December 30, 2012

1962: Packers Defeat Giants to Repeat as NFL Champions

The NFL Championship game on December 30, 1962 featured the same two teams who had faced off for the title in ’61 – the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. In that instance, the Packers had blown the Giants out by a 37-0 score at Green Bay. Now they were meeting on New York’s home turf in the rematch.

The Packers, under Head Coach Vince Lombardi, had gone 13-1 in placing at the top of the Western Conference for the third straight year. Hard-hitting FB Jim Taylor had a MVP season as he led the NFL in rushing with 1474 yards (the first NFL runner not named Jim Brown to do so since 1956) and scored a record 19 touchdowns. QB Bart Starr was the league’s top-rated passer and the offensive line was outstanding. Even the off-year for HB Paul Hornung, who had won three straight scoring titles from 1959 to ’61 but was hampered by a bad knee, could not derail the offense, and All-Pro G Jerry Kramer (pictured above) had taken over Hornung’s placekicking responsibilities. The defense was just as strong and yielded the fewest points in the NFL.

Head Coach Allie Sherman’s Giants came in first in the Eastern Conference at 12-2, winning their last nine games in doing so. The brilliant passing of QB Y.A. Tittle was the key to the offense – he had set a new NFL record with 33 TD passes and had excellent targets in split end Del Shofner, flanker Frank Gifford, and TE Joe Walton. FB Alex Webster was effective both running the ball and as a receiver out of the backfield. The veteran defense was solid.

There were 64,892 in attendance at frigid Yankee Stadium. Temperatures were in the teens and with winds gusting as high as 45 mph, the wind chill was below zero. Traction was difficult on the frozen turf and whirlwinds of dust occasionally blew about.

The Giants had first possession and reached their own 46 before having to punt.  Jerry Kramer put the Packers on the board with a 26-yard field goal midway through the first quarter after Green Bay drove 61 yards to the 19 yard line and Jim Taylor was stopped for no gain on third down and short.

The Giants threatened, driving to the Green Bay 15. However, MLB Ray Nitschke deflected a Tittle pass that was intercepted by LB Dan Currie to end the threat and returned it 30 yards before falling. Following the interception, the Packers advanced to the New York 30 but Kramer missed a field goal try from 37 yards.

A punt by Max McGee was nearly blocked by CB Erich Barnes but the rushed kick went only 23 yards. Two plays later, HB Phil King fumbled when hit by Currie and Nitschke recovered at the New York 28. The Packers capitalized as Paul Hornung tossed an option pass to flanker Boyd Dowler for 21 yards and Taylor followed up with a seven-yard touchdown run up the middle (pictured below).

Now late in the second quarter, the Giants responded by moving into Green Bay territory. However, Don Chandler attempted a 47-yard field goal for the Giants that went wide of the mark. The Packers took a 10-0 lead into halftime.

Early in the third quarter, Green Bay’s offense couldn’t advance the ball while backed up deep in its own territory. With the Packers punting from their own 15 yard line, Barnes broke through this time to block McGee’s kick and end Jim Collier fell on the loose ball in the end zone for a New York touchdown after LB Bill Forester was unable to scoop it up at the five (picture below shows Barnes at right just before blocking the punt). With the successful extra point, it was a three-point game.

Once again the Packers couldn’t move on offense, but McGee’s line-drive punt was muffed by DB Sam Horner and Nitschke recovered at the New York 42. The five-play series culminated in a 29-yard field goal by Kramer.

The Giants, now down by six, drove into Green Bay territory with the help of penalties. From the Green Bay 47, Tittle threw a pass intended for Del Shofner that fell incomplete. However, FS Willlie Wood was charged with pass interference and when he leaped up to protest he inadvertently knocked the official, back judge Thomas Kelleher, to the ground. It resulted in Wood’s ejection and another 15 yard penalty on the Packers that advanced the ball to the 18. Tittle overthrew Shofner and the Giants followed up with a double reverse in which King lateraled back to Tittle who was under pressure from DE Willie Davis and threw a bad pass that was almost picked off by Currie. Two holding calls on the Giants moved the ball all the way back to the 40. On third-and-52, Tittle threw short for flanker Frank Gifford, who dropped it. The Giants came up empty.

Early in the fourth quarter, HB Elijah Pitts returned a punt 36 yards and nearly broke it all the way. Bart Starr passed the Packers down to the New York 27 but they lost ground from there and Kramer was unsuccessful on a 40-yard field goal try.

The Giants were unable to move on offense and punted. Taking over at their 28, the Packers kept the ball on the ground and reached the New York 24. With 1:50 remaining in the game, Kramer kicked his third field goal to effectively seal the win for the Packers. The Giants drove to the Green Bay seven on their last possession before time ran out. Green Bay was the champion once again by a score of 16-7.

The Giants outgained Green Bay (291 yards to 244) and the clubs were even in first downs with 18 apiece. The Packers were more successful at running the ball (148 yards to 94) and New York turned the ball over three times while Green Bay’s offense suffered none.

Jim Taylor had a hard-earned 85 yards on 31 carries that included a touchdown and gained 20 more yards on three pass receptions. Moreover, he engaged in a personal battle in the trenches with New York’s defense (most notably star MLB Sam Huff), often exchanging words and exemplifying the game’s intensity. Bart Starr completed just 9 of 21 passes for 85 yards while Paul Hornung, who contributed 35 yards on 8 rushing attempts, also tossed a key halfback option pass for a 21-yard gain. Boyd Dowler led the Green Bay receivers with 4 catches for 48 yards. Ray Nitschke recovered two fumbles and had the pass deflection that was intercepted and was named MVP of the game by Sport Magazine.

As if the wind was not enough, Y.A. Tittle (pictured below) was under constant pressure throughout the game. He was successful on 18 of 41 throws for 197 yards with no TDs and one interception. Joe Walton and Del Shofner had 5 catches apiece, for 75 and 69 yards, respectively. Alex Webster ran for 56 yards on 15 carries and Phil King added 38 yards on 11 attempts.

Summing up, Vince Lombardi stated that his team’s “defense was superb and so was New York’s.”

“Green Bay is obviously a worthy champion, because they have things they had to overcome and they went out there and overcame them and got the points,” said Allie Sherman from the losing side.

The Packers barely missed out on winning the Western Conference again in 1963, finishing a close second to the Chicago Bears. They would win their next league title in 1965. New York topped the Eastern Conference yet again in ’63, but once more fell short in the Championship game.  In two title games, the Giants failed to score a single offensive touchdown against Green Bay.

December 29, 2012

1968: Jets Defeat Raiders for AFL Championship

The two teams that met for the championship of the American Football League on December 29, 1968 had already met several weeks earlier with memorable results. In the so-called “Heidi Game”, in which television viewers on the East Coast had the last few minutes of the contest pre-empted by a showing of the children’s classic “Heidi”, the Oakland Raiders had scored twice in short order to defeat the New York Jets. Now they were matched up again at New York’s home venue.

The Jets, built into a winning team by Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, had topped the Eastern Division with an 11-3 record. The explosive offense was directed by QB Joe Namath (pictured above), who had outstanding targets in wide receivers Don Maynard and George Sauer as well as TE Pete Lammons. The ground game was sound with FB Matt Snell and HB Emerson Boozer. The overlooked defense was especially tough against the run and contained AFL All-Stars in ends Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs, DT John Elliott, and MLB Al Atkinson. PK Jim Turner, who kicked a record 34 field goals, added a further scoring dimension.

The Raiders, under Head Coach John Rauch, were the defending AFL Champions. Despite a spate of injuries, they had gone 12-2 but still had to defeat the Chiefs in a playoff to again win the Western Division. QB Daryle Lamonica was still highly effective with his passing and, in addition to WR Fred Biletnikoff, had a new and speedy deep threat in WR Warren Wells. Rookie HB Charlie Smith entered the starting lineup at midseason with good result. With CB Kent McCloughan out due to knee surgery, rookie CB George Atkinson showed potential but had been burned badly by Maynard in the previous encounter.

