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Archive for the ‘Feature Stories’ Category

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “Merry Freakin’ Christmas!”

20 Oct

Just a couple of weeks ago we featured a game for a Throwback Thursday post from the Philadelphia Eagles’ dismal 1968 season, the Thanksgiving Mud Bowl. On this week’s NFL schedule, the Eagles take on the Minnesota Vikings, and not to pick on that hapless ’68 Eagle team, but with these 2 franchises facing off we had to feature another Philadelphia game, from December of ’68, between these 2 teams that became infamous because Eagle fans, weary of watching their team lose all year, actually booed and assaulted Santa Claus. The game itself wasn’t very memorable. The Vikings, a far superior team that year, won 24-17. Viking quarterback Joe Kapp had a pretty good game, running for a touchdown and tossing TD passes to Bill Brown and Gene Washington.

Played on December 15th, and being the Eagles’ final home game of the season, a halftime Christmas pageant was planned, a yearly tradition at old Franklin Field for the home finale. There had been a snowstorm earlier in the morning, and the guy who was supposed to play Santa in the pageant decided not to show up, leaving the team’s staff in a predicament. Unlike the movie Miracle On 34th Street, the real Santa didn’t appear to save the day. Enter Frank Olivo, a former Atlantic City craps dealer and Eagle season ticket holder who always dressed up in a Santa suit each year for the last home game. Team officials spotted him in the crowd and asked him to step in for the missing regular Santa in the pageant. He reluctantly agreed, and at halftime, walked out onto the field along with the other members of the pageant, waving to the crowd as he was asked to do. The game itself was competitive at that point, tied at 7-7 at the half, so no one really knows what put the Philly faithful in such a foul mood, but the crowd began to boo the poor substitute Kris Kringle. Maybe it was because he was a little too skinny to be a believable Santa, maybe it was his tattered suit, maybe it was the fact that the Eagles were just plain lousy that year and the fans were fed up. But on top of the booing, some fans decided to start pelting Olivo with snowballs, and before long he was running for his own safety.

In an interview years later, Olivo said at one point as he was running for cover he spotted a fan in the first row and watched him grab some snow, pack it into a snowball and fire it at him. He ran up to the wall, pointed his finger at the offender and yelled, “You’re not getting anything for Christmas!” Olivo wound up becoming a legend in Philadelphia sports history, and if you want to get a glimpse of some of what he was facing in the Franklin Field stands that day, take a look at the picture of him below in his place in the stands. It almost looks like he was smack dab in the middle of the local Mafia section.

 

 

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Frank Olivo, AKA Santa Claus, in the stands in Philadelphia

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “No Punt Intended”

13 Oct

Non-conference matchups on the NFL schedule occur between franchises only every four years, so there aren’t anywhere near the amount of classic games to choose from for my weekly Throwback Thursday feature as there are for divisional rivals. However, every once in awhile one pops up that is memorable and stands out as the one I need to showcase for that week. This week, the AFC’s Buffalo Bills match up with the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers, which harkens back to a game played between these two teams on September 13, 1992, when both franchises were league powerhouses. They played a classic game that featured a ton of offense, and wound up being the first one ever played in NFL history in which neither team punted. Yes, San Francisco’s Klaus Wilmsmeyer and Buffalo’s Chris Mohr, their team’s respective punters, had the day off. The game is now known in NFL lore as “The No Punt Game”.

It was one of those games that gets described as a “shootout”, as the two clubs, led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young, combined to amass 1,086 yards of total offense. Each threw 3 touchdown passes, which is far short of the league record for most combined TDs, and even the final score of 34-31 in favor of the Bills wasn’t that high compared to some of the point totals racked up in today’s Madden video game style of play. Still, it was a fun game to watch with lots of thrills and big plays provided by Kelly and Young and by both their star teammates like Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Ricky Watters, and by lesser known players like John Taylor, Mike Sherrard, Odessa Turner and Pete Metzelaars. Despite all the offense, there wasn’t a 100 yard rusher in the game, but there were 4 100+ yard receivers, two for each team. One large oddity of the game: Future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, the greatest wideout of all time, had 3 catches for a paltry 26 yards for the 49ers.

