The Music City Miracle: Story of the Homerun Throwback (forward) Titans v Bills ’99 AFC Wildcard

As we make our way to the NFL’s 100th season we have to take a look back at the great moments over the last century. These great games that go on to impact careers, eras, and Hall of Fame legacies take place in the NFL playoffs. At times you’ll have something momentus happen during the regular season but it’s the finality and visibility of postseason play where everyone is viewing an individual event at the same time that grow into lore.

A first playoff game for a team in a new city and stadium where the Titans had been 8-0 in the regular season. The ’99 campaign had a collegiate type spirit as the Titans finally had a home after bouncing around like nomads for 2 seasons.

Now they were going to take on the Buffalo Bills in the ’99 AFC Wildcard Game. It came with a sense of irony as you looked back at the tumultuous turn that saw the franchise’s descent from the beloved Houston Oilers to the nomadic Tennessee Oilers. It’s genesis was the ’92 AFC Wildcard game some 7 years earlier.

At the time the Oilers were nearing the end of a frustrating era in which they’re Run n Shoot offense had been the scourge of the league. Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon had put up video game numbers as he and his trio of 1,000 yard receivers in Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, and the late Drew Hill torched defenses in the regular season. Yet in the postseason the football gods weren’t so kind.

Between 1987-1991 the Oilers had made the playoffs all 5 years yet never seemed to have that signature game from Warren Moon to get to an AFC Championship Game. Injuries and timely defense from their opponents seemed to undo this team in the postseason and their window for a championship run was nearing it’s end.

Moon was turning 36 and how long could he play at a high level?

The ’92 team went 10-6 and had to go to take on the 2 time AFC Champion Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park. They had beat the Bills 27-3 in the finale to set up the Wild Card tilt. In that game the Oilers knocked out Jim Kelly with a knee injury and wouldn’t have to face him in the Wildcard round.

Andre Reed scores the go ahead touchdown in the greatest comeback in NFL history.

In what should have been his signature win Moon blistered the Bills to go 19 of 22 for 4TDs and took a commanding 28-3 halftime lead. In the 2nd half the Bills turned the tables coming back from a 35-3 deficit to winning 41-38 in overtime. The greatest comeback in NFL history.

The collapse was devastating and the doubt and discourse whittled away fan support as the team descended to medicocrity over the next couple of years.

Finally Owner Bud Adams decided to move the team in 1996. He had watched Art Modell pull the plug in Clevleand & move the Browns to Baltimore the season before. Why try to win back a city that had tired of your failures when you can win anew elsewhere?? The Houston Oilers were no more and the Tennessee Oilers wandered the desert in search of a home.

They played the ’97 season in the Liberty Bowl and ’98 in Vanderbilt Stadium. Both were college arenas where they weren’t the main tenants and playing on a college campus. It didn’t have the look and feel of an NFL ball club as Eddie George and Steve McNair emerged as the team’s new stars. Then they made the decision to change the name of the team to reflect a new identity… the Tennessee Titans and would play in their own brand new stadium as Nashville became their new home.

A new energy hit Adlephi Coliseum immediately as the team was refreshed with new uniforms befitting the change. They played to raucous fans who showed an appreciation for having their own team. It never felt that way when they still had their Oilers name from their years in Texas. The team went 13-3 on the strength of Eddie George (1,304 yds / 9TDs) Steve McNair (337 yds rushing/ 8 TDs) and a smash mouth rushing offense while super rookie DE Jevon Kearse burst onto the scene with a rookie record 14.5 sacks.

The Freak was the playmaker on an aggressive physical defense and turned in the most impactful season since Lawrence Taylor in 1981. He was voted to his 1st Pro Bowl, All Pro, and took home the ’99 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. They won 7 of their last 8 including a 41-14 win over division winner Jacksonville in week 15. They were primed to make a run and 1st up in the wildcard round??

