December 31, 2013

1972: Griese Leads Dolphins to Win Over Steelers for AFC Championship

The Miami Dolphins had gone undefeated through the regular season and were looking to move on to the Super Bowl as they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC Championship on December 31, 1972. The Dolphins had immediately benefited from the arrival of Don Shula as head coach in 1970, reaching the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and topping the AFC in ’71. It seemed as though they would be in trouble when star QB Bob Griese (pictured above) went down with a broken ankle in the fifth game, but 38-year-old backup Earl Morrall stepped in and the club kept winning. The ball control offense set a league record with 2960 rushing yards and bulldozing FB Larry Csonka and fleet HB Eugene “Mercury” Morris both reached the thousand-yard mark. When the Dolphins needed to go to the air, WR Paul Warfield was one of the best deep threats in the league. The “No-Name” defense in reality had plenty of outstanding players, including pass rushing ends Bill Stanfill and Vern Den Herder, MLB Nick Buoniconti, and the excellent safety tandem of Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. After going 14-0, Miami won a tough AFC Divisional battle over the Browns to reach the conference title game.

The Steelers, coached by Chuck Noll, were an up-and-coming club that was in the postseason for the first time since 1947. After going 11-3 during the regular season to top the AFC Central, Pittsburgh won a hard-fought Divisional round game over the Raiders thanks to an astonishing play – the “Immaculate Reception” – scored by FB Franco Harris. Harris had rushed for 1055 yards as a rookie while third-year QB Terry Bradshaw continued his development. The defense was especially strong, with an outstanding line anchored by DT “Mean Joe” Greene, a fine pair of outside linebackers in Jack Ham and Andy Russell, and a group of backs that included a rising star in CB Mel Blount. A source of concern coming into the game, however, was that several of the players were battling the flu, including Bradshaw.

There were over 50,000 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium on a 63-degree day in Pittsburgh. The Dolphins had the first possession and it ended with SS Glen Edwards intercepting an overthrown Earl Morrall pass that he returned 28 yards to the Miami 48. Pittsburgh moved methodically in ten plays, with Franco Harris carrying on the first four and seven times overall for 35 yards. Facing third-and-two at the Miami three, Terry Bradshaw ran around left end but fumbled into the end zone when hit by Jake Scott. OT Gerry Mullins recovered for a touchdown and, with Roy Gerela adding the extra point, the Steelers had the early 7-0 lead. However, Bradshaw was shaken up on the play and Terry Hanratty came in at quarterback when Pittsburgh next had the ball.

The teams exchanged punts and, as the first quarter ended, the Dolphins had a first down at their 46 after a Morrall throw to TE Marv Fleming picked up 15 yards. The series stalled at the Pittsburgh 42, but Larry Seiple, lined up to punt, caught the Steelers napping and instead took off and ran 37 yards to the 12 (pictured below). Two plays later, Morrall threw to Larry Csonka for a nine-yard TD and Garo Yepremian added the extra point to tie the score. Neither team was able to get out of its end of the field for the remainder of the half as they traded punts and failed at connecting on long passes. The score remained 7-7 at the half.

Pittsburgh took the second half kickoff and drove into Miami territory. On third-and-13, Hanratty completed a pass to TE John McMakin for 22 yards and followed up with a throw to WR Ron Shanklin for 24 yards to the Miami 37. The Steelers got another big gain, this time on a draw play as HB John “Frenchy” Fuqua ran for another 24 yards. The series finally stalled at the seven and Gerela booted a 14-yard field goal to put Pittsburgh back in front by 10-7.

When the Miami offense came on the field, Bob Griese was at quarterback, making his first appearance since suffering the injury in Week 5. After two short running plays, Griese went to the air and connected with Paul Warfield for a 52-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 24. The Dolphins got a huge break when LB Jack Ham intercepted a pass that was nullified by an offside penalty on the Steelers. The series continued and ended after 80 yards and 11 plays with HB Jim Kiick taking a pitchout and running two yards for a touchdown. Yepremian added the PAT and Miami was on top by 14-10.

The teams exchanged punts to finish off the third quarter. Pittsburgh had good field position to start the final period at the Miami 48 following a 33-yard Seiple punt. Harris ran for seven yards but then Hanratty threw two incomplete passes and a 48-yard field goal attempt by Gerela was blocked.

Taking over at the Pittsburgh 49, the Dolphins put together another scoring drive. Griese passed just once in the 11-play possession, as Csonka, Kiick, and Mercury Morris carried the load. Kiick again finished off the drive with a three-yard touchdown carry and Yepremian’s extra point made Miami’s lead 21-10.

Terry Bradshaw was back behind center for the Steelers as they took possession at their 29 following the kickoff. He wasted no time moving the team down the field, completing a nine-yard pass to TE Larry Brown and following up with consecutive 25-yard completions to WR Al Young and Shanklin. The fourth play was a 12-yard TD pass to Young and Gerela’s conversion cut the Miami lead to four points.

The Dolphins went three-and-out on their next series and had to punt. Bradshaw was tossed for a nine-yard loss, threw an incomplete pass, and then was intercepted by Nick Buoniconti. Miami was able to run the clock down to 48 seconds, turning the ball over on downs at the Pittsburgh nine. Two plays later, LB Mike Kolen intercepted Bradshaw’s last-gasp pass and the Dolphins were winners by a score of 21-17.

Miami had the edge in total yards (314 to 250), with 193 of that total coming on 49 running plays, and first downs (19 to 13). The Dolphins also recorded the only two sacks of the game on defense. The Steelers turned the ball over twice, late in the contest, while Miami suffered the one early turnover.

Bob Griese completed three of five passes for 70 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions after relieving Earl Morrall, who was 7-of-11 for 51 yards with a TD and an interception. Mercury Morris led the ground attack with 76 yards on 16 carries while Larry Csonka contributed 68 yards on 24 attempts and also scored on his one catch. Jim Kiick (pictured above) gained just 12 yards on 8 carries, but two were good for TDs. Marv Fleming caught 5 passes for 50 yards and Paul Warfield, thanks to his one long reception on Griese’s first throw, gained 63 yards on his two catches.

For the Steelers, both Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty were successful on 5 of 10 passes, with Bradshaw tossing for one TD while giving up the two late interceptions while Hanratty’s completions gained 57 yards. Franco Harris ran for 76 yards on 16 attempts. Al Young was the team’s top receiver with four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown.

Miami, with Bob Griese starting at quarterback, went on to crown its undefeated season with a win in the Super Bowl over the Washington Redskins. The Dolphins won a third consecutive AFC Championship in 1973 and again won the Super Bowl. The Steelers were a 10-4 Wild Card team in ’73, losing to Oakland in the Divisional playoff round, but would succeed Miami as the NFL’s top team with back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 1974 and ’75.

December 30, 2013

MVP Profile: Priest Holmes, 2002

Running Back, Kansas City Chiefs

Age: 29 (Oct. 7)
6th season in pro football, 2nd with Chiefs
College: Texas
Height: 5’9”   Weight: 205

Holmes was undrafted coming out of college and signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens for 1997. He spent his rookie year on special teams but got an opportunity to move into the starting lineup during the ’98 season and gained 1008 rushing yards, including 227 in a single game, while also catching 43 passes for another 260 yards. Inconsistency and a knee injury cut into Holmes’ playing time in 1999 and there were concerns that he lacked adequate size to fit in a power-running attack. The arrival of rookie RB Jamal Lewis in 2000 relegated Holmes to a backup role and he contributed 588 rushing yards to Baltimore’s Super Bowl-winning season. Cast off by the Ravens, he moved on to the Chiefs as a free agent for 2001 and, proving to be a good fit in the offense with his skill as both a runner and receiver, rushed for a NFL-leading 1555 yards and, with another 614 yards on 62 pass receptions, also led the league with 2169 all-purpose yards. He received consensus-first team All-NFL honors as well as being selected to the Pro Bowl.

