December 31, 2011

1972: Redskins Dominate Cowboys for NFC Title

In 1971 the Washington Redskins made it to the postseason for the first time since 1945, and in ’72 they were looking to go farther. Head Coach George Allen had shown a preference for utilizing veteran players in his previous coaching stop with the Rams and if anything that inclination had become even more pronounced in Washington. “The Over the Hill Gang” was long on experience. Player for player, they might not have been the most talented team in the conference, but they had plenty of spirit and savvy. The key player on the conservative, ball-control offense was HB Larry Brown, the league’s consensus MVP and leading rusher with 1216 yards. When they passed, they had outstanding wide receivers in Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson.

33-year-old Bill Kilmer (pictured above), in his second year in Washington after previous stints with the 49ers and Saints, started the season at quarterback over 38-year-old veteran Sonny Jurgensen. While Jurgensen was an all-time great passer, Allen favored Kilmer as being better suited to his ball-control offense, although he was repeatedly booed by the fans. Jurgensen had finally retaken the starting job four weeks into the year, but when the increasingly-brittle veteran suffered an injury three weeks later, Kilmer returned to the lineup and stayed there. He might not have passed often – or with great style – but he ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (19, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets).

Allen built his reputation as a defensive coach, and the defense was the club’s strength. Six of the starters were over 30, including DE Ron McDole; linebackers Myron Pottios, Jack Pardee, and Chris Hanburger; CB Pat Fischer; and FS Roosevelt Taylor, but they were talented and played aggressively. They also were the stingiest unit in the NFC, giving up 218 points.

The Redskins had topped the NFC East with an 11-3 record and won their Divisional playoff game over the Packers without allowing a touchdown. In the NFC Championship game on December 31, 1972 they would be facing their division rivals and defending NFL Champions, the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins had used a five-man front to beat the Packers (a ground-oriented team with a miniscule passing attack) in the Divisional playoff but were back in their standard 4-3 to face Dallas.

Under Head Coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys had finished second in the division at 10-4 and made it into the postseason as a wild card entry. Player-for-player, they were more talented than the Redskins and were coming off of a thrilling come-from-behind win over the 49ers in the Divisional playoff at San Francisco. Roger Staubach, who became the starting quarterback in 1971 when Dallas won the Super Bowl, had been lost to injury for most of ’72 and replaced by Craig Morton. However, it was the fourth-year veteran out of Navy who relieved Morton and rallied the Cowboys in the dramatic win the previous week, and Landry went with him as the starter in the NFC title game.

There were 53,129 in attendance at RFK Stadium on a dark and misty New Year’s eve. The Redskins took the opening kickoff and Kilmer completed passes of 15 yards to Roy Jefferson and 13 to Charley Taylor to get to the Dallas 41. Three plays later, Kilmer connected with Larry Brown at the 31, but he fumbled and FS Cliff Harris recovered for the Cowboys to end the threat.

Dallas was unable to capitalize – in fact, the defending champs were able to run just six plays in the opening period. The Redskins regained possession and put together a 16-play drive that lasted over nine minutes and led to Curt Knight’s first field goal, from 18 yards in the second quarter for a 3-0 lead. Larry Brown ran for 31 yards in the series and caught a pass for nine. Later in the period, Kilmer connected with Taylor for a 51-yard gain on a fly pattern and then again on a post pattern for a 15-yard touchdown.

Before the half was over, and down 10-0, the Cowboys got off their only meaningful drive of the game, highlighted by Staubach’s 29-yard run on a quarterback draw to the Washington 39. Toni Fritsch kicked a 35-yard field goal. Fritsch had another chance at a field goal on the final play of the first half, but missed from 23 yards – his first failure all year from inside the 30. Washington held a 10-3 lead at halftime, but had been more dominant than the score indicated.

There was no scoring in the third quarter, with the Cowboys unable to move the ball beyond their own 30. An opportunity was missed when Kilmer fumbled at his own 32 and the ball rolled deeper into Washington territory. Two Dallas players had a chance to recover and missed, but the Redskins finally regained possession at their 18. The ensuing punt only traveled to the Dallas 44, and Charlie Waters, a starting cornerback as well as punt returner, fielded the kick and lost yardage to his 39; a clipping penalty took the ball even farther back, to the 24 yard line. In addition, Waters suffered a broken arm on the play.

Charley Taylor had repeatedly burned Waters and now a replacement, Mark Washington, would be entering the contest. On the first series after the new cornerback entered the game, Kilmer went right at him and completed four passes, including one for a 45-yard TD to Taylor two plays into the fourth quarter. That made the score 17-3 and essentially wrapped up the game for the Redskins.

Washington pulled away, scoring 16 points in the final period. Knight (pictured below) kicked three more field goals, from 39, 46, and 45 yards. After an erratic regular season in which he was successful on just 14 of 30 field goal attempts, the fourth-year placekicker had been good on all three of his three-point tries against the Packers and was a perfect four-for-four against Dallas. The final score was a convincing 26-3.

The Redskins held Dallas to just 194 total yards and 8 first downs while accumulating 316 yards and 16 first downs themselves. Each team turned the ball over once, but the Cowboys spent most of the game on their end of the field. The Redskins converted 10 of 18 third downs while Dallas was successful on just three of 12.

Bill Kilmer was highly efficient with his passing, completing 14 of 18 throws for 194 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Charley Taylor (pictured below) was sensational as he caught 7 of those passes for 146 yards and the two big TDs. Larry Brown ran the ball 30 times for 88 yards and caught two passes for 16 more.

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach was forced to scramble often against the tough Washington defense that kept his receivers well covered. He ended up being successful on just 9 of 20 throws for 98 yards and, while he was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards on five carries, he was sacked three times. No Cowboy caught more than two passes, with WR Ron Sellers gaining the most yards (29) on his pair. Of the running backs, HB Calvin Hill accumulated the most yards with 22 on 9 attempts.

Said a jubilant George Allen afterward, “I’ve said all along, give me a bunch of older men who have taken care of themselves and I can go all the way.”

Asked why he didn't throw more often earlier, Kilmer said, “you can't go to the well too often. Dallas has a smart team and they'd pick one off if you did it too often.”

Added Kilmer, “I think they thought I was going to go to Roy Jefferson more and that could hurt them, so they covered him more. So I went to Taylor.”

“Washington deserved to win,” said a disappointed Tom Landry. “They were playing excellent football in every phase.”

While the Redskins were NFC Champions, they did not end up with the NFL title. They lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. In 1973, they reversed places with the Cowboys, who recovered to win the division title, and made it into the playoffs as a wild card. Washington lost in the Divisional round to Minnesota. Dallas again reached the NFC Championship game – and again lost, this time to the Vikings.

December 30, 2011

2001: Late Comeback Pulls Eagles Over Giants to Clinch NFC East Title

Prior to the 2001 NFL season, the New York Giants had won nine straight games against their long-time rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, including three in 2000 as the teams met in a NFC Divisional playoff contest. The Eagles had finally broken the string with a dramatic 10-9 win in the last two minutes of a Monday Night Football matchup at Giants Stadium, and on December 30 they faced off at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium with the NFC East title on the line. The Eagles were 9-5 coming into the game and needed a win to clinch the division title while New York, at 7-7, had won its last two contests and needed to keep winning to stay alive.

The Eagles had not finished first in the division since 1988 and were only recently resurgent under third-year Head Coach Andy Reid. The pass-oriented club ran a West Coast offense directed by QB Donovan McNabb (pictured above), who could be a streaky passer but brought mobility and an ability to improvise to the position. TE Chad Lewis was his go-to receiver. The running backs were veteran Duce Staley, also a good receiver out of the backfield, and rookie Correll Buckhalter. The defense was stronger against the pass than the run but had been very effective overall.

New York, coached by Jim Fassel, was the defending NFC Champion but had difficulties in ’01. The offense, directed by offensive coordinator Sean Payton, was not as proficient as it had been in 2000. RB Tiki Barber was the top playmaker, splitting time with RB Ron Dayne. QB Kerry Collins, having a lesser season after his outstanding performance in 2000, had a savvy veteran tandem of wide receivers available in Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. The defense had the league’s top pass rusher with DE Michael Strahan, who was equally able against the run.

There were 65,885 fans jamming the Vet and it was apparent before the game even began that emotions were running high between the clubs when a scuffle broke out among some of the Eagles and Giants players during pregame warmups. The Giants had the first possession and went three-and-out. Philadelphia responded with a nine-play, 72-yard drive in which McNabb completed six of seven passes for 68 of those yards, including a 31-yard completion to Lewis to the New York 41. It was Lewis pulling in a five-yard TD pass that gave the Eagles an early 7-0 lead.

That was it for the first half scoring. While Philadelphia dominated during the first thirty minutes of play, the Eagles were unable to put any more points on the board. It seemed as though that failure might cost them dearly when, on New York’s first play of the third quarter, Collins connected with Toomer for a 60-yard touchdown on a flea-flicker play. Morten Andersen’s extra point tied the contest at 7-7 and, ten minutes later, he put the Giants in the lead with a 25-yard field goal that completed a 43-yard drive highlighted by RB Ron Dayne’s 30-yard run to the Philadelphia 20.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles moved back in front at 14-10 when McNabb threw to WR James Thrash (pictured at right), who had won the earlier encounter between the two clubs with a scoring reception, for a 57-yard touchdown down the right sideline. The Giants responded with a 58-yard drive over 12 plays that included Collins completions to WR Joe Jurevicius for 18 yards and Barber, who also contributed a 10-yard run, for 15. The 41-year-old Andersen booted a 32-yard field goal to make it a one-point game.

