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Soul-crushingly bad list, part III

MIAMI DOLPHINS

The selection: 1981 AFC divisional playoff, the “Epic in Miami” vs. the Chargers–yes, I can understand this selection somewhat, since the Dolphins lost 41-38 in overtime. However, Miami rallied from a 24-0 deficit despite having the woefully bad quarterback tandem of David Woodley and Don Strock (“WoodStrock”), scoring on the final play of the first half on a hook-and-ladder. Miami’s opportunity to win in regulation was foiled by Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, who blocked Uwe von Schamman’s field goal attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter. San Diego won it late in overtime on Rolf Bernsichke’s three-pointer. Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards despite severe dehydration.

The Epic in Miami was heartbreaking, but not as soul-crushing as December 21, 1974.

The Dolphins were the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, looking to win their fourth consecutive AFC championship. Their first playoff opponent was the Raiders, who were steamrolled 27-10 in Miami in the previous year’s AFC championship game.

The general consensus among scribes who knew anything about professional football was the winner of Miami at Oakland would be awarded the Vince Lombardi Trophy the evening of January 12 in New Orleans. The Steelers were formidable thanks to the Steel Curtain and Franco Harris, but the press was still not convinced Terry Bradshaw was starting quarterback material. The NFC’s best, the Rams and Vikings, had their flaws. The Cowboys were not in the playoffs for the only time between 1966 and 1983. The Redskins were too old and offensively ineffective. The Bills had O.J. Simpson and no defense. The Cardinals were in the playoffs for the first time since 1948.

Miami took charge on the opening kickoff when rookie Nat Moore returned it 89 yards for a touchdown, silencing the Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders’ first drive ended on a Kenny Stabler interception, but they got it in gear the next time they had the ball and scored on a pass from the Snake to Charlie Smith. Miami took a 10-7 lead at halftime on a Garo Yepremian field goal.

In the third quarter, Stabler found Fred Biletnikoff in the right corner of the end zone for another TD, and the scoring would go back and forth throughout the second half. Oakland took a 21-19 lead in the fourth on a 75-yard bomb from Stabler to Cliff Branch, only to have that lead erased on Benny Malone’s 23-yard run with 2:08 to go.

The Raiders, who lost a 1972 divisional playoff game on Harris’ Immaculate Reception, looked like they would suffer heartbreak again.

Instead, Stabler showed why he was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974, completing passes of 18 and 20 yards to Biletnikoff to help Oakland reach the Miami 8 with 35 seconds left.

Stabler rolled left and appeared to be caught from behind by Dolphins defensive end Vern Den Herder, but the Snake got the pass away. It fell into a crowd where Clarence Davis had to battle three Dolphins for the ball, but somehow Davis snatched the pigskin away from linebacker Mike Kolen and fell to the turf in front of back judge Ben Tompkins, who immediately signaled touchdown.

Griese and Miami got the ball back one more time, needing a field goal to win, but an interception preserved Oakland’s 28-26 victory.

Had the NFL adopted rules which gave home field advantage to the teams with the best record and not a predetermined formula in 1974, not 1975, this game would not have happened. Miami would have hosted Pittsburgh and Oakland would have welcomed Buffalo in the divisional round.

As it turned out, the Raiders did not win the Super Bowl. They didn’t make it to New Orleans, falling 24-13 to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game at Oakland. Two weeks later, the Steelers beat the Vikings 16-6 for the first of four championships in six seasons. The Raiders’ title had to wait until 1976.

Miami is still in search of its first championship since 1973. The Dolphins lost Super Bowl XVII to the Redskins and XIX to the 49ers.

Honestly, none of Miami’s Super Bowl losses were surprising.

–In Super Bowl VI, the Cowboys had the experience from losing the previous year’s game to the Colts, while the Dolphins were in their fourth playoff game all-time.

–In Super Bowl XVII, the Dolphins had the league’s top defense, but they were well overmatched by the Redskins’ Hogs and John Riggins. Also, David Woodley and Don Strock had no business playing quarterback in a Super Bowl. Don Shula figured it out and drafted Dan Marino three months later.

–In Super Bowl XIX, Marino was coming off his record-setting regular season, but Joe Montana had a more balanced offense. San Francisco also had a far superior defense.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The selection: 1998 NFC championship game at home vs. Atlanta. The Vikings went 15-1 in the ’98 regular season, scoring a then-NFL record 556 points. Minnesota, led by MVP quarterback Randall Cunningham and dynamic receivers Cris Carter and rookie Randy Moss, simply shelled opposing defenses all season, save for a 27-24 loss at Tampa Bay in week nine.

Atlanta came into the game 14-2, but were in the NFC championship game for the first time. Minnesota led 27-20 in the final five minutes, only to see Gary Anderson miss a 39-yard field goal, his first miss of a field goal or extra point all season. The Falcons drove to the tying touchdown, and Morten Andersen kicked Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII in overtime.

Another case of very short-term memory by the author of this list.

All of the Vikings’ Super Bowl losses occurred prior to the 1977 season, so few people under 50 can remember any of them. Of those four losses, three cannot be considered soul-crushing.

The Vikings were underdogs in Super Bowl VIII vs. Miami. The Dolphins of 1973 were, to many, better than the undefeated 1972 team, because that year’s Miami squad played a tougher schedule and was more dominant in the playoffs, including the 24-7 pasting of the Vikings at Rice Stadium. Minnesota, on the other hand, played in a putrid division (nobody else in the NFC Central finished above .500) and were defeated by two of the best three teams on its regular season schedule, the Falcons and Bengals. The better tam won.

In Super Bowl IX vs. Pittsburgh, the Vikings had the experience edge, but the Steelers were the more talented team, except at quarterback, where Fran Tarkenton was far ahead of Terry Bradshaw at that time. Both teams had Hall of Fame defensive tackles (Joe Greene for Pittsburgh, Alan Page for Minnesota), but the Steelers had the better linebackers, led by Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Minnesota’s offense gained a mere 17 yards rushing and 119 total, and the Vikings’ only score came on a blocked punt. Better team won.

Oakland came into Super Bowl XI with very few players remaining from the Super Bowl II squad which lost to Vince Lombardi’s Packers but John Madden had much better offensive weapons, led by Stabler, Branch and Biletnikoff, plus tight end Dave Casper. By this time, many thought the Vikings were doomed to fail a fourth time, and sure enough, they were. Raiders win 32-14, and it wasn’t even that close, given Minnesota scored its second touchdown in the game’s final minute against Oakland’s scrubs. The Raiders proved they were the far superior team.

Super Bowl IV hurt for Minnesota. The Vikings came into Tulane Stadium as 14-point favorites over the Chiefs, the losers of Super Bowl I, and many felt the Jets’ victory over the Colts the previous year was a fluke, that the AFL was still the inferior league.

