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.
This compilationincludes the game-by-game narrative of all ten playoff teams. Each article is published individually on TheSportsNotebook.com, drawn together here and edited to form a cohesive story of the 1981 NFL season through the eyes of its best teams. Download it from Amazon today.
The 1981 Miami Dolphins marked a new era in franchise history. Bob Griese, the quarterback who led the team to the undefeated season of 1972 and another Super Bowl win in 1973 was retired. This season was marked by a back-and-forth between two quarterbacks, young David Woodley and Don Strock that was never more evident than in this season’s epic final game.
Miami was coming off an 8-8 season that had ended a string of two straight postseason appearances. Regardless of who was at quarterback, this was a team that head coach Don Shula had built on defense.
Nose tackle Bob Baumhower was the only Pro Bowler on defense, but there were several other notable young players. Defensive end Doug Betters was a rising star, and would win Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983.
Linebacker A.J. Duhe and defensive back Don McNeal were both young and would be key parts of a defense that carried the Dolphins until they drafted Dan Marino two years later.
The team also had one Pro Bowler on offense, right guard Ed Newman. He led an offensive line that blocked for a running game that was a tandem between Andra Franklin inside and Tony Nathan, who ran outside and caught passes. The two backs combined for nearly 1,400 yards, more or less evenly split.
Duriel Harris led all receivers with 911 yards, while Jimmy Cefalo and Nat Moore were other targets. Woodley was the starting quarterback–albeit one on a fairly short leash. He completed a respectable 52% of his passes for an equally respectable 6.7 yards-per-pass, but the TD-INT ratio was stuck at 12/13. Hence, Shula’s willingness to go to the 31-year-old Strock more than once.
Miami ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed, while coming in 11th in points scored. They got the season off to a strong start in St. Louis, completely shutting down a mediocre Cardinals team in a 20-7 win.
The following Thursday Night–a stage not common in the NFL at this time–the Dolphins hosted the Steelers and played well again. Miami led 13-10 in the third quarter, when Woodley found Nathan on a 13-yard touchdown pass, and then Tommy Vigorito brought a punt back 87 yards to the house, sealing a 30-10 win.
Woodley had still been erratic against Pittsburgh, going 14/34 for 161 yards against a defense that, even though just two years removed from the Steel Curtain Dynasty, was in decline to mediocrity along with the rest of the team.
Strock made his first relief appearance the following week in Houston. He went 7/10 for 62 yards and flipped a three-yard touchdown pass to Franklin to pull out a 16-10 win over the Oilers. Houston was another team declining into mediocrity, in this case, after three straight playoff seasons.
A visit from the Baltimore Colts, with a defense that would prove to be historically awful, was just the right medicine for Woodley. The 23-year-old quarterback went 19/30 for 309 yards, no interceptions and spread the ball to eight different receivers. He won a shootout with veteran quarterback Bert Jones, the league MVP in 1977, 31-28.
The New York Jets were struggling at 1-3 when they came to South Beach for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. The undefeated Dolphins didn’t play well and Strock was again summoned. He went 18/29 for 279 yards, with Moore having a huge day receiving with 210 yards.
But the defense was pounded on the ground, losing the rush yardage battle 242-98. They were also shredded in the secondary, allowing 310 pass yards to Richard Todd. Fortunately, the Fish forced three turnovers and took perfect care of the ball themselves. It got them to overtime at 28-28 and the game ended in a tie.
The failure to take care of their homefield wouldn’t be decisive in this AFC East race, but it would loom very large throughout late November and December. And Miami followed it up by going to Buffalo–the defending AFC East champ–and playing their worst game of the season, trailing 31-7 at half. Strock got the start, but he apparently preferred to work in relief, throwing four interceptions. The final was 31-21, but this was never a game.
Woodley returned to the lineup at home against the Redskins and went 15/28. More important, he stretched the field with some big throws to Harris and Cefalo, piling up 296 yards passing. In a game where both teams ran the ball well, Woodley outplayed counterpart Joe Theismann in a 13-10 win. These same two quarterbacks would meet a year later in the Super Bowl and Woodley would not fare quite as well.
Miami went to Dallas, where the Cowboys were in the midst of a 12-4 season. It was a marquee battle that went to the national audience on late Sunday afternoon. Woodley was simultaneously spectacular–408 passing yards–and awful, with five interceptions. Both were season highs. Harris and Cefalo did most of the damage receiving and the Dolphins led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t close and lost 28-27.
A road trip to New England, where the Patriots were having an awful season and would ultimately get the first pick in the draft, was next. But the Patriots, for a 2-14 team, played unusually feisty most weeks and this game was no different. Miami was in a 17-6 hole at the half.
They were able to rally and take a 27-24 lead behind a great day from Harris, with eight catches for 145 yards. They also intercepted four passes, two by linebacker Bob Brudzinski. Even though the Pats tied the game 27-27, the Dolphins got the field in overtime to win it.