The Giants again took the lead with an 81-yard drive over nine plays that consumed nearly five minutes. Collins had big completions, twice hitting TE Dan Campbell for gains totaling 31 yards and one to Barber for 10 yards. It seemed as though New York had ground the Eagles defense down when Barber ran for 23 yards to the Philadelphia 28 on a third-and-one play and Dayne finished the series with a 16-yard scoring carry. Barber successfully rushed for the two-point conversion and, with 2:43 left to play in the final period, the Giants were ahead by 21-14 and appeared to have regained mastery over the Eagles.

Following the kickoff, Philadelphia took 54 seconds to move the ball 67 yards in six plays. McNabb threw to WR Freddie Mitchell for 15 yards to get into New York territory and then connected with Thrash for a key 32-yard gain to the Giants’ seven yard line. From there, Lewis pulled in his second scoring catch of the day and David Akers successfully kicked the extra point to tie the contest at 21-21.

Philadelphia’s defense rose to the occasion, holding the Giants to a three-and-out possession. With the ball on their own 29, the Eagles took over with a scant 58 seconds on the clock. McNabb threw to WR Todd Pinkston for nine yards and then ran for four. When Strahan appeared to be trying to hold the quarterback down after the play, the Giants were penalized five yards for delay of game. The ball was now at the New York 28 and McNabb ran again, taking off up the middle for 11 yards. Akers, who had had a string of 17 consecutive successful field goal attempts snapped in the first half when his 43-yard kick into the wind fell short, had the wind at his back this time and was successful from 35 yards to put the Eagles in front.

There were still seven seconds left and Akers booted the kickoff through the end zone for a touchback rather than squibbing the kick. With time for one desperation play, Collins threw down the middle for Barber, who advanced to the New York 37 and lateraled to speedy backup WR Ron Dixon on a hook-and-ladder play. There was a long history between the Eagles and Giants of astounding finishes, and it seemed as though it might occur once again as Dixon headed to his left and blazed down the field. However, SS Damon Moore raced over to push Dixon out of bounds at the six yard line and, with time expired, the Eagles were division champs by a score of 24-21.

The Giants had the edge in total yards (420 to 361) although Philadelphia had more first downs (21 to 18). The Eagles also had more turnovers, with two to New York’s one.

Donovan McNabb completed 21 of 39 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception – he also led the club in rushing with 48 yards on 7 carries. James Thrash caught 7 passes for 143 yards and a TD while Chad Lewis also had 7 catches that gained 74 yards and two touchdowns. Among the running backs, Correll Buckhalter rushed for 39 yards on 7 attempts while Duce Staley contributed 8 carries for 23 yards.

For the Giants, Tiki Barber (pictured below) ran for 71 yards on 16 carries and caught 10 passes for another 87 yards. Ron Dayne added 59 yards and a TD on 8 attempts. Kerry Collins threw 39 passes and completed 22 for 303 yards with a touchdown and none intercepted. Amani Toomer gained 69 yards and scored once on his three catches. Michael Strahan, having regularly done well against Eagles OT Jon Runyan and pursuing the single-season record for sacks, added 3.5 to his total.

“Donovan stepped up and did a great job in as much pressure as you can have,” said Andy Reid of McNabb’s performance afterward.

With their postseason status set, the Eagles won the season finale at Tampa Bay to end up with an 11-5 record and then beat the Buccaneers again at home in the Wild Card playoff round. They also defeated the Chicago Bears at the Divisional level but lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game – their first of three consecutive losses in the conference title game before winning in their fourth attempt. The loss in Philadelphia eliminated the Giants from playoff contention and they fell again in their last game to end up third in the NFC East with a disappointing 7-9 tally.

Donovan McNabb ranked fourth in the NFC in passing (84.3 rating) and fifth in TD passes (25) while throwing for 3233 yards. He also rushed for 482 yards on 82 carries (5.9 avg.). McNabb was named to the Pro Bowl for the second of an eventual five straight seasons (six overall).

James Thrash, who performed so notably against the Giants in 2001, tied for the team lead with 63 catches and led the club with 833 yards and 8 touchdowns. It was his first, and most productive, year with the Eagles.

Michael Strahan did succeed in setting a league record with 22.5 sacks. Of that total, 5.5 came in the two contests against Philadelphia. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

December 29, 2011

MVP Profile: Joe Namath, 1968

Quarterback, New York Jets

Age: 25
4th season in pro football & with Jets
College: Alabama
Height: 6’2” Weight: 195

Chosen by both the NFL Cardinals and AFL Jets in the first round of the respective 1965 drafts, Namath signed a then-huge $427,000 contract with New York. A college star under Head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, he had torn ligaments in his right knee during his senior year that required surgery. Knee and mobility issues would thus be significant throughout Namath’s career, but he took over as the starting quarterback for the Jets early in his rookie season and didn’t miss a game to injury (he wouldn’t in his first five seasons) while gaining selection to the AFL All-Star game. Charismatic (he quickly became a celebrity off the field) and a good leader, he also had a quick release and strong arm. Namath led the league in pass attempts and completions, yards, and TD passes in 1966 and ’67 – in the latter season, he became the first 4000-yard passer in NFL/AFL history (4007). Prone to trying to force passes into coverage, however, he also led the AFL in passes intercepted in both years.

1968 Season Summary
Appeared and started in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 380 [3]
Most attempts, game – 43 at Buffalo 9/29
Completions – 187 [3]
Most completions, game – 20 vs. Denver 10/13
Yards – 3147 [3]
Most yards, game – 381 at Oakland 11/17
Completion percentage – 49.2 [4]
Yards per attempt – 8.3 [2]
TD passes – 15 [5]
Most TD passes, game – 4 at Buffalo 9/29
Interceptions – 17 [2]
Most interceptions, game – 5 at Buffalo 9/29, vs. Denver 10/13
Passer rating – 72.1 [4]
300-yard passing games – 4
200-yard passing games – 6

Attempts – 5
Most attempts, game – 5 on 5 occasions
Yards – 11
Most yards, game – 4 yards (on 1 carry) vs. Miami 12/1
Yards per attempt – 2.2
TDs – 2

TDs – 2
Points - 12

Postseason: 2 G
Pass attempts – 77
Most attempts, game - 49 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
Pass completions – 36
Most completions, game - 19 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
Passing yardage – 472
Most yards, game - 266 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
TD passes – 3
Most TD passes, game - 3 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
Interceptions – 1
Most interceptions, game - 1 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship

Rushing attempts – 1
Most rushing attempts, game - 1 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
Rushing yards – 14
Most rushing yards, game - 14 vs. Oakland, AFL Championship
Average gain rushing – 14.0
Rushing TDs – 0

Awards & Honors:
AFL Player of the Year: AP, UPI, Sporting News
1st team All-NFL/AFL: Pro Football Weekly
1st team All-AFL: AP, PFWA, NEA, UPI, NY Daily News, Pro Football Weekly
1st team All-AFL East: Sporting News
AFL All-Star Game

Jets went 11-3 to win the AFL Eastern Division while finishing second in scoring (417 points). Won AFL Championship over Oakland Raiders (27-23) and Super Bowl over Baltimore Colts (16-7).

Namath passed for 2734 yards and 19 TDs as the Jets again topped the Eastern Division in 1969, but a broken wrist that sidelined him five games into the ’70 season became the first of a series of injuries that dogged the remainder of his career. After appearing in just nine games in 1970 and ’71, he came back in 1972 to lead the NFL in passing yards (2816), TD passes (19), and yards per attempt (8.7) and was named to the Pro Bowl. However, a separated shoulder limited him to six games in 1973 and, with the team deteriorating around him, he had only sporadic success while leading the league in interceptions in 1974 and ’75. Namath finished his career with the Rams in 1977 and ended up throwing for 27,663 yards with 173 TDs and 220 interceptions. His #12 was retired by the Jets and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1985.


MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself).

[Updated 2/11/14]

December 28, 2011

1947: Cards Beat Eagles for NFL Title in Game of Big Plays

The NFL Championship game on December 28, 1947 featured two teams that were new to the contest. The Chicago Cardinals may have been the NFL’s oldest franchise, dating all the way back to 1899 as a club team, but they had not known much success (one title in 1925, prior to division play and a championship game) and had labored for most of the league’s history in the shadow of the other Chicago team, the Bears. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles were the first team to represent the Eastern Division in the title game other than the Giants or Redskins. Both clubs had built effectively through the draft and were well coached. Sadly, Cards owner Charles Bidwell, who had invested heavily in players (especially heralded rookie HB Charlie Trippi out of Georgia, signed to a then-record $100,000 contract for four years), died in April and didn’t live to see his club vie for the championship.

The Cardinals had gone 9-3 and beaten the second-place Bears in the finale to win the Western Division. Coached by Jimmy Conzelman, the Cards boasted an outstanding backfield that included, in addition to the all-purpose star Trippi, QB Paul Christman, HB Elmer Angsman (pictured above), and FB Pat Harder. Ends Mal Kutner and Bill Dewell were highly effective.

Philadelphia was coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale and had gone 8-4 to end up in a tie atop the division with another upstart team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Eagles won the resulting playoff convincingly by a 21-0 score. HB Steve Van Buren set a new league rushing record (1008 yards) and was the key to the offense that was efficiently run by QB Tommy Thompson. HB Bosh Pritchard provided an outstanding outside rushing counterpoint to Van Buren and the receivers, led by rookie end Pete Pihos, were very good. The line contained outstanding performers in tackles Al Wistert and Vic Sears, guards Bucko Kilroy and Cliff Patton, and center Vic Lindskog.