2002 Season Summary
Appeared and started in 14 of 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 313 [7]
Most attempts, game - 31 (for 104 yds.) vs. Buffalo 11/17
Yards – 1615 [3]
Most yards, game – 197 yards (on 23 carries) at Seattle 11/24
Average gain – 5.2 [6]
TDs – 21 [1]
100-yard rushing games – 9

Pass Receiving
Receptions – 70      
Most receptions, game – 9 (for 81 yds.) at NY Jets 10/6
Yards – 672
Most yards, game - 110 (on 7 catches) at Seattle 11/24
Average gain – 9.6
TDs – 3
100-yard receiving games – 1

Attempts – 1
Completions – 0
Yards – 0
TD passes – 0
Interceptions – 0

All-Purpose yards – 2287 [2, 1st in AFC]

TDs – 24 [1]
Points – 144 [1]

Awards & Honors:
NFL Offensive Player of the Year: AP
1st team All-NFL: AP, PFWA, Sporting News
1st team All-AFC: Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Chiefs went 8-8 to finish fourth in the AFC West while leading the NFL in scoring (467 points) and touchdowns (57).

Holmes missed the last two games of the 2002 season with a hip injury, but following off-season surgery he had another big year in 2003. He rushed for 1420 yards, caught a career-high 74 passes for 690 yards, and broke the NFL single-season record for touchdowns with 27. He was a consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl selection for the third straight year. Holmes was off to another fine year in 2004 before a knee injury felled him halfway through – he was leading the league in rushing (892 yards) and TDs (14) before being shelved after eight games. A spinal injury limited him to seven games in ’05 and he missed all of 2006. Holmes returned during the 2007 season and appeared in four games before a neck injury forced his retirement. Overall, Holmes rushed for 8172 yards on 1780 carries (4.6 avg.) and caught 339 passes for 2962 yards, scoring a total of 94 touchdowns.


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). Also includes Associated Press NFL Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

[Updated 11/30/14]

December 29, 2013

1979: Bucs Beat Eagles for First Postseason Win

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been a source of derision when they debuted at 0-14 in 1976, but three years later the laughter subsided as the Bucs rode a 6-0 start to an overall record of 10-6, placing them atop the NFC Central. On December 29, 1979 they faced the Philadelphia Eagles in the first postseason game in franchise history.

Coached by John McKay, the Buccaneers featured the league’s best defense, both overall and against the pass. Utilizing a 3-4 alignment, the solid unit was anchored by formidable DE Lee Roy Selmon. The ball-control offense operated behind a good line, which was a big help to second-year QB Doug Williams as well as FB Ricky Bell (pictured above), who rushed for 1263 yards. Still, there was a perception that Tampa Bay had taken advantage of a relatively easy schedule and not much was expected in the postseason.

The Eagles were in the playoffs for the second straight year under Head Coach Dick Vermeil, having placed second in the NFC East with an 11-5 tally and securing a Wild Card spot. Ever-improving QB Ron Jaworski directed the attack that featured HB Wilbert Montgomery and WR Harold Carmichael. The defense had lost star ILB Bill Bergey to a knee injury but benefited from the arrival of rookie OLB Jerry Robinson. Philadelphia had rallied past the Bears in the first playoff round to earn the trip to Tampa for a NFC Divisional playoff game.

It was a sunny and pleasant day at Tampa Stadium with a sellout crowd of 72,126 in attendance. The Buccaneers set the tone with their first possession, driving 80 yards in 18 plays. Doug Williams completed passes to TE Jim Giles for 18 and 16 yards and Ricky Bell ran the ball effectively. It was Bell sweeping around end from four yards out for a touchdown that finished the series and, with Neil O’Donoghue’s extra point, the home team was ahead by 7-0.

The teams traded punts before the Eagles mounted a threat during a possession that extended into the second quarter. While facing a heavy pass rush, Ron Jaworski still managed to complete a throw to TE Keith Krepfle for 12 yards on a third-and-11 play, but when the series stalled and the Eagles lined up for a field goal attempt while facing fourth-and-four at the Tampa Bay 30, holder John Sciarra took off on a fake for a seven-yard gain, only to have it called back due to a delay-of-game penalty. With the ball set back five yards, Tony Franklin tried to kick a field goal for real from 52 yards and it fell short.

The Bucs followed up with a 10-play, 43-yard drive. On second-and-12, Williams threw to WR Larry Mucker for 34 yards to the Philadelphia 33. After Bell and HB Jerry Eckwood carried the ball for a total of nine yards, Bell converted a fourth-and-one with a five-yard run. Two plays later, Williams connected with WR Isaac Hagins for 26 yards. A holding penalty backed Tampa Bay up and a pass to Giles in the end zone was controversially ruled incomplete due to the receiver not having control of the ball before stepping out of bounds. O’Donoghue kicked a 40-yard field goal and the Buccaneers still increased their lead to 10-0.

The Bucs got a break when Wilbert Montgomery fumbled at his own five yard line and MG Randy Crowder recovered. It took four plays, but Bell blasted into the end zone from a yard out on fourth-and-goal and, with O’Donoghue’s kick, the score was 17-0. Philadelphia appeared in danger of being routed.

Following a short series and punt, the Eagles got a big defensive play when Jerry Robinson intercepted a Williams pass and returned it 37 yards to the Tampa Bay 11 with 1:37 left in the half. Two plays later, Jaworski threw to WR Charlie Smith for an 11-yard TD and, with Franklin adding the PAT, the score was 17-7 at halftime.

Philadelphia further narrowed the Bucs’ lead with the first possession of the third quarter. A long completion to Harold Carmichael was nullified by a clipping penalty, but with Montgomery running for 20 yards on three carries, the Eagles reached the Tampa Bay 25 and Franklin booted a 42-yard field goal that made it a seven-point game.

After an exchange of punts, the Eagles again advanced into Tampa Bay territory thanks to a Jaworski-to-Montgomery pass completion that gained 30 yards. But after reaching the 38, Lee Roy Selmon sacked Jaworski on back-to-back plays for a total loss of 20 yards and Philadelphia had to punt.

Heading into the fourth quarter, both teams went three-and-out and punted before the Bucs put together a critical scoring drive of 57 yards in nine plays. Bell had a 26-yard run on a third-and-two play and Williams converted a third-and-four situation by rolling out and keeping the ball himself for an eight-yard gain to the Philadelphia nine. From there, Williams rifled a throw to Giles (pictured above) for a touchdown and, adding on the extra point, the Buccaneers had a formidable a 14-point lead.

With seven minutes left to play, Jaworski filled the air with passes on the next series. A pass interference penalty picked up 20 yards and a fourth-and-five throw to Krepfle was good for six yards. The Eagles converted another fourth down when Jaworski connected with Smith for 13 yards and then a pass to Carmichael resulted in a 37-yard touchdown. Franklin’s conversion made it a seven-point game once more.

The Eagles attempted an onside kick that went out of bounds, but the rookie placekicker Franklin chose to try again and the second kick was recovered by the Buccaneers and gave them possession at their own 48 – much to the fury of Coach Vermeil, who had instructed Franklin to kick deep. The Bucs punted, but the Eagles had to start deep in their territory for one last opportunity with the clock down to 2:11. Jaworski threw to Carmichael for 16 yards and, on fourth-and-15, to Smith for 25 yards to the Tampa Bay 45. But that was as far as the visitors could get. Heavily pressured by the inspired defense on each play, Jaworski threw four straight incomplete passes and the Buccaneers were winners by a final score of 24-17.

