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TGS NFL PLAYOFF NOTEBOOK...A PACK WORTH REMEMBERING

                                  by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

When Mort Olshan first published TGS in 1957, there was one pro football league (NFL) with 12 teams, and the playoffs consisted of one game (the championship), which was contested before New Year’s.  (Those were also the days of 12-game regular-season schedules in the NFL.)  The notion of “Wild Card” teams in 1957 was about as unlikely as orbiting satellites, though, with the launch of Sputnik that year, the public was starting to expect the unexpected.  The football “Wild Cards” however would have to wait until man walked on the moon, as the concept 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, and renews again this weekend with its very own round of games (“Wild Card Weekend,” for gosh sakes!).

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 before) 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 league 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 (forming the “Capitol” and “Century” Divisions) would compete against each other in an extra round of playoff action before the NFL title game.  It 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 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).  We spoke of the glory days of the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry on these pages last month.  

The term “Wild Card” wasn’t created by Rozelle, however, until the merger year of 1970, in which the best 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.  But we at TGS believe the circumstances that set the eventual Wild Card concept into motion came in the late ‘60s, especially in that aforementioned 1967 season, when Rozelle’s expanded playoff format was introduced in the pre-merger NFL and became such a hit that the audience could no longer imagine life without an expanded postseason.

Ahhh, 1967, which also should hold something special in the hearts and minds of football fans old enough to recall.  As for TGS, we were entering our 11th year of publishing, and what great memories to have of being involved with a golden era of pro football.  Especially the Green Bay Packers of those days; love them or hate them, it was the ‘67 season that really cemented the Pack and Vince Lombardi into NFL lore for the ages.  More specifically, the ‘67 playoffs, which included the famous “Ice Bowl” NFL title game vs. the Cowboys, and Super Bowl II vs. the Raiders.

And much as we recalled the last two years of the Bill Russell Boston Celtics dynasty on the pages of TGS Hoops last month, we are moved to recall the special days of the Pack early in our publishing history, and recollections of perhaps the most-storied team in NFL annals. 

It was the first installment of Rozelle’s expanded playoff format in ‘67 that would feature the Packers, who would be involved  in the initial scheduled NFL conference playoff game that December 23 against the L.A. Rams.  Not many recall that game or what led up to it 51 years ago, but it’s all an important part of Green Bay lore that parallels the growth spurt of pro football into the ‘60s.  Like NASA and the manned space program that was launched in that decade, the Lombardi Packers helped send the NFL into orbit.

And, of all of the Green Bay championship teams, none would endure in the memories quite like the last Lombardi title-winner in 1967.  That season has been documented like no other in Packer history, the subject of a legendary best-selling book by guard Jerry Kramer that was released soon after, Instant Replay, which chronicled that special season that was indeed the end of an era.  Subsequent books, like Mike Shropshire’s  The Ice Bowl, further explored events from Green Bay’s memorable ‘67 campaign.

The parallels to the Celtics of that era are hard to ignore, and probably what made Green Bay so endearing to the masses.  By the late ‘60s (especially ‘67 for the Packers), both of these powers were hanging on, squeezing every ounce out of a generation of players that was soon to be at the end of the line.  While Lombardi’s ‘66 title winners could be included among his best (and the NFL’s best-ever) sides, no one would make the same claims about the ‘67 team, which from the outset seemed a bit long in the tooth.  Even as Lombardi had bitten the proverbial bullet the previous season (1966) when shelling out big money for rookie RBs Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski during the final days of the AFL-NFL bidding war.  By 1967, however, some of the old gang in Green Bay had started to splinter, especially at RB, where legendary Paul Hornung, injured for most of ‘66, was made available to the expansion New Orleans Saints in the dispersal draft and was taken  before he officially retired during training camp.  Hornung’s long-time backfield mate Jim Taylor, an LSU product, was dealt to the same expansion Saints after 1966. 

From the outset, the ‘67 season seemed as if it could be the end of the line, a thought that was confirmed by an opening week 17-17 tie with the pesky Lions, who had forged a 17-0 lead.  All-Pro G Kramer would be outplayed by Lions All-Pro DT Alex Karras, while the Packers watched Lion rookie DB Lem Barney dazzle them with an early pick-six.  Green Bay needed a long, last-minute pass from QB Bart Starr to RB Elijah Pitts to set up Don Chandler’s game-tying FG in the final moments.  Starr, who threw only three picks the entirety of the preceding 1966, tossed four of those in the opener alone.  The alarm bells would really ring the following week when Starr tossed a ghastly five (!) picks vs. the Bears in a painful game at Lambeau Field decided only by a long, 46-yard Chandler field goal in the last minute for an ugly 13-10 win.  It did not seem business as usual in Packer-land.

