The Super Bowl Run Of The 1986 New York Giants
Bill Parcells had Big Blue on the move. The Giants made the playoffs in 1984 and 1985. Each time they won a game and each time they were only eliminated the eventual Super Bowl champs. The 1986 New York Giants took the final step—they won the Super Bowl with a great regular season and dominating postseason run.
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It was all about defense with the Giants and that started with outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. “LT” had the best year of a Hall of Fame career. He terrorized defenses with 20 ½ sacks and became the last defensive player to win the MVP award.
Taylor had plenty of company. Inside linebacker Harry Carson made the Pro Bowl at age 33. Defensive end Leonard Marshall was another Pro Bowler and he recorded 12 sacks. Nose tackle Jim Burt enjoyed a Pro Bowl season and tied up blockers to enable playmakers like Taylor to do their thing. And overseeing this defense as coordinator was the great Bill Belichick.
New York’s defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, trailing only the legendary Chicago Bears defense, fresh off their own great Super Bowl run in 1985. In fairness to the Giants we should note that New York played a tougher schedule than did Chicago.
The greatness of the defense obscures the fact that the Phil Simms-led offense was pretty good at moving the football. Simms threw for over 3,400 yards and averaged 7.5 yards-per-attempt. The interceptions were a problem—22 in all—but in a different era than our own, it wasn’t a fatal flaw.
Simms had two 1st-team All-Pro players as part of the supporting cast. Tight end Mark Bavaro was the favored target and the 23-year-old caught 66 passes for just over 1,000 yards. And running back Joe Morris rolled up over 1,500 yards on the ground even though he missed a game in the regular season. Morris ran behind a line that was keyed by Pro Bowl left tackle Brad Benson, while center Bart Oates was on the cusp of a run that saw him eventually make five Pro Bowls himself.
Running the ball and throwing to the tight end were the keys to an offense overseen by coordinator Ron Erhardt. But they could also stretch the field. Wide receivers Bobby Johnson and Stacy Robinson didn’t see the ball a lot, but they averaged 17-plus yards a pop when Simms did go their way.
If all this weren’t enough, the Giants won key intangible areas of play as well. Sean Landeta was the league’s best punter in 1986. And New York’s aggressive, attacking defense combined with a conservative offense, created a game flow where they consistently enjoyed edges in penalty yardage throughout the season. They weren’t going to give away games and they were awfully tough to beat.
But get beat they did in the opening game of the season, on the Monday Night stage in Dallas. The Cowboys were the defending NFC East champs and had beaten the Giants in a big game here down the stretch in 1985. Simms made big plays, his 22/45 night going for 300 yards. Johnson and Bavaro each caught seven balls. When Simms hit Johnson on 44-yard touchdown pass, New York was ahead 28-24 in the fourth quarter, having come back from deficits of 14-0 and 24-21. But the Cowboys rallied for the winning touchdown.
Forget the Super Bowl for a moment—the Giants had never even won the NFC East since the division was created in the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Losing a tough game in Dallas must have made the Big Blue faithful wonder if they would ever survive the behemoths of their own division, including the Washington Redskins who had a recent Super Bowl title under Joe Gibbs.
New York played with a bit of hangover at home against a woeful Chargers team, but intercepted Dan Fouts five times to win 20-7. They went on the road to face the Los Angeles Raiders next. Though the Raiders would miss the playoffs, they were on a run of four straight postseason trips that included a Super Bowl win. They also started this season 8-4 before collapsing. So when Morris ran for 110 yards to key a 14-9 victory, it was a big deal.
The Giants played another ho-hum home game against a mediocre opponent in the New Orleans Saints. They gave up a 63-yard touchdown pass early and spotted the Saints a 17-0 lead. Then the Simms-to-Bavaro combination heated up. Bavaro caught seven passes for 110 yards, including the game-winner in a 20-17 victory.
Simms was erratic in a road game at the St. Louis Cardinals and there was no running game. The defense bailed them out with seven sacks, two apiece by LT, Carl Banks and Marshall. The Giants came home and beat up the lowly Philadelphia Eagles in a late afternoon kick. After a scoreless first quarter, a 30-yard touchdown run by Morris got the ball rolling. It ended in a 35-3 avalanche with the Eagles gaining just 117 total yards.
New York traveled west to face a good Seattle team that would contend for a playoff spot until the final week of the season. The Seahawks played indoors, at the Kingdome, but they were as tough an out at home as they are in our own day. The Giants were a three-point underdog, indicating oddsmakers did not yet see this as a great team. This game gave them no reason to change their minds. Simms threw four interceptions in a 17-12 loss.
