TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL PLAYOFFS WILDCARD UPDATE!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We have been around so long at TGS that our publishing history (which dates to 1957) precedes the “wildcard” concept that was not officially introduced into pro football until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The seeds of the wildcard, 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 wildcard 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.
Colts-Packers 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 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. 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 that was a hit with the pro football audience from the outset.
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 and those in the East (forming 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 first “expanded” NFL playoff took place in 1967, although the much-anticipated conference championship games turned out to be duds. In the West, ‘67 would mark the last stand of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, at that time the back-to-back champions of the league, although for much of that season the focus in the NFL centered instead upon the Coastal Division race in the West, featuring a Kelso vs. Gun Bow-like neck-and-neck, season-long battle between Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts and George Allen’s L.A Rams. Both had beaten the Pack during the regular season under odd circumstances. In the Colts’ case, it was an early November game at old Memorial Stadium, the type of gloomy day forever etched in the mind of gridiron historians. Nursing a 10-0 lead deep into the 4th Q, Green Bay watched Baltimore finally get on the scoreboard with 2:16 to play on a 10-yard Johnny Unitas-to-Alex Hawkins TD pass. The PAT was missed, but the Colts recovered an unorthodox onside kick that Lou Michaels punched beyond the first line of Packers, rolling uncovered until Baltimore jumped on the ball at the Green Bay 34. Which was the opportunity Unitas needed to pull another win out of his hat, though he needed a 7-yard, 4th-down scramble to keep the drive alive. On the following play, Unitas hit Willie Richardson over the middle for a game-winning 23-yard TD pass. Though twice tied, the Colts would stay unbeaten with that pulsating 13-10 win.
Allen’s Rams, however, continued to give chase into December, and entered the final two weeks needing wins over the Pack and Colts (both to be played at home in the L.A. Coliseum) in order to reach the playoffs. On the same day that the grand luxury liner Queen Mary would complete its final voyage and anchor in the morning at Long Beach harbor, about 20 miles away, Green Bay and L.A. would play a game for the ages that legendary announcer Dick Enberg (then the Rams play-by-play voice on the radio) would eventually describe as one of the most exciting he would ever call. Though already locked into the playoffs as Central Division champions, Lombardi and the Packers saw an opportunity to knock the Rams, a team they feared more than the Colts, out of the playoff picture, and went all-out that Saturday afternoon. Aided by a 104-yard kick return TD by Arizona State rookie Travis Williams, Green Bay was nursing a 24-20 lead in the final minute when forced to punt. With no more timeouts, the Rams didn’t even send anyone back to field Donny Anderson’s kick, instead sending all 11 in an attempt to block the punt. Which, amazingly, Tony Guillory did, with Claude Crabb recovering and returning to the Green Bay five-yard-line! Two plays later, Roman Gabriel hit Bernie Casey for a game-winning TD pass with 34 seconds to play. Flush with confidence the following week after that 27-24 win, the Rams blew out the Colts, who had entered the game 11-0-2, by a 34-10 score, matching Baltimore’s 11-1-2 record but winning the Coastal on head-to-head results (the 34-10 win and an earlier 24-24 draw at Memorial Stadium).
Alas, there was no such drama in the Western playoff, which was the only Packer postseason home game to be played in Milwaukee County Stadium. Green Bay would gain its revenge over the Rams, 28-7 (with the rookie Travis Williams again making an impact, scoring on a 46-yard run in the 2nd Q that would turn the tide of the game), before the Cowboys and Don Meredith, whose 86-yard TD pass to sprinter Bob Hayes highlighted the afternoon, would swamp Cleveland, 52-14, the next day at the Cotton Bowl to win the Eastern crown, and set up the Ice Bowl the following Sunday (more on that when we discuss the conference championship round in two weeks).
There was not much drama in 1968, either, as Cleveland would gain revenge on Dallas in a convincing 31-20 win in the Eastern Conference final at old Municipal Stadium in what would be Meredith’s final game, and the heavily-favored Colts eased past Minnesota, 24-14, to win the West.
The “wildcard” concept of inviting regular-season runners-up was first floated on an experimental basis 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. So, 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).
Thus, the first “official” pro football wildcard game took place on December 20, 1969, when Namath and the defending Super Bowl holders Jets, champs of the AFL East, played host to Len Dawson and the AFL West runners-up Chiefs at a very windy and very cold Shea Stadium. Weather conditions, in combination with tough defenses, limited both offenses; Namath would complete only 14 of 40 passes, with three picks, on the afternoon. Dawson didn’t do much better but did connect on a 51-yard pass-run completion to Otis Taylor deep in the 4th Q, setting up a 19-yard TD pass to Willie Richardson’s brother Gloster Richardson that gave K.C. a hard-fought 13-6 win and begin a Chiefs’ playoff run that would eventually end up with a Super Bowl win over the Vikings. Oakland would destroy AFL East runner-up Houston, 56-7, the following day, to set up the final AFL championship game vs. the Chiefs two weeks later.
The term “wildcard” wasn’t officially hatched by Rozelle, however, until the merger year of 1970, when 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 wildcard concept was immediately embraced by the fans and the media, although there were only a few playoff games involving wildcards in the ‘70s that remain etched in the consciousness of pro football followers. Those battles worth noting would mostly involve the Dallas Cowboys, who won a memorable game as a wildcard entry at Minnesota in 1975 on Roger Staubach’s last-second “Hail Mary” TD pass to Drew Pearson, to this day a sore subject for Vikings fans old enough to remember (almost all of those fans believing that Pearson pushed off DB Nate Wright before making the winning catch). Three years earlier, Dallas also qualified for the ‘72 playoffs in the runner-up spot out of the NFC East after George Allen’s “Over The Hill Gang” Redskins claimed the division crown. Though finishing 10-4, that season was a bit bumpy for Dallas, which was defending Super Bowl champ but had lost Staubach to a shoulder separation in preseason, forcing HC Tom Landry to go with Craig Morton at QB for most of the campaign. Malcontent running back Duane Thomas had also become such a distraction that he was shipped off to San Diego before the trade deadline at midseason, and the defense was in transition due to age and injuries. Several close calls and a couple of flat efforts late in the campaign had most writing off Landry’s crew as it limped into the postseason for the seventh straight year.