Weather conditions were windy and cold at Shea Stadium, where 62,627 fans were present. The Raiders had constructed a small makeshift shelter for their players, but AFL President Milt Woodard ordered it taken down because it was obstructing the view for several rows of fans.

Oakland had the first possession and was forced to punt, with Mike Eischeid’s poor 28-yard kick giving the Jets good initial field position. With Pete Lammons and Emerson Boozer spread wide, New York moved 44 yards in four plays. Namath hit Don Maynard twice for 14-yard completions, the second good for a touchdown. In between, a pass interference call on Atkinson helped the drive along.

The Raiders missed a scoring opportunity when George Blanda attempted a 45-yard field goal into the wind that hit the crossbar and bounced away. Late in the first quarter, Jim Turner added a 33-yard field goal to make it 10-0 in favor of the Jets.

Daryle Lamonica (pictured at left) got off to a poor start, completing just one of his first 13 passes. But the Raiders began to move offensively late in the opening period as Lamonica started to find the range. He completed a screen pass to HB Pete Banaszak for 11 yards and followed up with throws to Fred Biletnikoff for 15 yards and to FB Hewritt Dixon for 23 yards on the first play of the second quarter. A pass to Biletnikoff, running a post pattern, was good for a 29-yard touchdown as he outmaneuvered CB Johnny Sample (Sample was subsequently replaced by Cornell Gordon).

Turner missed a 44-yard field goal attempt but connected from 36 yards late in the second quarter. Blanda booted a 25-yard field goal just before halftime to narrow the tally to 13-10 at the intermission.

In the third quarter, Warren Wells caught a pass for a 40-yard gain before being brought down by SS Jim Hudson at the New York six. The aroused Jets defense held on the next three plays as Charlie Smith was downed at the three and again after another gain of a yard, and Dixon was stopped on the third down play at the one. Oakland was forced to settle for a Blanda field goal and a tie score of 13-13.

With just under a minute remaining in the period, the Jets culminated a 14-play, 80-yard drive with Namath tossing a 20-yard touchdown pass to TE Pete Lammons to re-take the lead. The Raiders surged back as Lamonica completed a pass to Biletnikoff for a 57-yard gain and Blanda kicked a 20-yard field goal.

On the first play following the ensuing kickoff, Atkinson intercepted a Namath pass and returned it 32 yards to the New York five. Banaszak scored a five-yard TD that put Oakland in the lead by 23-20. The Jets struck back swiftly. Following a 10-yard completion to Sauer, Namath fired to Maynard for a 52-yard gain and again to Maynard for a six-yard TD with 7:47 remaining in the game.

Oakland drove to the New York 24, but chose to try and convert a fourth-and-ten and Lamonica was sacked by Verlon Biggs. With two minutes to go, the Raiders were again threatening to move back in front. Lamonica passes to Biletnikoff for 24 yards and Wells for 37 advanced the ball to the New York 12. But a lateral intended for Smith went awry and LB Ralph Baker recovered it for the Jets to extinguish the threat.

The Raiders had one last chance with 42 seconds remaining as they took over at their 22 yard line but fell short after advancing to near midfield. The Jets were AFL Champions by a score of 27-23.

Oakland had the edge in total yards (443 to 400) although the Jets had more first downs (25 to 18). New York was effective against the running game as the Raiders gained just 50 yards on the ground. The teams punted a combined 17 times, with the Jets accounting for 10.

Joe Namath completed 19 of 49 passes for 266 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. George Sauer (pictured below) caught 7 of those passes for 70 yards while Don Maynard gained 118 yards and scored two TDs on his 6 receptions. Matt Snell rushed for 71 yards on 19 carries and Emerson Boozer contributed 51 yards on 11 attempts.

For the Raiders, Daryle Lamonica went to the air 47 times and had 20 completions for 401 yards and a touchdown. Fred Biletnikoff had 7 catches for 190 yards and a TD and Warren Wells added 83 yards on his three receptions. Hewritt Dixon ran for 42 yards on 8 carries and added another 48 yards on 5 catches. Charlie Smith was held to just a yard on five rushing attempts.

The Jets went on to pull off a huge Super Bowl upset of the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts and repeated as Eastern Division champs in 1969. Oakland again placed first in the Western Division in ’69 but, due to a revised playoff format for the AFL’s last pre-merger season that allowed second place teams to qualify, ended up losing again in the league title game, this time to the Chiefs, who had finished behind them in the standings. 

December 27, 2012

1997: Vikings Rally to Edge Giants in Wild Card Playoff Game

The NFC Wild Card Playoff game on December 27, 1997 featured the New York Giants, who had gone from last to first in the NFC East, against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, a team that had been to the postseason in four of the previous five years but had failed to win at that level in any of them.

Four of the five teams in the NFC Central had qualified for the playoffs in ’97, with the fourth-place Vikings having grabbed the final Wild Card slot. Under sixth-year Head Coach Dennis Green (pictured at right), the team had gotten off to an 8-2 start before losing five straight contests and just making it into the playoffs at 9-7. Oft-injured RB Robert Smith finally realized his potential with a rushing output of 1266 yards and wide receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed were highly capable. QB Brad Johnson had played very well before suffering a season-ending neck injury, but veteran QB Randall Cunningham, back in the NFL after a year of retirement, filled in ably in his absence. The defense had a star in DT John Randle but was lacking elsewhere, in particular the backfield. Moreover, there was uncertainty regarding the possible sale of the team and Minnesota had yet to win a playoff game under Coach Green, who was not on the best terms with the current owners who were angered by comments made in his autobiography that was published during the season.

New York had a first-year head coach in Jim Fassel and had gone from 6-10 to 10-5-1. Second-year QB Danny Kanell took over the starting job from the disappointing Dave Brown with favorable, if far from spectacular, results. Versatile FB Charles Way was the team’s top rusher while rookie RB Tiki Barber was splitting time with Tyrone Wheatley. Chris Calloway was the most productive of the wide receivers. The defense had All-Pros in DE Michael Strahan, with his 14 sacks, and LB Jessie Armstead.

There were 77,497 fired-up fans in attendance on a snowy day at Giants Stadium – not a good situation for a team like that Vikings that played its home games in a domed stadium. The weather made it very difficult on both offenses throughout the contest. The teams traded punts until Randall Cunningham fumbled and DT Bernard Holsey recovered for the Giants at the Minnesota 23. New York lost ground from there but Brad Daluiso (pictured below) kicked a 43-yard field goal for the early lead.

No sooner did the Vikings get the ball back when Cunningham fumbled it away again, this time with Michael Strahan recovering at the Minnesota 46. The Giants had more success on offense this time, driving to the four yard line with the big play a completion by Danny Kanell to Charles Way for 27 yards. Still, they settled for another Daluiso field goal of 22 yards but took a 6-0 lead into the second quarter.

The Giants had possession as the game moved into the second quarter and this time drove 56 yards in seven plays to a touchdown. Kanell threw to Tiki Barber for 11 yards in a third-and-four situation at midfield and then passed to WR David Patten for a 37-yard gain to the Minnesota two. A running play lost a yard but Kanell connected with TE Aaron Pierce for the two-yard TD. Daluiso’s extra point made it 13-0 in favor of the home team.

After the teams again traded punts another turnover by the Vikings led to more New York points. Cunningham’s long pass was intercepted by CB Jason Sehorn, who returned it 36 yards to the Minnesota 47. The ensuing six-play, 23-yard series ended with a third Daluiso field goal, this time from 41 yards, that made the score 16-0.

The Vikings finally got a break on a turnover when, following a punt on a three-and-out possession, WR Amani Toomer fumbled and Minnesota got the ball at the New York 26. Cunningham threw to Cris Carter for 19 yards to the seven yard line, but the Vikings were unable to move the ball any further. 41-year-old Eddie Murray kicked a 26-yard field goal to get the visitors on the board.

