2026...
NEW TGS COVER STORY...NFL WILDCARD NOTEBOOK
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The expansion of the pro football playoffs is one of the fascinating differences from our first year of publishing TGS in 1957 to the present. In the late ‘50s, before there was even an American Football League, there were only twelve professional teams (six in each conference, the Western and Eastern) and one playoff game to decide the NFL title. Almost always those championship games were played before the end of December, too; nowadays the regular season doesn’t even conclude until the end of the month, and some years it even extends into January. Interestingly, in our first publishing year, the NFL title game between Cleveland and Detroit was played on December 29. And the Lions haven’t won a championship since!

It was inevitable that an expanded playoff format would materialize, especially after the league began adding expansion teams in the 1960s (as the AFL came into existence at the same time) and TV exposure increased, although it took a while for the idea to resonate. In retrospect, the trigger turned out to be the 1965 Western Conference playoff between the old Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers, who had tied with 10-3-1 marks in the regular season, necessitating a one-game playoff for the right to meet the defending title holders and Eastern Conference champion Browns the next week.

Colts-Packers was no artistic masterpiece, but provided such compelling viewing that then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle couldn’t help but figure out that expanding the postseason to include an extra round of drama, such as the Colts and Pack provided, would prove a boon to league coffers and irresistible to CBS, which had exclusive TV rights for the NFL in those days. (The AFL had been televised by ABC from its inception in 1960 through the 1964 season, before moving to NBC in 1965).

The Baltimore-Green Bay playoff turned out to be one of the most memorable and significant games in league history. Famously, the Colts were forced to use Tom Matte (normally a trusted RB) as the emergency QB after injuries had KO’d both Johnny Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo late in the season. A specially-designed wristband (on display to this day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton) was created by Colts HC Don Shula for Matte to help him keep track of plays.

But the QB shortage that cold December 26 afternoon at Lambeau Field would become more acute than anyone realized at the outset of the game (indeed, on the game’s first play from scrimmage), when Packer QB Bart Starr was KO’d for the rest of the day with bruised ribs, which made it impossible for Starr to raise his right arm above his shoulder. Worse for Green Bay was that Starr was injured on that first play in which WR Bill Anderson had the ball stripped by Baltimore DB Lenny Lyles and scooped up by LB Don Shinnick, who raced 25 yards for a Colt TD and 7-0 lead. Energized, the 8-point underdog Colts proceeded to mostly dominate the rest of the first half despite limited contributions from emergency QB Matte. Instead, it was the Shula defense harassing Green Bay backup QB Zeke Bratkowski and staking the visitors to a 10-0 lead at the break. The Packers had also been stonewalled at the Colts goal line late in the 2nd Q, thanks to a unique five defensive lineman deployment (essentially a “five-one”), which occupied Packer blockers and gave LB Dennis Gaubatz a clear shot to nail rugged Green Bay FB Jim Taylor on 4th-and-goal from at the one to preserve the shutout at halftime.

Baltimore, however, was operating on short rations with its offense, as Matte could only provide occasional runs (he completed a mere 5 of 12 throws on the afternoon), and, as the afternoon progressed, it was obvious that the Colts would have to win the game with their stop unit. A botched punt snap set the Pack up in good field position at the Baltimore 35 in the 3rd Q, before Bratkowski hit Carroll Dale with a 33-yard pass to put the ball at the one. The Colts tried their “five-one” alignment again, but the Pack had made enough blocking adjustments to help Paul Hornung navigate the one yard for the TD to narrow the gap to 10-7.

The drama, however, only intensified as the Colts tried to grimly hold on for what would have been a near-impossible win with the quarterback-less offense. Green Bay was still down 10-7 late in the 4th Q before Bratkowski was able to fire up a drive deep into Baltimore territory that stalled at the 15 yard line with two minutes to go. Out trotted PK Don Chandler for a 22-yard FG try to level the score at 10 apiece.

Jim Tunney was the official who was standing alongside the right goal post when Chandler’s kick sailed over him. Tunney hesitated for a moment, thrust his head backward, and called the kick good, although many thought it was wide right. NFL Films footage of the day would later indicate that the boot indeed seemed to sail wide. But the field goal tied the score.

“I think I got it right,” Tunney said. “But every time I’d run into Don Shula, Tom Matte and John Unitas, even years later, they’d always tell me I was wrong.”

