October 31, 2010

1999: Re-formed Browns Win 1st Game with Desperation TD Pass on Final Play

Cleveland was without NFL football for three years after the original Browns franchise was moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season. The team’s fans had been outraged when owner Art Modell announced that the club would be leaving the city it had called home since its debut in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946. Not all of Modell’s fellow owners were pleased, either, but Commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked out a compromise in which the city would gain a new club in 1999 that would inherit the name and history of the exiting team. Modell’s team was renamed the Baltimore Ravens and continued on as though it was an expansion franchise.

The re-formed Browns took the field in 1999 under the ownership of Al Lerner and a front office led by Carmen Policy, team president, and Dwight Clark, director of football operations, that had been associated with a winning operation in San Francisco. Chris Palmer, most recently the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was the new head coach, and symbolically there was a new playing field, Cleveland Browns Stadium, that was built upon the site of the old Municipal Stadium.

As an expansion team (in reality, if not in terms of inherited name and history), the Browns had the first overall pick in the ’99 NFL draft and took Tim Couch (pictured above), a 6’4”, 227-pound quarterback from Kentucky. Veteran QB Ty Detmer started the season, but Couch took over in the second week.

As has often been the case with expansion teams, the club got off to a rough start. The new Browns lost their first two games by a combined score of 69-9. Winless in their first seven contests, the club struggled to score points, only reaching double figures in two of those games (with a high of 17). Couch played as well as could have been hoped, but several of the veterans did not, particularly on the offensive line. The running game was not strong, and even when Couch had time to throw, there was no game-breaker among the wide receivers.

The Browns took on the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome on October 31. Under Head Coach Mike Ditka, the team had stunned the pro football world at the NFL draft by trading all of its picks in order to move up and select RB Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy-winner from Texas. The controversial gamble had not worked, and the club was 1-5 as it played host to Cleveland before a crowd of 48,817.

New Orleans got on the board late in the first quarter after safety Rob Kelly recovered a fumbled punt by Browns WR David Dunn at the Cleveland 15 yard line. QB Billy Joe Hobert tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Keith Poole for a 7-0 lead.

Cleveland’s defense set up a score midway in the second quarter when DE Roy Barker intercepted a pass and returned it 14 yards to the New Orleans 22. Couch connected with RB Marc Edwards for a 27-yard touchdown that tied the game. However, just before the end of the half, Doug Brien booted a 49-yard field goal for the Saints that put them back in front at 10-7.

The Browns defense set up another touchdown in the third quarter when the second Saints quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver (replacing the injured Hobert), fumbled an attempted handoff in his own territory and DT Darius Holland recovered for Cleveland. Couch threw to fellow rookie WR Kevin Johnson for a 24-yard TD and 14-10 lead.

Before the third quarter was over, Brien kicked his second field goal from 22 yards out to narrow Cleveland’s margin to one point. It appeared that the Saints had an opportunity to take the lead midway in the fourth quarter, but Williams fumbled the ball away at the Browns’ 12 yard line with 5:27 remaining to play.

New Orleans got another chance, however, and looked set to kick a game-winning field goal with time running out. However, they called a timeout with 29 seconds still remaining, rather than letting time run all the way down. Brien was successful on the 46-yard kick for a 16-14 lead, but the Browns still had 21 seconds to work with.

Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 25 yards. Couch threw an incomplete pass on the first play, but then was successful on a 19-yard pass to WR Leslie Shepherd, who quickly stepped out of bounds at his own 44 with two seconds remaining. With time for just one desperation play, Couch launched a long “Hail Mary” pass toward the end zone. The ball was tipped by two defenders, but Johnson managed to catch it and just stay inbounds for a stunning 56-yard touchdown. The new Browns had their first win by a score of 21-16.

The entire Browns team engaged in a wild celebration on the field, while the frustrated Saints could only walk off the field in disbelief. “I couldn't have thrown it another yard,” said Couch afterward. “I put everything I could into it and threw it as high as I could. It's a neat way to get your first one.”

“Sometimes you've got to be lucky, and we were lucky today,” summed up Coach Palmer.

The Saints outgained the Browns, 351 yards to 243, and had a significant advantage in first downs, 25 to 9. But they also turned the ball over five times, to just once by Cleveland. The Browns defense played well, and despite being without its best player, LB Jamir Miller, who was out with a shoulder injury.

Tim Couch completed 11 of 19 passes for 193 yards with three touchdowns against no interceptions. Kevin Johnson (pictured at left) caught 4 passes for 96 yards and the two TDs, while Leslie Shepherd contributed 4 receptions for 52 yards. As usual, the team was ineffectual on the ground (62 yards on 21 attempts), with RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar leading the way with 39 yards on 13 carries.

For the Saints, Ricky Williams ran for 179 yards on 40 attempts, but also fumbled three times. The two Billy Joes at quarterback combined for just 13 completions in 29 attempts and each gave up an interception; Hobert had a TD pass among his four completions, while Tolliver was successful on 9 of 20 passes for 92 yards. Williams and Keith Poole both caught three passes (for 8 and 23 yards, respectively) while RB Aaron Craver gained 32 yards on his two receptions.

It was the fifth loss of the season for the Saints when holding a fourth quarter lead, on the way to a miserable 3-13 finish at the bottom of the NFC West; a major housecleaning ensued. Cleveland won once more and ended up last in the AFC Central with a 2-14 record, but they had made their first win a memorable one.

Tim Couch had a respectable rookie season, completing 55.9 % of his passes for 2447 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, he led the league by being sacked 56 times, and his career in Cleveland was ultimately disappointing.

Kevin Johnson led the Browns in pass receiving for the year with 66 catches for 986 yards (14.9 avg.) and eight touchdowns.

October 30, 2010

1978: Mazzetti’s 5 Field Goals Lead Falcons Past Rams

Just three weeks prior to the October 30, 1978 contest between the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams, 23-year-old PK Tim Mazzetti had been tending bar at Smokey Joe’s in Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania grad had failed to catch on with the Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots and wondered if he would get another opportunity. But Atlanta’s placekicker, Fred Steinfort, had gotten off to a dreadful start and when the Falcons held a tryout to find a replacement, Mazzetti beat out two others to get the job. It didn’t take long for him to make a positive impression - he kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds to beat the 49ers in his second game. Now he would have the opportunity to kick before a Monday Night Football audience.

The Falcons were in their second season under the new organizational structure that most prominently included GM Eddie LeBaron, the former undersized star quarterback for the Redskins and Cowboys, and Head Coach Leeman Bennett. In 1977, they had gone 7-7 thanks to a dominating defense that allowed only 129 points all season while the offense was hindered by the frequent injuries to young QB Steve Bartkowski. Atlanta lost four of its first six games but had won the last two to be even at 4-4 going into the game against the Rams.

Los Angeles had been the dominant team in the NFC West for the past five seasons, but failed to make it to the Super Bowl. The head coach during that period, Chuck Knox, had run afoul of owner Carroll Rosenbloom and left for Buffalo, initially to be replaced by George Allen, who had been in LA from 1966 to ’70 before departing for Washington. However, Allen failed to last through the preseason and Ray Malavasi was now coaching the club. Despite the tumult in the front office, the team was off to an outstanding start on the field at 7-1 (including a shutout of the Falcons in LA); they had lost for the first time the previous week.

The crowd of 57,250 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was fired up and the Falcons defense responded in kind. However, it was the Rams threatening in the first quarter as they drove to the Atlanta five. They were helped along by a 12-yard pass from QB Pat Haden to WR Willie Miller (with a roughing-the-passer penalty tacked on) and 17-yard run by RB Lawrence McCutcheon. But LA came up empty when TE Terry Nelson fumbled at the two and it was recovered by Falcons CB Rick Byas.

The Rams got another shot when FS Bill Simpson intercepted a Bartkowski pass and returned it 24 yards. Haden threw a 10-yard TD pass to WR Ron Jessie on the first play of the second quarter to give Los Angeles a 7-0 lead.

To further complicate things for Atlanta, Bartkowski was lost to a shoulder separation later in the second quarter and replaced by backup June Jones. But the special teams made a big play when Falcons defensive lineman Edgar Fields blocked a punt at the LA 23. It set up Mazzetti’s first field goal of the night, from 21 yards.

The Atlanta defense came through with another big play when Byas intercepted a Haden pass at the Los Angeles 33 to set up another field goal attempt of 37 yards into a stiff cross wind with 32 seconds left in the half. Mazzetti was again successful and the Falcons went into halftime down by just a point at 7-6.

At the start of the third quarter, the Rams drove to the Atlanta 32, but Frank Corral missed a 49-yard field goal attempt. They were still leading late in the period when they tried to convert a fourth-and-one situation at the 50 and RB Cullen Bryant was stopped for a loss of a yard. It proved to be the turning point of the game.

The Falcons made the most of the opportunity, and Mazzetti put them ahead 9-7 with a 33-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter. Shortly thereafter, CB Rolland Lawrence intercepted his second pass of the game and Atlanta drove 64 yards in 10 plays capped by Mazzetti’s fourth field goal, of 26 yards, for a 12-7 lead with 6:44 left to play.

Atlanta continued to take advantage of LA turnovers. Rams DB Jackie Wallace fumbled a Falcons punt and RB Mike Esposito recovered at the Rams 25 yard line. Just before the two-minute warning, Mazzetti kicked a 37-yard field goal - his fifth of the contest.

Rams Coach Malavasi had replaced Haden with backup QB Vince Ferragamo to try and ignite the offense, but it was to no avail. When Corral missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the last minute, LA’s fate was sealed and the Falcons came away with a 15-7 win.