With less than two minutes remaining in the half as the Giants got the ball again, the scoring was not yet over. New York, starting at the 40 thanks to Minnesota’s kickoff going out of bounds, put together a 10-play drive that gained 26 yards and led to Daluiso kicking a 51-yard field goal to make the halftime score 19-3. While the Giants hadn’t been overly impressive offensively in the first half, Minnesota had gained just 21 rushing yards and Cunningham (pictured at right) completed only 5 of 16 passes. In addition, Cunningham’s two fumbles and an interception all led to points for New York.

The Vikings had the first possession of the third quarter and had to punt, but a fumble by Barber gave them the ball again at the New York four. From there, RB Leroy Hoard ran for a touchdown that, with the point after, narrowed the margin for the Giants to 19-10.

Following a short possession by the Giants, Minnesota drove into New York territory on a series highlighted by a Cunningham pass to Jake Reed for 33 yards. However, Murray’s field goal attempt from 48 yards was unsuccessful. The Vikings got the ball back at their 40 after another short series for the Giants capped by a short punt by Brad Maynard. Minnesota advanced the ball 52 yards in 11 plays culminating in a Murray field goal from 26 yards early in the fourth quarter.

The Giants finally came back alive on offense as Kanell completed six passes, with one to Patten for 18 yards in a third-and-9 situation and the longest to Calloway for 21 yards. The 13-play, 74-yard drive reached the Minnesota five and Daluiso booted his fifth field goal of the day from 22 yards. It was a nine-point contest at 22-13 with just over seven minutes to go and things looked very favorable for the Giants.

After the teams traded punts, the Vikings, getting the ball back with the clock now down to 2:06, struck quickly following another short kick by Maynard. Cunningham connected with Reed for a 30-yard touchdown and Murray added the PAT to narrow the margin to two points. Minnesota successfully executed an onside kick that New York’s Calloway muffed and WR Chris Walsh recovered at his own 39.

Following a false start that moved the Vikings five yards farther back, Cunningham threw an incomplete pass but then hit TE Andrew Glover for 11 yards and Carter for 21 on a third down play. A pass interference penalty on the Giants advanced the ball to the New York 16 and Robert Smith gained 16 yards to set up a 24-yard field goal by Murray. In stunning fashion, the Vikings won by a score of 23-22.

It was the biggest comeback by a NFL road team in the postseason since 1972 and the first playoff win for the Vikings in nine years. Minnesota led in total yards (293 to 266) and first downs (16 to 13). Indeed, the Giants rushed for only 76 yards in 36 attempts, a factor in their inability to control the ball longer. The Vikings turned the ball over three times, all in the first half, to two for New York.

Randall Cunningham, who had such great difficulty in the first half, completed 15 of 36 passes for 203 yards with a touchdown and an interception and also rushed for 38 yards on 7 carries. Cris Carter had 6 catches for 83 yards and Jake Reed (pictured below) gained 89 yards and scored a TD on his 5 receptions. Robert Smith rushed for 40 yards on 16 attempts.

For the Giants, Danny Kanell was successful on 16 of 32 throws for 199 yards with a TD and none intercepted. Chris Calloway caught 6 passes for 53 yards while David Patten gained 86 yards on his 5 receptions. Brad Daluiso was a key performer with his five field goals in as many attempts.

“It was amazing how things unfolded for us at the end,” said Minnesota’s John Randle. “I’ve never been in a game where we’ve come back like this.”

The first win for the Vikings under Dennis Green didn’t lead immediately to a second – they were badly beaten by the 49ers the following week in the Divisional round. With Green still coaching the team, they surged to 15-1 in 1998 and made it to the NFC Championship game. New York fell back to 8-8 in ’98 and didn’t return to the postseason until 2000. By that time, Danny Kanell and Chris Calloway were long gone but Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer had become prominent contributors.

December 26, 2012

1955: Browns Defeat Rams for NFL Title in Otto Graham’s Final Game

The NFL Championship game on December 26, 1955 featured the defending-champion Cleveland Browns against the Los Angeles Rams. The Browns were a perennial powerhouse under Head Coach Paul Brown, having won all four titles in the All-America Football Conference and then appearing in five straight NFL Championship contests after joining the NFL in 1950, winning two. The quarterback throughout the remarkable run was Otto Graham (pictured at right), who had announced his retirement following the previous year’s title win but agreed to come back when the club was foundering in the preseason. Cleveland went 9-2-1 to again top the Eastern Conference.

The Rams, under first-year Head Coach Sid Gillman, finished a half-game in front of the Bears in the Western Conference at 8-3-1. They were largely a veteran club best known for offensive prowess. QB Norm Van Brocklin was a formidable passer and still had savvy veteran ends Tom Fears and Crazylegs Hirsch as targets. Rookie HB Ron Waller joined with veteran FB Tank Younger to pace the ground attack and the defense was anchored by All-Pros in DE Andy Robustelli and HB Will Sherman.

There were 87,695 fans under a gray sky at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Browns missed out on a first quarter touchdown when DHB Ed Hughes wrestled a pass away from HB Ray Renfro for an interception. Both clubs parried until Cleveland, capitalizing on an interception by safety Ken Konz, finally got on the board with two minutes remaining in the opening period on a 26-yard field goal by Lou Groza.

The Browns got another big defensive play in the second quarter when DHB Don Paul (pictured at left) returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown, with only the slow-footed Van Brocklin between him and the goal line. However, on LA’s next possession HB Skeet Quinlan scored on a spectacular long pass after beating DHB Warren Lahr. The play brought the home crowd alive and, at least briefly, kept the contest competitive with the Browns leading by 10-7. But just before the half the Browns scored again when Graham connected with end Dante Lavelli for a 50-yard TD. It was 17-7 at the midway point and Cleveland would not look back.

In the third quarter, Konz returned a punt 24 yards to set up a five-play, 46-yard drive that ended with Graham rolling out around end and running 15 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter, LB Sam Palumbo intercepted a Van Brocklin pass to give the Browns the ball in LA territory and they drove 36 yards to a one-yard scoring carry by Graham. Cleveland had a commanding 31-7 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Renfro caught a pass from Graham for a 35-yard touchdown to cap the scoring for the Browns. Thoroughly overwhelmed, the Rams finally scored again with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on a four-yard run by Ron Waller, long after the contest had been decided. With a little time remaining, George Ratterman came in at quarterback for Cleveland and Graham received a standing ovation from what was left of the crowd as he trotted off the field. The Browns were once again NFL Champions by a score of 38-14.

While both teams had 17 first downs apiece, the Browns had the edge in total yards (371 to 259). More significantly, LA turned the ball over seven times (all by interceptions), to three by Cleveland. And while the Rams were unable to capitalize on their takeaways, the Browns generated 24 points from theirs, including the one long interception return for a score.

Otto Graham completed 14 of 25 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, and also ran the ball 9 times for 21 yards and two TDs. FB Ed Modzelewski (pictured at right) led the Browns with 61 yards on 13 carries as well as 5 pass receptions for 34 yards. Dante Lavelli gained 95 yards on his three catches that included a touchdown.

For the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin was successful on 11 of 25 throws for 166 yards and a TD but also was intercepted six times (Bill Wade relieved him and tossed another interception). Skeet Quinlan caught 5 passes for 116 yards and the one long touchdown. FB Dan Towler led the club in rushing with 64 yards on 14 carries and Ron Waller contributed 48 yards and a TD on 11 attempts.

It was a near-perfect sendoff for Otto Graham, who made clear that he was retiring for good this time. He left having piloted the Browns to ten straight title games – four in the AAFC and six in the NFL – with seven wins in that string. While his career passing totals pale in comparison to those accumulated in modern offenses, his pro statistics include 23,584 passing yards and 174 touchdowns against 135 interceptions. Of that, 13,499 yards, 88 TDs, and 81 interceptions came in the NFL. He led the NFL in completion percentage in each of his last three seasons and twice led in passing yards. Graham’s career average yards-per-attempt of 8.6 is still the best in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

Graham’s value to the Browns was further underlined in 1956 when, without him in the lineup, they suffered the first losing season in franchise history (5-7). They bounced back to top the Eastern Conference in ’57.