Taylor caught 2 of Young’s 3 TD passes, while tight end Metzelaars caught a pair of Kelly’s. The offensive explosion was a little more rare to see than it is today, but despite all the back-and-forth action and the brilliant aerial display by both QBs, the winning touchdown came on a running play. It was an 11 yard scamper by the Bills’ Thomas, and was the only score in the fourth quarter.

 

 

San Francisco 49ers vs. Buffalo Bills at Candlestick Park Sunday, September 12, 1992. Bills beat 49ers 34-31. San Francisco 49ers tight end Jamie Williams (81) attempts to tackle Buffalo Bills defensive back Nate Odomes (37) after interception.

Buffalo’s Nate Odomes returns an interception in the No Punt Game

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Thanksgiving Mud Bowl

06 Oct

This week’s NFL schedule pairs the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles against each other, which takes this week’s Throwback Thursday feature back to Thanksgiving Day of 1968, to a dull, sloshing game between these 2 teams that became known as the “Thanksgiving Mud Bowl”. You rarely see games like this played nowadays with the advent of artificial playing fields and domed stadiums, but even as boring as it was, it was REAL football played in REAL conditions. In an era known for a style of play that was labeled “three yards and a cloud of dust”, this contest was more like “three yards and a cloud of slop”. There was very little offense displayed by either team, as the field conditions at Tiger Stadium were a quagmire due to 36 consecutive hours of rain in the Detroit area. Lions’ linebacker Wayne Walker described the muddy field as being “ankle deep”, while a Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter wrote that “Tiger Stadium’s turf made the average pig’s quarters appear to be wall-to-wall carpeted by comparison.”

 

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Eagle QB Norm Snead prepares to hand off in the 1968 Thanksgiving Day “Mud Bowl”

The Eagles wound up winning the contest 12-0 on 4 field goals by placekicker Sam Baker. Although there was very little action in the game, there was plenty of controversy afterwards, due to a situation eerily similar to the recent New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” episode. In the 1960s, the NFL had a rule that only the home team was to provide footballs for game action, with the officials not having any control over the use of the balls like they do in today’s game. But on each of their field goal attempts, the Eagles’ equipment manager snuck dry balls in to the holder, Joe Scarpati, giving Baker a decided edge over the Lions, who used the wet, muddy balls on their possessions. Karma caught up with the Philadelphia club, however. They had a terrible season, but the Thanksgiving win turned out to be just enough to cost them the top draft pick in the next NFL draft. Buffalo got the pick instead and the Bills were able to choose O.J. Simpson. The Eagles wound up picking the forgettable Leroy Keyes.

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More action from 1968’s “Thanksgiving Mud Bowl”

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “The Catch”

29 Sep

With the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys matching up on this week’s NFL schedule, picking the Throwback Thursday feature was a no-brainer. It’s one of the most memorable games in NFL lore, the 1981 NFC Championship game played between these two franchises. Played on January 10, 1982, it was a classic game whose outcome signified a “changing of the guard” in power in the NFC from the Cowboys, who dominated the 1970s, to the 49ers, who would go on to win multiple Super Bowls in the 1980s. It was a tough, close, exciting game, and the final drive by the Niners, led by Joe Montana in what was his introduction to pro football fans as “Joe Cool”, culminated in the play that would be forever known as “The Catch”. Trailing 27-21, Montana guided his club downfield and on a crucial third down play from Dallas’ 6 yard line, he took the snap, surveyed the field, and, unable to find an open receiver, sprinted out to the right with Cowboy defenders in hot pursuit. Just inches away from being pushed out of bounds, Montana launched a high pass into the corner of the end zone, which receiver Dwight Clark leaped up and snatched for the winning touchdown.

