NFL playoff redux

There are two NFL playoff games taking place today. Right now, the Bengals are battling the Colts in Indianapolis. At 3:35, the Cowboys will host the Lions in Arlington.

This is not the first time the same four teams have gotten together on the same day for an NFL playoff twinbill.

It happened December 26, 1970, the first day of playoff games for the first season following the AFL-NFL merger. The Bengals, champions of the AFC Central, visited the Baltimore Colts, champions of the AFC East; and the Lions, the wild card from the NFC, went to Dallas to take on the NFC East champion Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl.

In 1970, the NFL playoffs featured eight teams, four in each conference. The three division winners–East, Central and Wes–were joined by the second place team with the best record. This format remained unchanged through 1977.

The NFL used a four-team tournament to determine its representative to the Super Bowl in the final three seasons prior to the merger. The difference was there were four divisions, the Capital and Century in the Eastern conference, ad the Central and Coastal in the Western conference.

The Colts were in the NFL–in the Western conference, no less–prior to the merger. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom agreed to a $3 million payment from the NFL to change conferences. Cleveland owner Art Modell and Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney also agreed to move from the NFL to the AFC. Many felt the Saints and Falcons, the two newest teams in the NFL prior to the merger, should have been forced to move, with a third team drawn by lot if no franchise agreed.

One big difference between the playoff tournament of 1970 and today, other than the number of teams, is the fact that home field advantage did not go to the team with the best recod in each conference. The host teams were determined by a rotation set by the NFL office. The only constant was the wild card team could never host a playof game.

Another rule was teams from the same division could not meet in the divisional (conference semifinal) round. That rule stayed in effect through the 1989 playoffs.

The 1970 Bengals began their season, their third in professional football, by defeating the Raiders on opening day, but then losing their next six. They were routed 38-3 at Detroit, and lost a 30-27 cliffhanger at Clevleand in which Cincinnati led 10-0 in the first quarter but then fell behind 30-20 with less than seven minutes to play before a late rally came up short.

But the Bengals were not out of it at 1-6. Far from it.

Cincinnati had the good fortune of playing in a weak AFC Central in 1970. To wit:

–The Oilers had been no better than mediocre for many years, and they lost starting quarterback Charley Johnson to a broken collarbone in week five. The defense had bona fide stars in future Pro Football Hall of Famers Ken Houston and Elvin Bethea, and a consistent All-Pro in George Webster, but Houston’s offense was anemic without Johnson.
–The Steelers were rapidly improving under second year coach Chuck Noll and had enjoyed two spetacularly successful drafts in 1969 and 1970, taking future stars Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Terry Bradshaw. However, building a championship caliber team took much longer in the NFL before free agency came about in 1993. The Steelers would become one of the great dynasties of professional sports, but not in 1970.
–The Browns won three consecutive Century division championships, and still had many key players from their 1964 NFL championship teams. LIke Houston, quarterback was a problem, since veteran Bill Nelsen was more crippled than Joe Namath, and rookie Mike Phipps was nowhere near as good as Purdue predecessors Len Dawson and Bob Griese. The Browns also were aging rapidly on defense, and opposing quarterbacks picked on safety Erich Barnes, a perennial All-Pro in his earlier years, but now well past his prime.

The Bengals took advantage of this less than impressive trio, winning their final seven games to overtake Cleveland for the division championship on the final day of the regular season. It didn’t hurt that Cincinnati got to play 2-11-1 New Orleans and 2-12 Boston late in the season.

The Colts were an impressive 11-2-1, bouncing back emphatically after a disappointing 8-5-1 slate in 1969. Baltimore was under new leadership, as Don McCafferty succeeded Don Shula after Shula walked out on Rosenbloom and took the Dolphins’ vacant coaching position. Johnny Unitas wasn’t always healthy, but Earl Morrall was by far the best backup in the league, and the Colts never missed a beat. Baltimore’s defense was second to none, led by All-Pros Bubba Smith, Mike Curtis and Rick Volk, with assistance from Fred Miller, Billy Ray Smith and Jerry Logan.

The Lions went 10-4 to finish second to the 12-2 Vikings in the NFC Central. Detroit’s arsenal included an excellent scrambling quarterback in Greg Landry, the game’s premier tight end in Charlie Sanders, and two fleet receivers in Earl McCulloch and Larry Walton. Detroit’s defense featured the game’s best secondary, headlined by future Hall of Famers Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau.

Dallas was all but written off after losing 38-0 at home to the Cardinals on Monday Night Football, which was in its inaugural season on ABC. Following the loss to the “other” St. Louis Cardinals, the Cowboys were 5-4, three games behind the 7-2 Cards, but St. Louis held the tiebreaker with the season sweep. Also, the Giants were ahead of the Cowboys at 6-3.

The Cardinals could not sustain their success. They went 1-3-1 down the stretch, losing to the Lions, Giants and Redskins in December.

In the Monday Night Football game following the Cowboys’ collapse, the Giants went to Philadelphia and gagged against the 1-7-1 Eagles. New York also lost earlier in the season to the pitiful Saints, and those losses would end up costing the Giants dearly.

Following the debacle in the Cotton Bowl, Dallas turned it around. Coach Tom Landry simplified the Cowboys’ famously complex offense, leaning heavily on a three-headed running back monster of Walt Garrison, Calvin Hill and rookie Duane Thomas.

The Cowboys won their last five games, albeit four of the five came against sub-.500 teams, two over a Redskins squad whose season was short-circuited when Vince Lombardi died of colon cancer 17 days before the season kicked off.

Dallas won the NFC East on the season’s final Sunday by obliterating the Oilers 52-10. The Lions won the wild card by shutting out the Packers 20-0. The Giants’ playoff hopes died with a 31-3 loss to the Rams at Yankee Stadium. The Rams had a chance to win the NFC West by routing the Giants, but the 49ers took the crown by crushing the Raiders 38-7 in a muddy bog at Oakland.

Had New York won, it would have won the NFC East, and the wild card would have come down to a coin toss between Dallas and Detroit. No doubt a few NFL executives were relieved professionally (most were Giants fans and undoubtedly wanted their team in the playoffs) the coin toss didn’t come to pass.

The Bengals were new to the playoff scene. The Colts lost Super Bowl III and also had veterans of the 1964 NFL Championship game loss to the Browns. In Unitas’ case, he was the starting quarterback n Baltimore’s 1958 and 1959 NFL championship teams, as the Colts beat the Giants in the final both years.

The final at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, aka the Baltimore Dust Bowl, was not surprising: Colts 17, Bengals 0. The Colts were one-third of the way to erasing some, if not all, of the pain from their Super Bowl III loss to the Jets, guaranteed by Broadway Joe Namath.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the Cowboys and Lions engaged n a game which either was (a) a classic defensive struggle or (b) the worst offensive matchup in the history of playoff football. Those in Dallas and Detroit definitely chose the former. People in Minnesota were inclined to chose the latter.

In what became the first, and to date only, professional football game to be played without either team scoring a touchdown, the Cowboys defeated the Tigers, er, Lions 5-0.

Strangely enough, Dallas was just two weeks removed from another game which ended with a baseball tally, as the Cowboys won in Cleveland 6-2.

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on January 6, 2015, in National Football League and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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