September 30, 2010

1990: Bills Score 20 Points in 1:33 to Beat Broncos

Both the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos had won two of their first three games of the 1990 season prior to meeting at Rich Stadium on September 30. The host Bills, under Head Coach Marv Levy, had won the AFC East title the previous two years, although with only a 9-7 record in ’89. The talented club had been mired in controversy in 1989, and had underachieved. Denver, coached by Dan Reeves for the preceding nine seasons, was the defending AFC champion, although the Broncos had been badly beaten in the Super Bowl by the 49ers.

The Broncos scored on the first possession of the game, going 80 yards in 12 plays with RB Bobby Humphrey running for a touchdown from a yard out. The teams traded fumbles, but there was no further scoring in the opening period.

The Bills blocked a 49-yard field goal attempt by David Treadwell early in the second quarter, but came up empty when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard attempt hit the right upright and bounced away. In their next possession, Bills QB Jim Kelly was intercepted by FS Steve Atwater, giving Denver good field position at the Buffalo 30 yard line. The Broncos capitalized as QB John Elway completed a 25-yard pass to WR Vance Johnson and two plays later RB Steve Sewell scored on another short touchdown run. Buffalo finally got on the board just before the end of the half on a 37-yard field goal by Norwood, but it was Denver leading comfortably by 14-3 at the intermission.

Buffalo got a break in the third quarter when DE Bruce Smith sacked Elway, forcing a fumble that LB Darryl Talley recovered for the Bills at the Denver 10. After Kelly was sacked for a two-yard loss, RB Don Smith ran for a 12-yard touchdown, but the extra point attempt failed. However, the Broncos extended their lead to 21-9 later in the period after a fumbled handoff to RB Thurman Thomas gave Denver the ball on the Buffalo 19. Following an Elway pass and a penalty on Bills LB Shane Conlan for a late hit, RB Sammy Winder ran for a three-yard touchdown.

With Denver seemingly in control in the fourth quarter, the game took a dramatic twist. The Broncos appeared set to score again, having driven to the Buffalo six yard line, but Treadwell’s field goal attempt was blocked by CB Nate Odomes – LB Cornelius Bennett (pictured at top) picked up the loose ball at the 20 and returned it for an 80-yard touchdown. Instead of being down 24-9, the Bills had cut the Denver margin to 21-16.

On the second play of Denver’s ensuing possession, an Elway pass was deflected at the line by DE Leon Seals and intercepted by safety Leonard Smith, who returned it 39 yards for another Buffalo TD. While Norwood missed the extra point attempt, the Bills had gone from being down by 12 points to up by one at 22-21. And it wasn’t over.

An illegal block on the kickoff return by the Broncos put the ball on the Denver five yard line. On the first play, Elway fumbled the snap and Cornelius Bennett recovered at the two. It took just one play for RB Kenneth Davis to run for a two-yard touchdown; this time the PAT attempt was successful and the Buffalo lead was now 29-21. The Bills had scored a total of 20 points in just 1:33 of playing time.

The shaken Broncos had to punt on their next possession after Bruce Smith again sacked Elway, this time for a ten-yard loss on a third-and-12 play. Buffalo moved into Denver territory, but Norwood’s 48-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right.

Now with under four minutes remaining, it looked as though the Broncos were finished when Elway threw three straight incompletions, but on fourth-and-ten he connected with WR Ricky Nattiel for a 20-yard gain to midfield. Suddenly, Elway was passing Denver downfield with four more completions that included a seven-yard TD to Nattiel - with the successful conversion, Buffalo’s lead was narrowed to one point. However, the onside kick was recovered by the Bills who were then able to run out the clock. The final score was 29-28 in favor of Buffalo.

It was a stunning win for the Bills, who were outgained by the Broncos, 410 yards to 197. Buffalo gained just 64 yards on the ground, to Denver’s 208. Bobby Humphrey (pictured above right) had an outstanding day running the ball, gaining 177 yards on 34 carries with one TD. John Elway completed 15 of 28 passes for 221 yards with a touchdown, but also with two interceptions (part of five overall turnovers by the Broncos). Ricky Nattiel was the club’s leading receiver with four catches for 62 yards and the TD.

Buffalo’s offensive performance was not strong. Reflecting the low rushing total, Thurman Thomas gained just 36 yards on 13 attempts – he caught four passes for 25 more yards. WR James Lofton also caught four passes, and led the Bills with 57 receiving yards. Jim Kelly completed 18 of 34 passes for 167 yards with no TDs and one interception.

The big defensive plays – including the one on special teams – made the difference in the outcome. Bruce Smith (pictured at left), with five tackles in addition to the two key sacks and the forced fumble, was recognized as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Week, although there were several other members of the unit who played significant roles in the dramatic win.

The Bills won their next six games and 10 of 12 to finish the regular season at 13-3, winning a third straight AFC East title and this time advancing to the Super Bowl where they lost to the New York Giants by one point - the previous year’s underachievers broke through to a higher level, even if they fell short of the pinnacle. Denver, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction, losing 9 of the remaining 12 contests to end up at 5-11 and at the bottom of the AFC West.

September 29, 2010

1974: Dolphins Score 3 TDs in Fourth Quarter to Defeat Chargers

The Miami Dolphins had won back-to-back NFL titles in 1972 and ’73 under Head Coach Don Shula and were certainly contenders to potentially win a third in 1974. While the pro football world had been stunned when the Toronto Northmen of the World Football League (later to become the Memphis Southmen) signed three key members of the Miami offense – FB Larry Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield – to contracts for the 1975 season, those players were still in Dolphins uniforms in ’74. In addition, the club had QB Bob Griese, HB Mercury Morris, and a stingy defense.

The Dolphins were stunned by New England in the opening game, but righted the ship in a win at Buffalo and now faced the San Diego Chargers on September 29 at San Diego Stadium. The Chargers, under new Head Coach Tommy Prothro, were coming off of consecutive last place finishes, including 2-11-1 in 1973. Aging veteran QB Johnny Unitas had not been the answer after being obtained from the Colts, and retired during training camp in ’74. Second-year QB Dan Fouts was now running the offense, but he was still a work in progress and the club was a hodgepodge collection of players who were either over-the-hill or mediocrities to begin with. While the Chargers had beaten Cincinnati the previous week, it did not seem likely that they would give the Dolphins, who were 15-point favorites, much of a contest.

Defense dominated a first half that ended with the score tied at 7-7. Miami scored first, in the second quarter, when Csonka bulled over for a one-yard touchdown. The Chargers tied the game late in the period. On the scoring drive, Fouts completed all four of his passes, for 50 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown throw to TE Wayne Stewart with 49 seconds remaining in the half.

San Diego dominated the third quarter, with RB Don Woods scoring two touchdowns. First, a 75-yard drive ended with Woods plowing over from the one yard line for a TD. Less than two minutes later, the rookie from New Mexico took off on a 56-yard touchdown run to put the upset-minded Chargers ahead by 21-7.

Converting from college quarterback to pro running back, Woods (pictured below) had failed to make the Packers, who had drafted him in the sixth round, and he was waived at the end of the preseason. Claimed by the Chargers, he carried the ball a grand total of two times in his first regular season action the week before against the Bengals. Now, he was putting on a sensational display against the defending champions.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Chargers were still ahead by two touchdowns. But after Dennis Partee missed a 33-yard field goal attempt that would have padded San Diego’s lead, the Dolphins went 80 yards and scored on a 13-yard touchdown pass from QB Bob Griese to WR Nat Moore.

After San Diego was forced to punt, Miami drove downfield on a 58-yard possession highlighted by a 38-yard pass from Griese to TE Jim Mandich and 14-yard run by Csonka; Csonka finished it off with a three-yard run to tie the score with 3:38 remaining.

Again the Chargers had to kick, and with under two minutes left, Moore returned the low punt 30 yards. A few plays later, Jim Kiick ran five yards up the middle for the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds remaining on the clock. The final score was 28-21 in favor of the Dolphins.

Afterward, Coach Shula said “The Dolphins played one of the finest fourth quarters since I have been associated with the team.”

Dan Fouts summed it up for the Chargers: “We felt pretty damn good the first three quarters, but it’s a four-quarter game.”

Total yardage was almost evenly matched, with San Diego gaining 392 yards to Miami’s 391. Bob Griese completed 14 of 27 passes for 248 yards with a TD and two interceptions; he clearly saved his best for last. The Dolphins, with their typically proficient ground game, compiled 173 yards rushing. Larry Csonka (pictured at left) led the way with 106 yards on 21 carries and two TDs. Both Jim Mandich and WR Howard Twilley caught four passes, with Mandich compiling 101 yards (Twilley had 45). Rookie Nat Moore (pictured at top) gained 183 total yards with 49 on three receptions (including a touchdown), 88 on three kickoff returns (29.3 average), and 46 on two punt returns, including the one that set up the tying TD.

Don Woods was the big story for the Chargers as he gained 157 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns; he also caught a pass for 10 yards. Dan Fouts completed 14 of 22 passes for 189 yards with a TD and none intercepted. WR Jerry LeVias caught the most passes (5 for 58 yards) while Wayne Stewart gained 71 yards on his three receptions, including the TD.

Miami finished the season at the top of the AFC East once again with an 11-3 record; they lost an epic Divisional playoff game to Oakland to end the pursuit of a potential third straight title. San Diego ended up at 5-9 and tied with the Chiefs at the bottom of the AFC West.

Woods had a career year, gaining 1162 yards rushing (second in the NFL) on 227 carries for a 5.1-yard average gain and seven touchdowns; he also caught 26 passes for 349 yards and another three TDs. He was named AFC Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press. However, injuries held Woods to five games in ’75 and he never gained more than 514 yards on the ground in any of his remaining six seasons.