Los Angeles outgained Atlanta, 234 yards to 185, and had the edge in first downs, 14 to 9. However, the Rams gave up a crucial five turnovers, to two by the Falcons, and Atlanta’s defense had five sacks.

June Jones played well in relief of Steve Bartkowski, completing 7 of 11 passes for 87 yards with none intercepted (Bartkowski threw one). Neither team was able to run effectively on the other, and RB Haskel Stanback led the Falcons with 51 yards on 21 carries; FB Bubba Bean added another 44 yards on 15 attempts. WR Alfred Jackson was the most productive of the team’s receivers, gaining 40 yards on two catches.

For the Rams, Pat Haden completed 13 of 23 passes for 130 yards with one TD but also three interceptions (two of them by Rolland Lawrence); Vince Ferragamo was two of four for 50 yards in relief. Lawrence McCutcheon was the team’s top rusher with 50 yards on 12 carries, while Ron Jessie caught four passes for 44 yards and WR Billy Waddy gained 50 yards on three catches.

“We moved the ball pretty well at first and had good field position and then started making mistakes. In fact we made too many mistakes, mainly fumbles and interceptions," said Rams Coach Malavasi.

Atlanta’s Leeman Bennett took note of his defense’s strong performance, in particular the momentum-changing stop on fourth down in the third quarter. “That was a big play,” he said. “It knocked the wind out of their sails when they didn't make it.”

The win was one of five straight for the Falcons, who went on to finish at 9-7 and in second place in the NFC West. They qualified for the playoffs as a wild card team – the franchise’s first postseason appearance – and in the first NFC Wild Card game defeated the Eagles. They succumbed to Dallas in the Divisional round, although in a tight 27-20 contest. The Rams, who went on to finish first once again in the division at 12-4, won in the Divisional round but lost the NFC Championship game to the Cowboys.

Tim Mazzetti tied the existing club record with his five field goals (since broken by Norm Johnson in 1994) on his way to leading the NFC in field goal accuracy (13 of 16, 81.3 %). It was an outstanding performance, especially for a kicker who started the season as a bartender. Mazzetti played for three seasons in the NFL and also kicked for three in the USFL.

October 29, 2010

1973: Simpson Reaches 1000 Yards as Bills Beat Chiefs

The Buffalo Bills were making their first appearance on Monday Night Football on October 29, 1973, and a frenzied crowd of 76,071 fans was present at the new Rich Stadium. The Bills, a resurgent club in the second year of Lou Saban’s second stint as head coach, were off to a 4-2 start. They had not posted a winning record since 1966, the year after Saban quit the club following back-to-back AFL Championships, and now they were in the hunt for a playoff spot.

A big part of the resurgence was RB O.J. Simpson, who had underachieved for three seasons before Saban made him the centerpiece of the offense. The result had been a league-leading 1251 rushing yards in ’72 for a 4-9-1 team that was constantly reshuffling the offensive line. Thus far in ’73, the line had solidified and Simpson was chasing Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record of 1863 yards set ten years before. After six games, he had 868 yards on 138 carries (6.3 avg.) and had been held under a hundred for the first time by Miami the previous week.

The Chiefs, under Head Coach Hank Stram, had won the last AFL title in ’69 (not to mention the Super Bowl against the NFL champion Vikings) and been in the playoffs in 1971. They were coming off of an 8-6 record in ’72 that contained too many losses to bottom-dwelling teams and were 3-2-1 start coming into the Week 7 Monday night contest with the Bills.

Things began badly for the Chiefs on their first possession. They received the opening kickoff but, following an incomplete pass, KC fumbled the ball away on the second play from scrimmage. Bills LB Jim Cheyunski (pictured below left) recovered at the Kansas City 15. Simpson set the tone for Buffalo, running four straight times and scoring from a yard out for a quick 7-0 lead.

On the third play of Kansas City’s next possession, Cheyunski made another big play on defense as he intercepted a pass by QB Len Dawson and returned it 31 yards to the KC four yard line. Simpson took it in from there, giving him two touchdowns less than four minutes into the game.

Things got worse for the Chiefs when Dawson suffered a sprained ankle and was forced to leave the game. Pete Beathard, who had started his pro career in Kansas City and was back after spending time with the Oilers, Cardinals, and Rams, took over at quarterback.

The Chiefs got a break in the second quarter when Buffalo’s rookie QB Joe Ferguson fumbled on his own 43 and KC recovered. They scored four plays later on a run by FB Wendell Hayes from a yard out, set up by a screen pass to Hayes from Beathard that gained 27 yards. The score stood at 14-7 at halftime.

The Bills extended their lead in the third quarter, all with field goals by John Leypoldt of 31, 17, and 8 yards. Kansas City was able to take advantage of another Buffalo mistake late in the period when punter Spike Jones dropped a snap in his own territory and the Chiefs recovered at the Bills’ two yard line. Beathard sneaked in for a TD on the first play of the fourth quarter. But against the inspired Bills defense, and with the offense maintaining ball control by handing off to Simpson and FB Larry Watkins, Kansas City was unable to seriously threaten. Buffalo won, 23-14.

The score did not reflect the level of Buffalo’s domination of the game. The Bills outgained the Chiefs with 309 yards to 105 and had 21 first downs to KC’s eight. While both teams had modest net passing totals (67 yards for Kansas City, 63 for Buffalo) the rushing disparity told the story. The Bills ground out 246 yards on 65 rushes to just 38 yards on 17 carries by the Chiefs.

O.J. Simpson led the way with 157 yards on a then-NFL record 39 attempts that included the two scores, while Larry Watkins had 81 yards on 19 carries. As was typical during the season, Joe Ferguson went to the air just 11 times and had six completions for 63 yards with one intercepted. Wide receivers Bob Chandler and J.D. Hill accounted for all of the receptions, each catching three while Chandler outgained Hill with 35 yards to 28.

Kansas City’s two quarterbacks completed just eight passes, but on 29 attempts, with Pete Beathard accounting for six completions in 23 throws for 73 yards and no interceptions. HB Ed Podolak caught three passes for 27 yards in addition to leading the Chiefs with 29 rushing yards on seven carries. Thanks to the long reception on the screen pass in the second quarter, Wendell Hayes gained the most receiving yards with 33 on two catches; tellingly, he was able to run for only five yards on seven carries, including the one short TD. Only one pass was completed to a wide receiver - Otis Taylor for 13 yards – and TE Morris Stroud also had one catch for 13 yards as well.

Kansas City’s Coach Stram said afterward “Any time you're playing a squad that is in an emotional frenzy like Buffalo was – and motivated by their fans – and you give two touchdowns away right at the bat, you're in trouble.”

Players on the offensive line stepped up their game to put Simpson over the thousand-yard mark by the halfway point of the season, and they were successful; his total following the contest was 1025 yards.

“We got 1,000 in the first seven games and we'll go for another 1,000 in the next seven,” Simpson said afterward. It proved to be the case – the former Heisman Trophy winner out of USC not only ended up breaking Brown’s rushing record, but became the first NFL runner to cross the 2000-yard threshold in a season. Simpson totaled 2003 yards on 332 carries (also an NFL record at the time) for a 6.0 average gain and 12 touchdowns. The Bills as a team ran up a then-record 3088 yards on the ground, still the second highest total to date.

Two members of Buffalo’s solidified offensive line were selected to the Pro Bowl – left guard Reggie McKenzie (who also received All-NFL honors; pictured above right) and left tackle Dave Foley. Rookie Joe DeLamielleure (pictured at left), one of the team’s two first-round draft picks, started immediately at right guard and was outstanding (he would remain so, ending up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). Center Bruce Jarvis was injured during the season and capably replaced by Mike Montler. Right tackle Donnie Green and rookie tight end Paul Seymour (the other first round draft choice and more an extra tackle than a receiver) rounded out the very good unit. The group would come to be known as The Electric Company – because they turned on “the Juice” (Simpson).

The Bills improved to 9-5 in ’73, finishing second in the AFC East but just missing the postseason. Kansas City ended up tied with Denver for second in the AFC West at 7-5-2.

October 28, 2010

2001: Saints Come From 18 Points Behind to Beat Rams

The New Orleans Saints were coming off of a 10-6 year in 2000 under first-year Head Coach Jim Haslett and were 3-2 in ’01 as they faced the St. Louis Rams, the team they had beaten out for the NFC West title and then defeated in the Wild Card playoff (the first playoff win in franchise history), at the Dome at America’s Center on October 28, 2001. The Rams, under second-year Head Coach Mike Martz, were a perfect 6-0 thus far and seemed almost invincible.

St. Louis, with its outstanding passing offense, struck quickly on the second play from scrimmage. WR Az-Zahir Hakim took the handoff on a reverse and the former high school quarterback proceeded to fire a pass to WR Isaac Bruce for a 51-yard touchdown. The Saints then fumbled the ball away on their first possession, as TE Cam Cleeland was stripped by St. Louis LB Don Davis after catching a short pass from QB Aaron Brooks. CB Aeneas Williams recovered for the Rams and five plays later, following pass completions by QB Kurt Warner of 25 yards to WR Torry Holt and 13 yards to TE Ernie Conwell, Conwell ran for a two-yard touchdown. St. Louis was ahead by 14-0 and the game was barely four minutes old.

New Orleans got on the board thanks to a 33-yard John Carney field goal, and the score was 14-3 after one quarter. But the Rams scored again early in the second quarter. A pass interference call on Saints CB Kevin Mathis gave St. Louis a 38-yard gain to the New Orleans 36 yard line, and then Warner connected on passes of 13 yards to RB Trung Canidate (filling in for injured star RB Marshall Faulk) and 19 to Bruce to set up Canidate’s one-yard touchdown run.

