203 yards on 29 carries, he topped the 200-yard rushing mark for a record fourth time during the ’80 season.

The pile-driving Campbell’s first two 200-yard games of the year had come in consecutive weeks – 203 yards on 33 carries against Tampa Bay on Oct. 19 and 27 rushes for 202 yards vs. Cincinnati on Oct. 26. His highest total, 206 yards on 31 attempts, occurred at Chicago on Nov. 16. As was the case in the season finale against Minnesota, all four games were won by the Oilers. All totaled, Campbell ran the ball 120 times for 814 yards (a 6.8-yard average) and three touchdowns in the four contests.

In the remaining 11 games (he missed one due to injury), Campbell gained 1120 yards on 253 attempts for a 4.4-yard average and 10 scores. As a result, he achieved career-high marks in yards (1934) and attempts (373) for a 5.2-per-rush average and 13 touchdowns – all league-leading figures. It was Campbell’s third consecutive NFL rushing title in three seasons, although it would also be his last.

Much had been expected of the Oilers entering the season, as they had reached the AFC Championship game the previous two years (falling to division rival Pittsburgh on each occasion) and had pulled off a significant trade during the offseason by dealing QB Dan Pastorini to Oakland for QB Ken Stabler. However, Stabler proved to be on the downside of his career, throwing far too many interceptions. The team was at its best when running a two-tight end offense (after TE Dave Casper was picked up from the Raiders during the season) with Stabler throwing high percentage passes and Campbell running the ball often.

Houston lost in the wild card round, 27-7, at Oakland, which cost Head Coach Bum Phillips his job (and which in turn also caused Campbell to demand a contract re-negotiation). Campbell’s numbers, while still good, dropped off as new Head Coach Ed Biles sought to diversify the offense. But the three-season playoff run was over.

The 5’11”, 232-pound Earl Campbell’s physical style of running made him a formidable power runner, but also shortened his effective career. By the time he reached the end of the line, reunited with Coach Phillips in New Orleans, the player known as “The Tyler Rose” (he was from Tyler, Texas) was only a shell of the great back that he had been. But in 1980, he was the most dominant running back in the game, and one who largely carried his team as far as it could go.

December 20, 2009

1982: Wes Chandler Gains 260 Receiving Yards on Way to 1032 in Short Season

There were many offensive superlatives in the game between the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on December 20, 1982. In a wild offensive battle, Chargers QB Dan Fouts passed for over 400 yards for the second week in a row (435) while Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson threw for 416. Adding a 66-yard TD on an option pass by San Diego RB Chuck Muncie, the teams combined for an NFL record 883 yards through the air (broken in 1986). The Chargers alone accounted for a franchise-record 661 yards of total offense.

Anderson completed 40 of 56 passes; 9 of them, for 156 yards, went to WR Cris Collinsworth, while another 8 for 81 yards were caught by TE Dan Ross. San Diego TE Kellen Winslow gathered in 6 passes for 116 yards, and RB James Brooks ran for 105 yards on just 12 carries with three touchdowns. The hard-fought game was finally won by the Chargers, 50-34, who scored 33 points in the second half (23 in the third quarter alone).

In the midst of this, WR Wes Chandler caught 10 passes for 260 yards and two TDs, including the option toss from Muncie in the first quarter and a 38-yard catch from Fouts in the third quarter. For Chandler, it was the biggest day in a season in which he accumulated over a thousand pass receiving yards in just eight games.

San Diego was already well-established as a high-flying passing offense prior to ’82. The coming of Head Coach Don Coryell in 1978 and the blossoming of Fouts, who had his first of three consecutive 4000-yard passing seasons in ’79, turned the Chargers into a formidable offensive powerhouse that posed a significant challenge to opposing defenses. When deep threat WR John Jefferson’s contract dispute led to his being traded to Green Bay early in the 1981 season, the Chargers quickly dealt for Chandler, a standout receiver with a poor team in New Orleans.