Some observers felt that Montana was actually throwing the ball away to try again on fourth down, but he and Clark claimed that they had practiced for just such a situation and that Montana knew exactly where his tall receiver would be. Niner coach Bill Walsh, when the pass was thrown, was supposedly already looking down at his play sheet for a play to call on fourth down. Regardless, the completion was made, San Francisco went on to win 28-27, and “The Catch” went into NFL history as one of it’s classic, unforgettable moments. There were some other classic moments in the ending of the game, actually. On the final play, there was an exchange between Montana and the Cowboys’ massive defensive end, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, that was an example of Joe Cool’s competitiveness. As he released the ball, Montana was crushed by Jones, and never saw Clark catch the ball. He only knew the result when he heard the home crowd cheering. Jones, lying on top of the 49er quarterback like a predator on his prey, told Montana “you just beat America’s Team”, to which Montana replied “well, now you can sit at home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl!” Another forgotten moment came after “The Catch”, when Dallas, with 51 seconds still left to play, started to drive downfield. Danny White hooked up with his star receiver, Drew Pearson, on a long pass and the Cowboy star appeared poised to break free to the end zone. Eric Wright, safety for San Fran, saved the day by running down Pearson and bringing him down with a horse-collar tackle, a move that is illegal in the NFL today. It’s certainly not a household play with NFL fans, but 49er faithful still refer to Wright’s game-saving tackle as “The Grab”.

 

 

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San Francisco’s Dwight Clark makes “The Catch”

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: A Giant Mismatch

22 Sep

We’ve often featured games played between division rivals in our Throwback Thursday posts, and this week’s will go back to the 1961 season to take a look at a game played between two longtime Eastern Division/NFC East rivals, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, who play on this week’s NFL schedule. In 2013, we remembered a game played between these 2 clubs in 1966 that was one of the wildest ever, as the Redskins throttled the Giants 72-41 in what still stands as the highest scoring game in league history. The Giants were a doormat in that ’66 season as they finished with only one win all year. However, five years earlier, in the 1961 season, the New York club was a powerhouse. They were in the midst of a stretch that saw them reach the NFL title game 5 times in 6 seasons. Unfortunately, they lost all five of those games (in 1958 and ’59 to the Baltimore Colts, in ’61 and ’62 to Green Bay and in ’63 to the Chicago Bears). On this day, November 5, 1961, the two franchises entered the game at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Giants were 5-2 and leading the division, while the lowly ‘Skins had dropped all 7 of their contests.

The game turned out to be as big a mismatch as the teams’ records indicated it would be, as the Giants pounded their Eastern Division rivals 53-0. Prior to the ’61 season, the Giants had acquired veteran quarterback Y.A. Tittle from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had led a potent 49er offense that was dubbed the “Million Dollar Backfield”. Tittle was considered to be washed up when the trade was made, but apparently the Giants knew what they were doing. Not only did Tittle win the starting job, displacing Giant legend Charley Conerly, but he went on to win three NFL Most Valuable Player Awards in New York and lead the team to the title game in three consecutive years from 1961 to ’63. On this day, the game started ominously for the Redskins as their QB, Norm Snead, was tackled in the end zone for a safety by Dick Modzelewski to give the Giants a 2-0 lead. Then Tittle went to work, torching the Washington secondary for three touchdown passes, two to split end Del Shofner, before giving way to backup Lee Grosscup, who threw another scoring pass to Shofner. The Giant defense chipped in with a 51 yard interception return by Jim Patton for a score, while the hard-luck Snead was caught in the end zone again for another safety, this time by Jim Katcavage. Snead never did much in Washington but did have a long career, mostly as a journeyman QB, after the ‘Skins made a petty good trade of their own a couple years later, swapping Snead to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sonny Jurgensen, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

This wasn’t the only game in which Tittle tortured Washington. The following season he set an NFL record for most TD passes in a single game, seven, in a Giant rout that we’ll likely feature in a future Throwback Thursday post.