Those Buffalo Bills who were nearing the end of their run with future Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas. Jim Kelly had already left the building after ’96 and the Bills began this strange odyssey of who should be quarterbacking??

Wade Phillips had taken over for Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy and by all accounts favored Doug Flutie. He brought an energy to the team and an excitement even at this advanced age. Things seemed to pick up when he would go on a long serpentine run or scramble then hit an open receiver. An excitment christened “Flutie Magic”.

Eric Moulds was the new big threat in the Bills offense after a breakout ’98 (1,368 yds rec / 9 TDs) which was only bolstered by an NFL playoff record 240 yards in a Wildcard loss to Miami. Moulds was the future yet Andre Reed was still there to provide punch in the passing game.

Antowain Smith had become the featured runner as Thurman Thomas had shown wear after a Hall of Fame career. In ’99 he was injured with a lacerated liver that allowed him to return with fresh legs late in ’99 as Smith and Jonathan Linton had worn down toward season’s end.

One thing the Bills could bank on was the league’s #1 defense as Bruce Smith, Phil Hansen, and Marcellus Wiley provided a solid pass rush.

Yet all that paled in comparison to the ultimate betrayal that haunts Buffalo to this very day.

In an attempt to get a leg up on the franchise quarterback derby the Bills signed Rob Johnson before the ’98 season. He had started one game for an injured Mark Brunell while playing for Jacksonville. The offense would sputter under his leadership as he was often sacked for holding the ball too long. This is what prompted Phillips to replace him in ’98 & Flutie beat him out and started the 1st 15 games of ’99.

With a wildcard wrapped up and unable to improve their playoff position the Bills decided to rest Doug Flutie for the finale. It looked and sounded suspicious as Rob Johnson played the finale against a playoff bound Colts team also resting their starters. Then Coach Phillips dropped a bombshell and named Johnson the starter going into the Wildcard Game.

What?!?!?!?!!? The fanbase went bonkers and blew up switchboards and talk shows all week discussed Flutie v. Rob Johnson. Why would you disrupt the teams momentum to satisfy a front office pressuring you to start the $25 milion free agent?? Facing a Defensive Rookie of the Year coming off the ball with the intensity of a young Lawrence Taylor you decide to face him with an immobile quarterback?? What could possibly go wrong??

Less than 5 minutes into a game destined to be a defensive struggle, Kearse came screaming off the corner and sacked Johnson causing him to fumble out of the endzone. Safety 2-0! The Titans received the free kick and drove for a TD on a short field making it 9-0 just 7:00 into the game. It allowed Adelphia’s rowdy fans to stay at a fevered pitch as Buffalo fought uphill the entire game. Bruce Smith, in his last playoff appearance, kept Steve McNair under wraps sacking him 2.5 times.

The Bills clawed their way back in it and found themselves down 15-13 with 1:41 to go. Johnson had the chance to be a hero. Although he completed just 8 passes going into this final drive, he knew a playoff win could be the launching pad for his career. Johnson appeared calm amid the chaos and drove Buffalo to a last second field goal and a 16-15 lead! It appeared he had done it!! On one play he escaped his nemesis, Kearse and zipped his last completion to Peerless Price, all while scrambling with just one she on.

Once Steve Christie’s kick was good the Bills sideline exploded with emotion as the team brass scrambled to make reservations to go to Indianapolis for a rematch with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and the 13-3 upstart Colts… all they had to do was get through the final :16

It was The Immaculate Reception of the new millenium since we were in January of 2000. The parallels were there as a city was hosting it’s 1st playoff game, a last second touchdown when the home team had no hope, and a long delay where the officials had to discuss the legitamacy of the scoring play. Only this time Instant Replay was used as an officiating tool. As a Billls fan I was screaming forward lateral and did so right before writing this…

The conclusive evidence is the 4th replay as Joe Theismann, Paul Mcguire, and Mike Patrick exalts “From THAT angle…” and I tried to argue for years it was a forward lateral.

