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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL WILDCARD ROUND NOTEBOOK!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Where did the time go? We have been around so long at TGS that our publishing history (which dates to 1957) long precedes the "wildcard" concept, which was not officially introduced into pro football until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The seeds of the wildcard, however, were planted in previous seasons when the occasional conference playoff was necessitated, and when the AFL experimented with an extra round of playoff action in its final season of 1969. But once the wildcard arrived, it was here to stay in the NFL, one of former commissioner Pete Rozelle's many innovations that forever changed the landscape of pro football.

It was perhaps inevitable that an expanded playoff format would materialize, especially after the league began adding expansion teams in the 1960s (when the AFL also came into existence), although it took a while for the idea to resonate. Ironically, the trigger turned out to be the 1965 Western Conference playoff between the old Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers, who had tied with 10-3-1 marks in the regular season, necessitating a one-game playoff for the right to meet the defending title holders and Eastern Conference champion Browns the next week. Colts-Packers was no artistic masterpiece, but provided such compelling viewing in Green Bay's 13-10 overtime win that Rozelle couldn't help but figure out that expanding the postseason to include an extra round of drama, such as the Colts and Pack provided, would prove a boon to league coffers and be irresistible to CBS, which had exclusive TV rights for the NFL in those days. And when expansion added the New Orleans Saints as the league's 16th team in 1967, Rozelle jumped at the opportunity to revamp the playoff format as part of a reconfigured league that would be divided into four, four-team divisions. Naturally, the winners of the Western Conference divisions (the newly-christened "Coastal" and "Central") and those in the East (the "Capitol" and "Century" Divisions) would compete against each other in an extra round of playoff action that was a hit with the pro football audience from the outset.

The old AFL also experimented with an aforementioned, expanded playoff format in its last season of existence in 1969 when it would invite second-place finishers from both its old Eastern and Western Divisions (who turned out to be the Oilers and Chiefs) to compete with the division winners Jets and Raiders in a semifinal round. Though Rozelle would not officially coin the "wildcard" term until 1970, the '69 Chiefs were indeed the first "wildcard" Super Bowl champion in 1969.

The merger year of 1970 was when the "wildcard" became a permanent part of the pro football lexicon. The first "official" wildcards were the Dolphins (AFC) and Lions (NFC)...the latter emerging from what we at TGS still believe was one of the best stretch drives in our 58 seasons of publishing.

The 1970 season was memorable (George Blanda, Tom Dempsey, and the debut of Monday Night Football), and the NFC playoff chase that season eventually settled into a breathless seven-team dogfight for the four available postseason slots, right up to the final weekend, with the new "wildcard" adding an extra level of intrigue to the proceedings. NFL fans were mesmerized; George Allen's Rams and the rival 49ers were going toe-to-toe in the West, the Vikings clear in the Central, but the Lions very much in the wildcard picture, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Cowboys all thundering down the stretch in the East. The latter appeared to be St. Louis' to lose until the Big Red stumbled in December, losing at Detroit, at home to the Giants, and by 1 point at Washington to close the campaign and eliminate itself from the postseason.

For a while, it seemed as if the Giants, led by QB Fran Tarkenton, were going to win the East; a penultimate 34-17 win at Busch Stadium over the fading Cards in Week 13 opened the door for the G-Men to capture the division as long as they could beat the Rams at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season. But George Allen's team, needing a win to stay alive in the West, throttled the Giants, 31-3, effectively ending New York's playoff hopes. At 9-5, the Giants were thus bypassed by Detroit, a 20-0 winner over the Pack (the second Detroit blanking of Green Bay that season) to claim the wildcard, and Dallas, which had been surging since a 38-0 mid-November Cotton Bowl loss to the Cardinals but which had taken the East by winning five in a row to close the regular season, with depleted Houston not offering much resistance to Dallas in a 52-10 Cowboy win on closing day. Rather incredibly, the Cowboys' Doomsday Defense had not allowed a TD in its final four regular-season games! Meanwhile, after beating the Giants earlier in the day, the Rams needed the Raiders to beat their cross-bay rival 49ers on the final day to give them, and not San Francisco, the NFC West title, but the 49ers took away most of the mystery in the early going en route to a 38-7 romp to sew up the West.

There was also great concern heading into the last week of the regular season that a coin flip might have to determine the NFC wildcard rep. All it would have taken was a win by the Giants to force Dallas and Detroit into a coin flip for the wildcard spot. Fortunately (though maybe not for the Giants), we didn't have to endure that scenario. In subsequent years, more extensive tiebreaker procedures were set in place to prevent the possibility of a coin flip deciding a playoff participant.

In the 44 years since, we're still waiting for a playoff chase to replicate the NFC charge down the stretch in that merger year of 1970.

The first official post-merger Rozelle wildcard team to participate in the playoffs was Detroit, which would face Dallas at the old Cotton Bowl on Saturday, December 26, a day before AFC wildcard Miami would face the Raiders in muddy Oakland. Neither of those 1970 playoff games involving the wildcards, however, were artistic masterpieces.