 

tittlegiantsGiant quarterback Y.A. Tittle

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Snowplow Game

15 Sep

The Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots square off this week on the NFL schedule, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ll harken back to a game played between these 2 franchises on December 12, 1982. It was one of the strangest games ever played, and it eventually was tagged with the nickname “The Snowplow Game” due to the weird and controversial way it was decided. It was played on a snowy Sunday afternoon and playing conditions were not good, leading to an absence of any real offense by either time. Statistically, Miami running back Andra Franklin had the most successful outing, rushing for 107 yards on 23 carries, but overall neither team could muster up much of an attack. There were a total of 11 passes completed in the game. Miami’s David Woodley had 9 of those completions, but he also threw 2 interceptions and was sacked twice. Patriot QB Steve Grogan completed only 2 passes, but he also threw only 5 times. There was a total of only 89 passing yards combined between the two struggling clubs.

The offensive doldrums continued until late in the fourth quarter. With the game scoreless and a little over 4 minutes remaining, New England managed to drive deep enough into Miami territory to set up a 33 yard field goal attempt by kicker John Smith.  This is when the game’s MVP, a snowplow operator named Mark Henderson, entered the fray. Because of the poor conditions, the league allowed teams to employ the snowplows to clear the yard markers occasionally so that the officials could better track first down yardage. Except now, with the Pats setting up for their field goal attempt, Henderson, a convicted felon out on a weekend work release program from prison, started to plow the yardline, then veered left to clear the spot where holder Matt Cavanaugh was to spot the ball. Smith made the attempt, and New England won the game 3-0.

 

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Mark Henderson clears the field for John Smith’s field goal attempt

Miami coach Don Shula, who basically owned the NFL officials in those days as a prominent member of the Competition Committee, vehemently protested allowing the field goal to stand but the officials let it go. Shula even protested later to commissioner Pete Rozelle, but to no avail. Skeptical current NFL fans might look back on this as an early example of a long history of Patriot cheating, but at the time it was unusual for Shula not to get his way with the refs so it was mostly looked on positively.  As for Henderson, he became a New England folk hero. Pats’ coach Ron Meyer awarded him a game ball, and the actual John Deere snowplow he used is now an exhibit in the team’s Hall of Fame. When he was questioned later about whether he thought he might be in trouble for pulling the stunt, Henderson replied, “What are they gonna do, throw me in jail?” He was released from prison a few years later and worked in the construction business.

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Game ball awarded to snowplow operator Mark Henderson

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: “Hello, NFL, We’re The Cleveland Browns”

08 Sep

It’s that time of year again, the beginning of the NFL season, when we revive one of our favorite pastimes on Rayonsports.com , the weekly Throwback Thursday post. Each week during the season, we pick out a matchup on that week’s schedule and then feature a game from the past between those teams. To open the 2016 season, we’ll feature a matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, who play on opening day. The historical matchup we’ll remember was not only played on opening day, of the 1950 season, but was also the first game the Browns ever played in the NFL. They had been members of the All American Football Conference, a league formed to challenge the established NFL, and had dominated the AAFC for it’s entire four year existence, winning every championship from 1946 to 1949. The Browns, San Francisco 49ers and an early version of the Baltimore Colts were merged into the NFL when the fledgling league folded, and all began play in the established league in 1950. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell set up the schedule to match the Browns against the two-time defending NFL champion Eagles on opening day of the ’50 season purposely, with the intent of showing the public his league’s superiority over the champions of the AAFC. The game was even scheduled for Saturday, a day before the rest of the league’s scheduled games, to further feature the matchup.

