The 1985 New York Giants were a team on the rise under third-year head coach Bill Parcells. For the second straight year, they made the postseason and advanced. And for the second straight year, only running into a great Super Bowl champion derailed them.
New York’s reputation and its historic legacy has been about defense, and it starts with outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. “L.T.”, in his fourth year in the league, was a 1st-team All-Pro with 13 sacks as he continued to redefine the OLB position into what it is today—a place for pass-rushers to wreak havoc.
Harry Carson was another Pro Bowl player at inside linebacker, as was defensive end Leonard Marshall who had 15 ½ sacks. All this pressure on the quarterback gave the secondary opportunities to make plays and corner Elvis Patterson and free safety Terry Kinard took advantage—they combined for eleven interceptions.
The defense as a whole ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed, but we shouldn’t overlook an improved offense that was almost as good ranking sixth. Phil Simms was now 30-years-old and he was finally coming into his own, with a Pro Bowl year that saw him throw for over 3,800 yards.
Simms’ 56% completion rate was decent, his 7.7 yards-per-attempt solid, but the 22-20 TD/INT ratio could have been better, even allowing for an era where it was more difficult to throw the football.
The quarterback’s prime target was 23-year-old Lionel Manuel, with wide receiver Bobby Johnson and rookie tight end Mark Bavaro playing supporting roles. But the real help to the quarterback was Joe Morris. The shifty running back ran for over 1,300 yards and helped Parcells’ offense control tempo.
New York opened the season at home against mediocre Philadelphia, and that ability to control the ground game was immediately apparent. They won the rushing battle 192-80 and took home a 21-zip shutout. But the running attack disappeared the next week against another mediocre opponent in Green Bay. The Giants only rushed for 76 yards and gave up a late touchdown to lose 23-20 in Lambeau.
A home game with the subpar St. Louis Cardinals was next, and it was tied 10-10 at the half. Simms opened up in the second half, throwing two touchdown passes and leading a 27-17 win. The return visit to Philadelphia was similarly sluggish.
The Giants only led 10-3 late in the game when Eagles’ defensive back Herm Edwards, the current ESPN commentator, intercepted a pass on the New York 3-yard line and basically walked into the end zone to tie the game. New York fans needed no reminders of Edwards’ role in the Miracle In The Meadowlands of 1978, when he returned a fumble for the winning touchdown on a play when the Giants should have been taking a knee.
This time there would be better ending. In overtime, Patterson picked off Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski (the Eagles seemed stacked with future ESPN analysts) and took it 29 yards for the 16-10 win.
Sunday Night Football was not the norm in 1985, so a Cowboys-Giants game in prime-time at the Meadowlands was most definitely an event. These two teams would join the three-time defending NFC East champ Redskins in a year-long battle for the division crown, and this prime-time game was worth the stage it was played on.
Simms threw a pair of touchdown passes to Manuel, from 51 yards and 23 yards. Backup running back George Adams bolted 70 yards for a touchdown, but the Giants missed the extra point after that TD. Even though they led 26-14, that point would haunt them. Simms threw for 432 yards, but there was no consistency in the running game, Cowboy quarterback Danny White was also having a big night and Dallas rallied for a 30-29 win.
The Giants carried a hangover into mediocre Cincinnati the following week and dug themselves a 21-0 hole. Simms had to put the ball up 62 times, something that undoubtedly left Parcells apoplectic. The quarterback completed 40 for 513 yards and closed to within 21-20. But in the process, he was sacked seven times, New York turned it over four times and Simms threw a Pick-6. They lost 35-30.
Washington came to the Meadowlands next and in a game the Giants needed to have, they returned to their power running and defense roots. A 144-69 rush edge keyed a 17-3 win.
More of the same followed in games against bad teams in the Saints and Buccaneers. The rush edge was 234-113 at New Orleans, balanced between Morris and Adams and the final score was 21-13. In Tampa, Morris racked up 132 yards the Giants won 22-20.
The Los Angeles Rams came to the Meadowlands with revenge on their minds—the Giants went west the previous year and ousted the Rams in the NFC wild-card game. Los Angeles had one of the league’s all-time greats at running back in Eric Dickerson, so Parcells wouldn’t be able to win this one on muscle alone.
Simms came through and made big plays. While he only completed 16/30 passes, they went for 239 yards. And the defense came up with key stops, forcing the Rams to settle for field goals. The Giants won 24-19 and were on a good roll going into a Monday Night date at RFK Stadium in Washington.