Nat Moore also had a notable rookie season, although he proved to have far more staying power. He gained 1344 total yards, including 605 on 37 pass receptions. When Paul Warfield departed the team for the WFL in ’75, it was Moore who took up the slack and lasted 13 seasons, all with the Dolphins, catching 510 passes for 7546 yards and 74 touchdowns.

September 28, 2010

1951: Norm Van Brocklin Passes for 554 Yards vs. NY Yanks

The high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense of the early 1950s was capable of big performances. In 1950, they scored over 50 points in three games that included a 70-27 thrashing of the Baltimore Colts, newly arrived from the AAFC, and 65-24 pounding of the Detroit Lions a week later. Not surprisingly, they ran up a record 466 points in ’50 and nearly won the NFL championship. While at it, they set another standard with 5420 total yards.

As one would expect, Head Coach Joe Stydahar’s offense was loaded with outstanding players. The quarterbacking was split between two future Hall of Famers, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin. The stable of running backs included power-running fullbacks Dick Hoerner and Dan Towler and speedy halfbacks Glenn Davis, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Army, and Verda “Vitamin” Smith. Ends Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch and Tom Fears provided a Hall of Fame tandem for the Canton-bound passers to throw to.

On September 28, 1951 the Rams opened a new season against the New York Yanks at the Memorial Coliseum. With Waterfield sidelined by a knee injury, Van Brocklin had an opportunity to play the entire game and made the most of it.

The Yanks, a third-year franchise coached by Jimmy Phelan that played at Yankee Stadium (and paid a $25,000 annual fee for the right to play in the Giants’ territory), had been a respectable 7-5 in 1950. However, QB George Ratterman left the club to play in Canada and the suspect defense of ’50 had further degraded.

There were 30,316 fans on hand for the Friday night game, and they saw a record-setting offensive display. LA was up 21-0 after the first quarter as Van Brocklin threw touchdown passes of 41 yards to Hirsch and 67 yards to Smith. In between, Hoerner ran for a 22-yard TD. The Dutchman connected with Hirsch for a 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter, after he had already scored on a quarterback sneak, and the Rams were comfortably in front at halftime by a 34-7 margin.

The final score was 54-14. The Rams set new team single-game marks with 735 yards and 34 first downs. By contrast, the Yanks managed just 111 yards and 13 first downs, with only 8 net passing yards as a result of losing 55 yards on six sacks by the Rams defense.

The Dutchman completed 27 of 41 passes for 554 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Four of Van Brocklin’s touchdown passes were to Hirsch (pictured at left), who had a total of 9 receptions for 173 yards. Tom Fears had 7 receptions for 162 yards and Vitamin Smith gained 103 yards on just two catches that included a 67-yard TD. The 554 yards broke the record set by Johnny Lujack of the Bears with 468 yards in a 1949 contest.

Most of New York’s offense came from punt returns by halfbacks Buddy Young and George Taliaferro, with Young returning one in the second quarter for a 79-yard touchdown. The only other score the Yanks managed was on a 30-yard interception return by DE Art Tait in the fourth quarter. Any chance for the offense to make something happen ended when QB John Rauch was ejected for fighting late in the second quarter. They ended up punting 14 times.

The Rams again went on to place first in the National Conference, this time with an 8-4 tally, and succeeded in defeating the Browns for the NFL title. While they didn’t reach their record scoring total of 1950, their 392 points still ranked at the top of the league and they did exceed their total yardage mark with 5506. The Yanks suffered through a 1-9-2 season to finish at the bottom of the National Conference and folded (remnants of the club, including Buddy Young and George Taliaferro, became part of the Dallas Texans franchise in 1952).

Van Brocklin’s single-game passing record continues to hold up, despite the development of the passing game in the years since. Warren Moon’s 527 yards for Houston against Kansas City in a 1990 contest has, to date, been the closest that any quarterback has come to The Dutchman’s performance.

For the 1951 season, Van Brocklin finished behind his teammate Waterfield in the passing statistics (based on yards per attempt, the edge was a very narrow 8.898 to 8.892. By the modern rating system, Waterfield’s edge was 81.8 to 80.8). As a team, the Rams topped the NFL in passing yards (3199) with Van Brocklin throwing for 1725 and Waterfield 1566.

“Crazylegs” Hirsch built upon his outstanding performance in the opening game to lead the league with 66 pass receptions and set then-NFL records in receiving yards (1495 – a full 669 yards more than runner-up Gordie Soltau of the 49ers) and touchdown receptions (17). The yardage record lasted ten years and the touchdown record for 33.

September 27, 2010

1953: Bert Rechichar Leads Re-Formed Colts to Upset of Bears

Regular season pro football returned to Baltimore on September 27, 1953 when the re-formed Colts hosted the Chicago Bears in the season-opening contest at Memorial Stadium.

The earlier version of the Colts had replaced the Miami Seahawks in the All-America Football Conference’s second season in 1947 and had joined the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers in the NFL when the leagues merged in 1950. But after going 1-11 to finish with the league’s worst record, owner Abraham Watner sold the franchise back to the league.

Fans in Baltimore pushed to regain an NFL franchise, and after the Dallas Texans folded after one abysmal season in 1952, Commissioner Bert Bell announced that Baltimore could again have a franchise if they sold 15,000 season tickets in six weeks and suitable ownership could be found. The ticket drive reached the threshold in just a month and business executive Carroll Rosenbloom, who Bell had coached at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to head up the new ownership group.

The new Colts started off with players from the Texans franchise that included DT Art Donovan, DE Gino Marchetti, and halfbacks Buddy Young and George Taliaferro. They also pulled off a 15-player trade with the Cleveland Browns in which they most notably obtained defensive backs Bert Rechichar, Don Shula, and Carl Taseff, and G Art Spinney.

The new Colts had different colors than the old (blue and white rather than green and silver) and the new head coach was Keith Molesworth.

There were 23,715 excited fans on hand for the opening game against the Bears, who were coming off of a subpar 5-7 record in ‘52. Chicago opened the scoring in the first quarter when HB Billy Stone, who had played with the previous edition of the Colts in 1950, ran for a 23-yard touchdown.

Bert Rechichar, the second-year defensive halfback obtained in the deal with the Browns, brought the crowd to its feet when he returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter that tied the score.

With time running out in the first half, the Colts decided to try a long field goal attempt, but rather than use rookie Buck McPhail out of Oklahoma, who had handled all of the Colts placekicking during the preseason but had missed a 45-yard field goal attempt earlier in the contest, it was Rechichar lining up to attempt the kick from his own 44 yard line.

Many in the crowd were surprised to see Rechichar, who had never kicked a field goal as a pro. He made his first one memorable when he set a new league record by connecting from 56 yards out. The kick cleared the crossbar easily to break the previous mark of 54 yards by Detroit’s Glenn Presnell in 1934 and also gave the Colts a 10-7 lead going into halftime.

The game continued to be largely a defensive battle in the second half. In the third quarter, Colts QB Fred Enke was tackled in the end zone by DE Bob Hensley for a safety that narrowed Baltimore’s margin to 10-9. However, the regular placekicker McPhail added a 12-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and that provided the final score as the Colts won, 13-9.

The Bears outgained Baltimore with 334 total yards to 164, including the most passing (225 to 74) and rushing (109 to 90) yards, and had 20 first downs to 9 for the Colts. However, they gave up eight turnovers (four interceptions and four fumbles) and had come up empty on three possessions that took them inside Baltimore’s 20 yard line; they were stopped three times at the two yard line on one of them.

It was a good start for the re-formed Colts, who were 3-2 after five games (they beat the Bears again in Chicago, for good measure), but they lost the remaining seven contests to end up in fifth place in the Western Conference with a 3-9 tally. Just ahead of them were the Bears at 3-8-1.

Molesworth was moved to the scouting department in the offseason and replaced as head coach by Weeb Ewbank, a former assistant under Paul Brown in Cleveland. Baltimore’s fortunes would steadily improve thereafter.

Bert Rechichar (shown kicking at top) was successful on just 5 of 13 field goal attempts, although Buck McPhail hit on only two of five (he also handled all of the extra points and was good on 21 of 23 attempts). Far more proficient as a defensive halfback, Rechichar intercepted seven passes (All-Pro safety Tom Keane snagged 11). Over the course of his career, he kicked 31 field goals in 88 attempts for a 35.2 percent success rate and with a high of 10 in 1955 – when he led the league with 24 attempts. However, after being moved to safety he was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and picked off a total of 31 passes (15 of them during that three-year period of 1955-57). His 56-yard field goal would remain the NFL record until bested by Tom Dempsey of New Orleans from 63 yards in 1970.

September 26, 2010

1926: First AFL Begins Play With Three Games

On September 26, 1926 the first organization to be known as the American Football League (AFL) commenced play with three games. The AFL came into being through the efforts of star halfback Red Grange’s agent, C.C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle. Pyle and Grange (pictured above) had created a sensation when the player known as The Galloping Ghost signed to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 1925 following the conclusion of his last college season at Illinois.

The Bears had made the most of two barnstorming tours following the regular season that featured Grange. However, once the tours were over the contract was concluded. Pyle and Grange informed George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, co-owners of the Bears, that the star halfback would agree to come back for another year for a five-figure contract and part ownership in the franchise. Halas and Sternaman refused, and Pyle responded by leasing Yankee Stadium for five years with the idea of placing a team in the nation’s biggest market that would be built around Grange.

Pyle first sought to join the NFL with his new club, but when the owners finally rallied around New York Giants’ owner Tim Mara (who had purchased exclusive rights to the New York City area for his club that played at the Polo Grounds) and turned down Pyle’s request. Not to be deterred, Pyle proceeded to set up a rival league.

