Recalling the games that changed the fates of teams the most (and the ones that didn't).
On one night in 2001 Chad Pennington and Herman Edwards' (Top) Jets looked like the new team of the decade, while Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning's Colts (Bottom) seemed rudderless. What followed proved otherwise. Below are some games that determined more than this 41-0 blowout.
Of course all of us are anxious for that showdown happening in less than 24 hours at FedEx Field. It is the most meaningful game in terms of the playoff picture (Chicago and Minnesota also have a stake in their respective games, which are also divisional match-ups). And this play-in for the last seed obviously does mean a lot for both teams and their individual leaders. But a Washington loss means little for next season when the Redskins will still be one of the youngest and most attractive teams for free agents, while a Dallas loss opens up room for immediate changes to occur. But every year features its own "Win or Go Home" game that's hyped up, and some teams know that a loss in the playoffs means that coaches and players may lose their jobs. Which of these games, both regular season and playoff, changed the face of the game, and which ones were mere flashes in the pan? The criteria goes as follows:
- Both teams had to have a real stake in the outcome. In every case one if not both teams was in a straight-up elimination situation.
- The succeeding events for that team had to show a changing trend, either positive or negative. Not more of the same.
- The Super Bowl is the only elimination game that doesn't count.
These are games of destiny. To show that some of these hyped games ended up being only that, I've included some duds. These illustrate the point that sometimes we're all just fish going for ratings bait put out by network execs. So here we go:
Dec. 12, 1970, Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders
Fred Biletnikoff's career was on an upward arc.
Len Dawson would only see one more playoff game.
Both teams were considered elites in the American Football League, with the Raiders winning one title and the Chiefs three (once as the Dallas Texans). In the 1969 AFL playoffs, the last year when there were two leagues, Kansas City pulled off a major upset of the Raiders and rookie head coach John Madden on the road. The Chiefs then pulled off the more famous victory by dominating in Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings, who would make a living out of dominating the regular season and playoffs only to hit a brick wall in the Super Bowl. At the time the Chiefs victory became the validation of the AFL's ten year war with the NFL, and their head coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson were the talk of American sports.
So obviously come next season they were the new favourite to dominate the newly formed AFC West. In Week 7 they tied Oakland 17-17 at home in a bitterly fought contest that involved several instances of brawling, not surprising as this was when Raiders owner Al Davis was still developing his team's mean reputation. So in Week 13 the teams met once again with identical 7-3-2 records for a rare winner take all showdown in the second to last game of the season.The Chiefs fell flat on their faces, losing 20-6.
- KC: Even had they won the following week against San Diego (which they didn't), they would have remained two games below the wild card Miami Dolphins. The immediate fall-out of this loss was not evident, because the Chiefs did win the AFC West in 1971. But by then they had been passed by as the Dolphins beat them in double overtime of the divisional playoffs. They would then wait until 1986 to make their next playoff appearance and 1991 for their next playoff victory (ironically against the LA Raiders). This effectively means that the Chiefs went 22 years between their only Super Bowl victory and their next playoff victory, so in hindsight this may have been the closing of the Chiefs' window. So even Jerry Jones has a ways to go before reaching the Chiefs' futility.
- Oakland: The ramifications for Oakland also took years to see, and maybe this wasn't the only yardstick along the way. Already a great team, Oakland would have only one losing season between 1965 and 1986. More importantly, they dashed expectations that they would disintegrate due to their aging roster, and would integrate young players like Alabama's Ken Stabler in the following years. The title would have to wait as they were torpedoed that year by the eventual champion Baltimore Colts, and in succeeding seasons by the Dolphins and Steelers who also became Super Bowl champions. In Super Bowl XI (1976) Madden finally led Oakland to their first title.
This was a game of destiny leading to the ruin of a great team and the survival of another.