As for the Rams, they dropped all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference with a 4-8 record in 1956 and did not return to the postseason until 1967. Norm Van Brocklin’s poor performance in the ’55 title game became one of the points of contention between the talented but irascible quarterback and Coach Gillman, ultimately leading to his departure from the team following the ’57 season.

December 25, 2012

1993: Defenses Dominate as Oilers Edge 49ers

The Christmas encounter on December 25, 1993 featured two high-scoring teams that were on their way to the postseason. The San Francisco 49ers were perennial contenders and, in their fifth year under Head Coach George Seifert, were 10-4 and already had sewn up a spot in the playoffs. The mobile lefthanded QB Steve Young was admirably succeeding the departed Joe Montana, WR Jerry Rice was the best at his position, and RB Ricky Watters a temperamental but talented presence in the backfield. The 49ers scored 55 points in their previous contest.

The Houston Oilers, coached by Jack Pardee, overcame a slow start to win nine straight games and were also at 10-4 and playing for home field advantage in the playoffs. QB Warren Moon was highly productive in the club’s run-and-shoot offense and the defense was responding to the coaching of coordinator Buddy Ryan.

There were 61,744 fans present for the Saturday afternoon game at Candlestick Park. San Francisco’s first series of the game ended with a failed 47-yard field goal attempt by Mike Cofer. Both teams had difficulty moving the ball during the remainder of the opening period but it ended with Moon completing a pass to RB Gary Brown (pictured above) for a 20-yard gain and the second quarter started off with another Moon throw to WR Gary Wellman that picked up 44 yards to the San Francisco 6. That was as far as the Oilers could get and they settled for a 24-yard field goal by Al Del Greco to take a 3-0 lead.

On the next series, a fumble by Young, who lost the ball when sacked by blitzing rookie safety Blaine Bishop, led to Houston scoring a touchdown three plays later on a seven-yard pass from Moon to WR Ernest Givins.

Down by 10-0, the Niners put together a long drive from their 22 yard line that was helped along by two Houston penalties. However, after reaching the Oilers’ 19 Young’s pass into the end zone was intercepted by CB Cris Dishman to extinguish the threat.

In the third quarter, Houston was driving and seemed about to take control of the game when Moon was intercepted for the second time by CB Michael McGruder, who returned it 15 yards to his own 30. The 49ers responded by putting together a promising series. Following a five-yard scramble by Young, he threw to RB Amp Lee for a 22-yard gain and then to Jerry Rice for 32 yards to the Houston 11. The drive stalled at the six, however, and a 24-yard field goal attempt by Cofer was blocked by LB Eddie Robinson.

After a short series by the Oilers that ended with a punt, Young was relieved by backup QB Steve Bono with 3:33 remaining in the third quarter. The 49ers then methodically advanced 73 yards in 12 plays for their only score. Bono completed eight passes and Lee finished the drive off with an eight-yard carry around end for a touchdown. Cofer’s successful extra point attempt made it a three-point game with over twelve minutes remaining on the clock.

Warren Moon had to leave the game due to bruised ribs with a little under seven minutes to play and was replaced by Cody Carlson. The 49ers reached Houston territory on their next series but were forced to punt. With Carlson under center, the Oilers then put together a long, time-consuming drive to keep the ball away from the Niners and clinch the 10-7 win.

In a game that was remarkably low-scoring for teams with such potent offenses, the 49ers led in both total yards (337 to 311) and first downs (20 to 16). Each club turned the ball over three times. The Oilers were penalized six times while San Francisco was only flagged once.

Gary Brown played a big role in helping the Oilers to maintain ball control as he rushed for 114 yards on 19 carries. Warren Moon had a less-than-stellar performance as he completed 11 of 26 passes for 158 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. Cody Carlson completed all three of his passes in relief for 46 yards. Gary Wellman caught four passes for 82 yards and Ernest Givins also had four receptions, for 35 yards and a TD.

It was also a rough day for Steve Young, who was successful on just 15 of 29 throws for 178 yards and was intercepted twice and lost a fumble. Steve Bono completed 11 of 13 passes for 79 yards. Jerry Rice caught 10 passes for 83 yards. Amp Lee (pictured below) rushed for 65 yards and a TD on 16 attempts and added 45 yards on 5 pass receptions.

Coach Seifert had told Young he would be coming out early at halftime as he didn’t want to risk his quarterback’s health. Still, it did not sit well with the star quarterback. “To be pulled out of the game like that, I had to bite my tongue a little bit,” he said afterward.

“We saw them score 55 points on the road last week, so this was a huge lift for us,” exulted Houston’s Eddie Robinson, who blocked the potential game-tying kick. “We almost had the shutout.”

Houston made it 11 consecutive wins to finish out the regular season – with Cody Carlson at quarterback for the injured Moon – to end up at the top of the AFC Central with a 12-4 record, although they failed to secure the top seed in the postseason. Once again they fell short in the playoffs, losing in the Divisional round to Kansas City.

The loss to the Oilers broke a string of 13 straight home wins for the 49ers, who lost their finale the following week but still finished first in the NFC West at 10-6. They annihilated the Giants by a 44-3 score in their Divisional playoff game and lost to the Cowboys in the NFC title game for the second straight year.

December 23, 2012

2007: Jacobs & Bradshaw Key Ground Attack as Giants Beat Bills

The New York Giants were 9-5 and fighting for a playoff spot as they took on the Buffalo Bills on December 23, 2007. Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s team had struggled with inconsistency, particularly with regard to fourth-year QB Eli Manning. He was helped by the presence of WR Plaxico Burress, who was productive despite playing with an injured ankle. The Giants were also helped through a running back by committee approach that had successfully replaced retired star RB Tiki Barber, although in a loss the previous week to the Redskins they were criticized for underutilizing the ground attack. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit was aggressive and adept at pressuring opposing quarterbacks while stopping the run.

The Bills, coached by Dick Jauron, had recovered from a slow 1-4 start to win four straight games but were at 7-7 and out of the playoffs. Still, they had received an emotional lift prior to facing the Giants when TE Kevin Everett, who suffered a severe injury to his spinal cord in the season-opening game, returned from his rehab to address the team before the game. Remarkably, he was able to walk under his own power – something that seemed unlikely in the early aftermath.

There was a gusty wind and hard rain that turned to snow flurries as the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium progressed. The fired-up Bills scored the first two times they had the ball. In the game’s initial series, they drove 60 yards in seven plays that featured QB Trent Edwards throwing to WR Lee Evans for 21 yards and to RB Marshawn Lynch for 30 yards in a second-and-17 situation. Edwards finished off the drive with a pass to TE Michael Gaines in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Following a punt by the Giants, Buffalo went 66 yards in six plays, the big one of which was an Edwards completion to WR Roscoe Parrish for 42 yards to the New York four yard line. From there on the next play, Edwards tossed a TD pass to Evans. The score was 14-0 following a quarter of action.

Early in the second quarter, the Giants got a break due to a fumble by the Bills and gained possession at the Buffalo 23. QB Eli Manning completed a pass to WR Amani Toomer for 13 yards on a third-and-six play and the five-play series ended with RB Brandon Jacobs (pictured above) running six yards for a touchdown.

The Giants regained possession following a punt and the series was extended thanks to a roughing the kicker penalty when it appeared that they would go three-and-out. They took immediate advantage when, on the first play after the penalty, Jacobs took off on a 43-yard run for a TD. With the successful extra point, the score was tied at 14-14.