Tampa Bay had the edge in total yards (318 to 227) and first downs (17 to 15). The Bucs ground out 186 yards of their total on 55 running plays, while the Eagles managed just 48 yards on 18 attempts. Each team turned the ball over once. The Tampa Bay defense was fired up and displayed uncharacteristic emotion throughout the game.

Ricky Bell rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, setting a NFL playoff record with 38 carries (broken by Lamar Smith of the Dolphins in 2000). Doug Williams went to the air just 15 times and, while he had only 7 completions, they were good for 132 yards and a TD, with one interception. He also ran the ball 6 times for 19 yards. Jim Giles was Tampa Bay’s top receiver with three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Lee Roy Selmon (pictured above, closing in on Ron Jaworski) had the two key sacks on defense and, along with DE Wally Chambers, was consistently disruptive.

For the Eagles, Ron Jaworski was successful on a mere 15 of 39 throws for 199 yards and two touchdowns with none intercepted. Wilbert Montgomery had 35 yards on 13 carries and gained another 35 yards on his team-leading four pass receptions. Harold Carmichael contributed 92 yards on his three catches that included a TD.

The Bucs hosted the NFC Championship game against the Rams, where the run ended in a 9-0 defeat. They dropped to 5-10-1 in 1980, but returned to the postseason in ’81. Philadelphia recovered to go 12-4 in 1980 and reach the Super Bowl, falling to the Raiders.

December 28, 2013

1952: Lions Defeat Browns for NFL Championship

The Detroit Lions traveled to Cleveland to take on the Browns for the NFL Championshi p on December 28, 1952. The Lions, who had last achieved a league title 17 years before, had started off slowly with two losses in their first three games, but then won eight of their last nine contests to finish tied with the Rams atop the National Conference with a 9-3 record. Head Coach Buddy Parker’s club had a fine offense directed by QB Bobby Layne and featuring HB Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer, veteran FB Pat Harder, and end Cloyce Box, and they had versatile Doak Walker available at halfback, who had missed most of the season due to injury. The defense was strong and tough, anchored by mammoth MG Les Bingaman and featuring an excellent secondary with halfbacks Jim David and Yale Lary and safeties Jack Christiansen and Don Doll. The Lions had defeated the Rams, defending NFL Champions, in the playoff to determine the conference’s representative for the NFL Championship game.

Cleveland, coached by Paul Brown, had yet to fail to reach a league title game in the franchise’s existence, either in the All-America Football Conference or, since 1950, the NFL. The Browns had finally lost one the previous year, to Los Angeles, but again topped the American Conference at 8-4. QB Otto Graham continued to direct the offense with skill, FB Marion Motley was productive after coming back from a knee injury, and the defense was solid behind DE Len Ford and MG Bill Willis. However, they had lost to the Lions during the regular season, and were without key players in end Mac Speedie and HB Dub Jones due to injuries.

There were 50,934 fans in attendance at Municipal Stadium. The first quarter was scoreless, with both teams missing field goals – Cleveland’s Lou Groza from 29 yards and Pat Harder of the Lions from 38 yards out.

Late in the opening period, a bad punt by Cleveland’s Horace Gillom that traveled only 22 yards gave the Lions good field position at the 50. Bobby Layne threw to Cloyce Box for ten yards and then kept the ball himself and ran 13 yards with the help of an outstanding block by Pat Harder on Len Ford. Four plays into the second quarter, end Bill Swiacki caught a pass for a 14-yard gain that reached the Cleveland two. A penalty backed Detroit up five yards, but after Walker made it back to the two on a sweep, Layne sneaked over from there for a touchdown. Harder successfully added the extra point and the Lions were in front by 7-0.

On the next series, Gillom made up for his earlier shank with a 62-yard punt that pinned the Lions back at their 12 and they stayed holed up in their own territory for the remainder of the half. The Browns failed to take advantage, however, as Groza missed two more field goal attempts in the second quarter, from 44 yards and then, with ten seconds remaining, from 47 yards. The score remained unchanged at halftime.

The Browns took the second half kickoff and drove to the Detroit 25, but a pass by Graham that went off HB Ken Carpenter’s fingers was intercepted by Jim David to end the threat. Midway through the third quarter, the Lions got the ball at their 30 following a punt by the Browns. Two plays later, after a four-yard carry by Harder, Walker broke through the line and ran 67 yards for a TD.

Now down by 14-0, the Browns got back into the game with a 68-yard scoring drive that took 12 plays. Graham completed two passes to end Dante Lavelli and once each to Gillom, HB Ray Renfro, and end Pete Brewster along the way, and FB Harry “Chick” Jagade (pictured at left) ran effectively, running for the final seven yards and a touchdown. Groza’s extra point halved the Detroit lead at 14-7.

Twice in the fourth quarter, the Browns drove inside the Detroit 10 and came up empty. First, early in the period Marion Motley ran 42 yards to the five yard line. However, the home team moved backward from that point as the Lions came through with big defensive plays. Motley was tossed for a five-yard loss by Don Doll and Graham was sacked twice for losses totaling 13 yards. A fourth-down pass was batted down by LB Dick Flanagan to end the threat.

The Lions got a break when a punt was muffed by Carpenter and LB Jim Martin recovered at the Cleveland 23. It resulted in a series that ended when Harder kicked a 36-yard field goal. Layne briefly fumbled the snap for the kick but was able to get it down in time and the visitors were ahead by ten points.

Graham passed the Browns back down the field before Motley ran for 15 yards to the Detroit eight. Again the Lions stiffened on defense, and a fourth down pass went through Renfro’s hands at the goal line. While the ball was caught by Brewster in the end zone, no defender had touched it in between and, under the rules at that time, it was an illegal catch and, thus, incomplete. That was the last gasp for the Browns as Detroit won by a final score of 17-7.

Cleveland dominated the game statistically, outgaining the Lions by 384 yards to 258 and compiling 22 first downs to Detroit’s 10. 227 of the Browns’ yardage total came on the ground, to 199 for Detroit. However, the Browns turned the ball over twice, to none suffered by the Lions, and Detroit recorded four sacks to one by Cleveland. Detroit’s pass rush, led by DE Jim Doran, was effective and harassed Otto Graham throughout the contest in addition to the sacks.

Bobby Layne didn’t throw often but was efficient when he did, completing 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and no touchdowns, but also none intercepted. In addition, he ran the ball for 47 yards and a TD on 9 carries. With the long scoring carry, Doak Walker (pictured at right) compiled 97 rushing yards on 10 attempts. Walker and Pat Harder each caught two passes, with Harder’s 18 yards leading the club. Cloyce Box was used mostly as a decoy throughout the contest, most notably drawing two defenders on Walker’s touchdown run, and was limited to one catch for 10 yards.

For the Browns, Otto Graham was successful on 20 of 35 throws for 191 yards and had one intercepted. Chick Jagade ran for 104 yards on 15 carries that included a TD and Marion Motley contributed 74 yards on six attempts. HB Rex Bumgardner, Ray Renfro, and Dante Lavelli each hauled in four passes, for 43, 26, and 33 yards, respectively, while Pete Brewster gained 53 yards on his two receptions. Lou Groza had a rough day, missing all three of his field goal attempts.

The game marked the first of three straight meetings between the Lions and Browns for the NFL Championship. Detroit won again in 1953 by the narrowest of margins and the Browns routed the Lions in ’54.

