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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL WILD CARD NOTEBOOK

                                  by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

In recent years, when recalling past late-season and first-round playoff games, we have occasionally mentioned 1965 (when THE GOLD SHEET was already into its ninth year of publication), and results from 54 years ago that necessitated a one-game Western Conference playoff between the Colts and Packers. In retrospect, that turned out to be one of the most important games of the modern era, for a couple of reasons. First, it triggered a rules change in the league, as goalpost uprights were raised in height the following year after the referees botched Green Bay PK Don Chandler’s game-tying field goal in the 4th Q. (We reviewed this play in more detail in our Super Bowl issue last January). More importantly, however, Colts-Packers ‘65 was the forerunner to the modern playoff format, and, by extension, subsequent postseason entrants that became part of pro football’s fabric after the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.

And for that, we can forever thank former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

The drama of Colts-Packers, and the accompanying TV ratings bonanza it generated for CBS on December 26, 1965, convinced Rozelle and the more-enlightened team owners that it was time to permanently expand the playoffs. Which the NFL did in 1967 after the addition of the expansion New Orleans Saints brought league membership to a neat and tidy 16 teams. Motivated by Colts-Packers, Rozelle introduced a radical idea for the ‘67 campaign, with the two conferences (East and West) each divided into four-team divisions (the Capitol and Century Divisions in the East, the Central and Coastal Divisions in the West), and an expanded playoff format consisting of a pair of conference title games before the league championship encounter, which would precede the Super Bowl vs. the AFL champion of the day.

The new and bigger playoffs were an immediate hit, and the AFL even followed suit in its last season before the merger in 1969, when expanding its playoffs to include the second-place teams from the East and West Divisions. That’s how the AFL ended up with two Western teams, Oakland and Kansas City, squaring off in the ‘69 title game after the championship battle had been drawn along East vs. West lines for the previous nine years. For the record, the Chiefs and Houston Oilers were the “extra” AFL playoff qualifiers in ‘69. Hank Stram’s Kansas City would go on to beat Joe Namath’s Jets in the first round by a 13-6 count at windy Shea Stadium, then conquer the Raiders 17-7 in Oakland to win the final AFL title before upsetting Minnesota in the Super Bowl, technically becoming the first “Wild Card” Super Bowl winner, although that label would not be affixed until the two leagues would officially merge in 1970.

Of all of the changes brought about by the 1970 merger (which included the Browns, Colts, and Steelers moving from the old NFL into the AFL, which would be re-christened as the AFC), none caught the public’s fancy quite as much as Rozelle’s “Wild Card” idea, which was given the aforementioned test run in ‘69 by the AFL (of which Rozelle was also the commish before the merger) but was to be a permanent addition to the NFL postseason calendar when the specifics of the merger were first announced in the spring of 1969. The public and sporting press mostly endorsed the concept from the outset, as the best non-division winners in each conference (divided into three divisions post-merger) would be granted the final two postseason slots.

We have long thought, however, that the “Wild Card” concept was enhanced significantly by developments in that first merger season of 1970, which we at TGS still believe remains the most fascinating and entertaining pro football campaign in our 63 seasons of publishing. It was the season of George Blanda’s heroics and Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal. And the “inter-conference” games that year added new intrigue, especially since most of the regional antagonists (Jets-Giants, 49ers-Raiders, Rams-Chargers, Cowboys-Oilers, and Chiefs-Cardinals) would be squaring off during the course of the season, plus the beginning of the Browns-Bengals rivalry (with the deep Paul Brown connections) in the newly-formed AFC Central. Meanwhile, the new Monday Night Football package on ABC became an instant hit. And the specifics of the crackling NFC playoff chase that year helped Rozelle’s “Wild Card” concept gain near-universal acceptance from the outset as well.

To no one’s surprise, the NFC, despite losing the previous two Super Bowls to the then-named AFL, was the stronger of the two conferences in 1970, confirmed in the opening weekend when the Vikings struck a blow for the NFC by avenging their Super Bowl loss from eight months earlier against the Chiefs, winning the featured opening-day battle 27-10. Although the Vikings were missing some of their personality from 1969, as QB Joe Kapp, the reigning NFL MVP, continued as a holdout; Kapp would eventually be sent to the equivalent of football Siberia at the time, the then-woeful Boston Patriots, who played their home games that season at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, a year before their new home in suburban Foxboro (Schaefer Stadium at the outset) would open. Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt’s Lions, who emerged as a menacing contender in 1969 when finishing 9-4-1, opened more eyes when routing the Packers, 40-0, in the opener at Lambeau Field. The result seemed to confirm the demise of the aging Packers, still with several of the same components (including QB Bart Starr) from Vince Lombardi’s last Super Bowl winner three years earlier. But the Pack even had a few high moments during the season, including a shock 13-10 upset win over the mighty Vikings in Week Three at Milwaukee, a result keyed by Dave Hampton’s 101-yard kick return TD in the 4th Q.