There were 30,759 fans in attendance on a bitterly cold day and the field at Comiskey Park was frozen. The Cardinals wore sneakers with cork cleats while the Eagles had attempted to sharpen their spikes for better traction. However, the officials declared the footwear illegal when the Cardinals complained and they instead wore flat-soled sneakers.

It proved to be a game liberally highlighted by big plays. The first came when Chicago scored six minutes into the first quarter. Trippi (pictured at right) broke free on a quick-opener for a 44-yard touchdown run, outmaneuvering the last defender, DHB Russ Craft, along the way.

The Eagles, concerned with Christman’s passing ability, crowded the line in an effort to disrupt the aerial attack. While they did so effectively, they also left themselves vulnerable to long gains by the halfbacks if they broke through. Early in the second quarter, Angsman got the ball on a delayed buck into the line and took off for a 70-yard TD. Philadelphia, better known for its running game, went to the air and responded with Thompson throwing to HB Pat McHugh for a 43-yard touchdown that made the score 14-7 at the half.

Of all the big plays in the game, Trippi made perhaps the most spectacular in the third quarter when he fielded a punt and returned it 75 yards for a TD, virtually running through the entire Eagles team and recovering after being tripped up at one point.

Philadelphia put together a 73-yard scoring drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown carry by Van Buren late in the third quarter, closing the margin to 21-14. Along the way, Thompson completed passes to end Jack Ferrante and FB Joe Muha that totaled 39 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Muha, normally a proficient punter who had difficulty with his kicks on this day, unleashed a 69-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Chicago 10. Christman threw to Trippi for 20 yards and then Angsman, breaking through the center of the line, took off on another 70-yard scoring run.

With time running out, Thompson passed the Eagles down the field. They drove 53 yards with “One-Eyed” Tommy completing four throws and Craft running over from inside the one yard line. But that was it for Philadelphia. The Cardinals hung on to win the exciting contest by a score of 28-21.

The Eagles outgained Chicago (357 yards to 336) and led in first downs (22 to 11). The teams went against type as the Cardinals rolled up 282 yards on the ground, to just 60 for Philadelphia, while the Eagles had far more net passing yards (297 to 54). Each team turned the ball over three times. The Cards also were penalized 10 times, at a cost of 97 yards, to 7 flags thrown on the Eagles, for 55 yards. Ultimately, Chicago’s big plays outnumbered those by Philadelphia.

Elmer Angsman ran for 159 yards and two long touchdowns on just 10 carries while Charlie Trippi added 84 on 11 attempts with one TD. Paul Christman was successful on just 3 of 14 passes for 54 yards and was intercepted twice. Angsman, Trippi, and Bill Dewell each caught one, with Dewell’s the longest at 38 yards.

Tommy Thompson (pictured at left) put on an exciting passing display for the Eagles. He set championship game records for attempts (44) and completions (27) while throwing for 297 yards with a touchdown, although he was picked off three times. Jack Ferrante caught 8 of those passes for 73 yards and the remainder was distributed among a total of eight other receivers. Between poor footing and the Cards’ defense, Steve Van Buren was held to 26 yards on 18 carries that included one short TD. Joe Muha led the club with 31 yards on 8 attempts.

“They’re a great team, and more power to them,” said Greasy Neale afterward of the Cardinals. “I hope they win the Western title next year, too, so that we can have the pleasure of knocking them off in Philadelphia.”

Neale’s wish came true as both teams repeated as division champions in 1948. In a Championship game played in blizzard conditions in Philadelphia, the Eagles won. They would go on to achieve one more title in 1949 while the Cardinals would begin to recede back into mediocrity.

December 27, 2011

1959: Colts Defeat Giants to Repeat as NFL Champions

The Baltimore Colts had defeated the New York Giants in an overtime classic, one of the most celebrated games in NFL history, in 1958. The two teams were matched up again on December 27, 1959.

The Colts, coached by Weeb Ewbank, came out on top of the Western Conference at 9-3. Star QB Johnny Unitas (pictured behind center above) was, if anything, just getting better at age 26 as he set a league record with 32 touchdown passes while also pacing the NFL with 2899 yards. End Raymond Berry led in pass receptions (66), yards (959), and touchdowns (14) and HB Lenny Moore and end Jim Mutscheller were highly productive as well. FB Alan “the Horse” Ameche continued to provide power between the tackles. The defense might be showing some signs of age but was solid, especially on the line.

Head Coach Jim Lee Howell’s Giants was known for outstanding defense and a conservative offense ably directed by 38-year-old QB Charlie Conerly (pictured below), the NFL’s leading passer who averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. Multi-talented HB Frank Gifford led a good stable of running backs that included FB Mel Triplett, HB Alex Webster, and HB Phil King. 5 ½ -point underdogs, they anticipated a tough defensive battle and would seek to shut down the two Baltimore ends, Berry and Mutscheller.

It was good football weather - cool and crisp – with 57,545 fans at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. The Giants came out passing on their first play as Conerly threw to end Kyle Rote for 20 yards. Gifford followed up with a 22-yard carry, but All-Pro DE Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb sacked Conerly for a 17-yard loss as the Colts defense held and New York was forced to punt.

Baltimore responded with Unitas, faking a handoff and then twice looking to throw short to Berry to his left, passing to Moore for a 60-yard touchdown and the Colts took the early advantage at 7-0.

Late in the first quarter, the Giants were on the move as Triplett gained 28 yards on a run up the middle. Triplett carried again for six more yards and Conerly threw to end Bob Schnelker. The drive made it to the three yard line but stalled when Lipscomb stopped Webster cold on a run into the line and a pass to Gifford behind the line of scrimmage turned into a six-yard loss. Conerly was sacked for the loss of another seven yards and the Giants were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Pat Summerall.

Early in the second quarter, Steve Myhra was wide on a 43-yard field goal attempt for the Colts. New York’s defense was getting to Unitas, but the offense wasn’t able to move on Baltimore’s aroused defense. With time running out in the first half, Dave Sherer punted to the New York 17. It appeared that DHB Carl Taseff had intercepted a Conerly pass, but he bobbled the ball and Schnelker pulled it away for a 48-yard gain to the Baltimore 34. The Giants gained a few more yards before Summerall booted a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to make it 7-6 at halftime, although the Colts thought the kick was wide and the home crowd booed loudly at the result.

The Giants took the lead in the third quarter on Summerall’s third field goal, from 22 yards. It was now 9-7 and New York’s defense had been successful at stopping Unitas, particularly in third down situations, but as the period wound down the tide began to turn.

The turning point came when the Giants advanced to the Baltimore 28 thanks to a 19-yard pass play to Gifford and a 10-yard throw to Schnelker. With fourth-and-inches, Coach Howell decided to forego another field goal attempt and try for the first down. A run by Webster came up short, and the Colts took over.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Colts drove 75 yards in 10 plays. Unitas ran it in himself on a sweep around end behind Moore’s block of LB Cliff Livingston to put Baltimore back in front. Key plays in the drive were a 17-yard pass to Berry in a third-and-eight situation and completion to Moore (pictured below) that gained 36 to the New York 13.

Safety Andy Nelson intercepted a Conerly pass and returned it 15 yards to the New York 15. Two plays later, Unitas threw to rookie flanker Jerry Richardson for a 12-yard TD, and the Colts were in control.

Conerly, who was intercepted just four times during the regular season, was picked off again, by safety Johnny Sample, who returned it 42 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Sample intercepted another pass, this time by Gifford on an option play, that gave the Colts the ball at the New York 27. Myhra kicked a 25-yard field goal to cap Baltimore’s 24-point final period.

The Giants got their only touchdown late in the fourth quarter as Conerly connected with Schnelker from 32 yards out, but by then it didn’t matter. The Colts were the champions for the second straight year by a score of 31-16.

New York outgained the Colts (323 yards to 280) and had more first downs (16 to 13). While Conerly was sacked five times, the Giants got to Unitas on six occasions and the Colts were held to just 73 rushing yards on 25 carries (to 118 for New York on the same number of running plays). However, the inability of the Giants to score touchdowns in the red zone, combined with three turnovers (to none by the Colts), had a significant effect on the outcome.

Johnny Unitas completed 18 of 29 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions; he also scored on the short running play. Lenny Moore gained just eight yards on four carries but caught three passes for 126 yards and a TD. Raymond Berry added 5 receptions for 68 yards and Jim Mutscheller also had five catches, for 40 yards. Alan Ameche was the team’s leading rusher with 31 yards on 9 carries.

For the Giants, Charlie Conerly went to the air 37 times and completed 17 for 226 yards with a TD and the two interceptions. Bob Schnelker (pictured below) had a big day catching the ball with 9 receptions for 175 yards and a score. Frank Gifford ran 8 times for 56 yards and added another 13 on his two catches; he also passed twice, completing one for 18 yards but was picked off on the other.

Baltimore GM Don Kellett summed it up by saying, “We didn’t win it easily, but we won it convincingly.”

Both teams missed the postseason in 1960. The Colts started off well at 6-2 in a bid for a third consecutive title, but lost their last four games to finish at 6-6 and in a disappointing fourth place. They would not return to the postseason until 1964. The Giants contended but ended up in third at 6-4-2 in their last year under Jim Lee Howell. Under his successor, Allie Sherman, they won the Eastern Conference for the next three seasons but failed to win a championship.