The Oakland Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champs, but by November 15, the new reality, that this was a 7-9 team, had set in. Which made Miami’s poor home performance so disappointing. They gave up three touchdown passes to Marc Wilson and fell behind 21-0. Strock came on in relief and went 16/25 for 169 yards, cutting the lead to 24-17. But Oakland pulled back away and won 33-17.
Miami now traveled north to face the Jets at old Shea Stadium, known for its swirling winds. New York had turned its season around and were right in the mix with the Dolphins and Bills for the AFC East title. Woodley only threw for 63 yards, though he played the entire game. Miami got some clutch red zone defense to hold on to a 15-9 lead, in spite of seeming to take the worst of it much of the day.
It caught up to them in the end, as a Richard Todd-to-Jerome Barkum touchdown pass in the closing seconds beat the Dolphins 16-15. They ended the day tied with the Jets for first place at 7-4-1, with the Bills in close pursuit at 7-5. Because Miami hadn’t beaten New York head-to-head at home, they were on the wrong end of the tiebreaker with the Jets.
And a tough Monday Night game was on deck with the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending NFC champs and in a fight with Dallas for the NFC East crown. It was a defensive battle that the Dolphins trailed 10-3 going into the fourth quarter. Enter Strock. He went 4/6 for 37 yards, tied with a TD pass to Harris and then won it in overtime. Miami had kept pace with New York and maintained the half-game edge on Buffalo.
New England’s return trip to South Beach was next and again, the Patriots put up a fight, with the game tied 14-14 in the third quarter. This time a powerful running attack helped the Dolphins win. Nathan ran for 119 yards, the team as a whole went for 212 and the final was 24-14. The news from the west later in the day was even better–the Jets had been upset at Seattle and Miami was back in first place.
Woodley struggled in a road game at Kansas City, where the Chiefs had to win to stay alive. Miami still led 10-7 at half, but Strock came on the second half. He threw for 109 yards and put a touchdown on the board, though he did throw two picks. Regardless, the defense was stellar in a 17-7 win. The Dolphins had guaranteed at least a wild-card spot. The Bills had kept pace, a half-game back, also clinching a playoff berth. The two teams would play head-to-head in the finale for the AFC East crown.
It was a Saturday game, scheduled for late afternoon and Woodley struck the first blow, throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Vigorito. It turned out that was the only significant offensive blow for either team. Miami took better care of the football, winning turnovers 3-1 and that, along with the early touchdown, was the difference in a 16-6 win.
The Dolphins had clinched at least a home game in the divisional round and could rise to the #1 seed if the Cincinnati Bengals lost on Sunday. That didn’t happen. Miami’s two AFC East rivals would meet in the wild-card game of what was then a five-team conference playoff format based on three divisions (as MLB uses today). The Dolphins knew they would host the San Diego Chargers in two weeks.
On late Saturday afternoon, the day after New Year’s, the Dolphins and Chargers staged one of the great playoff battles in NFL history. I was eleven years old when I watched, as a basically neutral fan (I was cheering for the Dolphins, but they were never a favorite team) and still haven’t forgotten the rapt tension of the game.
It didn’t start out that way. Miami combined poor defense, a special teams miscue and an interception from Woodley to dig a 24-0 hole early in the second quarter. Strock had to come on. He followed with the game of his life.
Strock went 29/43 for 403 yards and threw four touchdowns, including a memorable hook-and-trail pass that went from Harris to Nathan and cut the lead to 24-17 by halftime. Miami actually got in control, leading 38-31 and driving for a lockup field goal with less than five minutes to play. But Franklin fumbled and San Diego got another chance.
Dan Fouts led the most productive offense in the league and the Chargers tied with less than a minute to play. Strock promptly ran the Dolphins back to the 26-yard line and got kicker Uwe von Schamaan a chance to win it. Instead, San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow got up and blocked the kick. It was part of a 13-catch, 166-yard showing for Winslow who had to be helped off the field from dehydration when this game finally ended.
And it didn’t end anytime soon. Even though the Chargers won the overtime toss and drove inside the red zone, the Dolphins got new life when a field goal was pulled left. Miami got its own chance to win, with von Schamaan trying a 34-yarder. This one too was blocked. The Dolphins had used up their last chance. With 1:08 left in the fifth quarter, San Diego got the field goal to win it.
The biggest memory of this game is Winslow being carried off the field, but no one who watched it has ever forgotten Strock or the hook-and-trail either. It was a heartbreaking ending for the 1981 Miami Dolphins, but they went down swinging with everything they had.
And the best was yet to come. This was the first of five straight AFC East titles for the Dolphins. They made two Super Bowls, in 1982 and 1984 and later brought Marino into the fold. There’s never a bad time to be in South Beach, but the early 1980s were particularly good if you were a Dolphins fan.