A Monday Night against the Redskins would be significant for the New York in two ways. The city was focused on the Mets, who were playing Game 7 of a dramatic World Series against the Red Sox that night. And this would be the night that in retrospect we know was where the 1986 New York Giants really caught fire.
The Giants dominated the ground attack against a Redskins team that was renowned for doing that same thing in the Joe Gibbs era. Morris carried 31 times for 181 yards and New York built up a 20-3 lead. Washington only mustered 32 yards on the ground, but came all the way back to tie it 20-apiece. Morris had one more answer with a three-yard touchdown run that won it.
Morris enjoyed another huge game when Dallas came to the Meadowlands, piling up 181 yards. Simms played his worst game of the year, 6/18 for 67 yards but the running of Morris combined with five sacks for the defense and the Cowboys’ getting flagged for 113 yards in penalties, all resulted in a 17-14 New York win.
The Giants had beaten their two biggest rivals in a tough NFC East race and they put together another divisional win in Philadelphia a week alter. Morris ran for two touchdowns, led the way to a 17-0 lead and New York hung on 17-14.
A road trip to competitive Minnesota was a war and the Giants trailed 13-12 after three quarters. Simms stepped up and he hit Johnson with 25-yard touchdown pass for the lead. The Vikings went back ahead 20-19, but Simms was coming through today. He finished 25/38 for 310 yards and led a drive to a game-winning field goal, 22-20.
John Elway and the Denver Broncos came into the Meadowlands on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving in a high-profile game seen as a possible Super Bowl preview. Oddsmakers rated the teams even and gave New York only the three-point edge for homefield.
The Giants had a tough time with Elway, who threw for 336 yards. But they made big plays and none was bigger than in the second quarter, when Denver led 6-3 and was driving for more. Defensive tackle George Martin got his hands on a pass, came up with an interception and rumbled 78 yards the other way for a score. It was the biggest of the four turnovers New York collected and combined with Morris’ 106 rush yards, enough to pull out a 19-16 win.
New York was 10-2 and tied for first with Washington. Dallas had started a late-season fade and was already down to 7-5. The Giants, Redskins and Bears—also 10-2—were the class of the NFC and they came down the stretch fighting for playoff position.
The San Francisco 49ers were fighting just to make the postseason, but Joe Montana commanded enough respect to make the 49ers a three-point home favorite against the Giants on Monday Night Football.
New York dug themselves a 17-0 hole, but it would be Simms, not Montana, leading the great comeback for a national TV audience. He rifled three touchdown passes in the third quarter, finishing 27/38 for 388 yards. Robinson caught five balls for 116 of those yards and the Giants won 21-17 to keep pace with the Redskins and Bears, who had each won on Sunday.
December 7 was the defining moment of the regular season, as New York went to Washington and old RFK Stadium to play for first place in the NFC East. The Giants’ defense sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the league. They got six interceptions from six different players. Taylor was in beast mode, getting three sacks. New York won 24-14 in a game that didn’t feel that close.
The Giants were in complete command of the division, with a one-game lead and control of the tiebreakers with two weeks to play. When the Redskins lost in Denver the following Saturday afternoon, New York clinched their first NFC East title.
There was still the matter of the #1 seed and Chicago was even with New York at 12-2, though the Giants held the tiebreaker edge thanks to a better record against common opponents—that rally against the Vikings, a team that had split its two games with the Bears, was the difference.
Morris had a huge day at home against St. Louis (the Cardinals were an NFC East team prior to 2002), going for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 27-7 win. New York finished off the season the following Saturday with a 55-24 rout of lowly Green Bay.
In the first quarter, Simms threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Bavaro, a blocked punt produced another touchdown and Morris ran for a third. It was 21-zip and the party could start at the Meadowlands. The road to the Super Bowl would come through Giants Stadium.
San Francisco was a familiar playoff foe for New York. The Giants lost out west in the divisional round in both 1981 and 1984, both leading to Super Bowl wins for the 49ers. New York took a measure of revenge in the wild-card game in 1985 at home. San Francisco had some momentum coming into this game, having rallied to steal the NFC West title from Los Angeles and the Giants were only a three-point favorite.
On the game’s first possession, the Giants let Jerry Rice break into the clear and it looked like the 49ers had first blood. In a sign that this was New York’s year, Rice simply dropped the football. It was a completely unforced effort. It would be the Giants driving for the game’s first score, a 24-yard TD pass from Simms to Bavaro.