December 26, 2011

1964: Bills Shut Down Chargers to Win AFL Championship

On December 26, 1964 the Buffalo Bills, champions of the American Football League’s Eastern Division, hosted the defending AFL champions, the San Diego Chargers. It was truly a study in contrasts between the Bills, a ball-control team with an outstanding defense, and San Diego, with its potent offense.

Coached by Lou Saban, the Bills had gone 12-2 and defeated the Chargers twice during the season, but didn’t clinch the division until a win over the Patriots in the final contest. The offense was conservative but effective, leading the league in ground-gaining and scoring. Hard-hitting 250-pound FB Cookie Gilchrist (pictured above) was the AFL’s leading rusher (981 yards). QB Jack Kemp, formerly of the Chargers, was a good field general and if a change of pace was necessary, backup QB Daryle Lamonica was capable of effective relief. An additional weapon was rookie PK Pete Gogolak out of Cornell who brought his then-unique soccer-style placekicking to pro football and was successful on 65.5 % of his field goal attempts (19 of 29), making the ball-control offense all the more effective. The rugged defense that allowed the fewest points in the AFL had an outstanding line that included ends Ron McDole and Tom Day and tackles Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway, and had other stars in LB Mike Stratton and FS George Saimes.

Head Coach Sid Gillman’s Chargers were not as dominant as they had been in ’63. They got off to a 1-2-1 start but then ran off six straight wins to take control of the Western Division. While the streaky club lost three of its last four contests, it was good enough for an 8-5-1 record. The Chargers still had an outstanding offense that was transitioning from 36-year-old Tobin Rote to 24-year-old John Hadl at quarterback. They also had the exciting flanker Lance Alworth to pass to and the running game featured all-purpose FB Keith Lincoln, the hero of the 1963 title game with 329 yards from scrimmage, and HB Paul Lowe. And while defense may have been an afterthought, there were outstanding players in DT Ernie Ladd, DE Earl Faison, linebackers Chuck Allen and Frank Buncom, and CB Dick Westmoreland. Injuries were an issue, however, and San Diego would be going into the title game without Alworth, who had injured his left knee.

There were 40,242 in attendance at War Memorial Stadium and it didn’t look promising for the home team as the Chargers quickly drove to a score. Lincoln took off for a 38-yard gain on San Diego’s first play from scrimmage and he accumulated four more running and 11 on a pass reception before Rote threw to TE Dave Kocurek for a 26-yard touchdown that put the Chargers ahead 7-0 at just 2:11 into the first quarter (for good measure Lincoln, also the club’s placekicker, added the extra point).

However, on San Diego’s next series, a play occurred that changed the complexion of the contest. In a second down situation, Rote threw a flare pass toward Lincoln and as the ball arrived Mike Stratton delivered a jarring hit to the star running back that knocked him out of the game with a broken rib (he did kick off to start the second half, but that was the extent of his action for the rest of the day). Once Lincoln was gone, the Chargers offense was unable to sustain a long drive the remainder of the game. (Stratton pictured below just a moment before hitting Lincoln)

The Bills scored on a 12-yard field goal by Pete Gogolak and the score was 7-3 after one quarter of play. DB Speedy Duncan returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Buffalo 35, where he was brought down by LB Paul Maguire, but Rote was intercepted by DB Charley Warner to end the threat.

The Bills began to move the ball again as Gilchrist carried for a 31-yard gain and Kemp threw to TE Ernie Warlick for 27 yards to the San Diego eight yard line. The Chargers held, however, and on fourth-and-four the Bills lined up for a Gogolak field goal attempt. However, holder Daryle Lamonica bootlegged instead and was stopped just short of a first down.

The Chargers were again unable to generate offense and punted. Kemp threw to flanker Elbert Dubenion for 18 yards, runs by HB Wray Carlton and Gilchrist gained another 11, Dubenion ran for 8 on an end-around, and Kemp threw to Gilchrist for 15 yards. Carlton finished off the drive with a four-yard touchdown run (pictured below) that put the Bills ahead, 10-7.

Later in the period, Buffalo added a 17-yard field goal by Gogolak following a 39-yard carry by Gilchrist. With time running out in the half, the Chargers threatened with the aid of a pass interference penalty. However, once more the Bills ended the threat with an interception as Stratton picked off a Rote pass at his 20.

Gillman had started Rote due to his greater experience, but late in the third quarter, John Hadl replaced the ineffective veteran at quarterback for the Chargers. There was no further scoring until 5:28 into the fourth quarter. Kemp connected with end Glenn Bass for a 51-yard gain to the San Diego one yard line. Two plays later, Kemp carried the ball in for the TD that effectively sealed the win for Buffalo.

Gilchrist was finally forced out of the game with bruised ribs in the fourth quarter, once the result was assured. With 26 seconds left, the celebrating Buffalo fans broke through the police line and began tearing down the goal posts while the Chargers were attempting their last play. Buffalo had won the AFL title for the first time by a score of 20-7.

The Bills outgained San Diego (387 yards to 259) and had more first downs (21 to 15). They played outstanding ball-control football, rushing for 219 of those yards and not turning the ball over. Meanwhile, the vaunted Chargers passing game was held to 135 net yards and they suffered three turnovers, all on interceptions.

Cookie Gilchrist ran for 122 yards on 16 carries and caught two passes for 22 more. Wray Carlton added 70 yards and a touchdown on his 18 rushing attempts. Jack Kemp completed 10 of 20 passes for 188 yards and, while he didn’t complete any for TDs, he didn’t give up any interceptions. Elbert Dubenion had three pass receptions for 56 yards and Glenn Bass gained 70 yards on his two catches.

It was telling that, even though he was gone before the game was midway through the first quarter, Keith Lincoln still ended up leading the Chargers in rushing with 47 yards on just three carries. Paul Lowe ran 7 times for 34 yards and Lincoln’s replacement, FB Keith Kinderman, gained 14 yards on four carries. Kinderman also caught 4 passes for 52 yards while Dave Kocurek gained 52 yards as well on his two receptions that included the one TD. Tobin Rote was successful on just 10 of 26 passes for 118 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. John Hadl went to the air 10 times and completed three for 31 yards with one picked off. Lost in the defeat were Speedy Duncan’s three kickoff returns for 147 yards – a 49.0 average.

Afterward, a jubilant Lou Saban said he was glad the Chargers had scored first. “It jarred us quick. It jarred us to our senses – woke us up.”

The teams went on to win their respective divisions in 1965 and met for the AFL title in San Diego. In perhaps a more stunning result, the Bills dominated the Chargers even more thoroughly by a 23-0 score. By that point, Gilchrist was gone, having been dealt to Denver in the offseason. But despite a lesser running game, the defense was still strong enough to carry the club. And while Keith Lincoln was back in the San Diego backfield in ’65, and still capable when healthy, injuries would diminish his effectiveness for the remainder of his career.

December 25, 2011

MVP Profile: Jim Nance, 1966

Fullback, Boston Patriots

Age: 24 (Dec. 30)
2nd season in pro football & with Patriots
College: Syracuse
Height: 6’1” Weight: 245

More successful as a heavyweight wrestler than a football player in college, Nance was chosen in the 19th round of the 1965 AFL draft by the Patriots (he was a fourth-round choice of the Bears in the NFL as well). His weight was up to 258 pounds (from 235 in college) when he joined Boston as a rookie (prompting Head Coach Mike Holovak to threaten to convert him into a guard) and he had a disappointing first year, rushing for 321 yards while averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in ‘65. However, he lost weight and gained the starting fullback job for 1966, and behind an improved offensive line.

1966 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 299 [1]
Most attempts, game - 38 (for 208 yds.) vs. Oakland 10/30
Yards – 1458 [1]
Most yards, game – 208 yards (on 38 carries) vs. Oakland 10/30
Average gain – 4.9 [3]
TDs – 11 [1]
200-yard rushing games – 1
100-yard rushing games – 8

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 8
Most receptions, game – 4 (for 67 yds.) at San Diego 9/10
Yards – 103
Most yards, game – 67 (on 4 catches) at San Diego 9/10
Average gain – 12.9
TDs – 0

All-Purpose Yards – 1561 [1]

TDs – 11 [3, tied with Art Powell]
Points – 66 [10, tied with Art Powell]

Awards & Honors:
AFL Player of the Year: AP, UPI, Sporting News
1st team All-AFL: League, AP, NEA, NY Daily News, UPI
AFL All-Star Game

Patriots went 8-4-2 and finished a close second in the AFL Eastern Division while placing second in the league in rushing (1963 yards).

Nance again led the AFL with 1216 yards rushing in 1967 and was a consensus first-team All-AFL selection as well as selectee to the AFL All-Star game, but the team’s record dropped to 3-10-1. Slowed by an injury, his production was less in ’68, but he rebounded somewhat with a league-leading 193 carries in 1969, for 750 yards. He lasted two more steadily-declining years with the Patriots in 1970 and ’71, sat out 1972, and was a reserve with the Jets in ’73. Nance moved on to the WFL, playing for the Houston Gamblers/Shreveport Steamer franchise in 1974 and ’75, and ranked third in the league in rushing with 1240 yards in ’74. Overall, he gained 5401 yards rushing in the AFL/NFL and 2007 in the WFL.


MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself).