The San Diego passing game didn’t miss a beat in the transition from Jefferson to Chandler, with the steady Charlie Joiner holding down the other wide receiver spot and Winslow, one of the greatest pass receiving tight ends in pro football history, contributing his share (he led the AFC in receptions three years in a row and the entire NFL once). Chandler caught 52 passes for 857 yards and five touchdowns in the remaining 12 games of the season.

An eight-week player strike shortened the 1982 season to nine games. Chandler had gone over a hundred yards in the opening game at Denver, and had 118 on 7 catches in the first contest following the strike against the Raiders at Los Angeles. He missed the next week with an injury, but then gathered in 7 passes for 125 yards and three scores at San Francisco the week before the Cincinnati matchup.

The 260-yard performance marked the second of five consecutive games in which Chandler went over a hundred yards receiving as he ended up with 1032 on 49 catches for a 21.1-yard average and 9 touchdowns in just half of a normal season of play. He averaged 129 yards a game and led the NFL, naturally enough, in receiving yards as well as TD receptions.

Of course, it was no accident that Fouts (pictured at left) once again had a big year throwing the ball, leading the league for the fourth consecutive season in passing yards (2883) and second straight time in touchdown passes (17). He had the two consecutive 400-yard games, having outdueled San Francisco’s Joe Montana the week prior to the Cincinnati game, 444 yards and 5 TDs to 356 yards and 3 scoring tosses. His passing yardage per game was a career-best 320.3.

The Chargers, having avenged their defeat by the Bengals in the AFC Championship game the previous year, went on to complete the regular season with a 6-3 record. However, as they had in each of the last three postseasons, San Diego came up short in winning the first round over Pittsburgh but losing to Miami in the second stage of the tournament format that was used in place of the usual playoff structure due to the shorter season (the Chargers had been seeded fifth of the qualifying eight conference teams). Cincinnati, with a 7-2 tally, was seeded third and lost to the New York Jets in the first playoff round.

As the games against the 49ers and Bengals suggest, as much as the Chargers could score points, the defense gave up prodigious amounts through the air as well. While the team contended, provided plenty of excitement, and set numerous records through the 1979-82 time period, it was unable to make it to the Super Bowl.

December 19, 2009

1948: Eagles Defeat Cardinals in Blizzard for NFL Championship

The NFL championship matchup on December 19, 1948 was a repeat of the previous year, but the weather was not. The field was frozen when the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Cardinals met in ’47 at Comiskey Park, but in this instance a heavy winter storm dumped snow on Philadelphia all day. While a protective tarpaulin had been placed over the field, the snow had accumulated so heavily on it that the players had to assist the grounds crew in its removal a half hour before the game. Even then, the turf at Shibe Park was completely covered at the kickoff.

Eagles Head Coach Greasy Neale was in favor of postponing the contest, but Commissioner Bert Bell, citing the sellout crowd (28,864 actually showed up) and the national radio audience, suggested that the players decide. To Bell’s satisfaction, both teams wanted to play, and play they did. The Commissioner ruled that the first down chain would be used, but there would be no measurements – the referee would rule on all first downs. Ropes were tied to stakes to mark the sidelines.

The game started a half hour late, at two o’clock rather than the scheduled 1:30. Fortunately, Eagles star halfback Steve Van Buren arrived about an hour before the game – he had gone back to bed when he saw the heavy snow in the morning, thinking the contest would be postponed, but got up and made it to Shibe Park in time (some accounts claim that a nervous Coach Neale phoned him). He was the key to the Eagles offense and the NFL’s leading rusher for the third time in four seasons (945 yards). After losing the first game of the season and tying the second, Philadelphia had put together eight straight wins on the way to a 9-2-1 record. Aside from Van Buren, the offense boasted the league’s leading passer in QB Tommy Thompson, speedy halfback Bosh Pritchard, end Pete Pihos, and an excellent line.

The Cardinals, defending NFL champions, had won the Western Division with an 11-1 tally and were considered five point favorites against Philadelphia. They had an outstanding backfield of QB Paul Christman, halfbacks Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman, and FB Pat Harder. Ends Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell were solid receivers. On this day, however, they were without the injured Christman.