New York added more points following another short series by the Bills that ended with a punt. After two runs by Jacobs gained five yards, Manning passed to Toomer again on third-and-five for a 19-yard gain and the seven-play, 32-yard series ended with Lawrence Tynes kicking a 42-yard field goal that gave the Giants a 17-14 lead.

It seemed as though New York might score again before the half when they advanced to the Buffalo 26 on their next possession with time running out, but Manning fumbled when sacked by DE Aaron Schobel, who then recovered to end the threat and keep it a three-point contest at the intermission.

The Bills regained the lead quickly in the third quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, LB Keith Ellison intercepted a Manning pass and Lynch immediately ran 28 yards to set up his three-yard touchdown run. The successful conversion made it a four-point game with the home team on top at 21-17.

The Giants responded with a long drive that began at their 35 and put them in almost certain scoring position with a first down at the Buffalo one. Three running plays failed to reach the end zone and, going for it on fourth-and-one, RB Reuben Droughns was stopped for a four-yard loss and the Bills regained possession.

Buffalo ran three plays and punted, with the Giants starting with good field position at the Buffalo 45. Jacobs carried six straight times to advance the ball to the Buffalo 11 as the third quarter came to an end. However, the final period started off with Manning fumbling and DT Larry Tripplett recovering for the Bills at the 12. Any advantage for Buffalo was erased two plays later when an Edwards pass that bounced off the shoulder pad of Evans, the intended receiver, was intercepted by LB Kawika Mitchell, who returned it 20 yards for a TD. The Giants were up by 24-21 and wouldn’t look back.

The teams traded punts until Manning was picked off by CB Terrence McGee to give Buffalo the ball near midfield, but the Bills, who hadn’t shown much offense since the first quarter, were unable to advance and, following the ensuing punt, RB Ahmad Bradshaw took off on an 88-yard touchdown run that effectively put the game away. If there was any doubt, on the second play of Buffalo’s next possession Edwards again tossed an interception that was returned for a TD, this time by CB Corey Webster from 34 yards out. The Giants won by a final score of 38-21, with Coach Coughlin receiving a Gatorade bath on the sideline in celebration of nailing down a playoff spot.

New York outgained the Bills by 383 yards to 244, with 291 of that total coming on the ground – the most that the team had accumulated in a game since 1959. The Giants also had the edge in first downs (17 to 16). Each club turned the ball over four times. New York also recorded three sacks, all after star Buffalo OLT Jason Peters left the game with a groin injury in the second quarter.

Ahmad Bradshaw (pictured below), in a breakout performance highlighted by the long scoring run, gained 151 yards on 17 carries that included a TD and Brandon Jacobs, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle, rushed for 143 yards and two TDs on 25 attempts. Eli Manning went to the air just 15 times and completed 7 for 111 yards with no touchdowns and two intercepted, along with two fumbles. Amani Toomer was far and away New York’s leading pass receiver with 5 catches for 99 yards while Plaxico Burress was held to one reception for six yards.

For the Bills, Marshawn Lynch rushed for 70 yards on 18 attempts that included one TD. Trent Edwards, under heavy pressure as the game progressed, was successful on only 9 of 26 throws for 161 yards with two for touchdowns but also three interceptions. Lee Evans had three catches for 43 yards and a TD.

“We knew what we had to do,” said Brandon Jacobs. “We knew the wind was going to be blowing and it was going to be a little rainy. So that is what you do in conditions like that – you run the ball.”

“We were going to put the ball on the ground and have success,” echoed Tom Coughlin. “We didn’t get ourselves into a situation where we felt like we had to do anything but run the ball.”

It was the seventh straight win on the road for the Giants, who finished second in the NFC East at 10-6 but then proceeded to catch fire in the playoffs. With Manning upping his game considerably and the defense playing at its best, New York won three straight postseason road games before upsetting the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Buffalo placed second in the AFC East at 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.

The power-running Brandon Jacobs ended up leading the Giants with 1009 yards on 202 carries (5.0 avg.) and four touchdowns despite missing five games due to injury. Ahmad Bradshaw, little used in his first year except for returning kickoffs until late in the season, had just 190 yards on 23 attempts but saved his best for the postseason where he ran for 208 yards on 48 attempts (4.3 avg.) and a TD. 

December 22, 2012

1974: Defense Spurs Rams to Divisional Playoff Win Over Redskins

The NFC Divisional Playoff game on December 22, 1974 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum featured two tough defensive teams. The Los Angeles Rams, coached by Chuck Knox, had allowed the fewest points during the regular season (181) and featured stalwarts on the defensive line in All-Pro DE Jack Youngblood and DT Merlin Olsen (pictured at right), still a Pro Bowl-level performer at age 34. The offense had undergone a shift during the season when veteran QB John Hadl was traded to the Packers and replaced by James Harris, a pioneering African-American signal caller. The ground game was sound with RB Lawrence McCutcheon, who ran for 1109 yards and also gained Pro Bowl recognition.  

The Redskins were in the playoffs for the fourth straight year under Head Coach George Allen, previously the coach in LA. The defense was typically strong, but on offense the running game was unusually weak for an Allen-coached squad as, in particular, RB Larry Brown suffered through an injury-plagued campaign. The passing attack had compensated with savvy veteran QB Bill Kilmer backed up by 40-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, who had performed well on several occasions in relief.

Both teams had finished at 10-4, with that record good enough to win the NFC West title for the Rams but earning second place in the NFC East and a Wild Card spot for Washington. The Redskins had beaten the Rams in the second-to-last regular season contest just two weeks earlier.

There was a big crowd of 80,118 at the cavernous Coliseum on a day in which there were gusty winds that hampered the passing game.  The Rams made a change by going with two tight ends and one running back on offense. The “ace” formation, as they called it, succeeded in generating an eight-play, 72-yard drive for the game’s first touchdown. Along the way James Harris completed three passes for 40 yards and then threw to TE Bob Klein for a ten-yard TD.

The momentum shifted back to the Redskins during the remainder of the first half. Later in the first quarter, and following a Kilmer pass to WR Charley Taylor that gained 41 yards, Mike Bragg kicked a 35-yard field goal. After CB Pat Fischer intercepted a Harris pass and returned it 40 yards to the LA 23, Washington took the lead in the second quarter when RB Moses Denson plunged one yard into the end zone for a touchdown. It was 10-7 at the half.

The situation changed in the third quarter as the Rams began to make big plays on defense that turned the tide. Larry Brown’s fumble at the LA 44, forced by Merlin Olsen’s jolting tackle, was recovered by LB Jack Reynolds and set up a 37-yard field goal by David Ray that tied the score. It could have been more as an apparent touchdown by the Rams was nullified by a penalty.

HB Doug Cunningham fumbled the ensuing kickoff when he was hit by TE Pat Curran. LA turned that into three more points and the lead when Ray booted a 26-yard field goal. With the score at 13-10 and the Redskins having difficulty sustaining drives, Coach Allen lifted Kilmer for Sonny Jurgensen.

In the fourth quarter the Rams made a defensive adjustment, inserting Isiah Robertson (pictured at left) as a fourth linebacker rather than putting in an extra defensive back. It resulted in a key interception when Olsen hit Jurgensen as he was passing and Robertson picked off the underthrown ball and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown. While the extra point attempt failed, LA had a nine-point lead with 10 minutes remaining on the clock.

On the next series, Olsen made another big play when he sacked Jurgensen for an eight-yard loss to thwart a potential comeback. The Rams were able to then keep the ball away from Washington until there was only 3:23 left. On a second down play, Reynolds intercepted a Jurgensen pass to essentially nail down the win. The Rams advanced by a score of 19-10.

Los Angeles held narrow edges in total yards (226 to 218) and first downs (14 to 13). However, the Redskins turned the ball over six times, with five of them coming in the second half and leading to 12 points for the Rams. LA suffered two turnovers. In addition, the Rams were more effective at running the ball, gaining 131 yards on 49 attempts while Washington was held to just 49 yards on 27 carries.

