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History of Pro Football Playoffs

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Undefeated teams, weird games, sneakers all play a part

Once upon a time, in a land a long time ago, there was a league devoid of any playoff system. A fleeting look might have called this entity barbaric, but upon further review it was revealed to be a professional football league. The name was familiar, although most of the teams, equipment, rules and players are deemed somewhat foreign.

Yes, this league in a distant olden time was indeed strange, for it exhibited outlandish customs which are certainly unconventional to modern times. This league, this alliance, this rogue group of small market teams in a faraway era is known as the National Football League (NFL).

This league has grown up presently. It has become progressive and advanced, has embraced new technologies, rule changes and ideas. The very core of this forward-looking National Football League revels in its sleekness and sophistication. It is steeped in tradition - yet yearns for new ideas. This league has kept old styles (various uniforms) and progressed with fresh approaches by placing communication transmitters into player’s helmets.

But as this narrative unfolds, the very essence of this league’s beginnings was barbarous and deep-rooted in ancient thinking.

The NFL began as an organized method for teams that were already paying their athletes to ban together to cease the pattern of players jumping from team-to-team. Oftentimes, players would play for one team and the following week become a roster member of another club simply because they offered more. So the NFL was born, and players stayed put - at least for one season.

Champions were crowned and laid claim to be earth’s greatest play-for-pay American football team.

Champions In Question

In the beginning, each year’s champion was christened to whichever team had the best win percentage when the season had finished. And with this arrangement, the champion was not even officially named at the conclusion of the season. That distinction occurred at the January owner’s meeting; and had to be voted on by the owners themselves.

There were several loopholes to this format.

For one, tie games were not tabulated in the final win percentages which would have certainly changed the outcome in several seasons. For another, teams did not play the same number of games. This meant one club could play 14 games while another only engaged in 10. In 1929, the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers played 13 games en route to a 12-0-1 record. The second place New York Giants netted 15 games. In contrast, the Minneapolis Red Jackets played 10 games while the Boston Bulldogs only played eight. Therefore, under the current formula in which the league champion would be crowned to the team with the best percentage, the 12-0-1 Packers could have lost the title with a .923 win percentage if the Bulldogs had won all eight of their games.

Another loophole was scheduling. It was up to each team to devise its own schedule. Most teams would play regional teams that were not NFL clubs to fill in a schedule, but the victory or loss did not count in the league standings.

Often, franchises were able to pick up games even while the season was in progress. In 1925 the Pottsville Maroons held the greatest percentage (.833) and were set to capture their first NFL crown. With no games left, the second-place Chicago Cardinals scheduled two more games and handily won both to boost their percentage to .846 and capture the league title.

The loose scheduling policy came into play in 1930. The Packers held a .769 win percentage over the Giants .765. Green Bay had one game left while the Giants had completed their schedule. The Packers simply cancelled their final game and won their second straight NFL title by four percentage points.

Other pro football leagues did not comprise any playoff system, either. The 1926 American Football League (AFL) champions were the Philadelphia Quakers, who had the highest win percentage. The champs of the second AFL (1936-1937) were the Boston Shamrocks and the Los Angeles Bulldogs. Each won the league via a higher winning percentage. The third league that named itself the AFL from 1941-1942, developed a double round robin style regular season system, but crowned its champion via the best win percentage. The Columbus Bullies won both titles.

Playoff Formats

The very first professional football playoff game occurred after the 1932 NFL season. The Chicago Bears (6-1-6) and the Portsmouth Spartans (6-1-4) were tied percentage-wise (.857).

A one-game playoff ensued to be played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, home of the Bears. However, the week of the game a terrible storm blanketed Chicago with sub-zero temperatures before and on game day. It was decided that the game would be

1932 NFL Playoff Game at Chicago Arena

relocated indoors to Chicago Arena, home of the hockey Blackhawks. Since the playing field was a hockey rink, the area for the football game would only sport a field 8 -yards long by 45 yards wide. It also featured wooden sideboards, short end zones, the goal posts had to be relocated to the goal line instead of the end zone back line, plus for the first time hash marks would be painted.

There were special rules for this one game: 1) kickoffs from the goal line, 2) the ball would be moved back 20 yards every time a team crossed the 10-yard line, 3) the next play would begin at either side hash mark, 4) drop kicks were not allowed, and 5) field goals were not allowed.

What this one game exhibited to the NFL owners, was that in the days when gate receipts were the majority source of income, a playoff - even for one game - not only generated more fan interest but also produced extra income.