It was the end of an era as Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith were let go at the end of the season. They were the last of the Bills that had played in the 4 Super Bowls at the beginning of the decade. The football gods struck back for doing Flutie dirty and benching him going into the playoffs. It was only the 2nd time in NFL history where a backup was named to start the playoffs without an injury. Only the Jets in 1986 when Pat Ryan was named to start the ’86 AFC Wildcard over Ken O’Brien after the Jets lost their last 6 games was the other occasion.

As for the Titans… they rode this incredible momentum all the way to Super Bowl XXXIV where Kevin Dyson wound up in another famous play. Mike Jones tackling him at the 1 yard line as time ran out. Over the next 8 seasons the Titans were an elite team as Eddie George and Steve McNair became household names. Kevin Dyson had a good NFL career and is now Principle of a local school in the Nashville area.

The Music City Miracle didn’t become as famous as The Immaculate Reception…however had the Titans won a Super Bowl in the years that followed, it would have.

In January of 2000 it was played on ESPN and NFL Shows the rest of the month as it was truly a great play. One for the ages for everyone that wasn’t a Bills fan. We still bristle.

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The Epic In Miami: San Diego 41 Miami 38 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff

With the NFL turning 100 this year, it’s impossible not to have great players, great coaches, or great games to look back on. The lasting image in the minds of fans everywhere was this epic shot of Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow being helped off the field by T Billy Shields and TE Eric Sievers.

It came at the conclusion of of one of the greatest games in NFL history and was the signature game in a Hall of Fame career.

Yet if we flashed you back to the early 1980’s the San Diego Chargers had the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL. The legend of “Air Coryell” had taken flight with Coach Don coming over from St Louis and took full advantage of the liberal passing rule changes of 1978.

Beginning in 1979 Dan Fouts set the NFL ablaze becoming the first QB since Joe Namath in ’68 to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. His 4,082 yards in ’79, 4,715 in ’80, and finally 4,802 in ’81 were all NFL records as the Chargers chased a championship. Fouts had the league’s best arsenal in acrobatic receiver John Jefferson, route running Charlie Joiner, and the aforementioned Winslow. This was the original “Greatest Show on Turf” as Charger games became all the rage to watch for their ability to score from anywhere at any time. The league struggled to defend them as:

  • The ’79 Chargers were 1st team since the ’70 merger to pass more than run (541 att/481 rush)
  • In ’79, Jefferson (61 rec/ 1,090 yds 10 TDs) & Joiner (72 rec /1,008 yds 4 TDs) became 1st set of 1,000 yd seasons in NFL history. Both made Pro Bowl
  • On 10/19/80 the Chargers were 1st team in history to have both WR and TEs over 100 yds in 44-7 win over NY
  • In ’80 became the 1st team in history with 3- 1,000 yard receivers (Jefferson 1,340 yds, Winslow 1,290, Joiner 1,132) All 3 were Pro Bowl & All Pro…also 1st in NFL history.
  • Chuck Muncie in 1981 set an NFL record with 19 TDs rushing.

Wes Chandler raced 56 yards for a score with a first quarter punt return. The score was 10-0 (SD)
Heinz Kluetmeier

Despite all the records the Chargers couldn’t win in the postseason. They fashioned a 12-4 record in ’79 which included a 35-7 pounding of the eventual champion Steelers. Only to lose 17-14 in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history to a depleted Oiler team. Vernon Perry intercepted Fouts a playoff record 4 times.

The Chargers bounced back in ’80 with an 11-5 record and homefield advantage where they bested Buffalo 20-14. Then fell at home in the AFC Championship 34-27 to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders.

Having fallen to the last two Super Bowl champions the Chargers were on the doorstep although the clock was ticking. Their championship window was closing and once the front office traded All Pro WR John Jefferson to Green Bay and Pro Bowl DE Fred Dean to San Francisco, it appeared shut.

