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NEW TGS COVER STORY...AFC/NFC TITLE PREVIEW AND BEST THAT DIDN'T MAKE IT
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Although New England’s lopsided win over Denver last Saturday reminded us that blowout results have been recurring in playoff action for decades, they haven’t been quite as prevalent in recent years. That’s been especially true in the conference championship round, which for much of the past decade has offered truly compelling viewing.

It hasn’t always been that way, however, and we recall many conference title scorelines from past decades that were more one-sided than the once-prevalent Super Bowl “blowout” trend. But over the past four seasons, only one of the eight AFC or NFC title games has been decided by a double-margin, and even that one (Indianapolis over the Jets, 30-17, in the AFC two years ago) was a competitive affair deep into the 4th quarter.

We’ll get into more specifics regarding conference title round trends in just a moment. But as we get near the completion of our 55th football season of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we tend to become a bit wistful, as it is these end-of-season matchups that are so easy for us to recall over our many years. Indeed, we at TGS have been analyzing championship-level battles since 1957. Needless to say, we’ve seen a lot of great games in this round over the years...and we've seen a lot of great teams get beaten as well.

Along those lines, it is wise to remember that no matter how good a team might have looked until this point in the season, it has been preceded by several entries that looked just as good or better, but didn’t even make it to the Super Bowl. For a quick reminder, we thought we’d list some of those “super” teams from the past that never made it beyond the conference title round (or, in the days before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, or Super Bowls, which began in 1966, teams that lost in AFL or NFL championship action).

1962 New York Giants...Of a collection of five Giants’ teams that reached the NFL title game between 1958 (the year of the famous overtime loss to the Colts) and 1963, and lost them all, the ‘62 version was probably the best. Coach Allie Sherman had fortified the roster the previous year in 1961 when adding the likes of wideouts Del Shofner and Joe Walton (to take the place of Frank Gifford, who sat out the ’61 season after the vicious and famous hit he took from Eagle LB Chuck Bednarik in a 1960 game), plus QB Y.A. Tittle and CB Erich Barnes. When Gifford returned in ‘62, he and Shofner proved a dynamite receiving combo for the veteran Tittle, who set a then-NFL record with 33 TD passes, while the defense, labeled a group of “silent assassins” by none other than Jim Brown, was ruthlessly effective, paced by MLB Sam Huff, DLmen Jim Katcavage and Rosey Grier, plus Barnes and Dick Lynch, who provided the league’s best tandem on the corners. Those G-Men rattled off nine straight wins to close the regular season at 12-2, comfortably ahead of the Steelers at the wire in the Eastern Conference, but had the misfortune of running into perhaps Vince Lombardi’s best Packers side, one that finished the regular season at 13-1, in the NFL title game at Yankee Stadium.

Many believed New York had the right stuff to avenge the previous year’s 37-0 shellacking in the title game at Green Bay, but the arctic-like conditions in the Bronx (temperature at 20 at kickoff and dropping steadily all afternoon, with winds at 35 mph) and a frozen field rendered Tittle’s aerial game ineffective. Although much more competitive than the previous year, and with Huff taking particular pleasure in punishing Green Bay FB Jim Taylor, all the G-Men could muster was a block of a Max McGee punt by Barnes in the 3rd quarter, recovered by Jim Collier for a TD that cut the Pack’s lead to 10-7. The Giants still had a look at the game into the 4th Q, but Jerry Kramer’s third field goal finally sealed a 16-7 Green Bay win.

1964 Baltimore Colts...The ‘64 Colts were a frightening collection, a blend of steely veterans and exuberant youth all contributing to a domination of that year’s Western Conference that was signaled by a 52-0 destruction over the defending champion Bears in Week Three. The previous year, new HC Don Shula had introduced a rookie collection consisting of RB Tom Matte, TE John Mackey, OT Bob Vogel, DT Fred Miller, and DB Jerry Logan, all of whom would become integral pieces of the Baltimore puzzle by ‘64, a year in which Shula added another offensive component in electric Arizona State rookie RB Tony Lorick. With QB Johnny Unitas still at the height of his powers and RB Lenny Moore healthy again after two injury-marred campaigns, the Colts paced the NFL in scoring offense (31 ppg) while also leading the league in scoring defense (16 ppg), as they throttled almost everyone in their path after being stunned by Norm Van Brocklin’s brash Minnesota Vikings and QB Fran Tarkenton in the opener, and eventually finishing 12-2 (a meaningless Week 13 loss to the Lions, beaten 34-0 in the first meeting, accounting for the other blemish). Few gave Eastern champion Cleveland much of a chance in the title game.