Meanwhile, for much of the campaign it appeared as if the St. Louis Cardinals might be the league’s best team. During a General William Tecumseh Sherman-like march at midseason, the Cards pitched three shutouts in a row, blanking the Oilers 44-0, the Patriots 31-0, and then Dallas by a 38-0 count in a memorable Monday night game in which the late Don Meredith moaned constantly from the ABC telecast booth about the beating his old team was absorbing. Another trio of non-playoff teams from 1969, the Giants, 49ers and Lions, were then full-fledged contenders as well, with San Francisco, led by QB John Brodie in what would be an MVP campaign, finally appearing to fulfill the promise it had failed to realize in previous seasons.

The NFC playoff chase evolved into a 7-team dogfight for the four available postseason slots, right up to the final weekend. George Allen’s Rams and the rival 49ers were going toe-to-toe in the West, the Vikings clear in the Central but the Lions very much in the Wild Card picture, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Cowboys all thundering down the stretch in the East. The latter appeared to be St. Louis’ to lose until the Big Red stumbled in December, losing 16-3 at rugged Detroit, at home to the Giants, and 28-27 in the finale at Washington when normally-reliable PK Jim Bakken missed a chip-shot FG in the final moments, eliminating the Cards from the postseason equation.

For a while, it then seemed as if the Giants, led by QB Fran Tarkenton, were going to win the East; especially after a 34-17 win at Busch Stadium over the fading Cards in the penultimate Week 13 opened the door for the G-Men to win the division as long as they could beat the Rams at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season. But George Allen’s team, needing a win to stay alive in the West, throttled the G-Men, 31-3, effectively ending New York’s playoff hopes. At 9-5, New York was thus bypassed by Detroit, a 20-0 winner over the Pack (the second Detroit blanking of Green Bay that season) to claim the Wild Card, and Dallas, which had been surging since the 38-0 loss to the Cardinals but won the East by winning five in a row to close the regular season, with depleted Houston not offering much resistance to Dallas in a 52-10 Cowboy win on closing day. Rather incredibly, the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” had not allowed a TD in its final four regular-season games! Meanwhile, after beating the Giants earlier in the day, the Rams needed the Raiders to beat their cross-bay rival 49ers later that afternoon to give them, and not San Francisco, the NFC West title. But Oakland had won the AFC West the week before with a 20-6 win over the Chiefs at the Coliseum, and the Raiders were flat as pancakes. Thus, the 49ers took away most of the mystery in the early going en route to a 38-7 romp to sew up the West.

There was also great concern heading into the last week of the regular season that a coin flip might have to determine the NFC Wild Card rep. All it would have taken was a win by the Giants to force Dallas and Detroit into a “heads or tails” call for the Wild Card spot. Fortunately (though maybe not for the Giants), we didn’t have to endure that scenario. In subsequent years, more extensive tiebreaker procedures were set in place to prevent the possibility of a coin flip deciding a playoff participant.

The first official Wild Card teams in 1970 were thus the Lions (NFC) and Dolphins (AFC), the latter emerging as an immediate contender upon the arrival of HC Don Shula from Baltimore in one of the more interesting developments of the preceding offseason. The first game of playoff weekend 1970 didn’t feature a Wild Card, instead surprise AFC Central winner Cincinnati, in only its third year of existence under the legendary Paul Brown, but winning its last seven after a 1-6 start, at Baltimore against the AFC East winner Colts, who finished 11-2-1 (with plenty of close calls) for new HC Don McCafferty. The Colts won, 17-0.

Later that day the first official “Wild Card” participant in the postseason would be Detroit, sent to Dallas to play the NFC East winner Cowboys at the old Cotton Bowl in what remains one of the more-unique playoff encounters we can remember...if for no other reason than the odd 5-0 scoreline (!) in the contest! As noted earlier, the Cowboys had surged late with five straight wins after that second St. Louis debacle, fueled mostly by their aforementioned “Doomsday Defense” featuring Bob Lilly, Chuck Howley, Mel Renfro, and other names familiar in Big D gridiron lore. The Lions, however, were potent, outscored only by West Division champ San Francisco, and boasting a well-balanced attack that featured a pair of QBs, mobile Greg Landry and the more traditional pocket-passing Bill Munson, with an explosive ground game paced by RBs Mel Farr and Altie Taylor, and dangerous receiving targets such as TE Charlie Sanders and a pair of deep-threat wideouts, Larry Walton and Earl McCullough, who ran on record-breaking relay teams at Southern Cal with none other than O.J. Simpson. The game would be announced on CBS by Frank Gleiber and Frank Gifford, the latter in his last NFL telecast for that network before moving to ABC and the Monday Night Football booth the next year.