The lens of time, however, reveals this was not as big an “upset” as it was made out to be in 1970. The Chiefs had so many Hall of Famers on their defense–Bobby Bell, Curley Culp, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier (who wasn’t on the team in Super Bowl I) and Emmitt Thomas–and played enough “exotic” schemes (at least for 1969) that Minnesota was befuddled when Kansas City lined up. All Stram had to do was line up Culp or Buchanan over Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff (a future Hall of Famer) and Minnesota’s blocking schemes were blown up.

Offensively, Len Dawson was a much better quarterback than Joe Kapp. Stram devised plans to double team ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and throw outside to Otis Taylor, Frank Pitts and shifty halfback Mike Garrett, plus run traps and misdirection plays to fool Page, which happened often in the Chiefs’ 23-7 win.

Having studied the 1969 season statistics, Kansas City should have been favored, in my humble opinion.

However, the most soul-crushing playoff loss in Viking history occurred in Bloomington in the 1975 NFC divisional playoff vs. Dallas.

The Vikings came in 12-2, even though their schedule was pretty bad. Fran Tarkenton had the best year of his career and was the consensus choice as league MVP. Chuck Foreman scored 22 touchdowns, only one off the record set that season by O.J. The Purple People Eaters were at their suffocating best.

Dallas was the wild card team out of the NFC at 10-4, one game behind the Cardinals. The Cowboys missed the playoffs in 1974 by going 8-6, and many thought 1975 would be a “rebuilding” year. Bob Lilly, possibly the greatest defensive tackle who ever played the game, retired after ’74, while defensive teammates Lee Roy Jordan, Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole and Mel Renfro were aging. The offensive line was now without All-Pro guard John Niland and center Dave Manders. The running game was in flux, as Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison were gone, and Tony Dorsett was still two years away.

However, the Cowboys had Roger “The Dodger” Staubach, and that was enough to give Tom Landry’s team a fighting chance in any game.

Indeed, Staubach was never better than the afternoon of December 28, 1975 in Metropolitan Stadium.

With just over three minutes to play, Minnesota led 14-10 and had the ball. It looked like the Cowboys would once again come up short in their quest for their third NFC championship.

However, the Cowboys stopped the Vikings and got the ball back at their own 15 with just under two minutes left. Dallas survived a 4th-and-16 from its own 25 with a 25-yard pass from Staubach to Drew Pearson, a play where Minnesota believed Pearson was out of bounds when he caught the pass, but the officials ruled he was forced out by the Vikings’ Nate Wright.

One play later, Pearson and Wright jostled again as Staubach launched a high arching pass deep down the right sideline. The ball came down at the 4, where Pearson outfought Wright, made the catch and backed into the end zone.

The Vikings believed there was offensive pass interference. Page argued so much he was ejected. Tarkenton, whose father died watching the game back at his home in Georgia, came onto the field to berate an official, leading to Vikings fans throwing numerous objects onto the field. A whiskey bottle hit back judge Armen Terzian in the head, rendering him unconscious. (Terzian would become more infamous in 1978 when Chiefs coach Marv Levy called Terzian an “over-officious jerk” during a game in Buffalo.)

Dallas defeated Minnesota 17-14, then routed Los Angeles 37-7 in the NFC championship game, but fell 21-17 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X.

The Vikings are now two wins away from playing in Super Bowl LII in their own stadium. This list may need to be updated. But for now, Staubach’s Hail Mary trumps all else.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The selection: 2010 NFC wild card game at Seattle, where the defending Super Bowl champion Saints lost 41-36 to the Seahawks, who won the ridiculously weak NFC West with a 7-9 record. The game became famous (or infamous in Louisiana) for the “Beast Quake”, when Marshawn Lynch rumbled 67 yards for the game-clinching touchdown and prompted the crowd at CenturyLink Field to cheer so loud it registered on a seismograph at the University of Washington’s geology department.

Had to think about my hometown team long and hard with this one. Yes, losing to a 7-9 team in the playoffs was more annoying than soul-crushing. Saints fans, and many other football fans across the country, decried the fact a 12-4 team had to go on the road in the playoffs against a team with a losing record.

However, my choice for the Saints’ most soul-crushing playoff loss goes back to my youth. In fact, the 30-year anniversary of this game was just last Wednesday.

It was New Orleans’ very first NFL playoff game, the 1987 NFC wild card game at home vs. Minnesota.

From 1967 through 1986, the Saints posted exactly zero winning seasons. They went 8-8 in both 1979 and ’83 and were in position to make the playoffs going into December, but each time, New Orleans stumbled.

In 1979, the Saints were 7-6 and held a 35-14 lead in the third quarter against Oakland on Monday Night Football. Instead of clinching their first non-losing season in franchise history, the Saints imploded, giving up 28 unanswered points to the Raiders, who won 42-35. The next week, Dan Fouts came to the Superdome and carved up the Saints like a turkey in a 35-0 laugher, knocking New Orleans out of the playoffs. The Saints won their season finale in Los Angeles against the Rams in the Rams’ last home game at the Los Angeles Coliseum for almost 37 years.  The next season, New Orleans lost their first 14 games and finished 1-15, but more importantly, introduced the world to the practice of wearing paper bags at games to hide their shame of supporting terrible teams.

Four years later, the Saints only needed to beat the Rams in the regular season finale to go to the playoffs. The Saints did not allow an offensive touchdown, but the Rams scored a safety, two touchdowns on interception and another TD on a punt return. Los Angeles’ only offensive points were Mike Lansford’s 42-yard field goal with two seconds left to give the Rams a 26-24 victory and leave New Orleans in the cold again.

In 1985, Tom Benson bought the Saints from original owner John Mecom, who made overtures to Jacksonville about moving the franchise there. It took intervention from Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards to force Mecom to sell to an owner who would keep the team in Louisiana.

Saints coach Bum Phillips, hired by Mecom in 1981, resigned with four games to go in 1985. Soon thereafter, Benson hired Jim Finks, the architect of championship teams in Minnesota and Chicago, as general manager. Finks then hired Jim Mora, who coached the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to two United States Football League championships and one runner-up finish, as Phillips’ successor.

The Saints went 7-9 in Mora’s first season of 1986. The next season, New Orleans split their first two games, winning at home vs. Cleveland and losing at Philadelphia before NFL players went on strike. One game was cancelled, and three more were played with replacement players. The Saints went 2-1 in the replacement games before the regulars came back for the sixth game vs. San Francisco.

Morten Andersen, the future Hall of Fame kicker, made five field goals for the Saints, but his game-winning attempt was no good, allowing San Francisco to get out of the Big Easy with a 24-22 win.

After the game, Mora went nuclear. Two of the most famous lines ever uttered by an NFL coach were spewed in the Saints’ locker room:

  • We’ve got a long way to go. We’re close, and close don’t mean shit (censored). And you can put that on TV for me.
  • Could of, would of, should of…the good teams don’t say coulda, woulda, shoulda. They get it done, okay? I’m tired of saying coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Those statements lit a fire under the Saints, who won their next nine games, clinching the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth. New Orleans’ 12-3 record was the second best in the NFL, trailing only San Francisco’s 13-2.