The 1981 Buffalo Bills were coming off the first AFC East title in franchise history. The coaching of Chuck Knox had brought success, with a formula of tough defense, a running game and a passing attack that could hit you for the big play. The Bills made it back to the postseason in 1981, although the hopes of reaching the franchise’s first Super Bowl ultimately came up short.
Buffalo’s defense only had one Pro Bowler, nose tackle Fred Smerlas, but the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Coordinator Tom Catlin oversaw a unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in points allowed.
The focal point of the offense was gifted 23-year-old running back Joe Cribbs. He ran for 1,097 yards, compiled 603 more catching the football and made the Pro Bowl.
So did 34-year-old wide receiver Frank Lewis, thanks to over 1,200 yards receiving. Jerry Butler was another reliable target, with over 800 yards receiving.
Joe Ferguson was behind center and he was boom or bust. Ferguson’s 51 percent completion rate was adequate by the standards of the time, his over 3,600 yards were solid and his 7.3 yards-per-pass exceptional. But he did throw interceptions. The TD-INT ratio of 24/20 wasn’t intolerable, as it would be today, but it was the biggest reason the offense only ranked 20th in the league scoring points.
There were no problems of any kind in the season opener at home against the New York Jets. Ferguson went 15/24 for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Butler was the primary target, racking up over 100 yards receiving and catching the touchdown that stretched the lead to 17-0 in the third quarter. The final was 31-0.
A road trip to the woeful Baltimore Colts was next and Ferguson took advantage of a historically bad defense, throwing four touchdowns in a 35-3 rout. A Thursday Night game–a rarity in 1981–was next with the Philadelphia Eagles, defending NFC champs. Buffalo was at home and led 14-10 at home. But they didn’t run the ball, didn’t stop the run and Ferguson was erratic, 14/30 for 187 yards. The Eagles took over the second half and won 20-14.
Buffalo traveled to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were coming off a 6-10 year, but would roll to 12-4 this season. Ferguson was excellent as he waged a passing battle with Ken Anderson, the eventual league MVP. Ferguson threw for 287 yards, Anderson for 328 and both quarterbacks had three touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Lewis staged his own battle against a rookie wide receiver that would one day be in everyone’s home on Sunday Night–Cris Collingsworth. Lewis caught eight passes for 132 yards, while Collingsworth caught ten for 111 yards. The game went to overtime, but the Bills came up short 27-24.
A visit from the Colts–an AFC East rival prior to the realignment of 2002–was just what the doctor ordered. Cribbs ran for 159 yards in a 23-17 win. A bigger win came on Monday Night against Miami and a contending Dolphins team. Ferguson lit up Buffalo’s Rich Stadium with a 338 yards and another 3/0 TD-INT performance, Lewis being the prime target again. The score was 31-7 at half and ended a deceptively respectable 31-28.
Buffalo looked back on track, but a visit to old Shea Stadium to face the Jets proved problematic. New York was starting to overcome a slow start and would join Buffalo and Miami in the AFC East’s race to the finish. The winds were blowing at 17 mph, and the Bills did not run the ball, losing this battle 200-43. They were in the game in the third quarter, but came apart in the end of a 33-14 loss.
Cribbs ran for 123 yards as Buffalo survived a tough home game with Denver, thanks to three Nick Mike-Mayer (pronounced “mick-a-meyer”) field goals, none of them chip-shots. The final was 9-7 and would prove to be a significant win against a Bronco team that was a playoff contender.
November opened with a 22-13 win over a Cleveland team that had won a division title in 1980, but was spiraling out of contention this year. Cribbs caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson in the first quarter and a 60-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter.
Ferguson’s strengths and weaknesses were both on display for the Monday Night audience when Buffalo went to Dallas, where the Cowboys had a vintage Tom Landry team that would win 12 games. Ferguson threw for 301 yards and had the Bills up 14-7 at halftime. He also threw four interceptions and they ultimately lost the game 27-14. Then he followed it up with his worst performance of the season, throwing four interceptions in St. Louis, as the Bills lost 24-0 to a mediocre Cardinals team.
New England was on its way to 2-14 and the first pick in the draft, although the Patriots did often put up spirited fights. That was the case here, as they came to Buffalo and led 17-13. The Bills were getting production from two relatively unheralded running backs. Roosevelt Leaks rushed for 92 yards and Roland Hooks caught six passes.
With the Bills facing a damaging upset loss and time for one play from the Patriot 36-yard line, Hooks caught his final pass of the day, a desperation pass from Ferguson, and scored the winning touchdown. The win kept Buffalo over .500, with a 7-5 record and they were a half-game behind Miami and New York, who had played to a tie earlier in the year and were both 7-4-1.
