TGS SPECIAL REPORT...GHOST TO THE POST & ORANGE CRUSH-MAS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Where did the time go? We have been around so long at TGS that our publishing history (which dates to 1957) precedes the “Wild Card” concept that was not officially introduced into pro football until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The seeds of the Wild Card, however, were planted in previous seasons when the occasional conference playoff was necessitated, and when the AFL experimented with an extra round of playoff action in its final season of 1969. But once the Wild Card arrived, it was here to stay in the NFL, one of former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s many innovations that forever changed the landscape of pro football.
It was perhaps inevitable that an expanded playoff format would materialize, especially after the league began adding expansion teams in the 1960s (when the AFL also came into existence), although it took a while for the idea to resonate. Ironically, 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 (chronicled on these pages in recent years) was no artistic masterpiece, but provided such compelling viewing in Green Bay’s 13-10 overtime win (at that point only the second-ever NFL game to require extra time) that Rozelle couldn’t help but deduce 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. And, when expansion added the New Orleans Saints as the league’s 16th team in 1967, Rozelle jumped at the opportunity to revamp the playoff format as part of a reconfigured NFL that would be divided into four, four-team divisions. Naturally, the winners of the Western Conference divisions (the newly-christened “Coastal” and “Central”) and those in the East (from the “Capitol” and “Century” Divisions) would compete against each other in an extra round of playoff action that was a hit with the pro football audience from the outset.
The ”Wild Card” concept was technically hatched in 1969 by the old AFL in the year before the merger with the NFL Rozelle, by then the commissioner of both leagues, wanted to gauge fan reaction by invitingrunner-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 “Wild Card” wasn’t created by Rozelle, however, until the merger year of 1970, in which 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 “Wild Card” 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 “Wild Card Round” technically did not begin until 1978, when a second Wild Card entry was added to each conference, expanding the playoff field to 10 teams. From 1970-77, the playoff fields held eight teams, and first weekends delivered several memorable games. We recall all of those years fondly at TGS, but perhaps none as much as 1977, and the final season of the “old” format. And what might have been one of the more compelling playoff doubleheaders of our lifetime.
Gridiron historians will note a calendar oddity about the first round of the ‘77 playoffs, which were contested on Saturday. December 24...and Monday, December 26. The reason? Rozelle had come under intense criticism in 1971 for scheduling first-round playoff games on Christmas, which fell on Saturday that year. (One of the games was the epic Miami-Kansas City double-OT thriller, recalled on these pages two years ago.) The next time Christmas would fall on a game day would be 1977, when it landed on Sunday (in ‘76, Christmas fell on a Saturday, but that was conference championship weekend, and both the NFC & AFC title games were played the following day on Sunday, Dec. 26). Sensitive to the sort of outcry that crucified the NFL six years earlier, Rozelle deftly skipped the controversy by not scheduling games on Xmas Sunday, the 25th. Thhe adjustments meant that both AFC games would be played on Saturday the 24th, and both NFC clashes on Monday, the 26th.
It’s the AFC half of the playoffs from ‘77, however, that still resonate, and can give us goose bumps whenever we recall. For that was the year of the “Orange Crush” in Denver as the Broncos, under new HC Red Miller, stormed to their first-ever playoff berth after dethroning the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders as AFC West champs. Oakland, still formidable, would qualify as the lone conference Wild Card and face Bert Jones and the Baltimore Colts in the opener on that Christmas Eve at old Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, the Broncos would host the Steelers, two years removed from their Super Bowl X win but still considered highly dangerous, with the core of past (and future) title winners still in the fold, later in the afternoon.
Both games were memorable, but Raiders-Colts was really a battle for the ages, and we remain perplexed at why this classic seems to be overlooked as one of the NFL’s all-time great playoff games. Perhaps because neither the Raiders nor the Colts would win the Super Bowl that year. Or, perhaps, we were still a couple of years before the introduction of ESPN and an all-sports network as a constant reminder. But true gridiron aficionados and historians know that ‘77 Raiders-Colts has withstood the test of time and remains an all-time classic. It still rates as the third-longest game in pro football history; no game in the 40 years since has been longer.