The Eagles attempted a big play on their very first possession, in spite of the weather, with Thompson firing for an apparent 65-yard touchdown pass to end Jack Ferrante. However, Ferrante was penalized for being offside and the play came back. Neither team was able to mount any sort of passing attack for the rest of the contest.

Both teams turned the ball over three times in what became a battle for field position and ball control. Tough defense, and missed field goals, prevented either squad from scoring until the biggest turnover of the game late in the third quarter. Joe Muha of the Eagles had booted a punt that went out of bounds at Chicago’s 19 yard line. On the first play, a mixup in the Cardinals backfield caused backup QB Ray Mallouf to fumble the handoff to Angsman and Eagles middle guard Bucko Kilroy recovered at the 17. On the last play of the third quarter, Pritchard ran for six yards to the 11 yard line. Muha, the fullback as well as punter, plowed for three yards to start the final period and then QB Thompson gained three. Van Buren rumbled the final five yards, diving into the snowy end zone, for the only touchdown of the game (pictured). Cliff Patton’s extra point made the score 7-0, and the Eagles defense made it hold up.

The passing statistics were negligible. “One-Eyed” Tommy Thompson completed just two of 12 passes for 7 yards with two interceptions. For the Cardinals, Mallouf, Trippi, and QB Charley Eikenberg combined for three completions in 11 attempts for 35 yards and an interception. In the battle for ball control, it had been the ground game that mattered most, and the Eagles outrushed Chicago (225 yards to 96) and accumulated the most first downs (16 to 6). Van Buren picked up 98 yards on 26 carries, while Pritchard had gained 67 yards on 16 attempts and Thompson accounted for 50 yards on 11 rushes. By contrast, the leading rusher for the Cardinals was Angsman, who had decimated Philadelphia the year before, with 33 yards on 10 attempts.

The championship was the first for the Eagles, in their second try, and they would be back again the next year. For the Cardinals, however, there would be a long playoff drought that lasted until 1974, well after the team had relocated to St. Louis.

December 18, 2009

1995: Young to Rice Leads 49ers Over Vikings

The Monday night matchup at San Francisco’s 3Com Park on December 18, 1995 promised to be a good one. The host 49ers, defending league champions, were 10-4 and leading the NFC West by two games, while the visiting Minnesota Vikings had an 8-6 record and were fighting for a playoff spot.

San Francisco started fast, with three first quarter touchdowns. QB Steve Young hit WR Jerry Rice for an eight-yard score, although the PAT attempt failed. RB Dexter Carter returned a punt 78 yards for a TD, and RB Derek Loville ran for a successful two-point conversion. It was Young to Rice again, this time on a 46-yard pass play that staked the 49ers to a 21-0 lead.

The Vikings fought back in the second quarter. Placekicker Fuad Reveiz got them on the board with a 29-yard field goal, and then QB Warren Moon threw a six-yard scoring pass to WR Cris Carter that cut the 49ers margin to 21-10. With just over six minutes left in the half, Rice scored for the third time on a Young pass play that covered 31 yards (for the second time, the extra point attempt failed). Minnesota got a break with a 42-yard return of an interception by CB Donald Frank that set up Moon’s second TD pass of the game, again to Carter for two yards. When Reveiz hit on a 43-yard field goal as time ran out, the San Francisco lead was just seven points (27-20).

Once again in the third quarter the Vikings got a break thanks to the defense as they recovered a fumble by the 49ers on the San Francisco 19 yard line. A six-yard Moon touchdown pass to WR Jake Reed evened the score at 27-27. The 49ers roared back on a 67-yard drive highlighted by a 41-yard Young to Rice pass play and regained the lead with a 20-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal.

It was Young and Rice figuring prominently on the 80-yard fourth quarter drive that, in effect, put the game away for the Niners. Rice caught two passes totaling 62 yards, and Young ran in from five yards out for the touchdown. While Reveiz kicked one more field goal for the Vikings, the game ended up a 37-30 win for San Francisco.