[Updated 2/11/14]

December 24, 2011

1950: Browns Edge Rams for NFL Championship

It was a momentous occasion on December 24, 1950 as the Cleveland Browns hosted the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL Championship. The Browns were in their first season in the National Football League, having dominated the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in all four years of its existence. They were one of three AAFC teams to join the older league, along with the 49ers and Colts, and many of the staid leaders of the NFL had anticipated that the upstart Browns would be put in their place.

Head Coach Paul Brown’s team had thrashed the Philadelphia Eagles, league champions in 1948 and ’49, in the opening game of the season and finished up with a 10-2 record. That still left them tied atop the American Conference with the New York Giants – the one team that had managed to beat them, and twice at that. Cleveland managed to get past the Giants in the playoff, however, in a tight 8-3 contest and now was poised to vie for yet another title in their new league. The innovative passing offense was directed by QB Otto Graham (pictured above), throwing to ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli. FB Marion Motley was the league’s top rusher and Lou Groza the most proficient placekicker (as well as an outstanding tackle).

The team representing the National Conference was the Los Angeles Rams, who had gone 9-3 and also had to win a tiebreaking playoff against the Bears to advance. The Rams, coached by Joe Stydahar, were the league’s highest-scoring team with a record-setting total of 466 points and 64 touchdowns and were especially noted for their passing attack that was paced by the quarterback tandem of Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin. End Tom Fears led a talented group of receivers that included end Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and HB Glenn Davis as he set a single-season record with 84 catches. Although Van Brocklin had suffered broken ribs in the playoff game against Chicago (a fact that they kept hidden), LA was explosive and a worthy test for the Browns.

The turf at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was frozen on a 25-degree day with a heavy wind blowing off of Lake Erie, thus causing many of the players to wear sneakers for better traction, and attendance was only 29,751. The Rams started off fast on the first play from scrimmage as Davis, at first faking as though he would block, went deep and Waterfield connected with him for an 82-yard touchdown. It was a shock to the Browns and their fans as LA held a 7-0 lead after just 27 seconds. The Browns came right back, however, going 70 yards in six plays. Graham ran for 21 of those yards and threw to HB Dub Jones for 31 yards and a touchdown. With Lou Groza’s extra point, it was all tied up at 7-7 at three minutes into the contest.

The offensive show kept going with the Rams now driving 80 yards in eight plays. Waterfield threw to Fears for a 44-yard gain and fleet HB Verda “Vitamin T” Smith took off for a 15-yard carry to the Cleveland four. FB Dick Hoerner pounded the last three yards for a TD that put Los Angeles back in front at 14-7. There had been three touchdowns in the first 15 plays from scrimmage as both clubs fired off their offensive arsenals.

Cleveland again fought back on a drive that continued into the second quarter. The kickoff following LA’s score was returned to the Browns’ 35 yard line and a pass interference call on DHB Woodley Lewis, combined with a completion to Speedie, set up a 37-yard TD pass from Graham to Lavelli (Lavelli pictured below). However, the snap on the extra point attempt was high, possibly caught by a gust of wind, and holder Tommy James was unable to spot it for Groza to kick. His pass into the end zone fell incomplete and the Rams remained in front by 14-13.

LA again drove deep into Cleveland territory, but after reaching the seven yard line they were moved back by a penalty and Waterfield was intercepted by safety Ken Gorgal to end the threat. The Browns were unable to penetrate midfield and the Rams regained possession with good field position. Again they moved the ball well and reached inside the Cleveland 10, but the Browns defense stiffened and Waterfield missed on a 15-yard field goal attempt. The Rams led by the one-point margin at halftime.

The Browns went in front early in the third quarter, capping a 77-yard drive with another Graham-to-Lavelli touchdown pass, this one covering 39 yards. The extra point was successful this time and Cleveland was ahead by 20-14. However, the Rams scored two TDs in a matter of 21 seconds to seemingly take control of the game.

First, LA drove 71 yards and, following a Waterfield pass to Smith that covered 38 yards, relied on their power-running game as Hoerner carried the ball seven straight times, starting from the Cleveland 17 and ending with a one-yard scoring blast on fourth down. On the next play from scrimmage by the Browns, Motley fumbled and DE Larry Brink picked up the ball and ran six yards for a touchdown. It was 28-20 heading into the fourth quarter – and the failed extra point attempt seemed especially significant.

Cleveland’s comeback began with a big defensive play as DB Warren Lahr picked off a Waterfield pass five minutes into the final period. The Browns converted two fourth downs, with Graham passing for seven yards on fourth-and-four and running for a first down on fourth-and-three until, on the eighth play of the series, HB Rex Bumgardner made a diving catch that landed him just inside the end zone for a 14-yard TD. With another successful PAT, it was now a one-point game at 28-27.

Following a short possession by the Rams, Cleveland had the ball once more with three minutes left on the clock. It seemed as though the Browns would score again as they advanced inside the LA 30. But as Graham took off out of the pocket, he was blindsided by LB Milan Lazetich and fumbled. Lazetich recovered and it appeared that Los Angeles would prevail – if they could run out the clock.

Hoerner was twice stopped for no gain and then Davis ran for six yards off tackle, forcing the Rams to punt. Waterfield launched a 51-yard kick that DB Cliff Lewis returned to the Cleveland 32. Graham and the offense returned to the field with about 1:50 to work with. Forced out of the pocket on the first play, Graham ran 14 yards for another first down. Throwing sideline passes, he hit Bumgardner for 15 yards and Jones for 16 to the LA 23. Another throw to Bumgardner put the ball at the 11 yard line – easy field goal range for Groza.

Graham called time out and, with the ball on the left hashmark, the quarterback carried for a yard toward the center of the field to better line up the three-point attempt. Groza’s kick was perfect from 16 yards, and for only the second time in the game Cleveland was ahead.

There were still 20 seconds left as the Browns kicked off one last time. HB Jerry Williams returned it to the LA 47. With time for one last desperation play, Coach Stydahar sent Van Brocklin out on the field, with his stronger throwing arm. The second-year quarterback threw the ball as far as he could, but Lahr intercepted at the Cleveland five yard line. The Browns, four-time champions of the AAFC, were now NFL champs by a score of 30-28.

While both teams generated 22 first downs apiece, the Rams outgained Cleveland by 407 yards to 373. However, LA also turned the ball over five times (all on interceptions), to four by the Browns (three fumbles and an interception).

Otto Graham completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards with four touchdowns and an interception and also ran for 99 yards on 12 carries. Dante Lavelli caught 11 passes for 128 yards and two TDs. Marion Motley was held to just nine yards on six attempts, however – in fact, aside from Graham, the Browns gained a mere 15 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Halfbacks like Dub Jones (4 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD) and Rex Bumgardner (4 catches, 46 yards, 1 TD) were more effective as receivers out of the backfield.

For the Rams, Bob Waterfield went to the air 31 times and completed 18 for 312 yards but with four picked off as opposed to one for a touchdown. Tom Fears had 9 receptions for 136 yards while the ex-Heisman Trophy winner from Army, Glenn Davis, gained 82 yards on just two catches thanks to the long scoring reception to start the game. Dick Hoerner (pictured below) ran for 86 yards on 24 carries that included two scores.

Both Paul Brown and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell pronounced that it was the greatest game they had ever seen, and indeed it was an intensely played contest between two outstanding clubs that featured the passing game – in particular, the precision aerial attack of the Browns based on short throws to the sidelines.

The Browns appeared in the next five title games, although their winning streak in such contests ended in 1951 when they lost a rematch with the Rams.

December 23, 2011

1972: Steelers Stun Raiders with “Immaculate Reception”

Since entering the NFL in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers had appeared in just one postseason game prior to December 23, 1972, and had lost. There had been a great deal of underachieving and disappointment over the years. But in ’72, their 38th year in the NFL and fourth season under Head Coach Chuck Noll, they won the AFC Central with an 11-3 record and were to face the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional playoff round. The team’s strength was its defense, anchored by All-Pro DT “Mean Joe” Greene and including ends Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood, linebackers Andy Russell and Jack Ham, and CB Mel Blount. The offense was directed by third-year QB Terry Bradshaw and had gained a star at running back in rookie Franco Harris, who rushed for 1055 yards and had an enthusiastic group of backers called “Franco’s Italian Army”. Even PK Roy Gerela had his fan club, known as “Gerela’s Gorillas”.

The Raiders, coached by John Madden, went 10-3-1 in winning the AFC West. They were a sound club on both sides of the ball, with QB Daryle Lamonica throwing primarily to WR Fred Biletnikoff and TE Raymond Chester or handing off to FB Marv Hubbard, who ran for 1100 yards, or HB Charlie Smith, who came back from an injury to contribute 686. While the defense was in transition, it was still highly effective.

There were 50,237 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium on a relatively warm, mid-40s December Saturday in Pittsburgh. They witnessed a defensive struggle with the punters having outstanding days in the battle for field position (each club ended up punting seven times). The tone was set on Oakland’s first possession when Lamonica was intercepted by Russell at the Pittsburgh 36. Another series by the Raiders that made it to midfield ended when Hubbard fumbled and FS Glen Edwards recovered for the Steelers.

The first half was scoreless, with Pittsburgh coming closest to putting points on the board. The Steelers advanced to the Oakland 31 yard line, but instead of attempting a field goal on fourth-and-two, Coach Noll decided to go for the first down and Harris was stopped for no gain by hard-hitting FS Jack Tatum.

On the first possession of the third quarter, the Steelers finally scored as Bradshaw completed five passes for 55 yards to get to the Oakland 11, where the drive stalled. Gerela kicked an 18-yard field goal to make it 3-0.

