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NEW TGS COVER STORY...NFL DIVISON ROUND HISTORY & PREVIEW
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We at THE GOLD SHEET have seen the NFL playoff tournament grow exponentially since our initial season of publishing in 1957.

In those days, there would just be one scheduled postseason game, the championship tilt itself, featuring the winners of the old Western and Eastern Conferences. The NFL was only a 12-team league back then, and the rival AFL wouldn’t even begin playing for three more years. And, back in 1957, we never would have thought we would be waiting at least another 55 seasons before the Detroit Lions would match their playoff win total from that season alone, or win another championship, for that matter.

We were treated in our first publishing season of ‘57 to an extra NFL postseason game when the Lions and 49ers tied for the old Western Conference title, necessitating a one-game playoff at venerable Kezar Stadium, tucked into a corner of Golden Gate Park. Down 24-7 at the half and 27-7 in the third quarter, Detroit made a memorable rally to steal a 31-27 win, thanks to three interceptions of 49er QB Y.A. Tittle and a pair of TD runs by former Tennessee Vols RB Tom “The Bomb” Tracy, including a 58-yard scoring gallop to cut the lead to 27-21 late in the third quarter. Tracy, ironically, had not even carried the ball in the Lions’ last four regular-season games, and was only forced into action due to injuries to RBs John Henry Johnson and Howard “Hopalong” Cassady. Detroit’s defense forced four turnovers in the 4th Q alone as it secured its place in the next week’s NFL title game at home at Briggs Stadium, where the Lions crushed the Browns, 59-14. Of course, Detroit hasn’t won a title since (and won’t again this season, either, after last Saturday’s wildcard round loss to the Saints). As for the 49ers, their second-half collapse hung like a curse over the franchise for more than a decade until the 1970 edition returned to the playoffs and finally recorded a postseason win, the first for the franchise in its NFL existence, by a 17-14 count over the Vikings in frigid Bloomington.

Similarly, in 1958, we were treated to an extra playoff game when the Giants and Browns ended up deadlocked in the old Eastern Conference, forcing another one-game playoff for a berth in the title game opposite Johnny Unitas and Western champ Baltimore. It was more like two extra playoff games that season, because the pair hooked up on the final weekend of the regular season the Browns needing only a win or tie to lock up the East crown. In a snow-swept Yankee Stadium, Giants PK Pat Summerall (yes, that Pat Summerall) kicked what seemed to be an impossible 49-yard field goal, a 49-yarder in the snow and wind with just over 2 minutes to play, to give the G-Men a 13-10 win and force the Eastern playoff the next week vs. the same Browns. “You couldn’t see the yard lines,” Summerall said of his miraculous winning kick. “Nobody was sure how far it was. I know it was a long way out and I had just missed from 35 yards before that. It was sort of a shock they sent me out there.” And it almost didn’t happen, as assistant Vince Lombardi had tried to convince HC Jim Lee Howell of the futility of the try before being overruled.

The teams faced off at Yankee Stadium once more the next week in the conference playoff, again in frigid conditions, for the right to play the Colts in the title game. New York’s defense, coordinated by none other than Tom Landry, shut down the Browns cold, holding the great Jim Brown to a career-low 8 yards rushing in a brutal 10-0 win that preceded one of the games of the ages vs. the Colts (more on that one in our next issue).

The playoffs didn’t officially expand until 1967, when the NFL had reached sixteen teams with the additions of the Falcons (1966) and Saints (’67) as expansion teams. Emboldened by the drama and positive public reaction to the 1965 Western playoff won in overtime by the Packers over the Colts (reduced to using RB Tom Matte at QB), 13-10, commissioner Pete Rozelle was convinced that it was time for an expended postseason. In 1967, the East and West Conferences were thus divided into two divisions each (Capitol and Century in the East, Central and Coastal in the West), with a conference playoff preceding the league championship game for the next three seasons. As we noted in last week’s issue, the AFL also expanded its playoff round, as it included its own “wildcard” entries (division runners-up) in its final 1969 season.

The three seasons of NFL conference playoff games produced only one truly memorable encounter, coming in the 1969 West playoff between the Rams and Vikings in what was effectively the NFL title game that season. George Allen’s Los Angeles and Bud Grant’s Minnesota were the league’s strongest teams in ’69, with Allen’s Rams racing to wins in their first eleven games and threatening an unbeaten campaign until the Vikings ended all of that talk with a 20-13 win at the L.A. Coliseum in early December. These were also the Rams of the Fearsome Foursome and Roman Gabriel, and the Vikings of the Purple People Eaters and Joe Kapp, a QB of extraordinary leadership skills who also flashed like a comet across the NFL sky after spending much of his pro career in Canada. Kapp spent only three seasons with the Vikings, the last in ’69 when he was the talk of the league with his rough-hewn, fearless style.

Oh, the joys of following pro football in those days, with personalities such as Kapp and Rams DE Deacon Jones (and on the AFL side, Joe Namath), colorful characters the likes of which have mostly been missing from pro football for a generation! And most unlike the many manufactured sports celebrities of today.

