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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Falcons’ First Win

18 Oct

In past Throwback Thursday posts, we’ve featured a number of “firsts” that occurred over the years in pro football, including the first AFL game ever played, the New Orleans’ Saints first ever game, and this year, the Cardinals’ first game as the St. Louis Cards. This week, with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants meeting on the NFL schedule, we go back to November 20, 1966, when the Falcons’ franchise recorded the first victory in team history with a 27-16 win over New York. Welcomed into the National Football League as an expansion team in ’66, the Falcons had their top draft pick, linebacker Tommy Nobis, and not much else. They lost their first 9 games of the year, but this particular week they traveled to Yankee Stadium to battle an equally inept club in the Giants, who had a lone victory and a tie to show for their season so far.

Nobis had been a stalwart on defense for a bad team most of the year, and the team had another rookie first round draft pick leading the offense in quarterback Randy Johnson, who didn’t have much to work with on his side of the ball either. On this day, however, Atlanta had a secret weapon on their side – a highly motivated fullback named Ernie Wheelwright. He had been plucked by the Falcons off the Giants’ roster in the expansion draft held before the season to stock the new franchise. Wheelwright, a career journeyman with pedestrian statistics, was a key figure in beating his old team on this day, accounting for 86 yards from scrimmage and scoring 2 touchdowns on short throws from Johnson. The rookie QB threw 3 TD passes on the day and also ran for a touchdown in the final quarter to secure his team’s first win ever. Running back Joe Morrison was a lone bright spot in a dismal season for the Giants, and in this game scored a pair of touchdowns in a losing cause. Atlanta would ride the momentum from winning this contest to grab 2 more victories to finish the year at 3-11, escaping last place while the Giants continued their losing ways, finishing last behind the Falcons in the Eastern Division standings at 1-12-1. This era was not a very successful one for the proud Giants’ franchise, and finishing last behind an expansion team was a particular low point.

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Falcons’ linebacker Tommy Nobis

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Catch II

11 Oct

With this week’s NFL schedule including a matchup of the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, our Throwback Thursday feature will go back to an NFC wild card game played between these 2 iconic franchises on January 3, 1999. The game featured a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Green Bay’s Brett Favre and San Francisco’s Steve Young, but the offensive production for both teams in this contest came mostly from their running games. The star running backs on this day weren’t necessarily household names. Dorsey Levens, for most of his career a backup, racked up 116 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries for Green Bay, while Garrison Hearst totaled 128 yards on 22 carries for the Niners.

Although the running games were featured by both teams, Favre and Young used short passes to complete drives as the game went on. Up until the last 2 minutes of the contest, Favre completed 2 short scoring passes to Antonio Freeman, while Young connected with Greg Clark on a pair of touchdown throws, with both scoring plays totaling a whopping 9 yards. The team’s field goal kickers, Ryan Longwell of the Packers and San Fran’s Wade Richey, traded field goals all game long, and with 2 minutes left to play, the Packers took a 27-23 lead when Favre hit Freeman for his second TD of the game. That left Young with the opportunity to match Favre with some late game magic of his own. Although their weren’t a lot of aerial fireworks in this game, the signal callers, who were both recent Super Bowl winning QBs, showed their excellence in putting together scoring drives when it mattered. Young proceeded to lead his club downfield and with 9 seconds left, he hit his young, brash wide receiver, Terrell Owens, with a pinpoint post pattern throw covering 25 yards for the winning score, sealing a 30-27 victory for the 49ers.

It was a bit of a coming out party for Owens with his dramatic touchdown. He had been playing second fiddle to Niner legend Jerry Rice since arriving on the scene, and became quite emotional on the sideline after his game-winning heroics. In some ways, it was the start of a symbolic passing of the torch with the 49ers, as Rice was nearing the end of his reign with the team while Owens’ career was just beginning. Some people labeled the winning play “The Catch II” after the original “The Catch” made by another 49er, Dwight Clark, in 1982 on a throw from Joe Montana. Owens’ play wasn’t quite as dramatic, however. It happened in a wild card game while the Montana to Clark play came in an NFC Conference championship game and propelled San Francisco to its’ first Super Bowl appearance.