Down in Miami, Don Shula had rebuilt the Miami Dolphins from the smash mouth back to back champions that won Super Bowls VII & VIII. Up until 1980 he still had Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese to lead his offense as a new “No Name Defense” emerged.

The Dolphins made the playoffs in ’78 behind Delvin Williams spectacular 1,258 yard season running the football. In that year Griese was injured for an extended period and the Dolphins won with backup Don Strock. He had a record of 5-2 while outperforming the vet tossing 12 TDs to only 6 interceptions. Griese had a more efficient season when it came to completion percentage and this hurt Strock.

He was hot & cold yet showed enough flash to get on the field but didn’t engender enough confidence to turn the offense over to him. When Griese returned from injury in ’78 and ’79 he always got his job back.

Then in 1980 Griese’s career ended with a shoulder injury early in the season. Shula worked in rookie QB David Woodley along with Strock as he searched for that perfect chemistry on offense. By this time Delvin Williams had moved on as Shula raised Larry Csonka from the dead and paired the two in the backfield to mixed results the season before.

Somehow in ’81 Shula willed the Dolphins to an AFC East title with “Woodstrock” and the combination of rookie FB Andra Franklin and solid RB Tony Nathan each rushing for 700 yards. This was a team of “no names” as Miami fielded only 1 Pro Bowl player on their entire roster in NT Bob Baumhower #73. Who were these guys??

This hodge podge group ranked 16th on offense and 15th overall on defense. It was a testament to Shula’s coaching they were even winning. Somehow they went 11-4-1 & made it into the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. Hosting a playoff game for the 1st time since 1973.

Their opponent would be the Chargers who were falling from the elite when they pulled a coup and traded for electrifying wideout Wes Chandler. On the strength of Dan Fouts’ record 4,802 yard season, the Chargers limped to a 10-6 record.

Limped?? Well yes their defense never recovered from the Fred Dean trade. In ’79 the Chargers were 5th overall in defense then were ranked 6th in ’80 while leading the NFL in sacks. Without their prime time pass rusher the Charger’s defense plummeted to a ranking of 27th. Consequently San Francisco, where Dean was traded to, rose to 2nd overall…yet I digress

Dean’s absence had an affect on both the Chargers defense in ’81 and what was about to happen as these two teams staggered into the ’81 AFC Divisional playoff…

 

A playoff game that nearly went to 6 quarters at 75* in high humidity that had everything. Multiple blocked field goals, a dramatic comeback from the home team after falling down 24-0 early. The Chargers fighting to stave off a valiant comeback only to have to make a dramatic drive themselves to tie it 38-38 just to go into overtime.

Fouts 433 yds passing was a playoff record until Bernie Kosar threw for 489 yards in an ’86 double overtime epic against the New York Jets.

Kellen Winslow’s 13 receptions established another as he went for 166 rec yards, 1 TD and the blocked kick to send the game into overtime. He left the game several times due to injury where he was suffering from cramps and dehydration.

Each team left it out on the field in one of the greatest games in NFL history. The toll it took on the Chargers having traveled cross country was immense. The following week they had to play in a 140 degree variance when they played the AFC Championship in Cincinnati at -59* wind chill. A game known as The Freezer Bowl. The coldest game in NFL history.

Hall of Fame Member Fred Dean & The Chancellor at the PFHoF in ’18. Ironically behind us was Dan Fouts & Kellen Winslow at a table.

The no name Dolphins had proven their mettle and would go on as one of the elite teams in the AFC, playing in 2 of the next 3 Super Bowls. As for the Chargers, the loss of Fred Dean had caused a season long collapse of their defense culminating in allowing Miami a season high of 478 total yards. It marked the 8th time San Diego’s defense allowed their competitors over 400 total yards in a game over the ’81 campaign.