By the end of the season, however, things seemed in order, even though a cluster of injuries, on top of the departures of Hornung and Taylor, had rendered the RB corps almost unrecognizable.   After the opener, a couple of bitter 3-point losses to the Vikings and Colts were the only other blemishes entering the penultimate week of the season, by which time Lombardi’s Pack had sewn up the newly-created NFL Central Division title.  It had been pre-determined that the Central winner would host the Western Conference title game, which would be coming up two weeks hence after the Pack would travel to Los Angeles for a Saturday, December 9 game to be nationally-televised from the L.A. Coliseum against the rising Rams, who were involved in a pitched battle with the Colts for the top spot in Coastal Division, whose winner would face Green Bay for the conference crown.
 

The story of the ‘67 season, however, was not as much that of the Packers, but the emergence of the brash Rams and their second-year HC, George Allen, and their hammer-and-tongs battle with Don Shula's  Baltimore, featuring QB John Unitas, for top spot in the Coastal.  In fact, the Colts had yet to lose heading into the final two weeks at 10-0-2, threatening to become the first NFL unbeaten side since 1942; the Rams were a game behind at 9-1-2.  The teams would be meeting the following Sunday at the Coliseum, but if LA couldn’t beat the Packers, it was risking elimination right then and there if the Colts could beat the expansion Saints, as expected, the following day.

It is sad that modern historians do not seem to wish to recall anything about the ‘67 season except for the subsequent Ice Bowl; the real game of the year that season came in that December 9 clash between the Packers and Rams, which was a landmark day in Southern California, as the luxury liner Queen Mary would berth for the last time in nearby Long Beach that morning, to become permanently anchored as a tourist attraction amid much fanfare.  Rams-Packers later that afternoon would have the rapt attention of L.A. sports fans, though those who weren’t at the Coliseum had to settle for Dick Enberg’s play-by-play call on KMPC radio; those were the days of NFL home blackouts.  Everyone else in the country outside of L.A., however, would watch on TV what would be one of the most dramatic games of that or any season.

Were a present-day coach in Lombardi’s shoes that December 9, having already clinched a playoff berth and guaranteed home-field edge to boot, he would likely have been tempted to play backups and rest key starters before the beginning of the playoffs.  No fool he, Lombardi would do much the same...the following week vs. lowly Pittsburgh in another meaningless game.  But Lombardi did not relish the prospect of facing the hot Rams in the playoffs, and fancied a crack at the Colts instead.  Lombardi was still seething from a 13-10 midseason loss at Baltimore, a game the Pack led 10-0 into the final two minutes.  Sure he could handle the Colts, Lombardi reckoned that he was  best-advised to get the Rams out of the way right then and there on December 9.

To aid in the prep, and to avoid the Wisconsin chill, Lombardi brought the Pack out to California and Santa Barbara, where the team had headquartered before the previous January’s Super Bowl vs. the Chiefs, early in the week of the Rams game.  Lombardi was hoping some of that same vibe would grasp the Pack for a game he desperately wanted to win, a result that could make things easier to win the championship a few weeks hence.

Oddsmakers, however, were less convinced, installing the Rams as solid 6½-point favorites.  As noted, it was George Allen’s team that had become the talk of the league, with QB Roman Gabriel having emerged as a star and an MVP candidate, while the “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line had become near-national celebrities, led by flamboyant DE David “Deacon” Jones and DT Merlin Olsen.  (Among other things, the Foursome was a performing singing group, too, led by DT Rosey Grier, who appeared on the record charts of the day but had to retire due to an Achilles tendon tear in the ‘67 preseason, replaced by another legendary defender, Roger Brown.)

But it would be unthinkable for a Lombardi team to not give its best, which even bonus-baby RB Donny Anderson was quick to acknowledge.  “This is a Saturday game, the only game on TV, and the whole country will be watching this,” said Anderson during the week at Santa Barbara.  “You’re the Green Bay Packers, you’re the world champions of football, and you’re damn sure not going to play dead.”