That was still the score in the fourth quarter. By then, the flu-weakened Lamonica had been replaced by his young backup, Ken Stabler, but he fumbled when hit by Greenwood and that led to Gerela’s second field goal, from 29 yards, that made it 6-0 with under four minutes left on the clock.

With time running out, Stabler threw two incomplete passes but then connected with TE Raymond Chester for nine yards. On a fourth-and-one play, he handed off to Charlie Smith for a crucial four-yard gain then went to the air and hit RB Pete Banaszak for 12 yards on a screen pass, Fred Biletnikoff for 12 more, and WR Mike Siani for a seven-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 30. With the Steelers blitzing, Stabler took off and ran the remaining 30 yards for a touchdown. George Blanda kicked the extra point and the Raiders, who had gone 80 yards in 12 plays, were ahead at 7-6 with 1:13 to play.

There was no return on the kickoff and Pittsburgh took possession at its 20 yard line. Two Bradshaw passes got the Steelers to the 40, but the next three were incomplete - two of them knocked down by Tatum - and, with the time down to 22 seconds, it was a fourth-and-10 situation. Noll called for a pass over the middle to WR Barry Pearson, but both of Oakland’s defensive ends (Tony Cline and Horace Jones) quickly penetrated into the backfield and Bradshaw was forced to scramble. Seeing HB John “Frenchy” Fuqua near the Oakland 35, he fired a pass, but Tatum was there to defend. Fuqua, Tatum, and the ball all came together, with the football ricocheting back to the Pittsburgh 40. Catching it at his shoetops on a dead run was Harris, who took off toward the goal line without breaking stride (pictured below). A block by TE John McMakin helped clear the way and only Raiders DB Jimmy Warren came close to stopping Harris as he raced 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown (pictured at top).

But was the play legal? At that time, the rule was that two offensive players could not touch a pass in succession – it would have had to have come into contact with a defensive player in between or it was incomplete (the rule was changed in 1978). John Madden and Raiders players screamed that the ball had hit Fuqua and caromed directly to Harris without being touched by Tatum, making the catch illegal. The referee, Fred Swearingen, held off on signaling a touchdown and checked with the league’s supervisor of officials, Art McNally, who was seated in the press box. Of the officials on the field, only umpire Pat Harder and field judge Adrian Burk (both former players) had seen the catch and indicated that both Fuqua and Tatum had touched the ball. McNally, viewing the replay on television screens in the press box, came to the same conclusion. Swearingen finally signaled touchdown, the home crowd erupted into bedlam, Gerela added the extra point, the last five seconds were run off, and the play that Pittsburgh radio announcer Myron Cope dubbed “the immaculate reception” became a part of pro football lore. In as improbable a manner as has ever decided a NFL playoff game, the Steelers came away with a 13-7 win.

“I can’t believe it,” said Terry Bradshaw of the game’s ending. “I’ve been playing football since second grade and haven’t seen anything like this before.”

As Franco Harris explained, “I was supposed to block on the play. When I saw Terry throw the ball, I headed downfield. All of a sudden, I saw the ball in front of me. I put my hands out and caught it. I was in the right place at the right time and that’s luck.”

“I felt we had it won,” summed up a disappointed John Madden. “I won’t forget it for a long, long time.”

The statistics reflected the closeness of the game, and the domination of the two defenses. The Steelers outgained Oakland by 252 yards to 216 while both teams generated 13 first downs apiece. Bradshaw was sacked three times by the Raiders, for a loss of 31 yards, but the Steelers got to Oakland’s quarterbacks on four occasions for 24 yards in losses. The Raiders also suffered four turnovers, to one by Pittsburgh.

Franco Harris rushed for 64 yards on 18 carries and was also the top receiver with 5 catches for 96 yards and the decisive touchdown. Terry Bradshaw completed just 11 of 25 passes for 175 yards with a TD and an interception.

For the Raiders, Daryle Lamonica was successful on 6 of 18 throws for only 45 yards and was picked off twice. For his part, Ken Stabler also completed 6 passes, out of 12 attempted, and gained 57 yards. Charlie Smith was the leading ground-gainer with 57 yards on 14 carries and Marv Hubbard was held to 44 yards on his 14 attempts. Raymond Chester had 40 yards on three receptions and Fred Biletnikoff also caught three, for 28 yards.

There were no miracles for the Steelers the next week, although they gave the undefeated Miami Dolphins a good battle in the AFC Championship game before succumbing 21-17. The ’72 season marked a major turning point in the franchise’s fortunes – the Steelers became fixtures in the postseason in the 1970s and won four NFL titles. However, in 1973 the Raiders exacted some measure of revenge when they again met Pittsburgh in the Divisional playoff round and won convincingly by a 33-14 score.

December 22, 2011

1963: Records Fall as Raiders Beat Oilers in High-Scoring Thriller

By the time the Oakland Raiders faced the Houston Oilers in their season finale on December 22, 1963, they had long ago become the talk of the American Football League. In the first three years of the AFL’s existence, the Raiders had been one of its poorest clubs – both on and off the field. They had gone a combined 9-33, including a dreadful 1-13 in ’62, under three head coaches. That all changed in 1963 as 34-year-old Al Davis, previously an assistant under Sid Gillman with the Chargers, took over as head coach and general manager. The team had a new look, in silver-and-black uniforms, and a new attitude summed up in the phrase “pride and poise”. Their record coming into the contest with Houston was 9-4, having won seven straight after a 2-4 start, and the Raiders were just a game behind division-leading San Diego.

The Oilers, under Head Coach Frank “Pop” Ivy, were going in the opposite direction. They had finished on top of the Eastern Division in each of the first three AFL seasons, and were overall champions after the first two. However, following six wins in the first ten games, Houston had lost three straight to fall out of contention at 6-7. With 36-year-old QB George Blanda (pictured at right) and an able group of receivers, the Oilers were still capable of putting points on the board – as they would prove against the Raiders.

There were 17,401 in attendance at Frank Youell Field, the temporary structure built by the city of Oakland while a new facility was awaiting construction. The crowd may have been small, but it was enthusiastic and on its feet for much of the game.

Still, the Raiders offense started slowly, not getting a first down during the first quarter, although they got a quick score when CB Claude “Hoot” Gibson returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown.

The Oilers came back with a four-yard scoring pass from Blanda to flanker Charley Hennigan that capped an 11-play series. Before the first quarter was over, Blanda’s passing set up another touchdown as he tossed a swing pass to FB Dave Smith for a 32-yard gain – Smith then followed up with a two-yard touchdown run.

Houston seemed to be getting the breaks as a Flores pass was deflected by LB Doug Cline and intercepted by FS Fred Glick, who returned it 14 yards to the Oakland 27. An unnecessary roughness penalty moved the ball to the 12 and Houston’s lead was 21-7 after Blanda immediately threw to end Willard Dewveall for a TD.

The Raiders fought back as Flores hit on three passes, to split end Art Powell (pictured at top) and flanker Bo Roberson, and connected with TE Ken Herock for a seven-yard touchdown that capped a six-play, 49-yard drive. A few minutes later, the score was tied when Flores took advantage of Powell and Roberson splitting the defenders to opposite sides and threw to star HB Clem Daniels, an outstanding receiver out of the backfield as well as runner from scrimmage, straight down the middle for a 56-yard touchdown.

The second quarter scoring was far from over and it was Houston again with Smith catching a pass from Blanda at the 10 and pulling away from LB Jackie Simpson for 25 yards and a TD. The possession had lasted for six plays and covered 64 yards.

The Raiders again tied the game at 28-28 as Flores, having been sacked for a nine-yard loss but seeing that the Oilers were continuing to go with single-coverage on Powell, connected with the star split end for an 81-yard touchdown - the ball traveling some 60 yards in the air.

Houston came right back in four plays, with Blanda throwing to Dewveall for 35 yards to the Oakland nine and was helped along by a pass interference penalty in the end zone. FB Charlie Tolar crashed over from the one to put the Oilers back in front at 35-28.

Getting the ball back with just over a minute left in the half, the Raiders scored in six plays, four of them Flores passes, the last of which was to Powell in the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard TD. Mercer tied the game once again with the extra point.

The tally was 35-35 at the half, with the teams having combined for 49 points in the second quarter alone and 21 inside the last two minutes. Each quarterback had completed 12 passes - Flores already had accumulated 277 yards and Blanda 222.

On the first play from scrimmage of the third quarter, Daniels ran for 11 yards, fumbled, and recovered when a Houston defender inadvertently kicked the ball back to him. Still, the Raiders, who had scored on their last four possessions, finally had to punt.

Oakland got the ball back and advanced into Houston territory - it appeared that Daniels had run 62 yards for a TD but an official ruled that he had stepped out of bounds at the 35, cutting the gain to 27 yards. After the Raiders were pushed back by a holding penalty, Powell scored again, splitting two defenders and pulling in a Flores pass for a 46-yard TD. It gave Oakland the lead for the first time.

Down 42-35, the Oilers came back, taking four plays to get to the Oakland 26 from where Blanda fired to Dewveall, who made a tumbling catch for a touchdown to finish off the 69-yard drive. The score was tied at 42-42 with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.

The Raiders had to punt and Houston scored again on a Blanda pass play to TE Bob McLeod, who outmaneuvered CB Fred “the Hammer” Williamson, that covered 21 yards for a TD with 2:22 to go in the period. The Oilers had gone 67 yards in seven plays.