 

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Game program from the Eagles-Browns 1950 opening game matchup

The Browns were considered by all the pro football experts at the time to be a good team, but only the best team in a “minor” league and certainly no match for the NFL champion Eagles. Of course, things didn’t go the way Bell and the so-called experts had expected.  The Eagles kicked an early field goal to go ahead 3-0, but the Browns’ passing attack, directed by quarterback Otto Graham, then proceeded to carve up the supposedly vaunted Philadelphia defense. Graham threw for 3 touchdowns, one apiece to Dub Jones, Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, and scored himself on a one yard keeper to stake his club to a 28-3 lead they never relinquished. The teams traded fourth quarter scores to put the final score at 35-10 in favor of the upstart Browns. The game is widely considered one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, but the contest itself was a little sloppy. The teams combined for 9 turnovers, and in what a skeptic might consider favoritism toward the Eagles, the Browns were penalized 12 times for 98 yards (compared to only 3 calls against Philly). But Cleveland’s dominance couldn’t be denied – they outgained the Eagles 487 yards to 266 in addition to the lopsided score. Eagle coach Greasy Neale reluctantly congratulated the Browns on the win, critiquing the team for relying heavily on the pass and comparing them to a basketball team. Neale certainly would not be a fan of today’s game.

Obviously all the experts underestimated the quality of play of the old AAFC, and also the powerful team Cleveland coach Paul Brown had assembled which dominated that league. The opening day dominance was no fluke. Paul Brown’s forces went on to win the NFL championship in that season, their first in NFL play. That was quite a remarkable achievement, and the franchise continued to be one of the league’s strongest well into the 1960s.

 

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Browns’ legends Otto Graham and Paul Brown

 

NFL – Five Most Obscure Super Bowl Heroes

02 Feb

It’s officially Super Bowl week, and Super Bowl 50, the golden anniversary of the NFL’s championship game, will be played this Sunday between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. I usually post some Super Bowl stories or memories of past games during the week preceding the game, and for starters, this post will be a “list” post, which I’ve done many of. This is a list of the five most obscure Super Bowl heroes of the first 49 years:

 

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  1. Jim O’Brien – he was a rookie kicker when he was placed in the pressure-packed position of having to kick the winning field goal in Super Bowl V, which was a game filled with errors that was dubbed “The Blunder Bowl”. O’Brien made the kick, a 32 yarder which is the extra point distance in today’s game, to give the Colts their first Super Bowl title.

 

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2. Timmy Smith – he was the ultimate Super Bowl one hit wonder. In the Washington Redskins’ 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, Smith, a rookie, set an NFL record by rushing for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns. It was the only significant accomplishment of his career, as he played only parts of 3 seasons in a career hampered by injuries and suspicions of drug use.

 

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3. Larry Brown – in Super Bowl XXX, he intercepted a pair of Neil O’Donnell passes to help his Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his efforts earned him the game’s MVP honors. He parlayed that accomplishment into a big free agent contract with Oakland, then quickly faded into oblivion after making the move.

 

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4. David Tyree – he made possibly the most famous catch in Super Bowl history – the “Helmet Catch” – in Super Bowl XLII, on a pass from Eli Manning to keep the New York Giants’ winning drive alive as they upset the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. He clutched the ball against his helmet as he and defender Rodney Harrison fell to the ground, making an improbable grab. He was mostly an obscure special teams player prior to the catch.

 

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5. Malcom Butler – he was an obscure undrafted free agent on the fringes of the New England Patriots’ roster, but late in the game in Super Bowl XLIX, was sent out on the field as an extra defensive back as the Seattle Seahawks were driving toward the winning touchdown. He wound up making the play of the game, intercepting an ill-advised Russell Wilson pass at the goal line to preserve the win for his team. To his credit, Butler didn’t let himself become a flash-in-the-pan player. He has developed into a dependable, starting cornerback, even earning a Pro Bowl berth this season.

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: O.J. Runs for 2,000 Yards

31 Dec

The New York Jets will attempt to qualify for the NFL playoffs this weekend by defeating their AFC East rivals, the Buffalo Bills. This week’s Throwback Thursday post harkens back to another season finale played between these two franchises, on December 16, 1973. Neither team had any postseason hopes, but the Bills had their eye on an individual accomplishment for their star running back, O.J. Simpson, who had a chance to break Jim Brown’s single season rushing yardage record. Brown’s record of 1,863 yards in a season had stood since 1963, and the Buffalo running back needed 61 yards to eclipse the mark.