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An emotional Terrell Owens after his game-winning catch

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Music City Miracle

04 Oct

The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans clash on the NFL schedule for the upcoming week five, and our Throwback Thursday feature travels back to a wild card playoff game between these 2 clubs contested on January 8, 2000. It was a hard -fought game that was decided in the final seconds by a controversial play that was a throwback in itself – the name of the play was  “The Home Run Throwback”. Although the 2 teams only qualified as wild cards, they were both imposing clubs. The Titans had finished at 13-3 while the Bills, with an 11-5 record, boasted the #1 defense in the NFL in yards allowed. It was a defensive struggle from the start, and after a scoreless first quarter, the Titans took command as they sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety, then got a 42 yard return of the “free kick” following the safety by Derrick Mason to give themselves great field position. Tennessee QB Steve “Air” McNair finished off the short drive with a one yard touchdown run, and an Al Del Greco field goal later in the quarter sent the Titans into halftime with a 12-0 lead.

The Bills had gained only 64 yards in the opening half, and a controversial decision to change signal callers for this game was beginning to look bad. Doug Flutie had been the Bills’ QB all season, leading a low-scoring but efficient attack as the club rode the strength of their defense to most of their victories. In a meaningless regular season finale, Johnson was given a start against the Indianapolis Colts and was so impressive that the Bills’ brass decided to go with him in the playoff game instead of Flutie. Under enormous pressure to produce, Johnson came out in the second half and began to mount a comeback. The Bills took the opening kickoff of the half and used their running game, specifically star back Antowian Smith, to put together a 64 yard scoring drive. a 44 yard run by Smith highlighted the drive, and a 4 yard run for a touchdown by him finished it. Johnson led another touchdown drive, this time for 65 yards and highlighted by a 37 yard completion from him to Eric Moulds. The drive was capped off with another 4 yard TD run by Smith, and after failing on a two-point conversion try, the Bills found themselves with the lead at 13-12. McNair, who had only 76 yards passing for the day, pieced together a drive that netted the Titans another Del Greco field goal, putting Tennessee up 15-13 with a little under 2 minutes to play.  Johnson again led the Bills downfield, orchestrating a drive that led to a go-ahead field goal from Steve Christie that appeared to ice the game for the Bills, as only 16 seconds remained.

Then came the infamous play that would make this game one of the most memorable in NFL playoff history. Lorenzo Neal fielded Christie’s “pooch” kickoff, and handed it to Pro Bowler Frank Wycheck. Wycheck stopped, turned to his left and lofted a “lateral” across the field to speedster Kevin Dyson, who raced past the few Buffalo defenders who were on that side of the field to an improbable touchdown return to give his team a 22-16 victory. The play was extremely controversial in that it appeared that Wycheck had thrown an illegal forward pass. In fact, Bills’ coach Wade Phillips appeared to be very calm after the play, confident that it would be overturned on replay review. Replays showed Wycheck was clearly behind the yard line when he launched the pass, with Dyson clearly ahead of it when he caught the ball. However, referee Phil Luckett, after review, ruled that Wycheck’s arm was parallel to where Dyson was, so it was a legal lateral. Luckett’s role in the play was highlighted in the fact that he had been involved in a couple of controversies earlier in the season, botching the coin toss in one game and ruling a Vinny Testaverde QB sneak a touchdown even though replays clearly showed him being stopped a half yard short. Controversy aside, the touchdown stood and the “Music City Miracle” was born, although Bills’ coach Phillips always referred to it as “The Music City Mistake”.

 

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Kevin Dyson follows a convoy of blockers to “Music City Miracle” winning TD

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “I Love You, Brian!”

