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Red Sunday assured

It will indeed be Red Sunday in Miami Gardens in two weeks.

The Chiefs defeated the Titans 35-24 for the AFC Championship, and the 49ers easily ousted the Packers 37-20 for the NFC Championship to set up Super Bowl LIV.

Kansas City is in the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, when Hank Stram’s club, led by Hall of Famers Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas and Johnny Robinson, defeated Bud Grant’s Vikings, who were in their five-year period without Francis Asbury Tarkenton. The 23-7 final at Tulane Stadium was considered an upset since Minnesota was favored by 13 to 14 points, but the Chiefs (or Raiders, whom Kansas City defeated in the last AFL Championship game) were far superior to the Jets club which defeated the Colts in Super Bowl III. Joe Namath’s guarantee was an upset, because that Baltimore team, even without Johnny Unitas, was great. Looking back, the 1969 Vikings weren’t.

Minnesota went 12-2, yes, but lost to the Giants and Falcons, both of whom went 6-8, and Joe Kapp was the worst quarterback to start any of the first four Super Bowls, and probably one of the ten worst ever. The Vikings had no outside running threat, their receivers were nowhere near as good as the Chiefs’ Otis Taylor, and their offensive line, which featured future Hall of Famers Mick Tinglehoff and Ron Yary, had never faced a defensive line as large as Kansas City’s. Viking losses in divisional playoff games to the 49ers in 1970 and the Cowboys in 1971 proved the offense didn’t work without Tarkenton. Tarkenton came back from New York in 1972, and while the Vikings made three more Super Bowls, they were overwhelmed each time.

The Chiefs’ other Super Bowl appearance was in the first one, which was known at the time as the AFL-NFL World Championship game. The Chiefs hung with Lombardi’s Packers for a half, but self-destructed after the break, and Green Bay went on to win 35-10 in Los Angeles. Packer wideout Max McGee became the Super Bowl’s first unlikely hero with seven receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns.

San Francisco will be making its seventh Super Bowl appearance. The 49ers’ only Super Bowl loss was in their most recent trip, a 34-31 loss to the Ravens in New Orleans where John Harbaugh defeated younger brother Jim. The former is still in Baltimore; the latter is coaching his college alma mater in Ann Arbor. Few outside Maryland and the Bay Area remember much about the game itself, but instead the power outage at the Superdome during the third quarter.

The 49ers’ two previous trips to South Florida for the Super Bowl were quite possibly the best and worst Super Bowls ever.

The worst was in January 1995, when the 49ers mauled the Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX, the only Super Bowl to match two teams from the same state. The 49ers were favored by anywhere from 17 to 20 points, and it quickly became apparent they would cover that spread and then some. Two California teams playing in South Florida and a horrible match drove ticket prices way down. The Chargers’ starting quarterback, Stan Humphries, makes my list with Kapp for the Super Bowl’s worst.

Humprhies has a Super Bowl ring as the backup for the 1991 Redskins. Fortunately for Joe Gibbs, Mark Rypien stayed healthy throughout that season and he never needed Humphries in an important situation. Then again, the 1991 Redskins might have won Super Bowl XXVI if Gibbs played quarterback himself. That team was loaded.

The other 49ers Super Bowl in South Florida, Super Bowl XXIII vs. the Bengals, was one for the ages, and in my opinion, the best I’ve witnessed.

San Francisco fell to 6-5 in mid-November following back-to-back losses to the Cardinals and Raiders. Steve Young pulled out a game vs. the Vikings with a 49-yard touchdown run in the game’s final minute in one of the best plays I’ve seen live, but vs. the Cardinals (in their first season in Arizona), San Francisco blew a 23-0 lead and lost 24-23, while the 49ers were scuttled 9-3 at home by the Raiders in Mike Shanahan’s biggest victory as coach of the Silver and Black.

With a Monday Night Football game vs. defending Super Bowl champion Washington, Bill Walsh named a healthy Montana as his starter.

The 49ers were off and running. They routed the Redskins 37-21, then won their next three, including a 30-17 victory over the Saints at Candlestick to clinch the NFC West. In the playoffs, San Francisco earned revenge for a 1987 playoff loss to the Vikings with a 34-9 rout before going to Chicago and crushing the Bears 28-3 despite a wind chill of minus-10 Fahrenheit (minus-22 Celsius).

San Francisco was considered an underdog to the Cinderella team of 1988, the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals were 4-11 in 1987, and Sam Wyche (who passed away earlier this month; R.I.P,, Sam) had to win or else in 1988 to keep his job. Cincinnati needed a goal-line stand on opening day to outlast the Cardinals 21-14, but it spurred a 6-0 start and a 12-4 regular season to win the Bengals’ first AFC Central championship since 1981, the year they went to Super Bowl XVI and lost to the Bengals in Detroit.

Cincinnati was powered by 1988 MVP Boomer Esiason, and a powerful running back combination of James Brooks and Elbert “Ickey” Woods, who introduced the “Ickey Shuffle” to the football world. Woods was penalized when he did his dance in the end zone, so he was relegated to doing so on the sideline.

Super Bowl XXIII was the first in Miami in 10 years, and the first at Joe Robbie Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium), which opened in August 1987. Billy Joel performed a fantastic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner (he repeated it for Super Bowl XLI in the same stadium), but soon thereafter, the sunny skies over South Florida darkened.

Two serious injuries occurred in the first quarter, with 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace and Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie taken off the field on carts. Krumrie broke a bone in his left leg, an injury so serious an air cast had to be placed over the leg to stabilize it.

The first half produced little offense, with each team kicking a field goal. 49ers kicker Mike Cofer blew a 19-yard chip shot in the second quarter, and at halftime, it was 3-3, the first halftime tie in the Super Bowl.

The Bengals scored the game’s first touchdown late in the third quarter when Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, putting Cincinnati ahead 13-6. San Francisco answered on a Joe Montana to Jerry Rice touchdown 57 seconds into the fourth quarter to forge the game’s third tie.

Rice ended the night with 10 receptions for 215 yards, both Super Bowl records, and easily won the game’s MVP award.