Seven times the lead had changed hands that Christmas Eve in Baltimore! Though it took Raiders-Colts a while to heat up. The confrontation had been billed as an aerial shootout between QBs Ken Stablerand Jones, but neither team looked very impressive at the beginning of the long afternoon. Oakland’s Clarence Davis opened the scoring near the end of the first quarter when he bolted through a handful of Colts on a 30-yard romp to the end zone, but he later hurt the Raiders by twice fumbling the ball to the Colts. Baltimore Safety Bruce Laird, who was penalized for a face-mask violation as he attempted to stop Davis’ TD run, tied the score when he intercepted a Stabler pass and ran it back 61 yards for a touchdown. When Toni Linhart kicked a 36-yard field goal, Baltimore had a 10-7 lead at halftime. Nothing too remarkable about the first thirty minutes.
When the 3rd Q began, however, it was obvious that the respective HCs, John Madden and Ted Marchibroda, had flipped the switches at intermission. Suddenly, it was blitzkrieg time in Baltimore. Helped by Cliff Branch’s superb catch of a 41-yard pass from Stabler, Oakland took a 14-10 lead—and held it for a full 16 seconds—as Stabler hit TE Dave Casper over the middle with an eight-yard touchdown strike. The Colts immediately stormed back into the lead at 17-14 when ex-Houston Cougar Marshall Johnson picked up Ray Guy’s following kickoff at his own 13, slanted left, avoided a bunch of tacklers and out-raced Guy to the end zone.
Just over three minutes later, however, Oakland was back on top at 21-17. Partial credit for that TD went to Oakland LB Ted Hendricks, a former Colt who had played with Baltimore punter David Lee, whose stride into his punts was so long it looked as if he were walking to Annapolis. Hendricks, aware of Lee’s slow delivery, believed he could block one of Lee’s punts, and picked late in the 3rd Q to do so. Raider rookie Jeff Barnes would scoop up the loose pigskin and run it to the Baltimore 16. Three plays later Stabler, who had time to spare in the pocket on most occasions, hit TE Casper again across the middle from 10 yards out for the go-ahead TD.
The fourth quarter was even more furious. Jones briskly moved the Colts 80 yards to the goal line, but the Oakland defense stopped Colt rushers on three straight runs into the middle. On fourth down, RB Ron Lee vaulted over left guard for the touchdown—by one, maybe two, inches. Baltimore now led 24-21. Exactly 76 seconds later Oakland was back in the lead at 28-24. Moving quickly, Stabler passed to RB Mark vanEeghen for a 23-yard gain before Colts DB Nelson Munsey (whose more famous brother, RB Chuck, spelled his name Muncie) was called for pass interference on Branch in the end zone, giving Oakland a first and goal at the one. Old warhorse RB Pete Banaszak then slashed across for the score.
That lead, however, lasted all of 78 seconds! Taking charge at the Baltimore 27, Jones moved the Colts back into the lead at 31-28 in just four plays, hitting Raymond Chester for 30 yards, passing to RB Lee for 16, and then Lee, one of Bobby Bowden’s last great backs at West Virginia before his move to Florida State, covering the last 27 in two rushes.
Maybe Jones did all that too quickly, as the ever-dangerous “Snake” got the ball again for Oakland with just over 2 minutes to play. On the sideline, Madden grabbed RB van Eeghen and gave him a bit of inside information. “Look for Ghost to the post,” said Madden. Translation: Madden had sent in a play that called for a pass from Stabler to TE Casper, nicknamed The Ghost, who would set up on the right side of the line and then head downfield in the direction of the left goal post. Ghost to the post, of course!
Stabler dropped back, but the 6-4 Casper, who had already scored two touchdowns, had difficulty breaking away from Baltimore LB Tom MacLeod. While waiting for Casper to get untracked, Stabler noticed that the Colts had switched into a coverage designed to prevent the Ghost from going to the post. So Stabler wisely lofted the ball not at the left post but rather in the direction of the right corner of the end zone.
