January 4, 2010

1981: Raiders Intercept Sipe Pass in End Zone to Win AFC Divisional Playoff

The field was icy and the wind chill factor was minus 38 degrees below zero in Cleveland on January 4, 1981 as the Browns hosted the Oakland Raiders in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Municipal Stadium. Snow rimmed the field and gusty winds added to the difficulties encountered, wreaking havoc on the passing and kicking games as well as the ground game with the poor footing.

The Browns, under Head Coach Sam Rutigliano, had won the AFC Central with an 11-5 record (the Houston Oilers had the same record but ended up a wild card team due to Cleveland’s better conference record). Along the way, they became known as the “Kardiac Kids” for having won six games during the 1980 season in the last minute; 24 of their 32 games over a two year span had been decided in the final two minutes of play. QB Brian Sipe was the NFL’s top-rated passer (91.4) and achieved career highs in completions (337), yards (4132), touchdowns (30), and completion percentage (60.8). RB Mike Pruitt led the team in both rushing (1034 yards) and pass receptions (63) while the starting receivers (wide receivers Dave Logan and Reggie Rucker and tight end Ozzie Newsome) combined for 154 catches and 2184 yards.

The Oakland Raiders had finished second in the AFC West at 11-5 (San Diego won the division on net points) under Head Coach Tom Flores. They had started slowly and were 2-3 after a Week 5 game in which newly acquired QB Dan Pastorini went down for the season with a leg injury. QB Jim Plunkett had been waived by the 49ers before the 1978 season and been an afterthought on Oakland’s bench for two years, but now his fading career was rejuvenated. He led the Raiders to six straight victories and a 9-2 record for the rest of the ’80 regular season. They soundly defeated the Oilers in the Wild Card playoff the week before, 27-7.

Neither offense was able to move in the first quarter, trading punts and maneuvering for field position. The Browns got the first major break of the day midway through the second quarter when CB Ron Bolton intercepted a Plunkett pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. Don Cockroft’s extra point attempt was blocked by Oakland LB Ted Hendricks. The Raiders responded on their next possession by driving 64 yards and scoring on a one-yard TD by FB Mark van Eeghen; they were successful in converting the PAT and went in at halftime with a 7-6 lead.

Cleveland converted two 30-yard field goals by Cockroft in the third quarter to stake themselves to a 12-7 margin going into the fourth quarter. Oakland launched a 12-play drive of 80 yards that resulted in another van Eeghen touchdown from a yard out to re-take the lead in the fourth quarter.

It appeared that the Raiders had the game sewn up shortly after the score when they recovered a Sipe fumble at the Cleveland 25 yard line. However, with fourth-and-inches at the 15 they chose to pass up a field goal attempt; van Eeghen was stopped short, and the Browns had the ball back with 2:22 left on the clock.

The Browns fans came alive as the “Kardiac Kids” began to drive down the field. Sipe hit Newsome for a 29-yard gain. The Raiders were flagged for pass interference, and then Mike Pruitt ran for 14 yards. With less than a minute now remaining in the game, Cleveland had a second down at the Oakland 13 yard line.

The choice for the Browns was, play it safe and set up for a potential game-winning field goal, or go for the touchdown. While the steady veteran Cockroft had kicked two field goals, he had also missed two, as well as having had his only extra point attempt blocked. Coach Rutigliano elected to try for a pass into the end zone and instructed Sipe to throw it away if no one was open.

As the play developed, Sipe’s primary receiver was Logan, but for a moment he saw Newsome appear to break free across the middle of the end zone. The pass was held up by the wind, long enough for strong safety Mike Davis to recover and intercept it in front of the tight end (pictured above). With 41 seconds left, the Browns had run out of come-from-behind dramatics, and Oakland was the winner by a 14-12 score.

“I should have thrown it into Lake Erie,” said a disappointed Sipe afterward.

Neither offense excelled statistically under the harsh weather conditions. The Raiders averaged just two yards a carry running the ball (38 attempts for 76 yards) and Jim Plunkett completed only 14 of 30 passes for 149 yards with two interceptions. Mark van Eeghen was the leader of the stunted running game, with 20 carries for 45 yards and the two scores. HB Kenny King had the most receptions (4, for 14 yards) while TE Raymond Chester accumulated the most receiving yards with 64 on three catches.

The Browns were no better off, as they ran for 85 yards on 27 carries with Mike Pruitt gaining 48 yards on 13 attempts. Brian Sipe completed 13 of 40 throws for 183 yards and three interceptions. Ozzie Newsome snagged a team-leading four passes, for 51 yards, while HB Greg Pruitt gained the most yards through the air (54 on three receptions).

Oakland went on to become the first wild card team to win a Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10. Cleveland declined to 5-11 in ’81, made it into the expanded postseason tournament following the strike-shortened 1982 season with a 4-5 record, and didn’t return to the playoffs again until 1985. Sam Rutigliano and Brian Sipe were both gone by that point (the coach was fired during the ’84 season, and the quarterback jumped to the USFL) as was the legacy of the “Kardiac Kids” of 1980.