The Saints drove 66 yards in 12 plays for another field goal by Carney, this time of 44 yards. But Jeff Wilkins responded with a 54-yard field goal late in the period that gave the Rams a halftime lead of 24-6 (Wilkins had missed an attempt earlier that broke a string of 30 consecutive successful field goal attempts).

Down by 18 points, New Orleans came back in stunning fashion in the third quarter. First, rookie RB Deuce McAllister returned the opening kickoff of the second half 46 yards to the St. Louis 48. Two plays later, Brooks connected with WR Joe Horn for a 46-yard touchdown.

On the ensuing St. Louis possession, Saints safety Sammy Knight roared into the backfield on a safety blitz, batted Warner’s pass and intercepted it. His 13-yard return ended up at the Rams’ 16 yard line. New Orleans lost yardage on the possession, however, and settled for a 44-yard field goal by Carney.

St. Louis CB Dre’ Bly fumbled the kickoff and it was recovered for the Saints by RB Fred McAfee at the Rams 16. Five plays later Brooks rolled out and tossed a six-yard pass to Horn for a touchdown. An attempted two-point conversion failed when RB Ricky Williams was stopped short of the end zone, but the Saints were now only two points behind at 24-22.

The Rams went three-and-out on their next possession and had to punt. It took just two plays for New Orleans to take the lead when Brooks went deep down the sideline to WR Willie Jackson and connected for a 49-yard touchdown. Once again, the attempted two-point conversion failed, but the Saints were now ahead by 28-24.

The Saints onslaught continued when DE Darren Howard intercepted a short Warner pass and returned it 37 yards to the St. Louis 23. The resulting possession lasted five plays and ended with Carney hitting on a 23-yard field goal. The third quarter ended with the Saints in the lead at 31-24, having put up 25 points in the course of the period.

St. Louis finally got on the board again in the fourth quarter following a 12-play, 87-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Holt. With the score now tied at 31-31 and the clock winding down to under five minutes, it seemed as though the Rams would yet pull the game out. But at the New Orleans 23, Canidate, who had caught a screen pass, fumbled and safety Chris Oldham recovered for the Saints and ran 43 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the St. Louis 36.

A 14-yard run by Ricky Williams got the ball to the 22, but it seemed that the Rams had dodged a bullet four plays later when they blocked Carney’s 30-yard field goal attempt. However, Bly was penalized for being offsides, giving New Orleans a first down. They ran three times to run the clock down and Carney’s fifth field goal of the day, from 27 yards, gave the Saints a 34-31 win.

St. Louis outgained the Saints, 474 yards to 320, and had 25 first downs to New Orleans’ 15. But they also turned the ball over eight times, including the four that fueled the New Orleans third quarter comeback.

Aaron Brooks (pictured at top) completed 20 of 31 passes for 254 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Joe Horn caught 8 passes for 121 yards and two of the TDs. Ricky Williams led the running game with 77 yards on 17 carries.

For the Rams, Kurt Warner went to the air 47 times with 29 completed for 385 yards; however, while he threw for one TD, he also surrendered four interceptions (two by Sammy Knight, pictured above left). Isaac Bruce was the most productive receiver, catching 7 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, but while Trung Canidate caught 10 passes for 107 yards, he only gained 19 yards rushing on 12 carries in relief of Faulk, including the one short TD. Az-Zahir Hakim, who contributed a touchdown pass, was the team’s leading rusher with 20 yards on two runs.

“They're not robots, they can be beaten,” said Joe Horn afterward. “I think we proved that today and we look forward to meeting them again.” The result was very different when the clubs met for the rematch in New Orleans – the Rams won, 34-21. Indeed, St. Louis lost only once more the rest of the regular season in posting a 14-2 record and re-taking the NFC West. However, they were stunned by the underdog New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. New Orleans failed to generate any momentum from the come-from-behind win, going 3-7 and losing the last four games of the year. The Saints finished in third place in the division at 7-9.

Kurt Warner (pictured below) was the NFL’s leading passer (101.4 rating) and also led the league in completion percentage (68.7), passing yards (4830), touchdown passes (36), yards per attempt (8.8), yards per completion (12.9), and percentage of TD passes (6.6).

Aaron Brooks, in his first full season as the starting quarterback, ranked fourth in the NFL with a career-high 3832 yards and tossed 26 touchdown passes, although he was also among the league leaders with 22 interceptions.

October 27, 2010

1991: Saints Lose for First Time as Bears Score on Final Drive

The Chicago Bears were 5-2 as they traveled to New Orleans to take on the undefeated (7-0) Saints on October 27, 1991 at the Louisiana Superdome. The Bears were in their tenth season under the direction of fiery Head Coach Mike Ditka and were used to contending – since Ditka’s third season in 1984, they had only once had a losing season (or for that matter, failed to win at least 10 games), and that had been two years before, in 1989 when they were 6-10. They had bounced back to 11-5 in ’90 and had every expectation of dominating the NFC Central.

New Orleans, long an NFL bottom feeder, had begun to win in 1987 under the direction of Head Coach Jim Mora. The Saints had twice been in the playoffs, although with a mediocre 8-8 record in 1990. QB Bobby Hebert had returned after sitting out the ’90 season due to a contract dispute, and whether he or Steve Walsh, the previous year’s starter, was behind center, the team kept winning thanks to an outstanding defense – they had not allowed an opposing team to score in double digits since the second week of the season.

Neither team was able to muster much offense in the first few possessions until, late in the first quarter, Hebert threw a pass down the middle to WR Floyd Turner for a 65-yard touchdown. The Bears managed two field goals by Kevin Butler in the second quarter, of 34 and 48 yards, but had difficulty sustaining any sort of drive. New Orleans took a 10-6 advantage at halftime when Morten Andersen boomed a 60-yard field goal on the final play of the period.

Chicago QB Jim Harbaugh (pictured above) managed to complete just two of his 10 passes in the first half. The Saints had been far better at throwing the ball, but had gained just 16 yards on 10 rushing attempts.

The Bears got a break in the third quarter when New Orleans CB Vince Buck was called for pass interference, resulting in a 37-yard gain to the Saints nine yard line. Two plays later, RB Brad Muster ran six yards for a touchdown and Chicago was in the lead at 13-10.

Two possessions later, the Saints put together a 56-yard drive in six plays highlighted by a 34-yard pass completion from Hebert to Turner. An eight-yard touchdown pass to Turner put New Orleans back in front, 17-13.

Early in the fourth quarter, Butler missed a field goal attempt from 51 yards out. The Bears came no closer to scoring as the game progressed and they continued to struggle on offense against the fierce pass rush. With just under two minutes to go, they took over on their own 48 after a poor 12-yard punt by Tommy Barnhardt of the Saints. Even with the good field position, it seemed as though the New Orleans defense was in control – Harbaugh had failed to complete a pass in the second half and was now a combined two of 19.

However, the passing game suddenly came alive as Harbaugh immediately completed a throw to WR Wendell Davis for 27 yards to the New Orleans 25. RB Neal Anderson ran up the middle for seven yards, and then caught a pass from Harbaugh for six more. Finally, Harbaugh threw to WR Tom Waddle for a 12-yard touchdown and, with the successful extra point, a three-point lead.

The Saints were unable to come back in the final seconds – a fourth-and-16 pass from their own 21 fell incomplete and the Bears, stymied on offense for so much of the game, won by a score of 20-17.

New Orleans easily outgained Chicago, 313 yards to 178, including a net 262 passing yards compared to 36 for the Bears. Jim Harbaugh ended up with 5 completions in 22 attempts for 61 yards with the game-winning TD and two interceptions. Brad Muster led the running game with 57 yards on 10 carries, while Neal Anderson was right behind at 53 yards on 12 attempts. Three receivers accounted for all of the Bears’ pass receiving – Anderson and Tom Waddle (pictured at left) each caught two passes for 17 yards apiece, and Wendell Davis was the yardage leader on his lone 27-yard reception.

For the Saints, Bobby Hebert was successful on 27 of 39 passes for 291 yards with two touchdowns against one interception. Floyd Turner had a big day, catching 9 of those passes for 179 yards and both TDs. However, the running game never caught fire, as the team ran for a total of 51 yards on 23 carries – RB Gill Fenerty was the leader with 25 yards on 8 attempts.

The win over New Orleans was the second of an eventual five straight for the Bears on the way to an 11-5 record and second place finish in the NFC Central - it was good enough to secure a wild card spot in the postseason, although they lost to Dallas in the first round. The Saints, after the strong start, faltered in the second half of the season. They won their next two games but then dropped four straight and finished at 11-5, still good enough to win the NFC West although they fell to arch-rival Atlanta in the Wild Card playoff.

October 26, 2010

1975: Bert Jones & Colts Overwhelm Jets & Joe Namath

The Baltimore Colts had fallen on hard times since winning the Super Bowl following the 1970 season. Outstanding players like QB Johnny Unitas, HB Tom Matte, TE John Mackey, WR Jimmy Orr, DT Billy Ray Smith, DE Bubba Smith, and safety Jerry Logan were gone. Joe Thomas had been brought in as general manager in order to deconstruct and rebuild, and the rebuilding was moving along far too slowly for Colts fans used to winning. The club had gone 11-31 from 1972-74, and was off to a 1-4 start in 1975 under new Head Coach Ted Marchibroda as they traveled to New York to take on the Jets at Shea Stadium on October 26.