In the TGS era, we still believe what transpired that December 9 might have been the most enthralling regular-season game we can recall over the past six-plus decades.  The teams went back-and-forth like a ping-pong match in an electrified and animated atomosphere at the Coliseum.  Green Bay, meaning business from the outset, drew first blood on a 30-yard TD pass from Starr (whose early-season rash of interceptions had long since abated) to vet and ex-Ram WR Carroll Dale.  The Rams, however, would crawl back, and by midway in the 3rd Q had forged a 17-10 lead on a pair of Gabriel-to-Jack Snow TD passes and a field goal by Bruce Gossett.  Lightning would then strike, however, in the form of Packer rookie RB Travis Williams, a speedball and 9.3 sprinter from Arizona State who had earlier taken back a pair of kickoffs for TDs in the 1st Q (!) of a mid-November 55-7 blowout of the Browns in Milwaukee, a game that suggested that the Pack might indeed be up to retaining its crown.  After Gossett’s 23-yard FG made the score 17-10, his kickoff would be fielded four yards deep in the end zone by Williams, who would speed all of the way back, 104 yards in all, to level the score at 17-17.  It was the fourth kick return TD of the season by Williams, breaking the NFL record of three set by former Ram Verda T. “Vitamin” Smith in 1950. 

Gossett would put the Rams ahead again 20-17 early in the 4th Q with another field goal, but with just over seven minutes to play, a fumble by RB Dick Bass near midfield put the Pack in business at the LA 43. Eight plays later, Chuck Mercein (hastily added to the depleted RB corps at midseason from the minor league Westchester Bulls) would score the go-ahead TD for Green Bay with just 2:19 to play.  The Rams would quickly advance to just past midfield, but would surrender the ball on downs at the Packer 44 with a bit over a minute to play.  (The mood in the Coliseum was somber; my dad happened to be at the game, and relayed that it felt like “the end of the world” at that moment in the big saucer.)  Still with all of their timeouts, Allen used each after three straight Green Bay runs lost three yards.  Forced to punt on 4th down with 54 seconds to play, the Pack looked in good shape, especially with Rams now out of timeouts.

But...no!  While much of the big crowd approaching 77,000 was filing out of the Coliseum tunnels, and members of the press were scurrying to the elevator to get to the locker rooms for the post-game quotes, the Rams were granted a reprieve in the form of a cascade of a rush on left-footed punter Anderson, whose boot was blocked by LA reserve LB Tony Guillory! The ball bounced into the hands of DB Claude Crabb, who was escorted to the Green Bay five before he was hauled down!  Two plays later, Gabriel lofted a TD pass to lanky WR (and future actor) Bernie Casey in the left corner of the end zone.  Incredibly, with 34 seconds to play the Rams were up 27-24!

The last bit of danger, a potential kickoff return by Williams, was avoided, so that's that’s how the game ended.  Rams play-by-play radio man Enberg, in his autobiography entitled Oh My!, said it was the most exciting football game he announced in his entire career.  Fueled by this surge of emotion, the Rams would look terrific when burying the Colts, 34-10, the following week, sacking Unitas seven times en route, to set up a rematch with the Pack for the Western Conference title in the first-ever game in Rozelle’s now expanded playoff format.

Gridiron historians might bypass a curiosity about that ‘67 West playoff in that it was a Green Bay home game not played at Lambeau Field; instead, it would be played at Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers would split their home schedule into the mid ‘90s.  The Green Bay mystique, however, was still palpable, as Lombardi’s team was a slight 1-point betting favorite for the Saturday afternoon playoff showcase, even though much “smart money” suggested that George Allen’s Rams were now the team to beat.   After all, Green Bay would also lose the intervening game to the then-sad sack Steelers, 24-17, a game in which Lombardi did substitute freely, using San Diego State rookie QB Don Horn for much of the game after Starr played only briefly at the outset.

The deck, however, had been stacked against the hot Rams, who had exhausted their emotional reservoir with those raucous back-to-back wins over the Packers and Colts at the end of the regular season. Lombardi would plot his revenge, but, as was his custom, would still invite visiting sportswriters to his suite at the downtown Pfister Hotel the night before the game for drinks and light discussion about whatever was on the coach’s mind.  (Imagine Bill Belichick doing the same!) This was the “five o’clock club” for which Lombardi was famous wherever the locale, a chance to unwind and have a few pops and not necessarily talk football.  Politics, religion, and news of the day were all on the table for these gatherings, and Lombardi was always glad when big-city writers from places like New York and L.A. and syndicated national columnists were in town.  Lombardi enjoyed the company of those sorts such as Jim Murray and Red Smith, as he always felt the writers from Milwaukee and Green Bay were a bit too parochial for his tastes.

By game time the next day, however, Lombardi was all business.  “I had never seen Lombardi so intense before a game,” Donny Anderson would later say.  “And that included the Super Bowl vs. Kansas City the year before.”  Lombardi had conveyed to his team that he was sick and tired of hearing all of the hullabaloo about the Rams, Allen, and the Fearsome Foursome.  LA seemed a bit too cocky for Lombardi; he wanted the Rams destroyed.  “He called it a crisis game,” QB Starr would later say.