But the heavy underdog Browns were an aroused bunch that afternoon at old Municipal Stadium, hard by Lake Erie, and an aggressive defensive game plan, featuring CBs Bernie Parrish and Walter Beach continually popping Unitas’ wideouts Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr as soon as they left the line of scrimmage, rendered the Baltimore aerial game helpless. Meanwhile, the Cleveland pass rush, led by DEs Bill Glass and Paul Wiggin and DTs Dick Modzelewski and Jim Kanicki, plus MLB Vince Costello, played with reckless abandon for 60 minutes and dominated the Colts’ OL. Still deadlocked 0-0 in the third quarter, the Browns finally began to move, as a 46-yard run by Jim Brown set up the first of three TD passes from Dr. Frank Ryan to WR Gary Collins, covering 18 yards. The Ryan-Collins combo burned the Colts for two more TD passes of 42 and 51 yards in an eventual 27-0 shocker, which to this day remains the last professional sports championship won by any Cleveland team.

1969 Oakland Raiders...Many AFL aficionados regard the ‘69 Raider team as the best of that era for the Silver & Black, at least until the Super Bowl winners of 1976. The “Mad Bomber,” QB Daryle Lamonica, enjoyed his best season with 34 TD passes, with Fred Biletnikoff and Warren Wells (who gained as astounding 27 yards per catch and scored 14 TDs!) forming the best WR duo in the pro ranks. Meanwhile, the defense was nasty, with a “Soul Patrol” secondary featuring CBs Willie Brown & Nemiah Wilson and safeties George Atkinson and Dave Grayson the best in the 10-year history of the league. The Raiders, under first-year HC John Madden, waged a season-long battle with Hank Stram’s Chiefs for the Western crown and beat Kansas City in a pair of pulsating regular-season games en route to a 12-1-1 record (the only blemishes courtesy recent AFL expansionists Cincinnati, which scored a midseason upset at Nippert Stadium, and then-lowly, pre-Don Shula Miami, coached by George Wilson, which forced an early-season draw a the old Orange Bowl). Oakland then destroyed East runner-up Houston, 56-7, in the newly-introduced playoff round before running into the rival Chiefs in the AFL title game at the Oakland Coliseum in what would be the final all-AFL game of the league’s existence.

Favored to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons, the Raiders missed opportunities to pad an early 7-0 lead, and the Chiefs clawed back into the game to level the score by halftime. The turning point came in the 3rd quarter, when Lamonica’s hand hit Chief DE Aaron Brown’s facemask, jamming the QB’s thumb and two fingers. George Blanda was briefly called upon in relief and tossed a pick before Madden sent Lamonica back into battle, perhaps unwisely. Lamonica’s damaged hand was causing his passes to sail, and he was picked off three times alone in the 4th quarter, while Blanda, who would deliver all sorts of heroics the following season, was allowed to sit. The Chiefs ended up 17-7 winners before having a much easier time of it vs. the Vikings in the Super Bowl the following week, while what might have been the best team in AFL history was sitting and watching at home.

1976 Pittsburgh Steelers...There are more than a few pro football historians who regard these Steelers, at least the version over the last half of the ‘76 season, as the best team they ever saw, including Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl winners in four other years. Which might be hard for some to believe when looking at Pittsburgh’s 10-4 regular-season mark, hardly extraordinary. But we saw this team, too, and still marvel at what it accomplished over the last half of that ‘76 campaign.

Although losing QB Terry Bradshaw for nearly half the season due to two different injuries, the Steelers stayed afloat with Boston College rookie QB Mike Kruczek starting six games. But it was defense the likes of which few have ever seen that made Pittsburgh’s General Sherman-like march so impressive. Those ’76 Steelers actually started the season 1-4, but allowed only one of their last nine opponents to a score touchdown in a frightening and awe-inspiring path of destruction in which the Steel Curtain defense allowed just 28 points (3.1 ppg), registered five shutouts in the last eight games, plus posting strings of 15 consecutive scoreless quarters and 22 quarters without allowing a TD! Along the way the Steelers chased down the Bengals, who seemed comfortably in control of the AFC Central for most of the season but lost a pair to the Steelers and ended up conceding the division despite finishing with the same 10-4 mark. Noll’s team then crushed a dangerous Bert Jones-led Colts team 40-14 in the Division Round, amassing a 526-170 yardage edge, but lost RBs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, plus PK Roy Gerela, to injury in the win. Their absences would prove costly in a highly-anticipated AFC title game at Oakland, which had lost at the same stage the previous two years to Noll’s team but gained some revenge in a wild 31-28 win over Pittsburgh at the start of the ‘76 season, when George Atkinson had KO’d WR Lynn Swann with a vicious cheap shot. In their depleted state, the Steelers were not quite the same, and the Raiders won the rematch without incident, 24-7, confirming their own claim to greatness.