December 27, 2013

Rookie of the Year: Derrick Thomas, 1989

Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

Age: 22
College: Alabama
Height: 6’3”   Weight: 234

Thomas received the 1988 Butkus Award after recording a NCAA-record 27 sacks in 11 games. The Chiefs, who as a team had compiled just 23 sacks in 16 games and were in need of help at outside linebacker, chose him in the first round (fourth overall) of the ’89 NFL draft. He moved directly into the starting lineup and had an immediate impact.

1989 Season Summary
Appeared and started in all 16 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Sacks – 10 [20, tied with four others]
Most sacks, game – 2.5 vs. LA Raiders 9/17
Multi-sack games (2 or more) – 2
Interceptions – 0
Fumble recoveries – 1
Forced fumbles – 3
Tackles – 75

Awards & Honors:
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: AP, PFWA
AFC Rookie of the Year: UPI
1st team All-AFC: UPI, Pro Football Weekly
Pro Bowl

Chiefs went 8-7-1 to finish second in the AFC West while leading the conference in fewest yards allowed (4293) and fewest passing yards allowed (2527).

Thomas followed up his outstanding rookie year by leading the NFL with 20 sacks in 1990, including a record seven in one game. He also forced six fumbles and received consensus first-team All-NFL honors for the first of two consecutive seasons. With great speed and athleticism, opposing offenses were obliged to double-team him and he was at his best rushing opposing passers. Thomas was chosen to the Pro Bowl for nine straight years, through 1997 when a torn triceps cost him four games. He played two more seasons but died of complications from severe injuries sustained in an auto accident after the 1999 season at age 33. Overall, Thomas had 125.5 sacks, reaching double figures seven times, and forced 41 fumbles over the course of 11 seasons and 169 games, all played with Kansas City. The Chiefs retired his #58 and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2009.


Rookie of the Year Profiles feature players who were named Rookie of the Year in the NFL (including NFC/AFC), AFL (1960-69), or USFL (1983-85) by a recognized organization (Associated Press – Offense or Defense, Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, The Sporting News, or the league itself – Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year). 

December 26, 2013

1943: Luckman Leads Bears to NFL Championship Against Redskins

The Chicago Bears had topped the National Football League's Western Division for a fourth straight season as they hosted the Washington Redskins, defending league champions, to determine the NFL Championship on December 26, 1943. With George Halas, the owner and head coach, on active duty in the Navy due to World War II, the team was co-coached by assistants Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos. The wartime manpower depletion brought all-time great FB Bronko Nagurski out of retirement at age 34 after six years way from the game (he turned 35 during the season). But there was still plenty of talent available, starting with QB Sid Luckman (pictured above), who had a record-setting year in which he passed for 2194 yards and 28 touchdowns. Chicago compiled an 8-1-1 tally to once more play for the league title.

The Bears had been champions in 1940 and ’41, but were upset by Washington in 1942. The Redskins were coached by Dutch Bergman and had a 6-0-1 record after beating the Bears a month earlier. However, they lost their remaining three games to finish at 6-3-1 and tied with the Giants, who had beaten them in the last two regular season contests, for first in the Eastern Division. They defeated New York soundly by a 28-0 score in the tie-breaking playoff for the opportunity to defend their title against the powerful Bears. Washington had a great passer of its own in tailback Sammy Baugh, who placed second to Luckman in passing yards (1754) and TD passes (23) while also leading the league with 11 interceptions as a safety on defense.

There were 34,320 fans in attendance at Wrigley Field for the NFL title clash. In the first quarter, the Bears drove to the Washington 29 but got no further after four straight passes were incomplete. The Redskins in turn advanced to the Chicago 24 but also came away empty due to an interception. However, he Redskins ran into a major problem early when Baugh was kicked in the head and sat out the remainder of the first half.

Still, Washington put together a seven-play scoring drive following a 10-yard punt return by tailback George Cafego to the Redskins’ 40. Wingback Wilbur Moore made a sensational leaping grab of a pass from Cafego for a 35-yard gain and another throw intended for end Joe Aguirre drew an interference penalty that put the ball on the Chicago one. FB Andy Farkas hit the line and came up short on the last play of the opening period, but started off the second quarter by making it through the line standing up for a touchdown. Bob Masterson kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

The Bears came right back in four plays from their 33 yard line. Sid Luckman threw to HB Ray “Scooter” McLean for 29 yards and a screen pass to HB Harry Clarke was good for a 31-yard TD. Bob Snyder added the extra point to even the score.

Following a short possession by the Redskins that resulted in a punt, Chicago advanced 69 yards for another score. With a mix of runs and passes, the Bears gained four first downs along the way before Bronko Nagurski plowed over tackle for a touchdown. Snyder again kicked the extra point and the score was 14-7 at the half.

In a bizarre development, Washington owner George Preston Marshall, angry at the rough play on Chicago’s part, wandered over to the Bears’ bench before the half and was confronted by members of the Chicago staff, who accused him of attempting to spy on the Bears, before being escorted away.

In the third quarter, Luckman made a big play on defense by intercepting a Cafego pass and returning it 25 yards to the Washington 36. Luckman immediately threw to HB Dante Magnani (pictured below) for a 36-yard TD. Shortly thereafter, Luckman intercepted another pass to give the Bears the ball at their own 37. Once again, the Bears capitalized immediately on the turnover with Luckman tossing a screen pass to Magnani who again went the distance for a 66-yard touchdown. Snyder missed the extra point this time, but the Bears had a twenty-point lead thanks to the quick scores following the turnovers.

Still in the third quarter, but behind by 27-7, Baugh returned but appeared to be dazed and was not in top form. Nevertheless, he passed the Redskins into position for a score and Farkas had a catch for a 17-yard TD. With Masterson’s extra point, Chicago’s margin was narrowed to 27-14.

It didn’t remain narrowed for long, and any glimmers of hope for the visitors were extinguished when the Bears took the ensuing short kickoff that gave them good field position at their own 44 and drove to another score in eight plays. Nagurski twice ran for first downs and Luckman completed the series with a lob into the end zone to end Jim Benton for a 29-yard TD.

Another Chicago series culminated in Clarke making an outstanding catch and falling into the end zone for another touchdown on a play that covered 10 yards after Luckman, rolling out far to his right, threw across the field to him. The game was a route now, with the Bears comfortably leading by 41-14.

In the closing minutes, Baugh threw to Aguirre for a 20-yard TD, but it hardly mattered. The Bears were NFL Champions for the third time in four seasons by a convincing score of 41-21.

Chicago dominated in total yards (455 to 249) and compiled more first downs (14 to 11). The Bears accumulated 169 yards on the ground, to just 50 in 27 tries for Washington, and gained 286 net yards through the air against 199 for the Redskins. Most critically, Washington turned the ball over six times to devastating effect, while the Bears suffered no turnovers.

Sid Luckman had a brilliant all-around performance, completing 15 of 26 passes for 286 yards and five touchdowns with none intercepted, running for 64 yards on 8 carries, and intercepting two passes on defense that led to critical scores. Dante Magnani had four catches for 122 yards and two TDs and Bronko Nagurski (pictured below), in his last game, rushed for 34 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

For the Redskins, Sammy Baugh was successful on 8 of 12 throws in limited play for 123 yards and two TDs while tossing one interception. George Cafego completed just three of his 12 passes for 76 yards and no TDs while giving up three interceptions. Wilbur Moore had 5 catches for 108 yards and Andy Farkas paced the ground attack with 36 yards on 11 attempts that included a TD.

The Bears, who had compiled a 37-5-1 regular season record over four years, finally slipped to second place in 1944. They would next return to the Championship game in 1946. Washington dropped to third while transitioning from the single-wing to T-formation, but came back to top the division in 1945.