Minnesota, meanwhile, scraped into the playoffs at 8-7. The Vikings were all but eliminated from the postseason when they lost their regular season finale at home to the Redskins, but the next day, they were revived by the Cowboys, who beat the Cardinals in what would be the Cards’ final game representing St. Louis.

Saints fans had already booked reservations in Chicago, where the Saints would face the Bears in the divisional round if they beat the Vikings.

New Orleans started very well, recovering a fumble deep in Minnesota territory on the Vikings’ first possession and converting it into a touchdown pass from Bobby Hebert to Eric Martin.

After forcing the Vikings to punt on their second drive, the tide turned sharply against the Black and Gold.

The Saints fumbled the punt, and Minnesota converted it into a field goal. When the Saints punted after their next possession, Anthony Carter, the Vikings’ All-Pro receiver, returned it 84 yards for a touchdown, and Minnesota was ahead to stay.

Any faint hope the Saints had of a comeback died on the final play of the first half when Wade Wilson completed a 44-yard Hail Mary to Hassan Jones, making it 31-10.

Final: Vikings 44, Saints 10.

New Orleans would not win its first playoff game until 2000, when it beat the defending champion Rams. And of course, 2009 was nirvana for the Saints and their long-suffering fans, thanks to Breesus and victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints and Vikings meet again next Sunday. Minnesota won in the regular season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium, the site of the rematch, as well as Super Bowl LII.

Okay enough for tonight. More later in the week.

 

Soul-crushingly bad list, part I

Today, CBS Sports’ website listed the most “soul-crushing” playoff loss for each NFL franchise.

The list is beyond stupid, and incredibly short-sighted.

All of the losses listed occurred in my lifetime, which means the person or people who put it together can’t remember anything beyond 10 minutes ago, the same way people claim Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback (or NFL player) who ever lived and Bill Belichcik is the greatest NFL coach (if not all of professional sports) who ever lived.

Here is the link to the list:

https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/photos/each-nfl-teams-most-soul-crushing-playoff-loss/33/

Here are my BIG problems with the list, starting with five teams:

CHICAGO BEARS

The selection: 2010 NFC championship game vs. Green Bay

How the heck can a playoff game involving JAY CUTLER be a soul-crushing loss? The fact the Bears got to within one win of Super Bowl XLV with Cutler is a miracle in and of itself, just as reaching Super Bowl XLI with Rex (Wrecks) Grossman is just as miraculous.

My choice: 1942 NFL championship. The Bears came in as two-time defending champions. Their opponents, the Washington REDSKINS, lost to Chicago in the previous two NFL championship games by the combined margin of 110-9. The Bears won 73-0 at Washington in 1940 and 37-9 at Wrigley Field one year later.

Instead of a three-peat, the REDSKINS pulled off a 14-6 stunner at Griffith Stadium, Washington’s last championship until John Riggins, Joe Theismann and the Hogs helped Joe Gibbs win the first of his three Super Bowls in 1982.

Losing the 1934 NFL championship game after going undefeated in the regular season hurt. So did losing 47-7 to the Giants in 1956. As for post-George Halas playoff losses, the divisional round flameout in 1986 vs. the Redskins at home one year after rolling through the NFL and squashing the Patriots in Super Bowl XX is a much better choice than 2010.

DALLAS COWBOYS

The selection: 2014 NFC divisional playoff at Green Bay, the game where Dez Bryant apparently caught the game-winning touchdown pass, only to be overruled by replay.

Apparently, the Cowboys’ 29 seasons under Tom Landry never existed, and the Cowboys did not lose three Super Bowls in the 1970s.

In fact, the Cowboys did lose three Super Bowls in the 1970s, and the combined margin of those defeats was ELEVEN points. ELEVEN. To lose games by 3, 4 and 4 points has to be soul-crushing, right? RIGHT?

The Cowboys forced SEVEN turnovers vs. the Colts in Super Bowl V. The Cowboys’ defense was so good that day that linebacker Chuck Howley was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, the ONLY player to ever earn the honor while playing for the LOSING team. Howley intercepted two passes, one of those in the end zone when the Colts were driving for the tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

Dallas led 13-6 at halftime after knocking the great Johnny Unitas out of the game with injured ribs, but the Cowboys could not handle success. They fumbled at the Baltimore goal line early in the third quarter, and in the fourth, Craig Morton (Roger Staubach was strictly a spectator) was intercepted twice, once by Rick Volk to set up the tying touchdown, and the second by Mike Curtis which led to Jim O’Brien’s game-winning 32-yard field goal with five seconds left. Soul-crushing? For the time being, it was, but the Cowboys bounced back by demolishing the Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.

Super Bowl X was a tough loss for the Cowboys, but I don’t consider it to be soul-crushing. Dallas was a substantial underdog to the defending champion Steelers, and Dallas led most of the game until Pittsburgh dominated the fourth quarter, scoring what turned out to be the winning points on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann on a play where Dallas defensive tackle Larry Cole gave Bradshaw a concussion. The Cowboys didn’t quit, though, cutting the margin to 21-17 on a touchdown pass from Staubach to Percy Howard (the only catch of his NFL career) and then driving into Steeler territory in the final seconds before Staubach was intercepted by Glen Edwards.

Super Bowl XIII? Soul-crushing to the extreme. Jackie Smith’s dropped pass. The phantom pass interference call against Benny Barnes when Swann was too clumsy to get out of his way. Umpire Art Demmas throwing a block on Charlie Waters which allowed Franco Harris to score a touchdown. Randy White fumbling a botched kickoff and leading to the score which made it 35-17. Dallas scoring twice in the final eight minutes before finally running out of time.

Yet HOW the HELL is the 2014 divisional game vs. Green Bay more soul-crushing that Super Bowls V and XIII, or the 1994 NFC championship game which ended Dallas’ bid for a three-peat?

DENVER BRONCOS

The selection: 2012 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Ravens, after giving up a 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones to tie the game, then losing in double overtime.

Have the Broncos not lost FIVE Super Bowls? Yes, they have. Three of them–XII vs. Dallas, XXI vs. the Giants and XXIV vs. San Francisco–had Denver as huge underdogs. I’ll give the Broncos a pass.

The other two? Not so much.

In Super Bowl XXII, the Broncos were favored over the Redskins, albeit by a field goal or less in most sports books. The teams were thought to be evenly matched, except at quarterback, where Denver had John Elway, who was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1987, while the Redskins had finally settled on Buccaneers and USFL alum Doug Williams in the playoffs after Gibbs vacillated between Williams and Jay Schroeder throughout the 12 games played by union players. (One game was canceled due to a players’ strike, and three others were played using replacement players, although several union players crossed picket lines. Nobody on the Redskins did.)

Although Washington still had several players who were on the Super Bowl XVII winning (and XVIII losing–more on that later) squad, the Redskins’ quarterback quandary led many to believe the third time would be the charm for the Broncos, who were one year removed from a 39-20 pasting by the Giants in the big game.