The second overtime period in NFL playoff history ensued. (The first OT was the famous 1958 Colts-Giants title game at Yankee Stadium; the AFL also had an overtime game three years earlier in its title clash between the Dallas Texans and Houston Oilers that lasted into the 6th quarter before a Tommy Brooker field goal won the game for the Texans, 20-17). Matte was able to cobble together a drive into Packer territory to set up PK Lou Michaels for a 47-yard FG try, but a poor snap forced Michaels to lose his timing and the kicked missed badly. Shortly thereafter, Bratkowski led the Pack downfield for another FG try by Chandler, who nailed this one from 25 yards (with no controversy) to give Green Bay a 13-10 win.

The aftershot of the game was a TV ratings boon for Rozelle, who began to mobilize the league for a dramatic makeover within two seasons, in which the NFL would be divided into four divisions (Coastal and Central in the West, Capitol and Century in the East) and a permanent extra round of playoffs featuring a pair of conference championship games before the league title game, and then the Super Bowl, all to commence in 1967. Moreover, Chandler’s controversial tying field goal near the end of regulation time spurred the ownership’s competition committee to change the goal posts (which were up until 1965 still in the old-fashioned “H”) by increasing their height ten feet for the 1966 season, with the posts slightly “offset” from their previous spot on the goal-line. By 1967 the uprights were heightened a few more feet as goal posts took on a new “slingshot” look, with a single post curving to support the crossbar, a configuration invented by Joel Rottman in Montreal, Canada. The first set were built by Alcan and displayed at Montreal’s Expo 67, and the NFL adopted the new look for the ‘67 season.

That’s a lot of repercussions from one football game! Indeed, much of what we accept as commonplace in pro football today traces itself back to that 1965 Western Conference playoff.

The wildcard concept was actually hatched in 1969 by the old AFL in the year before the merger with the NFL. Rozelle, by then commissioner of both leagues, wanted to gauge fan reaction by inviting runner-up teams in the East and West Divisions to an expanded AFL playoff format in the last year of the league’s existence. 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 December before the winners would square off in the last AFL title game on January 4, 1970. This appeased fans in both Kansas City and Oakland, the warring powers of the day in the AFL West who would both have a chance to make the playoffs after only the Raiders advanced in 1968 when both teams finished the regular season 12-2 (Oakland routed the Chiefs, 41-6, in the division playoff before losing bitterly to Joe Namath and the Jets at Shea Stadium for the AFL title the next week).

The term “wildcard” wasn’t hatched by Rozelle, however, until the merger year of 1970, when the best division runner-up from the three divisions in each of the newly-created conferences (AFC and NFC) would be invited to the playoffs. Although the ‘69 Chiefs were technically a “wildcard” entry when they beat the Jets and Raiders in the AFL playoffs before knocking off the favored Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV.

The wildcard concept was immediately embraced by the fans and the media, although there were only a few playoff games involving wildcards in the ‘70s that remain etched in the conscience of pro football aficionados. One of those was in 1975, when the wildcard Dallas Cowboys trekked to icy Bloomington for a contest vs. the favored Vikings. In a vicious defensive battle, the Cowboys had outplayed host Minnesota for much of the afternoon, yet found themselves down by a 14-10 count deep in the 4th Q after Viking QB Fran Tarkenton had stitched together a long TD drive. Beginning from his 15-yard line with only 1:51 to play, Dallas QB Roger Staubach could only slowly move the Cowboys upfield; faced with a 4th-and-16 from their own 25, Staubach found Drew Pearson on a sideline route, which was ruled a completion and a first down at the 50 despite Pearson being ridden beyond the boundary by CB Nate Wright before his feet could touch the ground (rules allowed for such catches to be judged as completions if the defender interfered with the receiver’s ability to land inbounds after making a catch).

Precious time was ticking away, but Pearson had a message for Staubach after the completion. “I can beat Wright deep,” said Pearson, “but give me a chance to catch my breath.” With 32 seconds to play and on second down at the 50, Roger the Dodger gave Pearson his chance. From the shotgun formation, Staubach, who had been forced to field low snaps from C John Fitzgerald much of the afternoon, pulled another snap off the ground and let heave deep for Pearson, who was involved in some hand-to-hand combat with Wright. The pass was slightly underthrown, but after the bumping and jostling it was Pearson who managed to grab the pass at the 5 while Wright fell to the ground, and the ex-Tulsa WR trotted into the end zone, creating at first a deathly quiet at old Metropolitan Stadium. Fans, however, soon became incensed at the non-interference call on Pearson, and while Viking players pleaded with them to calm down and not throw objects onto the field, a liquor bottle missile nailed referee Armen Terzian in the forehead. Thankfully, his injury wasn’t serious.