Eight franchises joined the AFL, in addition to Pyle’s New York Yankees. Bill Edwards, a politician and former star athlete at Princeton University, was hired as the new league’s president (at reportedly ten times the salary of his NFL counterpart, Joe Carr). In addition to the Yankees, other teams were located in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Rock Island. There was also a club called the Los Angeles Wildcats that was actually a traveling road team based in Chicago (hence they aren’t credited with being the first Los Angeles-based pro football team).

Several NFL veterans jumped to the new league, including QB Joey Sternaman (pictured at right), brother of Dutch Sternaman, who left the Bears for the Chicago Bulls, where he was also owner and coach; Giants’ tackle Century Milstead, who joined his coach, Bob Folwell, with the Philadelphia Quakers; and lineman Al Nesser, former mainstay of the Akron Pros who went to the Cleveland Panthers. Significant rookie signings included backs Harry Stuhldreher, of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen”, by the Brooklyn Horsemen (no doubt influencing the choice of team nickname; he would eventually be joined by another member of that fabled backfield, FB Elmer Layden); Georgia Tech’s Doug Wycoff by the Newark Bears; and Penn’s Al Kreuz by the Quakers.

Not surprisingly, the largest crowd (22,000) of the first week turned out at Cleveland’s Luna Bowl where the Panthers faced Grange and the Yankees. If they came to root for the home team, they went home happy for the Panthers dominated the New York club and won 10-0; if they came to see Grange, they were largely disappointed. Other than a 21-yard punt return in the second quarter, The Galloping Ghost didn’t accomplish much. Most of Cleveland’s players had been with the NFL’s Cleveland Bulldogs in 1925, giving them an advantage. Tailback Al Michaels threw a touchdown pass to wingback Dave Noble in the second quarter and Doc Elliott contributed an extra point and 32-yard field goal for the Panthers. The best drive of the day for the Yankees came in the third quarter (with Grange on the bench) as they made it down to the Cleveland three yard line but came up empty.

There were far fewer fans on hand (2500) at Browning Field in Moline, Illinois where the Rock Island Independents (a charter NFL franchise that jumped to the AFL) hosted the league’s traveling club, the Wildcats. The Wildcats were so named because they featured George “Wildcat” Wilson (pictured below left), a star rookie tailback out of Washington, and he had a solid outing against the Independents. So did blocking back Jim Bradshaw. But untimely penalties and a dropped pass on the goal line kept the Wildcats from scoring any touchdowns; their only points came on an 18-yard field goal by Jim Lawson in the first quarter.

While Rock Island had difficulty moving the ball on the ground, they had success through the air in the second quarter as blocking back Johnny Armstrong threw a pass to tailback Wes Bradshaw that gave the Independents a first down on the Wildcat five yard line. Three plays later Armstrong ran around end for a touchdown, and that was all that was needed as Rock Island won, 7-3.

At Davids’ Stadium in Newark, NJ before 2000 fans, the host Bears took on Joey Sternaman’s highly favored Chicago Bulls. The Bulls started off quickly as Sternaman ran for 40 yards on the second play of the game and then followed up with a pass to end Eddie Anderson to the Newark five yard line. FB Buck White ran for a touchdown from there and, with the successful extra point, the Bulls had the early 7-0 lead. The Bears defense stiffened from that point on, however, and while the Bulls continued to move the ball, they were unable to score again.

The star rookie tailback Wycoff keyed a late third quarter drive in which he compiled 60 yards on the ground. The ball was inside the Chicago one yard line as the period came to an end, and Wycoff plunged over for the touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Wycoff kicked the extra point to tie the game, and that ended up being the final score, 7-7.

For the Newark Bears, the opening tie was the high point of the season. They went 0-3-2 and never scored another point the rest of the way to finish at the bottom of the league. The Bulls went 5-6-3 to come in fifth. Rock Island won only once more as they put together a 2-6-1 tally to end up tied for seventh with Brooklyn. The Los Angeles Wildcats were 6-6-2, good enough for fourth place. The Cleveland Panthers failed to last the season, going 3-2 to finish third. Grange’s New York Yankees ended up at 10-5 and second to the league-champion Philadelphia Quakers (who opened their season on October 2).

In fact, only four of the original nine teams managed to play the full season. Fan and financial support wasn’t strong enough outside of New York City as the franchises dropped away. Afterward, the champion Quakers took on the NFL’s Giants (who had finished seventh) in a challenge game and were badly beaten, 31-0. The league folded, with the Yankees being taken into the NFL where they lasted two seasons and never finished ahead of the Giants.

Red Grange eventually made his way back to the Bears, as did Joey Sternaman. “Wildcat” Wilson played three years with the NFL’s Providence Steam Roller. Doug Wycoff toiled for six seasons with the New York Giants, Staten Island Stapletons, and Boston Redskins.

September 25, 2010

2006: Saints Defeat Falcons in Return to Superdome

When the New Orleans Saints hosted the Atlanta Falcons at the Louisiana Superdome on September 25, 2006, it marked not just the first home game of the season for the Saints but a return to a city and stadium that the franchise had been forced to abandon for a year due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The aftermath of the powerful storm in September of 2005 had, of course, been devastating for the city as a whole. The Superdome had sustained significant damage, and there were questions as to whether the Saints would return. For the team, it had meant a season on the road in which home games were split between San Antonio and Baton Rouge. They went 3-13 in ‘05, losing 11 of their last 12 games, and finished at the bottom of the NFC South.

The club that took the field in 2006 had been transformed in the offseason. There was a new head coach, Sean Payton, replacing Jim Haslett. There was also a new quarterback, Drew Brees, who had been signed away from the San Diego Chargers as a free agent. Star RB Deuce McAllister, who had been lost five games into the 2005 season with an ACL injury, was back healthy and joined by the Heisman-winning first round draft pick out of USC, Reggie Bush.

The Saints were already 2-0, having beaten Cleveland and Green Bay on the road, as they took the field for the Monday Night Football contest before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 70,003 at the refurbished Superdome. They were hosting their arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who had also won their first two games in impressive fashion under third-year Head Coach Jim Mora Jr.

It didn’t take long for the Saints to take command. Atlanta had the first possession of the game and went three-and-out. The ensuing punt by Michael Koenen was blocked by safety and special teams standout Steve Gleason (pictured above) and recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by CB Curtis Deloach. It was the first touchdown given up in the ’06 season by the Falcons.

Atlanta followed up with a nine-play drive that yielded a 26-yard field goal by Morten Andersen. But after the two clubs traded punts, the Falcons gave up another TD when the Saints went 80 yards in eight plays capped by a double-reverse in which WR Devery Henderson ran for an 11-yard touchdown. New Orleans was up 14-3 at the end of the first quarter and in command the rest of the way.

John Carney kicked field goals of 37 and 51 yards in the second quarter, while the closest Atlanta came to scoring was a 25-yard field goal attempt by Andersen that was blocked. Carney booted a 20-yard field goal to cap the Saints’ first time-consuming possession of the second half, and that provided the final margin of 23-3.

The New Orleans defense didn’t let the Falcons offense get closer than the 31 yard line during the second half. They sacked Atlanta QB Michael Vick five times and held the Falcons to 229 yards (the Saints rolled up 326).

Drew Brees had a solid if unspectacular outing, completing 20 of 28 passes for 191 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Deuce McAllister led the running game with 81 yards on 19 carries while Reggie Bush ran the ball 13 times for 53 yards. Marques Colston was the leading receiver with 7 catches for 97 yards.

For the Falcons, Michael Vick was held to just 12 completions in 31 attempts for 137 yards, although none were picked off; Vick was also Atlanta’s leading rusher with 57 yards on six carries. Alge Crumpler led the receivers with 5 catches for 49 yards.

Afterward Brees said “From the moment I signed with the Saints, I was looking forward to this. It was a great night. It was something we’ll never forget.” Owner Tom Benson, who had taken heat for suggesting that the Saints might relocate, danced off the field with parasol in hand to the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. A game ball was dedicated to the people of New Orleans.

The Saints went on to win the NFC South with a 10-6 record and advance farther into the postseason than any preceding team in franchise history, finally succumbing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. Atlanta dropped to 7-9 to finish third in the division, costing Mora his job.

New Orleans led the NFL in team rushing with 6264 yards as McAllister ground out 1057 yards on 244 carries (4.3 average) with 10 TDs and Bush added 565 yards on 155 attempts with six scores. Bush also caught 88 passes for 742 yards and two TDs and averaged 7.7 yards on 28 punt returns with another touchdown.

Drew Brees (pictured below) led the league in passing yards with 4418 and had the best passer rating in the NFC (96.2). His 26 touchdown passes ranked third in the NFL, as did his 8.0 yards-per-attempt.

Michael Vick became the first quarterback to rush for a thousand yards (1039) with a league-leading 8.4 yards-per-carry.

September 24, 2010

1972: Namath & Unitas Engage in Epic Passing Duel as Jets Beat Colts

By the 1972 season, QB Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts was 39 years old and in the twilight of his great career. Joe Namath of the New York Jets (pictured above) was ten years younger but had missed most of the previous two seasons due to injuries. After winning the Super Bowl following the ’70 season, the Colts had gone 10-4 in 1971 to make the playoffs as a wild card team, but were now in a transition under a new owner, Bob Irsay, and vice president and general manager, Joe Thomas. New York had fallen under .500 in both 1970 and ’71 without Namath, following the ’68 season that had resulted in an AFL title and Super Bowl victory over the Colts and a division championship in ’69. Age and injuries had taken their toll on both the teams in general and starting quarterbacks in particular.

The Colts and Jets, division rivals since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, met at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on September 24, 1972. New York had won its opening game the previous week at Buffalo handily, but more due to the running of second-year FB John Riggins (125 yards on 26 carries) than Namath’s passing (5 completions in 14 attempts for 113 yards with a TD and an interception). Baltimore, meanwhile, had lost dismally to the Cardinals – while Unitas passed for 257 yards, the Colts couldn’t get in the end zone and two passes were intercepted while PK Jim O’Brien misfired on three field goal attempts.