It started so well for the Broncos, who led 10-0 by the middle of the first quarter. Through the first 21 Super Bowls, no team had overcome a deficit of more than seven points to win.

Then the second quarter arrived, and the Redskins morphed into the greatest offensive juggernaut the NFL has ever seen.

Williams threw FOUR touchdown passes in the period, and Timmy Smith ran for a 58-yard touchdown on his way to a then-Super Bowl record 204 yards rushing. By the end of the onslaught, it was 35-10, and Marion Barry announced the plans for the Redskins’ victory parade later that week during halftime.

Final: 42-10. Denver was crushed even worse in XXIV (55-10), and Elway was branded a loser despite his impressive resume. In the final two years of his career, Elway redeemed himself with victories over the Packers and Falcons in XXXII and XXXIII.

Following the win over Atlanta, Denver didn’t get back to the Super Bowl until it faced Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, the first Super Bowl to be played outdoors in a temperate climate, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

It was expected to be one of the greatest Super Bowls ever, with the Seahawks’ league-leading defense, “The Legion of Boom”, facing Peyton Manning, who came to the Broncos in 2012 following 13 seasons with the Colts. Manning led the Broncos to the highest scoring season in NFL history, threw 55 touchdown passes, and won his fifth NFL MVP award.

On the first play from scrimmage, the expected great game turned into a great stinker, at least as for the Broncos.

That play saw Denver center Manny Ramirez (not the famous baseball player) snap the ball wide of Manning. The pigskin rolled into the end zone, where Knoshon Moreno had to bat it over the end line for a safety to avoid yielding a touchdown.

Manning later threw a pick-six to Malcolm Smith, and Denver looked as outclassed as Elway’s teams were by the Giants, Redskins and 49ers.

Seattle won 43-8. Manning and Denver won Super Bowl 50 two years later, but Broncos fans still cringe when mentioning the Seahawks and that game.

Now tell me how a playoff game in an early round is more soul-crushing than losing two Super Bowls in which the Broncos were favored, or at worst an even-money bet?

DETROIT LIONS

The selection: 2014 NFC wild card game at Dallas, which the Lions lost 24-20. In the game, a defensive pass interfernce penalty was not called against the Cowboys with Detroit leading 20-17. Had the Lions gained the automatic first down, they very well may have run the clock out.

Okay, the Lions have been mostly wretched for the last 60 years. Not much playoff history to go on. But I can cite some games which far outweigh the above:

  • 1970 NFC divisional playoff at Dallas–in the lowest scoring playoff game in professional football history, the Cowboys prevailed 5-0 at the Cotton Bowl. Detroit, which came in riding a five-game winning streak, reached the Dallas 29 in the final minute, but Greg Landry’s last pass was intercepted by Mel Renfro at the 11.
  • 1983 NFC divisional playoff at San Francisco–the Lions had a chance to reach the NFC championship game, but usually reliable kicker Eddie Murray missed a 47-yard field goal in the final minute, allowing the 49ers to escape 24-23.
  • 1991 NFC championship at Washington–the Lions enjoyed a spectacular regular season, thanks to the prolific running of Barry Sanders, but the Redskins rolled 41-10 on their way to crushing the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.
  • 1993 NFC wild card vs. Green Bay–the Lions lost 28-24 on a last-minute touchdown pass from Brett Favre (WHO?) to Sterling Sharpe. Detroit has not hosted a playoff game since.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

The selection: 2003 NFC divisional playoff at Philadelphia, when the Eagles converted a 4th-and-26 en route to the tying touchdown. Favre threw an interception in overtime, and the Eagles converted it into the game winning field goal.

Right city, wrong year in this case.

Try the 1960 NFL championship game.

In Vince Lombardi’s second season as Packers coach, Green Bay had gone from 1-10-1 in 1958 to 8-4 and the NFL Western Division championship, earning it the right to play the Eagles at Franklin Field for the league title. There was no Super Bowl in this era, so it was all or nothing on the day after Christmas.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and “Concrete Charlie” Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last two-way player (center and middle linebacker), trailed 6-0 early in the second quarter before gaining the lead on a touchdown pass from Van Brocklin to Tommy McDonald. A field goal later in the period sent Philly to the locker room ahead by four.

The score stayed that way until early in the final stanza, when Bart Starr hit Max McGee (already establishing himself as a big-time performer in big-time games) from 7 yards out to make it 13-10 Packers. The Eagles regained the lead with 5:21 to go on a 5-yard run by Ted Dean, leaving Green Bay plenty of time to win.

The Packers reached the Eagle 22 in the final seconds with no timeouts. Starr found Jimmy Taylor on a flare pass, but he was tripped up by rookie Bobby Jackson then pounded to the ground by Bednarik at the 10 as the final seconds bled away. The gun sounded, and Bednarik growled to Taylor, “You can get up now. This game is over!”.

Philadelphia hasn’t won a title since, losing in Super Bowls XV and XXXIX. The Packers would fare much better, winning five NFL championships and Super Bowls I and II under Lombardi. Green Bay added titles in XXXI and XLV later.

Part two includes: someone forgot the Colts once played in Baltimore and a certain guarantee; the longest NFL game ever; and “The Greatest Game Ever Played”.

 

(Relatively) Calm Sunday

I have never seen Buffalo Wild Wings–at least store #0296, the one I frequent in Kansas City–this dead at 5:30 pm on an NFL Sunday. There are plenty of open seats at the bar, plenty of open seats in tables surrounding the bar, and quite a few tables available in the dining room.

I atributed today’s small crowd to three factors:

  1. The Chiefs played Thursday. That took away a lot of the crowd. The noon games, especially Broncos-Titans, drew a decent crowd, but certainly nowhere near as stuffed as it would have been had the Chiefs played. I didn’t mind. 
  2. The weather was nasty. No snow, but a light drizzle made the roads slick. Combined with the cold, but not frigid, temperatures, definitely kept some away. 
  3. Christmas is in two weeks. Probably a lot of people shopping. 

There were a pair of Dolphins fans sitting to my right at the bar while their team hosted the Cardinals. I made sure to keep my love for the Cards quiet. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see Arizona lose. 

The Cardinals lost 26-23, thanks in large part to one missed extra point by kicker Chandler Catanzaro, and a second which was not only blocked, but returned by Miami for two points. Had those plays not occurred, and assuming Catanzaro would have gone 3-for-3 on extra points, the field goal the Dolphins kicked on the last play of regulation would have only sent the game to overtime tied at 24-24. Just another bad day in a lost season for the Cardinals, who are now 5-7-1. The last time the Cardinals were 5-7-1 was 1983, when they were in St. Louis. That year, the Cards beat the Giants, Raiders and Eagles in their last three games to pull out a winning record. I don’t see it happening, even though the Saints and Rams are quite winnable games, and the Seahawks haven’t been world beaters against Arizona, especially in Seattle, where the Cards have won two of the last three meetings.      