The Jets had fallen on hard times as well. Since winning the AFL title in 1968 and upending the Colts in the Super Bowl, and then making it to the postseason again in ’69, New York had only twice done as well as .500 (including their 7-7 tally in ’74). Weeb Ewbank, the head coach and GM who had built the team into a winner, retired following the ’73 season, and was succeeded by Charley Winner. Franchise QB Joe Namath had suffered through injury-riddled years in 1970, ’71, and ’73, but when healthy he was still productive. He had played out his option and flirted with the World Football League, but Broadway Joe was back for an 11th season at age 32. The club was 2-3 thus far in 1975.

HB Carl Garrett fumbled on each of New York’s first two possessions, thus helping to put the Jets behind by two touchdowns early on. Garrett fumbled initially on the first play from scrimmage, and three plays later Colts QB Bert Jones (pictured above) ran for a 15-yard TD with just over a minute run off the clock. On the fourth play of the next possession, Garrett lost the ball again to set up a two-yard touchdown run by Baltimore RB Don McCauley five plays afterward. The score remained 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.

Early in the second period, the Jets got on the board as Namath tossed a 42-yard touchdown pass to WR Jerome Barkum. However, Jones brought the Colts right back and, on a play in which he scrambled to buy time, hit rookie WR Marshall Johnson with a 15-yard TD pass (it was Johnson’s first NFL catch as well as score).

On the next possession, Namath hit WR Eddie Bell for a 22-yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Colts CB Nelson Munsey gave New York a first down on the one yard line, and Namath threw a short TD pass to Barkum.

With just 24 seconds left in the half, Jones passed the Colts into scoring position and on the last play Toni Linhart booted a 36-yard field goal. Baltimore went into halftime with a 24-14 lead.

In the third quarter, the Colts extended the lead to 31-14 when Jones connected with Johnson again for a 68-yard touchdown. Not to be outdone in the big-play department, the Jets responded with a 91-yard pass play from Namath to TE Rich Caster to the New York one yard line (it was the longest play from scrimmage in the franchise’s history). From there, FB John Riggins fumbled into the end zone where TE Willie Brister recovered for a TD. The Colts led by 31-21 after three quarters.

Namath threw his only interception early in the fourth quarter, and it was a costly one as Colts safety Jackie Wallace returned it 38 yards for a TD and 38-21 lead that essentially sealed the game. Namath threw one more TD pass, of 22 yards to Bell. But later the Jets failed to get a first down on fourth-and-one at their own 20 and the Colts put the final nail in the coffin as RB Lydell Mitchell ran for a touchdown from there. The final score was a decisive 45-28 in favor of Baltimore.

The Colts gained 400 total yards to 341 for the Jets, who were undone by the three key turnovers while Baltimore suffered none. A gritty performance by Joe Namath was wasted – while he completed 19 of 28 passes for 333 yards with three touchdowns and the one interception, he was sacked seven times for 74 yards.

The Jets gained just 82 yards on 28 rushes, as Carl Garrett led the club with 33 yards on 10 carries (which hardly made up for the two early fumbles). John Riggins, who was held to 23 yards on 11 attempts, led the team with 6 catches, for 66 yards. Rich Caster gained 115 yards on three catches while Jerome Barkum added 71 yards on four receptions with two TDs.

Third-year QB Bert Jones gave notice of his steady improvement as he completed 17 of 25 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns against no interceptions; he also ran for 27 yards on three carries that included a TD. Marshall Johnson (pictured at left) caught three passes for 105 yards and the two scores, while WR Glenn Doughty grabbed 5 for 44 yards and Don McCauley four for 22.

The Colts ran all over the Jets, gaining 212 yards. Lydell Mitchell led the way with 98 yards on 14 attempts and the one TD.

“I threw the ball perfectly today,” said Bert Jones afterward. “The offensive line is the key. It's enabled me to do a lot of things that I want to do. It gives me all sorts of opportunities to throw what I want...and today I did it.” As to Namath, he added, “Joe is the best there is. In fact, I think he's the best there ever was.”

For his part, Namath said, “I was impressed with their front four,” Referring specifically to DE Fred Cook and DT Mike Barnes, he added, “I thought two of them were part of my backfield.”

“We got in a hole early, but the defense has to rise to the occasion, doesn't it?” said a disgusted Coach Charley Winner. “When you have your backs to the wall you have to stop them once in a while and make them settle for a field goal at least. We just simply didn't stop anyone.”

The two teams moved in markedly different directions over the remainder of the year. Baltimore didn’t lose again for the rest of the regular season, a total of nine straight, to win the AFC East with a 10-4 record. The Colts lost to Pittsburgh in the Divisional playoff round. Meanwhile, the Jets won only once more to go 3-11 and tie for last in the division with the Patriots. Charley Winner was dismissed and replaced by Ken Shipp before it was all over.

For Bert Jones, it was a breakout season as he responded well to ex-quarterback Marchibroda’s coaching and the solidifying of the offensive line. He passed for 2483 yards with 18 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions; his 2.3 % interception percentage ranked as the lowest in the NFL. His completion percentage of 59.0 ranked third.

Joe Namath (pictured below) threw for 2286 yards and 15 touchdowns. While his 14.6 yards per completion topped the NFL, so did his 28 interceptions. The weaknesses of the team around him, exposed by the Colts, were too much to overcome.

Marshall Johnson caught just one more pass in 1975 and totaled only five for his three-year NFL career, all with the Colts. He was primarily used as a kick returner in the end.

October 25, 2010

1970: Blanda Comes Off Bench for First of Five Straight Clutch Performances

Entering the 1970 NFL season, Oakland’s 43-year-old George Blanda was typically viewed as an over-the-hill backup quarterback who was still able to play pro football because of his placekicking ability. He had thrown just 13 passes in 1969 in relief of Daryle Lamonica, who had been selected Player of the Year by UPI in the American Football League’s last season and was still in his prime at age 29. Moreover, Ken Stabler had been drafted out of Alabama in the second round in ’68, and while injuries had kept him sidelined, he was expected to be ready for a more active role in ’70.

Blanda had been around for 20 years after being taken in the 12th round of the 1949 NFL draft out of Kentucky by the Chicago Bears. In 10 years with the Bears (he was briefly dealt to the Colts in 1950 but was brought back after just a week), he had a contentious relationship with owner/Head Coach George Halas and battled for playing time at quarterback. He handled the placekicking competently and even had occasion to play at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.

Blanda retired from the Bears following the 1958 season but returned to pro football in ’60 with the Houston Oilers of the new American Football League. The Oilers won the first two league championships with Blanda at the helm, and he set a then-record with 36 touchdown passes in 1961 (he set a more dubious record by tossing 42 interceptions in ’62). The Oilers released him after the 1966 season and he signed with the Raiders as a placekicker/backup QB. Behind Lamonica, he started one game in three years.

The Raiders were off to a slow start in ’70 and were 2-2-1 as they hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 25. In the second quarter, with the score tied at 7-7, Lamonica was sidelined with a bad back. Head Coach John Madden, who at 34 was nine years younger than the 21st-year veteran, sent Blanda into the game. An apparent scoring pass to TE Raymond Chester was called back due to a penalty, but on the next series a 44-yard pass to WR Warren Wells counted for a touchdown and put the Raiders ahead at 14-7. Before the half was over, Blanda kicked a 27-yard field goal and tossed another TD pass, of 19 yards to Chester.

In the third quarter, Blanda tossed a second touchdown pass to Chester that covered 43 yards and Oakland cruised to a 31-14 win. Blanda had come off the bench to complete 7 of 12 passes for 148 yards with three touchdowns against one interception. But the heroics were only just beginning.

The following week at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, Lamonica was back behind center as the Raiders were locked in a tight struggle against the defending-champion Chiefs. With eight seconds left to play, Kansas City was ahead by a 17-14 score, but Blanda was successful on a 48-yard field goal into the wind that salvaged a 17-17 tie.

The Raiders were now in first place as they hosted the Cleveland Browns on November 8. Early on, it seemed as though Oakland had the contest in hand as they took a 13-0 lead in the second quarter, thanks to two Blanda field goals of nine and 42 yards with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Lamonica to HB Charlie Smith in between. But Cleveland scored on a 10-yard pass from QB Bill Nelsen to HB Leroy Kelly and then Don Cockroft booted a 42-yard field goal to narrow the Raiders’ lead to 13-10 at halftime.

On the last play of the third quarter, Browns FB Bo Scott took off on a 63-yard touchdown run that put Cleveland in the lead by 17-13. On the next Oakland series, Browns DE Ron Snidow blind-sided Lamonica, causing him to leave the game with an injured shoulder. The Raiders punted, but CB Nemiah Wilson intercepted a pass deep in his own territory. However, it seemed as though the Blanda luck had run out when the old pro immediately tossed an interception in return.

Four plays after Blanda was picked off, Cockroft kicked a 32-yard field goal to extend the Cleveland lead to 20-13. Oakland’s offense took over with 4:11 remaining on the clock. Blanda completed three passes, and on a key fourth-and-16 play at the Browns’ 31 yard line threw an off-balance pass that WR Fred Biletnikoff caught for 17 yards and a first down. On the next play, Blanda threw for the end zone and connected with Wells for a 14-yard touchdown. Blanda kicked the extra point, and the game was tied at 20-20 with only a little over a minute remaining.

It looked as though the Raiders might end up with a tie for the second straight week (regular season overtime in the NFL was still four years away), but CB Kent McCloughan intercepted a Nelsen pass and returned it to the Oakland 46. Now down to 34 seconds and no time outs left, Blanda threw two incomplete passes – and was hit hard by DE Jack Gregory after each. A pass to FB Hewritt Dixon gained nine yards to the Cleveland 45 and with three seconds remaining, Blanda attempted a 52-yard field goal – his longest as a Raider. The kick was good, to the wild delirium of the crowd at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and Oakland came away with a stunning 23-20 win.

