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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...TGS 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 even was 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; by comparison, the current 2015 regular season extended into January! Interestingly, in our first publishing year, the NFL title game between Cleveland and Detroit was played on December 29, won by Detroit 59-14! 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), 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 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 but a QB at Ohio State) 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 during 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 Colts TD and 7-0 lead. Energized, 8-point underdog Baltimore 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 game progressed it was obvious that the Colts would have to win with their defense. 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. Down 10-7 deep into the 4th Q, 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 under the right goal upright 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.”

(Ed. Note: We saw Tunney this past April at the memorial service for his longtime friend, former Southern Cal basketball HC Bob Boyd, but we didn’t have the nerve on that occasion to ask Tunney about Don Chandler’s disputed field goal from ‘65.)

The second overtime period in NFL playoff history ensued. (The Colts and Giants had played their epic 1958 NFL title game into OT; the AFL had an overtime in its 1962 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 elongating their height ten feet for the 1966 season, with the posts slightly “offset” from their previous look. By 1967 the uprights were lengthened a few more feet, as goal posts took on a new “slingshot” look, with a single post curving to support the crossbar, as 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.

Those are 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 born 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, 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. 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 round” technically did not begin until 1978, when a second wildcard entry was added to each conference, expanding the playoff field to 10 teams. From 1970-77, the playoff field held eight teams, and first weekends produced several memorable games. Including perhaps the most controversial and discussed playoff result of all-time in 1972, when Franco Harris’ famed “Immaculate Reception” delivered the Steelers a dramatic 13-7 win over the Raiders, a result that has John Madden (now recovering from recent heart surgery) and all surviving Oakland players and coaches still riled years later. We’ve talked about the Immaculate Reception and that Steelers-Raiders game in the past, and, in truth, the game was a tedious bore until the final minutes, when the only TDs of the game were scored (Ken Stabler’s 30-yard scramble for a TD to put Oakland up 7-6 just before the final Pittsburgh possession was, in retrospect, almost as unlikely as Franco’s deflected-catch TD with 12 seconds to play).


We still believe one of the best playoff games in NFL history was played the year before, though, as the years have passed, the Chiefs-Dolphins classic on Christmas Day of 1971 seems to have faded from the conscious memory of many pro football historians. For those of us who recall that thriller, we wonder why. Indeed for a while, at least, memories and recollections of that double overtime thriller, still the longest game in NFL history, burned brightly across the print and broadcast media. Over the course of time, however, the next generation of football fans would hear more about subsequent Miami championship sides, including the “perfect” 17-0 Dolphins of the following ‘72 season, and the “ESPN generation” would instead be constantly reminded of other long-ago title winners (Packers, Cowboys, Steelers, 49ers, etc.), often at the exclusion of teams and games that did not involve Super Bowl winners. Which, in the case of Chiefs-Dolphins ‘71, is more than a bit disappointing, because that clash still rates on our TGS short list of best-ever NFL games.

There were several moving parts involved in the 1971 playoffs, not the least of which was almost unprecedented controversy surrounding the NFL’s decision to conduct the first day of its first round of playoffs on Christmas, which fell on a Saturday that year (Dallas at Minnesota on the NFC side was the earlier kickoff Christmas playoff game in ‘71.) Hard as it might be for modern-day fans to believe, there was tremendous uproar in the media and condemnation of the league from a variety of corners of society that believed Rozelle had committed a mortal sin by allowing games to be contested on Christmas. The controversy made its mark on Rozelle and the NFL, because the next time Christmas fell on a weekend day, a Sunday, in 1977, the league conveniently skipped the day and instead conducted the first playoff weekend that year on Saturday (for the AFC games between the Raiders and Colts, and Steelers and Broncos) and Monday (for the NFC games featuring the Bears at the Cowboys, and Vikings at the Rams). Those curious enough to have researched the 1977 playoffs and might have wondered why the first-round playoff games were conducted on December 24 and 26 of that year now have their answer.

In 1971, however, Miami was in its second year under HC Don Shula after serving notice the previous 1970 season that it was a team on the rise, unexpectedly qualifying as the first AFC wildcard team in the merger year. The Dolphins would lose a first-round game in muddy Oakland, 21-14, and by ‘71 were no longer considered a surprise package. With QB Bob Griese having matured into a top-flight field general, the colorful RB pair of Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick embracing their “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” label, and the “no-name defense” emerging as a force, Miami was a force to be reckoned with. Although the Dolphins needed the defending champion Colts to lose to rookie QB Jim Plunkett and the upstart Patriots on the final weekend to clear a lane for Shula’s troops to win the AFC East, which they secured with a 27-6 win over Green Bay to finish at 10-3-1 and nose out Shula’s former team the Colts by a half-game for first in the East.