Of course, nobody in Kansas City cares much about the Cardinals. All they care about is the Chiefs, and many I’m sure have already made reservations to be in Houston February 5 for Super Bowl LI. I can only imagine if the Super Bowl is the Chiefs, who began life as the Dallas Texans in 1960 before moving to Kansas City after three seasons, and the Cowboys, who forced the late Lamar Hunt’s team out of north Texas. Of course, the fans from Houston who attend will certainly root for the Chiefs, since Houston HATES anything and everything about Dallas. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Cowboys, the Rangers, the Mavericks, the Stars, FC Dallas, TCU, SMU…even Dallas high schools are scorned in Space City. 

I’m leaving Buffalo Wild Wings before 6:30. This is my sixth day here, and considering I’ve spent a ton of time on this barstool, I don’t feel guilty. I need to get some work done at the hotel. I’m coming back tomorrow to see Tori and play The Pulse, the weekly 30-question sports quiz, at 7:30. I have to leave at 8:30 to get more work done. 

Robb and Dawn weren’t able to come today because they were busy making Christmas candy, but hopefully they’ll show up Tuesday. I’m leaving Wednesday to go back to Russell, because I’ve got four appointments in Hays Thursday, then I go to Norton Friday. 

There’s a new Hallmark Channel movie at 7 tonight. Bonnie Somerville, whom I recall fondly from her five-episode stint as Rachel Hoffman on The O.C., is starring. I was able to purchase two of the three Christmas movies starring Alicia Witt on iTunes, but “I’m Not Ready For Christmas” is not available. And it isn’t on DVD, either. 

Right now, I am the only customer at the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings. Geez. Talk about dead!

Still a classic four decades later

Here I go again. I promise to post every day, then I get lazy. Now I’m really getting lazy. This is why I almost never make resolutions when the calendar changes, even something as innocuous as promising to post to this blog every day.

Today is the 40th anniversary of one of the best Super Bowls played. Super Bowl X matched the Dallas Cowboys, winners of Super Bowl VI and losers of Super Bowl V, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending world champions.

The Cowboys entered the 1975 season in a situation they had not found themselves in since 1966-entering a new season after failing to qualify for the playoffs the previous year. The 1974 Cowboys were plagued by injuries and started 1-4, falling far behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Redskins in the NFC East race.

Dallas did have a memorable game in 1974. Clint Longley came off the bench early in the third quarter of the Thanksgiving Day game vs. the Redskins to take over at quarterback for Roger Staubach, who suffered a concussion on a hit by Diron Talbert. Longley brought the Cowboys back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to win 24-23 on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson in the final minute. The comeback was not enough to get the Cowboys into the playoffs, as they finished 8-6, losing their regular season finale at Oakland.

Not much was expected of the 1975 Cowboys. Bob Lilly, Mr. Cowboy himself and the game’s best defensive tackle, retired after 14 seasons. Fullback Walt Garrison was gone. So was free safety Cornell Green. Calvin Hill had defected to the World Football League. Many of the veteran core of Super Bowls V and VI who remained–Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan, Ralph Neely–had grown old. Roger Staubach was only in his seventh season in the league, but he was already 32.

What the experts forgot when picking the Cowboys to finish far behind the Cardinals and Redskins in the NFC East was the mind of Tom Landry.

Landry resurrected the shotgun formation for 1975, giving Staubach a clear look at the opposing defense, as well as more time to find receivers coming open late. He could also use his mobility farther back in the pocket and open up other opportunities on the edges.

The 1975 Cowboys opened with victories over two playoff teams of 1974, the Rams and Cardinals, beating the latter 37-31 in overtime. Dallas went on to a 10-4 record and the NFC wild card, joining the Cardinals, Vikings and Rams in the postseason.

The Cowboys were decided underdogs in the NFC semifinals at Minnesota, but Dallas prevailed 17-14 on Roger Staubach’s long touchdown pass to Drew Pearson in the game’s final minute. The pass became known as the Hail Mary when Staubach described the play as such in postgame interviews.

No such dramatics were needed in the NFC championship game. The Cowboys went to Los Angeles and crushed the Rams 37-7.

The Steelers had no hangover from their 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX, going 12-2 during the 1975 regular season. Pittsburgh easily squashed the resurgent Baltimore Colts in its first playoff game, then outlasted the hated Oakland Raiders 16-10 in the AFC championship game. Oakland reached the Steelers’ 23-yard line in the waning seconds, but time ran out before Cliff Branch could get out of bounds, sending Pittsburgh to Miami.

The headlines off the field were much more intriguing than those on the field heading into Super Bowl X.

There was a massive ticket scam, and hundreds of people spent hundreds of dollars only to be forced to watch the game in a hotel instead of the Orange Bowl.

For those who had tickets, it wasn’t much more pleasant. South Florida was hit with an unusual cold spell, closing hotel pools and leaving many unprepared tourists shivering in shorts and no coats when temperatures plunged into the low 50s. It was 57 degrees at kickoff, 13 degrees cooler than the last Super Bowl played in Miami (Super Bowl V), but still 11 degrees warmer than it was at kickoff for Super Bowl IX in New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium.

Figuring they had nothing to lose and needed to pull out all the stops to beat the Steelers, the Cowboys wasted no time in fooling the Steelers.

Preston Pearson, who played for the Steelers in Super Bowl IX before being waived in training camp in July 1975, just in front of his own goal line. At the 9, he handed the ball to rookie linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, who came speeding around left end and brought the pigskin all the way to the Steeler 44. Although Dallas didn’t score on its opening possession, it soon would have the ball deeper in Pittsburgh territory when a poor snap to punter Bobby Walden forced him to eat the ball at his own 29.

On the Cowboys’ first play of their second possession, Staubach found Drew Pearson streaking right to left across the Steeler secondary. Pearson caught Staubach’s pass in stride and raced to the game’s first touchdown.

Pittsburgh responded with a touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Randy Grossman out of a three tight-end formation which had Dallas’ defense bunched up to stop Franco Harris. .The Steelers  moved into Dallas territory on a spectacular pass from Bradshaw to Lynn Swann down the right sideline. Swann had to make a leaping catch AND get both feet inbounds. It was simply sensational, but Swann was far from done.

Trailing 10-7 in the second quarter, Swann made a diving catch over the Cowboys’ Mark Washington, but the Steelers could not capitalize, and Dallas led 10-7 at halftime.

The Steelers’ Roy Gerela missed two field goals during the scoreless interregnum. Each time, Cowboys safety Clioff Harris taunted Gerela, but after the second miss, Pittsburgh middle linebacker Jack Lambert threw Harris to the ground like a rag doll. Fortunately for both teams, referee Norm Schachter–officiating his third Super Bowl and his final NFL game–and his crew were able to keep calm, and nobody was ejected.

 

It was still 10-7 early in the fourth quarter when Pittsburgh turned the tide in its favor.

In Super Bowl IX, Walden had a punt blocked in the fourth quarter which resulted in the lone Minnesota touchdown when Terry Brown recovered in the end zone.