That ’69 West title game was held at old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, with the snow piled high on the sidelines and the temperature at 10 degrees, with a wind chill of -1, at kickoff. The Rams jumped ahead quickly 7-0 and were moving smartly in the first half behind Gabriel’s short passing game that moved the chains consistently and partially defused the fierce Viking pass rush featuring Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, and Alan Page. On the day, Gabe completed 22 passes, 13 of those to his running backs Larry Smith and Les Josephson. At halftime the Rams led 17-7.

Grant, however, made some shrewd adjustments at the half, blitzing more on first down and allowing Page & Co. on the DL to play with more abandon and stunt on their own. Suddenly, the Rams were going backwards on first downs. “Ours is the type of offense that can’t afford setbacks,” said Gabriel at the time. “Five yards at a time only works on first and 10, not first and 25.”

Kapp also decided to get more aggressive in his play-calling in the second half. “We thought we could work on their cornerbacks (Clancy Williams & Jim Nettles),” said Kapp. “The Rams give them a lot of responsibility, and they don’t get help from the safeties. I should have thrown deep early in the game, but I didn’t mix it up enough in the first half.”

Throwing deep in the third quarter, Kapp found Gene “Michigan State” Washington, who had beaten Nettles, with a 41-yard rainbow to set up Dave Osborn’s short TD dive to get the Vikes back to 17-14 and into the game.

Down 20-14 in the fourth quarter, Kapp (who would also lead Viking rushers that day with 42 yards) directed another gutsy drive, completing one deep pass to WR John Henderson before eventually scoring himself on a 2-yard rollout to put Minnesota ahead for the first time at 21-20. Eller would later nail Gabriel for a safety and a 23-20 lead before the Rams had one last chance when moving into Minnesota territory in the final minute. Page, however, would intercept Gabe with 39 seconds to play, and the best NFL conference playoff game to that point, and one of the more riveting ones we ever recall, ended in the Vikings’ favor.

Of course, the advent of the merger the next season provided the framework for an expanded playoff and four Division Round games which continue to this day, and we at TGS have seen them all. Some of the all-time pro football classics have been Division Round battles, including what still stands as the NFL’s longest-ever game in 1971, the classic back-and-forth on Christmas Day between the Chiefs and Dolphins that Miami finally won, 27-24 after 82 minutes and 40 seconds. It would also be hard to top the dramatics in 1972, when Franco Harris’ 60-yard “Immaculate Reception” TD in the final seconds gave the Steelers an improbable 13-7 win over the Raiders. “Hail Mary” became part of football jargon, and Roger Staubach confirmed himself as one of the great comeback kids of all-time, in 1975 when Dallas pulled out an astonishing 17-14 win over Minnesota. To this day, Viking fans still seethe at the replay of Cowboys WR Drew Pearson pushing off DB Nate Wright just before catching a game-winning 50-yarder from Staubach with 24 seconds to play. And we still cringe at the thought of ref Armen Terzian getting conked in the noggin by a whiskey bottle thrown by an irate Minnesota fan at the Met for not calling the interference on Pearson. In 1981, Miami was involved in another OT classic, this time falling short to San Diego in a 41-38 thriller marked by the heroics of Charger TE Kellen Winslow in what is still what we at TGS believe might have been the best-ever pro football game, playoffs or otherwise, we’ve seen.

For most of their history, Division Round games have been the territory of home teams and favorites (almost always one and the same), but their dominance is not as pronounced as it once was. Since the 2003 postseason, road dogs stand 19-13 against the number in division-round playoff games. This week, we'll also see the first home dog in this round (San Francisco, vs. New Orleans) since Carolina was +3 vs. Dallas in 1996.

Remember some dynamics that are unique to this round. Since 1990, when the playoffs expanded from 10 teams to 12, all Division Round hosts are off a “bye” and a week of rest. And almost all of the “powerhouse” NFL teams in recent memory are from that first-round “bye” group, including 52 of the last 66 Super Bowl participants since ’78 (when the first-round “bye” was introduced). But at least one top conference seed has met defeat in five of the past seasons, including both (Atlanta and New England) a year ago. So no one has to warn the Patriots about potential banana peels this weekend, or the Packers, either, considering how they knocked out Atlanta a year ago.

Also worth noting is how lopsided results continue to recur in Division Round games, as more than half since 1975 have been decided by double-digit margins. Favored teams laying a TD or more (usually representing the cream of the NFL crop) have covered solidly at 57% in the Division Round since ‘75. “Totals” trends have been less pronounced, though all four in the round went “over” a year ago.

Following are the pointspread results in various spread categories of NFL Division Round playoff games since 1975. Our “charting” below begins with the ’75 season because, prior to then, playoff home teams were predetermined in a divisional rotation, as opposed to the better won-loss record. A “margin of victory” chart for the games since 1975 is included as well.

CATEGORY RESULT

Favorites vs. line... 73-67-3 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up... 99-44
Favored by 0-3 points... 8-14-1
Favored by 3½-6½ points... 26-22-1
Favored by 7-9½ points... 26-19
Favored by 10-13½ points... 11-8
Favored by 14 points or more... 3-3-1
Home teams straight up... 101-43
Home teams vs. spread... 75-66-3
Home favorites vs. spread... 71-64-3
Home underdogs vs. spread... 3-2
Home picks vs. spread... 1-0
Over/under (since 1986)... 53-47

MARGINS OF VICTORY
1-3 points... 34
4-6 points... 11
7-10 points... 25
11-13 points... 11
14 points or more... 63


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