December 15, 2011

1963: Giants Beat Steelers to Win Eastern Conference Title

First place in the NFL Eastern Conference and a spot in the league title game were on the line as the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on December 15, 1963. The Giants came into the contest with a 10-3 record while Pittsburgh was 7-3-3. At that time, ties did not figure into a team’s won-lost percentage, so a win by the Steelers would give them the conference title by .727 to .714 despite having fewer victories than the Giants (the method for determining won-lost percentage was changed in 1972, so that a tie counts as half of a win and half of a loss).

Head Coach Allie Sherman’s Giants had won the conference the previous two seasons but started off slowly in ’63, losing two of the first five games before putting together seven wins in the next eight contests. The veteran club featured the passing of QB Y.A. Tittle (pictured above) on offense and a sound defense.

The Steelers, coached by Buddy Parker, were a franchise that had never won a division title since coming into the NFL thirty years earlier. The ball-control offense was directed by QB Ed Brown and centered on the running of FB John Henry Johnson. Flanker Gary Ballman and split end Buddy Dial were capable receivers, and DE Lou Michaels was also one of the league’s better placekickers. The Steelers had stunned the Giants by a score of 31-0 when the clubs met in Week 2 at Pitt Stadium, and they were a confident and emotionally-charged team coming into the season finale.

There was a big crowd of 63,240 on hand for the showdown on a bitterly cold day. HB Theron Sapp fumbled on Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage and safety Jim Patton recovered for the Giants. It led to a 34-yard field goal by Don Chandler for the first points of the game.

Shortly thereafter, it seemed as though the Steelers would score in turn. Ballman returned the kickoff 57 yards but, after Brown overthrew his receiver on a third-and-four play, Michaels missed a field goal attempt. Pittsburgh quickly regained possession on a fumble recovery and Brown went deep right away, completing a pass to Ballman, but the receiver fumbled into the end zone when hit by CB Dick Lynch just a stride short of the goal line. CB Erich Barnes, coming across the field, picked up the loose ball and returned it to the New York 34. Tittle threw to end Aaron Thomas for a first down and then went deep to split end Del Shofner for a 41-yard touchdown. While Chandler’s extra point attempt hit the goal post and was no good, the Giants were ahead by 9-0 and had blunted Pittsburgh’s early momentum.

Brown continued to have trouble hitting his receivers, throwing a pass that was intercepted by Lynch and then, on the next series, overthrowing Ballman on a potential scoring play. Facing third-and-one, Johnson was stopped cold by the Giants defense, and going for it on fourth down, Sapp was held to no gain as well. New York made the most of it as Tittle once again threw long to Shoftner for a 44-yard gain and, now into the second quarter, the Giants extended their lead when Joe Morrison, a versatile player who was covering for injured FB Alex Webster, scored on a three-yard pass from Tittle. This time the PAT was good and New York was up by 16-0. Pittsburgh finally put points on the board when Michaels kicked a 27-yard field goal, although it was after Brown had again misfired on a pass to Ballman, having beaten Lynch on a post pattern.

The star receiver Shofner suffered bruised ribs in the second quarter and left the game. Still, the Giants held a 16-3 lead at halftime.

In the third quarter, the Steelers battled back as Johnson took off on a 48-yard run and Brown connected with Ballman for a 21-yard TD that, with the extra point, put the Steelers just six points behind at 16-10. With the momentum seeming to shift, the next series proved crucial for the Giants. On a third-and-eight play from his own territory, Tittle threw a pass that, due to the onrushing Michaels, lacked the usual accuracy, but flanker Frank Gifford made a spectacular one-handed catch for a 30-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 47. Tittle hit Gifford again for 25 more yards and then found Morrison for a 22-yard touchdown that broke the game open.

On New York’s next series, now up 23-10, Tittle connected with Thomas for 31 yards and 14 yards to Gifford to set up a short scoring run of one yard by Morrison. While Brown threw to Dial for a 40-yard TD with 29 seconds remaining in the third quarter, that was it for Pittsburgh. Chandler kicked a 41-yard field goal in the final period and the Giants came away with a convincing 33-17 win.

New York outgained the Steelers (423 yards to 400) and had more first downs (21 to 17). And while the Giants turned the ball over four times, the Steelers missed five scoring opportunities as they turned the ball over five times, three on interceptions and twice on fumbles.

Y.A. Tittle completed 17 of 26 passes for 308 yards with three touchdowns and one intercepted. Joe Morrison had an outstanding performance as he rushed for 68 yards and a TD on 15 carries and caught 6 passes for 40 yards and two scores. HB Phil King also gained 68 rushing yards, on 18 attempts. Frank Gifford (pictured at left) had 5 receptions for 94 yards and Del Shofner gained 110 yards on his three catches with the one long TD before he had to leave the game.

For the Steelers, QB Ed Brown went to the air 33 times and completed just 13 for 217 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. Gary Ballman had 6 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown and Buddy Dial pulled in 5 passes for 92 yards and a score. John Henry Johnson, thanks to the one long gain, accumulated 104 yards on 14 carries.

The Giants finished at 11-3 but lost their third straight NFL Championship game, falling 14-10 to the Bears. The defeat in the season finale dropped Pittsburgh all the way to fourth place with a 7-4-3 record. The Steelers would not win a division title until 1972.

Y.A. Tittle set a new NFL record with 36 touchdown passes (Houston’s George Blanda had already done so in the AFL in 1961) while also leading the league in passing (104.8 rating by the current standard), completion percentage (60.2), and yards per attempt (8.6). In addition to receiving first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition, the 37-year-old veteran was also named MVP by the Associated Press and Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Frank Gifford, formerly an outstanding running halfback, was named to the Pro Bowl as a flanker after catching 42 passes for 657 yards (15.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Joe Morrison (pictured at right) rushed for 568 yards with a 4.8 average while also catching 31 passes for 284 more and a total of 10 touchdowns. It was all part of a 14-year career in which the multitalented player out of Cincinnati would often be called upon in a reserve role to fill in at halfback, flanker, and defensive back as well as fullback.