Ultimately this spectacular game became the crowning jewel in the career of Coach Don Coryell and Air Coryell’s legacy. Having lost the ’80 and ’81 AFC Championship Games they fell back to the pack as other teams would rise to elite status. However this team was reincarnated as The Greatest Show on Turf resurrected their playbook winning Super Bowl XXXIV while becoming one of history’s greatest offenses two football generations later.

Yet this was The Epic in Miami… one of the great games in NFL history.

Dedicated to the memories of Don Coryell, Chuck Muncie, David Woodley, and Larry Gordon, Steve Sabol, and narrator Harry Kalas.

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Legendary Days: Clint Longley Saves Dallas On Thanksgiving

Within every team there are players harboring Walter Mitty fantasies about answering the call and stepping off the bench and having a great game in the absence of a star player. Yet rarely does it happen and even less so in an important game. Enter Clint Longley…

Clint Longley lets one rip.

In 1974 the Dallas Cowboys were a team in transition. This was the twilight as the stars faded from the team known as “Next Year’s Champions” and developing shooting stars which would see the Cowboys be anointed “America’s Team.” Running backs Calvin Hill & Walt Garrison, Hall of Fame DT and 1st draft pick in team history Bob Lilly, SS Cornell Green were all in their final season in Dallas. Even former starting QB Craig Morton who had been embattled in competing for the starting job for years with Roger Staubach had been dealt away in week 6.

The football gods would have Morton and Dallas meet again in an upcoming Super Bowl …*ahem* but that is another story for another time.

Yet this aging team staggered into their annual Turkey Day Bowl where they would face NFC East nemesis Washington. George Allen’s “Over The Hill Gang” was 4-3 with Tom Landry’s group dating back the last 3 years. One of which Dallas was Super Bowl VI champions and they split with the Redskins then. Where was the 1 win lead by Washington gained?? Knocking off the defending champion Cowboys in the 1972 NFC Championship Game 26-3.

So this team had Dallas number and they knew each other inside and out. In fact the Redskins had beaten Staubach and company 2 weeks before this fateful match-up.

When you look back this could have been the most important game in Cowboys history. Having leaned on a rookie that was one of Gil Brandt and the Cowboys’ brass “finds”, did it lend to a more relaxed attitude toward younger players?? Remember it was the next season in 1975 where they threw caution to the wind and they went into the season with 12 rookies on the roster. “The Dirty Dozen” and they made it all the way to Super Bowl X. This was when names like “Too Tall” Jones, Henderson, Randy White and Harvey Martin stepped to the fore leading to 3 Super Bowls in a 4  year period where they became known as “America’s Team.”

Another reason this game was so important in Cowboys history, the very next year Dallas found themselves in a hopeless situation in the ’75 playoffs in Minnesota. After converting a 4th and 17 to the 50 yard line with :44 left. Staubach hit Drew Pearson with “The Hail Mary” to win that game 17-14. Why are we mentioning this here?? Well Staubach asked Pearson to adjust the “16 route” to the same “in and up” referring to this famous touchdown the year before between Longley and Pearson. With this 2nd miraculous playoff finish (1st the comeback in 72 against San Fran) Staubach was now known for them and ascending to legendary status.

Upon further review, another of Gil Brandt’s finds came across this where you can see Longley must have been a special player at Abilene Christian. He was on the AP Little All America 2nd team right next to Walter Payton

Notice all the future Cowboys that came off this All America team from small schools.

Yet for one brief moment when America was watching, Clint Longley had one of the most improbable rags to riches individual Cinderella games in NFL history.

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Legendary Days: The 1981 NFC Championship Game – The Birth of Camelot

With Dwight Clark’s passing a few weeks back it was nearly impossible to not think back to his signature play and this game. The Catch ushered in an era where the 49ers became the NFL’s signature franchise and brought Dallas down a notch. A win 2 weeks later in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac gave Bill Walsh the platform to showcase his genius, The West Coast (Paul Brown’s) Offense, and launch an era he coined “Camelot”. Joe Montana became one of the NFL’s newest faces and would dominate the decade.