The heroics continued for a fourth straight week at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. Once again, Lamonica threw two TD passes and Blanda kicked a field goal to stake the Raiders to a 17-6 lead after three quarters. The Broncos rallied, with QB Pete Liske throwing a 10-yard TD pass to TE Jim Whalen and then running the ball over on a quarterback sneak to take a 19-17 advantage. And once more, Blanda rallied the Raiders in the last minute on a drive that culminated in a 20-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff and 24-19 win.

Finally, while Lamonica went the distance in a home game against the San Diego Chargers, it was Blanda breaking a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter with a 16-yard field goal that produced a 20-17 victory for the Raiders. Over the course of five consecutive weeks, the 43-year-old veteran had made the game-saving plays that allowed Oakland to go 4-0-1 in that span. The streak caught the imagination of football fans across the country, making the gruff veteran something of a modern folk hero.

It all ended with a loss at Detroit, and the Raiders split their remaining games to end up topping the AFC West with a record of 8-4-2. They defeated Miami in the Divisional round but lost to the Baltimore Colts in the first AFC Championship game – even Blanda’s relief efforts couldn’t overcome the tough Baltimore defense.

George Blanda appeared as a quarterback in six games and completed 29 of 55 passes (52.7 %) for 461 yards (8.4 yards per attempt) with six touchdowns and five interceptions. He was, of course, the placekicker in all 14 contests and was successful on 16 of 29 field goals and all 36 extra point attempts for a total of 84 points. Even with his limited play at quarterback in addition to the kicking, Blanda received the Bert Bell trophy as NFL MVP from the Maxwell Club.

Blanda went on to play another five years, even seeing brief action at quarterback in his final season at the age of 48. At the end of his career in 1975, he was the NFL’s all-time scoring leader (counting his AFL seasons as well) with 2002 points. He also held the career record for field goals (335) and extra points (943), as well as passes intercepted (277). Except for the career extra points, all of those have since been eclipsed (he lived to see Brett Favre break the record for career interception passes, one he was glad to no longer hold) but perhaps most significantly, his record for most seasons played (26) remains. Blanda was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

October 24, 2010

1993: Rubley Rallies Rams, But Lions Prevail in Final Seconds

(NOTE TO READERS: Today's post marks the first anniversary of the launch of Today in Pro Football History. For regular readers, thank you, I hope you have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. For newcomers, I encourage you to take a look at the archived material. Feedback and suggestions are always welcome - there is an e-mail link on my profile page. And now, back to the game...)

The Los Angeles Rams were off to a 2-4 start as they hosted the Detroit Lions (4-2) at Anaheim Stadium on October 24, 1993. The Rams had fallen on hard times since going 11-5 in 1989 and making it to the NFC Championship game. In the intervening three seasons they were a combined 14-34. Nine-year Head Coach John Robinson had been replaced by Chuck Knox in ’92 – it was a second stint in LA for the coach who had led the club to a 57-20-1 mark and five division titles from 1973-77. A 6-10 tally in 1992 had been considered progress.

Los Angeles added quality with first round draft choices DT Sean Gilbert in 1992 and RB Jerome Bettis in ’93. But while Gilbert was putting together a Pro Bowl season and Bettis had gained 187 yards in the previous two games, eighth-year veteran QB Jim Everett was still in a prolonged slump and had thrown 9 interceptions as opposed to 7 touchdowns.

The Lions, under Head Coach Wayne Fontes, relied most heavily on star RB Barry Sanders. With an improved defense under the guidance of defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, Detroit had held its opponents to 20 or fewer points in five of the six games thus far.

The first quarter was scoreless. Detroit’s offense drove to the LA 28 yard line on its second possession, with QB Rodney Peete connecting with WR Herman Moore on passes that covered 15 and 18 yards, but Jason Hanson missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.

The Rams got a break in the second quarter when CB Todd Lyght intercepted a Peete pass at midfield. But a drive to the Detroit 23 ended with Everett being intercepted by CB Tim McKyer. In the last two minutes of the half, another Rams drive ended when Everett fumbled at the Detroit 44 and NT Lawrence Pete recovered for the Lions. Eight plays later, Hanson was successful on a 25-yard field goal attempt as time ran out and the Lions went into halftime with a 3-0 lead.

Bettis had run well for the Rams, gaining 85 yards on 16 carries, but Everett was a dismal two of nine for 12 yards passing. Sanders gained 50 yards on 15 attempts for the Lions.

The third quarter promised more futility for the Rams as they went three-and-out on their first possession, which ended with Everett being sacked. But following a 12-play drive by the Lions that resulted in another Hanson field goal, this time from 24 yards, Knox benched the ineffective veteran quarterback and replaced him with second-year backup T.J. Rubley (pictured at top).

Rubley had been selected by the Rams in the ninth round of the 1992 draft out of Tulsa. He had played well in the preseason but saw no action during his rookie year and was making his regular season NFL debut against the Lions.

In his first series, Rubley largely kept the ball on the ground, handing off to Bettis five times for 25 yards. He took off on a six-yard run himself and completed one of three passes before the Rams were forced to punt.

Taking over on the last play of the third quarter, Detroit’s offense methodically drove down the field. The big play was a 40-yard pass completion from Peete to WR Aubrey Matthews to get to the LA 25 yard line. Six plays later, Sanders ran around end for a five-yard touchdown and the Lions had what appeared to be a safe 13-0 lead.

However, Rubley completed five of six passes on the next possession, took off on an 11-yard run along the way, and with the last completion hit WR Ernie Jones for a four-yard touchdown.

The Lions went three-and-out on their next possession and Rubley and the Rams took over at their own 32 with 3:39 left to play. The young quarterback tossed two completions to veteran WR Henry Ellard that totaled 17 yards and then found WR Todd Kinchen for 24 to the Detroit 21 yard line. Two plays later, and just after the two-minute warning, Rubley connected with Jones once again for a 21-yard touchdown. While Tony Zendejas missed the extra point attempt, the score was now tied at 13-13.

There would be no storybook ending for LA on this day, however. Peete completed two passes, including a key 25-yard completion to TE Rodney Holman that set up an 18-yard field goal by Hanson and the Lions prevailed, 16-13.

In relief of Everett, T.J. Rubley completed 12 of 17 passes for 151 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Jerome Bettis had another outstanding day as he gained 113 yards on 23 carries. Todd Kinchen was the leading receiver with four catches for 60 yards (Henry Ellard also caught four passes, for 32 yards).

For Detroit, Barry Sanders ran for 91 yards on 26 carries, including the one TD. Rodney Peete was successful on 15 of 25 pass attempts for 249 yards and an interception. Herman Moore gained 120 yards on 6 pass receptions.

Rubley’s magic wore off over the remainder of the season. While he led Los Angeles to two wins, overall the team went 5-11 to finish at the bottom of the NFC West. Rubley completed 57.1 % of his passes for 1338 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. In the offseason, Everett was dealt to New Orleans but Chris Miller was obtained from Atlanta to take over the starting role, and another veteran, Chris Chandler, arrived to be the backup. Rubley became an afterthought.

More lasting success came to Jerome Bettis, who ranked second in the NFL with 1429 yards rushing on 294 carries. He outrushed Barry Sanders, who gained 1115 yards on 243 carries for the Lions. Detroit went 10-6 and won the NFC Central but fell to the Packers in the Wild Card playoff round.

As a footnote, T.J. Rubley’s NFL career came to a bad – and abrupt – end. After seeing no action with the Rams in 1994, he moved on to become the number three quarterback in Green Bay in ’95. In a game against Minnesota, both starter Brett Favre and primary backup Ty Detmer were injured and Rubley entered with the score tied at 38-38. On a third-and-one play, Head Coach Mike Holmgren called for a quarterback sneak, but Rubley audibled and passed instead. The throw was bad and the Vikings intercepted and drove to the winning score. Holmgren cut Rubley the following week, and while he saw action with the World League of American Football and Canadian Football League, he was done in the NFL.

October 23, 2010

1960: Late Walston Field Goal Gives Eagles Key Win Over Browns

The Philadelphia Eagles were off to a good start in 1960, but faced their toughest test in traveling to Cleveland to face the Browns at Municipal Stadium on October 23. The Browns had beaten the Eagles decisively in the season-opening game at Franklin Field and were undefeated at 3-0. Philadelphia had recovered to win three straight games and arrived in Cleveland with a 3-1 tally (the Browns had already had a bye week).

The Eagles had a veteran head coach in 61-year-old Buck Shaw and were led on offense by the tough 34-year-old QB Norm Van Brocklin, in his 12th season overall and third in Philadelphia after being obtained from the Rams. The running game was average, at best, and it was the passing game that made the difference thanks to The Dutchman having outstanding receivers in flanker Tommy McDonald and ends Pete Retzlaff and Bobby Walston (pictured above; he was also the team’s placekicker).

The Eagles came into the game as 13-point underdogs and had not won in Cleveland since 1952. Head Coach Paul Brown’s club had the best one-two running back punch in pro football with FB Jim Brown and HB Bobby Mitchell, and also featured the precision passing of QB Milt Plum.

Eagles LB John Nocera was out with an injury, and his replacement Bob Pellegrini went down early in the contest. As a result, 35-year-old Chuck Bednarik, once one of the top linebackers in the game but now the starting center, had to return to linebacking duty in addition to his role on the offensive line.

Less than four minutes into the first quarter, after stopping the Browns on their opening series, Philadelphia scored on its first play from scrimmage as Van Brocklin threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Walston that gave the Eagles the early 7-0 advantage.

Cleveland drove down the field but came up short of a touchdown thanks to a goal line stand by the Eagles defense. They settled for a 12-yard field goal by Sam Baker. Baker, who had been obtained from Washington to replace the retired Lou Groza (who would return the following year), booted another field goal, of 23 yards, early in the second quarter to narrow Philadelphia’s lead to 7-6.