Expectations could not have been great for a high-scoring passing display, but that is what the 56,626 fans in attendance got. Namath set the tone in the first quarter by connecting with diminutive (5’10”, 160-pounds) WR Eddie Bell for a 65-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was missed, and Unitas responded with a touchdown pass of his own that covered 40 yards to WR Sam Havrilak. O’Brien was successful on the PAT and the Colts held a 7-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Baltimore tacked on six more points in the second quarter as O’Brien booted field goals of 14 and 32 yards. The pace of the scoring sped up as the Jets responded with a 67-yard touchdown pass play from Namath to Riggins that was quickly followed by Baltimore’s RB Don McCauley returning the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a TD. Namath struck again to knot the score at 20-20 with a 28-yard touchdown pass to WR Don Maynard. Broadway Joe’s fourth TD pass of the half, a mere 10-yard toss to TE Rich Caster, provided the Jets with a 27-20 lead at halftime.

The tide receded a bit in the third quarter, which was marked only by Bobby Howfield kicking a 14-yard field goal to put the Jets ahead by 10 points. But in the fourth quarter, McCauley ran in for a Colts TD from a yard out to make it a three-point game. Namath followed with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Caster. Unitas connected with HB Tom Matte for a 21-yard touchdown, but Namath iced the cake by again throwing to Caster, this time for an 80-yard TD that provided the final score of 44-34.

“I know it sounds dumb, but I’ve had better days throwing the ball,” said Namath afterward. While he completed just 15 of his 28 passes, they went for an astounding 496 yards with six touchdowns against one interception.

Rich Caster gained 204 yards on six catches with three touchdowns. Eddie Bell added another 197 yards on 7 receptions with a score. Don Maynard and John Riggins each caught one pass apiece, for touchdowns of 28 and 67 yards respectively; Riggins also was the leading rusher with 87 yards on 21 carries.

It all overshadowed an outstanding effort by Johnny Unitas (pictured at left), who completed 26 of 45 passes for 376 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. Tom Matte was the leading rusher, with 42 yards on nine carries, and also caught the most passes, with 9 for 69 yards and a TD. The converted halfback Sam Havrilak gained 115 yards on four receptions with a touchdown, and TE Tom Mitchell was right behind with 114 yards on 8 catches.

The game proved to be the last great performance for Unitas in Baltimore. While the Colts shut out Buffalo the next week, they proceeded to lose the next four games. After a 21-0 loss to the Cowboys in Week 5, GM Thomas fired Head Coach Don McCafferty, who had refused to bench Unitas – John Sandusky, the interim head coach, was ordered to do so and the nondescript Marty Domres started at quarterback ahead of the all-time great for the remainder of the year. It was the conclusion of an outstanding era for Unitas and the Colts. Baltimore ended up with a 5-9 record for third place in the AFC East.

The Jets finished second in the division with a 7-7 tally. Joe Namath stayed healthy enough to start all but one game and led the NFL in passing yards (2816), touchdown passes (19, tied with Washington’s Bill Kilmer), yards per attempt (8.7), and yards per completion (17.4).

September 23, 2010

2001: Tom Brady Replaces Injured Drew Bledsoe at QB for Patriots

Since making it to the Super Bowl following the 1996 season (and immediately losing Head Coach Bill Parcells), the New England Patriots had steadily declined over the following four years. From 11-5 in the AFC championship season, they had gone 10-6 under Pete Carroll in ’97, and lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs; 9-7 in 1998 to just snag the last wild card spot and go out in the first postseason round; 8-8 and out of the running in 1999, Carroll’s last season; and 5-11 under first-year Head Coach Bill Belichick in 2000.

Through it all, Drew Bledsoe had been the team’s quarterback. The club’s first draft pick in 1993 (and first overall) out of Washington State, he had put up significant numbers, especially in his first few seasons. Big, at 6’5” and 240 pounds, with a strong arm, he was also immobile and prone to taking hits (he was sacked 45 times in 2000). Still, he was tough enough to keep coming back and the club had shown confidence in Bledsoe by signing him to a 10-year, $103 million contract. At 29, he was still in his prime.

New England lost its first game of the 2001 season at Cincinnati. Two days later, the terrorist strikes on New York City and the Pentagon caused football to take a back seat to far greater concerns and the following weekend’s games were postponed.

When play resumed, the Patriots hosted the New York Jets at Foxboro Stadium on September 23. The game was a low-scoring affair. New England’s Adam Vinatieri kicked a 24-yard field goal in the first quarter and New York’s John Hall responded with a 26-yarder at the end of the half.

In the third quarter, New York DT Steve Martin recovered a fumble by the Patriots deep in Jets territory and they responded by going 93 yards in 12 plays to score on an eight-yard touchdown run by RB Curtis Martin.

But the play that had huge consequences, if not for this game than for the season and beyond, occurred in the fourth quarter. Bledsoe took off in an attempt to run for a first down and was hit hard by Jets LB Mo Lewis. He suffered a chest injury that knocked him out of the game and, ultimately, out of the season and off the team.

In for Bledsoe came the unknown backup quarterback, Tom Brady. Brady was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2000, having had an undistinguished college career at Michigan where he had difficulty competing for playing time against the likes of Brian Griese and Drew Henson. As a rookie, there were questions about his size (while he had good height at 6’4”, he was initially listed at 210 pounds) and arm strength. But Brady worked hard on the practice field and in the weight room.

By the 2001 preseason, Brady had improved to the point that Coach Belichick was suitably impressed with his development - even if Bledsoe had not gone down to injury, he might have gotten an opportunity to play. Brady had also added about 25 pounds to his frame and no longer looked too spindly for the NFL.

The young quarterback wasn’t able to salvage the game against the Jets; after completing five of his first six passes, he misfired the rest of the way and ended up successful on 5 of 10 attempts for 46 yards (Bledsoe had completed 18 of 28 passes for 159 yards with no TDs and two interceptions prior to his injury). New York held on to win, 10-3.

The Patriots won their next game against the Colts in what would be the first of many memorable showdowns between Brady and Peyton Manning. It was also the first of 11 wins in the remaining 14 contests as New England ended up with an 11-5 tally and won the AFC East. Carefully coached by offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Brady showed tremendous composure and leadership skills. While he didn’t possess Bledsoe’s arm strength, he was more accurate. A come-from-behind 29-26 win over the Chargers was a defining performance for the young quarterback. Even after Bledsoe was cleared to play again, Brady continued to start.

The Patriots defeated Oakland in a snowy Divisional playoff game, the last at Foxboro Stadium, and won at Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship (a game in which Brady was knocked out of by injury and Bledsoe stepped in). They upset the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl to cap the stunning season.

Tom Brady ranked third in the AFC in passing (86.5) and second in completion percentage (63.9) as he threw for 2843 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He was selected to the Pro Bowl. By the time another three seasons had gone by, he had also quarterbacked the Patriots to two more NFL titles.

Drew Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo following a season in which he displayed typical class after being relegated to the bench. He had a Pro Bowl year with an 8-8 club in ’02, but a porous line and declining skills made his last two years with the Bills far less successful. Bledsoe finished up with two years in Dallas, reunited with Head Coach Bill Parcells.

September 22, 2010

1940: Rookie George McAfee Keys Bears to Romp Over Packers

When HB George McAfee was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 1940 draft out of Duke, the Chicago Bears traded three players for his rights. It was a move that the Bears and their owner/Head Coach George Halas never regretted. In a single-platoon era when all-around skills were especially valued, McAfee could run, pass, and kick - but the running was his most significant asset.

The 6’0”, 177-pound halfback made an immediate impression in training camp and the preseason. He won an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers with a 73-yard punt return in the last minute. On September 22, 1940 he made an even bigger impression as the Bears opened their regular season against the arch-rival Packers at Green Bay’s City Stadium.

The Packers, under founder and Head Coach Curly Lambeau, had placed first in the Western Division in both 1938 and ’39 and were the defending NFL champions. They had opened their regular season the preceding week and defeated the Eagles 27-20. There was a then-record crowd of 23,557 on hand to see the Packers face the club most likely to threaten their perch atop the division.

Green Bay scored first, on a 25-yard field goal by Tiny Engebretsen. But on the ensuing kickoff, McAfee ran 93 yards for a touchdown – his first time touching the ball in a regular season contest.

The Packers would get a further taste of McAfee’s abilities as the game wore on. In the third quarter, with the Bears leading 21-10, he tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass to another noteworthy rookie, end Ken Kavanaugh. Then in the fourth quarter, McAfee scored his second touchdown of the contest on a nine-yard run.

Green Bay’s strong offense piled up plenty of yards, outgaining the Bears 333 to 290 and running off 19 first downs to Chicago’s 5. But the Packers also turned the ball over nine times and the Bears capitalized by making big plays. In addition to McAfee’s heroics, HB Ray Nolting returned the second half kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown and Kavanaugh scored a second TD to cap the scoring in the fourth quarter on a 39-yard pass play from QB Bob Snyder. Chicago was up by 21-3 in the third quarter before Green Bay managed to score again, on a 35-yard touchdown pass from tailback Arnie Herber to star end Don Hutson. But that was it for the Packers – the Bears won decisively, 41-10.

The pattern was established during McAfee’s rookie season of inserting him selectively during a game – Halas deployed him when his big-play abilities could be put to best use. He came to be referred to as “One-Play McAfee” both because he was typically limited to 30 minutes per game, and for his ability to turn a game on a very few touches of the football.

The Bears, with a deep and talented team and revamped T-formation, did indeed manage to place first in the Western Division, with an 8-3 record to Green Bay’s second place 6-4-1, and demolished Washington in the NFL Championship game by a 73-0 score. McAfee carried the ball 47 times for 253 yards (a team-leading 5.4-yard average gain) and two touchdowns, caught 7 passes for 117 yards (16.7 avg.) and threw two scoring passes. Kickoff and punt return statistics weren’t yet kept (that would begin the following year), but McAfee’s opening-game kickoff return for a touchdown was one of just three in the NFL that year. He also intercepted four passes on defense.

