The 1981 NFL playoffs are most remembered for The Drive, The Catch & The Goal Line Stand—the means the 1981 San Francisco 49ers used to first knock off the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and then hold off a furious Cincinnati Bengals rally in the Super Bowl. But the other side of the bracket had its share of drama as well. The 1981 AFC playoffs produced two games that deserve to be on the short list in any discussion of great NFL playoff games.
The thrills in the AFC were highlighted by the divisional round, but they had a great prologue on the wild-card game. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets met in the wild-card game at old Shea Stadium in New York. Buffalo jumped out to a 24-0 lead. But the Jets chipped away to make it 24-13, and eventually pulled to 31-27. Quarterback Richard Todd drove his team to the Buffalo 11 in the closing seconds, but the last of his three interceptions, saved the Bills from an epic collapse.
Buffalo went on to play top-seeded Cincinnati the following week, with their MVP quarterback Ken Anderson. This time it was the Bills who battled back, after falling behind 14-0 early. They tied the game and only trailed 28-21 when they drove just outside the Cincy red zone in the closing minutes. On fourth down, quarterback Joe Ferguson completed a fourth-and-four pass to Lou Piccone. Inexplicably, Buffalo was hit with delay of game and the ensuing play fell incomplete.
I think this loss—specifically that a converted first down deep in opposition territory on a game-tying drive was overturned for something as avoidable as a delay of game—gets lost in the shuffle in any discussion of excruciating postseason defeats.
After the epic battle in the 2012 NFL playoffs, when the Baltimore Ravens stunned the Denver Broncos with a game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones in the closing minute, I opened the question of where that game—from the Denver perspective—ranked in terms of awful playoff defeats in the divisional round of play. You can read the complete discussion here, but the Buffalo-Cincinnati game in the 1981 AFC playoffs made the list, and frankly, I’d rank it in the top five, at least for this round.
But no game was good as the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. The Chargers roared to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter, scoring on a special teams touchdown and having another set up by a Miami special teams blunder. The Dolphins turned to backup quarterback Don Strock, who played the game of his life. The lead was cut to 24-10, and on the final play of the first half, the Dolphins perfectly executed the “hook-and-lateral” play from the San Diego 25 to make it 24-17.
Strock and his more renowned counterpart, Dan Fouts, would each throw for over 400 yards. Miami actually led 38-31, and it was tied 38-38, when Kellen Winslow took the game over. The tight end would end up with 13 catches for 166 yards, and he also blocked a field goal to force overtime. Each team missed field goal opportunities in the extra sessions, before San Diego finally finished the job, 41-38.
The championship game would be anticlimactic, an easy Cincinnati win in Arctic chills, but the 1981 AFC playoffs had no shortage of drama and should not be lost in the shuffle of NFL history.