A bigger season-long storyline in ‘71, however, was Kansas City, which had recovered from a down year in 1970 and more resembled its powerhouse AFL teams from the late ‘60s, including the ‘69 Super Bowl champs. The swashbuckling Chiefs had added U of Houston rookie WR Elmo Wright (and his signature TD dance that was the first of its kind) to a receiving corps featuring big-play Otis Taylor, while QB Len Dawson still possessed most of his powers from the ‘60s. Most of the familiar KC names from the Super Bowl IV winner (Dawson, Taylor, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Johnny Robinson, Emmitt Thomas, etc.) were still in the fold. The Chiefs were beginning to age, but HC Hank Stram was nonetheless coaxing another big year from his troops, which looked Super Bowl-bound and installed as favorites over the Dolphins. (Baltimore had slipped to the wildcard slot but drew an easier first-round assignment at Cleveland the following day, which sparked some conjecture at the time that the Colts perhaps didn’t mind their regular-season ending loss to the Patriots).

The playoff game did not start well for the Dolphins, who fell behind 10-0. In the 2nd Q, however, Griese finally began to find some rhythm, and started to locate wideouts Howard Twilley and the incomparable Paul Warfield, who was turning All-Pro CB Thomas into knots. By halftime the teams were level at 10.

Kansas City’s defensive game plan was inviting Griese to throw, as Stram would concentrate on shutting down Miami’s big-back ground attack. The Chiefs’ front four, led by the familiar Buchanan, Curley Culp, Aaron Brown, plus DE Marvin Upshaw, read well and clogged the middle, and the linebacking, led by Lanier and Bell, was brutal. So Griese was throwing more than he had intended (35 times in all, much more than the 20 or so passes for a normal Griese afternoon in ‘71), though his protection held up well. Griese not only threw a greater variety of passes than Chief counterpart Dawson, he was also more effective because he was getting the ball to his favorite receiver, Warfield (who would catch 7 passes for 140 yards), whereas Dawson, inhibited by the swarming, deep-containing Miami zone, could not get to his favorite, Otis Taylor. Taylor caught only three passes for 12 yards all afternoon and evening.

Still, a big game from Taylor was not required, because all of the lightning from the Chiefs was provided by Ed Podolak, a former Iowa QB who had become a jack-of-all-trades for Stram and would pick this day vs. the Dolphins to have his career game. .Podolak would account for a staggering 349 yards on rushes, pass receptions, and kick returns, scoring a pair of TDs. His second score, midway in the 4th Q on a 3-yard run, had returned the lead to the Chiefs at 24-17. Griese, however, would respond, calmly leading Miami downfield in the same manner that Joe Montana would do with the 49ers in the playoffs a decade later vs. Dallas. Griese had hit four straight passes on a drive that preceded a 1-yard TD dive by Kiick to tie the game at 17-17 late in the 3rd Q. Asked again to answer with the game winding down in the 4th Q, Griese calmly hit six of seven pass attempts to four different receivers before connecting with ex-Packer TE Marv Fleming on a nervy 3rd-down pass from the Chief 5 to tie the game at 24 inside of two minutes to play. The first pro football overtime since Colts-Packers ‘65 was beckoning.

Podolak, however, had different ideas, and on the ensuing kickoff caused a roar that almost shook Municipal Stadium to its foundations, streaking 69 yards deep into Miami territory. Podolak might have scored if not for, of all people, Miami PK Garo Yepremian, who, while not touching Podolak as he broke into the clear, at least got in the way of the ex-Hawkeye, forcing Podolak to slightly veer and costing him a vital step or two that otherwise might have gotten him to the end zone. After Garo caused Podolak’s slight change of direction, from behind and the opposite side, Miami CB Curtis Johnson then had a chance to catch the runaway Chief and angled in hard, running Podolak out of bounds at the Miami 22. Still, the result seemed academic with KC’s All-Pro PK Jan Stenerud within easy range of a game-winning field goal. Three plays later and with 35 seconds to play, Stenerud had his chance to put the Chiefs into the AFC title game with a routine 31-yard FG try, but...no! The nearly-automatic Stenerud would inexplicably push the kick just wide to the right! Overtime!