McAfee would have his greatest season in 1941, placing second in rushing (474 yards), rushing touchdowns (5, tied with three others), all-purpose yards (999), and points scored (72). He tied Green Bay’s Hutson for the most touchdowns with 12 and his six interceptions were right behind the two league leaders (the Cardinals’ Marshall Goldberg and Pittsburgh’s Art Jones with 7 apiece). Moreover, McAfee averaged 11.9 yards every time he touched the ball, over three yards more than league runner-up Jones (8.2).

After that, McAfee went into military service for three years during World War II, returning to play in three games in 1945 at age 27. He played until 1950, a total of eight seasons (in three of which he played three or fewer games), and his career numbers are hardly overwhelming. He gained a total of 1685 yards rushing, on 341 attempts for a 4.9 average with 21 touchdowns, and never had more than 92 carries in a season. In an era when backs typically weren’t a big part of the passing game (and teams didn’t pass as often in any case), McAfee had 85 catches for 1359 yards and a 16.0 average with 11 TDs. By far, his career high for pass receptions in a season was 32, for 492 yards and a score, in 1947.

McAfee returned 112 punts (aside from his rookie season), and his 12.8 average is still the career high for any NFL player with at least 75 returns. Two were returned for touchdowns. Used more sparingly to run back kickoffs, he had 18 for a 27.1 average and two TDs (again, the average doesn’t count his rookie season, prior to kick returns being compiled as an official statistic). McAfee also intercepted 25 passes on defense, twice picking off six in a season and with two returned for touchdowns.

Both left-handed and left-footed, as a passer McAfee tossed three touchdown passes in six career completions and as a punter averaged 36.7 yards on 39 punts, including a 79-yard boot in 1941.

The regard with which he was held by his own coach, “Papa Bear” George Halas, and other coaches around the league was unquestionably high. Green Bay’s Lambeau referred to McAfee as “the best and most dangerous man the Packers have ever faced.” Philadelphia’s Greasy Neale, who coached Hall of Fame halfback Steve Van Buren, called McAfee “the greatest plunging and quick-opening back I have ever seen.” Bears assistant Hunk Anderson said, “I played with (Notre Dame’s George) Gipp and I saw plenty of (Red) Grange, but McAfee is better than either one of them.”

The numbers in any individual category might look insignificant, but they add up to a versatile player who could do everything well. McAfee was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.

September 21, 2010

1975: Rick Upchurch Gains 284 All-Purpose Yards as Broncos Defeat Chiefs

Rick Upchurch had been chosen by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round of the 1975 draft out of the University of Minnesota primarily due to his reputation as a kick returner. Small at 5’10” and 170 pounds, it was hoped that his speed could add needed depth at wide receiver as well. In his first regular season game on September 21, 1975 Upchurch contributed mightily.

The Broncos hosted the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High Stadium in their season-opening contest. Under Head Coach John Ralston, they had put together the first two winning records in the franchise’s history in 1973 and ’74 and were looking to improve further. Veteran QB Charley Johnson had revived his career in Denver and the running game, led by RB Otis Armstrong, the NFL’s leading rusher in ’74, was strong. They also had an All-Pro in TE Riley Odoms. But there were questions regarding the offensive line and defense as the club entered the new season.

There was plenty of excitement and big plays by both the Broncos and Chiefs. Kansas City had started off the scoring in the first quarter with a 69-yard touchdown pass play from QB Mike Livingston to TE Walter White. WFL refugee Jack Dolbin, another new wide receiver on the Broncos, scored touchdowns on a 39-yard pass from Johnson in the second quarter and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud booted four field goals, three of them from over 40 yards. Moreover, Denver overcame a 33-24 fourth quarter deficit to defeat Kansas City, 37-33.

However, the biggest star of the game was Upchurch, who touched the ball seven times and accumulated 284 total yards. In the second quarter, he ran for a 13-yard touchdown on a reverse, and in the third quarter scored again when he gathered in a pass from Johnson and went 90 yards for a TD. The rookie caught two more passes, covering 33 and 30 yards apiece. He returned a punt 30 yards as well. Overall, Upchurch gained 153 yards on the three pass receptions, 13 yards on one running play, 88 yards on three kickoff returns, and 30 yards on the punt return. It was a total yardage record for a player in his first NFL game.

Not surprisingly, Upchurch was Denver’s leading receiver in the contest. Charley Johnson passed for 329 yards with three TDs and two interceptions while completing 12 of 20 passes. Otis Armstrong was the leading rusher with 82 yards on 18 carries. While the Broncos compiled 425 total yards to Kansas City’s 312, they also led in turnovers (4 to 2) and penalties (9 to 5).

The Chiefs had the most first downs (18 to 15), rushing yards (146 to 127), and sacks (5 to 4). Mike Livingston went to the air 27 times with 13 completions for 221 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Thanks to the long TD catch, Walter White led KC in receiving yards with 79 on two receptions. HB Ed Podolak caught three passes, for 29 yards. FB Jeff Kinney was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards on 18 attempts.

Ultimately, it was a disappointing season for the Broncos, who fell back under .500 at 6-8 to rank second in the AFC West. The Chiefs were in third at 5-9.

Charley Johnson suffered through a difficult final season, splitting time with Steve Ramsey while completing just 45.8 percent of his passes while tossing five touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Otis Armstrong played in only four games due to injury and ran for a mere 155 yards. 33-year-old Floyd Little, also in his last season, gained 445 yards rushing and caught 29 passes.

Rick Upchurch, however, was a significant bright spot and had the greatest impact over the course of the season as a kick returner. He ranked third in the AFC with a 27.1-yard average on his 40 kickoff returns (which led the conference) and his 11.6 average on 27 punt returns ranked fourth. Backing up at wide receiver, Upchurch caught 18 passes for 436 yards (24.2 yards-per-catch) with two TDs. He also ran the ball 16 times for 97 yards for a 6.1-yard average with the one TD. Altogether, the rookie’s 1929 all-purpose yards ranked third in the NFL.

While Upchurch would eventually get an opportunity to start at wide receiver, his nine-season career would be most notably defined by his kick returning ability. He was particularly adept at returning punts, averaging 12.1 yards on 248 returns with eight touchdowns. On three occasions, he was the league leader in punt return average – the first was in his second season, 1976, when he averaged 13.7 yards and scored four TDs – an NFL record matched only by Detroit’s Jack Christiansen in 1951 and Devin Hester of the Bears in 2007.

Used less often to return kickoffs (he primarily did so in his first three seasons and never after the fifth), Upchurch averaged 24.8 yards on 95 returns with no scores. He was a competent pass receiver whose best year came in 1979 when he snagged 64 passes for 937 yards and seven touchdowns. But it was as a punt returner that Upchurch received consensus first-team All-Pro honors on three occasions and selection to four Pro Bowls.

September 20, 2010

1987: 49ers Defeat Bengals with Montana to Rice TD on Final Play

The San Francisco 49ers were coming off of a bad opening game loss to the Steelers as they took on the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium on September 20, 1987. Star QB Joe Montana (pictured at right) had passed for over 300 yards but was also intercepted three times and the 49ers trailed throughout. The Niners, under Head Coach Bill Walsh, had won at least ten games in five of the previous six seasons and had two Super Bowl victories and it was anticipated that they would contend once more.

The Bengals had won their opening game at Indianapolis. In their fourth season under Head Coach Sam Wyche, they had not won nearly as steadily as the 49ers but were coming off of a 10-6 record in ’86.

It certainly seemed that Cincinnati would keep up the momentum as they scored on their first possession, driving 80 yards in 13 plays capped by a two-yard touchdown run by FB Larry Kinnebrew. The next time they got the ball, the Bengals again put together a sustained scoring drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal by Jim Breech. The 49ers had just two short possessions that ended in punts and Cincinnati led by 10-0 after the opening quarter.

San Francisco finally put together an eight-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter that resulted in Montana’s 38-yard touchdown pass to WR Mike Wilson. But the Bengals came back as QB Boomer Esiason tossed a 46-yard TD pass to TE Rodney Holman seven plays later. After another punt by the Niners, Breech capped the Cincinnati possession with a field goal, this time from 42 yards, and the Bengals took a 20-7 lead into halftime.

However, the 49ers dominated the third quarter. On their first possession, Montana passed to WR Jerry Rice for a 34-yard touchdown to narrow Cincinnati’s margin to 20-14. Then LB Keena Turner picked off an Esiason pass that led to Ray Wersching kicking a 24-yard field goal. The Bengals went three-and-out when they got the ball back and San Francisco responded with an 11-play drive that resulted in Wersching’s tying field goal from 31 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Cincinnati got a break when S David Fulcher recovered a fumble by Niners TE Ron Heller; four plays later Breech put them back in front with a 41-yard field goal. After the 49ers went three-and-out, the Bengals held onto the ball for ten plays that resulted in Breech’s fourth field goal of the day, this time from 46 yards.

When San Francisco went nowhere in three plays and had to punt with less than a minute remaining, it appeared that Cincinnati’s 26-20 lead was safe. The Bengals ran the clock down to six seconds. With fourth down on their own 30 yard line, Coach Wyche elected to run the ball rather than punt or take a safety, figuring that keeping the ball on the ground would use up the remaining time. RB James Brooks began to run a sweep but was stopped immediately by 49ers DE Kevin Fagan for a five-yard loss.

The play took up just four seconds, giving San Francisco one shot with 0:02 remaining and the ball on the Bengals’ 25 yard line. Montana lobbed the ball into the end zone where Rice leaped high to make the catch for a touchdown. Wersching kicked the extra point and the 49ers came away with a stunning 27-26 win.