This time, the Steelers blocked the punt. Reserve running back Reggie Harrison busted through the Cowboys’ protection and swatted Mitch Hoopes’ punt back over his head and out of the end zone for a safety. Not only was Pittsburgh now within a point, it would get the ball back on the free kick.

The Steelers scored a field goal off the free kick to take the lead for the first time, 12-10, and soon had the ball back when Mike Wagner intercepted Stabuach deep in Dallas territory. Another field goal by Gerela made it 15-10.

On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Bradshaw threw deep downfield to Swann, who torched Mark Washington for a 64-yard touchdown. Gerela missed the extra point, but it was still 21-10, and without the 2-point conversion, the Cowboys needed two touchodwns to win with only 3:02 to go.

Bradshaw did not see what happened downfield. Just after he launched the pass, he was knocked out cold by Cowboys defensive end Larry Cole. Had that hit occurred in today’s NFL, Cole would have been penalized and likely faced a hefty fine, since he drove his helmet into Bradshaw’s. In 1975, nobody cared that Cole used his helmet; the concern was more for Bradshaw, who was out of the game.

Dallas got the first touchdown it needed on a 34-yard strike from Staubach to Percy Howard. It turned out to be the only catch of Howard’s professional career.

Pittsburgh guard Gerry Mullins recovered Toni Fritsch’s onside kick, but the Steelers did not gain a first down on three attempts, leaving it fourth-and-8. Instead of punting, Chuck Noll called for another running play, not worried that he would leave the Cowboys a shorter field. He was worried to death about a bad snap to Walden in punt formation, knowing a fumble would leave Dallas inside the Pittsburgh 30.

Noll’s strategy didn’t bite the Steelers. On the last play of the game, Glen Edwards intercepted Staubach’s attempted Hail Mary in the end zone. Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17.

After years of boring blowouts, Super Bowl X had all the drama the Super Bowl was supposed to embody. The Cowboys may have lost, but nobody would dare call them losers.

Two interesting facts from Super Bowl X:

  • Many scenes for the movie Black Sunday were filmed in Miami during the game. The plot revolved around a deranged former pilot hijacking the Goodyear blimp and using it as a weapon of mass destruction.
  • This was the first Super Bowl where Pat Summerall called play-by-play. His analyst, Tom Brookshier, left the booth in the fourth quarter in anticipation of the trophy presentation in the winning locker room. Hank Stram, who at the time was not coaching, took Brookshier’s place for the final period. Two days later, Stram would be named coach of the Saints. By 1978, Stram would become a full-time broadcaster.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of…SUPER BOWL NONE. No Super Bowl has ever been contested on January 19, and none will, unless there is a radical change in the NFL calendar.

 

 

Chiefs drought about to end

The NFL playoffs for the 2015 season began at 3:20 p.m. Central Time today. The Chiefs are kicking the crap out of the Texans, who are getting absolutely shitty quarterback play from Brian Hoyer, who has thrown three interceptions and fumbled. It frankly should be a lot worse than 20-0.

The Houston Cougars, who went 13-1 and won the Peach Bowl under first year coach Tom Herman, would have put up a better fight today than the Texans. The Cougars’ quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., could have used his athleticism to make plays out of the pocket, and Herman would not have put Ward in bad situations the way Bill O’Brien has done with Hoyer.

Houston has never experienced a Super Bowl, whether it be with the Oilers from 1966 (the first season of the Super Bowl) through 1996, or the Texans since 2002. Guess what? It won’t happen until Houston finds a quarterback. Save for a couple of decent seasons from Matt Schaub with the Texans, the last time a Houston NFL team had a strong quarterback was Warren Moon with the 1993 Oilers.

Speaking of the 1993 Oilers, the Chiefs are one quarter away from winning their first playoff game since winning 28-20 over the Oilers at the Astrodome in that season’s AFC divisional round. Houston started 1-4 in 1993, but won its last 11 regular season games, and many experts believed the Oilers would win the AFC and prevent football fans everywhere the misery of the Buffalo Bills losing in the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive season.

Instead, the Chiefs came to Houston and rode the right arm of some guy named Joe Montana to advance to the AFC championship game for the first time since Kansas City won Super Bowl IV in January 1970.

The Chiefs are still looking for their first trip to the championship game since defeating the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans. Kansas City lost the 1993 AFC championship game at Buffalo, with Montana exiting in the second quarter due to a concussion after a hard hit by Bruce Smith. The Bills won 30-13, and would lose Super Bowl XXVIII by the exact same score to the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike Super Bowl XXVII, when Buffalo turned it over nine times in losing 52-17, the Bills led 13-6 at halftime, only to squander the lead early in the third quarter when the Cowboys’ James Washington returned a Thurman Thomas fumble for a touchdown.

The Bills have won ONE playoff game since Super Bowl XXVIII. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, when they were eliminated by the Tennessee Titans in the wild card round by the Music City Miracle.

Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson resigned two months after Super Bowl XXVIII. Barry Switzer came in and led the Cowboys to victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, but Dallas has won just two playoff games since, and has yet to return to the NFC championship game.

The Chiefs now await the outcome of tonight’s Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game to see where they play next. If the Steelers win, Kansas City is on its way to New England to face Tom Brady and the Patriots. If the Bengals win, the Chiefs are in Denver for a third meeting with the Broncos. The last thing I would want as a coach is facing Brady and Belichick in Foxborough. No way.

Kansas City fans, do NOT wave Terrible Towels. You want the Bengals to win.

It rang a Bell

In an utterly meaningless NFL game yesterday, the Bills defeated the Cowboys 16-6 in Buffalo. Both teams came into the game out of the playoff race, and neither can have a winning record, since the Bills are now 7-8 and the Cowboys fell to a wretched 4-11.

I guess Buffalo still has something to play for next week since if Rex Ryan can lead the Bills to victory over the Jets, Ryan may be able to keep his former employer out of the playoffs.

The Jets overtook the Steelers for the second AFC wild card when Pittsburgh lost in Baltimore and New York defeated the mighty Patriots 26-20 in overtime in New Jersey. New England won the overtime coin toss, but Mr. Sunshine himself, Bill Belichick, told his captains to kick off to start overtime. Ryan Fitzpatrick burned the Pats with the winning touchdown pass to Eric Decker (Mr. Jessie James).

Back to Dallas and Buffalo. Yesterday’s matchup brought me back to an earlier meeting between the two clubs.

The clubs played in back-to-back Super Bowls following the 1992 and 1993 seasons, the only time that’s happened, although there’s a chance it could this year if the Patriots and Seahawks oblige, although the Cardinals are in no mood to help their NFC West rival.

The first matchup was horrendous; the Bills turned the ball over nine times and lost 52-17, and it might have been worse had Don Beebe not knocked the ball out of the right hand of Leon Lett at the 2-yard line in the closing minutes, forcing a fumble which resulted in a Buffalo touchback instead of a Dallas touchdown. The second meeting saw the Bills lead 13-6 at halftime, only to lose 30-13.

