Captain Comeback: Divisional Playoff History (Part 1)

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 13, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts History Buff


With the Wild Card behind us, it’s time to reflect on the best weekend of the playoffs: the Divisional round.
 
Unless you’re fortunate enough to watch your team play on Super Bowl Sunday, there’s nothing better than getting four games between the top seeds in the league, and the Wild Card winners that come in seeking the big upset. All the home teams won last week, but this is usually the round where someone gets exposed at home.
 
It’s also the playoff round with the biggest history of games played, so we have another large batch of some of the greatest comebacks and game-winning drives in NFL history to recap. So large, it’s been split up into two parts.
 
How do the two biggest road comebacks in playoff history, the longest game in NFL history, the greatest fluke/catch in NFL history, and the first memorable Hail Mary finish sound? That’s only stopping at 1980 too.
 
The first divisional playoff game in NFL history was played in 1941, after a regular season tie in the Western Division. The Chicago Bears would take care of the Green Bay Packers, 33-14. This type of event in the playoffs would also occur in 1943 and 1947.
 
After absorbing some teams from the AAFC in 1950, the league played two divisional playoff games for the first time ever to settle a pair of division ties, and that’s where we start.

1950s

A pivotal decade for the league began with the Cleveland Browns, the dominant franchise from the AAFC, trying to continue their winning ways under the guidance of Coach Paul Brown in the NFL
 

1950: Way Back When Cleveland Rocked

Cleveland vs. NY Giants (box) – The Browns tied the Giants for the best record in the league at 10-2, but the Giants won both regular season matchups. The game was still played in Cleveland, and the playoff debut for the Browns got off to a sluggish start. Featuring two of the best defenses in the league and some frosty conditions, the Browns had just a 3-0 lead to start the fourth quarter. Neither team reached 200 yards of offense.
 
After the Giants would tie the game with a field goal, Otto Graham had 6:10 left. This was not the day to throw the ball, with the two teams combining to complete 6/24 passes for 91 yards and 3 INT. Graham would finish 3/9 for 43 yards and an interception.
 
But he used his legs to move the ball, rushing for gains of 9, 15 and 12 yards. Graham would finish with 8 carries for 70 yards, making him the leading rusher for Cleveland.
 
Lou Groza kicked a 28-yard field goal with 0:58 left, and the defense wrapped things up with a sack of Charlie Conerly in the end zone for a safety by Bill Willis. That made the final score 8-3 for Cleveland. It was the first NFL playoff win for the Browns, but their job wasn’t finished yet. They would meet the highest scoring offense in NFL history in the championship game. But we’ll save that for championship week.
 

1957: Detroit’s Historic Comeback

It may now seem like a bizarro world in NFL history, but there was once a time when Cleveland and Detroit were at the top of the league. Just before the rise of Johnny Unitas and Vince Lombardi’s Packers, you had Cleveland and Detroit winning six of the league’s eight championships from 1950-57.
 
The last title might have been the sweetest for the Lions, as they took care of Cleveland by a score of 59-14 in the 1957 NFL Championship game. But before they could get there, they had to pull off a comeback for the ages.
 
Detroit at San Francisco (box) – With both teams 8-4, a divisional tie-breaking playoff game was played in San Francisco. The 49ers came out strong behind QB Y.A. Tittle’s three touchdown passes in the first half. They led 24-7, and would add a field goal to take a 27-7 lead in the third quarter.
 
This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for the Lions that season, as they had came back from a 27-3 second-half deficit against the Colts and Johnny Unitas for a 31-27 win. That day it was Bobby Layne completing the comeback, while this time it was Tobin Rote.
 
Tom Tracy scored two rushing touchdowns (1, 58 yards) in the third quarter, before Gene Gedman would score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Detroit finally added a field goal, capping off 24 unanswered points, and another 31-27 comeback win.
 
Tittle finished his playoff debut with 3 INT in the game, and it would be the start of a grueling postseason journey, as he retired with a record of 0-4 as a starter. This was his best performance and opportunity for a win, but Detroit’s huge comeback prevented that.
 
It is still just the third time a team has ever come back to win from a 20+ point deficit in the playoffs, and the Lions have the distinction of being the only road team to pull off the feat. The 49ers would suffer a similar defeat 15 years later (keep reading), making them the only team in playoff history to allow comebacks of 18+ points at home, and doing it twice.