Cincinnati outgained San Francisco in total yards (292 to 261) and significantly in rushing yardage (128 to 56), although both teams averaged less then three yards-per-carry.

Joe Montana hit on 21 of 37 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Mike Wilson led the receivers with 7 catches for 104 yards and a score, while Jerry Rice (pictured at left) had four receptions for 86 yards and two TDs. RB Roger Craig was the team’s top rusher with 35 yards on 12 carries.

For the Bengals, Boomer Esiason completed 14 of his 29 passes for 180 yards with a TD and one picked off. James Brooks and WR Cris Collinsworth caught three passes apiece, for 28 and 32 yards respectively, while Rodney Holman had the most receiving yards with 55 on his two catches that included the one long touchdown. Larry Kinnebrew gained 84 yards on 22 carries with a score to lead all runners.

In a season that was affected by a strike and games utilizing replacement players, the 49ers ended up with a 13-2 record to win the NFC West. They were upset by Minnesota in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Cincinnati had a disappointing 4-11 tally to place at the bottom of the AFC Central. These teams would next meet in the Super Bowl following the 1988 season.

Jerry Rice’s game-ending touchdown was just one of many highlights in a season (his third) in which he scored an astounding 22 touchdowns in just 12 games (due to missing the three games with replacement players, plus one that was eliminated altogether, during the strike) while catching 65 passes for 1078 yards. The total of receiving TDs set a new record that lasted 20 years, until 2007 – when New England’s Randy Moss had the advantage of playing in all 16 games to exceed Rice’s total by one. To further put it in perspective, Philadelphia’s Mike Quick was second to Rice in touchdown receptions in ’87 with 11 – exactly half as many.

31-year-old Joe Montana, in his ninth year, led the NFL in passing (102.1 rating), completion percentage (66.8), and touchdown passes (31); he tied with Seattle’s Dave Krieg in percentage of TD passes (7.8). Both he and Rice were consensus first team All-NFL selections.

September 19, 2010

2005: Two Late Brunell to Moss TD Passes Pull Redskins Past Cowboys

The rivalry between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys has produced numerous close contests and exciting finishes over the years. Such was the case when the two teams met at Texas Stadium in a Monday night game on September 19, 2005.

The Redskins had lost 14 of the previous 15 meetings with the Cowboys dating back to 1997. Hall of Fame Head Coach Joe Gibbs returned to the club in ’04 after an absence of twelve years amid high hopes of reversing the current dry spell, but Washington finished with a 6-10 record. Veteran QB Mark Brunell (pictured at right), obtained after spending nine years in Jacksonville, had labored through a difficult season and split time with third-year QB Patrick Ramsey. He was back for another year, and there was a newcomer at the head of the receiving corps in WR Santana Moss, obtained from the New York Jets for WR Laveranues Coles. They won their opening game against the Bears with Brunell playing well in relief of an injured Ramsey, who had started.

Dallas had also gone 6-10 in 2004 after reaching the postseason in ’03 in the first year under Head Coach Bill Parcells. The Cowboys had made acquisitions designed to improve a leaky defense in 2005, and also brought in an experienced veteran quarterback in 33-year-old Drew Bledsoe. They, too, had won their ’05 opener, beating San Diego with a late score and solid defensive play.

There were 65,207 fans on hand (the largest Cowboys home crowd in ten years) for the home-opening game that also featured the induction to the club’s Ring of Honor of three stalwarts of the 1990’s championship teams, QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, and WR Michael Irvin.

The Cowboys started off with a long 13-play drive that ended in a missed 41-yard field goal attempt by Jose Cortez. Early in the second quarter, Cortez made up for it by connecting on a 33-yard attempt. But by and large neither team could move the ball and the score stood at 3-0 at halftime.

Bledsoe connected with WR Terry Glenn for a 70-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to give the Cowboys a 10-0 lead, and when Cortez extended the margin to 13-0 nine minutes into the fourth period it seemed as though Dallas had the game safely in hand. Washington’s possessions had ended in seven punts and two turnovers and their closest penetration had been to the Dallas 28 yard line. Moreover, the Redskins had lost 25 consecutive games when behind after three quarters.

However, on the possession following the second Dallas field goal, the Redskins’ offense came alive. They drove 76 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by Brunell scrambling for 25 yards and then completing a fourth-and-two pass to WR James Thrash for 20 more. The possession ended with a 39-yard TD pass to Moss.

The Cowboys needed to run the clock down, and seemed bound to do that when Bledsoe completed a 17-yard pass to WR Keyshawn Johnson to the Washington 37. However, a holding penalty on OT Flozell Adams negated the play and, instead of first-and-ten in scoring position, Dallas faced third-and-18 back at its own 36. Bledsoe was able to regain only 13 yards on a pass to TE Jason Witten and the Cowboys were forced to punt.

The resulting kick by Mat McBriar went into the Redskins end zone for a touchback. With 2:52 remaining on the clock, Brunell completed a 10-yard pass to RB Clinton Portis. His next pass was deep for Moss and resulted in a 70-yard touchdown. With the successful extra point, the Redskins were suddenly clinging to a one-point lead.

That lead appeared tenuous when RB Tyson Thompson returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to the Washington 48. But the Cowboys couldn’t get a first down and when Glenn was stopped short on a fourth-and-four play, they were forced to turn the ball over on downs with under two minutes remaining. Dallas was able to get the ball back once more with 36 seconds left, but time ran out with Glenn tackled on the Redskins 43 after taking a lateral from RB Julius Jones, who had caught Bledsoe’s final pass of the game. Washington came away with a stunning 14-13 win.

Joe Gibbs was dumped with ice-water by his team on the sideline and pronounced the win “one of the greatest moments in sports for me.”

However, a frustrated Bill Parcells said afterward, “You’ve got to learn to close the show. We didn’t do that.” It was the first time that a Parcells-coached team had lost a game in which it led by 13 points in the fourth quarter, going back through 77 such instances.

The statistics reflected the closeness of the final score. Dallas outgained the Redskins by 351 yards to 346 and had the edge in net passing yards (261 to 242). Washington outrushed the Cowboys with 104 yards on 25 attempts to 90 yards on 29 carries. The Redskins gave up the only two turnovers and were penalized 12 times while Dallas drew 7 flags.

Mark Brunell went to the air 34 times with 20 completions for 291 yards, including the two late touchdowns; he was intercepted once. Santana Moss (pictured at left) caught 5 passes for 159 yards and both of the scores. Clinton Portis was Washington’s leading rusher with 52 yards on 17 carries.

Drew Bledsoe completed 21 of 36 passes for 261 yards and a TD with none picked off. Terry Glenn had 6 pass receptions for 157 yards and the one long touchdown. Julius Jones gained 81 yards on 22 carries.

The Redskins went on to sweep the season series with Dallas for the first time in ten years, and the games had a decisive effect on the final standings. Washington finished second in the NFC East with a 10-6 record and qualified for a wild card spot in the postseason, defeating Tampa Bay in the first round before falling to Seattle in the Divisional playoff. Dallas came in third in the division at 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs.

Mark Brunell, who had just turned 35 two days before the game at Dallas, had a comeback season in which he completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 3050 yards with a career-high 23 touchdown passes against just 10 interceptions. Santana Moss caught 84 passes for 1483 yards (17.7 average) including 9 touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

September 18, 2010

1972: Plays by Special Teams Key Redskins Win Over Vikings

Among the notable achievements of George Allen’s football coaching career, he was an innovator in the development of special teams play and had been the first to hire an assistant coach specifically to handle special teams (Dick Vermeil, who would go on to have a prominent coaching career of his own, in 1969 while with the Rams). On September 18, 1972 special teams play led the way to an opening game win for the Allen-coached Washington Redskins against the Minnesota Vikings.

Allen had come to Washington in 1971 after being fired a second time by Rams owner Daniel Reeves (the first time a revolt by the players led to his rehiring). Despite a 49-17-4 record and two playoff appearances over five years, Allen’s intensity and penchant for total control of the organization led to friction with the Rams owner. Allen was hired by the Redskins, who had posted winning records only four times since last appearing in the postseason following the 1945 season. With his attention to detail, motivational skills, and win-now approach exemplified by committing to veteran players who came to be known as the “Over-the-Hill Gang”, Allen guided Washington to a 9-4-1 record and wild card playoff spot in ’71.

The Redskins faced a significant challenge in taking on the Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium in a Monday Night Football contest. Under Head Coach Bud Grant, Minnesota had won the NFC Central for the second consecutive year in ’71 (fourth straight counting the pre-merger 1968 and ’69 seasons) and now had QB Fran Tarkenton back on the team after a five-year hiatus with the Giants. The defense was already well established as one of the league’s best, and it was anticipated that upgrading the offense could only make the Vikings an even more formidable contender.

Washington won, 24-21, and to be sure their ground-oriented offense played a big part by gaining 146 yards. RB Larry Brown (105 yards on 21 carries) and FB Charley Harraway (42 yards on 9 attempts) each scored a fourth quarter touchdown to seal the victory. However, Minnesota outgained the Redskins, 382 yards to 203, had more first downs (26 to 11), and sacked QB Billy Kilmer four times while Washington’s defense failed to get to Tarkenton at all. Indeed, Kilmer completed just 7 of 17 passes for 57 yards with an interception while WR Roy Jefferson led the club’s receivers with 4 catches for 38 yards.

By comparison, Tarkenton completed 18 of 31 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions; he connected with WR John Gilliam on an 11-yard TD pass that put the Vikings ahead in the third quarter, and threw a four-yard touchdown pass to FB Bill Brown late in the game that pulled Minnesota to within three points. WR Gene Washington gained 70 yards on three receptions, Gilliam pulled in four passes for 53 yards and the TD, and Brown caught 5 passes for 47 yards and a score.