The Bills dominated the game, building up a 28-7 lead through three quarters, allowing them to concentrate on getting Simpson the record. Running behind his offensive line, nicknamed “The Electric Company” (because they turned on The Juice, O.J.’s nickname at the time), Simpson eclipsed the record easily. Early in the fourth quarter, members of the line realized it was possible for Simpson to reach the unreachable 2,000 yard total, never done before in pro football. It was their best offensive weapon anyway, so the Bills continued to feed Simpson the ball, and he wound up carrying 34 times for 200 yards, the third time in the ’73 season that he went over 200 in a game, to finish the year with a record-breaking 2,003 yards rushing. The 2,000 yard mark has been eclipsed a few times since Simpson did it, but he remains the only player to accomplish the feat in a 14 game season, as the NFL went to a 16 game slate in 1978.

Although they didn’t make the playoffs, 1973 was a successful season for the Bills. They finished 9-5, their first winning season since 1966, found a new quarterback in rookie Joe Ferguson, who would be a mainstay there for a decade, and with O.J. and his fullback Jim Braxton carrying the load, also set an NFL record for the most rushing yards in a season for a team. Braxton actually ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns in Simpson’s record-breaking game. How much did the Bills feature Simpson on this day in the attempt to get the record? Ferguson’s stat line was 3 of 5 passes for 70 yards. Simpson’s personal life took a complete nose-dive after his playing days ended, but for one shining moment on a cold December day in 1973, he was king of the football world.

 

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O.J. Simpson on his way to a 2,003 yard rushing season in 1973

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Playoff Bowl

24 Dec

The NFL season is winding down, with only 2 more weeks of games to be played. On this week’s schedule, the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals meet, which takes this week’s Throwback Thursday post back to January of 1965, when these two franchises met in what was then a postseason game played annually known as the “Playoff Bowl”. Officially, the game was called the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl, named in honor of the league’s late commissioner, with proceeds benefitting the players’ pension fund. The  game, held in Miami’s Orange Bowl, was played between the two teams who finished second in their respective divisions, and was essentially a game to decide who finished in third place, or a “consolation” game as it’s called in the NCAA basketball tournament. It was also known to some as the “Runnerup Bowl”.

The Packers finished second behind the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 season, while St. Louis (where the Cardinals were located then) wound up behind the Cleveland Browns. Cardinal quarterback Charley Johnson had a pretty good game, throwing a pair of touchdown passes to split end Billy Gambrell, who had the game of his life. Gambrell’s season total for receiving yards was 398, but on this day he grabbed 6 catches for 184 yards and both TD receptions from Johnson, one from 10 yards out and the second from 80. St. Louis built a 17-3 lead, but Green Bay’s Jim Taylor scored on a short run to cut the lead to 17-10. When Jerry Stovall intercepted a Bart Starr pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown, the Cards pretty much sealed the victory, winding up winning by a 24-17 count. (Taylor scored again late in the game for the Packers but it wasn’t enough). Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi is said to have lost only one postseason game in his coaching career, the 1960 NFL championship game, but this would have been his second one, except that the NFL made the decision to count the “Playoff Bowl” results as exhibition games, which was pretty much what they were.

Lombardi, who hated losing, detested the third place game. After losing this one, he called the game “the Shit Bowl…a loser’s bowl for losers. A hinky dink football game, played in a hinky dink town, by hinky dink players. That’s all third place is. Hinky dink.” That was probably a bit extreme. The game did have some value, raising over a million dollars for the pension fund over the years. The game was discontinued in 1970 after the NFL merged with the AFL and the playoffs were expanded to add divisional round games.

 

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Packers and Cardinals battle in Miami in the “Playoff Bowl”