Young put up big passing numbers, accumulating 425 yards while completing 30 of 49 passes that included three TDs and two interceptions. Rice was the chief target, catching 14 passes for a career-high 289 yards (a Monday Night Football record), with three touchdowns. The running game had been negligible – the 49ers gained a total of just 43 yards on 23 carries, with Loville leading the way at 21 yards on 12 attempts.

Minnesota’s Moon couldn’t keep pace, completing 22 of 39 passes for 224 yards with three touchdowns and none picked off. Carter was his top receiver, catching 12 passes for 88 yards and the two scores. The Vikings weren’t much better running the ball, with 75 yards on 18 attempts; RB Amp Lee led all runners with 44 yards on five carries, with a 24-yard gain assisting his total.

San Francisco lost the season finale the next week to end at 11-5 and at the top of the division. However, they didn’t repeat as champions - while they won in the wild card round over Philadelphia, they lost the ensuing divisional playoff to the Green Bay Packers. Minnesota lost in the last week as well to finish at 8-8 and in fourth place in the NFC Central Division.

Steve Young missed five games during the season, but still threw for 3200 yards and led the NFL in completion percentage (66.9); however, for the only time in the seven years from 1991 through ’97, he failed to lead the NFL in passing. Jerry Rice caught a career-high 122 passes, placing him one behind the league leader, Detroit’s Herman Moore. He had his tenth consecutive thousand-yard receiving season while setting a league record with 1848 yards (for a per-game average of 115.5 yards; he averaged 15.5 yards per catch). He also reached double figures in touchdown receptions (15) for the seventh straight year and tenth time in 11 seasons. Rice was a consensus 1st team All-NFL selection for the ninth time; he and Young both went to the Pro Bowl.

On the other side, the passing combination of Warren Moon to Cris Carter had a pretty good year, too. The 39-year-old Moon, in his last season with Minnesota, led the league in passing attempts (377) and accumulated 4228 yards (his fourth – and last – NFL 4000-yard passing season) with 33 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. Carter had his second consecutive 122-reception season, tying him with Rice behind Moore, with 1371 yards and a league-leading 17 scoring receptions. Like Young and Rice, they both were Pro Bowl selections.

December 17, 2009

2006: LaDainian Tomlinson Sets Season TD and Scoring Records

The NFL record for touchdowns in a season had been moving up steadily since 1995 when Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys broke John Riggins’ 12-year old mark by scoring 25. Five years later, Marshall Faulk of the Rams made it 26; in 2003 it was Kansas City’s Priest Holmes scoring 27; and that lasted just two years, when Shaun Alexander of Seattle reached the end zone 28 times in 2005. His record, in turn, was surpassed the next season.

LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers quickly established himself as an elite running back from the time he entered the league as a rookie first round draft pick out of TCU in 2001. By the 2006 season, he had never been below 1236 rushing yards in a season, nor had he caught fewer than 51 passes. He had also reached double figures in touchdowns every season and led the NFL with 17 rushing TDs in 2004.

The 2006 season would prove to be Tomlinson’s greatest, both in terms of ground gaining and scoring. After 12 games, he had already accumulated 26 touchdowns. In the 13th game, he crossed the goal line three times to pass Alexander and establish a new record. On December 17, at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, he not only extended the new mark to 31, but also broke the record for points in a season of 176 that had been set by Green Bay’s Paul Hornung 46 years previously, in 1960.

Tomlinson wasted no time scoring his 30th touchdown and breaking Hornung’s record, running for a 15-yard TD on San Diego’s first possession. That drive received an assist from backup RB Michael Turner, who ran 25 yards for a first down on a fake punt. The second touchdown was set up in the second quarter when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard blocked a punt by San Diego’s Mike Scifres, but the ball was touched beyond the line of scrimmage by Chiefs RB Derrick Ross and recovered by the long snapper, David Binn. Instead of Kansas City getting a big break, it was the Chargers making the most of their second chance with Tomlinson sprinting 85 yards for a touchdown.

Up 14-3 at the half thanks to Tomlinson’s scoring runs, the Chargers went on to win, 20-9. Tomlinson ran 25 times for 199 yards, and with five additional yards on a pass reception, accounted for 204 of San Diego’s 353 total yards. The San Diego passing game had difficulties - a frustrated QB Philip Rivers completed just 8 of 23 passes for 97 yards with two interceptions.