“I picked up the ball visually when it was halfway to me,” Casper said. “When I looked up I realized the ball was going to the corner, not the post, so I just ducked the old head, turned and ran. When I looked up again, it was there.”
Still, Casper had to twist around and make a stupendous catch of Stabler’s 42-yard pass—all of which he did, giving Oakland a first down at the Baltimore 14. Three line smashes by Banaszak failed to produce another first down, so on fourth down, with 0:29 showing on the clock, Errol Mann kicked a 22-yard field goal to tie the score at 31, and overtime beckoned.
The extra time was tedious, as the teams reverted back to the first half, probing like heavyweight boxers in the early rounds of a fight, and looking for an opening that might decide the game. Frustrated, Jones, harassed all day by Oakland’s 3-4 defense and able to complete only 12 of 26 passes for a net of 114 yards, was unable to move the Colts to a first down on any of their possessions, but Baltimore’s defense held on grimly as the game moved into the 6th Q, and within sight of the all-time longest game records set in the 1962 AFL title game between the Dallas Texans and Houston Oilers, and the Christmas 1971 thriller between the Dolphins and Chiefs, the longest of them all.
Oakland, however, was threatening as the game moved beyond the 5th Q, and once again it was Stabler-to-Casper to decide the outcome, on a stunning 10-yard touchdown play that gave Oakland a 37-31 victory and ended the third longest game in NFL history after 15 minutes and 43 seconds of sudden death, and only the third pro football game to ever reach a 6th quarter. What stunned was that Stabler, who was playing on an ailing left knee that had sidelined him for almost 2 full games, would risk throwing a pass of any kind when he had moved the Raiders within easy, game-winning field-goal range for the dependable vet PK Mann.
“When my knee’s really bothering me, it takes something off my ball,” said Stabler, who completed 21 of 40 passes for 324 yards, after the game. “I can’t get the velocity because I can’t plant. But I’ve had this before and it’s no big deal.” Casper caught the winning touchdown pass with his fingers, not his chest. Breaking to his left at the snap, Casper got behind CB Munsey, streaked for the corner and cradled in Stabler’slob a stride or two before he went out of bounds. For the Raiders, it was the first AFC playoff game they had ever won on the road. For the Colts, it was the third straight year they had lost the opening round playoff game. And a last hurrah of sorts for Jones, who was never quite the same after suffering a shoulder injury the next season, as well as the Colts, who never made it back to the playoffs representing Baltimore, and moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
“I never thought we’d lose,” said Oakland All-Pro G Gene Upshaw, “but I never thought it would be that tough to win. Man, those guys played tough. Every time we went out and did something, they went out and did something, too. But whenever they got a score, we’d say, ‘Well, let’s get another one.’ And it’s nice to know that you got the weapons to do it.”
The extra length of Raiders-Colts (which was a long game even before the OT periods), however, had wreaked havoc with NBC, which was telecasting both AFC playoff games that day, and could not delay the start of Pittsburgh-Denver forever. So almost the entirety of the nation save the Steel and Mile High cities missed the 1st Q of Steelers-Broncos and joined the telecast in progress, with Jim Simpson at the microphone, just after Denver took a 7-0 lead in the 2nd Q. The Broncos had scored on a short run by Michigan rookie RB Rob Lytle after John Schultz had blocked the first punt of his life, setting the Broncos up on the Steeler 17. Four plays later, Denver had its first-ever playoff TD.
By this time, the “Orange Crush” phenomenon had become a major national storyline and had completely enveloped the Rocky Mountain region, where many Christmas trees were painted orange during that festive season as a tribute to the beloved Broncos, known beforehand mostly as lovable losers. The entire ‘77 season (which we'll amplify upon further in an upcoming issue) had been a magic carpet ride in Denver, on the heels of an internal uprising that had ousted HC John Ralston, who had brought the franchise its first-ever winning records and teased Broncos Country that a Super Bowl trip was just around the corner, after the ‘76 season. First-year HC Miller, a longtime assistant dating to the early days of the AFL, was hired off of the New England staff, where he had been Chuck Fairbanks’ o.c. during the Patriots’ breakthrough year of ‘76. Needing to upgrade at QB (sound familiar, Broncos Country?), one of Miller’s first moves was to trade for veteran QB Craig Morton from the Giants. The defense, under sage coordinator Joe Collier, was dominant as it became the first to commit to 3-4 alignments with a platoon almost completely built by Ralston, whose draft acumen became more apparent after he was forced out.