James Harris completed only 8 of 24 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown with two intercepted. Lawrence McCutcheon rushed for 71 yards on 26 carries and was one of three LA receivers to lead the club with two catches, for 20 yards. WR Harold Jackson gained 35 yards on his two receptions and Bob Klein’s two went for 23 yards and a TD. PK David Ray had been hospitalized with back spasms and it was uncertain that he could play until released three days earlier, but came through with two key field goals in the second half (although he also had two misses).

For the Redskins, Bill Kilmer was successful on 7 of 18 throws for 99 yards with none intercepted while Sonny Jurgensen (pictured below) went to the air 12 times and completed 6 for 78 yards, but with three picked off. Charley Taylor caught 4 passes for 79 yards and FB Charlie Evans also pulled in 4, for 31 yards. Larry Brown rushed for 39 yards on 18 attempts.

“George Allen always said that if you can get six turnovers in a game, you’ll win it,” said Merlin Olsen of his former coach. “We got six today.”

“The Rams deserved to win because they played better football,” summed up a glum Allen. “You can’t make as many mistakes as we did and expect to win.”

The first postseason win for the Rams since 1951 moved them ahead to the NFC Championship game, which they lost to Minnesota. The Redskins dipped to 8-6 in 1975 but returned to the postseason for one last time under George Allen in ’76.

The Divisional playoff loss in LA marked the end of the road for Sonny Jurgensen, who retired following an 18-year career in which he accumulated 32,224 passing yards and 255 TD passes – both figures were the third most in NFL history at the time. He gained induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Oddly enough, Jurgensen’s last game was also his only postseason appearance (other than as a holder for kicks). 

December 20, 2012

1969: Chiefs Defeat Jets in AFL Divisional Playoff

For its final season prior to merging with the NFL, the American Football League adopted an expanded playoff structure. Rather than have the two division winners play directly for the league title, a first round pitting the second place team in each of the divisions against the first place club in the opposite division was added. On December 20, 1969 one of the Divisional playoffs pitted the Kansas City Chiefs, the second place club in the Western Division, against the top team in the Eastern Division, the defending-champion New York Jets.

The Jets, coached by Weeb Ewbank, had won a stunning victory in the previous year’s Super Bowl and easily repeated as division winners with a 10-4 record, sweeping all the other Eastern clubs along the way. They still had the ability to put points on the board with QB Joe Namath throwing to flanker Don Maynard, split end George Sauer, and TE Pete Lammons and a fine running attack headed by HB Emerson Boozer and FB Matt Snell. While the defensive backfield was suspect, the line and linebackers were not. In addition, PK Jim Turner, having kicked a then-record 34 field goals in 1968, followed up with 32 in ‘69.

Head Coach Hank Stram’s Chiefs were runners-up to Oakland in the tougher Western Division with an 11-3 tally. QB Len Dawson (pictured passing above) missed six games due to a knee injury but was healthy for the postseason. The stable of running backs provided a good blend of inside power and outside speed and the defense was solid in all areas. Kansas City also boasted an outstanding placekicker in Jan Stenerud, who set a league record with 16 consecutive field goals at one point. Moreover, in their one meeting with New York during the regular season, the Chiefs won decisively.

It was a cold and windy Saturday at Shea Stadium with 62,977 fans in attendance. The Jets were without the services of Don Maynard for most of the game due to a broken right foot, although he was inserted briefly in the second half and caught one pass. Meanwhile, a bout of the flu kept Kansas City FB Robert Holmes out of action for most of the game as well.

The strong winds played havoc on the passing game from the start and also affected the placekicking. An early 40-yard field goal attempt by Stenerud was held up by the wind and fell short. New York responded with a drive in which Namath completed all four of his passes and Jim Turner was successful on his three-point try from 27 yards.

The contest quickly settled into being a defensive struggle. Stenerud finally got Kansas City on the board early in the second quarter with a 23-yard field goal. The Jets played conservatively and chose to run out the clock with their last possession of the second quarter, much to the dissatisfaction of the home crowd.

Late in the third quarter, the Chiefs, helped by a key pass completion from Dawson to TE Fred Arbanas, went ahead by 6-3 as Stenerud booted a 25-yard field goal. It set the stage for the turning point of the game in the fourth quarter.

First, a pass interference call on CB Emmitt Thomas gave New York a first down at the KC one. With MLB Willie Lanier exhorting his teammates on, the Jets tried to run it in on successive carries by Matt Snell and HB Bill Mathis, but failed to reach the end zone. In both instances, Lanier was there to make the play. With third and inches inside the Kansas City one yard line, Namath rolled to his right. Snell was his primary receiver, but LB Bobby Bell picked him up out of the backfield and the hobbling quarterback was under pressure from onrushing LB Jim Lynch. As a result, Namath threw the ball away and the Jets had to settle for a seven-yard field goal by Jim Turner. It tied the score at 6-6, but was a big missed opportunity for New York – and a spur to the Chiefs.

On the ensuing series, Dawson threw to WR Otis Taylor for a 61-yard gain on a crossing pattern and then followed with a 19-yard TD pass to WR Gloster Richardson, who was all alone in the end zone after having eluded CB Cornell Gordon. With the extra point added, the Chiefs were up by seven points.

There was still time for the Jets to come back, but the inspired Kansas City defense was able to keep them out of the end zone and Namath was only able to complete 6 of 20 pass attempts the rest of the way. Twice New York made it into scoring territory, getting to the KC 16 and 13 respectively, but came up empty. On the second of those occasions, two Namath passes intended for George Sauer in the end zone fell incomplete and a third, to WR Bake Turner, was intercepted by CB Jim Marsalis to end the threat after New York had reached the KC four due to a personal foul penalty on SS Jim Kearney. Any last hopes ended when DB Mike Battle fumbled away a punt with 36 seconds left on the clock. The Chiefs won 13-6 to advance to the AFL Championshi p game.

Kansas City outgained the Jets (276 yards to 235) but New York had more first downs (19 to 14). The Jets turned the ball over four times while KC suffered no turnovers. The teams combined for 11 punts and Jan Stenerud struggled as he missed three of his five field goal attempts.

In the difficult weather conditions, Len Dawson completed 12 of 27 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. Mike Garrett rushed for 67 yards on 18 carries and Wendell Hayes added 32 yards on 10 attempts while leading the team with 5 catches for 46 yards. However, Otis Taylor (pictured at left) gained 74 yards on his two receptions.

For the Jets, Joe Namath went to the air 40 times and completed 14 for 164 yards with three interceptions. George Sauer caught 5 of those passes for 61 yards. Matt Snell was the rushing leader with 61 yards on 12 attempts.

Reacting to criticism of the attempt to pass on third down rather than try another run into the line, causing the Jets to end up with three points rather than potentially seven and shifting the game’s momentum, Coach Ewbank said, “We don’t second-guess a call. Hindsight is always 20-20. Joe (Namath) called that third down pass and I thought it was a good call. We worked on that play all week for that type situation and we thought it would work.”

The Chiefs faced their division rivals, the Oakland Raiders, for the AFL title and won to advance to the Super Bowl where they defeated the Minnesota Vikings to finish off the younger league’s existence on a winning note. They missed the playoffs in 1970 with a 7-5-2 record while the Jets sank much further due to injuries – most notably to Namath – and finished at 4-10. But while Kansas City would bounce back to make it to the postseason in 1971, New York would not appear again in the playoffs until 1981.

December 19, 2012

2004: Failed Extra Point Try Allows Vikings to Hold Off Lions

The Minnesota Vikings had gotten off to a 5-1 start in the 2004 NFL season but had struggled thereafter. By the time they faced the Detroit Lions on December 19 they were at 7-6 and trying to stay alive for a playoff spot. Coached by Mike Tice, the offense featured sixth-year QB Daunte Culpepper (pictured above), adept at running as well as passing, and highly talented – if also temperamental – WR Randy Moss. They had beaten Detroit four weeks earlier.

