The 1970 NFL season was a new era for the league. There was a merger with the old American Football League (AFL), a new divisional structure and the introduction of this made-for-TV novelty called Monday Night Football. 1970 was also a year when two teams that had suffered some of the worst postseason disappointment in the first four years of the Super Bowl era (1969) drove for redemption.
Two years earlier, the Baltimore Colts suffered what remains the biggest upset loss in Super Bowl history at the hands of Joe Namath and the New York Jets. The Dallas Cowboys had lost two playoff heartbreakers to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, including the legendary Ice Bowl three years earlier.
The 1970 NFL season ended with Baltimore and Dallas playing for the championship. And it was the Colts who completed the redemption tour.
Baltimore did it with a balanced team effort. No one would made 1st-team All-Pro and the great quarterback, Johnny Unitas, was now 37-years-old. The Colts had also lost their excellent young head coach, Don Shula—within the division no less. Shula went to Miami. Both teams did well. Baltimore won the AFC East. The Dolphins won their last six games and got what was then the lone wild-card berth.
Dallas had some quarterback issues. Craig Morton was still the starter and it would not be until the following year that Roger Staubach would go from sporadic starter to Hall of Fame regular. The Cowboys won in 1970 with defense, the fourth-best unit in the league led by linebacker Chuck Howley.
The Bay Area had Super Bowl dreams on both sides of the Golden Gate. The San Francisco 49ers got an MVP year from quarterback John Brodie, as he repeatedly connected with wide receiver Gene Washington. The Oakland Raiders had “The Mad Bomber”, Daryle Lamonica, throwing the deep ball behind an offensive line led by Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto.
The 49ers and Raiders both had to overcome leaky defensive play to win their respective division titles. Oakland benefitted from the fact that defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City had a down year. The Chiefs played well defensively, with Bobby Bell at linebacker and Johnny Robinson in the secondary. But the normally productive offense led by coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson, had one of those years. The Chiefs missed the playoffs.
Minnesota, like Baltimore, had some atoning to do for a Super Bowl loss as a hefty favorite. The Vikings had some of the best line talent in the league, with Mick Tingelhoff at center and Alan Page and Carl Eller on the defensive front. Minnesota won the NFC Central.
The Vikings got a challenge within the division from the Detroit Lions, who had to outlast three different teams to claim the NFC wild-card berth. One of those was the Los Angeles Rams, who were also battling with San Francisco in the NFC West.
The most significant regular season game on Monday Night in the season’s penultimate week. The Lions went into the L.A. Coliseum and came home with a 28-14 win. The Rams lost the division and the wild-card in one fell swoop. The New York Giants, led by Fran Tarkenton and the St. Louis Cardinals with Jim Hart behind center, also narrowly missed catching Detroit.
What’s more, the Los Angeles loss had dramatic ripple effects for the future. Rams head coach George Allen, already in a fractured relationship with the front office, was fired. Allen took the job in Washington, who had gone through a mediocre 6-8 season a year after the death of Lombardi.
There’s still one more spot left in what was an eight-team playoff bracket through 1977 (three division winners and one wild-card per conference). When the Cincinnati Bengals lost six of their first seven, no one thought it would be them. But the Bengals won their last seven games and stole first place in a weak AFC Central. It was enough to get the legendary Paul Brown named Coach of the Year.
The divisional playoffs started the day after Christmas. Johnny U opened the festivities with a couple of long touchdown passes that eliminated the Bengals, 17-0. Later that day, the Cowboys, still playing their home games in the Cotton Bowl, beat the Lions 5-0. The score tells you a lot of how the game went, but one of the big differences was that Dallas got 135 yards on the ground from Duane Thomas.
Minnesota’s quarterback problems finally did them in a Sunday afternoon home game with San Francisco. The 49ers pulled out a 17-14 win. The ultimate effect of this loss would be felt two years later when Viking head coach Bud Grant swung a trade to bring Tarkenton back to the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s four Super Bowl defeats between 1969 and 1976 are what gets remembered, but this 1970 season was probably their best chance to win it all.
Oakland and Miami would play some big games in the coming decade, including one of the greatest playoff games of all-time in 1974. Their late Sunday afternoon game in this divisional round was pretty good itself. A Pick-6 from the Raiders’ Hall of Fame corner Willie Brown was a big play in Oakland’s 21-14 win.
The Raiders were a slight road favorite in Baltimore the next week for the AFC Championship Game. But the Colts played clean football, winning the turnover battle 4-zip and holding a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Johnny U broke it open with another long touchdown strike and Baltimore went back to the Super Bowl with a 27-17 win.
Another Bay Area favorite went down in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were favored by four at home against the Cowboys. But Duane Thomas did it again, rushing for 143 yards and keying Dallas’ 17-10 win.
Baltimore and Dallas had their chance at the ultimate redemption in Miami’s Orange Bowl two weeks later. Both looked bound and determined to give it away. This Super Bowl is remembered for its mistakes, especially the combined 11 turnovers. The Colts had seven of them. It was Howley who ended up being named game MVP. He was the first defensive player to win the honor. But he would also make history in a way that he might have preferred not.
The Cowboys racked up over 130 yards of penalties compared to just 31 for Baltimore. The Dallas running game couldn’t get untracked and they couldn’t close with a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter. When Colt kicker Jim O’Brien hit a field goal on the final play, Baltimore had a 16-13 win. Howley remains the only player from a losing team to win Super Bowl MVP honors.
As for the Colts, they had found the same redemption the city’s baseball team, the Orioles, had found just three months earlier in the World Series. Baltimore was the City of Champions. And the NFL had entered a new era.