The 1981 NFL season was one of those seminal moments in the history of the league. The NFC Championship Game produced the triumph of the new dynasty (the Bill Walsh 49ers) over the fading old dynasty (the Tom Landry Cowboys).
This game produced the iconic image of 49er receiver Dwight Clark leaping to snare Joe Montana’s pass for the winning touchdown. That was just the most enduring moment of a season that produced a lot of great storylines…
*San Diego and Miami played one of the most dramatic playoff games in NFL history, a 41-38 overtime win for the Chargers.
*The city of New York was united in the final week of the season. The Giants had never made the playoffs in the Super Bowl era that started in 1966 and the Jets had been out of the postseason since 1969. When the Jets played the Packers in the finale, they were playing to put both themselves and the Giants in the playoffs. When the Jets won, the singing of New York, New York was never more appropriate.
*We haven’t even gotten to the league’s MVP. Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Ken Anderson had a brilliant season and took home the award. He also led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl, where only a dramatic goal line stand by San Francisco probably kept Cincy from the Lombardi Trophy.
*The surprise fade of the Philadelphia Eagles was another significant development. Dick Vermeil had turned this team into a consistent playoff team that had reached the Super Bowl in 1980. After a 6-0 start, the Eagles looked here to stay. But they faded, barely hung on to make the playoffs and lost the first game. Then they faded from the scene and Vermeil went into early retirement.
*Other playoff teams included the Buffalo Bills, with their last good team of the Chuck Knox era. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Doug Williams at quarterback and Lee Roy Selmon at defensive end won a close NFC Central race marked by four teams of roughly equivalent mediocrity.
The articles below give the season-long narratives of each playoff team. Taken together, they tell the story of the 1981 NFL season through the eyes of its best teams.