The Lions, under Head Coach Steve Mariucci, were a rebuilding club with a 5-8 record, having lost six of their last seven games. There was young talent on offense in QB Joey Harrington, WR Roy Williams, and rookie first draft choice Kevin Jones, but Harrington was proving to be inconsistent and the defense was tough but thin on depth.

There were 62,337 fans in attendance at Detroit’s Ford Field. The home team had first possession and drove 59 yards in 13 plays. Harrington completed four passes and Jason Hanson kicked a 32-yard field goal to make it 3-0. The Vikings came right back with a long series of their own, going 85 yards in 12 plays. Daunte Culpepper completed five throws along the way, including two to TE Jermaine Wiggins for first downs and a 36-yard touchdown pass to WR Nate Burleson. It was 7-3 in favor of Minnesota after one quarter of play.

The teams traded punts heading into the second quarter before the Vikings struck with a big play. In a third-and-24 situation at his own 18, Culpepper threw to Randy Moss for an 82-yard TD and, with another successful PAT, a 14-3 lead. The Lions responded with a long, sustained 11-play drive that covered 83 yards. Harrington completed a pass to Roy Williams for 24 yards on a third-and-three play and Kevin Jones carried the ball 6 times for 42 yards that included a 16-yard scoring run.  In the final two minutes, Detroit added a 23-yard field goal by Hanson and it was a 14-13 game at the half.

In Detroit’s first possession of the third quarter, and backed up deep in its own territory, Harrington (pictured at left) threw to Williams for another big gain of 37 yards. But the drive ended with SS Corey Chavous intercepting a pass at his own 37. The Lions got a break three plays later when Culpepper was picked off in turn by FS Brock Marion, who returned it to the Minnesota 33. However, three plays after that Jones fumbled and DT Spencer Johnson recovered for the Vikings to snuff out the threat. The teams traded punts for the remainder of the period.

Early in the fourth quarter, Harrington was intercepted by CB Brian Williams and the Vikings proceeded to put together an eight-play, 68-yard drive. Culpepper connected with Burleson for a 37-yard touchdown. Detroit came back with an 83-yard series that featured a Harrington pass to WR Az-Zahir Hakim for 40 yards, who then lateraled to RB Shawn Bryson for another 22 yards to the Minnesota 14 and, three plays later, Harrington threw to Roy Williams for a nine-yard TD. With the successful two-point conversion on a pass from Harrington to WR Tai Streets, the game was tied at 21-21.

There were just over six minutes remaining as the Vikings took over for their next series. Culpepper came out throwing, with the big completion to RB Moe Williams for 28 yards to the Detroit 34. The tenth play of the 73-yard drive was an 11-yard Culpepper pass to Williams for a TD. Morten Andersen added the extra point and it was 28-21 with the clock now down to 1:37.

Now it was Harrington throwing on every down as the Lions took over at their 20 following a touchback on the kickoff. Three consecutive completions got the ball to the Detroit 40 and, after an incomplete pass, Harrington hit Streets for 15 more yards to get the ball into Vikings territory. A 23-yard toss to Roy Williams moved the Lions to the 15 and a penalty on Minnesota took it to the one. From there, Harrington threw to Williams for a touchdown and it appeared that the game was going into overtime.

However, on the usually-automatic extra point attempt, a bad snap by long snapper Don Muhlbach  bounced before reaching holder Nick Harris. Unable to set the ball for Hanson to kick, Harris was tackled and the PAT was no good. The Vikings recovered the ensuing onside kick and were able to run out the remaining seconds and win by a score of 28-27.

The game was close statistically as the Lions barely edged Minnesota in both total yards (463 to 461) and first downs (24 to 21). Detroit sacked Culpepper five times, while Harrington was dumped twice by the Vikings, but the Lions also turned the ball over three times, to one suffered by Minnesota.

Daunte Culpepper completed 25 of 35 passes for 404 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Nate Burleson (pictured above) had 5 catches for 134 yards and two TDs and Randy Moss contributed 102 yards on his four pass receptions that included the long touchdown. Jermaine Wiggins had the most receptions for the Vikings with his 6 for 39 yards. RB Michael Bennett gained 51 rushing yards on 13 carries and also had another 51 yards on three catches.

For the Lions, Joey Harrington was successful on 25 of 44 throws for 361 yards and two TDs while two were picked off. Roy Williams, despite suffering from a hip injury, caught 7 of those passes for 104 yards and two scores. Az-Zahir Hakim gained 108 yards on four receptions. Kevin Jones (pictured below) rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts and also made four catches for 35 yards.

The Vikings lost two close games to finish out the regular season at 8-8, but they still qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card. They defeated the division-rival Packers in the first round but lost to Philadelphia at the Divisional level. The loss to Minnesota officially eliminated the Lions from postseason contention and they ended up third in the division at 6-10. Still, it was still the club’s best record since 2000.

For Daunte Culpepper, it was a year in which he led the league in passing yards (4717) and completions (379), both career highs, as were his 39 TD passes, 8.6 yards per attempt, and 69.2 completion percentage. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl for the third time. It was also the pinnacle of a career that quickly faded. Culpepper was limited to seven games in 2005 due to injury and never again played in more than eight during a season as he moved around to three more teams and, eventually, the UFL.

Likewise, Joey Harrington never lived up to his promise. He, too, achieved career highs in 2004 in passing yards (3047) and touchdowns (19) but failed to meet expectations in ’05 and was dealt to Miami – where he became a teammate of Culpepper.   

December 18, 2012

1949: Eagles Defeat Rams in Quagmire for NFL Championship

The Philadelphia Eagles had won the 1948 NFL title in a game played amidst blizzard conditions. On December 18, 1949 they were once again playing for the league championship while facing extreme weather. The Eagles, under Head Coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, were an even better club than in ’48. They repeated as Eastern Division champs with an 11-1 record, leading the NFL both in points scored (364) and fewest points surrendered (134). The key to the offense was star HB Steve Van Buren (pictured above), who won his fourth league rushing title in five years with a record 1146 yards. QB Tommy Thompson was a fine passer and had an able receiving corps in ends Pete Pihos, Jack Ferrante, and Neill Armstrong.  Neale’s innovative 5-2-4 defense was highly effective.

The winners of the Western Division were the Los Angeles Rams, who went 8-2-2. Head Coach Clark Shaughnessy was one of the architects of the T-formation and fashioned a high-scoring offense. Veteran QB Bob Waterfield was joined by rookie Norm Van Brocklin and HB Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was moved out to flanker where he joined ends Tom Fears and Bob Shaw to create an exciting and productive passing attack. However, after winning their first six games they lost badly at Philadelphia and struggled through the remainder of the schedule.

Heavy rains struck Los Angeles the previous day and continued through the Sunday of the title game, dumping some three inches of rain on Los Angeles and making the field at the Memorial Coliseum a sea of mud. A record crowd was expected to attend the contest in the cavernous stadium, but the heavy downpour limited attendance to a disappointing 22,245 – a particular disappointment to the players, who were looking forward to a large gate with healthy shares going to the winning team.  Thus, there were players, and for that matter fans, who wanted to see the game postponed a week, but it went on as scheduled.

With conditions that essentially grounded the offenses, neither team scored in the opening period. In the second quarter, the Eagles put together a 63-yard drive. Tommy Thompson completed passes to Jack Ferrante that gained 11 and 16 yards, respectively, and then hit Pete Pihos from 31 yards out, who made a leaping grab at the 15 and proceeded unmolested into the end zone. Cliff Patton’s extra point attempt was successful and the defending champs held a 7-0 lead at the half.

Philadelphia added to its lead in the third quarter. With the Rams backed up to their 10 yard line, a punt by Bob Waterfield was blocked by DE Leo Skladany who then managed to gain possession of the ball that had rolled back to the two and cross the goal line for another TD. It was a career highlight for Skladany, a rookie who was playing semipro football until signed by the Eagles during the season when star DE Johnny Green went down with an injury. Once again Patton added the PAT.