1960s

As the AFL began in 1960, interest in professional football was rising to new levels, and before the decade was over we had this new creation known as the “Super Bowl” that was played between the two leagues to decide a championship. If rival leagues were able to join in a short period of time for that, then surely we can figure out a way to get a real playoff system in college football, right?
 
Yet even with some NFL expansion (greetings, Dallas and Minnesota), and the AFL, we had almost nothing but league championship games in the postseason for half the decade. But in 1965, a classic divisional moment took place, thanks to some unusual circumstances.

1965: Not Quite Starr vs. Unitas

Green Bay vs. Baltimore (box) – Johnny Unitas was having one of the best seasons of his career for the Colts, but a knee injury would end his season. Backup Gary Cuozzo would also be lost to injury, and the Colts brought in veteran Ed Brown at the end of the season. However, existing rules made Brown ineligible to play in the postseason, forcing the Colts to go with running back Tom Matte as their starting quarterback.
 
Both teams were 10-3-1 in the Western Division, and the Colts weren’t the only team with quarterback issues. Bart Starr was knocked out on the first play from scrimmage with a rib injury. This forced 34-year old backup Zeke Bratkowski into action. He fortunately had some playing experience that season, and led two game-winning drives off the bench earlier in the 1965 season. Bratkowski finished the game with 248 yards passing,
 
Matte, famously playing the game with a wristband that had the plays written, would complete 5/12 passes for 40 yards. The Colts didn’t panic, even taking a 10-0 lead into halftime.
 
But the Packers came back in the second half behind Bratkowski, first getting a third quarter rushing touchdown by Paul Hornung, and later scoring a controversial game-tying field goal with 1:58 left. It was just a 22-yard kick, but it appeared to be high and wide right. Because of the play, the following year the NFL extended the height of the uprights, and put two officials in the end zone like you see today.
 
The game went to overtime, with both teams having their chances, including the Colts’ kicker Lou Michaels missing a 47-yard field goal. So it was the Packers again driving for a game-winning field goal after 13:39 of play, and this time Chandler was good for sure from 25 yards out. The win led to another championship for the Packers, and one controversial kick was a huge help along the way.
 

1969: The Super Bowl Matchup That Almost Didn’t Happen

In the final year before the NFL-AFL merger, a pair of Divisional playoff games wouldn’t be decided until the fourth quarter, which would have given us a completely different Super Bowl IV had they gone the other way.
 
Kansas City at NY Jets (box) – First it was the AFL matchup on 12/20/1969. The Jets were looking to defend their shocking Super Bowl III championship from the 1968 season, and on another frozen day, they hosted the Chiefs, who appeared in Super Bowl I.
 
The Chiefs easily took care of the Jets in the regular season, winning 34-16, with Len Dawson outplaying Joe Namath. A similar result happened in this rematch, but the game was much closer and low-scoring.
 
Kansas City led 6-3 to start the fourth quarter, but the Jets would tie it on a 7-yard field goal by Jim Turner. That’s not a typo. The goal posts were still not moved back, and it was scored as a kick from the 7-yard line after the Jets were stopped three times at the KC 1.
 
Now tied with plenty of time left, the Chiefs immediately answered back with Dawson completing a 61-yard pass to Otis Taylor. AFL stat-keeping note: some sources say 51 yards. Either way, one play later Dawson connected with Gloster Richardson for a 19-yard touchdown, which proved to be the game-winner.
 
The Jets would fail to convert twice in the red zone, as the Kansas City defense continued to defend Namath’s passes. Namath would complete just 14/40 passes for 164 yards, 3 INT, in what would be the final playoff game of his career.
 
The Chiefs went on to win their first and only Super Bowl.
 
Minnesota vs. LA Rams (box) – One week later it was the NFL’s turn for some Divisional action in Minnesota. The 1969 Vikings were a statistical juggernaut, leading the league in points scored and allowed. Their defense allowed 9.5 PPG and a total of 2,720 yards in 14 games. One can’t even imagine that type of defense being played ever again. Minnesota never trailed by more than 7 points at any time in the season.
 