The game vs. the Steelers, however, soon devolved into an ill-tempered battle that looked more like an NHL game of the day featuring Fred Shero’s Philadelphia "Broad Street Bullies" Flyers. And the referees, as represented by Gene Barth’s crew, did Denver no favors. The temperature started to rise early and came to a boil on Lytle’s 7-yard TD run to open the scoring. Pittsburgh DT Mean Joe Greene then complained to Barth’s crew that Bronco G Paul Howard had been holding him on too many plays, but the officials offered little in the way of sympathy. Greene complained several more times; then, with less than a minute to play in the second quarter, he took matters into his own hands. Or fists. Mean Joe leveled Howard with a devastating bolo punch to the solar plexus. Astonishingly, Greene’s punch escaped the eyes of only six people—the members of Barth’s crew!.
Two plays later Greene drew a 15-yard penalty for throwing the same sort of punch at Denver C Mike Montler, who Mean Joe felt was trying to retaliate on Howard’s behalf. Montler politely explained that one of his hands just happened to get inside Greene’s face mask in the normal course of blocking. All of which led to angry words and some shoving as the two teams headed to their locker rooms and almost brought Miller and Steeler Defensive Line Coach George Perles to blows.
Still, by the end of the second quarter the Steelers had outgained the Broncos 183 yards to 44 and had held the ball for more than 20 of the game’s 30 minutes. At the break, however, the score was level at 14, as Pittsburgh had marched 56 and 65 yards for scores, but in plowing up and down the field the Steelers had also made mistakes, Denver scoring its first TD by Lytle following the aforementioned blocked punt by Schultz, while the second score came on a one-play drive...a 10-yard TD burst by RB Otis Armstrong after LB Tom Jackson (you’ve heard of him, right?) returned a Franco Harris fumble 30 yards to the 10 after LB Randy Gradishar had originally gathered Franco's bobble before fumbling himself to Mr. On-The-Spot Jackson.
The Broncos had beaten Chuck Noll’s team 21-7 in the regular season but still needed a perfect demonstration of that style of opportunistic football that carried them to their best season in order to beat a veteran Pittsburgh side that had been in the playoffs six straight years and, at that point, had won two Super Bowls. Two days before the game Miller outlined what he called a “team game plan,” a euphemism, really, because the Broncos were counting on their defense to carry their offense. “We’ve played field position all year,” Miller said. “That means that on offense in our territory we won’t take a chance on an interception. Instead, we’ll eat the ball or run on third down, then kick it over the 50 and force the other team to march.”
Before the game, Jackson, perfecting an art that would help in his future broadcasting career, spoke for the defense. “Our linebackers have to take good deep drops on passing plays," said Jackson. "We want to force the Steelers to dump passes off to their backs up in front of us. Our theory of defense is that you cannot beat us for 70 yards at five or six yards a crack. Somewhere along the way you’ll make a mistake.”
Morton, however, finally got the Bronco offense moving in the 3rd Q, though a promising drive was repelled at the gate by a Steelers goal-line stand. The Orange Crush “D” then forced a quick 3-and-out and Denver immediately got the ball right back in threatening position on the Pittsburgh 41. A few plays later, Morton lofted a 30-yard strike to TE Riley Odoms to reclaim the lead at 21-14. Pittsburgh would then march 61 yards to tie the score at 21-21 early in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard TDP from Terry Bradshaw to Larry Brown on a tackle-eligible play. Morton, however, coolly led a drive downfield that would finish with a 44-yard Jim Turner field goal to put the Broncs ahead 24-21 midway in the 4th Q.