At this point, the teams exchanged interceptions. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Flores was picked off in the Houston end zone by CB Bobby Jancik. A pass thrown under pressure by Blanda was then intercepted by LB Archie Matsos to give the Raiders the ball at the Houston 24.

Flores went to Powell for a 23-yard touchdown, with the receiver pulling in the ball at the ten, stumbling, and then leading three defenders into the end zone. Once again the score was tied at 49-49 and there were still nearly twelve minutes to play.

Houston again drove into scoring position but Gibson intercepted Blanda’s pass on the goal line. The Raiders proceeded to drive from their 20 to the Houston 32. Mike Mercer, attempting the only field goal of the game by either team, was successful from 39 yards with 4:37 remaining on the clock.

There was still plenty of time, but the Oakland defense rose to the occasion. DE Jon Jelacic hit Blanda and forced a fumble, which the Oilers recovered. Rushed hard again, Blanda’s poorly-thrown pass was incomplete intended for Dewveall. DE Dan Birdwell knocked down another pass that was intended for McLeod and Houston was forced to punt.

Taking over on their own four, the Raiders successfully maintained possession to run out the clock, giving the ball to Daniels (pictured at left) six times in eight plays. On the final play of the game, and with the home crowd chanting his name, Daniels ran for three yards to break the AFL season rushing record. Oakland won the offensive scoring fest by a final score of 52-49.

The 101 points broke the previous record of 93 by the Chargers and Titans in 1960 and would remain the highest-scoring game in the AFL’s 10-year history. Records were also set for combined passing yards (749), combined TD passes (11), total yards (1063), and combined TDs (14).

The Raiders gained the most yards (540 to 468) while Houston led in first downs (27 to 21). Each team turned the ball over two times, but the Oilers sacked Tom Flores seven times and the Raiders were penalized on 9 occasions, for a loss of 88 yards, as opposed to 6 flags thrown on Houston.

Art Powell had an especially noteworthy performance as he caught 10 passes for a club-record 247 yards and four touchdowns. Tom Flores threw for 407 yards and 6 touchdowns as he completed 17 of 29 passes and had two intercepted. Clem Daniels rushed for 158 yards on 22 carries and gained 76 more yards on his two pass receptions that included the one long TD.

For the Oilers, George Blanda was successful on 20 of 32 throws for 342 yards with 5 touchdowns and two picked off. Willard Dewveall hauled in 7 of those passes for 137 yards and two scores. Dave Smith gained 94 yards out of the backfield on 4 catches that included a touchdown and also ran for 43 yards on 8 carries and a TD. Charlie Tolar was the team’s leading rusher as he gained 65 yards on 12 attempts and scored once.

It was the eighth straight win to close out the year for the resurgent Raiders, but San Diego walloped Denver to clinch the Western Division title. Still, the 10-4 tally marked a huge turnaround for the franchise as well as a second place finish. Houston came in third in the Eastern Division at 6-8.

“I’m not crying,” said Al Davis. “We’ve had a fantastic year. The only problem was, no one else could knock off the Chargers, so they’re the champs. But these guys are my champs. They’ve given more than a football team should be asked to give, and they deserve every bit of praise and honor that comes their way.” It was the beginning of what would be a long association between Davis and the Raiders – although he was head coach for only the first three years of that association.

Art Powell, in his first year with the Raiders following three with the New York Titans, led the league with 1304 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns on his second-ranked 73 catches. He averaged 17.9 yards per reception, was a consensus first-team all-league selection and chosen for the AFL All-Star Game.

In addition to accumulating his record 1099 rushing yards on 215 carries, Clem Daniels also led the league in yards per reception (22.8) as he gained 685 yards on 30 catches. He, too, was a consensus first-team All-AFL choice and was named to the league All-Star Game. He also received MVP honors from The Sporting News.

Tom Flores (pictured at right) led the league in yards per completion (18.6) and percentage of TD passes (8.1) as he threw for 2101 yards with 20 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. It was a great comeback for a player who had missed all of the 1962 season due to a bout with tuberculosis.

December 21, 2011

1968: Browns Upset Cowboys for Eastern Conference Title

The Dallas Cowboys had represented the Eastern Conference in two straight NFL Championship games and were anticipating a third appearance as they faced the Cleveland Browns on December 21, 1968. Head Coach Tom Landry’s team had won the Capitol Division with a 12-2 record while scoring a league-high 431 points. The passing game, with QB Don Meredith throwing to wide receivers Bob Hayes and Lance Rentzel, was formidable and the running game produced even when HB Dan Reeves went down with a knee injury; along with veteran FB Don Perkins, HB Craig Baynham and FB Walt Garrison performed well in his absence. The defense was also strong and featured DT Bob Lilly, DE George Andrie, FS Mel Renfro, and linebackers Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley.

The Cowboys had embarrassed Cleveland in the Eastern Conference playoff the year before by a score of 52-14 at the Cotton Bowl, one of four straight defeats that the Browns had suffered against them, including a 28-7 loss during the regular season. Under Head Coach Blanton Collier, Cleveland topped the Century Division with a 10-4 tally. One change since the teams met in ’67 was at quarterback, where Bill Nelsen (pictured below), obtained in the offseason from Pittsburgh, replaced fading 32-year-old veteran Frank Ryan after the club started slowly. They still had outstanding players on offense in HB Leroy Kelly (pictured above), the NFL’s top rusher and scorer, and WR Paul Warfield. The defensive backfield was talented, as the Browns led the league with 32 interceptions.

There was a big crowd of 81,497 on hand at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium with temperatures in the mid-30s. Cleveland scored first following FS Mike Howell’s interception of a Meredith pass at the Dallas 39 that he returned to the 19. Following a penalty for an illegal receiver down field on a pass play, the Browns settled for a 38-yard field goal by Don Cockroft.

Late in the first quarter, the Cowboys got a break when Nelsen was hit by three Dallas linemen and fumbled. Howley recovered and ran 44 yards for a touchdown to give the visitors a 7-3 lead.

In a first half dominated by the defenses, the Cowboys extended their margin following an interception of a Nelsen pass by LB Dave Edwards that gave them the ball at the Cleveland 33. The resulting series ended with Mike Clark kicking an 18-yard field goal that made it 10-3.

The Browns came through on offense late in the second quarter, driving 85 yards in six plays. With the Cowboys double-covering Warfield, Leroy Kelly drifted out of the backfield and was left all alone. He caught a well-thrown pass from Nelsen on the 15 and scored a touchdown on a play that covered 45 yards overall. Cockroft’s extra point tied the game up at 10-10 heading into halftime.

Cleveland broke the game open with two interceptions in the first 2:30 of the second half. The first came on the initial play from scrimmage in the third quarter as LB Dale Lindsey returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter, Meredith was picked off again, this time by CB Ben Davis, which set up a 35-yard scoring run by Kelly two plays later. It was the end for Meredith, who completed just 3 of 9 passes for 42 yards and gave up three interceptions. When the Cowboys returned on offense, backup QB Craig Morton was behind center.

Late in the third quarter, Clark kicked a 47-yard field goal that narrowed Cleveland’s lead to 24-13. However, in the fourth quarter, the Browns drove 77 yards for the touchdown that clinched the game. With just over 12 minutes remaining on the clock, and following an interception of a Morton pass by veteran CB Erich Barnes, Nelsen threw to Warfield for a 32-yard gain and then for 13 yards to TE Milt Morin to set up a two-yard scoring run by FB Ernie Green.

The highest-scoring team in the league didn’t get an offensive touchdown until late in the fourth quarter when Morton threw to Garrison from two yards out. It didn’t matter at that point – the Browns won handily by a score of 31-20. The fans swarmed the field at the end and the officials called the game with 40 seconds remaining on the clock.

The Cowboys actually led narrowly in total yards (286 to 280) and first downs (13 to 12). However, they also turned the ball over four times – all on interceptions – and that proved to be the difference.

Bill Nelsen completed 13 of 25 passes for 203 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Leroy Kelly rushed for 87 yards on 20 carries that included a TD and also caught two passes for 46 more yards and the long touchdown. Paul Warfield (pictured at right) had 4 receptions for 86 yards and Milt Morin added 4 catches as well, for 47 yards.

In relief of Don Meredith, Craig Morton was successful on 9 of 23 throws for 163 yards with a TD and one picked off. Bob Hayes pulled in 5 passes for 83 yards and Lance Rentzel contributed 3 receptions for 75 yards. Don Perkins was the top rusher for the Cowboys as he gained 51 yards on 15 attempts.

Blanton Collier had nothing but praise for his defense afterward, saying “It’s a young defensive club, but they came of age today.”

“I can’t say enough about that defense,” added Bill Nelsen. “When the defense gives us the ball that many times, we’re going to score some points.”

“We had a chance to go all the way…but we couldn’t get the spark,” summed up a disappointed Tom Landry.

The high hopes expressed by the exuberant Browns came crashing down the next week as they were dominated in the NFL Championship game by the Baltimore Colts, who won by a 34-0 score. Cleveland and Dallas repeated once again as division champs in 1969 – the final year before the merger would restructure the league and move the Browns to the AFC – and the Browns again came out on top for the Eastern Conference title (and again lost decisively in the league championship contest).

It wasn’t known at the time, but Don Meredith would not be back with the Cowboys in 1969. While the poor performance against the Browns wasn’t his last pro appearance (he played for Dallas in the Playoff Bowl against the Vikings as well as the Pro Bowl), he announced his retirement just prior to training camp the following summer. It was a disappointing conclusion to a good run as quarterback in Dallas that ended with three straight division titles for the team as well as three consecutive Pro Bowl selections for the quarterback out of SMU.