Yet it wasn’t either Dallas-Buffalo Super Bowl I remembered yesterday while I sat in Buffalo Wild Wings watching the games.

It was November 18, 1984, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I was eight years old and in the third grade at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic school, about one mile from my home and only a few feet from the home of the Dauterive family.

My parents, my brother and I went to visit my maternal grandmother, who lived by herself in a shotgun duplex in the Algiers section of New Orleans, the part of the Crescent City which was on the opposite bank of the Mississippi River from the rest of the city. We would go over there on many a Sunday after lunch, but this time, we were there earlier, in time for the early NFL games to kick off at noon.

The early game on CBS was Dallas at Buffalo. The Cowboys were starting to crumble, but still had future Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Randy White, and were in the thick of a four-team fray in the NFC East with the Giants, Washington and the St. Louis Football Cardinals, who were having a rare good season.

The only race the Bills were in by November 18, 1984, was the race for the #1 draft pick. And thanks to Buffalo’s perfect record–the wrong kind of perfect–it really wasn’t a race.

Buffalo came in 0-11. The Bills’ standout quarterback, Joe Ferguson, was hurt. Their top running back of previous seasons, Joe Cribbs, had defected to the United States Football League following the 1983 NFL season, signing a contract with the Birmingham Stallions, a popular move given Cribbs starred at Auburn in the late 1970s. Buffalo’s defensive leader, inside linebacker Jim Haslett, was out with an injury. Nose tackle Fred Smerlas was getting absolutely bludgeoned, simply because the Bills lacked competent ends.

Ferguson wasn’t supposed to be the Bills’ starting quarterback in 1984.

That was supposed to be the domain of Jim Kelly, who was selected 13th overall by Buffalo in the 1983 draft. Kelly, who played for Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, refused to sign with the Bills and instead went to the USFL’s Houston Gamblers. He wouldn’t play for the Bills until 1986, and only after the USFL won only $3 in its antitrust case vs. the NFL.

CBS’ announcing team, Dick Stockton and Hank Stram, focused on the Cowboys in their opening spiel. The Bills were winless, and CBS probably resented having to cover a game in Buffalo. Since Buffalo is in the AFC, CBS had to only go to western New York twice a year at most. The game was blacked out in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse since it was not sold out, even though the Cowboys were in Buffalo for the first time since 1971.

Those who weren’t at what was then known as Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) missed a really good show.

On the first play from scrimmage, Greg Bell, a rookie from Notre Dame who became an immediate starter following Cribbs’ departure for Alabama, took a handoff from backup quarterback Matt Kofler. Bell burst past the Cowboys’ defensive line led by White and Ed (Too Tall) Jones, outran the linebackers and left Everson Walls and Ron Fellows in his wake.

The 85-yard touchdown left the Cowboys, dressed in their unlucky dark blue jerseys, shell-shocked.

Bell finished the day with 206 yards on 28 carries, becoming the first opposing player to rush for 200 yards vs. the Cowboys since Jim Brown did so for the Browns two days after President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.

Buffalo 14, Dallas 3. Maybe the most embarrassing loss for the Cowboys to that point in franchise history.

The Bills ended the year 2-14. The consolation was the #1 draft pick, which the new general manager, Bill Polian, used to select Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith. Once Smith, Kelly, Cornelius Bennett, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and all the rest of the pieces were in place, the 1984 disaster (and the one glorious afternoon) were a distant memory.

As for Dallas, the decline was on whether or not anyone knew it. The Cowboys finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1974. They won the NFC East in 1985, largely by going 3-1 vs. the Redskins and Giants, but in 1986, Dallas finished 7-9. In 1988, the Cowboys went 3-13, and two months after the season ended, Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by new owner Jerry Jones, who hired his college roommate, Jimmy Johnson.

Later that afternoon, I watched the 11-0 Dolphins lose 34-28 in overtime at San Diego when Buford McGee rumbled 25 yards for a touchdown.

The next night, the Saints won their first Monday night game, defeating the Steelers 27-24 in the Superdome. I couldn’t watch, because the game was blacked out.

Any Given Sunday? It was never more on display than November 18, 1984.

 

 

 

Super Day

Only one Super Bowl has ever been contested on January 21.

It still ranks as one of the best championship games at any level of football 36 years later.

Super Bowl XIII matched the two most popular National Football League franchises of the 1970, and also the two best, the PIttsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys.

The winner of Super Bowl XIII would become the first team to win three Super Bowls. The winner would lay claim to the title of Team of the 1970s, since each had won both of their previous titles in the decade.

Dallas won first, claiming Super Bowl VI following the 1971 season, but had to wait six years before winning again in Super Bowl XII.

On the other hand, Pittsburgh didn’t make the playoffs for the first time until 1972, the year after the Cowboys’ conquest of the Dolphins. The Steelers made up for four decades of losing with back-to-back titles in Super Bowls IX and X following the 1974 and ’75 seasons.

Chuck Noll took over the wretched Steelers in 1969, and following a 1-13 initial campaign, Pittsburgh became the team the Steel City knew and loved: gritty, hard-nosed, aggressive, blue collar, much like the city at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Mongahela Rivers.

Starting in 1972, the Steelers did not miss the playoffs for the remainder of the decade. The Cowboys made the playoffs every season between 1966 and 1983 EXCEPT for 1974, when the older roster from Super Bowls V and VI was transitioning to the younger group which went to Super Bowls X, XII and XIII.

Super Bowl XIII provided the first Super Bowl rematch. The Steelers and Cowboys faced off three years prior in a thrilling game won by Pittsburgh 21-17. Dallas scored first and led into the fourth quarter, but a blocked punt turned the tide in favor of the Steelers. Terry Bradshaw threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Swann with three minutes left to give his team a 21-10 lead, but Bradshaw was knocked out cold on the play by Larry Cole. The Cowboys came back to score on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Percy Howard–the ONLY CATCH of his NFL career! Dallas got the ball back, but on the game’s last play, Staubach was intercepted in the end zone by Glen Edwards.

The 1978 Steelers was Pittsburgh’s best team. They went 14-2, losing only to the Oilers at home and the Rams on the road. Pittsburgh’s offense had morphed from a run-heavy playbook reliant on Franco Harris into a high-flying aerial circus, with Bradshaw throwing to fleet receivers Swann and John Stallworth. The Steel Curtain was aging, but Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount were still playing at their Hall of Fame levels.

Pittsburgh crushed 1977 AFC champion Denver in the divisional playoff before annihilating Houston 34-5 in an ice storm in the conference final.

The 1978 Cowboys started off sluggishly, losing four of their first ten games, including a 9-5 decision at Washington on Monday Night with President Carter in attendance. Dallas got it going in the second half of the season to finish 12-4, but in their first playoff game vs. Atlanta, Staubach was knocked out on a late hit by Robert Pennywell.