But the playoffs would often be a different story for the Vikings, and that’s true to this day. For the first time since the great Fran Tarkenton came back on his ex-but-soon-to-be-current-again-team in Week 1, the Vikings allowed more than 14 points in a game.
 
They did it in a half, as the Rams led 17-7 behind Roman Gabriel’s two touchdown passes. The Vikings had Joe Kapp at quarterback, who had good numbers (12/19 for 196 yards, 42 yards rushing and a score), but two interceptions.
 
The Vikings pulled to within 17-14 in the third, and the Rams added a fourth quarter field goal for a 20-14 lead. Facing the 6-point deficit, Kapp directed a drive that ended with his 2-yard game-winning touchdown run for a 21-20 lead.
 
Gabriel, the league’s MVP in 1969, was sacked for a safety by Carl Eller. Gabriel would later try to answer the 23-20 deficit, but his pass was tipped and intercepted by Alan Page, ending the threat.
 
In the regular season, the Vikings had beaten the 11-0 Rams, ending their perfect season. The Rams would also lose the next two games, finishing 11-3, before dropping this playoff game to finish 11-4. It’s one of the most disappointing finishes to a season in NFL history that you rarely ever hear about.
 
That’s likely because of the dominance of the Vikings, and their surprising disappearing act in Super Bowl IV, as Hank Stram stole the show on the sidelines, and his Chiefs came out victorious, 23-7. The Vikings were outplayed on both sides of the ball, putting any end to the idea that AFL teams were not as good as the NFL.

1970s

The merger welcomed us to something more familiar – the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). That means four Divisional playoff games, and two conference championship games.
 
It didn’t take long (no pun intended) for a classic game to happen on Divisional weekend.
 

1971: The Longest Game Ever Played (But Not the Longest Recap)

Miami at Kansas City (box): On Christmas Day 1971, the Chiefs took a 10-0 lead over Miami in the AFC Divisional game. Little did we know the game would last 82:40 through two overtimes.
 
The longest game ever played first needed a 10-point comeback, which Miami took care of before halftime came. The teams were also deadlocked at 17 to start the fourth quarter, and that’s when Ed Podolak scored a 3-yard touchdown to take a 24-17 lead for the Chiefs.
 
Bob Griese came back with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Marv Fleming to tie the game and force overtime. Kansas City’s Jan Stenerud lined up for a 42-yard game-winning field goal, but the kick was blocked. Miami’s kicker, Garo Yepremian, would try a 62-yard field goal, but it failed.
 
Miami was unable to move the ball after intercepting Len Dawson. Fortunately, Kansas City would punt the ball right back, and in the second overtime, it was Yepremian finally putting an end to the game with a 37-yard field goal.
 
The Dolphins would play in the first of three consecutive Super Bowls, while it was the competitive end of an era in Kansas City. The Chiefs didn’t reach the postseason again until 1986.
 

1972: One Weekend of Legendary Proportions

There has never been another Divisional playoffs as rich in history and lore as what happened in 1972. First it was a signature play in Pittsburgh Steelers’ history, followed by an improbable comeback on the road by Roger Staubach, and finally the weekend ended with the 1972 Dolphins keeping the perfect season intact after trailing in the fourth quarter.
 
Oh yeah, in between the Redskins beat Green Bay 16-3 in one of the most forgettable playoff games ever, but it never stood a chance on this historic weekend.
 
Pittsburgh vs. Oakland (box) – Say what you want about the Detroit Lions of the last 50 years or so. Before this moment on 12/23/1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the Lions of the NFL’s first 40 years. They had just one playoff appearance (1947), which was a quick exit in a loss to the Eagles.
 
The first playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium was the first in a series of big playoff games in the decade against the Oakland Raiders. The Steelers were hanging onto a 6-0 lead in the fourth quarter, and that’s when Ken Stabler, playing in relief for struggling starter Daryle Lamonica, and made a big play that would set the events in motion for one of the most iconic plays in sports.
 
Stabler ran for a 30-yard touchdown with 1:13 left in the game. For his career, Stabler rushed for just 93 yards. It looked like a game-winning play, but the Steelers had enough time left.
 