December 25, 2013

2006: Eagles Clinch Playoff Berth with Win Over Cowboys

The Philadelphia Eagles were looking to secure a playoff berth as they took on the division-leading Dallas Cowboys in a Christmas encounter on December 25, 2006. The Eagles, coached for the eighth season by Andy Reid, were stumbling along at 5-6 and appeared to be in more trouble when star QB Donovan McNabb went down with a torn ACL. But with veteran backup QB Jeff Garcia (pictured above) behind center and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg taking over the play-calling duties, Philadelphia won three straight games and was at 8-6 coming into the contest against the Cowboys.

Dallas, which had beaten the Eagles earlier in the season in Philadelphia, also started slowly but was 9-5 and leading the NFC East with six wins in its last eight games following the replacement of veteran QB Drew Bledsoe by unheralded Tony Romo, a 26-year-old backup who had been undrafted as a rookie in 2003. The offense was productive with the two-back tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber and an explosive receiving corps with wide receivers Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn plus TE Jamie Witten.

There were 62,839 fans in attendance for the Monday holiday game at Texas Stadium. The Cowboys had the game’s first possession but, after reaching the Philadelphia 40, had to punt. The Eagles started off with the ball at their own 11 and proceeded to put together a 13-play, 89-yard drive. Philadelphia converted four third downs along the way. Jeff Garcia completed a pass to WR Greg Lewis for 13 yards in a third-and-11 situation and RB Brian Westbrook had three straight runs for a total of 25 yards, the last a 16-yard gain on third-and-one. Garcia connected with TE L.J. Smith for 12 yards to the Dallas 37 on third-and-seven. Finally, after RB Correll Buckhalter converted a third-and-one with a three-yard carry, Garcia fired deep to TE Matt Schobel (pictured below) for a 25-yard touchdown. David Akers added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

The Eagles immediately got the ball back on the ensuing kickoff when WR Miles Austin, making the return, fumbled and CB Roderick Hood recovered at the Dallas 40. But three plays later CB Anthony Henry intercepted a Garcia pass and ran it back 37 yards to the Philadelphia 32. Tony Romo threw to WR Patrick Crayton for a 17-yard gain on a fourth-and-two play at the end of the period to give the Cowboys first-and-goal at the seven and, on the first play of the second quarter, Romo connected with TE Anthony Fasano for six yards to the one. But two straight plunges into the line by Marion Barber were stopped for no gain, and when Barber took a pitchout and tried to get around end on fourth-and-one, he was stopped for a three-yard loss by safety Quentin Mikell.

The Eagles responded to the successful goal line stand by driving 89 yards in 12 plays. Garcia immediately passed to WR Donte Stallworth for 35 yards and, with Buckhalter and Westbrook running the ball while Garcia completed three more passes, they ended up with an Akers field goal from 25 yards.

Down 10-0 with just over five minutes to play in the first half, the Cowboys put together a long scoring drive of their own that covered 81 yards in 10 plays. Romo completed five passes and scrambled for 16 yards along the way. The last completion was to Terrell Owens for a 14-yard TD. Martin Gramatica’s extra point made it a 10-7 contest with 36 seconds remaining on the clock.

The Eagles weren’t done, however, and following a 25-yard kickoff return by RB Reno Mahe, Westbrook ran for nine yards and Garcia gained an additional nine to the Dallas 47. A Garcia completion to Lewis for 16 yards set up a 45-yard Akers field goal on the last play before halftime and extended Philadelphia’s lead to 13-7.

The Eagles had the first possession in the third quarter and added to their lead, going 77 yards in seven plays. The highlight was a third-and-seven pass from Garcia to L.J. Smith down the middle that gained 65 yards to the Dallas 12. The Cowboys were able to keep the visitors out of the end zone, but Akers kicked another field goal, this time from 21 yards out, to make it 16-7.

The teams traded punts for the remainder of the period. Early in the fourth quarter, FS Brian Dawkins intercepted a long Romo pass in the end zone to snuff out a potential Dallas threat. The Eagles responded by driving 80 yards in 12 plays. Garcia completed short passes and scrambled twice for 23 yards and Westbrook and Buckhalter ran the ball effectively.  Buckhalter gained the last yard for a touchdown and Akers added the PAT. The Eagles were ahead by 16 points with under seven minutes remaining to play.

The game was effectively over. Romo immediately threw an interception on the Cowboys’ next play from scrimmage, and a last possession ended with Hood sacking Romo on a fourth-and-nine play in Dallas territory. Philadelphia won by a final score of 23-7 to nail down a spot in the postseason and take the lead in the NFC East.

The Eagles easily outdistanced Dallas in total yards (426 to 201) and had the edge in first downs (20 to 16). Philadelphia’s offensive production was well balanced, with 204 yards on the ground and 222 through the air. The Cowboys turned the ball over three times, to one suffered by the Eagles. The offensive output, both in terms of points and yardage, was the lowest of the season for Dallas.

Jeff Garcia completed 15 of 23 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown with one interception, and also ran for 43 yards on seven carries. Brian Westbrook (pictured at right) gained 122 yards on 26 rushing attempts while Correll Buckhalter added 38 yards and a TD on his 8 carries. Donte Stallworth and WR Reggie Brown each had three catches, for 51 and 27 yards, respectively, while L.J. Smith, with the one long gain, had 77 yards on his two receptions.

For the Cowboys, Tony Romo had a rough outing and was successful on 14 of 29 throws for 142 yards and a TD while tossing two interceptions and was the team’s leading rusher with 43 yards on three carries. TE Jason Witten caught 6 passes for 50 yards and RB Julius Jones ran for 38 yards on 10 attempts.

“There’s nothing good to say,” summed up Coach Parcells afterward. “We just didn’t make any plays at all, either side of the ball. Just awful.”

Despite the bad feelings engendered by the loss, followed by a defeat against Detroit in the season finale, the Cowboys still reached the postseason as a Wild Card by placing second in the NFC East with a 9-7 record. They lost to Seattle in the opening round. Philadelphia topped the division at 10-6 and defeated the Giants in the first round, but lost at New Orleans in a close Divisional contest.

Versatile Brian Westbrook gained a total of 1916 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 touchdowns. He rushed for 1217 yards on 240 carries (5.1 avg.) with seven TDs and caught a team-leading 77 passes, for 699 yards and four more scores.

Jeff Garcia completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns while tossing just two interceptions. His record as the starting quarterback was 5-1 to finish out the regular season, and he was 1-1 in the playoffs. Garcia moved on to Tampa Bay in the offseason.

Tony Romo showed great promise and earned selection to the Pro Bowl, although, as was evident in the game against the Eagles, his inexperience also was apparent as he had difficulties down the stretch. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2903 yards with 19 TDs against 13 interceptions – eight of which came in the last five contests.

December 24, 2013

1961: Oilers Repeat as AFL Champs with Win Over Chargers

The participating teams for the second American Football League Championship game on December 24, 1961 were the same that met in the inaugural contest the year before, although both had undergone notable changes. The San Diego Chargers, top team in the Western Division with a 12-2 record, had been based in Los Angeles in 1960. But after a year of low attendance and heavy financial loss, owner Barron Hilton shifted the club to San Diego. Coached by the innovative Sid Gillman, they still boasted a fine passing attack directed by QB Jack Kemp, who was also very mobile, and the running game was led by talented HB Paul Lowe. The defense was outstanding with the “Fearsome Foursome” of ends Earl Faison and Ron Nery and tackles Ernie Ladd and Bill Hudson manning the front line plus an excellent backfield that set a record with 49 interceptions during the season.