It would prove to be one of the most memorable of Monday Night games, but for the wrong reasons. Taylor came on a blitz and sacked Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman. The next thing viewers saw was a panicked Taylor summoning the Washington medical staff to the field. Theisman’s leg had been hideously snapped and his career was over.
The actual results of the game are forgotten, but those were pretty important too. The Giants had a 21-17 lead, but then backup quarterback Jay Schroeder beat them with a late touchdown drive. It was a key NFC East loss that dropped New York to 1-2 in their games against Washington and Dallas.
Defensive pressure revived the team in St. Louis (the Cardinals were an NFC East team prior to 2002). George Martin got three sacks, LT added two more and New York ended up with eight quarterback sacks on the afternoon in a 34-3 rout.
The final quarter of the season was at hand, and New York’s 8-4 record had them tied for first with Dallas, with Washington a game back. There were two wild-card spots available and the runner-up in the Rams-49ers race in the NFC West would be in that mix. New York was in good position to make the playoffs, but it wasn’t a sure thing and this franchise was hungry for its first division title of the Super Bowl era.
Cleveland was playoff-bound, albeit at 8-8, so losing to them at home was a big disappointment. Simms played well, going 23/37 for 289 yards, and Morris ran strong, going for 131 yard. The Giants built a 33-21 lead. But inexplicably, the defense melted down against an offensively-challenged opponent and was beaten by two touchdown passes from Gary Danielson in a 35-33 loss. Dallas won to take control of the division race, though Washington lost to San Francisco and gave the Giants-49ers control in the wild-card race.
New York still had a game to play with Dallas, but the tiebreakers meant that the Giants now needed some help. They got it the very next week. While New York cleaned up on a bad Houston Oilers team (the current Tennessee Titans), winning 35-14 and getting points from both the defense and special teams, the Cowboys were crushed in Cincinnati, losing 50-24. The regular season’s penultimate game in Dallas would be for the NFC East lead.
The Giants got off to a good start, taking a 14-7 lead and in the second quarter they were driving for more. Simms then threw a pass that was intercepted by defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who rumbled 65 yards for a game-tying touchdown. The momentum was shifted and Simms threw two more interceptions. A 28-21 loss ended the NFC East dream.
Now there was a playoff spot to secure. The Giants, 49ers and Redskins were all 9-6, with the Giants now on top of the race for tiebreakers. They would play an early afternoon game on Saturday against mediocre Pittsburgh to secure their wild-card spot. And if the chance to win the first division title in the Super Bowl era had slipped away, the opportunity to host the first postseason game in that same timeframe was still alive.
The Giants came ready to go and they were true to their identity. Morris got the football 36 times and rolled up 202 yards. The defense dominated. The score was 28-3 by half and it ended 28-10. New York was going back to the playoffs.
San Francisco came to the Meadowlands the following Sunday. The 49ers had eliminated the Giants in the divisional round in 1981 and 1984, both times in San Francisco and both times with the Niners on their way to Super Bowl titles. That pedigree led the oddsmakers to install the 49ers as three-point favorites on the road.
New York got on the board first with a 47-yard field goal. The defense had the great Joe Montana under control and Kinard made a big play in the second quarter with an interception that set up a Simms-to-Bavaro touchdown. The 49ers drove inside the 10-yard line before the half was out, but the Giants forced a field goal attempt and the score was 10-3 at the half.
Morris was giving New York its needed edge on the ground, as he ran for 141 yards. The offensive line was also doing the job in pass protection as Simms was not sacked. On other side of the trenches, the 49ers could not run on a cold day where passing was difficult, and Montana was sacked four times.
Simms threw a third-quarter touchdown to make it 17-3. Even though Montana threw for 296 yards, he had to put it up 47 times and San Francisco never really threatened. The game ended 17-3.
New York now had to go to Chicago, where the Bears were 15-1 and enjoying a run of historic dominance on the defensive side of the ball. The Giants couldn’t win with defense against an opponent who was even better.
They made a huge special teams gaffe in the first half. Punter Sean Landeta, standing on his own 5-yard line literally whiffed a punt, as the winds off Lake Michigan played with the ball. The easy Bears touchdown was the only scoring in the first half, but Chicago got a pair of third quarter TDs to pen the game up. Morris only ran for 32 yards, Simms went 14/35 for 209 yards and New York never threatened. They lost 21-0. It was still the closest anyone played the Bears in their run to a Super Bowl victory.
There was still plenty of reason to feel good about where the franchise was headed. They had two straight playoff berths and were only getting eliminated by the league’s best. The Giants were coming. And one year later they would go all the way.