Kansas City’s Larry Johnson, who came into the game as the NFL’s rushing leader, gained 84 yards on 19 attempts and thus fell behind Tomlinson, who went on to lead the league with a career-high 1815 yards on 348 carries (a 5.2-yard average) with 28 TDs (also a record; the other three came on pass receptions). Johnson placed second, carrying a record 416 times for 1789 yards.

Tomlinson, with the two touchdowns, set an NFL record with eight consecutive multi-TD games. It would be his last, though – while he carried the ball another 38 times in San Diego’s last two games of the regular season, and caught three passes, he didn’t reach the end zone in either game.

The Chargers ended up on top of the AFC West with a conference-best 14-2 record. However, the postseason turned bitter as they lost their divisional playoff game to New England (costing Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer his job). Kansas City reached the postseason also, with a 9-7 record that, while it tied them with Denver for second place in the AFC West, earned a wild card berth because of a better divisional record than the Broncos. They exited in the first round, losing to the Indianapolis Colts.

LaDainian Tomlinson was a consensus league MVP selection, hardly a surprise considering the extent of his achievements during the season.

December 16, 2009

1962: Raiders Defeat Patriots in Season Finale to End 19-Game Losing Streak

The 1962 AFL season was the nadir for the Oakland Raiders franchise. Entering the final game on December 16 at Frank Youell Field against the visiting Boston Patriots, they had lost 19 consecutive games going back to the ninth contest of 1961.

At least the franchise was finally playing home games in Oakland. A late addition to the American Football League, after the Minneapolis group dropped out to join the NFL, the Raiders had played in San Francisco the first two seasons (Kezar Stadium in ’60, Candlestick Park in ’61). Amid rumors that the team would relocate to another city, Oakland officials assured the owners that a new stadium was in the works (what would eventually be the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum) and a temporary home would be made available in the meantime (Frank Youell Field, capacity 22,000).

On the field, the team had struggled. Marty Feldman had succeeded original Head Coach Eddie Erdelatz after the Raiders were blown out in the first two games of the ’61 season, but he was let go five games into the 1962 campaign after compiling a 2-15 record. Assistant Red Conkright was promoted into the top job, which was a thankless proposition. Starting QB Tom Flores was forced to sit out the year with a lung infection. While the team made an early season deal with the Dallas Texans for QB Cotton Davidson (pictured below), who had lost his starting job to Len Dawson, he had problems with chronic injuries and a weak receiving corps.

To be sure, there was talent on the team. C Jim Otto was a first team All-AFL selection in 1960 and ’61, and would be once again in ’62 (and beyond). Guard Wayne Hawkins was considered one of the best in the league as well. Clem Daniels (pictured above) emerged as a talented halfback and chief running threat. On defense, CB Fred “the Hammer” Williamson and DT Chuck McMurtry were standouts.

In the finale against Boston, the Raiders received a couple of breaks in that starting QB Babe Parilli (an original Raider in ’60) was injured and wouldn’t be facing them, and the team had been eliminated from postseason contention the day before. Boston had been in a close race with the Oilers in the Eastern Division all year, but Houston defeated the New York Titans in a Saturday game that clinched the division title with an 11-3 record. The Patriots had no incentive to win, and it was apparent – as backup QB Tom Yewcic, who started on that day, put it later, “nobody wanted to play”.

It was a rainy, miserable day with 8000 fans in attendance. Oakland won resoundingly, 20-0. Daniels was the standout, scoring both touchdowns, one on a 74-yard pass play from Davidson in the second quarter, and the other on a seven-yard run in the third quarter. 43-year-old placekicker Ben Agajanian (whose career spanned stints in the AAFC and NFL as well as AFL) booted field goals of 19 and 21 yards to round out the scoring.