Jim Breech’s 40-yard field goal with 3:20 to go put the Bengals up 16-13. When the 49ers were pinned at their own 8-yard line following a penalty on the ensuing kickoff, hearts across northern California sank, while those in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana rose. It looked like Cinderella’s glass slipper would not shatter. It looked like the team with the pumpkin-colored helmets would not turn into pumpkins themselves.

Wyche knew all too well no game was over as long as #16 was in charge for the 49ers. After all, Wyche was the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach when they won Super Bowl XVI seven years prior.

How cool was Joe Montana? As the 49ers huddled in the east end zone of the stadium prior to the first play of the drive, Montana pointed out to his teammates that actor John Candy was being shown on the video board.

Montana Magic was never more apparent than the evening of 22 January 1989 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

San Francisco drove 872 yards on 10 plays, leaving it with third and goal from the Cincinnati 10. With the Bengals focused on Rice, and rightly so, Montana spotted his other top wideout, John Taylor, on a post pattern over the middle. Taylor caught the ball in stride in the end zone with 34 seconds left.

San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16. Bill Walsh announced his retirement in the locker room after the game, and his successor, George Seifert, led the 49ers to a most dominant 14-2 season in 1989 and a 55-10 destruction of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

The Chiefs and 49ers are infrequent foes, seeing they play in opposite conferences. They don’t even play much in the exhibition season.

They first played in 1971, with Kansas City winning 26-17 at Candlestick on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs did not return to Candlestick until 1985, and they did not defeat the 49ers again until 1994, when the Montana-led Chiefs defeated the Young-led 49ers 24-17 at Arrowhead. In between, San Francisco won in 1975 and ’82 at Kansas City, and again in 1985 and ’91 at Candlestick.

Their last game was in 2018 at Arrowhead, the game where 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Kansas City won 38-28. San Francisco went 4-12, giving it the #2 overall pick in the draft, which it used to take Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who will win Rookie of the Year or be a close second.

This will not be the first time the championship of a North American professional sports league will be determined by teams from Kansas City and San Francisco.

In the 2014 World Series, the Giants defeated the Royals in seven games. The teams split the first two games in Kansas City, then the Royals won the third at San Francisco. The Giants rallied to win the next two at AT&T Park (now Oracle park), but Yordano Ventura pitched a gem in game six at Kauffman to take the series to the limit.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy called on ace Madison Bumgarner, the starter and winner in games one and five, to relieve former Royal Jeremy Affeldt to begin the fifth with San Francisco ahead 3-2.

Bumgarner totally shut down the Royals until there were two out in the ninth. Alex Gordon singled and went to third when left fielder Gregor Blanco overran the ball. It looked like Gordon would be able to score, but third base coach Mike Jirschele held up Gordon.

Salvador Perez then popped up to Pablo Sandoval in foul ground. Sandoval squeezed the final out, giving San Francisco its third World Series title in five seasons. Of course, the Royals redeemed themselves one year later, with a lot of help from the bumbling Mets.

Let the hype begin.

Partying like its 1969 (and January 1970)

Stupid mouse. Now I have to start over. Actually, I’m the stupid one for not saving my draft.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl IV, when the Chiefs, led by quarterback Len Dawson, running back Mike Garrett and receiver Otis Taylor, “matriculated the ball down the field” well enough to defeat the Vikings 23-7 in the last Super Bowl to match the NFL and AFL. The merger of the leagues was to take effect after this game, per the terms of the 1966 agreement brokered by Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

It was fitting the final game involving an AFL team was played in New Orleans. The Big Easy was represented in the U.S. House by Thomas Hale Boggs, who helped the NFL and AFL secure an antitrust exemption to allow for the merger. Louisiana’s junior U.S. Senator, Russell B. Long, son of Huey and nephew of Earl, was the manager of the antitrust exemption in the Senate. The bill was signed by LBJ in October 1966. As a reward, New Orleans was awarded an expansion team, which began play as the Saints in 1967.

Ironically, Hunt nearly moved the Dallas Texans to New Orleans instead of Kansas City in early 1963. There was a slight problem with that idea: segregation.

Tulane Stadium did not allow black patrons to sit in prime seating areas for Green Wave games (nor did any other stadium in the Southeastern Conference at that time). No way that would be kosher for a professional league, especially one which had a large number of black players.

No state of the former confederacy other than Texas had a professional sports franchise until the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, but Atlanta was fortunate to have a progressive mayor, Ivan Allen, who initiated desegregation in the ATL before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. New Orleans wasn’t as bad as Birmingham and Montgomery as far as treating blacks as a lower life form, but mayors Chep Morrison and Victor Schiro weren’t rolling out the red carpet, either.

The field at Tulane Stadium in Super Bowl IV was a mud pit. Anyone who has watched highlights of the game (there is an excellent video chronicling the game on YouTube) knows why the NFL required the Saints and Tulane to install artificial turf (Poly-Turf) in March 1971 when the Big Easy was awarded Super Bowl VI, which was played in January 1972.

Super Bowl IV was the first to be played without a week off between the league (later conference) championship games and the finale. This wouldn’t be the case again until January 1983, when the playoffs had to be expanded in the wake of the 1982 players’ strike which reduced the regular season from 16 games to 9. The next time there was only one week scheduled between the conference championships and Super Bowl was the 1990 season.

The off week is a necessity. Players need time to work out ticket arrangements, coaches need extra time to game plan, business managers need time to figure out flights and hotels, and fans need a week off from football, period (the Pro Bowl doesn’t count).

Strangely, there was a week off for the Chiefs and Raiders before the AFL championship game.

In 1969, the AFL held a semifinal playoff round, with the division champions (Jets in the East, Raiders in the West) hosting the runner-up from the opposite division (Chiefs in the West, Oilers in the East).

The AFL’s 1969 regular season ended one week earlier than the NFL’s. The weekend of Dec. 20-21 would have been used for tiebreaker games, but with no tiebreakers needed, the semifinals were held those days, with the Chiefs defeating the Jets 13-6 on Saturday and the Raiders mauling the Oilers 56-7 on Sunday.