Cribbs was out for a home game with the Redskins, who were a mediocre team overall, but much better in the second half of the season in their first year under Joe Gibbs. Hooks came up big again, rushing for 108 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown run that broke a 14-14 tie in the third quarter. The 21-14 score stood up and the Bills kept pace with the Jets and Dolphins.
The San Diego Chargers had ousted Buffalo from the playoffs in 1980 in a particularly tough loss. Cribbs was back in the lineup, but the big story was the Bills’ performance in the red zone. The Chargers had a high-powered offense and a bad defense, so both teams moved the ball. Lewis caught five passes for 113 yards, and Buffalo won 28-27 because they scored touchdowns, while forcing a couple San Diego field goal attempts.
Buffalo now had wins over the AFC West’s top two contenders, Denver and San Diego. The Bills also got a break when the Jets were upset in Seattle. Buffalo was 9-5, a half-game behind Miami–whom they would still play–and a half-game ahead of the Jets in the race for two wild-card spots.
The Bills went to New England and got a first quarter touchdown run from Leaks, while Cribbs took a pass from Ferguson and scored on a 39-yard touchdown pass. That was enough, as Buffalo chiseled out a 19-10 win thanks to Cribbs’ 153 rushing yards.
Buffalo’s win clinched a playoff spot. It was still possible they could finish behind New York, but the only other wild-card contenders would be the Denver/San Diego runner-up and it was guaranteed that the second place team (it turned out to be Denver) could be no better than 10-6. Buffalo had ten wins in the bank and head-to-head wins over both teams. They were in, and could go for a repeat AFC East title in Miami.
It was a late Saturday afternoon kickoff in Miami, and Buffalo really struggled offensively. Ferguson went 14/29 for only 140 yards and threw two interceptions. Cribbs ran reasonably well, gaining 94 yards, but couldn’t make the big play. The same goes for the defense–good outing, but they only forced one turnover, while the Dolphins collected three.
Miami won the game 16-6. Buffalo would go to the wild-card round and when the Jets won on Sunday, it meant the Bills would open on the road.
Oddsmakers saw the Bills and Jets as basically even, so New York got the customary homefield edge of being a three-point favorite when they kicked off in the early afternoon of the last Sunday in December. Buffalo wasted no time getting started.
Charles Romes scooped up a fumble and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. Then Ferguson connected with Lewis on a 50-yard scoring strike. After a field goal, Ferguson hit Lewis again, this time from 26 yards out and it was 24-0 by the early second quarter.
Buffalo’s defense struggled to hold up though, and with Ferguson also throwing four interceptions on the day, New York came back. It was 24-13 by the third quarter, although when Cribbs took off on a 45-yard touchdown run to make it 31-13 it looked like the Bills had finally turned back the tide.
But they hadn’t. The Jets, thanks to 377 passing yards from Todd, kept coming and cut the lead to 31-27. Then they drove it into the red zone with time for two more plays. The Bill defense had been opportunistic and already intercepted Todd three times, in addition to scoring off the fumble. One more big play saved them. Bill Simpson picked off Todd at the goal line and preserved the win.
No one had expected a shootout, with little in the way of the running game, as 17 mph winds swirled in Shea. But that’s what happened in a memorable AFC wild-card game.
Buffalo went back to Cincinnati to face the top-seeded Bengals and just as the two teams had in September, they staged a great game. Buffalo rallied to tie after trailing 14-0 and did it again after falling behind 21-14. Trailing again 28-21, they were driving late in the game and facing a 4th-and-4. One of the most infamous moments in franchise history–if not NFL playoff history–happened.
Lou Piccone had only caught five passes all year, and when he ran a short out to the right side and caught this one from Ferguson for the first down, it was the biggest moment of the little wideout’s career. And it would be nullified by a delay of game penalty–one after a timeout, no less. Buffalo now had to convert 4th-and-9, but couldn’t. The season was over.
And so was this team’s brief two-year run of success. Buffalo began to decline in the strike-shortened year of 1982 and then collapsed. Better times were ahead–Marv Levy would arrive in the late 1980s, playoff teams would churn out and a record four straight AFC championships opened the early 1990s. But the 1981 Buffalo Bills, while a good team, seem one of missed opportunity–defined by a ill-fated delay of game penalty.
It had been twelve long years since the passionate fans of the New York Jets had tasted the postseason. Not since Joe Willie Namath led the franchise to its historic Super Bowl III upset win and back to the playoffs the following year of 1969, had the Jets advanced.
There was some brief hope in 1978-79 when the team went 8-8 under Walt Michaels, but regressed to 4-12 in 1980. Michaels was back and there didn’t seem a lot to indicate that this 1981 New York Jets team would in fact be the team to quench the postseason drought.
It was the defensive line that keyed the resurgence. Mark Gastineau at defensive end and Joe Klecko at defensive tackle each made the Pro Bowl, with Klecko a 1st-team All-NFL selection. The Jets led the league with 66 sacks and the front four became known as the “New York Sack Exchange.