Dwight Clark as he will appear forever in the minds of fans everywhere.

Going into the ’81 NFC Championship the 49ers were an organization that not only hadn’t won a championship in their 36 year history. They were 0-3 against Dallas in the postseason. Even worse is they had left 2 NFL Championships on the table by celebrating victory prematurely then succumbing to huge comeback defeats.

In 1957, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and the Million Dollar Backfield bolted to a 27-7 3rd quarter lead in a playoff with the Detroit Lions. Detroit battled back and won 31-27. Then in ’72, a revenge minded 49er team fresh from back to back defeats in the first two NFC Championship Games to Dallas jumped to a 28-13 3rd quarter lead. Amid the taunts and trash talk Landry replaced ineffective QB Craig Morton for Roger Staubach. In another classic meltdown Dallas stormed to win 30-28.

Each of these losses crippled the franchise as they went into a tailspin for a decade both times.

Now here was a 3rd trip to the summit for an organization fighting for respect. Why would this generation’s group get over the hump where previous teams had failed?? This was the dreaded Dallas Cowboys they were 0-3 against in the postseason.

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The Chancellor & former 49er Earl Cooper at PFHoF ’16

At the time Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry was the Bill Walsh / Bill Belichick of his era having taken the Cowboys to the postseason 15 of the last 16 years. Not only had he won 2 Super Bowls, his teams was playing in a championship game for the 10th time with this tilt out in Candlestick. The NFL up to this time hadn’t seen this type of extended success. Not nearing 2 decades worth. Well a berth in Super Bowl XVI was at stake and all he had to do was get past this bunch of no names out in California. Consensus at the time by the national media cited that he would:

Eric Wright’s clutch tackle on Drew Pearson saved the game but Dwight Clark’s catch remains it’s signature. Prestige is much like momentum. You can’t exactly define it yet you know it once you feel it and see it. The mantle of prestige and esteem the Cowboys held transferred to the 49ers the moment Clark came down with the football. From that point on the buzz from NFL media in print and television began with Bill Walsh and his organization. His West Coast offense became the dominant offensive approach for the next four decades.

Epilogue:

For those of us old enough to have watched this game and remember those years it was a unique time in NFL history. A young Chancellor of Football was watching this frozen in -63 wind chill in Columbus, Ohio. These were bigger than life characters that were shaping how I viewed the game and learned of all those making history. When we lose Dwight Clark, who was one of those figures, a piece of us go with them. Things won’t be the same but thanks for the memories. Thankfully former 49er Coach Steve Mariucci shared this on Twitter.

Mariucci was a beneficiary of the prestige borne of The Catch. They were a well oiled and running dynasty 16 years in when he succeeded George Seifert in 1997. Hmmmm…isn’t that the same 16 year mark when Landry had the Cowboys in San Francisco back in ’81?? For irony…. Mariucci and the 49ers also lost the NFC Championship Game that year. Yet that story…can be told at another time.

Thanks for the memories Dwight Clark. RIP (January 8, 1957 – June 4, 2018)

Dedicated To The Memories of: Dwight Clark, Bill Walsh, Tom Landry,  Freddie Solomon, Bob McKittrick, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Keith Fahnhorst, Ernie Stautner, Larry Bethea, Harvey Martin, Ron Springs, narrator Harry Kalas, Ed Sabol & Steve Sabol

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Legendary Days: The 1990 NFC Championship Game – The Death of Camelot

There is an old axiom when it comes to boxing when you hear someone say “styles make great fights” meaning opposing styles colliding provide great theater. Never was this more evident when it came to the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants of the 1980’s. The identity of the men from Gotham was a blood thirsty defense led by Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player ever. Joe Montana had ascended to legendary status as he led the NFL’s most efficient offense to 4 Super Bowl titles that decade. They would meet in a fitting crescendo that still has ramifications to this day.