1989 NFC Championship: LA Rams at San Francisco 49ers
Flipper Anderson of the LA Rams who caught the winning touchdown in the week before this game. The only real opportunity to outshine Montana's dynasty came in 1989, and the Rams paid dearly for missing it.
The LA Rams are today a largely forgotten chapter in NFL history, thanks to the lack of a real driving personality on the sidelines or the front office, and the failure of the ownership to strike a deal with local politicians to play in a suitable venue. But in the 1970s and 80s the Rams were a very real threat to go deep every year, even defeating Dallas three times in four playoff match-ups. The tragedy for the team was that each time they would run straight into a team that was better than them: Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV, the defending champion Redskins in 1983, and again in 1986, and nobody remembers the '85 Rams because they were mauled 24-0 by the '85 Bears in the conference championship.
So its somewhat surprising that they only met once in the playoffs with their bitter California rivals, the 49ers led by Joe Montana. Jim Everett was at the time ranked high among quarterbacks, and the Rams' offense was ranked second in points, fourth in yards. Their defense was a far cry from their earlier Jack Youngblood days, but they still managed to win eleven games. San Francisco was still the premier NFL team, going 14-2, but the Rams were able to edge them in San Francisco 13-12 early in the season en route to a 5-0 start. The Rams also dominated the wild card game on the road against a tough Buddy Ryan Philadelphia defense at infamous Veterans Stadium by a final of 21-7, and stunned the Bill Parcells Giants in overtime 19-13.
But their would be no repeat of their early road victory. In fact, the Niners would hold the ball for almost two thirds of the game, and even when he would get to snap the ball Everett couldn't move it. 30-3 SF in a yawner.
- 49ers: An already legendary team would go on to destroy John Elway's Broncos in Super Bowl XXV. The only speed bump ahead would be the Joe Montana-Steve Young controversy, as SF would continue to play at an elite level through the '90s.
- Rams: This would be the last playoff game for the Rams in LA, and their last winning season. Everett would be plagued by criticism that he crumbled against the pass rush, never mind his triumph on the road against Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, and in 1994 left for New Orleans. The Rams also shifted their offensive focus to the run with the young Jerome Bettis, but never accomplished anything with him, and later traded him to Pittsburgh where he would do bigger and better things. The team front office was now led by owner Georgia Frontiere, whose peers believed she was running the Rams into the ground. In 1996 they dumped LA and moved on to St. Louis.
This was another game of destiny as it may have literally destroyed the Rams' chances of succeeding in Los Angeles.
1991 NFC Wild Card - Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
A good linebacker is a terrible thing to waste. LB Sam Mills (L) of the ferocious Saints corps that never got the supporting cast it deserved. This was the Falcons only playoff victory with Deion Sanders (R) and Andre Rison.
After over a decade when the only team that really mattered in the NFC West seemed to be the Niners and Rams (see above), in 1991 it must have been a refreshing surprise to see that there were two other teams in the division. The Falcons (10-6, 2nd) and Saints (11-5, 1st) both squeaked into the playoffs ahead of Montana. New Orleans rode in with a full head of steam having destroyed the LA Raiders (27-0) and Phoenix Cardinals (27-3) in Weeks 16 and 17. Atlanta had the fifth ranked scoring offense, and was making its first playoff appearance since 1982, a strike year. The only division crown either team had earned was Atlanta's in 1980 (they were immediately bounced by the Cowboys 30-27). Atlanta downed the Saints 27-20 on a late Chris Miller touchdown pass.
- Saints: Jim Mora did try to build on this accomplishment and the next year NO made the playoffs as a wild card and were promptly booted by Randal Cunningham and the Eagles. They were a one-dimensional team (defense), and although their record improved the following year their offense actually declined from 8th in scoring to 10th. After 1993 the Saints plummeted back into mediocrity.