Then the Orange Crush took charge. First, Jackson made a leaping, one-handed interception of a Bradshaw pass and returned it to the Steeler nine-yard line. The Broncos appeared to clinch their victory on a third-down Morton pass that WR Haven Moses caught at the back of the end zone. However, Barth’s crew ruled the pass incomplete, saying the ball had first been tipped by another Bronco, WR Jack Dolbin. A TV replay once again embarrassed the officials, showing clearly that the pass had actually been deflected by Steeler S Glen Edwards and should have been a Denver TD. Instead, the Broncos had to settle for a 25-yard Turner field goal and a shaky 27-21 lead.
But no amount of official charity could save the Steelers. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Jackson was at it again, intercepting Bradshaw a second time and returning the pick to the Pittsburgh 33. Jackson later described his actions. “We’ve been taught that if a team tries to suck us up by running a pass pattern in front of us there’s probably someone running the same pattern behind us,” he said. “We’re better off dropping back, and then, if they throw to the short man, coming up late to make the hit. Rocky Bleier was running a pattern in front of me. I saw Bradshaw look at me, and I guess he thought I was going to bite and come up. But he never looked at Bleier so I held my ground.” Bradshaw, in fact, thought he had Lynn Swann open behind Jackson, but his pass flew directly into TJ’s hands.
At that point, with 1:50 left and everyone expecting Denver to protect its lead by running out the clock, the cautious, conservative, field-position-conscious Bronco offense presented the Steelers with a surprise package. When Pittsburgh called time out after Denver ran a line plunge on first down, Morton trotted over to Miller, who called the Bronco plays, and suggested a bomb. Miller reacted as if he’d been hit with a bomb.
“Craig had to ask me twice,” Miller later admitted. “But I’ve learned that they’re the ones playing the game, and lots of times their ideas are better than ours.” So while the Steelers bunched up to stop another clock-killing run, Morton unloaded a 34-yard bomb in the corner of the end zone to Dolbin, sticking the dagger into the Steelers. Final score: 34-21; Game, Set, and Match Denver. Above the South Stands, the scoreboard flashed over and over and over WE WANT OAKLAND, WE WANT OAKLAND.
The Broncos had officially arrived, and it would truly be an “Orange Crush-mas” in Denver. And the best Christmas Eve of football in NFL history had left a nation limp! (More on that epic Broncos vs. Raiders AFC title game in our conference championship preview edition in two weeks.)
Historically, the Wild Card games have been somewhat-fertile territory for the underdogs, who over the years have generally fared better in this round than in the Division Round or conference championships. Between 2013-15, dogs stood 8-3-1 vs. the line in first-round games. Not last year, however, when the chalk ruled, covering all four games, none of those closer than 13 points. Which reminded how quick these trends can turn around, as favorites had similarly dominated in 2011-12, when covering 7 of 8 Wild Card chances. Though noting how underdogs covered all four in 2010, we are alerted once again to not pay much attention to these past results, which have tended to go back-and-forth from year-to-year. Home dogs, less frequent in playoff action, are a noteworthy 15-6-2 vs. the points in first-round games since ‘78.
Still, for the most part over the past 39 seasons, since the official “Wild Card round” was introduced in 1978, underdogs have generally held their own a bit better than in the Division Round and AFC-NFC title games. Many insiders believe the absence of the top two conference seeds in the first round 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 Wild Card weekend, with 22 of 46 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (59 of 130) since the Wild Card round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have trended “under” (14-6) the past five seasons, although those results are only 34-29-1 favoring “unders” since 2001.
Following are the pointspread results for Wild Card playoff games since 1978 (excluding the 1982 “strike” season, when all 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games).
NFL WILD CARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978
CATEGORY.................................................. VS. POINTS
1-3 pt. dogs.......................................................... 32-20-3
3½-6½ pt. dogs.................................................... 21-23-1
7-pt. or more dogs................................................... 14-16
Home dogs............................................................ 15-6-2
Road dogs........................................................... 52-53-2
Margins of victory (130 total games)—27 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 27 games by 4-7 points, 17 games by 8-13 points, and 59 games have been decided by 14 points or more.
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