The Vikings also did well rushing, with 182 total yards on 43 attempts. FB Oscar Reed led the team with 68 yards on 12 carries, Clint Jones added 66 yards on 21 rushes that included a TD, and the mobile Tarkenton ran three times for 35 yards.

What made the crucial difference for the Redskins were key plays by the special teams. Less than three minutes into the game, Bill Malinchak (pictured at top), a marginal seven-year backup wide receiver who had only been activated from the taxi squad a few days earlier, blocked a Minnesota punt and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown and early 7-0 lead for Washington.

With eight seconds left in the second quarter, DB Ted Vactor blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by the Vikings’ Fred Cox. Then in the fourth quarter, it was Malinchak making another big play when he recovered a fumble on a kickoff return by Clint Jones at the Minnesota 18 yard line to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by Harraway that proved to be the game-clinching score (Brown had just capped a 58-yard drive with a three-yard TD run to give the Redskins the lead).

It was no accident that Malinchak had been playing on special teams against the Vikings; when asked afterward why he had been reactivated for the game, Coach Allen said “because he’s a good special teams man.”

Minnesota’s Grant was well aware afterward of how the special teams plays had affected the game when he summed up that “giving up two fumbles, a blocked punt, a missed field goal, a blocked field goal – the accumulation of that was too much to overcome.”

It was the beginning of a big year for Washington’s “Over the Hill Gang”. They posted an 11-3 record to win the NFC East and advanced to the Super Bowl, although they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Minnesota had a disappointing 7-7 tally, finishing third in the NFC Central.

Larry Brown (pictured at left) led the NFC in rushing with 1216 yards in an MVP season (Associated Press, NEA, Bert Bell Trophy) in which he also was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year. He was second in the league in all-purpose yards (1689). Bill Kilmer may not have thrown the prettiest passes, but he operated well enough in Allen’s conservative offense to lead the league in passing (84.8 rating), touchdown tosses (19, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets), and TD percentage (8.4).

Fran Tarkenton performed well even though the Vikings offense as a whole didn’t, ranking second in the NFL in pass attempts (378) and completions (215) and third in passing yards (2651) and passer rating (80.2). He tossed 18 touchdown passes (just behind Kilmer) against 13 interceptions. However, the running game was beset by injuries and the vaunted defense suffered something of a letdown as Minnesota lost five games by a field goal or less.

Bill Malinchak managed to play ten seasons in the NFL, six with Washington, and it was his ability to make plays on special teams that kept him around for so long.

September 17, 2010

1989: Packers Come From Behind to Defeat Saints

The Green Bay Packers had not been over .500 in the six consecutive seasons prior to 1989, and that had been in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign. In their first year under Head Coach Lindy Infante in ’88, they had gone 4-12. The club had signed 20 free agents in the offseason, more than any other team in the NFL. Of the holdovers, WR Sterling Sharpe had led the Packers in pass receiving as a rookie and LB Tim Harris had 13.5 sacks and led the team in tackles.

The Packers lost their opening game in ’89 to Tampa Bay and on September 17 hosted the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field. After years of underachieving, New Orleans had gone to the postseason for the first time in 1987 under Head Coach Jim Mora and followed up with a 10-6 record in ’88. They missed the playoffs, but it was still a respectable showing for a club that had not posted a winning record in its first 20 seasons.

The Saints took control from the start, scoring on their first three possessions. After receiving the opening kickoff, they drove 77 yards in eight plays with QB Bobby Hebert throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass to WR Lonzell Hill. The Packers went three-and-out and the Saints took eight plays to score again, in a 56-yard possession that was highlighted by a 15-yard pass from Hebert to WR Floyd Turner and 21-yard carry by RB Dalton Hilliard. Hilliard capped the drive with a three-yard TD run. Packers QB Don Majkowski (pictured above) tossed an interception to end the next possession shortly before the conclusion of the first quarter, which finished with New Orleans ahead by 14-0.

Two plays into the second quarter, the Saints extended their lead to 21-0 when Hebert tossed a one-yard touchdown pass to TE Hoby Brenner. After an exchange of punts, Green Bay finally got on the board. Majkowski threw passes of 11 yards to WR Perry Kemp and 20 yards to TE Ed West and RB Brent Fullwood ran in for a TD from a yard out. But New Orleans managed one more drive prior to the end of the half that culminated in a 38-yard Morten Andersen field goal and the Saints took a 24-7 lead into halftime.

The Packers began to climb out of the hole with their first possession in the third quarter. Majkowski completed all seven of his passes in a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Fullwood scoring his second touchdown of the game on a four-yard run. After New Orleans went three-and-out in its possession and punted, Majkowski completed five more passes in a six-play drive with West hauling in a three-yard touchdown catch. Green Bay was now only down by three points, 24-21.

The Saints weren’t done yet, however, as Hebert led them on a six-play possession of their own that included passes of 13 and 28 yards to WR Eric Martin and concluded early in the fourth quarter with a 24-yard scoring throw to Hill. The Packers responded with yet another scoring possession, going 78 yards in five plays as West caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Majkowski. It was again a three-point game at 31-28.

New Orleans came back with a long, 12-play possession that ran more than eight minutes off the clock and resulted in a 32-yard Andersen field goal. Green Bay struck quickly when they got the ball back with Majkowski passing to WR Jeff Query
(pictured at right) for a 35-yard gain to the Saints’ 45 yard line. But three plays later they faced a fourth-and-17 situation with under two minutes remaining to play. Majkowski again went to Query along the sideline, and the resulting 23-yard gain kept the drive alive. It ended with Majkowski throwing a three-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe, and with the successful extra point, Green Bay took the lead at 35-34 with 1:31 left on the clock.

The one-point margin held up when Hebert immediately went to the air and his long pass was intercepted by CB Van Jakes; Green Bay was able to run out the clock.

The Packers accumulated 490 total yards in their comeback victory to 367 for New Orleans. Don Majkowski completed 25 of 32 passes for 354 yards with three TDs and an interception. There were plenty of pass receiving stars as Sterling Sharpe (pictured at left) caught 8 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown, Ed West contributed 6 receptions for 87 yards and two scores, and Jeff Query made four catches for 84 yards, including the big plays in the final drive. Brent Fullwood also had a notable game rushing, gaining 125 yards on 18 carries with two TDs.

In defeat, Bobby Hebert tossed 32 passes, completed 23 of them for 282 yards and, like his Green Bay counterpart, with three touchdowns and one picked off. Lonzell Hill had 6 pass receptions for 90 yards and two TDs. However, the Saints didn’t gain as much on the ground, as Dalton Hilliard led the club with 43 yards on 13 attempts with a score.

It was the first sign of rejuvenation for the Packers, who ended up going 10-6 and finishing second (due to tiebreakers) in the NFC Central. They just missed the postseason. Meanwhile, New Orleans fell to a disappointing 9-7 and third place in the NFC West.

Don Majkowski had easily the best season of his career. He led the league in pass attempts (599), completions (353), and yards (4318) while firing 27 touchdown passes (third in the NFL) against 20 interceptions. The third-year quarterback out of Virginia was named to the Pro Bowl and received second-team All-NFL recognition from the Associated Press.

Sterling Sharpe led the NFL with 90 pass receptions and ranked second with 1423 yards and 12 touchdowns. He received All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition, but unlike Majkowski there were better years ahead.

The Packers would regress to being a losing club again in 1990 and ’91, Infante’s last year as head coach. It would take the arrival of Infante’s successor, Mike Holmgren, and a young quarterback named Brett Favre in 1992 before Green Bay would begin to win again with consistency.

September 16, 2010

2007: Browns Outduel Bengals 51-45 in Wild Offensive Battle

It didn’t look good for the Cleveland Browns as they prepared to face their cross-state rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, on September 16, 2007 at Cleveland Browns Stadium. They had been beaten badly in the opening game, 34-7 by the Steelers, and starting QB Charlie Frye not only was pulled from the game but traded to the Seattle Seahawks two days later. Second-year backup Derek Anderson (pictured at right), considered a placeholder until rookie QB Brady Quinn was ready, would be starting for just the fourth time in his career and had not yet led the Browns to a victory. The Bengals, meanwhile, were coming off of a Monday night win over the Baltimore Ravens. Compared to the Browns, the Cincinnati club seemed stable and solid.

The 6’6”, 220-pound Anderson started slowly, misfiring on his first five passes during the initial two Cleveland possessions. Meanwhile, the Bengals methodically moved the ball 63 yards in eight plays to take the early lead on a 13-yard TD pass from QB Carson Palmer to RB Rudi Johnson.

On Cincinnati’s next possession, Palmer threw an interception and the Browns capitalized as Phil Dawson kicked a 39-yard field goal. Dawson kicked another field goal just before the end of the first period to put the Browns a point behind the Bengals at 7-6.

Both offenses came alive in the second quarter, totaling five touchdowns. Anderson started things off with his first touchdown pass of the game, connecting with WR Joe Jurevicius from 17 yards out. Seven plays later it was Palmer hitting WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 23-yard TD.

WR Josh Cribbs returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to the Cincinnati 11 yard line, and Anderson again threw a scoring pass to Jurevicius of nine yards on the third play of the possession. Cleveland was now in front, 20-14, but the Bengals drove down the field, this time for 88 yards in seven plays and aided by three penalties on the Browns. Palmer tossed his third touchdown of the game, 22 yards to WR Chad Johnson (who legally changed his name to Chad Ochocinco in 2008).

The Browns weren’t finished yet as they took over following the kickoff at their 12 yard line. Just before the two-minute warning, RB Jamal Lewis took off on a 31-yard run. Anderson followed with three straight pass completions, including a 25-yard touchdown throw to TE Kellen Winslow Jr. Cleveland had a 27-21 lead at halftime.