If indeed it was a non-call on Pearson, it was probably poetic justice for the Vikings, the beneficiary of an earlier apparent blown call in which Minnesota recovered a botched punt at the Dallas 4 in the 2nd Q, preceding the Vikes’ first TD. The punt never seemed to touch Cowboy returner Cliff Harris, who also might have been interfered with as he attempted to make the fair catch. It would take a little more than an hour for Dallas to get its redemption.

Speaking of poetic justice, we have long wondered if aggrieved longtime Raiders fans who never accepted Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs vs. the Steelers had perhaps acknowledged eventual repayment in the form of a true gift from the referees in the 1976 first-round game vs. New England in what was the other truly memorable playoff involving a wildcard team in the “early post-merger playoff phase” of 1970-77.

Chuck Fairbanks’ Patriots had surprisingly emerged as a dangerous contender that season behind second-year QB Steve Grogan, a Kansas State grad who had unseated Jim Plunkett as the starter in the preceding ‘75 campaign, prompting Plunkett’s offseason trade to the 49ers. New England served notice early in the season when winning at defending Super Bowl champ Pittsburgh and then clobbering the Raiders 48-17 at Foxboro, in what would be Oakland’s only regular-season loss. At 11-3, the Patriots chased the best of the Bert Jones-led Baltimore Colts teams in the AFC East race only to lose the division title on tiebreakers, qualifying as a wildcard instead, where host Oakland, runaway AFC West champ with its majestic 13-1 record, would await in the playoffs.

Proving the earlier win no fluke, the Patriots jumped to an early 7-0 lead on an Andy Johnson TD run, but really began to take control in the 3rd Q, when a TD pass from Grogan to TE Russ Francis and a 3-yard TD run by Jess Phillips staked New England to a solid 21-10 lead. Oakland rallied in the 4th Q, cutting the deficit to 21-17 on a 1-yard Mark van Eeghen run, then after Raider LB Phil Villapiano got away with a pass interference on Francis (whose nose was also broken earlier in the game by a cheap shot from Oakland DB George Atkinson, who also wasn’t flagged on the play), QB Ken Stabler led the Raiders on a last-minute drive that seemed about to stall on the Patriots’ 28 yard line, where Oakland appeared ready to face a desperate 4th-and-18 situation. Not so fast; on the previous play, however, New England DT Sugar Bear Hamilton was unbelievably flagged by referee Ben Dreith for roughing the passer on Stabler! It was arguably the worst call in playoff history; Dreith Dreith threw the flag despite Hamilton being on top of Stabler as the Snake delivered what would be a harmlessly incomplete pass (which Sugar Bear slightly tipped as well). Given new life at the New England 14, the Raiders would eventually score, barely so, with 10 seconds to play when Stabler was able to dive in for a TD on a rollout from the one, giving Oakland a pulsating (and controversial) 24-21 win. Raider fans who were still miffed at the Immaculate Reception from four years earlier could feel partially vindicated. That John Madden-coached Oakland team would go on to win the Super Bowl; the Patriots stayed as contenders the next two years for Fairbanks, but never seemed to have a better chance to win it all in that era than in ‘76.

Enough of the trips down memory lane. After the addition of the second wildcard entries in 1978, the next adjustments came in 1990, when a third wildcard team was added in 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 now 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 on wildcard weekend, featuring the two division winners with the worst records along with two wildcard entries from each conference.

Historically, the wildcard round has been more fertile territory for the underdogs, who over the years have generally (but not always) fared better in this round than in ensuing Division Round or conference championships. Two years ago, in 2010, all four underdogs prevailed in the wildcard round, although the chalk was 3-1 last year (the only dog winner being Denver and Tim Tebow in the Broncos’ OT thriller vs. the Steelers). The shorter-priced (1-3 point) dogs stand 27-18-2 vs. the number since ‘78, including 10-4 against the spread the last four years. Home dogs, usually rare in playoff action, are a noteworthy 13-4 vs. the number in first-round games since ‘78, including winners the past two years with aforementioned Denver last term and the biggest home dog on record in wildcard annals in 2010, when Pete Carroll’s first Seattle edition was receiving 10½ points as host vs. New Orleans. Not only did the Seahawks cover, they won the game outright, 41-36!

Many insiders 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 13 of 28 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (50 of 110) since the wildcard round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have not been as formful, split 4-4 between “unders” and “overs” since 2010, and barely favoring the “unders” (24-23-1) since 1990.

Following are spread 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 27-18-2
3½-6½ pt. dogs 18-17-1
7-pt. or more dogs 13-13
Home dogs 13-4
Road dogs 44-45-3


Margins of victory (110 total games)—22 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 25 games by 4-7 points, 13 games by 8-13 points, and 50 games have been decided by 14 points or more.


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