Plum put the Browns ahead later in the period with an 86-yard scoring pass to flanker Leon Clarke, who was substituting for the injured Ray Renfro. Baker’s extra point attempt failed, but he added a 44-yard field goal to extend Cleveland’s lead to 15-7 at halftime.

The Browns led by 22-7 early in the third quarter after Jim Brown took off on a 71-yard touchdown run. The Eagles came back, though, as FB Clarence Peaks ran up the middle on a draw play for 57 yards to put the Eagles in scoring position. Van Brocklin followed up with a six-yard pass to Walston and HB Billy Barnes plunged into the end zone for a touchdown from a yard out.

Shortly thereafter, Philadelphia struck again as Van Brocklin connected with McDonald for a 57-yard TD that cut Cleveland’s margin to 22-21 after three quarters.

Van Brocklin put the Eagles in the lead at 28-22 early in the fourth quarter with a swing pass to Barnes that covered eight yards for a touchdown. But the Browns responded with an 88-yard drive the ended on a three-yard TD pass from Plum to Mitchell. Cleveland was back in front at 29-28 with just over six minutes remaining to play.

The Eagles again drove into Browns territory, but safety Don Fleming intercepted a Van Brocklin pass. The Eagles defense held the Browns and forced them to punt, giving the Eagles one more shot.

With time running down, the Eagles took over at their 10 yard line. Van Brocklin passed to Retzlaff for 27 yards and then McDonald for 12 to just short of midfield. However, it appeared that Cleveland would win when safety Bobby Franklin came up with an interception, but LB Vince Costello was flagged for pass interference and the Eagles, instead of losing the ball, now had a first down at the Browns 30.

With 15 seconds remaining, Walston kicked a 38-yard field goal and the Eagles came away with a big 31-29 win.

Both teams put up plenty of yards, with the Browns outgaining Philadelphia by 451 yards to 428; they also had more first downs (21 to 18).

Norm Van Brocklin (pictured at left) completed 17 of 26 passes for 292 yards with three touchdowns and the one interception. Thanks to the long run in the third quarter, Clarence Peaks had a season-high 102 yards on 13 carries. Billy Barnes, who ran for 25 yards on 9 attempts and a TD, caught 7 passes for 48 yards and another score. Bobby Walston, in addition to kicking the winning field goal, also led all receivers with 94 yards on four catches. Pete Retzlaff and Tommy McDonald contributed significantly, with the former gaining 80 yards on three receptions and the latter 66 yards and a TD on two catches.

Jim Brown, as usual, put up big numbers for the Browns with 167 rushing yards on 22 carries, including the long touchdown run, and added another 57 yards on four pass receptions. Bobby Mitchell, who had devastated the Eagles in the opening game with 156 yards on 14 carries, was held to 35 yards on 14 rushes this time, although he still caught 7 passes for 70 yards and a TD. Milt Plum had 16 completions in 22 pass attempts for 289 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Costello, who was flagged for the interference call, was angry afterward. “I didn’t think there was any interference.” Coach Paul Brown avoided controversy, saying “You couldn’t tell anything from the bench. Vince was pretty hot about it.”

But Van Brocklin insisted the call was correct, saying “(Halfback) Ted Dean had been knocked down and I had to throw to the other side. The call was made right away. Two of the Browns linebackers seemed to sandwich Dean and he went down.”

Regarding the performance by the Eagles’ quarterback, Coach Brown summed up after the game, “As for Van Brocklin, he is one of the finest football players of all time.”

The Eagles were able to rest up with a bye the following week and then kept on winning to end up atop the Eastern Conference with a 10-2 record. They defeated the Green Bay Packers for the NFL Championship. Cleveland went 2-2-1 over the next five games and finished second with an 8-3-1 tally.

Norm Van Brocklin received unanimous MVP recognition (AP, UPI, NEA, and the Bert Bell Award) in his greatest – and last – season. He ranked second in the league in pass attempts (284), completions (153), yards (2471), and touchdowns (24).

Bobby Walston finished second in the league in scoring with 105 points. He had the best field goal percentage (70 %) as a result of connecting on 14 of 20 attempts. Walston also caught 30 passes for 563 yards (18.8 avg.) and four TDs.

Chuck Bednarik (pictured at right) played 59 minutes against Cleveland and led the club with 15 tackles, 11 of them unassisted. With the injuries plaguing the linebacking corps, Concrete Charley showed the critics who said he was too old to play linebacker that they were wrong, and did so while playing both ways (the last NFL player to do so regularly) all the way to the title game (he averaged over 50 minutes per game).

Jim Brown led the NFL in rushing for the fourth consecutive season with 1257 yards on 215 attempts (5.8 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Milt Plum was the league’s top passer - by the current system, his 110.4 rating was the best until Joe Montana’s 112.4 in 1989.

October 22, 2010

1972: Johnson & Little Lead Broncos to First Win Over Raiders in 10 Years

The Denver Broncos had posted losing records since the early days as an original American Football League franchise in 1960. Lou Saban, who led Buffalo to back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and ’65, had been the latest coaching casualty after he arrived amid high hopes in 1967 - he left Denver with a 20-42-3 overall record and failed to make it through the ’71 season.

John Ralston, who had led Stanford to back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, took over the head coaching duties in 1972. While he had an outstanding running back on hand in Floyd Little, the NFL’s leading rusher in ’71, the situation at quarterback was far less settled. Holdover Steve Ramsey started the first five games, and the Broncos were 1-4.

For the Week 6 contest on October 22 against the Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Ralston decided to start Charley Johnson at quarterback. The 33-year-old Johnson (pictured above), in his 12th season out of New Mexico State, had once been a highly regarded signal caller. A smart (he had a doctorate in chemical engineering) and accurate passer, he had been considered a rising star with the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-60s. But injuries and then a military commitment put him in competition with the younger Jim Hart, and Johnson was dealt to the Houston Oilers following the ’69 season.

Johnson spent two injury-plagued years in Houston before being dealt to the quarterback-desperate Broncos on the eve of the 1972 season. After some appearances in relief of Ramsey, he was getting a chance – and he made the most of it.

Oakland, under Head Coach John Madden, was as strong over the past few years as the Broncos had been weak, and entered the game with a 3-1-1 record. Moreover, the Raiders had not lost to the Broncos since 1962 – a string of 18 straight games (there was one tie, back in 1964).

Denver scored on its first possession as Johnson tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass to TE Billy Masters, who beat star safety George Atkinson. The play was set up by a 40-yard completion to Little out of the backfield.

Early in the second quarter, George Blanda got the Raiders on the board with a 32-yard field goal. Denver’s lead was now cut to 7-3, but Johnson again passed effectively to widen the margin. Following completions of 21 and 8 yards to WR Jerry Simmons, Johnson threw to Little, who had lined up in the slot and beat Oakland LB Phil Villapiano to score a 37-yard TD.

On the next Denver possession, the Broncos surprised the Raiders as Little took a handoff from Johnson and fired a pass to Simmons that resulted in a 35-yard TD. It was the first pass completion of Little’s pro career, in his sixth season.

As had been the case in most of Oakland’s games thus far, they had gotten off to a slow start. The situation appeared grave when QB Daryle Lamonica was forced to leave the game in the second quarter due to back spasms. Lamonica had just thrown a pass intended for rookie WR Cliff Branch that was broken up by CB Randy Montgomery when, on the next play, he was hit in the back by DE Lyle Alzado’s helmet. Backup George Blanda came in initially and delivered a first down, but then fumbled at the Denver 28 when hit by DT Paul Smith. Alzado recovered for Denver (Alzado pictured at left; he would go on to play for the Raiders ten years later).

Johnson completed three passes, including a 22-yard completion to ex-Raiders WR Rod Sherman, to set up a 44-yard field goal by Jim Turner on the last play of the half. The Broncos held a 24-3 lead at the intermission.

On the first play of the second half, Denver FB Bobby Anderson fumbled and LB Dan Conners recovered for Oakland at the Denver 20, setting up a 35-yard field goal by Blanda. The Raiders’ inexperienced third quarterback, Ken Stabler, had come into the game for Lamonica and showed over-anxiousness as he misfired on three passes.

However, Stabler began to find the range on his passes as the game progressed, although an apparent scoring pass to WR Fred Biletnikoff was nullified by a clipping call on Branch. But HB Charlie Smith ran 20 yards on a sweep to the Denver two and he scored three plays later to narrow the Broncos’ lead to 24-13.

Denver responded with a drive highlighted by Johnson connecting with Simmons for 28 yards on a third-and-15 play that culminated in an eight-yard Turner field goal early in the fourth quarter.

On Oakland’s next series, Stabler was sacked twice and the Raiders were penalized for holding twice as the young quarterback completed 8 of 10 passes and Oakland drove 67 yards. WR Mike Siani scored on a four-yard pass play in which he pulled the ball away from Montgomery in the left corner of the end zone.

However, Montgomery responded with an 88-yard kickoff return to the Oakland 15 yard line before being caught by Atkinson. Turner kicked a 27-yard field goal to extend Denver’s lead to 30-20 with 3:28 left to play.

The Raiders made it into scoring position once more, and Blanda kicked a 40-yard field goal with 1:36 remaining. They got one last chance, but in the final seconds, a pass to TE Raymond Chester on a fly pattern was deflected and he couldn’t pull it in. Denver came away with the 30-23 upset win.

There was a wild celebration in the Denver locker room afterward, in what Little referred to as the franchise’s “greatest victory ever.”

