December 10, 2009

1961: Giants Edge Eagles 28-24 in Eastern Conference Showdown

The history of the rivalry between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants has involved many significant games, often intensely played, and with some memorable performances. The matchup on December 10, 1961 was one such contest, with plenty of drama combined with big plays – and ultimately coming down to a controversial penalty in the final minutes.

Both teams were tied atop the Eastern Conference with 9-3 records as the Eagles hosted the Giants at Franklin Field. New York had won the first encounter at Yankee Stadium four weeks before, ending a five-game Philadelphia winning streak. The Eagles won back-to-back games against the Giants in 1960 on the way to the league championship, and had since made a remarkable transition at quarterback from the retired Norm Van Brocklin to Sonny Jurgensen (pictured below). The Giants had also made a quarterback change, picking up 35-year-old veteran Y.A. Tittle from the 49ers in a preseason trade, who supplanted Charley Conerly (pictured above), 40 years old and showing signs of wearing down in his 14th season. Both teams had also changed head coaches in the offseason, as Philadelphia’s Buck Shaw and New York’s Jim Lee Howell both retired; they were replaced by Nick Skorich and Allie Sherman, respectively.

New York drew first blood on the fourth play from scrimmage on a 46-yard bomb from Tittle to split end Del Shofner. The Eagles responded with a 26-yard Bobby Walston field goal after recovering a fumble by Giants FB Alex Webster. Just prior to the end of the first quarter, Philadelphia scored a touchdown out of the stacked deck formation - three receivers lined one behind the other on one side of the field, and flanker Tommy McDonald on the opposite side. Jurgensen hit McDonald cutting across the middle of the field, and the 5’9”, 170-pound darter completed the 52-yard play to put the Eagles ahead, 10-7.

The Giants fumbled the ball away twice more during the second quarter, but Philadelphia was unable to capitalize. LB Cliff Livingston intercepted a Jurgensen pass at midfield, and at this point Conerly entered the game in place of Tittle, who was having an uncharacteristically flat performance after the initial TD. It looked as though Conerly would do no better when Eagles FS Don Burroughs intercepted a third down pass, but an offside call on the defense nullified the play, and given a second chance Conerly hit TE Joe Walton for a 35-yard touchdown.

New York missed opportunities to extend their lead due to missed field goal attempts of 23 and 34 yards by placekicker Pat Summerall. The halftime score stood at 14-10 in favor of the Giants.

A fumble by Eagles HB Ted Dean set up the next Giants TD in the third quarter, a 26-yard pass from Conerly to Shofner. The Eagles struck back with a 66-yard bomb from Jurgensen to McDonald that quieted the booing home fans and put the ball at the New York 11 yard line. However, they came up empty and the quarter ended with the Giants ahead, 21-10.

Another penalty damaged the Eagles as a 34-yard pass play from Jurgensen to HB Timmy Brown down to the Giants one yard line was called back for offensive pass interference on McDonald. The teams traded punts, with the Eagles getting the field position advantage, and McDonald made up for the penalty on the previous series by scoring a 30-yard touchdown on a pass from Jurgensen to narrow the Giants margin to 21-17.

The Giants couldn’t move on their next possession, and were forced to punt from their 16 yard line. However, Eagles DE Leo Sugar was penalized for making contact with punter Don Chandler in a highly controversial call that changed the momentum of the game. New York made the most of the break, driving down the field to score on Del Shofner’s third TD reception of the game on an 11-yard throw from Conerly.

Philadelphia got the ball back with 2:44 to play and down 28-17. Jurgensen connected with split end Pete Retzlaff for a 61-yard TD, but the Eagles were unable to score on their final possession in the last 18 seconds, and the Giants won, 28-24.

For New York, Conerly completed 6 of 13 passes for 153 yards and, most significantly, three touchdowns. TE Walton led the receivers statistically with 5 catches for 100 yards and a score, but Shofner was the star with three TDs while catching 4 passes for 95 yards. FB Webster led in rushing with 86 yards on 22 carries.

In defeat, the Eagles had won the statistical battle, outgaining the Giants with 455 total yards to 371. Jurgensen completed 16 of 31 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions. McDonald caught 7 passes for a team-record 237 yards and two scores. The Eagles, not a strong running team, ran the ball 23 times for 124 yards to New York’s 38 for 143, and no back had more than eight carries; the leading rusher was Timmy Brown with 64 yards on 7 attempts.

The win put the Giants a game ahead in the race for the conference title, and they tied Cleveland in the season finale the next week to finish in first place at 10-3-1. Philadelphia defeated Detroit to end up in second at 10-4. New York lost to Green Bay in the NFL Championship game while the Eagles faced the Lions again in the meaningless Playoff Bowl; they also lost, and it was costly as Jurgensen suffered a severe shoulder separation that required surgery and lingered into the ’62 season, and OT J.D. Smith broke his leg.

The game was the last hurrah for Conerly, who retired following the season; while he relieved Tittle in both the season finale and title game, it was far less consequentially. Del Shofner, in his first season with the Giants after being dealt by the Rams, caught 68 passes, a career high, for 1125 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Sonny Jurgensen set a new record for passing yards in a season (3723) while tying the record for touchdown passes (32). Tommy McDonald caught 64 passes for 1144 yards and 13 TDs. Both received All-Pro recognition and were selected to the Pro Bowl.