The defending champions, the Houston Oilers, had made a change at head coach. After getting off to a sluggish 1-3-1 start, Lou Rymkus was fired and replaced by Wally Lemm. The result was nine straight wins to finish out the regular season at 10-3-1 and again top the Eastern Division. 33-year-old QB George Blanda, who was briefly benched by Rymkus in the early going, set a record for touchdown passes with 36 during the regular season (which also exceeded the existing NFL standard). Flanker Charley Hennigan gained 1746 yards on his 82 pass receptions and split end Bill Groman caught 17 TD passes. HB Billy Cannon (pictured at top) led the AFL in rushing (948 yards) and all-purpose yards (2043). Houston also had a fine defensive line, led by DT Ed Husman and DE Don Floyd. The Oilers, who had beaten the Chargers by 20 points three weeks earlier, were favored by more than a touchdown in what was expected to be an offensive show.

There was a disappointing turnout of 29,556 fans in attendance at Balboa Stadium in San Diego. In the first quarter, the Oilers benefited from a turnover when Jack Kemp fumbled and Houston recovered at the San Diego 37. However, after reaching the 14 yard line, a Blanda pass was intercepted by CB Bud Whitehead, who returned it to the San Diego 48.

Now it was the Chargers with the momentum, and Kemp threw a screen pass to FB Keith Lincoln that picked up 13 yards. But on the next play, a long toss to the end zone was picked off by safety Fred Glick to end the threat. Later in the period, the Oilers again recovered a Kemp fumble, this time at the San Diego 24. After advancing five yards, Blanda lined up to attempt a field goal, but a bad snap was recovered by the Chargers. The first quarter, while eventful, remained scoreless.

The Oilers red-dogged with regularity on defense to disrupt San Diego’s passing attack. Ed Husman (pictured at left) was the most notable of the linemen who did so well at containing Kemp’s running as well as forcing him to rush his passes.

In the second quarter, San Diego’s Paul Maguire had trouble handling a bad snap from center in punt formation and kicked the ball a wobbly nine yards. Houston took over at the San Diego 39 and, while not able to move on offense, finally came up with points when Blanda kicked a 46-yard field goal four plays later.

The Oilers missed a scoring opportunity when, after driving 39 yards to the San Diego 22, Blanda again was picked off on a pass into the end zone, this time by safety Charlie McNeil. That was it for scoring chances in the second quarter until George Blair attempted a 44-yard field goal for the Chargers at the end of the half that was unsuccessful and the tally remained 3-0.

In the third quarter, Houston put together a sustained drive of 80 yards in nine plays. It concluded when Blanda, under pressure from San Diego’s pass rush, connected with Billy Cannon, who caught the ball at the 20 and went the distance for a 35-yard touchdown. Blanda added the extra point and the Oilers led by 10-0.

The Chargers finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter with a 12-yard Blair field goal. That series was set up by another McNeil interception, this time in Houston territory, and Kemp’s passing plus the running of HB Bo Roberson advanced the ball to the five yard line before having to kick.

With time running out, a 56-yard Jim Norton punt had the Chargers starting at their 37 in a final desperation drive. Kemp threw to FB Charlie Flowers for eight yards and Roberson for five more to reach midfield. A pass interference call on the Oilers moved San Diego to the Houston 38 with the clock down to one minute to play. But it all ended when DB Julian Spence intercepted a Kemp pass at the Houston 30, pulling the ball away from the intended target, TE Dave Kocurek. The Oilers repeated as AFL Champions by a surprisingly low final score of 10-3.

There were several altercations between players during the game, and afterward safety Bob Zeman appeared to go after one of the officials, while San Diego’s Coach Gillman launched a furious verbal assault at them as the participants left the field.

The teams were even with 256 total yards apiece while the Oilers had the edge in first downs with 18 to San Diego’s 15. Most notably, there were a total of 13 turnovers, with Houston giving up seven to six for the Chargers. Also (and likely adding to the fury of the Chargers toward the officials after the game), San Diego was penalized 10 times at a cost of 106 yards, to five flags thrown on the Oilers for 68 yards.

Billy Cannon was the game’s MVP as he rushed for 48 yards on 15 carries and caught 5 passes for 53 yards that included the only touchdown. George Blanda went to the air 40 times and completed 18 for 160 yards and a TD, but tossed 5 interceptions. FB Charley Tolar gained 52 yards on 16 rushing attempts and Charley Hennigan had 5 catches for 43 yards.

For the Chargers, Jack Kemp was successful on 17 of 32 throws for 226 yards while being intercepted four times. He also was well-contained, running for just five yards on four carries, and was sacked six times. Dave Kocurek caught 7 passes for 123 yards. Bo Roberson ran for 37 yards on 8 attempts and Paul Lowe gained 30 yards on five carries. Charlie McNeil (pictured at right), Bud Whitehead, and Bob Zeman each intercepted two passes apiece.

“Our pre-game strategy was to rush him (Kemp) early so he’d have to keep two backs to block,” explained Houston’s Coach Lemm. “We planned to go into deep coverage afterwards, but our rushes worked so well we stuck to it.”

“We made too many mistakes to beat a good football club,” summed up Sid Gillman from the losing side.

Wally Lemm left the Oilers for the NFL Cardinals in the offseason and was replaced by Frank “Pop” Ivy. Houston topped the Eastern Division for a third straight year, but lost an overtime thriller to the Dallas Texans in the AFL Championship game. San Diego dropped to 4-10 as injuries decimated the club, but bounced back to win the league title in 1963.

December 23, 2013

MVP Profile: Johnny Unitas, 1967

Quarterback, Baltimore Colts

Age:  34
12th season in pro football & with Colts
College: Louisville
Height: 6’1”   Weight: 196

Unitas was chosen in the 9th round of the 1955 NFL draft by the Steelers, but failed to make the team in the preseason. After playing semi-pro football, he was signed by the Colts to back up starting QB George Shaw and when Shaw went down with a broken kneecap four games into the ’56 season, Unitas got his chance, showed potential, and held onto the job. He broke out in 1957, leading the league in pass attempts (301), yards (2550), TD passes (24), and yards per attempt (8.5). The Colts contended and Unitas was selected to the Pro Bowl and received MVP consideration. It set the stage for a championship season in ’58, with Unitas leading the NFL with 19 TD passes despite missing two games due to injury and then leading the Colts to a title with a memorable overtime win over the Giants. Unitas was chosen to a second Pro Bowl and was a consensus first-team All-Pro for the first time. An outstanding play-caller as well as passer with a quick release, he was adept at throwing long, short, or in between. He followed up in 1959 by leading the NFL in pass attempts (367), completions (193), yards (2899), and a then-record 32 touchdown passes. The Colts repeated as league champs and Unitas received MVP as well as All-NFL and Pro Bowl recognition. He continued to excel, although the Colts went into a brief decline. His record 47-straight-game TD passing streak ended in 1960 (and remained the standard until 2012) and he led the NFL in passing attempts, completions, and yards twice more and TD passes once through 1966, by which point he had achieved nine Pro Bowl selections in ten years. Unitas was having another outstanding season in 1965 until felled by a knee injury, still garnering consensus first-team All-NFL honors.