The first overtime period was taut, with KC again having the best chance to end the game with Stenerud getting another opportunity to redeem himself. This time, from 42 yards out, the future HOFer Stenerud would again miss, throwing Miami yet another lifeline. Into the second overtime the game would go before the big play would be delivered not by Griese, but instead the big FB Csonka. From his 36, Griese would call “roll right, trap left,” a misdirection play, against the flow. As Kiick and Griese would flow to the right, Csonka would take a step up, then come back against the grain. Left tackle Doug Crusan cleared out the defensive end, and Csonka followed RT Norm Evans and RG Larry Little into the hole. “I got hold of Larry’s pants,” said Csonka afterward. “He’s faster than I am, and I had to hold on to keep up.” Csonka steamed to the Kansas City 36 before Chief SS Jim Kearney dragged him down.

Griese proceeded to work the ball carefully down to the 30 and into the middle of the field, and HC Shula ushered in Yepremian and holder Karl Noonan. In those days, with the goal post at the goal line, a field goal-try from the 37 yard-line was a 37-yarder, not a 47-yarder, as it was still three years before the goal posts were eventually moved to the back of the end zone, as they were in college. “You gave me beautiful position,” Garo told Griese afterward. “Perfect. I knew if it was less than 50 yards I would make it.” Garo split the uprights, and Dolphins had won 27-24, in the longest-ever game lasting a whopping 82 minutes and 40 seconds, breaking the aforementioned AFL ‘62 title game record between Stram’s Dallas Texans and the Oilers.

The game was also noteworthy for a couple of other reasons, as it was the last football contest played at Municipal Stadium, with the Chiefs moving to new Arrowhead Stadium in ‘72. (Municipal stayed in use in ‘72 as home of the MLB Royals, who would not move to their new home adjacent to Arrowhead until ‘73). It was also the last hurrah for Stram’s Chiefs, whose decline would accelerate in subsequent seasons as the star vets from the ‘60s began to fade away. Stram would be dismissed after the ‘74 campaign, and Kansas City would not return to the postseason until 1986, under John Mackovic (who was fired by owner Lamar Hunt just days after a wildcard playoff loss to the Jets!). After the OT thriller vs. the Chiefs, Miami would beat the Colts 21-0 at the Orange Bowl in the AFC title game to advance to Super Bowl VI, where it was a year too soon for the Dolphins and they were beaten by the Cowboys, 24-3. Thus galvanized, however, it all came together the next two seasons for Miami, with a pair of Super Bowl titles, including their “perfect” 17-0 in the subsequent ‘72 campaign.

So, when the various talking heads begin reminiscing this week about memorable games from first playoff weekends past, let’s hope they save some mention for Chiefs-Dolphins ‘71. Now 44 years later, it still burns brightly for us at TGS, remaining a timeless classic and one of our most treasured pro football memories!


The playoffs were altered in 1978 with the addition of a second wildcard from each conference; more adjustments came in 1990, when a third wildcard team was added to 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 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 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 in wildcard weekend, which now featured the two division winners with the worst records along with two wildcard entries from each conference.

Historically, the wildcard round has been somewhat-fertile territory for the underdogs, who over the years have generally fared better in this round than in subsequent Division Round or conference championships. That trend somewhat has revived the past two seasons, with dogs standing 4-2 (there were a pair of pointspread “pushes” in the 2013 wildcard round; last year’s dogs and favorites split at two covers apiece). Dogs, however, had been 1-7 vs. the line in wildcard games in 2011-12. Which should only serve as a reminder that trends with such a thin number of examples are apt to turn around on a moment’s notice; after all, in 2010, all four wildcard round underdogs were pointspread winners. Interestingly, the shorter-priced (1-3 point) dogs stand 30-19-6 vs. the number since ‘78, including 12-5-2 against the spread the last six years. Home dogs, usually less frequent in playoff action, are a noteworthy 13-5-2 vs. the points in first-round games since ‘78, though the last two (Redskins vs. Seahawks in 2012, and Packers vs. 49ers in 2013) failed to cover, with the Pack netting a push two years ago.

Still, for the most part of the past 37 seasons, since the official “wildcard round” was introduced in 1978, underdogs have generally held their own a bit better than in the division rounds and conference championships. 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 wildcard-round games, with 17 of 40 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (54 of 122) since the wildcard round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results have also trended “under” (9-3) the past three seasons, although those results have been fairly well split (“unders” 29-26-1) since 2001.

Following are the pointspread 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... 30-19-6
3½-6½ pt. dogs... 20-21-1
7-pt. or more dogs... 14-14
Home dogs... 13-5-2
Road dogs... 50-49-5
  
Margins of victory (122 total games)—25 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 27 games by 4-7 points, 16 games by 8-13 points, and 54 games have been decided by 14 points or more.


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