While the AFL rested the final weekend of 1969, the NFL held its semifinals. The Vikings edged the Rams 23-20 to win the Western Conference, and the Browns crushed the Cowboys 38-14 to win the East.

The NFL championship game in Minnesota was a 27-7 rout for the Vikings, and it wasn’t that close. Cleveland was probably glad to be going to the AFC after losing 52-14 to the Cowboys in the 1967 semifinals and 34-0 to the Colts in the 1968 NFL championship.

The AFL championship provided much more drama.

Kansas City was seething its last four games to Oakland.

After the Chiefs won 24-10 in Kansas City in 1968 in a game where Hank Stram used the Straight-T formation and passed only three times, the Raiders rolled over the Chiefs twice in Oakland, 38-21 and 41-6, the latter being a playoff for the AFL Western Division title. The Raiders lost the AFL championship to the Jets, who went on to prove Joe Namath prophetic.

In 1969, the Raiders swept the Chiefs, 27-24 in Kansas City and 10-6 in Oakland.

The Raiders, coached by a 33-year old newbie named John Madden, had their suitcases loaded onto buses in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot. If Oakland won, it would immediately head to San Francisco International Airport and fly to New Orleans that night.

Oakland scored in the first quarter to go ahead 7-0, but that was all.

Kansas City’s “Redwood Forest” defense, led by five future Hall of Famers, hled the Raiders the rest of the way, and the Chiefs rallied to win 17-7 for their third AFL championship and second trip to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings were immediately installed as 14-point favorites. Many experts, especially those loyal to the NFL like Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule and notorious gambler Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, thought the Jets’ victory in Super Bowl III was a fluke. On the other hand, many of the Chiefs on the team in 1969 were on the field in Los Angeles three years prior, and Kansas City’s defense was superior to New York’s.

On the Tuesday prior to the Super Bowl, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report broke news of several NFL players who had ties to a Detroit bookmaker, Donald “Dice Dawson”. The two most prominent names on the list were Namath (no surprise) and Len Dawson (shocking).

Six hours after the report aired, Stram addressed the media and had Len Dawson, no relation to Dice, read a statement. Stram and his quarterback vehemently denied the report. It turned out the reports were false. So much for there not being fake news in 1970.

Namath ran afoul of Rozelle in the summer of 1969 after it was discovered gamblers and mafia members were hanging out at Bachelor’s III, the Manhattan bar Namath owned. Rozelle ordered Namath to divest himself of holdings in Bachelor’s III. Namath initially refused and retired, but one month later, he reversed course and returned to the Jets. I’m guessing Bear Bryant had a lot to do with Namath coming back, much more so than Weeb Ewbank.

The Vikings featured the NFL’s best defense in 1969, led by the “Purple Gang”. Minnesota’s defense had three future Hall of Famers in end Carl Eller, tackle Alan Page and safety Paul Krause, as well as end Jim Marshall, an ironman who played in 282 consecutive games over 19 seasons. How Marshall isn’t in the Hall of Fame is a travesty.

Stram thought he could beat the Vikings with short, quick passes to the sideline with his speedy receivers, Taylor and Frank Pitts. The key was to make sure Eller and Marshall were blocked. To do this, Stram had a running back and/or tight end Fred Arbanas assist his tackles, Jim Tyrer (on Marshall) and Dave Hill (on Eller) chip the ends.

“King Henry” also ran reverses, traps and counters to take advantage of Page’s quickness and keep him off-balance.

On defense, Stram often shifted one of his tackles, Buck Buchanan or Curley Culp (both are in the Hall of Fame), directly over Minnesota’s All-Pro center, Mick Tinglehoff. All NFL teams were running the standard 4-3 defense in 1969, which meant centers could fire out and block a middle linebacker instead of having to deal with a man right on him.

By putting Culp or Buchanan on Tinglehoff, it freed middle linebacker Willie Lanier, another future Hall of Famer, to roam free where needed.

Minnesota’s offense, while effective, was primitive in 1969. With Fran Tarkenton in New York and Chuck Foreman and John Gilliam still years away, the Vikings relied mostly on two straight-ahead runners, Bill Brown and Dave Osborn, and reckless quarterback Joe Kapp, whose wobbly passes were similar to those thrown by Billy Kilmer, the Saints’ starting quarterback at that time.

Stram, at the request of NFL Films President/Executive Producer Ed Sabol and son Steve, agreed to wear a wireless microphone during the game. When the highlights of Super Bowl IV were released in the summer of 1970, it became the gold standard for all future NFL Films productions.

The Chiefs took a 9-0 lead on three Jan Stenerud field goals, then caught a huge break in the second quarter when Charlie West fumbled a kickoff. Kansas City lineman Remi Prudhomme, who played on the same field for LSU in its victory over Syracuse in the 1965 Sugar Bowl, recovered, setting up the Chiefs in the red zone.

With second and goal on the Vikings 6-yard line, Stram famously called for “65 Toss Power Trap”.

In what became one of the most iconic play calls in Super Bowl history, the Chiefs offensive line influenced Page and Eller to their left, and with Marshall sealed off by Tyrer, Garrett ran through a gaping hole to the game’s first touchdown. Kansas City led 16-0, and that was the score at halftime.

The halftime show at Super Bowl IV featured a recreation of the Battle of New Orleans. Bad idea. A couple of the actors portraying soldiers lost fingers, and what was left of the grass on the field was gone.

Minnesota drove to a touchdown by Osborn in the third quarter to make it 16-7, but Kansas City put the game away for good later in the period when Taylor took a short pass at the right sideline, broke an attempted tackle by Viking cornerback Earsell Mackbee, then outran Karl Kassulke the rest of the way to a 46-yard touchdown.

Chiefs 23, Vikings 7 would be the final. Dawson was named Most Valuable Player, and President Nixon called the winning coach and quarterback in the locker room.

Kansas City hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl. The closest the Chiefs have come were AFC championship game losses to the Bills in 1993 and Patriots in 2018. The most crushing playoff loss was on Christmas Day 1971, when a strong Chiefs team lost to the upstart Dolphins in the NFL’s longest game (82 minutes, 40 seconds of playing time) in what turned out to be the final football match at Municipal Stadium.