1967 Season Summary
Appeared in all 14 games
[Bracketed numbers indicate league rank in Top 20]

Attempts – 436 [2]
Most attempts, game – 39 vs. Dallas 12/3
Completions – 255 [2]
Most completions, game – 22 vs. Atlanta 9/17, vs. San Francisco 10/1, vs. Dallas 12/3
Yards – 3428 [2]
Most yards, game – 401 vs. Atlanta 9/17
Completion percentage – 58.5 [1]
Yards per attempt – 7.9 [3]
TD passes – 20 [5, tied with Frank Ryan]
Most TD passes, game – 4 at Atlanta 11/12
Interceptions – 16 [8, tied with four others]
Most interceptions, game – 3 at Chicago 10/8, vs. Dallas 12/3
Passer rating – 83.6 [4]
400-yard passing games – 1
300-yard passing games – 3
200-yard passing games – 10

Attempts – 22
Most attempts, game - 4 (for 18 yds.) at Minnesota 10/22
Yards – 89
Most yards, game – 18 yards (on 4 carries) at Minnesota 10/22
Yards per attempt – 4.0
TDs – 0

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

The Colts went 11-1-2 to finish second in the Coastal Division while leading the NFL in total offense (5008 yards) and finished a close second to the Rams in scoring (394 points) and tied with LA for second in touchdowns (48). While not losing a game until the season finale, it meant missing out on the division title and postseason.

A severe elbow injury caused Unitas to miss virtually all of the 1968 season and he showed wear over the remainder of his 18-year career that ended with the Chargers in 1973, although he quarterbacked the Colts through one last championship season in 1970. For his career, Unitas set then-NFL standards for pass attempts (5186), completions (2830), yards (40,239) and touchdowns (290). He was named to 10 Pro Bowls and received first- or second-team All-NFL honors eight times. Unitas had his #19 retired by the Colts and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1979.


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). 

December 22, 2013

1996: Jaguars Edge Falcons to Clinch Playoff Berth

The second-year Jacksonville Jaguars came into their 1996 season finale on December 22 needing a win to gain a playoff spot. Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s team had been at 4-7 after eleven games and seemed to be going nowhere, but the Jaguars had reeled off four straight wins to climb to 8-7. 26-year-old QB Mark Brunell  (pictured at right) started off unevenly but was playing well during the late-season surge. Most significantly, RB Natrone Means was running the ball effectively and taking pressure off the young quarterback. WR Keenan McCardell was joined by Jimmy Smith, who took over for veteran WR Andre Rison with outstanding results. Two rookies, DE Tony Brackens and LB Kevin Hardy, were upgrades to the defense and 11th-year veteran DE Clyde Simmons added his savvy play to the mix. They had to beat Atlanta to make the postseason in just their second year.

The Falcons, meanwhile, were 3-12 after having been in the playoffs in ’95. Atlanta’s season was marred by controversy, most notably a sideline confrontation between Head Coach June Jones and QB Jeff George that caused the talented but immature quarterback to be suspended and replaced by veteran backup Bobby Hebert. RB Jamal Anderson and WR Bert Emanuel had emerged as good players on offense, but the offensive line was ordinary and the defensive backfield atrocious.

The game was at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium with 71,449 fans in attendance. The Falcons had the game’s first possession and punted. Jacksonville put together a 77-yard drive in 10 plays. Mark Brunell completed all three of his passes including one to Keenan McCardell for 17 yards in a second-and-11 situation. Natrone Means (pictured below) pounded away for 17 yards on four straight carries and Brunell finished the series off by scrambling for 11 yards for a touchdown. Mike Hollis added the extra point.

The teams exchanged punts for the rest of the first quarter, but the Falcons were at the Jacksonville 41 at the end of the period and reached the 27 before QB Bobby Hebert was sacked by CB Aaron Beasley on a third-and-four play. Morten Andersen kicked a 46-yard field goal to narrow the score to 7-3.

The Jaguars responded with a 12-play, 70-yard drive of their own. Brunell connected with TE Pete Mitchell for 16 yards in a third-and-six situation and Means had a 17-yard run to the Atlanta 14. The series ended with Hollis booting a field goal from 23 yards to make it a 10-3 game.

Following a three-and-out series by the Falcons, Jacksonville put together another long scoring drive of 78 yards in 13 plays. Brunell completed three passes and had a 16-yard run and, with 46 seconds remaining in the half, Hollis added another field goal, this time from 26 yards. The Jaguars led by ten points at the intermission.

The home team started off the third quarter with yet another long possession. The biggest gain was a Brunell pass to Jimmy Smith for 29 yards as the Jaguars advanced 76 yards in 13 plays culminating in a third Hollis field goal, this time from 22 yards.

The Falcons had been quiet on offense, but now they responded with a 10-play, 72-yard series. Hebert (pictured at left) started off with a pass to RB Richard Huntley for 14 yards, RB Craig Heyward ran for 11 yards, and then Hebert scrambled for 15 yards around end. Continuing to chip away, Atlanta finally scored when Hebert connected with WR Eric Metcalf for a four-yard TD. Andersen added the extra point and the Jacksonville lead was narrowed to 16-10.

In a series that extended into the fourth quarter, the Jaguars went 51 yards in 10 plays. Hollis attempted a field goal from 42 yards that hit the left upright but caromed over the crossbar and was good. In a game of long possessions, the Falcons responded by using 12 plays to go 77 yards. Hebert had a pass to Bert Emanuel for 17 yards and converted a third-and-eight with another toss to Emanuel that was good for 12 yards. Heyward went up the middle for the last two yards and a TD. Andersen’s extra point made it a two-point contest with 5:39 remaining.

The Jaguars went three-and-out and had to punt. With Jamal Anderson running to good effect and Hebert connecting with WR Tyrone Brown on a screen pass for 23 yards, Atlanta reached the Jacksonville 13 with eight seconds left on the clock. But just as it seemed that Jacksonville’s season was about to end in disappointment, the usually reliable Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal attempt. Andersen appeared to slip as he kicked the ball and it sailed wide to the left as the Jaguars came away with a 19-17 win.

Jacksonville led in total yards (357 to 309) while each club had 21 first downs. Rushing yards were nearly even as well, with the Falcons holding a 146 to 143 edge. However, the Jaguars were nearly undone by having to settle for field goals too often when inside the Atlanta ten yard line. There were no turnovers.

Mark Brunell completed 18 of 29 passes for 222 yards with no touchdowns, although he ran for one TD on one of his four carries for 28 yards. Natrone Means rushed for 110 yards on 27 attempts and Jimmy Smith caught 5 passes for 75 yards. Mike Hollis (pictured below) was successful on all four of his field goal attempts, which ultimately proved crucial to Jacksonville’s success.

For the Falcons, Bobby Hebert was successful on 17 of 25 throws for 172 yards and a TD. Craig Heyward ran for 69 yards on 16 carries that included a touchdown and Jamal Anderson contributed 55 yards on 11 attempts. Bert Emanuel and Tyrone Brown caught six passes apiece, for 67 and 60 yards, respectively.

“It almost renders me speechless,” said Coach Tom Coughlin, who had almost comically avoided making references to the postseason in his press conferences down the stretch. “We’re in the playoffs.”

Jacksonville’s surprising run gave them a 9-7 record, second in the AFC Central, and continued in the postseason all the way to the AFC Championship game, including wins over Buffalo in the Wild Card round and Denver at the Divisional level. With the other 1995 expansion team, the Carolina Panthers, reaching the NFC title game, it marked an unprecedented ascendancy by two second-year clubs. However, each fell a game short of the Super Bowl. The Jaguars lost to the Patriots by a decisive 20-6 score, but it marked the first of four straight postseason appearances for the young franchise.

Atlanta, ending up 3-13 and fourth in the NFC West, underwent a housecleaning during the offseason that ended the coaching tenure of June Jones after three years. He was replaced by Dan Reeves, formerly of the Broncos and Giants. The game also marked the end of the line for Bobby Hebert (pictured at left), whose career started in the USFL and led to the Saints before moving on to Atlanta for four years.

