The 1978-88 era in the NFL was a transformational one in the history of the league. In 1978, the league enacted restrictions on what defensive players could do, thereby opening up passing offenses. The league also expanded its schedule to 16 games and added a fourth week of play to its postseason. Furthermore, this specific 11-year timeframe, saw the rise of Joe Montana and the 49ers, the emergence of John Elway and Dan Marino and in Washington D.C., even offensive lineman could become franchise icons.
TheSportsNotebook has articles on the most relevant teams of this 11-year era, including game-by-game narratives of every team that made the playoffs.
The links below take you to a page that will have the individual articles within each season. Read on and experience what it was like to be an NFL fan in this era, through the eyes of its best teams.
The Steelers and the Cowboys faced off in the best Super Bowl to date to see which franchise would be the first to win three titles. Pittsburgh won and capped Terry Bradshaw’s best season. An up-and-coming running back named Earl Campbell made the Oilers prominent. The Rams got off to a blazing start and were the top seed in the NFC, but couldn’t get over the hump that was Dallas. The Patriots had a great year and a bizarre ending. And a legendary quarterback in Fran Tarkenton made his farewell with the Vikings.
Pittsburgh wasted no time in also becoming the first team to win four Super Bowls. It looked like a rematch with Dallas might be at hand, but the Cowboys were upset by the Rams in the playoffs. The loss ended the career of Roger Staubach and started Los Angeles on an unlikely postseason run. The Buccaneers hosted two playoff games and the Chargers began to change offensive football. The Redskins suffered an all-time great heartbreak. And the sound of the Houston Oilers knocking on the door in the AFC got a little louder.
No wild-card team had ever won the Super Bowl and the postseason expansion of ’78 seemed to make that more unlikely. It didn’t stop the Oakland Raiders. Despite a midseason quarterback change, the Raiders knocked off the Oilers, then won a memorable game in the frigid cold of Cleveland and completed their AFC journey by beating the division champion Chargers. Oakland met up with Philadelphia. The Eagles had dethroned Dallas in the NFC East, then validated it with a postseason win over the Cowboys. But Philly couldn’t stop the Silver-n-Black in the Super Bowl.
It was a pivotal season for the league, because 1981 was the year Joe Montana, Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers launched their dynasty after a 6-10 finish the prior year. The 49ers were one of two surprise teams in the Super Bowl, with the Bengals also turning around from 6-10 and getting an MVP year from quarterback Ken Anderson. The Cowboys played an epic NFC Championship Game in Frisco, while over in the AFC the Chargers won one of the greatest playoff games in league history, an overtime classic in Miami.
A decade of difficult player-owner relations got its start with a strike that cost the 1982 season seven games and resulted in a 16-team playoff format. The Redskins, behind second-year head coach Joe Gibbs first ran through the shortened regular season, then pounded their way through the playoffs behind big John Riggins. The Cowboy lost their third straight NFC title game, while the Dolphins got revenge on San Diego and won the AFC. And the suffering fans of the J-E-T-S got to an AFC Championship Game after an upset of the top-seeded Raiders.
For the second straight year, the Redskins and Raiders were the top playoff seeds. They played a classic regular season game in old RFK Stadium. Their Super Bowl rematch was highly anticipated—and then taken over by Marcus Allen and the Raider defense. The 49ers got back on track to reach an NFC Championship Game, and the first playoff team ever produced in Seattle knocked rookie quarterbacks John Elway and Dan Marino out of the playoffs. The Cowboys were in the league’s elite all year, but a late fade foreshadowed tougher times ahead.
The 49ers produced one of the most underrated teams of all-time and went 15-1. The Dolphins got an MVP year from Marino and went 14-2. They met in another highly anticipated Super Bowl. And again, the game was a dud—San Francisco was too complete of a team and they won a second ring for Montana and Walsh. Elway continued to get better in Denver before the feisty Steelers pulled a playoff upset. The Seahawks overcame a key injury to have a big year. And the Bears’ upset of the Redskins was a foreshadowing of things to come.
The Bears did it with flair, they did it with dominance and one of the great defenses in the history of the league delivered Chicago a Super Bowl championship that was never in doubt. The Patriots pulled off an unprecedented three straight road wins in the AFC playoffs. New England took out the top-seeded Raiders, who got an MVP year from Marcus Allen, along with the Dolphins who were back for more with Marino. Eric Dickerson ran wild for the Rams and the Giants’ playoff win over the 49ers sent a message that Big Blue was on the way.
It was time for the Giants defense to shine and the great Lawrence Taylor won the last MVP award ever given to a defensive player. New York won a tough NFC East race with the Redskins thanks to a pair of head-to-head wins and then got a third in the NFC Championship Game. The Bears’ hopes for a repeat were undone by an injury at quarterback. In the AFC, Denver and Cleveland rose to the top of the conference and then played a memorable conference championship game, with John Elway’s iconic drive solidifying his arrival as an elite quarterback.
Another players’ strike created another strange year. This time the league used replacement players for three weeks and counted the games in the final standings. Just like 1982, the Redskins rose to the top. After some quarterback uncertainty, the ‘Skins settled on Doug Williams and won a playoff game in Chicago for the second straight year. When the top-seeded 49ers were stunned by the Vikings, the NFC Championship Game ended up in D.C. In the AFC, the Broncos and Browns reprised their ’86 classic and again there was a heartbreaking ending in Cleveland.
For much of the season, the 49ers struggled to find their footing and Joe Montana struggled to hold off Steve Young and keep his starting quarterback job. Montana and the 49ers got hot down the stretch and steamrolled the Vikings and Bears in the playoffs. In the AFC, the Bengals relied on MVP quarterback Boomer Esiason and a potent running game to get back to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati held off rising forces in Buffalo and Houston, while Cleveland and Denver slipped back. In the end, Montana broke Bengal hearts again, with a last-minute drive to win the Super Bowl.