Minnesota got back to the Super Bowl three times over the next seven seasons, but each game wasn’t close. The Vikings lost 24-7 to the Dolphins in VIII, 16-6 to the Steelers in IX (the last NFL game at Tulane Stadium; my parents were there, if only for a half), and 32-14 to the Raiders in XI. Minnesota lost NFC championship games in 1977, 1987, 1998, 2000 and 2009.

The Vikings’ drought is guaranteed to last another year, thanks to their 27-10 loss to the 49ers yesterday in Santa Clara. Seattle or Green Bay will visit Levi’s Stadium next Sunday to determine the NFC championship.

I’m wondering if older Minnesota fans or players might have had a feeling their team was cursed since the Vikings played on the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl IV.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have a golden opportunity to end their Super Bowl drought.

If Kansas City defeats Houston this afternoon, it will host Tennessee in the AFC championship.

That’s because the Titans went to Baltimore last night and shocked the Ravens 28-12, ending Baltimore’s 12-game winning streak.

The Ravens had the NFL’s best record, 14-2, thanks in large part to Lamar Jackson’s record-setting season. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville set a league record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season, while also throwing 32 touchdown passes.

Hardly anyone gave the Titans a chance, yet the last team to qualify for the playoffs is now one win away from its first Super Bowl since 1999, when Jeff Fisher’s club lost to the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf.

The Titans knocked out the Patriots in the first round of the playoffs. After downing the Ravens, I’m not so certain the Chiefs or Texans might be looking forward to facing Tennessee. Then again, playing at home beats playing in Baltimore.

For Baltimore sports fans, I rate it as the biggest shocker since the Orioles lost to the Miracle Mets in the 1969 World Series.

In case you don’t know that story, the Orioles won 109 games in the regular season before sweeping the Twins in the first American League Championship Series. Baltimore had three of the American League’s most dominant pitchers in Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Cy Young Award winner Mike Cuellar, along with a powerful lineup featuring Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

The Mets didn’t finish above eighth in the National League in any of their first seven seasons. Yet in 1969, Tom Seaver won the Cy Young, Jerry Koosman came of age, and a 22-year old flamethrower from Alvin, Texas named Lynn Nolan Ryan gave the club from Queens a staff just as good as Baltimore’s.

At the plate, the Mets couldn’t match the Orioles, but their outfield may have been the best defensive trio the game has seen: Cleon Jones in left, Tommie Agee in center and Ron Swoboda in right.

The Mets came from as far back as 11 games down in July to overtake the Cubs to win the National League East, then swept Hank Aaron’s Braves in the first National League Championship Game.

Baltimore won the first game of the World Series at home, but lost game two. Nobody in Charm City panicked…yet.

After the Mets blanked the Orioles 5-0 in game three, featuring two spectacular catches by Agee, Baltimore fans began to wonder if this was truly their year.

Swoboda made one of the most spectacular catches in World Series history in game four, robbing Brooks Robinson of an extra base hit which would have given the Orioles the lead. Instead, it was just a sacrifice fly which tied the game. The Mets won in the bottom of the 10th when Baltimore reliever Pete Richert’s throw hit Mets pinch hitter J.C. Martin in the arm, allowing Rod Gasper to score from second.

Baltimore led 3-0 through five innings of game five, but when Mets manager Gil Hodges proved to home plate umpire Lou DiMuro that Jones was hit by McNally by showing DiMuro a speck of shoe polish on the ball, the Orioles knew they were doomed.

Indeed they were.

Series MVP Donn Clendenon followed Jones with a two-run home run. Baltimore’s lead disappeared when Al Weis led off the seventh with a homer, and in the eighth, Swoboda doubled home Jones with what proved to be the Series-winning run. Swoboda later scored an insurance run when Powell booted a two-out grounder by Jerry Grote.

When future Mets manager Dave Johnson flied out to Jones, pandemonium erupted at Shea.

The Orioles got their World Series title in 1970 by defeating the Reds in five, and added another in ’83 with a five-game win over the Phillies. Baltimore lost to the Pirates in seven in both 1971 and ’79.

This habit of post-midnight posts is not a good one. I’ve got to cut this out.

Saints-Vikings: been there, done that

When I was watching yesterday’s Saints-Vikings game, it reminded me quite a bit of New Orleans’ first postseason game, the 1987 NFC wild card game (there were two wild cards from 1978-89) against Minnesota in the Superdome three days into 1988.

First similarity: the Saints were favored by most of the “experts” who cover professional football. In 1988, the legendary Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder picked the Saints on The NFL Today, as did Pete Axthelm, Tom Jackson and Chris Berman on ESPN’s NFL Gameday. In 2020, nearly all of the Internet writers on ESPN, CBS and Pro Football Focus favored the Black and Gold.

Second, the Saints’ record was nearly identical. The 1987 Saints were 12-3 (their home game vs. the Falcons in week three was canceled by the 1987 players’ strike; games in weeks four, five and six became infamous for their use of replacement players), and the 2019 Saints were 13-3. Both the 1987 and 2019 Saints lost to the 49ers at home. The 1987 loss prompted coach Jim Mora’s “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tirade, which inspired the Saints to embark on a nine-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.

Third, the Saints had to play wild card weekend because the 49ers were ahead of them. In 1987, the 49ers went 13-2, losing only to the Steelers on opening day and the Saints in November. In 2019, the 49ers’ victory over the Saints helped them win a tiebreaker. The 49ers are 13-3 heading into Saturday’s game with Minnesota in Santa Clara.

Fourth, the stakes of the games were similar. In both 1987 and 2019, a Vikings victory in the Big Easy would send them to San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Saints would face a road game in a frigid locale with a win: in 1987, it would be Chicago; this year, it would be Green Bay.

Fifth, the Vikings and Saints did not play in the regular season.

Sixth, a team from Houston won a wild card game at home in overtime the same weekend. In 1987, the Oilers defeated the Seahawks; in 2019, the Texans defeated the Bills. I guess you can add the Seahawks playing on the road after the Saints and Vikings played the same day.