Mark Brunell led the NFL in passing yards (4367) and yards per attempt (7.8), although also in times sacked (50). He was selected to the Pro Bowl. Natrone Means, who performed so well down the stretch, rushed for 507 yards on 152 carries (3.3 avg.), but 325 of those yards came in the last four games. He would come up bigger in the two playoff wins. 

December 21, 2013

1974: Raiders Stun Dolphins in AFC Divisional Playoff Game

The Miami Dolphins had won the Super Bowls following the 1972 and ’73 seasons and were looking to make it three straight as they faced the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoff round on December 21, 1974. Coached by Don Shula for the fifth year, Miami featured a highly productive ground game on offense led by FB Larry Csonka. QB Bob Griese was an able field general who, on the occasions when he passed, was very effective and WR Paul Warfield was a deep threat who kept defenses honest. The fact that Csonka and Warfield, along with HB Jim Kiick, were lame ducks in Miami because of having signed with the World Football League’s Memphis Southmen for 1975 didn’t limit their performance in ‘74. Defensively, the team was strong with solid ends Bill Stanfill and Vern den Herder, aging MLB Nick Buoniconti anchoring a fine corps of linebackers, and the outstanding safety tandem of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson. The Dolphins topped the AFC East with an 11-3 record and appeared primed for another title run.

Oakland, coached by John Madden, was an annual title contender but had not been to the Super Bowl since representing the AFL after the 1967 season. QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler was an exciting performer who led the league with 26 TD passes during the regular season. The starting wide receivers were excellent, with Cliff Branch providing the speed and Fred Biletnikoff the reliability as a possession receiver.  The stable of running backs was a good one and the defense, while not the best, was rugged. The Raiders topped the AFC West at 12-2 and, in the eyes of many fans, the Raiders and Dolphins were the league’s two best teams and this Divisional playoff, as a result, was the “real” Super Bowl.

There were 52,317 fans in attendance on a gray Saturday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The game got off to an exciting start when Miami WR Nat Moore ran the opening kickoff back 89 yards for a touchdown. Garo Yepremian added the extra point and the Dolphins were ahead by 7-0 after just 15 seconds of action.

The contest settled into a battle for field position as the teams traded punts until the Raiders put together a seven-play, 78-yard drive to get on the board in the second quarter. Ken Stabler completed two nine-yard passes, to Fred Biletnikoff and FB Marv Hubbard, and HB Clarence Davis had a 19-yard carry to the Miami 36. Three plays later, Stabler connected with HB Charlie Smith for a 31-yard TD and George Blanda’s extra point tied the score.

The Dolphins responded with a long scoring drive of 63 yards in 11 plays. The first six were running plays, with HB Benny Malone, Larry Csonka, and Jim Kiick carrying the load. Facing third-and-four at the Oakland 29, Bob Griese threw to Kiick for five yards and, after getting to the 16, Yepremian kicked a 33-yard field goal with just over a minute remaining in the half. The Dolphins held a 10-7 lead at halftime.

The teams again exchanged punts to start the third quarter. On their second series, the Raiders advanced 60 yards in nine plays. Stabler passed to Biletnikoff for 20 yards on the first play, taking the ball into Miami territory, and a pass to TE Bob Moore on third-and-seven was just enough for a first down. A run by HB Pete Banaszak picked up nine yards and Davis gained eight. Finally, Stabler connected with Biletnikoff for a 13-yard touchdown. Blanda added the PAT and Oakland was on top for the first time by 14-10.

The Dolphins came back with another score. Griese helped his cause with a nine-yard scramble and Malone and Csonka had good gains along the way. A pass interference penalty on the Raiders gave Miami a first down at the Oakland 16 and, from there, Griese threw to Paul Warfield for a touchdown. Yepremian’s extra point attempt was blocked by DE Bubba Smith, but the Dolphins remained ahead by two points at 16-14.

The teams again traded punts until, on the last play of the third quarter, Csonka ran for 15 yards to spark a drive that covered 60 yards in nine plays. With Malone and Csonka running effectively and Griese completing a pass to Warfield for 20 yards along the way, the visitors reached the Oakland 28. Yepremian kicked a 46-yard field goal to widen the Miami lead to 19-14.

After another exchange of punts, and with less than five minutes remaining in the game, the Raiders scored in spectacular fashion. Stabler threw to Cliff Branch, who made a diving catch at the Oakland 28. However, CB Henry Stuckey failed to touch him and the alert Branch leaped up and ran the distance for a 72-yard TD. Blanda’s extra point put the home team on top at 21-19 with 4:37 remaining to play.

In response, the Dolphins went 68 yards in just four plays. Griese threw to Nat Moore for 23 yards and then Miami ran at the Oakland defense, with Csonka picking up a total of 22 yards on two carries. Finally, Malone (pictured below) swept around end on a 23-yard touchdown run that put Miami back in the lead. Yepremian added the extra point and it was 26-21 with a little over two minutes on the clock.

Starting from the Oakland 32 after the ensuing kickoff, Stabler completed passes to Biletnikoff of 18 and 20 yards and two more throws, to Branch and WR Frank Pitts, got the ball to the Miami 14. Facing third-and-one, Coach Madden called for a running play and Davis gained six yards off tackle for first-and-goal at the eight. The time remaining was now down to 35 seconds and the Raiders used their final timeout. On the next play, with the primary receivers well covered Stabler seemed about to be sacked by Vern Den Herder but caught a glimpse of Davis in the end zone and threw while falling forward. Leaping amid a crowd of defenders, Davis pulled the ball away from LB Mike Kolen and fell to the ground for a touchdown (pictured at top). Blanda again converted and Oakland had a two-point lead.

That was enough. The Dolphins got the ball back, but Griese threw a pass that was intercepted by LB Phil Villapiano, and the Raiders won the classic encounter and advanced by a final score of 28-26.

Oakland had more total yards (411 to 294) and the edge in first downs (19 to 18). The Dolphins ran the ball well, totaling 213 yards on the ground (to 135 for the Raiders) while Oakland had 276 net passing yards to Miami’s 81. Each team recorded two sacks and turned the ball over one time apiece.

Ken Stabler  (pictured below) completed 20 of 30 passes for 293 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.  Fred Biletnikoff had 8 catches for 122 yards and a TD and, with the long scoring reception, Cliff Branch contributed 84 yards on three catches. Clarence Davis led the team’s running attack with 59 yards on 12 attempts while also accounting for two pass receptions for 16 yards and the game-winning score. Marv Hubbard was right behind with 55 yards on 14 carries.

For the Dolphins, Bob Griese was successful on 7 of 14 throws for 101 yards and a TD, while one pass was picked off. Larry Csonka rushed for 114 yards on 24 attempts and Benny Malone gained 83 yards on 14 carries that included a touchdown. Paul Warfield caught three passes for 47 yards and a TD.

“When you lose like that, you know it wasn’t meant to be,” said Don Shula. “Your dreams just go down the drain.”

The loss did indeed end Miami’s dream of a third consecutive NFL Championship, but, ironically enough considering the speculation that the winner of this game would be sure to advance to the Super Bowl, the Raiders did not make it that far as they lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.

Oakland topped the AFC West again in 1975, and again reached the AFC title game before falling to the Steelers. The Raiders finally achieved the elusive NFL Championship in ’76. As for the Dolphins, the loss to the Raiders did mark the end of an outstanding run that was highlighted by the three straight AFC titles as well as the back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The loss of the veterans Csonka, Warfield, and Kiick in 1975 had an effect, with Csonka’s role at fullback proving difficult to replace. Miami just missed the playoffs with a 10-4 record and fell to 6-8 in 1976; the Dolphins would not return to the postseason until 1978.