Leonard Marshall clobbers Joe Montana and knocks him out of the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He doesn’t return to action until the final game of the 1992 season against the Detroit Lions.

If you travel to 1978 the Giants and 49ers met in what was a forgettable season for both. New York won 27-10 out in Candlestick during the 4th week. Yet they only won 3 games the rest of the stanza while San Francisco only won twice. Both began by hiring coaches in 1979 in Bill Walsh and Ray Perkins which set the course as each regime rose to prominence in the decade to come.

The next step was the selection of franchise quarterbacks, first Phil Simms in New York in round one and Joe Montana in the third. Each turned to the draft for the same spark on defense a few years later when the Giants selected LB Lawrence Taylor and Walsh’s selection of FS Ronnie Lott both in the 1st round in 1981.

Walsh and company ended an 8 year playoff drought with a 13-3 record and homefield advantage as Montana and company had come of age. New York defeated Dallas 13-10 to earn their first trip to the NFL postseason in 18 years. Then after a 27-21 upset of the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the wildcard round, New York was one step away from the NFC Championship Game and traveled west to face San Fran.

Going into it were the questions could NFL Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor get to Joe Montana?? Could the finesse passing game take down the Giants’ hard rock defense?? Walsh’s team was shattering the NFL paradigm by passing first to set up the run. Contrary to popular belief was the fact it was San Francisco’s defense ranked #2 to the Giants at #3.

Montana was 20 of 31 for 304 yards for 2 TDs in a 38-24 win under the lights. Up next came the NFC Championship with Dallas & The Catch, then a Super Bowl XVI trophy and all the prestige that came with it. Walsh became the toast of the league and christened with his “genius” label. Joe became one of the faces of the NFL and would be one for the decade of the 1980’s.

Taylor was the toast of New York.

The vanquished?? Well New York Defensive Coordinator Bill Parcell’s unit collapsed giving up a season high 38 points. They had only given up 30 once the entire year up to that point. As is the case when teams come up short in the playoffs, their knocked off kilter for a couple of years. Parcells succeeded Perkins after a 4-5 season in ’82 and was nearly fired after a disastrous 3-12-1 rookie year in ’83. Yet all the while Walsh was one of the NFL’s faces as the 49ers bounced back and came within a couple bad penalties from winning the NFC Championship a 2nd time in 3 years. They fell to Washington 24-21 yet the media felt validated in the moniker they anointed Walsh with….”genius.”

Parcells bristled at the attention Walsh and the 49ers “finesse” approach to the game was getting. It only intensified in ’84 as they went 15-1 and threatened to go undefeated. New York rebounded as Phil Simms finally emerged from the shadows and became a 4,000 yard passer and the Giants returned to the playoffs. Another NFC playoff loss to Joe and the Niners 21-10 relegated the Giants to the NFL’s jr varsity as Walsh and Joe went on to hoist another Lombardi trophy.

However over the years Parcells kept building a team of brute force. Although they had been effective he drafted 6-4 240lb OLB Carl Banks who was a blue chip strong side ‘backer. Brought in 288 lbs DE Leonard Marshall to replace a 259lb Gary Jeter. He kept building upon his defense and relying on a straight forward power rushing attack.

Finally in the 1985 playoffs, the Giants #2 ranked defense held Montana and the 49er offense out of the endzone for the first time in a 17-3 Wildcard win at home. For the first time ever Parcells and the Giants beat the Niners in the 80’s and in the locker room he scoffed “What do you think now about that west coast offense?” In a bit of irony he wound up coining the name Walsh’s offense would come to be known forever.

However the Giants were manhandled in Chicago 21-0 on the road to the eventual champion Bears. Both teams were built in the same old school fashion. You win with brute force on the line of scrimmage with a heavy front 7 and a strong offensive line with an offense that relied on the run. Yet the Giants sent alarm bells off all around the NFL when they already had a strong defense yet spent their first 6 picks in the first 3 rounds all on defense.