The Pittsburgh drive would come down to a 4th and 10 at their own 40 with 0:22 left. Terry Bradshaw dropped back, scrambled, and finally threw the ball into a crowd where Frenchy Fuqua was standing. The ball bounced off Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and with that one available angle of the play, Franco Harris caught the low ball and ran down the left sideline for the game-winning touchdown with 0:05 left.
 
Imagine how stunning it would have been to witness live.
 
It was the first playoff win in franchise history, it’s one of the most controversial plays because of the rules at the time for a legal catch, and it’s one of the unforgettable moments in sports.
 
Dallas at San Francisco (box) – The excitement from the “Immaculate Reception” had a chance to die down after San Francisco opened up a 21-3 lead on Dallas in the next game. The Cowboys did fight back behind starter Craig Morton, whose playoff history is as ugly as they come. They trailed 21-13 at halftime.
 
After another San Francisco touchdown, it was 28-13 and time was running out in the fourth quarter. Tom Landry finally went to Roger Staubach, who had led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win the previous season, but missed most of the season with a separated shoulder.
 
At this point, Staubach had the Super Bowl ring, but his one career comeback and two game-winning drives didn’t suggest he was going to pull off a comeback with this degree of difficulty. But it started with a field goal, because down 15 in 1972, that is a three-score deficit.
 
Then after Staubach threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Billy Parks in the last two minutes, the Cowboys recovered the fumbled onside kick. His 10-yard touchdown to Ron Sellers with 0:52 left was the game-winner, putting Dallas ahead 30-28 after 17 unanswered points.
 
In a short period of time, Staubach was able to complete 12/20 passes for 174 yards, 2 TD, and ran for 23 yards. This is why he’s called “Captain Comeback”, because coming back on the road, off the bench, in this fashion is the stuff of legends.
 
Miami vs. Cleveland (box) – The Dolphins were undefeated in 1972, but with a soft schedule, there was little evidence of how they’d perform against a better opponent.
 
They took a quick 10-0 lead on Cleveland, but were unable to score again until adding a fourth quarter field goal for a 13-7 advantage. That’s when the jive-ass playoff pairing of Mike “Pimp” Phipps and Fair Hooker connected on a 27-yard touchdown pass and catch.
 
Now down 14-13, Earl Morrall was still the starting quarterback for Miami, and he only completed a Griese-esque 6/13 passes for 88 yards. But he found Paul Warfield for a couple of 15-yard gains. Miami rushed for 198 yards on the day. It was Jim Kiick scoring an 8-yard touchdown run for the 20-14 lead, capping off the 80-yard touchdown drive.
 
With a surprising 5 game-winning drives in 1972, Phipps threw 5 interceptions on the day, and couldn’t lead the final comeback. Phippin’ ain’t easy. Okay, that one was probably too far. After all, we are talking about this guy. A Google image search for Fair Hooker brings up this (SFW, but blah) as a third result. 
 
But on that one day, the unlikely pair almost took down the undefeated Dolphins. They just weren’t quite Manning & Tyree enough to finish it off.
 

1973: Tarkenton Finally Starts a Playoff Game

Minnesota vs. Washington (box) – In his second stint with Minnesota, Fran Tarkenton finally reached the postseason in his 13th season. His first playoff start would be his lone fourth quarter win in the playoffs, and also the best statistical game of his playoff career (11 starts).
 
After a 10-10 tie to start the fourth quarter, Washington took a 13-10 lead on Curt Knight’s field goal. Tarkenton hooked up with John Gilliam for a 28-yard touchdown pass to put the Vikings ahead, followed by a 6-yard score to Gilliam for a 24-13 lead.
 
The Vikings would hang on for a 27-20 victory, as Tarkenton would go on to start his first Super Bowl. But it was a loss, as the Vikings would lose four Super Bowls from 1969 to 1976; the last three with Tarkenton starting at quarterback.
 

1974: Sea of Hands

Oakland vs. Miami (box) – A back-and-forth game between two AFC powerhouses resulted in a 19-14 lead by Miami in the fourth quarter. Ken Stabler would throw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Cliff Branch to regain the lead with 4:37 left.
 
Miami was hoping for a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance and the three-peat, as Benny Malone scored on a 23-yard touchdown run with 2:08 left.
 