The third quarter started badly for the Browns when, on their first play after receiving the second half kickoff, Anderson was intercepted by safety Dexter Jackson. The Bengals capitalized as Shayne Graham kicked a 20-yard field goal. Cleveland was undeterred, however, driving 78 yards in eight plays that included two passes from Anderson to WR Braylon Edwards, the first for 19 yards in a third-and-six situation and the second for a 34-yard touchdown that lengthened the Browns’ lead to 34-24.

The Bengals came back quickly as WR Glenn Holt returned the kickoff 65 yards to the Cleveland 34 yard line. Four plays later Palmer connected with Johnson for the second time with a 14-yard TD pass. The Browns responded with even greater speed when, on the first play after the kickoff, Lewis ran 66 yards for a touchdown. Once again, Cleveland had a ten-point lead at 41-31.

Cincinnati utilized the no-huddle offense almost exclusively in its next possession, and Palmer completed five passes in the resulting nine-play, 63-yard drive that ended with Houshmandzadeh scoring from five yards out on Palmer’s fifth TD pass. The 31-point third quarter ended shortly thereafter with the Browns ahead by 41-38.

The offensive onslaught slowed as the fourth quarter got underway. The Bengals were stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-one play at midfield but Cleveland went three-and-out in response. However, the Browns regained the momentum as, first, Anderson connected with TE Steve Heiden on a 27-yard pass play and Lewis followed up with a 14-yard run to the Cincinnati 48. Two passes later Anderson hit Edwards for a 37-yard touchdown and, with the successful PAT, the Browns were ahead by ten again at 48-38.

After the Bengals were forced to punt on their next possession, Lewis took off on another long run, this time of 47 yards down to the Cincinnati 23. Anderson threw an 18-yard pass to Winslow and, while the Browns weren’t able to get the ball into the end zone, Dawson extended the lead with an 18-yard field goal.

Once more the Cincinnati offense drove down the field, with a Palmer to Johnson pass play that covered 32 yards highlighting an 11-play possession that went 64 yards and resulted in Palmer’s sixth touchdown pass of the contest - Holt hauled in the seven-yard scoring throw.

Cleveland was able to run the clock down to just over a minute as Dave Zastudil punted the ball 45 yards and it went out of bounds at the Bengals’ 9. Needing a touchdown and with no timeouts remaining, Palmer completed two short passes before hitting Johnson for a 30-yard completion to midfield. However, his attempt to pass to Johnson once again along the sideline was intercepted by CB Leigh Bodden with 21 seconds left. The Browns had successfully held on to win by the improbable score of 51-45.

The offensive numbers were as staggering as the score implied. The teams combined for 1085 total yards (Cleveland had the edge by 554 to 531). Cincinnati led in first downs (33 to 23) and time of possession (31:20 to 28:40); the Bengals also suffered the most turnovers (three to one).

In defeat, Carson Palmer (pictured at left) had put up the greater passing numbers, completing 33 of 50 passes for 401 yards with 6 TDs and two interceptions. Likewise, Chad Johnson caught 11 passes for 209 yards and two scores; T.J. Houshmandzadeh contributed another 8 receptions for 69 yards and two TDs. Rudi Johnson ran for 118 yards on 23 carries.

Derek Anderson’s statistics were certainly impressive, all the more so because so much less was anticipated: 20 completions of 33 passes for 328 yards with 5 touchdowns and one picked off. Jamal Lewis, an offseason acquisition who had been a top ground gainer for six years with the Baltimore Ravens, ran for 216 yards on 27 carries and a touchdown. Top receiver for the Browns was Braylon Edwards with 8 catches for 146 yards and two TDs; Kellen Winslow Jr. accumulated an even 100 yards on 6 receptions with a score. Thus, the Browns had a 300-yard passer, two 100-yard receivers, and a 200-yard rusher in the same game – a franchise first.

In tying a Cleveland team record with five touchdown passes, Anderson doubled his career total to date. The game also marked the third time in NFL history that both quarterbacks in a game threw at least five touchdown passes. However, it was not the highest scoring game ever between the two division rivals – the Bengals had beaten the Browns 58-48 in a 2004 contest.

The Browns went on to finish the season with a 10-6 record, the best since the re-formed team had joined the NFL in 1999, to place second in the AFC North and just miss the playoffs (division-winning Pittsburgh was also 10-6, but swept both games of the season series). Cincinnati was in third place, with a disappointing 7-9 tally.

Derek Anderson went on to have a career year, leading the league in yards per completion (12.7) while throwing for 3787 yards and 29 touchdowns. However, he also tied for second in interceptions thrown with 19. He was selected to the Pro Bowl. But thus far, he has not come close to duplicating those numbers.

Jamal Lewis (pictured below) gained 1304 yards on 298 carries (a 4.4-yard average gain) with nine TDs. It was his best showing since his 2066-yard season in 2003 with the Ravens.

Carson Palmer had a career high with 4131 yards through the air and ended up with 26 touchdown passes. However, he was also co-leader in passes intercepted (20, along with Detroit’s Jon Kitna and Eli Manning of the Giants).

September 15, 2010

1963: Tittle Leads Giants to Come-From-Behind Win Over Colts

The Baltimore Colts opened the 1963 season on September 15 against the New York Giants at Memorial Stadium in a state of transition under a new head coach. Weeb Ewbank, who had built the Colts into a championship team in 1958 and ’59, was fired after posting a 7-7 record in ’62 and replaced by 33-year-old Don Shula. Shula had been a defensive back for the Colts for four years, in between stints with the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins. He had moved into coaching upon his retirement as a player and, for the past three seasons, he had been the defensive coordinator in Detroit.

The Giants, under Head Coach Allie Sherman, had placed first in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive year but had again failed to win the league championship as they fell both times to the Green Bay Packers. QB Y.A. Tittle had been outstanding since arriving through a trade with the 49ers prior to the 1961 season while the veteran defense was one of the NFL’s best. But just as age and injuries had caught up with the Colts, so the window of opportunity was beginning to close in New York.

It was a gray and rainy day in Baltimore, but the home fans had something to cheer about early on when the Giants fumbled on the third play of the game and star DE Gino Marchetti picked up the loose football and rumbled 40 yards for a touchdown. Two possessions later and still in the first quarter, New York fumbled the ball away again. This time QB Johnny Unitas, despite still suffering the effects of an injury to his throwing shoulder, threw a 34-yard TD pass to flanker Jimmy Orr (pictured below) for a 14-0 lead.

Don Chandler kicked a 42-yard field goal before the first quarter was over to narrow the margin to 14-3, but the Colts came back in the second period after yet another New York fumble, this by veteran HB Hugh McElhenny after a good run on a screen pass. Unitas connected with rookie TE John Mackey for a 32-yard touchdown and the Colts were up by 21-3.

The Giants began to climb out of the hole as Tittle threw to HB Phil King on a play-action pass that produced a 46-yard touchdown. When they scored again on a four-yard TD pass from Tittle to TE Joe Walton, the Baltimore margin was narrowed to 21-17. However, the Colts came back with a scoring drive that ended with FB Jerry Hill running for a three-yard touchdown. Just before the end of the half, McElhenny made up for the earlier fumble by catching a seven-yard TD pass from Tittle and the tally stood at 28-24 at the intermission.

The Giants took the lead in the third quarter with two key plays. Tittle passed to split end Del Shofner for a 43-yard gain to the Baltimore nine yard line and, when the Colts blitzed on first-and-goal, the 37-year-old quarterback ran for the touchdown (pictured at top). The extra point attempt failed, but New York was ahead by 30-28. The Giants scored one more TD in the third quarter, on a one-yard run by FB Alex Webster, and that provided the final margin of 37-28.

The three lost fumbles in the first half had nearly done the Giants in, but they outgained the Colts by 362 total yards to 295. Tittle completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and ran for 24 yards on five carries, including the game-winning TD. Phil King (pictured at right) and Del Shofner each caught five passes, with King gaining 101 yards and scoring the team’s first TD and Shofner gaining 85 and setting up the game-winning score. New York also ran effectively, gaining a total of 119 yards on 37 rushes, with Webster leading the way at 60 yards on 15 carries.

For Baltimore, Johnny Unitas completed 19 of 33 passes for 219 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Jimmy Orr was the leading receiver with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. The Colts were missing the outstanding HB Lenny Moore due to an appendectomy; he was replaced by Tom Matte, who gained 26 yards on 10 attempts and caught four passes for 37 more yards, while FB J.W. Lockett was Baltimore’s leading ground gainer with 37 yards on 9 carries.

The Giants went on to win the Eastern Conference for a third straight year with an 11-3 record, and once again lost the title game, this time to the Chicago Bears. It would indeed be a last hurrah for the aging club, as they dropped into the cellar in ’64 and would not return to the postseason until 1981. Baltimore suffered through an injury-plagued season in Don Shula’s first year but ended up at 8-6 and third place in the Western Conference. They would win the conference title in 1964. Shula would go on to win 347 games as an NFL head coach (328 regular season, 19 postseason).

Y.A. Tittle, in his next-to-last season, led the NFL in passing as he tossed a then-record 36 touchdown passes (already accomplished by Houston’s George Blanda in the AFL in 1961). He also topped the league in yards per attempt (8.6) and completion percentage (60.2); his 3145 yards ranked third and he was intercepted just 14 times (3.8 INT percentage, also third in the NFL). Tittle was a consensus first team All-Pro and was named league MVP by the Associated Press and NEA.

Johnny Unitas led the league in passes completed (237), yards (3481), and lowest percentage of interceptions (2.9). He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the seventh consecutive season (of an eventual 11). Both of his favorite two veteran receivers, Orr and split end Raymond Berry, missed time due to injury, but the rookie John Mackey put together a Pro Bowl season as he caught 35 passes for 726 yards and led the club in yards per reception (20.7) and receiving touchdowns (7).