Free safety Darrol Ray took advantage of the duress opposing quarterbacks faced and intercepted seven passes. With Gastineau doing his colorful sack dances back at a time when the NFL still allowed its players to have some color, the Jets ranked 8th in the NFL in points allowed.
The offense got similar results–9th in the league in points scored–with a similar formula. The Jets were tough up front, with center Joe Fields a Pro Bowler and right tackle Marvin Powell a 1st-team All-NFL pick. Quarterback Richard Todd played very well, with a 56 percent completion rate, over 3,200 yards passing and a 25/13 TD-INT ratio that was solid by the standards of the early 1980s.
New York didn’t have one particular standout at the skill positions, but they spread the ball around. Rookie running back Freeman McNeil led the team in rushing with 623 yards and he got help from Mike Augustyniak, Bruce Harper and Scott Dierking. McNeil and Harper were both able receivers, with Harper’s 52 catches leading the team. Augstyniak and Dierking were more ground-and-pound runners.
Wesley Walker was the top wideout, with 770 receiving yards and speed that could stretch defenses. Jerome Barkum was a reliable target at tight end and would come up with some of the season’s biggest catches.
It took a while for all this to come together. The Jets opened the season at Buffalo against the defending AFC East champion Bills and only gained eight first downs in a 31-0 loss. The offense got rolling at home against Cincinnati. Todd hit Barkum with a 40-yard touchdown pass and threw another TD to Walker to get a 17-3 lead.
The quarterback finished 18/29 for 251 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. But the Bengals rallied and moved ahead 31-23. Todd found Barkum for another touchdown, but with no two-point conversion available, the game ended 31-30.
The loss looks much better in retrospect–Cincinnati won the AFC crown and their quarterback, Ken Anderson, won the MVP award. At the time, it was a home loss to another franchise that was struggling to get back to the playoffs and had gone 6-10 the year before.
However it looked, the Jets were 0-2 and they dropped a third straight with a no-show in Pittsburgh, giving up 343 yards on the ground to what had become a mediocre Steelers team now two years removed from the Steel Curtain Dynasty. The final was 38-10. An 0-3 record with two blowouts didn’t exactly have anyone thinking playoffs.
Todd stepped up with a big game at home against the Houston Oilers, going 25/39 for 312 yards and three touchdowns, with the bulk of the damage being done by Walker. Houston had been to the playoffs three straight years, though they were in the process of slipping below .500 this year. Even so, holding the great running back Earl Campbell to 88 yards was a big deal for the defense in a 33-17 win.
A road trip to Miami to face a contending Dolphins team produced a back-and-forth game. Todd threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns, while the running game generated 242 rush yards. Walker had his second straight game with eight catches for 100-plus yards.
Miami backup quarterback Don Strock came in and had a big day of his own, and the Jets lost the turnover battle 3-0. The game went to overtime at 28-28 and no one could win it. New York was in a 1-3-1 hole.
The New England Patriots were on their way to a 2-14 season, but an inordinate amount of their losses were close games. Todd threw a couple first half touchdown passes to Barkum and then the Jets had to hang on for a 28-24 win.
New York appeared to be turning their season around when Buffalo came in to old Shea Stadium. The Jets pounded a good defense for over 200 rushing yards with their balanced attack. They hung on to a 20-14 lead and the Bills were driving, when Bobby Jones took a fumble 61 yards for a score. The Jets had a big 33-14 win…but they gave it right back with a 19-3 home loss to the lousy Seattle Seahawks, turning it over four times and this time giving up 200-plus rushing yards.
If the season appeared to turn around with the Buffalo win, it really did turn for good when the Jets crossed over into the Meadowlands to their future home stadium to play the Giants, who were already there.
Lawrence Taylor was in his rookie season and on his way to Defensive Player of the Year, but it was the Jet defense that was the collective star of this day. They held the Giants to 55 rush yards and won easily 26-7.
The Jets were now 4-4-1 and took care of consecutive road games against the worst teams in the league, the Baltimore Colts and New England. Todd threw for 277 yards in Baltimore, spreading the ball to ten different receivers in a 41-14 win. Stiff defense, combined with a 166-96 rushing edge keyed the win in Foxboro, 17-6.
New York was right in the thick of a three-team AFC East race, with Buffalo and Miami. They were in the hunt for one of two wild-card berths, with the AFC West in a three-team race of its own between Denver, San Diego and Kansas City. A national audience would see the Jets-Dolphins game from Shea on a late Sunday afternoon.
It would be a classic regular season game. The Jets maintained control of the tempo, but kept settling for field goals. They trailed 15-9 as dusk settled over Shea and it looked like another frustrating loss awaited. Todd then drove the team to the 11-yard line with 16 seconds left. He dropped back and saw Barkum over the middle. Todd put the ball on the money amidst a crowd and the tight end hung on. The Jets prevailed 16-15.