Down 26-21, Stabler had around two minutes left, all three timeouts and needed to go 68 yards. He led the Raiders to the MIA 8. Stabler threw the ball into a crowd of Miami defenders, but in the “Sea of Hands” was Clarence Davis snatching the ball for an 8-yard touchdown with 0:24 left.
 
Bob Griese’s pass of desperation was intercepted, ensuring a new AFC champion. It was another of the classic catches made in the playoffs in the 1970’s.
 
LA Rams vs. Washington (box) – No offense to the Redskins, but for a team with several consecutive postseason appearances (one Super Bowl) in the early 70’s, they weren’t a very memorable team or part of memorable games during this run.
 
This was a 10-10 game to start the fourth quarter, and the Rams, with James Harris at quarterback, kicked a field goal 3:05 into the quarter.
 
Sonny Jurgensen was finally making his playoff debut, at the ripe age of 40. He did not start the game, but filling in for Billy Kilmer, Jurgensen completed 6/12 passes for 78 yards, but threw 3 interceptions. The critical play was Isiah Robertson returning his interception 59 yards for a touchdown, putting the game all but out of reach at 19-10.
 
It would be the last game of Jurgensen’s Hall of Fame career, but there would be nothing close to a storybook ending.
 

1975: Hail Mary/Push-Off

Dallas at Minnesota (box) – Just putting the title there to please fans of both teams. Dreams for another Super Bowl in Fran Tarkenton’s MVP-winning season of 1975 were in the air for the Vikings. They hosted Dallas, and were tied 7-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
 
After the Cowboys took a 10-7 lead on a field goal, the Vikings marched 70 yards for a go-ahead touchdown run with 5:24 left. Each team would get the ball again, and Roger Staubach would get it with a 14-10 deficit, 1:51 left, and 85 yards to go.
 
The drive could have come to an early finish, but Staubach converted a 4th and 16 to Drew Pearson. After reaching midfield with 0:24 left, Staubach launched a deep pass to Pearson, who appeared to push off the defender, and hauled it in for a 50-yard touchdown to win the game.
 
It led to the widespread use of the term “Hail Mary” for a desperate pass in football. Though the play wasn’t the first of its kind, it remains the most famous Hail Mary in NFL history, and arguably all of football.
 

1976: Raiders Pay For It 25 Years Later

Oakland vs. New England (box) – In 1976, the Raiders were 13-1, but that one loss came at the hands of New England, and in embarrassing fashion. The Patriots won 48-17, but this playoff rematch would be played in Oakland.
 
The Patriots continued to play well against Oakland, taking a 21-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But Ken Stabler, in his career season, wasn’t done yet. A 70-yard drive ended with Mark van Eeghen’s 1-yard touchdown run to make it 21-17.
 
Later, that’s when the controversy would hit. On 3rd and 18, Stabler threw an incomplete pass, but Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton was called for a roughing the passer penalty that wouldn’t make you blink in today’s game, but things were a bit different in 1976.
 
The automatic first down led to Stabler’s 1-yard run for the game-winning touchdown. The Raiders would go on to win their first Super Bowl, while the Patriots had to wait a quarter of a century for their revenge.
 
LA Rams at Dallas (box) – The Cowboys were known for great comeback wins, especially in big games, but the Rams outdid them on two occasions. This is the first time.
 
Trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter, with Pat Haden at quarterback, Lawrence McCutcheon scored a 1-yard rushing touchdown for a 14-10 lead. The Cowboys were never able to answer back, only adding a safety on a tackle of Rusty Jackson in the end zone.
 
Staubach was just 15/37 for 150 yards and 3 INT. The Rams did boast a stingy 45.6 defensive passer rating during the regular season, but their playoff run would end a week later in Minnesota.
 

1977: Ghost to the Post

Oakland at Baltimore (box) – The games with the names dominated this era, and it seemed like the Raiders were always involved in them. Looking to defend their title, they traveled to Baltimore to take on the Colts.
 
A pair of touchdown passes to Dave Casper in the third quarter gave Oakland a 21-17 lead headed to the fourth. The teams would start exchanging touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with the Colts taking a 31-28 lead.
 
After some punts, the Raiders had 2:55 left at their own 30. That’s when Stabler threw the famous “Ghost to the Post” pass to Casper, who had “The Ghost” nickname. It gained 42 yards, but the Raiders would settle for the field goal and overtime.
 