The following season the league was divided into two divisions and adopted a playoff format which pitted the two division winners against each other. And with that, the playoffs were born.

The 1960s version of the American Football League saw some expanded playoff formats. This AFL was divided into two divisions with the division winners the participants in the title game, same as the NFL. In 1963, the Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills played to identical 7-6-1 records. They had split their two games with a win each, so a one-game “playoff” was in order. The game was entitled the “Eastern Division Playoff” which the Patriots won 26-8. The same thing happened in 1968 with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs knotted at 12-2-0. The ensuing “Western Division Playoff” game was won by the Raiders 41-6.

Beginning with the 1966 season, the NFL and AFL had agreed to begin a new series which pitted each league’s champion against each other. It was named the “AFL-NFL Championship Game” and later renamed the “Super Bowl.” When the merger between the two leagues was announced, a common preseason, college draft and championship game was to begin in 1966. This marked the first year that some teams played multiple playoff games in a single season.

The NFL was the originator of the expanded playoff format. The idea was to get as many teams into the post-season without diluting the essence of the regular season. The clubs also needed additional revenue and the thought process was the more teams that made the playoffs, the more games could be played to raise additional gate receipts. It was less genius-oriented and more necessity driven. The league was up to 16 teams, so the league split into the Eastern and Western Conference with four divisions. The division winners played each other, then the winners met in the “NFL Championship Game.” This prototype influenced the AFL to do something similar in 1969 - division winners played the second place team from the other division with the victor’s participants in the “AFL Championship Game.”

With the merger in 1970 and suddenly a bulging 26 clubs, the NFL’s playoff system expanded with four divisional playoff games (fielding eight teams), two conference championship games, and finally the Super Bowl. In 1978 the playoff set-up was changed again; this time by adding two more teams for a total of 10. Two wild card franchises played each other the first week with the winners going forward. This meant that all other playoff teams had a bye. This continued through the 1989 season when the NFL decided the bye week should be an asset to only the top two clubs in each conference and is the format utilized today.

Famous Playoff Contests

There are several playoff and championship games that have gone on to live in infamy.

  • The 1958 NFL Championship between the Giants and the Colts is known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It had drama and scoring and was the first championship game to be televised nationwide and seen by millions. It also went into overtime - another first that added to the spectacle. This single playoff game brought pro football into the public spotlight; thus beginning the sport as an accepted professional league.
  • Several championship playoff contests sported an undefeated team in the title game. Most recently was the 18-0-0 New England Patriots against the fifth-seeded Giants in 2007. The Patriots set a new NFL record for the most wins in a single season without a loss going 16-0-0. After two playoff victories, the team was poised to be the best team to ever go undefeated and untied in NFL history. The media attention for Super Bowl XLII was at an all-time frenzy as the most anticipated game of the season as the Patriots took aim at football history; only to lose 17-14.
  • The 1934 Bears dominated the NFL season with a perfect 13-0-0 record and outscored their opponents 286-86, which included three shut-outs. That placed them into the one game playoff championship with the 8-5-0 Giants. A freezing rain in New York City the night before the game covered the playing field in ice. As the Bears went ahead 13-3, Giants’ equipment manager Abe Cohen went to get sneakers. He arrived in the second half with eight pairs of sneakers borrowed from Manhattan College's basketball team. The Giants were able to hold traction on the ice with the sneakers and scored four touchdowns to win, 30-13. This game is affectionately labeled “The Sneakers Game.”
  • The Bears of 1942 once again have the dubious honor of working through the regular season unscathed only to lose in the championship game. Chicago was the dominant NFL team and won each game by an average score of 34-8. They posted four shutouts en route to an 11-0-0 record. The Redskins finished 10-1-0. In their lone loss against the Giants, New York was held to zero first downs all game. The Bears had won two straight NFL titles and were poised to three-peat, led by quarterback Sid Luckman. Washington countered with Sammy Baugh under center. The Redskins led 7-6 at the half before winning 14-6, thus ending the Bears perfect season.
  • The longest game in NFL history happened in the playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day, 1971. Each team had exchanged scores all game and was tied 24-24 late in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs returned a kickoff to the Dolphins 22-yard line in the final minute of regulation, but kicker Jan Stenerud missed the field goal which sent the game into the extra quarter. Again Stenerud lined up for a 42-yard FG, but the attempt was blocked. Dolphins’ kicker Garo Yepremian also missed a 52-yard FG. The game went into double overtime until a Yepremian 37-yard FG won the game. When it was over, the contest had consumed almost 83 minutes.