New York and Miami were tied for first at 7-4-1 and it was the Jets that held the tiebreaker. Buffalo was a half-game back at 7-5. New York kept rolling at home against Baltimore (the Colts were an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002), holding them to 49 rush yards and winning 25-0.
A road trip to Seattle was next. The Seahawks were an AFC team prior to 2002 and the scheduling format of the time called for the two teams in each conference who had finished last in the five-team divisions (which were the AFC East & AFC West, the Central having only four teams) to play twice. It was the reason why the Seahawks would be most responsible for the reason the Jets didn’t ultimately win the AFC East.
New York played better in this game then they had against Seattle in Shea, but got away from the running game and had Todd throw the ball 51 times. Seattle got a 57-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and won 27-23. Miami moved into first place. The Jets were a half-game behind 9-5 Buffalo, while the AFC West had two wild-card contenders at 8-6.
An early afternoon game on Saturday was in Cleveland on December 12. The Browns were struggling to 5-11 season, but they made a game of it. The Jets got 76 rushing yards from Dierking, part of a 164-74 edge on the day and were able to escape 14-13. Buffalo and Miami both won and ensured that the Bills-Dolphins finale would settle the AFC East.
New York still controlled its playoff fate. If they won their finale–at home against the Green Bay Packers–the Jets would play the Bills-Dolphins loser. If they lost, they would need for San Diego to lose a Monday Night home game with Oakland, who was 7-8.
On the Saturday of the final week, Miami clinched the division, and over in the NFC, the New York Giants kept themselves alive. This is significant because all the Giants needed to make the playoffs was for the Packers to lose. Jets and Giants fans would be united in a spirit of brotherhood, with a Jet victory meaning two playoff berths for the Big Apple.
With the winds of Shea swirling at 21 mph, the Jets simply dominated a pass-dependent Packers offense. New York built a 14-3 lead and then Todd found speedy Lam Jones for a second-quarter touchdown to make the lead seemingly insurmountable at 21-3. A 38-yard strike to Walker removed all doubt and the final was 28-3.
The Jets were in the playoffs and the complete turnaround of their season is captured by this single stat—after getting only eight first downs in the season-opening loss to Buffalo, New York held Green Bay to just eight first downs in the season-ending win.
New York was a three-point favorite at home against Buffalo, but the Bills had playoff experience and perhaps that was the difference early on. The Jets lost a fumble that was turned it into a touchdown and gave a long pass for another score. They were in a 24-0 hole before getting themselves turned around.
Todd battled heroically, going 28/50 for 377 yards and he pulled the team almost all the way back. The score was 31-27 and the Jets were driving for the win. But Todd also threw four interceptions and the last one came on the goal line with two seconds left.
A great season had ended in heartbreak, something Jets fans have become all too familiar with over the years. But it was still…well, it was still a great season. And the Jets would build on this, come back strong in 1982 and not only make the playoffs, but win some games when they got there.
The 1981 Cincinnati Bengals gave the franchise its first real taste of success since the legendary Paul Brown retired. Under Brown, the Bengals won 10-plus games each year from 1973-76 in what was then a 14-game schedule. Two of those years resulted in playoff appearances.
But 1977-79 brought sharp decline, to the 4-12 level. Forrest Gregg was hired as head coach and he nudged the Bengals to 6-10 in 1980. A breakthrough no one saw coming in 1981 gave the city its first Super Bowl appearance.
Quarterback Ken Anderson ran a high-precision offense. His 29/10 TD-INT ratio was brilliant and he threw for over 3,700 yards. Anderson was named Comeback Player of the Year and he also won a more prestigious honor–the MVP award.
A tough offensive line was led by 23-year-old left tackle Anthony Munoz, already a 1st-team All-Pro and destined for a Hall of Fame career. Max Montoya, a future four-time Pro Bowler was also up front and the top runner was bruising fullback Pete Johnson, who had once personified Woody Hayes’ tough running games at Ohio State. Johnson enjoyed a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl season in 1981.
Another Pro Bowler destined for big things in the NFL was at wide receiver. Rookie Cris Collingsworth racked up over 1,000 receiving yards and made the Pro Bowl. Of course Collingsworth’s “big things” would be becoming a prominent TV analyst after his playing days, but he was pretty good on the football field too.
The offense ranked third in the NFL in points scored and carried the team. Defensively, the Bengals ranked 12th and it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Cincinnati had talent–two defensive lineman, Wilson Whitley on the nose and Ross Browner at defensive end had won college football’s Lombardi Award in consecutive seasons (Whitley at Maryland in 1976, Browner with Notre Dame in 1977). But there were no Pro Bowlers on the 1981 Cincinnati Bengals defense.