Oakland kicker Errol Mann had his attempt blocked, keeping the Colts alive. Though after they punted, Stabler was able to move the ball to the 10-yard line, and threw the game-winning touchdown to Casper early in the second overtime for the 37-31 victory.
 
It would have been another classic Oakland/Pittsburgh AFC Championship matchup, but our other AFC Divisional round game belonged to Denver.
 
Denver vs. Pittsburgh (box) – It was the first of what’s become almost a common sight in the playoffs: Pittsburgh going to Denver.
 
The Broncos led 21-14 to start the fourth quarter, but Terry Bradshaw’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Larry Brown tied the game. Denver would drive for a 44-yard field goal by Jim Turner with 7:17 left. That was Craig Morton at QB on the drive, having a very rare (for him) solid playoff performance (11/23 for 164 yards, 2 TD).
 
Down just by 3, Bradshaw’s pass was intercepted by Tom Jackson, and returned to the PIT 9. Denver added a field goal. Now down 27-21, Bradshaw was again intercepted by Jackson, returned to the PIT 33 with 1:57 left. Denver even went for a 34-yard touchdown pass to put the game away, 34-21.
 
Bradshaw had a lot of great playoff moments, but this wasn’t one of them. The Steelers would regroup the following year, and their best was yet to come. Denver would go to their first Super Bowl, but couldn’t compete with the Cowboys.
 

1978: Dallas/Atlanta Part 1

Dallas vs. Atlanta (box) – This is the first of a pair of Dallas comebacks that left Atlanta fans demoralized, and neither one of them involved Roger Staubach.
 
Staubach started the game, but had to leave with a concussion. Enter Danny White into Cowboys’ lore. The unproven quarterback had just one career start, but it was time to earn that paycheck.
 
Atlanta led 20-13 at halftime, but White’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Jackie Smith tied the game in quarter three as they headed into the fourth quarter. Later it was Scott Laidlaw scoring a 1-yard game-winning touchdown run for Dallas.
 
Young quarterback Steve Bartkowski had a great season with six game-winning drives, but he struggled mightily against the Dallas defense: 8/23 for 95 yards, TD, 3 INT.
 
The sequel was just two years away.
 

1979: Captain Comeback is Over

No, the Captain is far from finishing his business here, but for Roger Staubach, the 1979 NFC Divisional game against the Rams would be his final crusade.
 
LA Rams at Dallas (box) – Still having one of his finest seasons at the end of his career, Staubach led the Cowboys to a division title after a thrilling comeback over Washington to end the regular season. A home game against the Rams, who were 9-7 in the regular season and had the unproven Vince Ferragamo at quarterback, appeared to be another step towards one more Super Bowl for the Cowboys of the 70’s.
 
The game started with Randy White sacking Ferragamo for a safety and 2-0 lead. But in his first playoff start, and just the 6th start of his career, he threw two touchdown passes for a 14-5 halftime lead.
 
Of course, Staubach would answer, throwing a touchdown to Jay Saldi in the fourth quarter to take a 19-14 lead. But Ferragamo would pick up his first ever comeback and game-winning drive, stunning the Cowboys with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Bill Waddy. The Rams led 21-19.
 
Dallas had 1:57 left at their own 21, hoping for one more Staubach comeback. But it never came, as Staubach was incomplete on 4th and 20 from his own 23; the final play of his career.
 
The Rams went all the way to the Super Bowl, and even held a fourth quarter lead on Pittsburgh, but they did not finish that time.
 

1980: Something New, Something Old, and Something S***** Brown

The 1980’s began with another stellar weekend of Divisional games, featuring a trio of close finishes.
 
Dallas at Atlanta (box) – Who says a sequel must suck? Its given title of the “Duel in Dixie” doesn’t sound too good, but this was the Terminator 2 of playoff sequels, with Atlanta having home-field over Dallas in a battle of 12-4 teams. The more seasoned Falcons were better prepared for a playoff run. Dallas had Danny White as the full-time starter now.
 
Atlanta took a 10-0 lead early, only to see Dallas come right back to tie. Steve Bartkowski threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to William Andrews for a 24-10 lead in the third quarter.
 