They fortified their defensive line with 6’4 280 lbs DE Erik Dorsey, NT Eric Howard who stood 6’4 275, 250 lb ILB Pepper Johnson along with crafty CB Mark Collins who was nearly 5-10 200 lbs. Collins turned into one of the Giant defense’s greatest assets as he blanketed Jerry Rice and was the best in history covering him. This gave the Giants a tremendous advantage for years to come.

In the ’86 playoffs the Giants defense had come of age and starting with a 49-3 devastation in the NFC Divisional Round it became clear the pendulum had completely swung. Jim Burt knocked Joe Montana out with seconds to go in the 1st half as Taylor returned an interception 34 yards to swell the score to 28-3. In an embarrassing fashion Walsh’s squad was hammered into submission. Physically beat down unlike any game they had seen since they rose to prominence.

This forced the 49ers to finish what they started in the ’85 draft when they started drafting to fortify their lines and bigger running backs to deal with the Bears and Giants. In ’87 it took shape however it came to fruition as they won Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV after the ’88 and ’89 seasons. Walsh had stepped down after the XXIII championship and former DC George Seifert took over head coaching duties. Mike Holmgren and the 49er offense had elevated their offensive play to one of near perfection. Walsh’s legend only grew even in his departure for creating the offensive system which allowed his 49ers to become the team of the decade.

Going into 1990 pundits were debating not only were the 49ers the best ever team but was Joe Montana the best ever quarterback?? The same could be said of Jerry Rice as he had assaulted the record books and had also been a Super Bowl MVP. On their way to back to back championships they had set the NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. Now they had the chance to win 3 straight Super Bowls where it would leave no doubt. They began the season with a 10-0 record and…

Waiting for them who also began 10-0 was the Giant team that had learned how to win from the 49ers and had taken it up a level. Now the more powerful rebuilt 49ers who had a 2-3 record (0-2 in the playoffs since ’85) staring them down. Were they lucky they hadn’t met the Giants in the playoffs in both ’88 and ’89?? Would they even have won back to back had New York had a shot at them??

In week 12 each team was 10-1 when they met in San Francisco on a Monday Night. In the 2nd highest watched MNF in history the 49ers beat the Giants 7-3 in a slugfest where the Giants inability to score a touchdown on offense did them in. In 3 shots inside the redzone they could only score 1 field goal. Yet to a man the Giants relished another shot at San Francisco. Finally they would have their chance in the NFC Championship Game. For the decade the record between the two stood at 2-2 and they would meet in the last chance to halt “Camelot’s” greatest procession into history.

 

In the collective gasp after the Leonard Marshall hit you knew everything had changed. The silence that befell Candlestick Park as Montana writhed in pain on the ground for several minutes was palpable. Unlike most games where the network would take a commercial break, a nationwide audience sat glued to the football version of a tragic event. The greatest ever quarterback whose nimble feet that had deftly dodged trouble in and out of the pocket forever in January’s past had been viciously taken down. The Camelot that Bill Walsh had so eloquently stated of that era ended in that moment. The final kick by Matt Bahr for the 15-13 win was just icing on the cake made by a ferocious defense in one of the greatest games in NFL history.

A more visceral look:

The era closed with the Giants holding a 3-2 edge in postseason games although the Niners were team of the decade. Over the next 26 years coaches from both sides made it to the Super Bowl 14 times with Bill Belichick (8) Tom Coughlin (2) Mike Holmgren (3) and Jon Gruden (1). This doesn’t include Bill Parcells’ 2nd Super Bowl triumph 1 week after this game vs Buffalo in XXV. Much has been made of the Bill Walsh coaching tree but take a look at the one stemming from Parcells’ group. Its second to none and it all started with a championship win over Camelot in 1990.

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Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

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