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).