Moving to the fourth quarter, Dallas scored on Robert Newhouse’s 1-yard run. They would get the ball back, but White was intercepted, and Atlanta added a field goal for a 27-17 lead.
 
White would shake it off and lead a 62-yard drive, ending with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 3:04 left. Dallas would get another chance, setting up another miracle drive.
 
This time it was a 70-yard drive, with Pearson (there goes that man again) making the 23-yard touchdown catch with 0:47 left. Only a botched extra point (fumbled snap) gave Atlanta some hope, as they could tie with a field goal.
 
But the Falcons couldn’t gain a first down, turning it over on fourth down and ending the game. The Cowboys had pulled off another big postseason comeback and at the hands of the Falcons again. White was 25/39 for 322 yards, 3 TD, INT. Bartkowski also threw for 320 yards, but it wasn’t enough.
 
San Diego vs. Buffalo (box) – The Chargers of the 80’s had a fascinating offense to watch, but the defense left much to be desired. On this day, the defense did their job to keep the offense in it.
 
Buffalo led 14-3 at halftime in San Diego before Dan Fouts threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Joiner in the third quarter. Trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the Chargers settled for a 22-yard field goal. Then with the score 14-13, Fouts found Ron B. Smith with a 50-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 left.
 
The Bills were unable to answer, and San Diego had their first playoff win for the “Air Coryell” era. They would lose at home in the AFC Championship to a team that probably had no business being there in the first place.
 
Oakland at Cleveland (box) – The 1980 season was a dream season for one of your most unlikely MVP winners in NFL history – Brian Sipe. He threw 30 touchdowns and led the league with a 91.4 passer rating.
 
The Browns were known as the “Kardiac Kids” for all of their fourth quarter wins, but truthfully, Sipe had more in 1979. He just got more attention for it in 1980 because they won two more games.
 
The Raiders came into town, on a cold (-20 wind chill) day in Cleveland. The offenses both struggled, but Cleveland had a 12-7 lead to start the fourth quarter thanks to a pick six in the second quarter. They did miss the extra point though.
 
In the fourth quarter, Jim Plunkett led a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, ending with Mark van Eeghen’s 1-yard run with 5:38 left. The Browns would need the ball three more times, but it’s the final drive that they’ll always be remembered for.
 
Trailing 14-12, Sipe drove the offense down to the 13-yard line with less than a minute left. It was second down, and the Browns decided to call a pass play (“Red Right 88”). Even though they only needed a field goal, albeit on a day with poor field conditions, the decision was a pass, with the league MVP quarterback.
 
Sipe was only 13/39 for 183 yards and 2 INT to this point. This wasn’t your typical Sipe day in 1980. The play was ran, the pass was thrown behind Ozzie Newsome, and Mike Davis intercepted it in the end zone with 0:49 left. It was another Cleveland disaster to start the decade that would be full of them.
 
It’s one of the more awful decisions in NFL history. The kicker, Don Cockroft (awesome name), did miss an extra point and field goals from 47 and 30 yards in the game, but they weren’t all his fault because of the snap and hold. They were likely looking at a kick under 30 yards here, and once again, a field goal was all they needed.
 
Tasked with trying to remember all the pet names for Cleveland’s tragic losses, “Red Right 88” is up there with any of them. The Raiders meanwhile won a Super Bowl in this season, becoming the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl.
 
Not to pry the trophies from Al Davis’ corpse, but when you look at the Divisional round of the playoffs in both 1976 (roughing the passer on New England) and 1980 (this baffling decision by the Browns), “fortunate” is too weak of a word to describe these victories, which led to two Super Bowls.
 
The playoffs can be full of stunning results, especially when the best teams are involved. This was just the first part of the Captain’s Divisional recap.
 
Come back for part 2 (1981-2010), because it starts with an epic, and ends with the Captain’s picks for 2011.

Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He scolds the few (but too many) people that don’t realize the 1972 Steelers did not win a Super Bowl because of the Immaculate Reception. Miami still won that year. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

From our partners




Team Pages
AFC East NFC
South
North
West

Connect With Us
Sign up for our newsletter to recieve all the latest news and updates...




The Football Nation Network

© Copyright 2014 Football Nation LLC. Privacy Policy & Terms of Use   Logout
Some images property of Getty Images or Icon/SMI