Seventh, the Saints defeated a team from Houston during the regular season at the Superdome. In 1987, it was the Oilers in the 13th game (I was there with my dad and brother); in 2019, it was the Texans in the opener on a Monday night when Wil Lutz made a 58-yard field goal as time expired.

Yes, this year’s game–a 26-20 Vikings victory in overtime–was closer than Minnesota’s 44-10 romp 32 years ago, but this one will be a lot more painful.

In 1987, Saints fans were overjoyed to finally have a winning season and a playoff berth; anything which happened in the postseason would have been lagniappe, as they like to say in New Orleans.

This year, many Saints fans probably had a “Super Bowl or bust” mentality in the wake of what happened in the playoffs of the previous two seasons: the “Minneapolis Miracle” in 2017, when Case Keenum hooked up with Stefon Diggs on the game’s last play for a touchdown after Marcus Williams whiffed on the tackle; and last year’s egregious no-call when the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman ran into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis.

New Orleans was looking good when it won all five games while Drew Brees recovered from an injured wrist, but home losses to the Falcons and 49ers raised red flags.

Now it’s all over for the Saints. As depressed as much of Louisiana feels this morning, it will pale in comparison with how the Bayou State will feel the morning of January 14 if LSU loses to Clemson.

If history continues to repeat, the Vikings will be playing in Seattle or Green Bay January 19.

Six days after beating the Saints 32 years ago, the Vikings went to San Francisco and rolled over the 49ers 36-24, thanks to 227 yards receiving from Anthony Carter, which was then a playoff record. In the second half, Bill Walsh replaced Joe Montana with Steve Young, touching off a quarterback controversy which dogged the 49ers through much of the 1988 season. Montana ended the controversy by winning four games late that season to help the 49ers clinch the NFC West. San Francisco went on to beat the Vikings and Bears in the playoffs before winning a thrilling Super Bowl vs. the Bengals on Montana’s 8-yard TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.

Mike McCarthy is the new coach of the Cowboys. He’ll now be coaching home games in the same stadium where he led the Packers to victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is going to enter the NFL draft. Players, coaches and fans at the 13 other SEC schools are breathing easier.

Just another post-23:00 post

Five for five posting in 2020, although I’m cutting it close.

I’ve been back in Russell for about 11 hours. No problems checking out of my hotel or the drive home from Kansas City.

I got home to see the Saints lose in overtime to the Vikings. New Orleans looked terrible and probably deserved to lose. Minnesota now goes to San Francisco Saturday. Ironically, the Vikings will be playing 50 years to the day after they lost Super Bowl IV to the Chiefs in New Orleans. Super Bowl IV was Joe Kapp’s last game with Minnesota; could it be Kirk Cousins’ last with the team?

The Seahawks defeated the Eagles, or at least what was left of the Eagles, in the other NFC playoff game today, sending Seattle to Green Bay in a week.

New England didn’t complete the comeback I thought it would. I don’t think Tom Brady is going anywhere.

It’s Titans-Ravens (Saturday) and Texans-Chiefs (Sunday) in the AFC playoffs. Kansas City fans were really rooting for the Bills, since Houston won at Arrowhead in October. Chiefs fans fear DeShawn Watson, who was drafted one spot after Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and pissed off Bruce Arians, who was hoping to get one or the other to replace Carson Palmer in Arizona. It took the Cardinals blowing their 2018 first round pick on Josh Rosen and going 3-13 under Steve Wilks, one of the worst NFL head coaches ever, to earn the right to draft Kyler Murray, who looks like he may work out in Arizona.

Just how stupid are the Bears, who not only picked Mitchell Trubisky instead of either AND traded an extra draft pick to the 49ers just to move up one spot? San Francisco didn’t draft either, which proved the Bears made a bad decision. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Bears without a bad quarterback, which has been their tradition since Sid Luckman retired in 1951. Ever heard of Billy Wade, Jack Concannon, Kent Nix, Gary Huff, Bob Avellini, Steve Fuller, Shane Matthews, Jim Miller, Henry Burris, Caleb Hanie, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Rusty Lisch and Rudy Bukich? They all have been starting quarterbacks for the Bears over the last 60 years.

The 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo, and after a 2018 season lost to injury, looks like he will fill the bill. San Francisco needs stability there after the Kaepernick mess.

There were some very eerie similarities between today’s Saints-Vikings playoff game to the one the teams played after the 1987 season, which happened to be New Orleans’ first postseason game. I’ll explain tomorrow.

Enjoy the first full work week of 2020.

Double dose of Saintly pain

January 3 is a day fans of the New Orleans Saints would rather forget for two major reasons.

The first occurred in 1988, when the Saints lost 44-10 to the Vikings in New Orleans’ first playoff game in franchise history.

The Saints finished the 1987 regular season 12-3, the second best record in the entire NFL, but they had to settle for a wild card berth to the playoffs because the 13-2 49ers were in the same division, the NFC West.

Prior to 1987, the Saints suffered through 18 losing seasons. Their best record was 8-8, achieved in 1979 and 1983. New Orleans was the birthplace of fans wearing bags on their heads, introduced during the abysmal 1-15 season of 1980.

In 1987, fans could rip the bags off–at least over the last nine games. The Saints lost three of their first six games, two of them to mediocre teams (Eagles and Cardinals) and one to the 49ers in the Superdome, a game in which Morten Andersen made five field goals, but missed his seventh attempt on the game’s final play, allowing San Francisco to escape 24-22.

The Saints should have been given kudos for coming close against the mighty 49ers, right?

Nope.

Second-year Saints coach Jim Mora went nuclear. Three words sum it up best.

Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

Mora stated he was tired of saying “coulda, woulda, shoulda”, and that the Saints weren’t good enough to beat the 49ers. Another famous line came when he said, “We’re close, and close don’t mean (bleep). And you can put that on TV for me.”

In 1987, there was SportsCenter, but the NFL Network was 16 years off. However, those of us in New Orleans got to see Mora’s tirade more than a few times, and nobody who grew up in New Orleans in the late 1980s will ever forget Mora’s postgame press conference of October 25, 1987.