Dallas, however, was reducing its games to the most basic of elements in its 1970 stretch drive that also included a win by another oddball baseball score of 6-2 in the mud at Cleveland in the penultimate week of the season. Although QB Roger Staubach (then in his second year) was available, HC Tom Landry was sticking with Craig Morton in the playoffs (Roger the Dodger would not take over as the full-time starter until midway in the 1971 campaign). Morton’s considerable postseason struggles (he completed only 4 of 18 passes against the Lions) did not cost the Cowboys until the Super Bowl vs. Baltimore; against Detroit, Morton simply spent the majority of his afternoon handing the ball off to rookie HB Duane Thomas and FB Walt Garrison, who paced a ground assault that pounded for 209 yards. Detroit, which netted only 7 first downs all day as it was effectively throttled by the Doomsday Defense, could not mount a serious threat until the final minute, when the drama became heavy after Munson hit McCullough with a 39-yard bomb on a 4th-down play to move deep into Cowboy territory. The ever-alert Renfro, however, then picked off Munson near the goal-line and Dallas averted defeat.

The initial AFC Wild Card team was Shula’s Miami, which trekked to Oakland the next day (Sunday, Dec. 27) to face the Raiders on an awful, muddy pitch at the Coliseum. A tight 7-7 game was turned around by two big plays from the Raiders, first a 50-yard pick-six by CB Willie Brown to put Oakland ahead. Then in the 4th Q, Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica barely avoided a blitz and lofted a pass downfield for WR Rod Sherman, who got behind CB Curtis Johnson, caught the ball in stride at the Dolphins’ 43, and galloped the rest of the way to complete an 82-yard back-breaker. Oakland held on for a 21-14 win, denying what would have been an awfully intriguing AFC title matchup between Shula’s Dolphins and the team he abandoned the previous year, the Colts.

And that’s how the NFL Wild Card games were officially christened, 49 years ago!

Through 1977, Wild Cards were the 4th playoff seed in each conference, and there were no “bye” weeks in the playoffs until the week before the Super Bowl. The introduction of a second Wild Card team from each conference and the “Wild Card round” coincided with the NFL expanding its regular-season schedule from 14 to 16 games (and playoff entrants from 8 to 10) in 1978. For the next twelve seasons, those Wild Card teams would face off against each other before the winners would advance to join the division champions from the AFC & NFC in the round of 8. There were changes again in 1990, when a third Wild Card team was added to each conference, upping the total number of postseason participants to 12. This also doubled the number of games in Wild Card weekend (from 2 to 4), as then 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 Wild Card teams in the initial playoff weekend. When the NFL reconfigured its divisions (from 6 to 8) in 2002, the Wild Card round was again fundamentally altered. Although there would technically be only two Wild Cards (as opposed to three), there would still be the same four games on Wild Card weekend, which then would feature the two division winners with the worst records along with two Wild Card entries from each conference.

Historically, the Wild Card games has 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 have returned with a vengeance the past two seasons, covering all eight (!), with five of those winning outright (Atlanta and Tennessee in 2017; Indy, Philadelphia, and the LA Chargers last season). 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 the past decade, so proceed carefully this weekend, as results have often done an about-face from one season to the next . 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 41 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. Short-priced dogs (1-3 points) have fared extremely well, standing 35-20 vs. the line, including 3-0 a year ago. 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 23 of 56 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (61 of 140) since the Wild Card round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have also trended strongly “under” (20-8) the past seven seasons, although those results are not as pronounced going back several more years (only 40-31-1 favoring “unders” since 2001)

Following are the pointspread results minus any pick ‘em games for Wild Card playoff games since 1978.  We have excluded 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... 35-20-3
3½-6½ pt. dogs... 24-23-1
7-pt. or more dogs... 16-16
Home dogs... 15-6-2
Road dogs... 60-53-2

Margins of victory (140 total games)—30 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 31 games by 4-7 points, 18 games by 8-13 points, and 61 games have been decided by 14 points or more.


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