Danny White, who had been the Cowboys punter since joining the team in 1976, took over at quarterback when Staubach went down vs. Atlanta. White led the Cowboys to two second half touchdowns, and the Doomsday Defense shut out the Falcons in the final 30-plus minutes to win 27-20.

Staubach returned to the lineup in Los Angeles for the NFC championship game, but through three quarters, the Cowboys’ lead over the Rams was just 7-0. Finally, Dallas broke it open with three touchdowns in the final period, the last a 68-yard interception return by Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. The 28-0 win set up the rematch in Miami, which had been the site of Super Bowl X.

The Cowboys were coached by the ageless Tom Landry, who built the franchise from scratch in 1960 and turned it into America’s Team by 1978, his 19th season at the helm. Landry devolped the Flex Defense, the man in motion offense, and revived the shotgun formation to give Staubach more time to locate receivers downfield.

Hollywood Henderson stepped in it on media day. When asked about Bradshaw, he said “He couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A.” Little did most know Henderson was high on cocaine during that interview, and he would be hopped up on the white stuff come Super Sunday.

Pittsburgh scored first on a touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth, but Dallas got even on the final play of the first quarter when Tony Hill ran past Blount, who was paying attention to Drew Pearson and never saw Hill catch Staubach’s pass. Hill romped to a 65-yard score.

After the first quarter touchdown pass, Bradshaw went bad. He was intercepted by D.D. Lewis prior to the Dallas touchdown, and in the second quarter, he fumbled at his own 37-yard line when smothered by Henderson. Mike Hegman picked up the loose ball and scooted to paydirt, putting the Cowboys, the reigning champions, ahead 14-7.

Pittsburgh tied the game on another long touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth. The score remained 14-14 until the final minute of the first half, when Bradshaw hit Rocky Bleier on a rollout pass. Bleier, the Vietnam War hero, made a twisting catch in front of Lewis to send the Steelers to the locker room ahead by seven.

Neither team did much with the ball until late in the third quarter, when Dallas moved to within yards of the tying touchdown.

On a third down play, Staubach spotted Jackie Smith wide open in the dead center of the end zone. Smith was in his 16th and final NFL season, but his first with the Cowboys after numerous All-Pro seasons with the Cardinals.

Smith had to come back to his right and slid, but the ball was dead center between the 8 and 1 on his jersey.

He dropped it.

Cowboys radio play-by-play man Verne Lundquist said of Smith, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”

Maybe no more powerful words have been spoken during a Super Bowl broadcast.

Dallas kicked a field goal to pull to within 21-17 as the fourth quarter arrived.

Then came another disaster for the Cowboys.

Bradshaw looped a pass down the right sideline for Swann. The ball was underthrown, and as Swann attempted to adjust, he tripped over the feet of Cowboys cornerback Benny Barnes.

The ball appeared to be uncatchable, but back judge Fred Swearingen called pass interference on Barnes, giving the Steelers a first down at the Cowboy 18.

Swearingen and the Steelers had a history long before this game.

In 1972, Swearingen was the referee for the Steelers’ first playoff game vs. the Raiders. Of course, that was the game in which Franco Harris made the “Immaculate Reception” after a Bradshaw pass intended for French Fuqua was knocked away when Fuqua and Jack Tatum collided. Swearingen and his crew went to a dugout phone at Three Rivers Stadium and asked for help from NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, who offered none and ordered Swearingen to make a ruling.

On the play after Swearingen’s pass interference call, Harris rumbled 18 yards to a touchdown to give the Steelers a 28-17 lead.

The key block was thrown by Art Demmas.

WHO?

Demmas was the umpire on the officiating crew whom Cowboys safety Charlie Waters collided with as he closed in on Harris. Nobody else was within hailing distance of Harris, and he scored untouched.

Such a situation probably would not happen in an NFL game today, since starting in 2009, the league moved the umpire from behind the defensive line to the offensive backfield lateral to the referee. The move was made because several NFL umpires had suffered serious injuries when trampled by players. The umpire stands behind the defense only when (a) there are less than 2 minutes left in the first half; (b) there are less than five minutes left in the second half; and (c) the offense is inside the opponent’s 5.

On the ensuing kickoff following Harris’ touchdown, Steelers kicker Roy Gerela slipped on the slick grass. The ball squibbed to Randy White, the Cowboys’ All-Prio defensive tackle who was supposed to be blocking. White carried the ball in his left hand, which happened to have a heavy cast on it due to a broken thumb, and White could not grip the ball properly. It squirted loose, and Tony Dungy–yes, THAT Tony Dungy–recovered for the Steelers.

Bradshaw hit a leaping Swann in the end zone well behind Cliff Harris, and with less than six minutes remaining, the Steelers appeared to be safely home, leading 35-17.

Slight problem: Captain Comeback was quarterbacking the other team.

Sure enough, Staubach and Tony Dorsett engineered a frantic 8-play, 90-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass from Stabuach to Billy Jo Dupree which cut the margin to 11 with 2:27 to go (remember, the 2-point conversion would not return to the NFL until 1994, after having been used in the AFL prior to the merger).

Rafael Septein executed a perfect onside kick, and Dennis Thurman recovered. The Cowboys drove downfield again and scored on a pass from Staubach to Butch Johnson.

Now, only 22 seconds remained, and Dallas would not only have to recover another onside kick, but it would have to drive at least 50 yards with no timeouts.

It became moot when Bleier recovered the onside kick.

Bradshaw threw for 318 yards to earn MVP honors and shut up Hollywood Henderson.

Staubach, meanwhile, ripped the officials, especially Swearningen for his call against Barnes. Cowboys coach Tom Landry also complained vociferously and was fined by the NFL.

Turns out Landry and Staubach were right about Swearingen. A few days later, McNally ruled Barnes should not have been flagged. Incidental contact.

Staubach would never return to the Super Bowl. He was knocked out of the Cowboys’ 1979 divisional playoff loss to the Rams on a hit by Jack Youngblood, and in March 1980, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and Naval officer retired.

Dallas would enter a steep decline beginning in 1984, and by 1988, it was 3-13. In February 1989, Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys and immediately fired Landry, replacing him with Jimmy Johnson.

Pittsburgh successfully defended its title in 1979, defeating the Rams in Super Bowl XIV in a game which was far closer than the 31-19 final indicated. The Steelers would start to age, and their dynasty finally ended for good when Bradshaw and Blount retired following the 1983 season.

It wasn’t until January 28, 1996 when the Cowboys and Steelers finally shared the field again in a Super Bowl. By this time, Barry Switzer and Bill Cowher were coaching, and the quarterbacks were Troy Aikman and Neil O’Donnell. The NFL was also in Arizona, following the Cardinals’ move from St. Louis to the desert in 1988.

Dallas won 27-17, but it has not been back to the Super Bowl since. The Steelers, meanwhile, have returned three times, besting the Seahawks in XL (2005) and Cardinals in XLIII (2008), but losing to the Packers in XLV (2010).

January 22 saw two Super Bowls played five years apart. I remember both very well. That’s tomorrow’s posts.

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.