27 Sep

The Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders match up on the NFL’s week four schedule this Sunday, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to January 4, 1981, a cold, snowy day in Cleveland when these 2 clubs met in an AFC divisional playoff game. The Raiders were a wild card entry in that year’s playoffs, while the Browns enjoyed an 11-5 season in which their quarterback, Brian Sipe, won the league’s MVP award in leading his team to the AFC Central Division title. Sipe and his Browns earned the nickname “Kardiac Kids” for their habit of winning close games with come-from-behind victories all year, and this game played out like many of their regular season contests, except for the ending.

Weather conditions would be a big factor in the game, as neither team could muster much offense. The Browns’ defense broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter when Ron Bolton returned one of his 2 interceptions of Raider QB Jim Plunkett 42 yards for a touchdown. Mark Van Eeghen tied the score before the first half ended with a one yard plunge for a Raider TD. The only third quarter scoring came on a pair of Don Cockroft field goals for Cleveland, leaving the Browns up 12-7 entering the final quarter. When Van Eeghen scored a second 1-yard TD to put the Raiders up 14-12, Sipe and the Browns were put in their familiar spot of needing a fourth quarter comeback to secure a win. Starting at his own 15 yard line, Sipe masterfully drove his team downfield, reaching the Oakland 13 yard line with 49 seconds to play. The Browns were already in position to kick a game-winning field goal, but because of the severe weather conditions, coach Sam Rutigliano opted to have Sipe throw a pass to All Pro tight end Ozzie Newsome in the end zone to get the win. The decision backfired when Raider safety Mike Davis intercepted the pass, ending Cleveland’s season. As a disheartened Sipe came off the field , Rutigliano hugged his signal caller and exclaimed “I love you, Brian!”

The play, which carried the name “Red Right 88”, would become the first of the city of Cleveland’s infamous gaffes regarding heartbreaking Browns’ defeats. “The Drive” starring John Elway and “The Fumble” featuring Earnest Byner would follow in later years. The Browns remain one of the few teams in the NFL to have never played in a Super Bowl (although they were a dominant force in the pre-Super Bowl era). The Raiders took advantage of their good fortune of Rutigliano’s decision to pass by going on to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl that season.

 

Oakland’s Mike Davis seals the win (Getty Images)

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Unitas Rediscovers Moore

20 Sep

The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off an upset defeat at the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, try to rebound against the Indianapolis Colts this week on the NFL’s week 3 schedule. So we’ll highlight a game played between these 2 franchises for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. It was played on November 21, 1965 at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium (the Colts wouldn’t move to Indianapolis for another 20 years or so). The Colts, under coach Don Shula, were having a great season, with a 9-1 record entering the game, while Philly was mired in a losing campaign at 3-7. Baltimore took command early, jumping out to a 14-0 lead as Colt quarterback John Unitas, arguably considered the best in the game at the time, hit Lenny Moore with a 52 yard scoring pass for the first touchdown, and safety Jerry Logan intercepting an Eagle pass and returning it 36 yard to paydirt. The Colts added a field goal but the Eagles showed some grit by netting a field goal of their own and adding a pair of touchdowns before the half, with Norm Snead throwing to his tight end, Pete Retzlaff, for one TD and future Hall of Famer Ollie Matson running for another, leaving the teams deadlocked at 17-17 at the midway point.

The third quarter belonged to Philadelphia as they jumped out to a 24-20 lead and looked poised to pull off the upset, but the Colts asserted their superiority in the final quarter, led by Unitas. He led a pair of late game scoring drives, which was his trademark back then. Jimmy Orr was a recipient of a 22 yard touchdown throw to give Baltimore the lead, while Moore scored again, this time on a 1 yard plunge, to seal the victory, 34-24. Unitas played his usual excellent game in the win, passing for over 300 yards and spreading the ball around to his favorite targets – Orr, Raymond Berry and tight end John Mackey. For this contest, however, he rediscovered the receiving talents of his halfback, Moore, who grabbed 7 of his throws for a whopping 163 yards and a TD. Moore added 54 yards on the ground to the attack, piling up 217 total yards. The NFL has always been a copycat league, and in an era where star halfbacks like Frank Gifford, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell were transitioning into becoming “flankerbacks”, Shula realized that Moore, who had always been a receiving threat in his earlier years, was perfect for the role.