Mora’s words must have had some effect on the Saints. New Orleans did not lose again in the regular season, ripping off nine consecutive victories, including a 26-24 decision at San Francisco three weeks later, a game which was won on a 52-yard field goal by Andersen, who last year became the second pure placekicker to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining former Kansas City legend Jan Stenerud, whose bust has been in Canton since 1991.

The Saints’ opponents in the NFC wild card game, the Vikings, were in the playoffs for the first time in five years. Jerry Burns, who was in his second year in charge in Minnesota, had one of the NFL’s best receivers, Anthony Carter, but an unsettled quarterback situation between the oft-injured Tommy Kramer and the inconsistent Wade Wilson. The Viking defense, although not up to the standards of the Purple Gang of the 1970s, was still formidable, thanks to Chris Doleman, Keith Millard, rookie Henry Thomas, Scott Studwell and Joey Browner.

Minnesota was put into a hole during the strike called by the NFL Players’ Association during the 1987 season. The owners called up replacement players to substitute for the regulars for three games in weeks 4-6 (week three was canceled), looking to avoid the repeat of the disastrous 1982 strike in which the season was reduced from 16 games to nine.

The Vikings’ replacement team laid a giant goose egg, losing to Green Bay, Chicago and Tampa Bay. New Orleans had better fortune, defeating the Rams and Bears while losing in St. Louis.

Minnesota got back on track when the strike ended, but in December, the Vikings lost to the Bears, Packers and Redskins, finishing 8-7. However, Minnesota snuck into the playoffs when Dallas defeated St. Louis in what turned out to be the Cardinals’ final game representing the Gateway City.

Most of the experts liked New Orleans to easily defeat Minnesota and move into a divisional playoff game in Chicago, where the Bears were hampered by bickering, inconsistency from quarterback Jim McMahon, and an aged Walter Payton, who ended up retiring after the 1987 season.

The Vikings had different ideas.

New Orleans grabbed an early 7-0 lead, but an 84-yard punt return touchdown by Carter turned the momentum permanently in the Vikings’ favor.

Minnesota rubbed salt in the wound on the final play of the first half when Wade Wilson connected with Hassan Jones on a 55-yard Hail Mary, a play which the Vikings received when the Saints were called for having 12 players on the field on what should have been the last play in the first half. A half cannot end on a defensive penalty, and the Vikings made the Saints pay the ultimate price.

It didn’t matter. The Vikings were up 24-10 before the Wilson-to-Jones heroics, and they added to the lead in the second half, ending up a 44-10 winner.

The next week, Carter torched the 49ers with 11 catches for 227 yards, a playoff record, in a 36-24 Viking victory at San Francisco. Minnesota came within an eyelash of its first Super Bowl since 1976, but Darrin Nelson dropped a potential game-tying touchdown at the goal line in the NFC championship game in Washington. The Redskins won 17-10, then obliterated John Elway’s Broncos in Super Bowl XXII with the famous 35-point second quarter.

Exactly five years later after the debacle vs. the Vikings, the Saints were again hosting an NFC wild card playoff game. The Saints went 12-4 in 1992, but had to settle for second in the NFC West behind the 14-2 49ers, who swept the season series from New Orleans, negating San Francisco’s loss to the 4-12 Cardinals.

New Orleans was still in search of its first playoff victory when the Eagles invaded the Crescent City on January 3, 1993. The Saints made the playoffs as an 8-8 wild card in 1990 before losing to the Bears in Chicago, then lost to the Falcons at home after capturing the NFC West in 1991, the Saints’ first division title.

Philadelphia entered the 1992 playoffs riding a five-game postseason losing streak, a skid which started in New Orleans when the Eagles lost 27-10 to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.

One factor working in the Eagles’ favor was Buddy Ryan was no longer coaching them. Ryan lost playoff games in three consecutive seasons between 1988-90, and combined with Ryan’s hatred of his offense despite the heroics of quarterback Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia owner Norman Braman had seen enough and showed Ryan the door.

Rich Kotite had the Eagles in the playoffs after missing out in 1991 despite a 10-6 record. Philadelphia defeated New Orleans 15-13 at Veterans Stadium in the season opener, and that led to the pundits splitting right down the middle as to whether the Eagles or Saints would advance to face the Cowboys in Dallas.

Through three quarters, the Saints led 20-7. It looked like the Saints would finally win a playoff game, and the Eagles would once again choke in the clutch.

Unfortunately for the Saints, football games are four periods.

In the fourth quarter, the Eagles stunned not only the 70,000 in the Superdome, but millions of football fans watching on television by ripping off 29 unanswered points to win 36-20.

Fortunately for the Saints, few outside Louisiana noticed their collapse.

Mora and his players had the Houston Oilers to thank.

Earlier that day, the Oilers built a 35-3 lead early in the third quarter in Buffalo, only to completely collapse and allow the Bills to rally and win 41-38 in overtime.

The Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997 and changed their name to the Titans in 1999. The franchise is still searching for its first Super Bowl title. So are the Bills, who lost Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII to the Cowboys after losing XXV to the Giants and XXVI to the Redskins.

Minnesota has lost three more NFC championship games since 1987 (1998, 2000 and 2017).

New Orleans finally shook the playoff monkey in 2000, and won Super Bowl XLIV nine years later. Philadelphia is the reigning Super Bowl champion, the first title for the Eagles since 1960.

Here’s hoping the Saints can live up to the pressure of the NFL’s best team during the regular season and bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy from Atlanta one month from tonight.

Quasi-home field advantage: a split decision

I’m writing this at a semi-ungodly hour because I figured it was better to get it out there while it’s fresh in my mind. I don’t do that enough with this blog.

Much has been made about the Vikings’ quest to become the first time to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Minnesota is the first team to reach the conference championship game in the same season it is hosting the Super Bowl.

