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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL WILDCARD ROUND UPDATE!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


It might surprise some modern-day fans that the genesis for pro football’s wildcard round round was actually spawned in the old AFL. And it might further surprise that Joe Namath’s Super Bowl champion Jets, of all teams, were a peripheral reason why the wildcard concept was hatched in the first place.

Let’s rewind back to 1969, the final year before the consummation of the AFL-NFL merger. Arms had been laid down between the warring factions three years earlier, with the target date of 1970 for a new and merged league under the NFL banner. Although it took until the spring of 1969 for realignment to take shape; that spring, it was decided that the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers would “jump” to the newly-created AFC, joining the ten existing AFL teams, in 1970.

Another less-publicized development occurred in the run-up to the 1969 season, the last in which the rival leagues would compete within themselves before the merger. Pete Rozelle, by that time the commissioner of both leagues, signed off on an experiment in which the old AFL would expand its playoffs by including the second-place finishers from each division. One reason was that most AFL insiders believed that the two best teams in the league, despite Namath’s Jets having won the Super Bowl in shocking fashion over Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts that January, were actually Oakland and Kansas City in the Western Division, and provisions should be made for them both to have a chance in a playoff format similar to the NFL’s four-team postseason (pitting winners of the old Coastal, Central, Capitol, and Century Divisions).

Thus, in 1969, the winner of the AFL West would face the runner-up from the East, while the East winner would face the West runner-up, in the first round of the playoffs in late December before the winners would square off in the last AFL title game on January 4, 1970. Although the term “wildcard” wasn’t hatched by Rozelle until the merger year of 1970, the concept was actually spawned in the previous year of 1969.

AFL fans, especially those in Kansas City and Oakland, warmed to the idea immediately, as neither would likely be running the risk of getting shut out of the playoffs entirely if losing the division race to the other. By that time in the old AFL West, San Diego, though still dangerous, had slipped frm its one-time perch as an AFL power, while Denver was in rebuild mode under Lou Saban and Paul Brown’s Cincinnati was only a second-year expansion team (though the Bengals would make quite a splash in the early portion of that season behind hometown U of Cincy rookie QB Greg Cook, working under an offensive assistant named Bill Walsh; the Bengals actually began the season 3-0, with a win over the mighty Chiefs, and also beat the Raiders later in the campaign before injuries helped to push Cincy beneath the Broncos and to the bottom of the division).

The main concern of both the Raiders and Chiefs in ‘69 was to finish first in the division and avoid the prospect of likely having to face Namath’s Jets in the first round. The unsuspecting beneficiary of the expanded AFL playoff format in 1969 would be the East runner-up; with Buffalo, the old Boston Patriots, and Miami in varying stages of disrepair or rebuilding, Wally Lemm’s Houston Oilers, who had won the East crown in 1967, appeared to be in line to profit.

Meanwhile, Rozelle had used the AFL as a test track for his wildcard (as it would eventually be referred) concept, gauging the response of the pro football fan base to the idea of non-division winners qualifying for the postseason. As Rozelle surmised (correctly on such matters, as usual), the sporting media and gridiron public immediately embraced the concept, with no backlash whatsoever, which allowed Rozelle to proceed with his expanded wildcard concept when the leagues merged the following year.

As most predicted in 1969, the Raiders and Chiefs waged a lively battle for the top spot in the West the entire campaign. Both also soundly defeated Namath’s Jets at Shea Stadium during the regular season, confirming the idea that Kansas City and Oakland were the pre-eminent powerhouses in the league, and not Namath’s New York. Indeed, all of the Jets’ regular-season losses in 1969 were inflicted by West foes; not only did the Raiders and Chiefs beat the Jets, but so did Lou Saban’s Broncos, behind backup QB Pete Liske, in a rousing 21-19 upset in the second week of the season at Mile High Stadium, as did QB John Hadl and the Chargers the following week in San Diego, 34-27.

The West crown was decided on the final weekend, when the host Raiders, under first-year HC John Madden, beat Hank Stram’s Chiefs in a tense 10-6 defensive struggle at the Oakland Coliseum to win the West and force Kansas City on the road to face the Jets at Shea Stadium in the first playoff round. The Raiders would thus stay at home and host East runner-up Houston, which had qualified almost by default with a so-so 6-6-2 mark.

Kansas City validated the expanded playoff idea by beating the Jets at a very cold and very windy Shea Stadium, 13-6, on Saturday, December 20 of that year, as the Chiefs succeeded as the first-ever “wildcard” (if not officially labeled as such) entry in pro football history. Tied at 6-6 deep into the 4th quarter, Chief QB Len Dawson uncorked a 51-yard pass to Otis Taylor to set up a game-winning 19-yard TD pass to WR Gloster Richardson a few moments later. Namath would complete only 14 of 40 passes, with three interceptions, on the wind-swept dirt field of Shea. Meanwhile, the Raiders, with QB Daryle Lamonica firing six TD passes, destroyed the overmatched Oilers, 56-7, the next day in the other AFL first-round playoff matchup at Oakland. Pete Beathard’s 4-yard TD pass to TE Alvin Reed in the 4th quarter at least avoided a shutout for Houston and prevented it from enduring even more humiliation, although the loss would signal the beginning of a severe downturn in Oilers’ fortunes until the mid ‘70s.

Of course, Kansas City would go on to beat the Raiders in the AFL title game and then dispose of Joe Kapp’s Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV. Technically, the first-ever wildcard winner also became a Super Bowl champ! Not until Tom Flores’ Raiders turned the trick in 1980 did another runner-up team win a Super Bowl.