 

shula-gallery1Colt legends Unitas, Moore and Shula

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Out Of The Bears’ Shadow

13 Sep

Week two of the NFL schedule includes a match between two nomadic franchises, the Rams and the Cardinals. The Rams began their existence in Cleveland, moved to Los Angeles, relocated to St. Louis where they had a measure of success, then bolted back to the West Coast to L.A., although technically they are currently playing in Anaheim. The Cardinals started out in Chicago, moved to St. Louis where they stayed for a pretty long period, then ran off to the desert and became the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals in the late 1980s. So the contest this week between teams that both bolted the Gateway to The West city could be deemed The We Screwed St. Louis Bowl.

Anyway, the game we harken back to took place on September 23, 1960. It was played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, on the opening day of the ’60 season. It’s significant in that it was the first game the Cards played as the St. Louis Cardinals. After toiling in the shadow of George Halas’ Bears in Chicago since the NFL’s inception in 1920, team owner Violet Bidwill Wolfner petitioned the league to relocate to St. Louis after the 1959 season. At the time, the American Football League was forming to begin play in 1960, so the league allowed the Cardinals to move, mostly to claim the St. Louis market before the fledgling AFL could. Minnesota and Dallas were added as expansion teams during this period also, in proactive moves by the NFL to shut out the new league.

 

ramscards1960Rams vs. Cardinals game program 9/23/1960

The Rams had been an offensive powerhouse in the 1950s, behind future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Van Brocklin was now quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles, while Waterfield was the Rams’ head coach. Billy Wade, now L.A.’s signal caller, opened the scoring with a touchdown pass to Clendon Thomas. In the second quarter, Wade threw another scoring pass, a 57 yarder to Red Phillips, while John David Crow scored the first 2 touchdowns for the newly anointed St. Louis club, the first on an 18 yard throw from King Hill, and the second on another passing play, this time a 52 yarder from John Roach, who replaced Hill at quarterback. A pair of Bobby Joe Conrad field goals and a safety put St. Louis ahead 22-14 and the Cardinals coasted from there, led by a spectacular performance from Roach. He connected with star split end Sonny Randle for touchdown throws of 37, 57 and 24 yards to break the game open. Amazingly, Roach only completed 6 passes on the day, and 4 went for touchdowns. The Rams could only muster one more score, as they replaced Hill with backup Frank Ryan. Ryan hit rookie Carroll Dale with a 54 yard TD pass, but in the end the Cardinals, in their inaugural game as the St. Louis Cards, prevailed 43-21. The win launched the Redbirds to a winning season, as they finished 6-5-1, a marked improvement over their 2-10 finish in their last season in Chicago in 1959. (The NFL season only consisted of 12 games back then).

Incidentally, both Wade and Ryan would be traded later on, and both went on to great success. Wade led his new team, the Chicago Bears, to the NFL title in 1963 while Ryan quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to a championship in 1964. Dale, who had a great statistical game in the loss for the Rams (5 catches for 106 yards and the late TD), would later be traded to Green Bay, where he helped the Packers win 3 titles, including the first 2 Super Bowls.

 

1960gridcardinals1960 St. Louis Cardinals

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Jim “Wrong Way” Marshall

06 Sep

Another new NFL season is upon us, which means Rayonsports kicks off it’s weekly Thursday Throwback post featuring a contest from yesteryear played between two franchises that are scheduled to meet on the week’s slate of games. The Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers match up on the opening week’s schedule, so we travel back to a meeting between these clubs that was played on October 25, 1964. This particular game between Western Division rivals lives on in NFL lore because of a play made by one of the greats of the game, Viking defensive end Jim Marshall, but Marshall would just as soon forget the game. In the fourth quarter of that game, he recovered a 49er fumble and returned it 66 yards, the wrong way, into his own end zone, resulting in a 2-point safety for San Francisco.