The Cowboys were on the road at Candlestick Park to open the playoffs against revenge-minded San Francisco (which had lost to Dallas in the playoffs the previous two seasons), which had also sent a warning shot to Landry’s crew on Thanksgiving when rolling to a 31-10 win at Texas Stadium behind a backup QB named...Steve Spurrier. Starting QB John Brodie, however, had returned to action in time for the postseason.
The Cowboys found themselves in a hole from the outset after CFL import Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a 49er TD, and the San Francisco lead would mushroom to 21-3 in the second quarter. Dallas, however, would creep back into the game by halftime after a Toni Fritsch field goal and a 28-yard TD pass from Morton to Lance Alworth, cutting the deficit to 21-13 at intermission.
Still, San Francisco seemed in control, and when Calvin Hill fumbled the ball away deep in Cowboy territory in the 3rd Q, the 49ers immediately took advantage with a one-yard TD run by Larry Schreiber (his third TD of the game) for a commanding 28-13 lead that would endure into the 4th quarter. Sensing the game slipping away, Landry decided to call upon Staubach, who had seen limited action since being reactivated late in the season, to relieve an ineffective Morton.
Things did not seem much better after Staubach immediately lost a fumble on a sack by 49er DE Bob Hoskins, although San Francisco PK Bruce Gossett would miss a 32-yard FG to keep the score at 28-13. Staubach would get Dallas moving on its next possession, but all that would result would be another Fritsch field goal to cut the 49er lead to 28-16 midway through the 4th quarter.
With just over two minutes to play, and still down 28-16, Dallas had a slight opening due to a poor punt by San Francisco’s Jim McCann. Staubach would quickly negotiate the 45 yards to the end zone, the final 20 yards covered by a TD pass to former Long Beach State wideout Billy Parks, but the score still stood at 28-23 in San Francisco’s favor with under two minutes to play. You can guess what happened next: Dallas DB Mel Renfro would recover Fritsch’s onside kick that was bobbled by the 49ers’ Preston Riley! Staubach would need only three plays to navigate the 50 yards, with 21 yards coming on a scramble, 19 more on a pass to Parks, and the final ten on a crossing pattern to ex-Florida State WR Ron Sellers with 56 seconds to play. The Cowboys, guilty of five turnovers earlier in the afternoon, would still have to survive a last-second assault by Brodie, who appeared to move the 49ers into Gossett’s field goal range with a 23-yard completion to the aforementioned Preston Riley, but a holding call negated the gain, and Brodie was picked off by Charlie Waters on the next play.
Game, set, and match to Dallas, completing one of the wildest playoff days in pro football history after Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” had given the Steelers an improbable 13-7 win over the Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium a few hours earlier. The normally stoic Tom Landry was even moved to uncharacteristic emotion afterward. “It’s the best comeback we’ve had since I’ve been with Dallas,” said the coach.
(Also, now you know why it was an extra bit special for longtime 49er fans to finally beat Dallas in the playoffs when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC title game. Those who recalled the losses to the Cowboys from the early ‘70s thought it poetic justice for Dallas to have apparent victory stolen away at the last moment.)
Enough of the trips down memory lane. The playoffs would next be 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 now 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 on 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 more-fertile territory for the underdogs, which over the years have generally fared better in this round than in subsequent Division Round or conference championships. That, however, has not been the case the past two seasons, in particular a year ago, when all four favorites covered the number in the wildcard round. And after the chalk posted a 3-1 mark the previous 2011 campaign, wildcard-round dogs have been slumping lately, with a 1-7 mark the past two seasons. 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. The shorter-priced (1-3 point) dogs still stand 27-19-2 vs. the number since ‘78, including 10-5 against the spread the last five years. Home dogs, usually rare in playoff action, are 13-5 vs. the points in first-round games since ‘78, though one of those also lost a season ago when the 3-point dog Redskins fell at home to the Seahawks.
Still, for most of the past 35 seasons (with a few glaring exceptions such as 2011 & 2012), wildcard-round underdogs have generally fared well. 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 15 of 32 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (52 of 114) since the wildcard round was introduced in 1978. “Totals” results were also pronounced in wildcard action last season when the “unders” prevailed in all four games, although prior to a year ago, “totals” results were fairly well split (“unders” 24-23-1) since 1990.
Following are the pointspread results for wildcard playoff games since 1978 (excluding the 1982 “strike” season, when all of that year’s 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games).
NFL WILDCARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978
CATEGORY VS. POINTS
1-3 pt. dogs ...27-19-2
3½-6½ pt. dogs ...18-19-1
7-pt. or more dogs ...13-14
Home dogs ...13-5
Road dogs ...44-47-3
CATEGORY VS. POINTS
1-3 pt. dogs ...27-19-2
3½-6½ pt. dogs ...18-19-1
7-pt. or more dogs ...13-14
Home dogs ...13-5
Road dogs ...44-47-3
Margins of victory (114 total games)—22 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 26 games by 4-7 points, 14 games by 8-13 points, and 52 games have been decided by 14 points or more.
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