- Falcons: Jerry Glanville's club would disintegrate even faster. They lost the following week at Washington, and then went 6-10 the next two seasons with an atrocious defense. They had great talent in Deion Sanders and Andre Rison, but both of these guys would leave by 1994. So was Glanville. And oh yeah, before any of those three exited Atlanta, Glanville also let go of the Falcons' no. 2 draft pick from 1991, a quarterback he immediately wrote off as a bust named Brett Favre.
This game was a dud, a brief glimmer of hope for two franchises that had long been awful and soon went back to it.
December 16, 1979 - Philadelphia Eagles at Houston Oilers
Mike Renfro catches an incomplete pass in bounds for the Oilers. If they had won that home game against Philly, this infamous play wouldn't have happened, because the Oilers would have earned the first round bye, and would have hosted Pittsburgh if they had faced each other.
On that day Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington all went in with 10-6 records and a chance of making the playoffs, and two succeeded. The Eagles also were gunning for their first NFC East title, while the Cowboys were facing Washington at home. Houston with running back Earl Campbell was in a frenzied race for the AFC Central title with the defending champion Steelers having beaten them at home the previous week, and were already qualified for the playoffs. Dick Vermiel's Eagles ended up winning the game 26-20, allowing the Steelers to win the division, the first round bye, and home field advantage in the playoffs.
- Philadelphia: Dick Vermiel led the Eagles to their first playoff victory since the 1960 NFL Championship against Green Bay the next week when they edged Chicago. In 1980 they would reach Super Bowl XV as well. They would have possibly qualified in any case, as Dallas defeated Washington that week.
- Houston: Bum Phillips' squad had reached the highest level of talent it could, and were certainly capable of competing with Pittsburgh. But this game gave the Steelers home field advantage in the AFC Championship where they met, and the referees made the infamous ruling of an incomplete pass out of bounds on a Dan Pastorini to Mike Renfro touchdown. Pittsburgh won 27-13, and Houston would lose the wild card game to Oakland in 1980 en route to an overall pathetic period in the 80s.
This was a game of destiny even if it was overshadowed by the Steelers game.
January 2, 2010 - St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks
A rookie credited with turning a moribund team around, Sam Bradford's fortunes flipped within one night in Seattle. Could Sunday be a repeat of this?
In Week 17 of 2010 the Rams under Steve Spagnuolo seemed to have at least a consistent program in place with their solid defense and vaunted rookie QB Sam Bradford of Oklahoma. They also were at 7-8 leading the NFC West, the weakest division in football at the time. They were up against the 6-9 Seahawks who under first year head coach Pete Carroll were in serious trouble. Their dependable QB Matt Hasselbeck was injured, and the national media was writing off Carroll as another college coach who was imploding at the pro level. The Rams had also dismantled the Seahawks 20-3 in Week 4.
What no one factored in was that the Rams were headed to thundering Qwest Field with a rookie quarterback. Bradford never put together a meaningful drive and Seattle led throughout in a 16-6 defensive chess mass.
- Seahawks: They became the first team to win a division with a losing record, and would proceed to stun defending champion New Orleans the next week at home. Carroll's defense has only gotten better, while his offense now is led by a signal caller with the sophisticated personality needed for this team and its city, Russell Wilson.
- Rams: So they weren't as bad as the 1-15 Rams of Spagnuolo's rookie season. But Bradford had a poor year in 2011 even with the help of a trade that netted him the raw skills and cunning of WR Brandon Lloyd from Denver. The Rams went 2-16 in 2011 earning them the second pick in the draft, and fired Spagnuolo in favour of Jeff Fisher. Lloyd also bolted for the Patriots in the off season. The Rams are capable tomorrow of having their first winning season since 2003. . . if they can do what they failed to in 2010 by winning in Seattle.
The long term effects of this game aren't known yet, so we can't rule yet on whether it was a dud or a game of destiny. In the few hours before the Dallas-Washington game starts, I'm sure there will be more some people who dispute my choice of the above games (especially the Atlanta-New Orleans one) and suggest their own. So tune in tonight: We have all of the makings of a real thriller.