There are several games whose moniker is because of wintry conditions.

  • The 1967 “NFL Championship Game” between the Packers and the Cowboys, popularly called “The Ice Bowl,” is widely known as one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history. The winner would be crowned NFL Champion and would go on to play the AFL Champion in the first-ever Super Bowl. Played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, it remains the coldest NFL game with an actual temperature of 13°F and a wind chill hovering at -36°F. The Packers owned an $80,000 heating blanket to fit the playing field, but it failed leaving the field hard and slick. The referees were unable to use their whistles because the inside pea froze plus the metal casing would freeze to the official’s lips; so they had to use voice commands to officiate the game. The college band couldn’t play because the woodwind instruments froze and the brass instrument mouthpieces got stuck to the musician' lips.
  • “The Freezer Bowl” was the 1981 AFC Championship Game between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The game was played in Cincinnati in the coldest temperature in NFL history in terms of wind chill. Air temperature was -9°F, but the wind chill, factoring in a sustained wind of 27 miles per hour, was -37°F. The Bengals offensive line played the entire game with bare arms exposed while Chargers QB Dan Fouts had icicles form on his beard. Oddly, Cincinnati head coach Forrest Gregg had been a player in the Packers-Cowboys “Ice Bowl.” The Bengals won 27-7.
  • One of the most controversial plays in playoff history happened in the 2001 AFC Divisional playoff game between the Raiders and the Patriots, commonly known as the “Snow Bowl.” It took place in Massachusetts in a thick, driving snow. Neither team could generate a run game and had to rely on the pass for all four quarters. With the Raiders up 13-10, Patriots QB Tom Brady dropped back to pass only to be sacked with a subsequent fumble. The officials reviewed the play and determined that Brady's arm was moving forward, thus making it an incomplete pass. The Raiders could have run out the clock, but the Patriots drove into field goal range where kicker Adam Vinatieri netted a 45-yard FG into the driving snow. The game went into overtime where Vinatieri again lined up for the game winner. The field by then was covered in four inches of snow. Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard field goal to win the game for the Patriots. The name "Tuck Rule" (which has since been rescinded) originates from the controversial game-changing play.

Flawless Achievement

  • In 1936, the Los Angeles Bulldogs were granted a “probationary franchise” by the NFL, but competed their season in the newly-formed American Football League. The following season, the Bulldogs finished a perfect 16-0-0, including several non-league wins against NFL teams. In the final game, Los Angeles defeated the Coast All-Stars 13-10 thus becoming the first professional football team to finish the season undefeated and untied.
  • 1948 was also the year of perfection for the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference. The Browns coasted to a 14-0-0 regular season record. They dominated with just three games won by less than seven points. Their opponent in the “AAFC Championship Game” were the Buffalo Bills, whom Cleveland had smothered twice during the season. The Browns once again thumped the Bills 49-7 to remain unbeaten and untied.
  • The Canton Bulldogs were one of the NFL’s best teams in the early stages of the league’s existence and was the first pro football team to finish a season without a single loss. In 1922, the club went 10-0-2 and then 11-0-1 the following season. The Bulldogs were crowned the NFL champion both years. Back then, the league was devoid of any playoff system and so the franchise with the best win percentage was deemed the champs. But, within this system tie games were counted in the standings but did not count in the percentages. Therefore, both seasons for Canton were registered as perfect 1.000 campaigns.
  • Super Bowl VII placed the Miami Dolphins (16-0-0) against the Washington Redskins (13-3-0). The Redskins were known as the “Over the Hill Gang” as the roster was full of veterans, misfits and rejects. Miami’s defense was labeled the “No-Name Defense.” The Redskins were whipped into a frenzy to upset the Dolphins and spoil their entire season. Miami led 14-0 at the half whereas Washington’s offense was stagnant. A Dolphins blocked field goal attempt resulted in the lone Redskins score with a 14-7 Miami win and still remains the only NFL team to finish unbeaten and untied.

Playoff Summit

Three major professional football franchises have finished their season unbeaten and untied, yet the 1972 Miami Dolphins are viewed as the pinnacle to which all other teams aspire. Rightfully so - the NFL is the summit of the pro football universe.

The NFL is also the only major sports league that uses a single-elimination format with its playoffs instead of a “best-of series” or “round robin” or “aggregate format.” With the single-elimination, each and every playoff game is significant.

The fact that any NFL team can finish an entire season without any losses or ties appears unattainable. But the team that has, or does, is the zenith of NFL lore.