The Lions and Cowboys (who meet again this weekend) would engage in a defensive war for the ages, featuring perhaps the most inept passing displays in postseason history. The teams combined to complete 11 of 38 (!) passes for 130 yards between Lion QBs Greg Landry and Bill Munson and Cowboys QB Craig Morton. Dallas would mostly control the game with its "Doomsday Defense," which was in the aforementioned process of not allowing a TD in a 23-quarter span spreading from late in the regular season all of the way until the 3rd Q of the NFC title game vs. the 49ers. Yet while Duane Thomas and Walt Garrison banged for a combined 202 YR, the Cowboy offense could not manage more than a Mike Clark first-quarter field goal. Leading 3-0 in the 4th Q, Dallas was repelled by a Lions goal-line stand, only to see DE George Andrie sack Landry for a safety and a 5-0 lead a few plays later. Despite the odd scoreline, there would be a grandstand finish, as Detroit had one last gasp. On its final possession, Lions backup QB Munson would hit former USC sprinter Earl McCullough on a 39-yard 4th-down bomb deep into Dallas territory before Cowboy DB Mel Renfro intercepted a tipped Munson pass in the final seconds to preserve the 5-0 final, which was the Cowboys' second baseball scoreline in three games (Dallas had survived a must-win game at Cleveland, 6-2, in the penultimate regular-season week to stay in the NFC East race).

The following day, Don Shula's emerging Dolphins, along with third-year expansionist and AFC Central champ Cincinnati, the surprise packages of 1970, played their first-ever playoff game against the Raiders at a muddy Oakland Coliseum. Miami, which had upset Oakland 20-13 at the Orange Bowl almost three months earlier on October 3 (an early signal that the Shula Dolphind meant business), played John Madden's team evenly for most of the day in the slop, but the Raiders would break the game open with two big plays in the second half, first a 50-yard Willie Brown interception TD, stepping in front of a Bob Griese sideline pass, that broke a 7-7 tie in the 3rd Q, then Daryle Lamonica's 82-yard TD pass to WR Rod Sherman in the 4th Q that extended the lead to 21-7 before Griese hit ex-Colt Willie Richardson with a late TD pass to cut the final score to 21-14. Hardly an auspicious start for the post-merger wildcards, but they were here to stay!

Enough of the trips down memory lane. The playoffs would next be altered in 1978 with the addition of a second wildcard from each conference; more adjustments came in 1990, when a third wildcard team was added to each conference, upping the total number of postseason participants to 12. This also doubled the number of games on wildcard weekend (from 2 to 4), as now only the top two division winners from each conference would get a "bye" in the first round, and the division winner with the worst record was thrown in with the wildcard teams in the initial playoff weekend.

When the NFL eventually reconfigured its divisions (from 6 to 8) in 2002, the wildcard round wasn't fundamentally altered. Although there would technically be only two wildcards (as opposed to three), there would still be the same number of four games on wildcard weekend, which then featured the two division winners with the worst records along with two wildcard entries from each conference.

Historically, the wildcard round has been somewhat-fertile territory for the underdogs, who over the years have generally fared better in this round than in subsequent Division Round or conference championships. That trend somewhat revived a season ago, when three of the four wildcard games were nailbiters, with two of them (Kansas City-Indy and San Francisco-Green Bay) ending as "pushes" vs. the spread, while underdogs New Orleans (at Philadelphia) and San Diego (at Cincinnati) would win outright. Dogs, however, had been 1-7 vs. the line in wildcard games the previous two seasons. Which should only serve as a reminder that trends with such a thin number of examples are apt to turn around on a moment's notice; after all, in 2010, all four wildcard-round underdogs were pointspread winners. The shorter-priced (1-3 point) dogs stand 28-19-4 vs. the number since '78, including 11-5-2 against the spread the last five years. Home dogs, a bit rare in playoff action, are 13-5-1 vs. the points in first-round games since '78, though we have had one of those each of the past two seasons, and neither covered (the Redskins falling to the Seahawks two years ago, and the Pack losing by three while forging a pointspread push with the 49ers last January).

Still, for the most part of over the past 36 seasons, wildcard-round underdogs have generally fared well. Many insiders believe the absence of the top two conference seeds in the first round has contributed to better overall underdog marks than in subsequent rounds. But it's worth noting that one-sided results are still fairly common in the wildcard-round games, with 16 of 36 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (53 of 118) since the wildcard round was introduced in 1978. "Totals" results have also trended "under" (7-1) the past two seasons, although those results have been fairly well split ("unders" 27-24-1) since 2001.

Following are the spread results for wildcard playoff games since 1978 (excluding the 1982 "strike" season, when all 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games).

NFL WILDCARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978

CATEGORY VS. POINTS


1-3 pt. dogs... 28-19-4

3 ½-6 ½ pt. dogs... 18-19-1

7-pt. or more dogs... 14-14

Home dogs... 13-5-1

Road dogs... 46-47-4

Margins of victory (118 total games)--25 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 26 games by 4-7 points, 14 games by 8-13 points, and 53 games have been decided by 14 points or more.

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