The game started out with 49er quarterback John Brodie taking early control, scoring on a 2 yard run and throwing an 80 yard touchdown pass to Dave Parks to give his club a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. Tommy Mason ran for a Viking TD and Tommy Davis kicked a field goal to give San Fran a 17-10 lead at the half. The only third quarter scoring came on a Fred Cox field goal for Minnesota, but the Vikings took control in the fourth quarter, led by their Purple People Eater defense. QB Fran Tarkenton ran for a score, and defensive end Carl Eller scooped a fumble and ran 45 yards for another touchdown. Eller’s recovery, incidentally, was made possible by a Marshall sack/strip. Marshall’s infamous gaffe came later in the final stanza, but didn’t really affect the final outcome as the Vikings won the game 27-22.

It’s really a shame that the legendary Viking defender is mostly remembered for his wrong way run. He played 20 years in the league and was a dominant defender, and with this summer’s induction of Jerry Kramer into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Marshall now stands as perhaps the biggest “snub” as far as Hall voting is concerned. He really deserves to be inducted, but doesn’t even draw minimal consideration now that his playing days are so far in the past.

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A distraught Jim Marshall after realizing his mistake

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Saturday Night Surprise

28 Dec

The final week of the NFL’s regular season will be played this weekend, and one of the matchups is between 2 old rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. The Steelers are headed to the playoffs with a first round bye secured, while the Browns are winless and are the league’s ultimate bottom-feeders, having won only one game in the past two seasons. Our final Throwback Thursday feature for 2017 harkens back to October 10, 1964 to a meeting between these 2 franchises back when their fortunes were reversed. The Browns were a powerhouse in the league and were on their way to claiming the NFL Championship that season, while the Steelers were half a decade away from hiring Chuck Noll as head coach and turning the team’s fortunes around. Pittsburgh was a rough team that played hard-nosed, and sometimes dirty, defense, while routinely losing games.

In what was an annual tradition at that time, the game was played on a Saturday night rather than the usual Sunday afternoon, and on this night, the Steelers pulled off a Saturday Night Surprise, as they dominated the Browns on their own home field, the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Using a power running game that featured future Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson,  Pittsburgh threw the ball only 11 times all night, and wound up gaining 354 yards on the ground on 64 attempts. Johnson carried 30 times for an even 200 yards and scored all 3 of his team’s touchdowns, while Clarence Peaks added another 96 yards on 21 tries. Meanwhile, the rugged Steeler defense neutralized Cleveland’s star fullback, Jim Brown, holding him to only 59 yards for the night. They also harassed quarterback Frank Ryan, sacking him 4 times (although sacks were not an official statistic at the time). In all, the Steelers outgained the Browns in the game, 477 total yards to 217 in securing a 23-7 victory. It was Cleveland’s first loss of the year, dropping their record to 3-1-1, while the win lifted Pittsburgh to 3-2 and within a half game of overtaking the Browns.

Pittsburgh reverted to their losing ways, however, finishing the season at 5-9 while the Browns, as stated earlier, went on to capture the league championship. Coach Blanton Collier’s Browns also got revenge on the Steelers later that year, going into Pitt Stadium and pulling out a 30-17 win in November.

 

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John Henry Johnson grinds out yardage vs. Browns (Getty Images)

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Tie A Yellow Ribbon

21 Dec

The Philadelphia Eagles face the Oakland Raiders on this week’s NFL schedule, taking our Throwback Thursday feature back to Super Bowl XV, played between these 2 franchises on January 25, 1981 in New Orleans, to decide the NFL’s championship for the 1980 season. The atmosphere surrounding the game was patriotic, as the Iran hostage crisis had ended just 5 days earlier. The episode was a hostage situation in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage in Iran for 444 days, and minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new U.S. president, they were released. A national symbol of the crisis saw Americans tying yellow ribbons around trees as an expression of hope that the hostages would be freed, and for the Super Bowl game, the New Orleans Superdome was adorned with a giant yellow ribbon.