The Rams only threatened twice, reaching the Philadelphia 25 and 37 yard lines, but came up empty. A field goal try by Waterfield from 45 yards sailed wide. Likewise, the Eagles had an opportunity to add to their margin but HB Jim Parmer fumbled the ball away at the LA 7. The key to the game was Philadelphia’s ability to run the ball effectively and thus control time of possession as well as being able to shut the Rams down defensively. The Eagles won their second consecutive title by a score of 14-0.

Philadelphia’s domination was complete. The Eagles ran far more plays (70 to 51), gained more total yards (342 to 109), and had more first downs (17 to 7). The Rams didn’t make a first down on a running play and set a team record for lowest rushing yardage in a title game (21 yards on 24 carries). Philadelphia, on the other hand, did the opposite (274 yards on 61 attempts).

Steve Van Buren was the game’s dominant player, gaining a postseason-record 196 yards on 31 carries (it remained the NFL standard until 1975). Tommy Thompson threw just 9 passes and completed 5 for 68 yards and a touchdown along with two interceptions. Jack Ferrante was the only Eagle to catch more than one pass, with two for 27 yards, although Pete Pihos was the receiving yardage leader with 31 on his lone reception for a TD.

For the Rams, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin combined for 10 completions in 27 attempts for 98 yards and one interception. Four receivers caught two passes apiece, with tackle Dick Huffman the leader in yards with 26. The anemic ground game was led by HB Fred Gehrke who gained 13 yards on three attempts – FB Dick Hoerner had 7 carries, for just 10 yards.

“My boys did their best,” summed up Clark Shaughnessy. “I can’t think of a single change I would make if the game were played again.”

The win over the Rams made the Eagles the first back-to-back NFL Champions since the 1940-41 Bears and crowned a run in which they topped the Eastern Division for three straight years. They dropped to 6-6 and third place in the revamped American Conference in 1950 primarily as the result of injuries (particularly to Van Buren) – and the arrival of the Cleveland Browns from the AAFC. Philadelphia would not win another title until 1960. The Rams, on the other hand, made it back to the Championship game in each of the next two seasons, winning in 1951 and tying for first place in the National Conference in ’52. 

December 16, 2012

1972: Brodie Comes Off Bench to Lead 49ers Past Vikings

The 1972 NFL season had been a rough one for 37-year-old QB John Brodie of the San Francisco 49ers (pictured at right). After leading the club to appearances in the NFC Championship game in each of the previous two seasons, he had suffered an ankle injury in Week 5 and missed the next eight games. Even after he was able to play again, he remained on the bench as backup to Steve Spurrier, the sixth-year quarterback-in-waiting who had performed ably in Brodie’s absence. Head Coach Dick Nolan’s team was 7-5-1 and trying to nail down a third consecutive NFC West title going into the last game of the season against the Vikings on December 16.

Minnesota, coached by Bud Grant, was having a down year after going to the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons. The return of QB Fran Tarkenton following a five-year sojourn with the Giants had been offset by the decline of the once-stellar defense. The Vikings were 7-6 and had already been eliminated from playoff contention.

It was rainy and the artificial surface wet for the Saturday game at Candlestick Park. Things started off rough for the 49ers when HB Vic Washington, after catching a pass from Spurrier, fumbled and LB Jeff Siemon recovered for the Vikings. However, Minnesota failed to capitalize when Fred Cox was wide on a 33-yard field goal attempt.

Later in the first quarter, the Vikings got another opportunity on a San Francisco turnover and made the most of it. FB Ken Willard fumbled the ball away and CB Charlie West picked it up and returned it to the 49ers’ 16 yard line. Three plays later, Tarkenton completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to RB Ed Marinaro for his first pro touchdown.

Vic Washington responded with a 56-yard kickoff return that gave the Niners good starting field position. They parlayed it into a 14-yard Bruce Gossett field goal early in the second quarter. That was it for the scoring until near the end of the period when Gossett added another field goal, from 37 yards, that narrowed the tally to 7-6 at the half.

In the third quarter, the Vikings capitalized on an interception by Siemon. It set up a 31-yard scoring pass from Tarkenton to WR John Gilliam. Spurrier, who was clearly struggling, tossed a third interception and John Brodie began warming up on the sidelines.

Brodie came into the contest with under two minutes remaining in the third quarter and the 49ers trailing by 17-6. He showed rust when he threw two interceptions that aborted promising drives. The first series went 64 yards, starting off with a short completion to Gene Washington, but ended when FS Paul Krause picked off a pass at the goal line. Following the second interception, the Vikings were unable to move the ball but Mike Eischeid’s punt went out of bounds at the San Francisco one yard line.

The 49ers proceeded to drive 99 yards in six plays. Brodie completed a 12-yard pass to HB John Isenbarger and connected with Gene Washington for a big 53-yard gain. A throw to Vic Washington moved the ball eight more yards to the Minnesota 24 and, after another pass was incomplete, Brodie again connected with Gene Washington, this time for a touchdown.

In response, the Vikings held the ball for over five minutes before the 49ers regained possession at their 34 following a punt with 1:30 left on the clock. Again Brodie went to the air, hitting RB Larry Schreiber for nine yards and Vic Washington for eight. A pass interference penalty on Siemon put the ball at the Vikings’ 26. The 49ers tried a trick play as Brodie lateraled to Isenbarger, whose long pass was broken up by Krause at the goal line, and then Schreiber ran for six yards on a draw play. With time running down, Brodie completed a throw to Vic Washington for an 18-yard gain to the Minnesota two. Following two more incompletions, Brodie, who was rolling to his right on third down, found TE Dick Witcher all alone in the end zone for the go-ahead TD.

The Vikings had time to drive into field goal range and potentially tie the contest, but Cox’s 43-yard attempt on the last play failed. The 49ers came away winners by a score of 20-17.

San Francisco outgained the Vikings (383 yards to 273) and had the edge in first downs (18 to 17). However, the 49ers hurt themselves with seven turnovers, to two by Minnesota. The Vikings, in turn, hurt themselves with key penalties – they were flagged six times at a cost of 67 yards, to three penalties called on San Francisco. The Niners also sacked Tarkenton four times for 48 yards.

John Brodie, in his slightly more than a quarter of action, completed 10 of 15 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Steve Spurrier was successful on 7 of 14 throws for 76 yards with none for scores and three picked off. Gene Washington had a big day with four catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Vic Washington, in addition to rushing for 43 yards on 10 carries and returning two kickoffs for 78 yards, also caught four passes for 36 yards. Larry Schreiber was San Francisco’s leading rusher with 67 yards on 12 attempts.

For the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton completed just 11 of 25 passes for 144 yards with two TDs and two intercepted. John Gilliam caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. Ed Marinaro, the former Cornell star, led the club with 70 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for 22 yards and a TD, but also ran out of bounds on a fourth quarter carry when the Vikings were trying to run time off the clock. Likewise, Jeff Siemon had a big day on defense with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, but also was guilty of a key penalty on San Francisco’s game-winning drive.

“John (Brodie) came off the bench and did a great job,” said an appreciative Dick Nolan. “I can’t say anything more. He was our shot in the arm.”

The win clinched San Francisco’s third straight NFC West title with an 8-5-1 record. Brodie started the Divisional playoff game against Dallas, which ultimately was lost thanks to an exciting fourth quarter comeback by the Cowboys. The Vikings ended up in third place in the NFC Central at 7-7.

Adding in his numbers from the early part of the season, John Brodie completed 70 of 110 passes (63.6 %) for 905 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. As his late-game heroics against the Vikings showed, he was capable of outstanding performances during his long, 17-year career with the 49ers that finally came to an end in 1973. That he could not perform so well with greater consistency marked the up-and-down nature of his tenure and kept him from being regarded as a great quarterback.