1998 Minnesota Vikings...One of the greatest offensive teams of all-time, the ‘98 Vikings set a then-NFL record of 556 points (nearly 35 ppg; eventually broken nine years later by the Patriots during their 16-0 regular season of 2007) for the regular season en route to a 15-1 mark. The offense, featuring QB Randall Cunningham throwing rainbows to uncoverable wideouts Randy Moss and Cris Carter (who combined for 29 TD catches), plus slashing RB Robert Smith, was almost unstoppable, while a big-play “D” led by DT John Randle repelled the opposition. Only a three-point midseason loss at Tampa Bay prevented a perfect regular-season mark, and, after toying with Arizona and its QB Jake Plummer, 41-21, in the Division Round playoff, saw only Atlanta stand in Minnesota's way of an expected showdown with defending champion Denver in the Super Bowl.

But what was supposed to be a coronation for the Viking juggernaut at the Metrodome instead turned into the greatest moment in the history of the Falcons’ franchise. Decided 11-point underdogs, Atlanta seemed on the verge of getting KO’d by the Vikings’ chilling offensive power, but cut a 20-7 lead to 20-14 just before the half after forcing a turnover deep in Minnesota territory, then stayed within striking distance deep in the 4th Q after normally-reliable Viking PK Gary Anderson (who hadn’t missed a FG all season) was wide on a 38-yard FG, keeping the Falcons within 7 points. With time running out, Atlanta QB Chris Chandler took advantage by leading his team 72 yards to tie the game on a 16-yard TD pass to Terance Mathis with just 49 seconds to play. Chandler ended up the hero, playing the game of his life while passing for 340 yards on a bad ankle and leading the winning drive in overtime that culminated in Morten Andersen’s 38-yard, game-winning FG in a 30-27 final that still has Vikings fans shaking their heads to this day.

What can we conclude from the above-referenced examples? If the ‘62 Giants, ‘64 Colts, ‘69 Raiders, ‘76 Steelers, and ‘98 Vikings lost at this stage, then so might either of the favored teams this weekend!

MEANWHILE, THIS WEEK...


As we enter conference championship weekend, there are a few specific trends that merit review. Favorites covered in both meetings last season and continue to hold a clear pointspread edge since 1970 (45-34-2), although their dominance has been less pronounced in recent years. “Intermediate/high” favorites (those laying between 7-9½ points) are 15-4 vs. the number in conference championships since 1970. Double-digit favorites, however, are only 4-8 vs. the line. Home teams have won straight up better than two-thirds of the time since the merger (55 of 82). Conference title “totals” have also trended “over” (8-2) the last five seasons.

We also must again reference the many one-sided conference title scorelines from the past and caution handicappers whose initial instincts are often to side with a high-quality team in what is a rare underdog role. Although, as mentioned at the outset, we have been treated to some compelling conference title games in recent years, final margins have still historically drifted into double digits in this round, even if we haven’t seen a real blowout in this round for five years, or since the Bears routed the Saints 39-14 in the 2006 NFC finale. Please note that almost half of the conference title games since the 1970 merger (38 of 82) have also been decided by 14 points or more, with nearly two-thirds (53 of 82) being decided by double digits.

Following is a list of pointspread breakdowns and inf AFC & NFC Championships since 1970.

CATEGORY... RESULT
Favorites/Underdogs (one pick ‘em)... 45-34-2
Favorites straight up... 54-27
Favored by 1-3 points... 12-9
Favored by 3½-6½ points... 14-13-2
Favored by 7-9½ points... 15-4
Favored by 10 or more... 4-8
Home teams straight up... 55-27
Home teams vs. spread... 46-34-2
Home favorites vs. spread... 38-26-2
Home underdogs vs. spread... 8-7
Home pick’em vs. spread... 0-1
Overs/unders (since 1986)... 29-21

MARGINS OF VICTORY
1-3 points... 10
4-6 points... 11
7-10 points... 12
11-13 points... 11
14 or more... 38


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