The game itself was a contest between two organizations that were diametrically opposed. The Raiders had a reputation of being rebel castoffs who were free spirits, an image their owner, Al Davis, not only cultivated but advanced with his own behavior as a renegade owner. The Eagles, on the other hand, were a button-down, by the book team that mirrored their stiff, high-strung coach, Dick Vermeil. The Raiders, being their usual loose and fun-loving selves, took advantage of the nervous Eagles and jumped out to a quick 14-0 first quarter lead on the strength of a pair of Jim Plunkett touchdown passes – a short 2 yarder to Cliff Branch and an 80 yarder to running back Kenny King. Philadelphia got on the board in the second quarter on a Tony Franklin field goal, but the Raiders countered that when Plunkett again found Branch for a score, this time from 29 yards out. That gave Oakland a 21-3 lead that they never relinquished. The Eagles finally managed a touchdown when Ron Jaworski found Keith Krepfle for an 8 yard TD, but they never seriously challenged the Raiders, who added 2 Chris Bahr field goals to complete a 27-10 victory.

It was a day of redemption for Plunkett, who had been considered a major bust after failures in New England and San Francisco to start his career. On this day, he completed 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards and the 3 touchdowns to earn the game’s Most Valuable Player award. Vermeil took a lot of criticism for being too rigid and having his team wound too tight to the point where they didn’t perform well, but he learned his lesson later in his career, when he coached the powerhouse St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show On Turf” club to an NFL title.

 

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Yellow ribbon tied around the Superdome for the Iran hostages

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Mel Gray’s Phantom Catch

14 Dec

It’s another week of the National Football League schedule, and another Throwback Thursday feature. This week, the Washington Redskins face the Arizona Cardinals, and our TBT will highlight a game played on November 16, 1975 between these two teams. The Cardinals were based in St. Louis at the time and both clubs were members of the league’s NFC East division. They entered this contest fighting for the division lead with identical 6-2 records. A defensive struggle produced a scoreless first quarter, then St. Louis’ Jim Bakken hit a short field goal to give his team the lead. Redskin quarterback Randy Johnson, a journeyman veteran filling in for regular signal caller Bill Kilmer, hit on a pair of touchdown passes, to Charley Taylor and Mike Thomas, to give Washington a 14-3 lead. The Cardinals pulled to within 14-10 when Jim Hart hit J.V. Cain on an 8 yard scoring toss, but Mike Moseley extended the ‘Skins’ lead to 17-10 with a field goal. Later in the fourth quarter, Hart led his team down the field attempting to tie the game, and reached Washington’s 6 yard line. He then proceeded to toss 3 consecutive incompletions, setting up what would be one of the most controversial plays in Redskin history. He fired a pass to his favorite target, Mel Gray, who clutched the ball in the end zone as he was being hit simultaneously by Redskin cornerback Pat Fischer. The ball popped out and hit the ground, and while one official ruled it incomplete, another called it a touchdown. After a huddle among the zebras, the play was ruled a touchdown. Bakken’s extra point tied the game, and the Cardinal kicker won it in overtime, 20-17, with another field goal.

Fischer, a former Cardinal, protested the call and insisted the pass was never caught. Gray even put his hands on his helmet in frustration, thinking it was an incompletion. There was no replay review in those days, so the officials’ call on the field was gospel. One thing is certain – there is no way, under today’s rules, that the pass would be anything but an incompletion, as a receiver is required to hold onto the ball and make a “football move” to complete the catch. The game knocked coach George Allen’s Washington team out of first place, and they never recovered, falling to an 8-6 final record which kept them out of the playoffs. St. Louis used the victory as a springboard to their second consecutive NFC East title.

 

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Cardinals’ Mel Gray snags a Jim Hart pass in the end zone

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Gray “completes” the “catch” for the tying TD