December 20, 2011

MVP Profile: Frank Gifford, 1956

Halfback, New York Giants

Age: 26
5th season in pro football & with Giants
College: Southern California
Height: 6’1” Weight: 205

Chosen by the Giants in the first round of the 1952 NFL draft, the versatile Gifford was used primarily on defense and was selected to the Pro Bowl following the ’53 season as a defensive halfback (modern cornerback). Under new Head Coach Jim Lee Howell (and offensive assistant Vince Lombardi), he was shifted to offense full-time in 1954 and again was named to the Pro Bowl. With his outside speed as a runner and pass receiver and option passing ability, Gifford proved to be a formidable weapon. In 1955, he gained 902 all-purpose yards (351 rushing, 437 on 33 receptions, 114 on kickoff returns) and not only was picked to a third Pro Bowl but was a consensus first-team All-Pro selection.

1956 Season Summary
Appeared in all 12 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 159 [7]
Most attempts, game - 19 (for 43 yds.) vs.  Chi.Bears 11/25, (for 108 yds.) vs. Washington 12/2
Yards – 819 [5]
Most yards, game - 108 yds. (on 19 att.) vs. Washington 12/2
Average gain – 5.2 [5]
TDs – 5 [9, tied with five others]
100-yard rushing games - 1

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 51 [3]
Most receptions, game - 8 (for 85 yds.) at Chi. Cardinals 10/7
Yards – 603 [7, tied with Elroy Hirsch]
Most yards, game 116 (on 6 catches) vs.  Chi. Cardinals 11/11
Average gain – 11.8
TDs – 4 [12, tied with six others]
100-yard receiving games - 2

Pass attempts – 5
Pass completions – 2
Passing yards – 35
TD passes – 2
Interceptions – 1

Field goals – 1 [14, tied with Sid Watson & Bud McFadin]
Field goal attempts – 2 [16]
Percentage – 50.0
PATs – 8 [14, tied with Bert Rechichar]
PAT attempts – 9 [15]
Longest field goal – 17 yards at San Francisco 9/30

All-Purpose yards – 1422 [5]

TDs – 9 [6, tied with Lenny Moore]
FG – 1
PATs – 8
Points – 65 [10]

Postseason: 1 G (NFL Championship vs. Chicago Bears)
Rushing attempts – 5
Rushing yards – 30
Average gain rushing – 6.0
Rushing TDs – 0

Pass receptions – 4
Pass receiving yards - 131
Average yards per reception – 32.8
Pass Receiving TDs - 1

Awards & Honors:
NFL MVP: UPI, NEA, Sporting News
1st team All-NFL: AP, NEA, UPI, NY Daily News, Sporting News
Pro Bowl

Giants went 8-3-1 to finish first in the Eastern Conference and also led the conference in team rushing (2129 yards). Defeated Chicago Bears for NFL Championship (47-7).

Gifford continued to excel at halfback, gaining 1116 yards from scrimmage in 1957 and 1308 in ’59. Along the way, he was again a consensus first-team All-Pro in both of those seasons and a Pro Bowl selectee in ’58 as well. A severe concussion suffered due to a tackle by Eagles LB Chuck Bednarik ended his career as a running halfback eight games into the 1960 season, but after taking a year off he returned as a flanker in ’62 and averaged 20.4 yards per catch on 39 receptions for 796 yards. He followed up with a 42-catch, 657-yard performance in 1963 when he returned to the Pro Bowl, but retired to move into a long broadcasting career after a 1964 season in which the team as a whole declined. Overall, Gifford rushed for 3609 yards on 840 carries with 34 TDs and caught 367 passes for another 5434 yards and 43 TDs, was named to 8 Pro Bowls and was a consensus first-team All-Pro four times. He also threw 14 TD passes and, on defense, had two interceptions, one that he returned for a score. The Giants retired his #16 and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1977.


MVP Profiles feature players who were named MVP or Player of the Year in the NFL, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69), WFL (1974), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers Association, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, Maxwell Club – Bert Bell Award, or the league itself).

[Updated 2/11/14]
[Updated 2/21/17]

December 19, 2011

1971: Falcons Beat Saints to Cap First Winning Season

The Atlanta Falcons had not posted a winning record in their first five years since joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1966. However, as they faced the New Orleans Saints in the 1971 season finale on December 19, their record was 6-6-1 and the prospect of ending up over .500 a distinct possibility. In their third full year under Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, the Falcons were better on defense than offense, despite the loss of star MLB Tommy Nobis to a knee injury. OLB Don Hansen was a solid player, and the defensive line had outstanding talent in ends Claude Humphrey and John Zook. The secondary, led by CB Ken Reaves, was tough against the pass. Van Brocklin emphasized toughness, and that was most apparent in the nondescript offense directed by small-but-accurate QB Bob Berry and featuring a group of running backs that were pluggers and lacked outside speed.

New Orleans, which had joined the NFL a year after the Falcons, was also seeking a franchise-best record under Head Coach J.D. Roberts, but at a more modest level. The Saints were 4-7-2 and trying to outdo their 5-9 record of 1969 – they were already assured of besting 1970’s 2-11-1 tally. Moreover, three of their wins had come against contending teams (the Rams, 49ers, and eventual-champion Cowboys), thus providing encouragement that the club might be heading in the right direction. The offense was led by rookie first draft pick QB Archie Manning, who had suffered through an injury-plagued campaign, but there was too little talent surrounding him and the defense was a liability.

There were 75,554 in attendance at Tulane Stadium, and they saw the Falcons score first on a six-yard run by FB Art Malone that was set up by the recovery of a New Orleans fumble at the Saints’ 15. The home team responded with a six-yard touchdown run of its own, by HB Bob Gresham, to make it a 7-7 game after one quarter.

The Saints moved ahead with just over four minutes to play in the first half, capping a six-minute drive with Charlie Durkee’s 30-yard field goal. Atlanta put together a 10-play, 76-yard series in response that was highlighted by a 35-yard gain on a pass from Berry to rookie WR Ken Burrow and finished off with a 12-yard field goal by Bill Bell. The score was tied at 10-10 at halftime.

The Saints got a break midway through the third quarter after a punt hit Atlanta HB Willie Belton and was recovered by LB Ray Hester at the Falcons’ 12. Manning ran for a six-yard touchdown and New Orleans held a 17-10 edge going into the final period.

Atlanta’s struggling offense finally came alive in the last six minutes of the game, sparked by a big play. Berry threw to Burrow for an 84-yard gain to the New Orleans three yard line, and Malone capped the series with a one-yard scoring run. With Bell’s extra point, the game was tied once more at 17-17.

The Saints came right back, however, as HB Virgil Robinson returned the ensuing kickoff 51 yards to set up a 36-yard field goal by Durkee that put them back in front with 3:14 to play.

HB Jim “Cannonball” Butler came up with a good kickoff return of his own, running it back 36 yards to his own 49. Nine plays later, on a series highlighted by a Berry throw to his other rookie starting wide receiver, Wes Chesson, for a 19-yard gain on a third-and-18 play to the New Orleans 26, the Falcons scored when Berry tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Burrow with just 34 seconds left to play. Atlanta held on to win by a final score of 24-20.

The Falcons outgained the Saints (319 yards to 300) although New Orleans had more first downs (20 to 14). Atlanta gained only 57 yards on 22 running plays but the defensive line came through with five sacks. Each team turned the ball over once.

Ken Burrow had a huge performance as he caught 8 passes for 190 yards and a TD. Bob Berry completed 18 of 27 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and had none intercepted. Art Malone was the team’s leading rusher with 24 yards on 8 carries that nevertheless included two TDs. “Cannonball” Butler was right behind with 22 yards, also on eight attempts.

For the Saints, Archie Manning went to the air 26 times and completed 17 for 174 yards with none for scores, but also no interceptions – in addition, he ran the ball three times for 28 yards and a TD. Bob Gresham was the top receiver with 6 catches for 60 yards while also rushing 18 times for 52 yards and a score. FB Jim Strong was the leading ground-gainer as he accumulated 73 yards on 17 carries.

“The Saints played the run a lot tougher this time and we just couldn't get our hands on the ball much because they controlled it,” said Coach Norm Van Brocklin. “I think the Saints are the most improved team in football.”

Atlanta concluded the schedule with a 7-6-1 record that placed the Falcons third in the NFC West. They would break even in 1972 at 7-7 and contend for a time in ’73 while ending up at 9-5, but the Falcons would not reach the postseason until 1978. The Saints, who finished behind Atlanta at 4-8-2, would find their hopes dashed with a 2-11-1 mark in 1972. It would take far longer – until 1987 – for New Orleans to finally put together a winning mark and make it into the playoffs.

Bob Berry, who had the best years of his 11-season career under Van Brocklin’s tutelage, ranked second in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.87, to 8.92 for Roger Staubach of the Cowboys) and completion percentage (60.2) and fourth overall in the conference in passing under the system in use at the time (third by today’s system at 75.9).

Ken Burrow caught 33 passes for 741 yards (22.5 avg.) and six touchdowns. Over the course of a five-year career, all with the Falcons, he never exceeded the yardage total and had a high of 34 catches in 1974. Overall, he ended up with 152 receptions for 2668 yards (17.6 avg.) and 21 TDs. The 84-yard catch against the Saints was his longest and the eight pass receptions his most in a single game, and the 190 receiving yards tied his career high.