All the more astonishing, the Broncos managed only 13 yards rushing on 24 attempts, for an average of less than a yard per carry. But they made up for it with 396 passing yards as they gained 409 total yards to Oakland’s 316. It was a stunning performance against what was considered to be the best pass defense in the AFC. Charley Johnson completed 20 of 28 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions; Little, of course, added a 35-yard TD completion.

Jerry Simmons led the Denver receivers with 6 catches for 118 yards and a TD. Tight ends Billy Masters (6’5”, 240) and Riley Odoms (6’4”, 230) matched up well size-wise against safety George Atkinson (5’10”, 180) and were effective (Masters caught three passes for 66 yards and a touchdown and the rookie Odoms had two for 46 yards). Floyd Little (pictured at right) had three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown, although he missed the second half due to a foot injury and was held to just 15 yards rushing on nine carries.

Ken Stabler had a notable performance in relief of Daryle Lamonica, completing 13 of 22 passes for 165 yards with a TD and no interceptions and nearly pulling off a major comeback. Fred Biletnikoff and Raymond Chester both caught five passes apiece, with Biletnikoff gaining the most yards (74, to Chester’s 56). RB Marv Hubbard led the Raiders in rushing with 61 yards on 15 carries.

Coach Ralston said afterward, “Johnson’s accuracy was just incredible. Charley did a magnificent job of putting the ball on the money.”

Said Charley Johnson, “It was just one of those days when the timing between the
passer and the receivers was there.” He added, “I had real good vision - I could see all the coverages. But there are days when you can't see anything.”

The loss to the Broncos was only a speed bump on the way to the AFC West title for Oakland. They recovered to win seven of their remaining eight games to finish at 10-3-1, but lost in the Divisional playoff in stunning fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a result of RB Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception”. Denver ended up in third place in the division with yet another losing record, 5-9. But with Johnson at the helm, they would post winning records in each of the following two seasons.

Charley Johnson continued to play well in his comeback year, throwing for 1783 yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He ranked third among the AFC’s passers (74.6 rating) as well as in completion percentage (55.5) and second in yards per attempt (7.5) and percentage of TD passes (5.9, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets).

Floyd Little ran for 859 yards on 216 carries (4.0 avg.) and nine touchdowns and caught 28 passes for 367 yards and four more TDs. He also completed another pass.

October 21, 2010

2007: Rob Bironas Kicks 8 FGs as Titans Nip Texans

In his first two seasons with the Tennessee Titans, placekicker Rob Bironas had demonstrated that he had a strong leg and the ability to make kicks in the clutch. While there had been occasional accuracy issues, his 78.9 % success rate on field goals was solid. In his third year, 2007, his memorable performance on October 21 served notice that he had reached the level of the league’s premier kickers.

The Titans were 3-2 as they traveled to Houston to take on the Texans at Reliant Stadium. Tennessee, under 14th-year Head Coach Jeff Fisher, was coming off of an 8-8 season and seeking improvement under second-year QB Vince Young. However, Young had suffered a quadriceps injury the week before in a loss to Tampa Bay and 34-year-old veteran Kerry Collins was starting in his place. Houston was under second-year Head Coach Gary Kubiak and had a new quarterback in Matt Schaub, obtained from Atlanta during the offseason.

The Titans started off the scoring on their first possession as Bironas boomed a 52-yard field goal. The clubs traded fumbles and then Houston went three-and-out and punted. But on Tennessee’s first play, Collins fumbled when sacked by LB DeMeco Ryans, who picked up the loose ball and ran 26 yards for a touchdown that gave the Texans a 7-3 lead.

On Houston’s next possession, Schaub suffered an ankle injury and left the game. His replacement, Sage Rosenfels, threw an interception on his first play to give the Titans good field position at the Texans’ 38 yard line. The resulting drive stalled at the seven and Bironas kicked his second field goal, of 25 yards, to narrow Houston’s lead to 7-6, which was the score at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was all Tennessee as Bironas kicked field goals of 21, 30, and 28 yards and RB LenDale White scored on a one-yard touchdown run. Meanwhile, Schaub had returned to the lineup, but the Texans were forced to punt three times and lost a fumble. A hip injury near the end of the quarter knocked Schaub out of the game for good, and Bironas’ fifth field goal as time expired staked the Titans to a 22-7 lead at the half.

Rosenfels started the third quarter by throwing an interception, and that set up a sixth Bironas field goal of 43 yards seven plays later. After another three-and-out possession by Houston, Tennessee’s offense again marched downfield on a 12-play, 73-yard drive that ended with RB Chris Henry scoring on a four-yard run. With the score at 32-7, and the Texans’ offense having accumulated only 34 total yards, the game appeared to be a rout.

But as the third quarter wound down, Rosenfels began completing passes and early in the fourth period he completed a seven-yard touchdown throw to WR David Anderson. With a successful two-point conversion on a Rosenfels pass to WR Andre’ Davis, the Tennessee margin was narrowed, if ever so slightly, to 32-15.

Now it was the turn of the Titans to not move the ball. After a 28-yard run by White to start the next possession, Tennessee could go no further and punted. However, Craig Hentrich’s kick pinned the Texans down at their two yard line.

A 53-yard pass completion to Davis was nullified by a penalty, but completions by Rosenfels of 40, 23, and 8 yards to WR Kevin Walter, plus a 15-yard toss to RB Ahman Green, got the ball down the field and set up a six-yard Rosenfels-to-Walter touchdown pass. With the successful PAT, Houston was now only ten points behind at 32-22.

Tennessee went three-and-out on its next possession, but the Titans got a break when Anderson muffed Hentrich’s punt and it was recovered by Tennessee CB Reynaldo Hill at the Houston 33. Five plays later, the Titans were forced to punt again and the Texans took over at their 12 yard line.

With 4:30 left on the clock, Rosenfels immediately went to the air and was intercepted by LB Keith Bulluck. Four plays later, Bironas kicked his record-tying seventh field goal from 29 yards out.

The score was now 35-22 with under four minutes remaining. The Texans advanced from their 25 to the Tennessee 43, converting two third downs along the way, but at the two minute warning faced a fourth-and-five situation. Rosenfels completed a 12-yard pass to TE Owen Daniels to keep the drive alive and then followed up with a 24-yard completion to David Anderson down to the Tennessee seven. On the next play, Rosenfels connected with TE Jeb Putzier for the seven-yard touchdown, and with the extra point the score was 35-29.

Houston successfully executed an onside kick, recovered by LB Zac Diles at his own 34 yard line. Four plays later, Rosenfels completed a 53-yard pass play to Davis for a touchdown, and with Kris Brown’s successful point after, the Texans were ahead, 36-35, capping an amazing comeback.

There were still 56 seconds remaining, however, as the Tennessee offense returned to the field. Collins completed passes of 17 and 46 yards to WR Roydell Williams, and LenDale White’s six-yard run to the Houston 11 set up a last-play 29-yard field goal attempt for Bironas. The kick was successful, the Titans pulled out the 38-36 win, and Rob Bironas set a new single-game record with eight field goals in as many attempts.

Tennessee had 23 first downs to 18 for the Texans and also gained the most total yards with 422 to Houston’s 333. The chief disparity came in rushing yards, as the Titans piled up 155 on 39 carries to the Texans’ 39 on 12 attempts, but that reflected the need for Houston to resort heavily on the passing game in catching up in the second half.

Kerry Collins completed 25 of 42 passes for 280 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions - while he performed capably, the failure to reach the end zone after getting in scoring position set the stage for Bironas to set the field goal mark. LenDale White ran for 104 yards on 27 carries with a TD, while Chris Henry added 57 yards on 11 attempts and a touchdown as well. Roydell Williams gained 124 yards on 5 pass receptions and TE Bo Scaife caught 6 passes for 49 yards. CB Nick Harper intercepted two passes as part of an outstanding day on defense.

In relief of Matt Schaub, Sage Rosenfels (pictured above) went to the air 35 times and completed 22 of those passes for 290 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions (all four TD passes came in the fourth quarter, which tied an NFL record). Kevin Walter caught 6 passes for 97 yards and a TD to lead the club while Andre’ Davis added four receptions for 88 yards and a score. Ahman Green gained all 39 of Houston’s rushing yards on 11 carries and contributed 5 pass receptions for 32 more.

Tennessee went on to finish the regular season with a 10-6 record to place third in the highly-competitive AFC South and claim the second wild card spot. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to San Diego. Houston was in fourth with an 8-8 tally – it was the franchise’s first non-losing year.

In kicking eight field goals, Rob Bironas doubled his field goal total for the season to date. He also set a record for points scored by kicking only, with 26. The previous record of seven field goals in a game had first been set by Jim Bakken of the Cardinals in 1967 and was tied by Minnesota’s Rich Karlis in 1989, Chris Boniol of the Cowboys in 1996, and Billy Cundiff, also of Dallas, in 2003. Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham kicked seven in a game a few weeks after Boniol set the new mark.

Bironas ended up kicking a league-leading 35 field goals in 39 attempts for an 89.7 % success rate (fifth in the NFL). His 133 points ranked fourth. He was a consensus first-team All-Pro selection and was chosen for the Pro Bowl.

October 20, 2010

1991: Oilers Defeat Dolphins in Turnover-Filled Game

The game on October 20, 1991 at Joe Robbie Stadium featured the host Miami Dolphins, 3-4 under 22nd-year Head Coach Don Shula, against the Houston Oilers of Head Coach Jack Pardee, sporting a 5-1 record. Both teams were known for their flashy passing offenses, led by quarterbacks Dan Marino and Warren Moon, respectively. However, while the Oilers were playing like contenders with their “run-and-shoot” attack, Miami was having far too many problems on defense and with the running game.