The wildcard concept was such a winner for Rozelle that before the ‘70s were complete he would decide to add a second wildcard from each conference and have those teams play each other in the new first round of the playoffs while the three division winners from each conference would get a week’s worth of rest. The first “extra” wildcards in 1978 were Philadelphia (NFC) and Houston (AFC); those Eagles were helped to the playoffs by the infamous “Miracle at the Meadowlands” fumble recovery TD by Herm Edwards in the final 30 seconds after Giants QB Joe Pisarcik had botched a handoff to FB Larry Csonka. That result in November proved to be the difference-maker for the Birds, who finished 9-7 but nonetheless lost a heartbreaker to the Falcons in the wildcard round, 14-13, when ex-Stanford PK Mike Michel missed a 34-yard game-winning FG try in the final seconds. Meanwhile, the Oilers, boosted by rookie RB Earl Campbell, upset Miami at the Orange Bowl, 17-9, on the AFC side, eventually making it as far as the AFC title game before losing to the Steelers, who would proceed to win Super Bowl XIII over Dallas.

The Oilers were back again in wildcard action the following year in 1979, hosting Red Miller’s Denver Broncos in a defensive war at the Astrodome in the AFC’s second-ever wildcard game. Houston scored its only TD of the game on a short Campbell 3-yard run in the 2nd quarter, then held on for dear life in the 2nd half after big Earl and QB Dan Pastorini were both KO’d by injury. The Oiler defense repelled a pair of Denver fourth-quarter scoring threats as Houston prevailed for the second straight year in the wildcard round, 13-7.

The Oilers would later be involved in other memorable wildcard round moments, though not always so sweet. In 1992, Jack Pardee’s Houston infamously blew a 35-3 lead at Buffalo, with the Bills rallying behind backup QB Frank Reich to score an improbable 41-38 win. Then, after the franchise moved to Tennessee and settled in Nashville, the newly-christened 1999 Titans pulled off the “Music City Miracle” against the Bills, with Kevin Dyson racing 75 yards to score on a wild kickoff return after receiving a cross-field lateral from TE Frank Wycheck. The Bills had just gone ahead, 16-15, on Steve Christie’s 51-yard field goal with only 16 seconds to play in what would prove one of the wildest finishes in NFL playoff history, ranking alongside Franco Harris' 1972 “Immaculate Reception” vs. the Raiders in NFL lore.

Through 1977, wildcards were the 4th playoff seed in each conference, and there were no “bye” weeks in the playoffs until the week before the Super Bowl. The introduction of a second wildcard team from each conference and the “wildcard round” in 1978, when the Eagles lost at Atlanta and the Oilers won at Miami, coincided with the NFL expanding its regular-season schedule from 14 to 16 games (and playoff entrants from 8 to 10) in ‘78. For the next twelve seasons, those wildcard teams would oppose each other before the winners would advance to join the division champions from the AFC & NFC in the round of eight.

The next adjustments came in 1990, when a third wildcard team was added to each conference, upping the total number of postseason participants to 12. This also doubled the number of games in wildcard weekend (from 2 to 4), as then only the top two division winners from each conference would get a “bye” in the first round, and the division winner with the worst record was thrown in with the wildcard teams in the initial playoff weekend. When the NFL eventually reconfigured its divisions (from 6 to 8) in 2002, the wildcard round wasn’t fundamentally altered. Although there would technically be only two wildcards (as opposed to three), there would still be the same four games in wildcard weekend, which then featured the two division winners with the worst records along with two wildcard entries from each conference.

Aside from the aforementioned 1969 Chiefs and 1980 Raiders, the occasional wildcard team has also ended up catching fire in the playoffs and has gone all of the way to win the Super Bowl, including the 1997 Broncos, 2000 Ravens, 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants, and last year’s Packers.

Last year’s wildcard round results also proved a return of the underdogs, who have traditionally fared better in this round than in the division round or conference title games; dogs covered all four wildcard round games a year ago. Three of those dogs were short-priced (3 points or fewer), continuing a notable trend that has recurred often through the past three-plus decades. The shorter-priced (1-3 points) dogs stand 27-17-2 vs. the number since ‘78, including 10-3 against the spread the last three years. Home dogs, usually rare in playoff action, are a noteworthy 12-4 vs. the number in first-round games since ‘78, including the biggest home dog on record in wildcard annals last year when Seattle was receiving 10½ points at home vs. New Orleans. Not only did the Seahawks cover the spread, they won the game outright, 41-36!

Some informed observers believe the absence of the top two conference seeds in the wildcard rounds has contributed to better overall underdog marks than in subsequent rounds, but it’s worth noting that one-sided results are still fairly common in the wildcard-round games, with ten of 24 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (47 of 106) since the wildcard round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have not been as formful, slightly favoring the “unders” (23-20-1 since 1990); “unders” took three of four a year ago, though note all four wildcard-round games went “over” the previous year in 2009.

Following are the pointspread results for wildcard playoff games since 1978 (excluding the 1982 “strike” season, when all 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games).


NFL WILDCARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978
CATEGORY... VS. POINTS

1-3 pt. dogs... 27-17-2
3½-6½ pt. dogs... 18-16-1
7-pt. or more dogs... 12-12
Home dogs... 12-4
Road dogs... 44-42-3


Margins of victory (106 total games)—22 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 24 games by 4-7 points, 13 games by 8-13 points, and 47 games have been decided by 14 points or more.


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