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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL WILD CARD NOTEBOOK!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Back in Thanksgiving week, we recalled one of our favorite Turkey Day football memories, a pulsating encounter between the Colts and the Lions, from the great year of 1965. We hinted at the time of a book project we have embarked upon called “December 1965" in which we recall in detail what was the best NFL race of our lifetime as the Western Conference thundered down the stretch in what became an epic three-horse battle between the Packers, Colts, and Bears, with compelling supporting acts provided by the remainder of the old West (Lions, Vikings, 49ers, and Rams).

It was in those weeks beginning at Thanksgiving and into December of ‘65 that the race in the West really boiled over. Each week was its own riveting chapter. Downstream, we will occasionally fill in with excerpts of our project as it progresses and review highlights of that memorable month in the NFL. We almost feel like we are cheating a bit jumping to the end chapter that involved a memorable Western Conference playoff between the Colts and Packers in Green Bay on December 26 of that year. But, given that we are beginning another season of NFL playoffs this week, we thought it appropriate to at least review that classic playoff game from ‘65, in retrospect the forerunner to an expanded pro football postseason and arguably one of the most influential games in pro football history.

First, though, a bit of "Wild Card Weekend" background...and its origins.

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; by comparison, the current regular season extended 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), although it took a while for the idea to resonate. Ironically, the trigger turned out to be the aforementioned 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 (how that came to arrive, especially in the dramatic final week of the regular season, worthy of its own review and an upcoming featured component of “December 1965") 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 end Bill Anderson (who would later gain more notoriety as a color analyst, alongside legendary play-by-play man John Ward, for 31 years on on Tennessee football broadcasts) had the ball stripped by Baltimore DB Lenny Lyles and scooped up by LB Don Shinnick, who race 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 the 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 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 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 late in the 4th Q, Bratkowski was able to fire up a Packers 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 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.”

(Ed. Note: We saw Tunney in 2015 at the memorial service for his longtime friend, former Southern Cal basketball HC Bob Boyd, but we didn’t have the nerve to ask Tunney about Don Chandler’s disputed field goal from ‘65!)

The third overtime period in pro football playoff history ensued. (The memorable 1958 NFL title game between the Colts and Giants was the first; the AFL had an overtime game four years later 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). As the fifth quarter commenced in cold Green Bay, Matte was able to cobble together a Baltimore 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 increase the change to 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 look. 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, was 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.  As for referees, they, too, would alter posiitoning on future FG attempts, with one to be stationed beneath each upright, then requitred to briefly confer before rendering a verdict. 

That’s a lot of impact for one game!


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.

Now, in 2020, for the first time since 2002, the playoffs have been altered once more. The addition of one more Wild Card entry from each conference has expended the playoff field to seven from each of the AFC and NFC to 14 total qualifiers. All but the top seed in each conference (who receives byes to the Division Round) will now be in action for Wild Card weekend, which has been expanded from four games to six.

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 have returned with a vengeance the past three seasons, standing 10-1 (!) vs. the line. (Seahawks-Eagles were pick’ em last year). The lone spread loss came about as close as possible to a win, too, as the 2½-point underdog Bills blew a late lead last year at Houston and lost 19-16 in overtime vs. the Texans. Seven of those ten spread-covering dogs since 2017 have also won outright, most-recently both Minnesota (at New Orleans) and Tennessee (at New England) last season.

Still, it’s worth remembering that these trends are always apt to turn around quickly, 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, and will have an opportunity to better that mark in the upcoming weekend.

Still, for the most part over the past 42 seasons, or since the official “Wild Card round” was introduced in 1978, underdogs have generally performed better than in the Division Round and AFC-NFC title games. Short-priced dogs (1-3 points) have fared extremely well, standing 35-21 vs. the line. 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 (as noted, that will drop to one conference seed receiving a bye beginning this season).

It’s also worth noting that even though the four “Wild Card Weekend” games last January were competitive affairs, with two requiring overtime, one-sided results are not uncommon in the first-round games, with 23 of 60 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (61 of 144) since the Wild Card round was introduced in 1978.

Rivaling recent underdog success in Wild Card Weekend has been “unders” success on the “totals” side. All four matchups went “under” last January, which moved “unders” to a commanding 24-8 lead the past eight seasons. In the decade preceding 2012, the “totals” angle was not nearly as pronounced, with “overs” actually holding a slight edge (since 2001, it’s 44-31-1 favoring “under” results in Wild Card weekend).

Following are the pointspread results minus any pick ‘em games for Wild Card playoff games since 1978. We have excluded the 1982 “strike” season (which one of these Januaries we might review in detail), when all 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games.

NFL WILD CARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978

CATEGORY VS. POINTS
1-3 pt. dogs... 35-21-3
3½-6½ pt. dogs... 25-23-1
7-pt. or more dogs... 17-16
Home dogs... 15-6-2
Road dogs... 62-54-2

Margins of victory (144 total games)—31 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 33 games by 4-7 points, 19 games by 8-13 points, and 61 games have been decided by 14 points or more.


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