The Raiders accumulated 288 yards of offense, with Daniels gaining just 54 yards on 26 rushing attempts but, thanks to the long TD pass, catching three passes for 95 yards. Davidson completed 9 of 23 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Boston’s Yewcic had 13 pass completions in 35 attempts for just 108 yards and two pickoffs. The Patriots gained 82 yards on the ground in 18 carries, with HB Jim Crawford leading the way at 6 rushes for 35 yards. Split end Gino Cappelletti led all receivers with 5 catches, for 53 yards.

The win not only ended the long losing streak, but was the first shutout of an opponent in franchise history. Happy fans blared their car horns to celebrate in the parking lot afterward.

The Raiders ended up with a 1-13 record and, naturally, in last place in the Western Division. Boston finished at 9-4-1 and second place in the East. Clem Daniels ranked fourth in the AFL with 766 yards rushing.

Things got better for the Raiders in the offseason. The owners finally coaxed Al Davis away from Sid Gillman’s coaching staff at San Diego, and the 33-year-old head coach and general manager made personnel changes and brought a whole new attitude to the team. The immediate turnaround was impressive – Oakland astounded the pro football world in 1963 by going 10-4. They were still a few years away from being a true contender, but it would not be long before the sad state of affairs that culminated in the 1-13 season in 1962 would become a distant memory.

December 15, 2009

1963: Don Hultz Recovers 9th Fumble of Season

The December 15, 1963 game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field between the Eagles and the visiting Minnesota Vikings wasn’t a very meaningful contest. The Vikings won, 34-13, to end the season tied for fourth place in the Western Conference with a 5-8-1 record while the Eagles plummeted to 2-10-2 and their second consecutive last place finish in the seven-team Eastern Conference.

However, when Minnesota’s rookie DE Don Hultz grabbed a fumble by Eagles QB Sonny Jurgensen, it marked his ninth recovery of an opponent’s fumble of the season. This broke the previous record of eight held by Detroit’s Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt that was set in 1955. To date, no one has come closer than seven in an NFL season (four players, most recently LB Rickey Jackson of New Orleans in 1990).

In the obscure world of fumble recoveries in general, most of the record holders are quarterbacks, since they are most prone to having to fall on a failed snap or errant handoff; Houston QB David Carr holds the record for most such recoveries in a season with 12, all his own, in 2002. Other quarterbacks (Dave Krieg, Brian Griese, and Jon Kitna) have recovered nine of their own fumbles in a season as well. But Hultz holds the far more difficult mark, as a defensive player snagging footballs fumbled by the opposing offense.

Hultz had come to the Vikings as a free agent out of Southern Mississippi and moved into the starting lineup. He recovered his first fumble of the year in a Week 2 game against the Chicago Bears; the victim was HB Willie Galimore. They began to pile up after that, to the degree that his teammates referred to him as “The Magnet” and a local newspaper, the Minneapolis Tribune, commented that “his fumble recovery play is now an integral part of the Viking offense”.

The fumbles certainly did help. Six of them set up scores, including two touchdowns and four field goals. One against Detroit on November 24 came with under five minutes left in the game and led to a two-yard TD by HB Tommy Mason that won the game, 34-31. Three others came earlier in the respective contests and helped Minnesota to score first.

Hultz had no ready explanation for his record, saying “I don’t go hunting for the ball. I try to be alert, but you can say the same thing about anybody else on our defensive line” Upon further reflection he also said, “I’m proud of the record, but at the time it was no big issue. I was fortunate enough to create a few turnovers for my teammates and was able to recover a few myself.”

In the offseason, Hultz was traded, ironically enough, to the Eagles. Philadelphia underwent a major housecleaning, starting with a change of ownership, then coaches, and many of the players. Hultz arrived along with split end Ray Poage and defensive backs Chuck Lamson and Terry Kosens in exchange for HB Ted Dean and the rights to QB Bob Berry, an 11th round draft pick out of Oregon who lasted eleven years in the NFL (most notably with Atlanta).

At 6’3” and 235 pounds, he was light for a defensive lineman even in the 1960s, but he lasted for ten seasons with the Eagles, typically starting and eventually moving inside to defensive tackle; he played one last year with the Chicago Bears in ‘74. But in those 11 years, playing in 127 games, he recovered only three more fumbles.