It was 7-3 after the first quarter, but the avalanche was about to start. An interception of Montana set up a 45-yard touchdown run from Morris. Another New York drive was extended by a successful fake-field goal attempt and ended when Simms tossed a 15-yard scoring pass to Bobby Johnson.
With New York already in complete control at 21-3 and San Francisco pinned deep in their own end, the finishing blow came from Burt. He broke through and crushed Montana, knocking him cold on the hard artificial turf and ending his afternoon. It’s almost an afterthought that Montana got rid of the pass, but it was intercepted by Taylor who brought it back 34 yards for the touchdown.
Morris finished the game with 159 yards, while the 49ers only mustered 29 yards on the ground. The rout continued in the second half. The final was 49-3 and an anticipated playoff battle had just turned into one long party on an early Sunday afternoon.
An anticipated battle with the Bears did not materialize—the Redskins had gone to Soldier Field on Saturday and upset Chicago. Instead of a showdown between two of the great defenses in the modern era, it would be Round 3 against a divisional foe the Giants had already beaten twice.
The winds were heavy for the 4 PM ET kick, so much so that Parcells opted to take the wind rather than the ball when New York won the opening toss. It would be a smart move. The Giants drove for a 47-yard field goal, a kick not possible to make going against the wind today.
On the ensuing drive, New York was driving again and reached the 26-yard line. An incomplete pass on third-and-10 seemed to mean another field goal attempt. But the Redskins chose to accept a holding penalty and try and push the Giants out of field goal range. Simms responded by hitting Lionel Manuel for 25 yards. He hit Manuel one more time, an 11-yard touchdown pass that put New York firmly in command at 10-0.
The second quarter would be critical—could Washington answer now that they had the wind? They had chances, driving into field goal range, but a botched snap cost them points. Morris fumbled it away, but the Giant defense made a stop on 4th-and-1. The score was still 10-0 and given the quality of the New York D, combined with the weather conditions, it might as well have been 35-0.
New York would outrush Washington 117-46. The Redskins were forced into throwing 50 times on a day when passing was shut down for half the game. The final was 17-0 and the Giants were going to the Super Bowl.
A rematch of that November game with Denver was the last step and by now everyone was on board the Giant bandwagon. In spite of the presence of Elway, New York was installed as a decisive nine-point favorite in Pasadena.
They did not play well defensively in the early part of the game. Elway led one drive a field goal and another for a touchdown in the first quarter, the latter drive aided by a pair of personal foul penalties on the Giants—one when Taylor foolishly picked up a flag he didn’t like and threw it. In between, Simms hit tight end Zeke Mowatt on a short touchdown pass and the score was 10-7 going into the second quarter.
Denver drove to the one-yard line for first-and-goal. It looked like this might be a long day for the Giants. Instead, it was the moment their defense completely turned the game around.
Elway rolled out on first down, but was stopped by Taylor. Some unimaginative playcalling on the Denver sideline took the ball away from Elway the next two snaps and put it in the hands of Sammy Winder. He failed once up the middle and another time on a sweep—why the Broncos thought they could beat the Giant defense to edge in a constricted goal-line situation is a question only then-offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and head coach Dan Reeves can answer.
When Denver shanked the field goal, the goal-line stand was complete. New York eventually flipped the field and had the Broncos pinned deep in their own end. It appeared Elway had gotten some breathing room on a pass to Clarence Kay. But it was erroneously ruled incomplete, with no instant replay in place to overturn a call. Martin made it hurt by sacking Elway for a safety and the game went to the locker room at 10-9.
The second half completely belonged to New York and to Simms in particular. The quarterback hit Bavaro on a 13-yard touchdown pass, led another drive a field goal and his 44-yard pass to Phil McConkey off a flea-flicker set up a short touchdown run by Morris. Simms finished the day 22/25 for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was a Super Bowl record for completion percentage and it won Simms game MVP honors.
At 26-10, and no two-point conversion available, the game was all but over. If there was any flickering hope there were ended when New York got an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter to set up another touchdown. Elway didn’t have a bad day—22/37 for 304 yards—but he was sacked four times and the Giants dominated on the ground, 138-52. Combine that with Simms being red-hot and New York just had too much. The final was 39-20.
The Super Bowl championship of 1986 was the high point of a great run for Parcells with the Giants that lasted from 1984-90. After a brief stumble in 1987 when a players’ strike messed up the season, New York ripped off a double-digit wins each of the next three years. And even though ’86 was the best Parcells team, it wasn’t the last championship—another Lombardi Trophy was coming in 1990.