The Milwaukee chill, with a game-time temp of 12 degrees, did not sit well with the visitors from sunny Los Angeles.  “The Rams didn’t need a football,” said fabled LA Times columnist Jim Murray.  “They needed a St. Bernard.”

For a while, though, LA looked in good shape.  After a Carroll Dale fumble near midfield, Gabriel had staked the Rams to a 7-0 lead late in the 1st Q on a 29-yard TD pass to that man and Packer nemesis Bernie Casey.  Allen’s team had a chance to pad the advantage early in the 2nd Q when DB Chuck Lamson stole a Starr pass and ran the interception back to the Green Bay 10.  A score here, especially a TD, would put the Packers on the ropes.  Unable to punch in a TD, the Rams were ready to settle for an easy 19-yard FG by Gossett (remember, the goal post was anchored at the goal line in those days), but a false start pushed the FG try back five yards further, and when Packer LB Dave Robinson blocked the kick, momentum changed.

Not long after, a nifty punt return by Green Bay DB Tom Brown set up Starr at the Rams 46, and the fleet Williams would immediately sprint for a TD to level the score at 7-7.  Now energized, the veteran Packer defense began to exert its will, strangling the life out of the Rams with pure, clean, ruthless execution.  As a measurement was taken for an LA first down on the subsequent possession, Green Bay LB Ray Nitschke growled at the referees.  “Just give ‘em the damn first down,” barked Nitschke, as noted in Mike Shropshire’s The Ice Bowl“Let ‘em have it.  We aren’t finished with them yet, and we don’t want to get out of here until we are.”

Trying to respond, Gabriel moved LA into Packer territory, but another drive bogged down, and a 46-yard FG try by Gossett was not only short, it was fielded at the goal line by Green Bay DB Willie Wood, who brought the ball to near midfield.  Starr then maneuvered the Pack into scoring position, from where he would throw a 17-yard strike to Carroll Dale, who had beaten Ram DB Irv Cross (heard of him, perhaps?), and a 14-7 Packer lead at the break.  The Rams were on the slab.

LA’s last gasp came early in the 3rd Q when Packer TE Marv Fleming fumbled the ball away to the ever-present Chuck Lamson on the Green Bay 28.  The Rams, however, could not move in the freezing conditions, and a missed 37-yard FG by Gossett was the last gasp.  Green Bay then engineered the kill shot with a slick 80-yard drive, as QB Starr was no longer being bothered by the Fearsome Foursome, now being manhandled by Kramer, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Ken Bowman, and Gale Gillingham up front, with TE Fleming helping out as needed to neutralize Deacon Jones from the edge.  When Mercein plowed in from the six, the lead was 21-7.  Desperate in the 4th Q, Allen called for the same blocked punt that had saved the game at the Coliseum two weeks earlier.  But it wasn’t LA’s day; all the Rams got for their trouble was a 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty for fouling punter Anderson.  Allowed to keep the drive alive, Starr, by this time facing absolutely no pressure, with all day to throw, would proceed to put the final nail in the coffin with a drive highlighted by a 48-yard pass-and-run to WR Dale. Travis Williams negotiated the final two yards for a 28-7 lead, which is how the game ended.
   

It was one of the more satisfying wins of the Lombardi era, a physical beating for the ages.  The masses suspected, but didn’t know for sure at the time, that there were only two more games remaining in the Lombardi Packer era.  And the most memorable battle of the decade, if not the ages, would be coming eight days hence. 

The Ice Bowl...you’ve heard of that one, right?


NFL WILD CARD PLAYOFF NOTES

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 7-3 vs. the line in first-round games.  After the favorites turned the tables by covering all four Wild Card games in 2016, the dogs returned with a vengeance last season, covering all four, with Atlanta and Tennessee winning outright.  All of which reminds 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, this see-saw pattern has continued for almost a decade, so proceed carefully this weekend.  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 40 seasons, or 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 52 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (59 of 134) since the Wild Card round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have also trended heavily to the “under” (17-7) the past five seasons, although those numbers are not terribly pronounced going back several more years (only 37-30-1 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...32-20-6
3½-6½ pt. dogs... 23-23-1
7-pt. or more dogs...16-16
Home dogs...15-6-2
Road dogs...55-53-5
 
Margins of victory (134 total games)—28 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 29 games by 4-7 points, 18 games by 8-13 points, and 59 games have been decided by 14 points or more.

 





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