Two fierce rivals in the NFL Eastern Conference, the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns, faced off on November 26, 1961 in Cleveland. Having dropped to third in ’60 after winning the conference in three of the preceding four seasons, the Giants had a first-year head coach in Allie Sherman who, at age 39, was the NFL’s youngest. Two preseason acquisitions were paying off in rejuvenating the offense, with 35-year-old QB Y.A. Tittle (pictured at right), formerly of the 49ers, and split end Del Shofner, an ex-Ram, proving to be a particularly potent passing combination. The defense, dominated by savvy veterans, continued to be one of the league’s toughest units. New York had won its last three games and was 8-2.
The Browns were under the guidance of Head Coach Paul Brown for the 16th year, going back to the years of domination in the All-America Football Conference. Cleveland had won four AAFC titles and three NFL Championships under Brown, but none since 1955. FB Jim Brown was the key to the offense that was directed by efficient, if unspectacular, QB Milt Plum. The line was excellent and the receivers capable while the defense was particularly strong up front. The Browns were coming off a big win over the Eagles in which Jim Brown gained a record 237 rushing yards and, at 7-3, could catch up to their New York rivals with a win at home.
There were 80,455 fans in attendance at Municipal Stadium. The Browns took the opening kickoff and accumulated three first downs. Milt Plum completed three straight passes at one point to reach the New York 45, but the drive stalled when Plum missed on a throw intended for wide-open end Rich Kreitling and Cleveland was forced to punt.
The Giants punted in turn and the home team put together a 73-yard series in six plays. Facing third-and-15, Plum threw to Jim Brown for the necessary yardage and Brown then swept around left end for a 16-yard gain. Two plays later, Plum connected with flanker Ray Renfro (pictured below) for a 43-yard touchdown and, with Lou Groza adding the extra point, the Browns were ahead by 7-0.
The visitors again punted following their next possession and, as the game entered the second quarter, Cleveland was driving. Plum threw to Renfro for 11 yards and a first down and Brown gained 28 yards on a carry around end to the New York 43. However, DE Jim Katcavage sacked Plum on the next play and the Browns were unable to advance further, forcing them to punt.
The Giants proceeded to advance 80 yards in seven plays. Y.A. Tittle completed all four of his passes, two to TE Joe Walton for 11 and 12 yards and the last two to Del Shofner for 17 and 30 yards. Tittle carried the ball himself around end for a five-yard TD and Pat Summerall converted to tie the score at 7-7.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Plum went to the air and his pass was intercepted by safety Jim Patton, who returned it 21 yards to the Cleveland 38. Tittle completed passes to split end Kyle Rote for 19 yards and FB Alex Webster for 17 before a pass interference penalty on the Browns gave the Giants a first down at the one. From there, HB Bob Gaiters ran for a touchdown, Summerall added the point after, and the visitors were ahead by 14-7.
The Browns responded with an 85-yard drive in eight plays. Plum threw to Renfro for a 57-yard gain to the New York 29 and Brown ran for another 11. Another running play lost nine yards, but on second-and-19, Plum tossed a flare pass to HB Bobby Mitchell that gained 25 yards and, three plays later, Brown scored a TD from a yard out. Groza added the extra point and the halftime score was tied at 14-14. Thus far, Cleveland had outgained the Giants both on the ground (68 to 18) and through the air (181 to 133) but was not in the lead.
The Giants had the first possession in the third quarter and drove to a score. The big play was a Tittle screen pass to Webster that gained 22 yards, but the series stalled after reaching the Cleveland 25. Summerall kicked a 34-yard field goal that put the Giants in front by 17-14.
The Browns went three-and-out on their next series and the Giants, regaining possession at their 25, advanced to another score. Gaiters had runs of 8 and 11 yards and Tittle completed passes to Rote for 25 yards and Shofner for 15. Summerall booted another field goal, this time from 17 yards despite being partially deflected by DE Jim Houston, and New York’s lead was extended to 20-14.
The Browns punted once again but got the ball back on the next play when Gaiters fumbled and LB Galen Fiss recovered at the New York 22. But a pass intended for Renfro, who was wide open after CB Erich Barnes slipped and fell, was far off target. A sack of Plum by Katcavage and DE Andy Robustelli cost Cleveland 10 yards on a third down play and, attempting to convert on fourth down, Plum’s pass fell incomplete.
The failure to take advantage of the break proved costly to the Browns. As the game headed into the fourth quarter, the Giants were driving thanks to a Tittle pass to Shofner for 15 yards and an option throw by Gaiters to Webster that picked up 27 yards to the Cleveland 23. Gaiters ran for an 11-yard touchdown, Summerall converted, and New York was ahead by 27-14.
On the next Cleveland series, Coach Brown sent backup QB Len Dawson into the game. The move went awry when Barnes intercepted Dawson’s second pass and returned it 34 yards for a TD. Summerall again converted and, for all intents, with 12 minutes remaining the game was over. The Browns managed to score once more on a 15-yard TD pass from Plum to Renfro while Summerall capped the scoring for the Giants with an 11-yard field goal. New York came away with a convincing 37-21 win.
Thanks to their second half domination, the Giants led in total yards (369 to 334) and first downs (24 to 20). Cleveland managed just 66 rushing yards, to 116 for New York. Both teams turned the ball over twice.
Y.A. Tittle completed 17 of 26 passes for 233 yards with one interception, and while he threw for no touchdowns, he ran for one and his passing set up the other scores. Del Shofner caught 6 passes for 97 yards and Kyle Rote contributed five receptions for 58 yards. Bob Gaiters (pictured at right) topped the Giants with 63 yards on 15 carries that included two touchdowns and also completed a 27-yard pass. Alex Webster rushed for 49 yards on 15 attempts and caught four passes for another 65 yards.
For the Browns, Milt Plum was successful on 19 of 33 throws for 284 yards and two TDs while giving up an interception, but was just one-of-seven during the crucial third quarter. Likewise, Jim Brown gained just 68 rushing yards on 20 attempts with a TD and was effectively shut down in the last two quarters. He also had five pass receptions for 46 yards and his backfield mater, HB Bobby Mitchell, also had five catches, for 54 yards, but was virtually invisible as a ball carrier with two yards on two attempts. Ray Renfro led the club with 7 catches for 166 yards and two scores.
“This was our greatest game of the season,” said Coach Sherman for the Giants. “It was our greatest game because this was our greatest challenge. This is a team with a soul. They come back when they’re behind. They never let up.”
“My guys tried hard enough, we’re not good enough,” summed up Paul Brown from the Cleveland perspective.
It was the seventh win in the last eight meetings with the Browns for New York. The Giants lost to Green Bay the following week but defeated the Eagles and tied Cleveland in the rematch in New York to top the Eastern Conference with a 10-3-1 record. They lost badly to the Packers in the NFL Championship game. The Browns ended up in third at a disappointing 8-5-1.
Y.A. Tittle was one of the NFL’s top-ranked passers as he threw for 2272 yards and 17 touchdowns. He received MVP honors from the Newspaper Enterprise Association as well as being a first-team All-NFL selection of UPI and The Sporting News and a Pro Bowl participant. Del Shofner placed second in the league with 1125 yards on a career-high 68 pass receptions and scored 11 TDs. He also was a consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl choice. While rookie Bob Gaiters had a strong outing against the Browns, he struggled with consistency and had a tendency to fumble. He rushed for 460 yards on 116 carries and scored six touchdowns in what proved to be his most successful NFL season.