Seven teams previously reached the playoffs in the same season it hosted a Super Bowl, but none got past the conference semifinals. Those were the 1970 Dolphins (lost to Raiders in AFC divisional), 1978 Dolphins (lost in AFC wild card to Oilers), 1994 Dolphins (lost to Chargers in AFC divisional, blowing 21-6 lead), 1998 Dolphins (lost to Broncos in AFC divisional), 2000 Buccaneers (lost to Eagles in NFC wild card), 2014 Cardinals (lost to Panthers in NFC wild card) and 2016 Texans (lost to Patriots in AFC divisional).

If you’re keeping score, the Saints have NEVER made the playoffs in a year they have hosted the Super Bowl. In fact, only once have they even posted a winning record in a Super Bowl hosting year, going 9-7 in 1989, and it took a three-game winning streak in December over the Bills, Eagles and Colts with John Fourcade as the starting quarterback to do so. The Saints’ records in seasons hosting the Super Bowl: 5-9 (1969), 4-8-2 (1971), 5-9 (1974), 3-11 (1977), 1-15 (1980, the year of the “Aints” and the bag heads), 1985 (5-11), 1989 (9-7), 1996 (3-13), 2001 (7-9) and 2012 (7-9).

Even though no NFL team has yet to play a Super Bowl on home turf, two teams played in college stadiums in their metropolitan areas: the 1979 Rams in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; and the 1984 49ers in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium.

Today is a perfect day to talk about this, since Super Bowls XIV and XIX were played on January 20 of their respective years. That will never happen again, unless the NFL moves up the start of its season to mid-August. Not happening.

Pasadena is 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Coincidentally, 1979 was the last year the Rams played in the Coliseum until 2016. The Rams moved to Anaheim Stadium in Orange County in 1980 under an agreement signed in 1978 by then-owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who died under mysterious circumstances in April 1979. The team passed to his widow, Georgia, who soon remarried for the seventh time and became Georgia Frontiere. Georgia was a vicious old hag who swiped the Rams for her birthplace, St. Louis, where they played from 1995 through 2015 before returning to where they belonged.

The 1979 Rams were a hot mess. Yes, they won their seventh consecutive NFC West division championship, but benefitted from a down year by the Falcons, who were a playoff team in 1978, and a Saints team which had a potent offense led by Archie Manning and Chuck Munice, but a porous defense which allowed the Seahawks to score 38 points two weeks after the Rams held Seattle to an NFL record low minus-7 yards total offense. That porous Saints defense also allowed the Raiders to score 28 points in the fourth quarter of a Monday Night Football game in New Orleans to turn a 35-14 lead into a 42-35 loss.

Los Angeles somehow went on the road and beat the Cowboys in what turned out to be Roger Staubach’s final football game, and then the Buccaneers to reach Super Bowl XIV.

Awaiting Ray Malavasi’s club were the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were aiming for their fourth Super Bowl championship in six seasons. The Steelers were aging, but still were the dominant force in the NFL in 1979, thanks to their explosive offense, which featured Terry Bradshaw throwing deep to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann more than ever. Pittsburgh still had Franco Harris in the backfield, but Chuck Noll took advantage of the 1978 rules changes which opened up the passing game (allowing blockers to use open arms and extended hands, and limiting the amount of contact against a receiver) better than any coach in the NFL.

Pittsburgh ousted Miami in the divisional playoffs, then outlasted AFC Central rival Houston to reach the Super Bowl. It would be the first time the Steelers would play a Super Bowl on the west coast, having won Super Bowl IX in New Orleans in Tulane Stadium’s last NFL game, then X and XIII in Miami. The latter game was the last Super Bowl at the Orange Bowl, and the last in Miami until the 1988 season, by which time Joe Robbie Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium) had opened.

Nobody gave the Rams a prayer. Los Angeles was led by inexperienced quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who was ineffective after taking over for the injured Pat Haden. The Rams did have a stout defense, led by future Hall of Fame end Jack Youngblood, who was playing with a broken bone in his leg suffered during the win over Dallas, but the ineffective offense didn’t figure to be much of a challenge for the Steel Curtain, even though perennial All-Pro linebacker Jack Ham was out with an ankle injury.

Instead of the expected rout, the Rams gave the Steelers all they could handle and then some. Los Angeles led 13-10 at halftime, and after yielding a 47-yard Bradshaw to Swann touchdown pass early in the third quarter, the Rams struck back on a halfback option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith to go back in front 19-17.

The Steelers finally remembered they were the three-time Super Bowl champions in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh took the lead for good on a 73-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth on a play where the Rams’ secondary became confused and cornerback Rod Perry had no safety help deep down the middle (sound familiar, Saints fans?), and extinguished the Rams’ last flicker of hope when Lambert intercepted Ferragamo in Steeler territory with under six minutes left. The Steelers added an insurance touchdown to make the final 31-19, but many agreed it was one of the best Super Bowls played up to that point.

Five years later, the 49ers played just 30 miles (48 kilometers) from their home at Candlestick Park to take on the Dolphins in what was expected to be the greatest quarterback battle in NFL history.

Miami, making its fifth trip to the Super Bowl under Don Shula, was powered by the rocket arm of Dan Marino, who rewrote the NFL record book in his second year in the league.

Marino, who somehow fell all the way to 27th in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft before Shula swiped him, threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984, both NFL records at the time. It was a good thing Marino had a record-breaking year, because (a) Miami’s running attack was next to non-existent, and (b) the “Killer Bees” defense had lost its sting. The Dolphin defense was reeling following the departure of its architect, Bill Arnsparger, who took the head coaching job at LSU at the end of the 1983 season. Add in injuries to All-Pro linebacker A.J. Duhe and nose tackle Bob Baumhower, and Miami was a in a whole heap of trouble against Montana and the man who made the West Coast Offense as common as the off-tackle play in the NFL, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh.

Montana led the 49ers to a 15-1 regular season in 1984, with only a three-point loss to the Steelers marring their ledger. Jerry Rice had not yet arrived–he would the next season–but San Francisco still had plenty of weapons, with steady Dwight Clark, imposing tight end Russ Francis and versatile running back Roger Craig all catching loads of footballs from Montana. San Francisco also had a far more stable running game, thanks to Craig and Wendell Tyler.