Moon tossed an interception to end Houston’s first possession and the teams traded punts before the Dolphins put together a scoring drive of 57 yards on nine plays highlighted by a 39-yard pass play from Marino to WR Mark Clayton. Pete Stoyanovich kicked a 34-yard field goal and Miami was ahead 3-0 after one quarter.

After the quiet first quarter, the second quarter turned wild with a total of seven turnovers. First, Moon was intercepted for a second time, by safety Bobby Harden who returned the pickoff 17 yards to the Houston 48. However, on Miami’s first play, Marino went long and was intercepted by safety Bubba McDowell (pictured above), who ran it back 23 yards to the 47.

The Oilers went three-and-out, and Greg Montgomery’s punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Marino and the Dolphins began to move down the field, but a 13-yard completion to TE Greg Baty was fumbled and recovered by Houston’s safety Bo Orlando at the Miami 49.

Three plays later, it was Moon intercepted a third time, with safety Louis Oliver, who had accounted for the first quarter pickoff, grabbing it at his eight yard line and returning it to the 12. But now it was Marino’s turn to give up another interception, also on the third play of the possession, but far costlier because CB Darryl Lewis returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.

The Dolphins went three-and-out after receiving the ensuing kickoff, but on Houston’s first play RB Lorenzo White took a pass from Moon two yards behind the line of scrimmage and fumbled when hit by LB E.J. Junior. Harden recovered for Miami at the Houston 27 yard line. The Dolphins gave the ball up once more when McDowell intercepted Marino a second time at the Houston three.

The Oilers didn’t get far and punted with under two minutes remaining in the half. The Dolphins got a break when Montgomery’s first kick, of 62 yards, was nullified by a penalty and the second, shorter punt of 46 yards was returned by WR Scott Miller for 17 yards to give Miami good field position at the Houston 34. Four plays later Marino fired a 19-yard touchdown pass to Clayton running a slant pattern.

The Oilers got the ball back with 39 seconds remaining and, after two carries by RB Allen Pinkett and a pass from Moon to WR Ernest Givins got the ball to the Miami 39, Ian Howfield’s 56-yard field goal attempt was short. The eventful second quarter concluded with the Dolphins leading by 10-7.

Things calmed down in the third quarter. Howfield tied the game with a 26-yard field goal but Stoyanovich responded with a 46-yarder to keep Miami in front by a 13-10 margin after three periods.

In the fourth quarter, Houston finished off a 16-play march down the field that resulted in a one-yard touchdown pass from Moon to WR Curtis Duncan. Although there was 9:30 remaining, that proved to be the end of the scoring. A promising Miami drive to the Oilers’ one yard line ended with a fumble into the end zone by RB Sammie Smith that was recovered for a touchback by Houston CB Cris Dishman. The Dolphins never got another chance as Houston controlled the ball for the final three minutes of the game and came away with the 17-13 win.

Houston outgained the Dolphins, 282 yards to 275, and had 23 first downs to Miami’s 16. Of the total of nine turnovers, five were committed by the Dolphins and four by the Oilers, with most occurring in the comedy of errors that was the second quarter.

Warren Moon (pictured above left) had a mediocre day (for him), completing 21 of 35 passes for 171 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Ernest Givins caught 6 passes for 55 yards while WR Drew Hill gained 63 yards on 5 receptions. Lorenzo White accounted for 74 of Houston’s 120 yards on the ground, on 17 carries. Bubba McDowell had two of the defense’s three interceptions.

Dan Marino (pictured at right) also had a hard day, going to the air 40 times with 19 completions for 229 yards, also with a TD and three picked off. WR Mark Duper caught four passes for 79 yards (running backs Tony Paige and Sammie Smith also had four receptions apiece, for 45 and 23 yards, respectively). Sammie Smith gained 40 yards on 10 carries, but had the costly fumble (as would too-often be the case during his disappointing stint in Miami). Louis Oliver (pictured at bottom) picked off two passes.

The Oilers went on to win the AFC Central with an 11-5 record, and after a win over the Jets in the Wild Card round, lost a close contest to Denver in the Divisional playoff. Miami finished third in the AFC East with an 8-8 tally.

Warren Moon had far many better passing days operating out of the “run-and-shoot” as he ended up leading the NFL in passes (655), completions (404), yards (4690), and, more unfortunately, interceptions (21). His 23 touchdown passes ranked fifth.

Dan Marino was second to Moon in passes (549), completions (318), and yards (3970). However, he tossed more TD passes (25), fewer interceptions (13), and had a better overall passer rating (85.8 to 81.7). Both quarterbacks were named to the Pro Bowl and, of course, eventually ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

October 19, 2010

2003: Punchless Eagles Beat Giants on Stunning Punt Return by Westbrook

The Philadelphia Eagles had been to the NFC Championship game in 2001 and ‘02, but Head Coach Andy Reid’s team was off to a slow start in 2003. They were embarrassed 17-0 by the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the opening game that was also their regular season debut at the new Lincoln Financial Field, and then lost badly to the Patriots the following week. QB Donovan McNabb had been struggling through the first five games due to a bruised right thumb and lingered at the bottom of the passing rankings. The team’s record stood at 2-3 as they traveled to Giants Stadium to take on the division rival New York Giants on October 19.

The Giants were also underachieving at 2-3 under Head Coach Jim Fassel. The club had scored a total of 16 points in the prior two games as QB Kerry Collins tossed seven interceptions and no touchdown passes.

Philadelphia got the early advantage in its second possession of the game, driving 89 yards in 11 plays and highlighted by McNabb throwing to TE L.J. Smith for a 25-yard gain. RB Brian Westbrook ran around end for the last six yards and a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.

Neither team was able to move the ball effectively for the remainder of the half. A promising second quarter drive by the Giants ended with TE Jeremy Shockey fumbling the ball away at the Philadelphia 19 yard line after a nine-yard gain on a pass from Collins. However, three plays later McNabb was intercepted by CB Will Allen and the Giants had the ball at the Eagles’ 29 with 1:23 remaining in the half. Brett Conway kicked a 39-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 at the intermission.

New York went ahead 10-7 in the third quarter after a 12-play drive that went 62 yards and produced a one-yard TD pass from Collins to Shockey. It looked like that would be enough as the game moved through the fourth quarter and the Eagles offense remained stymied, ending five consecutive possessions with punts – all but one of them had been three-and-out.

Midway through the fourth quarter it appeared that the Giants would score again, but on a third-and-five play at the Philadelphia 10 yard line Collins fumbled after being hit by LB Mark Simoneau and DT Corey Simon recovered for the Eagles to end the threat.

With Philadelphia out of time outs and 1:34 remaining on the clock, the Giants entrusted their defense to finish the job and Jeff Feagles punted. Westbrook fielded the short, wobbly kick on the bounce and quickly blew through the wall of defenders. Running past the Giants’ bench, he flew past Feagles and then just stayed inbounds as he eluded one last tackler, TE Marcellus Rivers, before completing the 84-yard touchdown return (pictured at top).

78,883 fans sat in stunned silence as the play was reviewed by the officials, who ascertained that Westbrook had indeed not stepped out of bounds.

New York still had one last chance and, following the ensuing kickoff, Collins tossed a pass to WR Amani Toomer for a 20-yard gain to the Philadelphia 44 yard line with 1:12 now left to play. But four more passes netted just one more completion for six yards, and the last one on fourth-and-four was broken up by CB Bobby Taylor. The Eagles came away with a shocking 14-10 win.

The stunning nature of the victory was all the more evidenced by the statistics. The Eagles had gained just 134 total yards, to 339 for the Giants. A net of just 47 of those yards had come through the air (McNabb was sacked three times for a loss of 17 yards) while they had gained 87 yards on the ground. Philadelphia accumulated 9 first downs, while the Giants had 25.

Donovan McNabb completed only 9 of 23 passes for 64 yards with an interception. L.J. Smith’s one catch had made him the team’s receiving yardage leader with 25. Brian Westbrook led the team in rushing with 67 yards on 15 carries, caught three passes for another 11, and returned three kickoffs for 61 yards and the punt for 84 – the combined total came to 223 yards and included both of the team’s touchdowns.

In defeat, Kerry Collins was successful on 22 of 36 passes for 174 yards with one TD and none intercepted. RB Tiki Barber gained 79 yards on 19 carries and RB Dorsey Levens, playing in his first game for the Giants, contributed another 64 yards on 16 attempts. Barber and Jeremy Shockey each caught five passes (for 34 and 23 yards, respectively) while Amani Toomer was the receiving yardage leader with 54 yards on four catches.

For the Eagles, the dramatic result proved to be the turning point of the season as they proceeded to win nine straight and finished once again at the top of the NFC East with a 12-4 record. They made it to a third straight conference title game, but lost to Carolina. New York won its next two contests, but then lost the remaining eight to close out at 4-12 and at the bottom of the division. In the housecleaning that followed, both Coach Fassel and Collins were sent packing.

Donovan McNabb’s return to full health was a significant factor in Philadelphia’s second-half surge. He ended up passing for 3216 yards with 16 TDs and 11 interceptions and was named to his fourth of an eventual five straight Pro Bowls (six overall with the Eagles).

In his second season out of Villanova, Brian Westbrook (pictured at left) emerged as a major all-purpose talent. He returned a second punt for a touchdown during the season and ranked first in the NFC with a 15.3 average on 20 returns. Overall, he gained 1738 all-purpose yards with 613 rushing on 117 carries, 332 on 37 pass receptions, 487 on 23 kickoff returns, and 306 returning punts. While he would be used far less on punt returns in future seasons (and not at all on kickoff returns), his yards from rushing and pass receiving rose greatly.