The 49ers also had a very good, if underrated, defense, even though linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds was in his final NFL campaign, and future Hall of Fame end Fred Dean held out until late November. San Francisco’s strength was its secondary, where all four players made the Pro Bowl: cornerbacks Eric Wright and Dwight Hicks, and safeties Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott, another future Hall of Famer wearing the red and gold for Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

The expected showdown turned into a rout.

Miami led 10-7 at the end of the first quarter, but 21 unanswered points by the 49ers in the second quarter turned the Super Bowl into a super blowout, something which would become quite common in the near future.

Other than Montana’s performance, Super Bowl XIX was most notable for President Reagan performing the coin toss via satellite from the White House (the former Governor of California had to stay in Washington because of presidential inauguration ceremonies; since January 20, 1985 was a Sunday, Reagan took the oath of office privately at the White House and publicly the next day in the rotunda of the Capitol).

San Francisco won 38-16 and would go on to win two more titles in 1988 and ’89 to become the team of the decade. Miami has yet to return to the Super Bowl. Marino played 17 seasons in the NFL and set numerous records, many of which have been broken, but only reached the AFC championship game twice more, losing to the Patriots in 1985 and the Bills in 1992, both times at home. Shula retired after the 1995 season with an NFL record 347 victories.

Strangely enough, Shula is one of three coaches to lose four Super Bowls, having been in charge of the Colts when Joe Namath delivered on his guarantee in Super Bowl III. The other four-time losers didn’t win one, Marv Levy of the Bills and Bud Grant of the Vikings.

Mentioning Grant is a great segue to the current Vikings, who have thrived under Mike Zimmer despite the quarterback conundrum facing this team the past two seasons.

In August 2016, Teddy Bridgewater, the first-round draft choice out of Louisville in 2014, suffered a horrific knee injuries, tearing all three ligaments (anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and lateral collateral) during a non-contact practice drill. The injury was so serious his career was in jeopardy. He missed all of 2016 and did not play in 2017 until near the end of the year.

Before the 2016 season, the Vikings traded a first-round draft choice to the Eagles for Sam Bradford, the oft-injured former #1 draft choice of the Rams and Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma.

This season, Bradford was injured early, but the Vikings got a career year from Case Keenum, a journeyman who had been mediocre at best in previous stops with the Texans and Rams. Minnesota has the league’s #1 defense, not surprising given Zimmer was an outstanding defensive coordinator in Dallas and Cincinnati before going to the Vikings.

I am not a Vikings fan, but it would be nice to see them in the Super Bowl at home (as the designated visiting team), especially if the opponent were the Patriots. The crowd noise of U.S. Bank Stadium would be the ultimate neutralizer to Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, if “all time” is limited to the 21st century.

By 9:30 Central time tomorrow night, we’ll know who’s going to be playing in Minneapolis February 4. Then crank up the hype machine!

Musings from your favorite hypocrite

I said I would post every day in 2018, and here I go three days without anything. What a hypocrite I am.

I am still in shock about the Saints. How can that happen? All Marcus Williams had to do was let Stefon Diggs catch the pass, wrap him up, then wait for help. As  long as Diggs did not get out of bounds, the clock would have expired before the Vikings could have snapped the ball for a field goal. This is not college or high school, where the clock stops to move the chains.

Bill Franques told me this was the most unbelievable loss he’s seen in all of his years of following the Saints, which is all but the team’s first two seasons. I thought about it, and he may be right.

Face it–in the first 16 seasons of the Saints’ existence (1967-1982), there really weren’t that many games which were important enough to be that heartbreaking. Losing to the Buccaneers after they lost 26 straight in 1977 was utterly embarrassing, but in the grand scheme of the NFL, who cares? Tampa Bay was going to win sooner or later, and one team would have to be the first victim. It just happened the Bucs took so long to win a game.

The only games from 1967-1982 which I could see qualifying as heartbreaking were three to Atlanta in 1978 and ’79, and losing to Oakland on Monday Night Football in 1979 after holding a 35-14 lead in the third quarter.

The 1983 season had two such games, both of which kept the Saints out of the playoffs at a time they had yet to even have a winning season. The first was against the Jets the Monday before Thanksgiving, when New Orleans squandered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost on a 76-yard punt return by Kirk Springs with four minutes to go. The second was the season finale vs. the Rams, where Los Angeles did not score an offensive touchdown, but used two pick-sixes and a punt return TD to win 26-24, with Mike Lansford nailing the game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

Losing at Chicago in the 2006 NFC championship? The Saints weren’t expected to be there after going 3-13 during the Katrina season. It was a fine accomplishment.

I’ll put the loss at U.S. Bank Stadium up there with the egg the Saints laid in their first playoff game–also vs. the Vikings–in 1987, and the loss at Seattle to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 following the Super Bowl XLIV victory.

I finished watching Last Chance U over the weekend. I am re-watching episodes now, and it continues to reinforce my view that (a) East Mississippi’s coach, Buddy Stephens, is a complete douchebag, and (b) most of the players couldn’t give a crap about going to class.

In the episode I just watched again, Stephens physically assaults the alternate official along the EMCC sideline. The official punches back, which is a no-no, but Stephens instigated it.

No coach, no matter how angry he or she is with the officiating, has the right to physically assault the men and women making the calls. Why the hell do you think it is so hard to find officials these days?

Also in the episode, EMCC’s radio announcers were blasting the officials for throwing two EMCC players out of the game vs. Itawamba for throwing punches. It’s OKAY to throw a punch? This isn’t boxing.

The three FBS coaches in Mississippi–Matt Luke (Ole Miss), Joe Moorehead (Mississippi State) and Todd Monken (Southern Miss)–need to ban EMCC players on their rosters until Stephens cleans up his act and the kids show effort in going to class and making their grades. A message needs to be sent that winning at all costs is not acceptable. If other schools from outside Mississippi want to take these players in, fine. But the coaches in Mississippi need to show some backbone.

It’s getting late, and I didn’t get enough sleep last night. Time to sign off.

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.