There was absolutely nothing in the way 1981 began that indicated a special season was in the works. The Bengals hosted the lowly Seattle Seahawks. Anderson threw an early Pick-6, and Cincinnati trailed 21-0 before the first quarter was over. But they didn’t abandon the ground game, running it 45 times and gaining 210 yards. Seattle couldn’t run and control the clock, and Cincy eventually rallied to a 27-21 win.
Another big early deficit came at the New York Jets, another team that would make a breakthrough run to the playoffs. Cincinnati trailed 17-3 in the second quarter. This time it was Anderson who led the rally. He went 22/34 for 252 yards. Archie Griffin caught ten passes out of the backfield, while wide receiver Isaac Curtis had five catches for 108 yards in the eventual 31-30 win.
The Bengals came home to host in-state rival Cleveland, the defending AFC Central champs. For the third straight week, Cincinnati was in a double-digit hole before the first half was, trailing 13-0. For the third straight week they fought back, but this time it wasn’t enough. The Bengals didn’t stop the run, giving up 185 yards and they lost 20-17.
Another home date with a division champion from the previous year was next against Buffalo. There was no early hole this time, as the first quarter went by scoreless. But Cincinnati still made sure to fall behind by eleven, at 21-10 in the fourth quarter.
Anderson, who threw for 328 yards, found Steve Kreider for a pair of 16-yard touchdown passes in the final quarter and the game went to overtime at 24-24 before the Bengals won it with a field goal.
Cincinnati traveled to Houston to play the Oilers, a team that would struggle to 7-9, but was coming off three consecutive playoff appearances and had the great Earl Campbell in the backfield. This time the Bengals played from ahead, leading 10-7 in the second half. Naturally, they lost–Campbell ran for 182 yards, the Oilers got a kickoff return for a touchdown and won the game 17-10.
A strange game followed in Baltimore against the lowly Colts. Baltimore had a defense whose ineptitude would set records, but the team with the future MVP at quarterback only had three points early in the second quarter. The score was an equally strange 5-3. But Anderson unleashed, finishing 21/27 for 257 yards and three touchdowns, as Cincinnati dominated the second half in a 41-19 win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were just two years removed from the last of their Super Bowl wins in the Steel Curtain era. This was not the same team and that was demonstrated vividly when they came to Cincinnati, as the Bengals led 34-0 in the fourth quarter before giving up a meaningless touchdown. Anderson threw for 346 yards, no interceptions and Johnson rushed for 87 yards.
Cincy was riding along at 5-2, in an AFC Central division where the rival Browns, Oilers and Steelers were all in decline. But just when you thought it was safe to trust the Bengals, they turned in a clunker at lowly New Orleans. Unbelievably, Cincinnati didn’t score until the fourth quarter and the game was all but over.
The offensive sluggishness carried over into the first quarter of a home date with Houston and the Bengals trailed 7-0. The second quarter saw the lid come off the kettle and all the steam of the Cincinnati frustration pour out. They scored 24 points in the quarter, Johnson finished the day with 114 yards and the final was 34-21.
A trip to San Diego looked important at the time, with both teams 6-3 and leading their divisions and it would prove to be arguably the most significant regular season game played in the AFC. Anderson threw first-half touchdown passes to Curtis and Kreider and the Bengals were leading 24-7 in the second quarter.
The Chargers had the most prolific offense in the NFL and weren’t to be dismissed easily though, and they were driving to get back in the game. Cincy defensive back Louis Breeden intercepted a pass in the end zone and 102 yards later had scored to blow the game open. The Bengals won 40-17. When Cincinnati came home to face the struggling Los Angeles Rams, Breeden kept it going with two interceptions and keying a 24-10 win.
Cincinnati’s home game with Denver was a battle between contenders, as the Broncos were fighting with the Chargers at the top of the AFC West. The Bengals played an outstanding football game. Johnson romped 39 yards for a touchdown and then scored on a 2-yard run, as the tone was set early. The big back also caught six passes. Anderson carved up Denver to the tune of 25/37 for 396 yards and the result was an easy 38-21 win.
Cleveland’s fall from grace was complete by the time Cincinnati traveled east across the state on the last weekend in November. The Browns didn’t put up a fight, as Anderson threw a pair of touchdowns to Collingsworth to key an early 21-0 lead and Cincy won 41-21. With three weeks to go, they were 10-3 and the only team with a chance to catch them in the AFC Central was Pittsburgh at 8-5.
A home game with San Francisco, the top team in the NFC was seen at the time as the potential Super Bowl preview that it indeed proved to be. Anderson played his worst game of the year, going 11/20 for 97 yards and throwing two interceptions. Jack Thompson came off the bench and went 10/18 for 114 yards, but six turnovers doomed the Bengals in a 21-3 loss. Fortunately, the Steelers also lost and the two-game lead in the division held.
Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh for the regular season’s penultimate game on December 13 and the Steelers still had a chance to take the Central on a tiebreaker. Looking ahead, the Bengals’ season finale was also on the road, in Atlanta. The Falcons were a 7-9 team, but still the same group that had gone 12-4 in 1980. Playing them on the road wouldn’t be easy, so this was far from a done deal.
But Terry Bradshaw was out for Pittsburgh and Mark Malone wasn’t going to scare anyone at quarterback. The teams played a scoreless first quarter and traded field goals in the second. Anderson broke through with a short touchdown pass to Curtis and then a 22-yard pass to Kreider. The defense corralled the Steeler running game, holding it to 87 yards. And Malone wasn’t going to beat them by himself. The 17-10 win gave the Bengals their first division title since 1973.
The finale in Atlanta still mattered. Cincinnati was 11-4, while Miami was right behind them at 10-4-1 for the #1 seed. Anderson went 18/34 for 299 yards and spread the ball to nine different receivers. Collingsworth did most of the damage, with five catches for 128 yards. Cincy took a 24-7 lead in the second quarter and then battened down the hatches, holding on for a 30-28 win.
Playoff football returned to Riverfront Stadium on the first Sunday of January, as the Bengals rematched with the Bills in the early afternoon kickoff. Cincinnati was a (-6) favorite and they came out blazing, getting touchdown runs from Charles Alexander and Johnson to take a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.
Any thoughts of an easy day soon disappeared. Buffalo’s talented young running back Joe Cribbs, scored from a yard out in the second quarter, and then bolted on a 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The Cincy offense had bogged down and it was 14-14.
Alexander ran in from 20 yards out to make it 21-14, but Buffalo again answered and tied the game 21-21. Anderson led the Bengals back down the field and found Collingsworth on a 16-yard touchdown pass for a 28-21 lead. One more time, Buffalo came back down the field. They appeared to have completed a make-or-break 4th-and-4 pass for a first down. But delay of game gave the Cincy defense a second chance and this time they forced an incompletion. For the first time ever, the Cincinnati Bengals were going to the AFC Championship Game.
The opponent would be San Diego, who had survived Miami in a 41-38 overtime epic. The Chargers had finished the season 10-6. Had they, not the Bengals, won the teams’ regular season meeting on November 8, each would have been 11-5 and San Diego would have owned the tiebreaker. And Cincinnati would not have enjoyed the immense advantage the weather gave them on January 10.
Conditions were frigid, with 24 mph winds blowing. The temperature with the wind chill was minus six. A West Coast team that relied on a downfield passing game was going to have problems with a trip to Ohio in January in any event, and the conditions in this game worked even stronger for Cincinnati.
Anderson’s precise short-passing game work had a better chance of succeeding in the conditions, and he found M.L. Harris with an 8-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, as the Bengals built a 10-0 lead. The Chargers answered with a second quarter touchdown, but Cincinnati promptly drove back down, with Johnson finishing off the drive and the game went to halftime at 17-7.
San Diego kept threatening, but the Cincinnati defense turned them back. Three times, the Bengals forced a turnover that stopped a drive, and they ultimately won the turnover battle 4-1. Anderson was an efficient 14/22 for 161 yards and no interceptions, while Fouts struggled to 15/28 for 185 yards and two picks. Cincinnati got a field goal in the third quarter and Anderson put it away with a short touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. The game ended 27-7.
The good people of Cincinnati didn’t have far to travel if they wanted to go to the Super Bowl. The game was held at the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions. The rematch with San Francisco had come to fruition, and both the Bengals and 49ers were products of the emerging age of parity, having turned themselves around from 6-10 finishes in 1980.
Cincinnati had turnover problems that negated early drives, and Anderson was also sacked five times. They dug themselves a 20-0 hole, but were on the verge of getting back in the game in the third quarter. It was 20-7 and Cincy had first-and-goal from the one. Johnson bashed into the line and was stopped. The big bruiser bashed again and was stopped. On third down, Anderson threw a pass down the line of scrimmage that was complete, but a perfect tackle prevented the score.
Now it was fourth down and everyone knew big Pete Johnson was getting the football. He bashed one more time…and was stopped. Even though Cincinnati still cut the lead to 20-14 later on, this was too many missed opportunities. San Francisco kicked two field goals, Cincy drove for a touchdown against the prevent defense, but failed to cover the last onside kick. A 26-21 loss ended the championship dream.
The Bengals came back strong a year later, going 7-2 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but an early playoff loss ended that hope. The Cincinnati fans would wait until 1988 to get back to the Super Bowl, a bid that would end, yet again, with a heartbreaking loss to San Francisco. The search for the franchise’s first championship continues to this day.
The San Diego Chargers had lost playoff games at home each of the two previous years, coughing up #1 seeds in the process. In 1981, they won a third straight AFC West title, but had to go on the road for the playoffs. Ironically, it would be not having homefield advantage that probably did them in this time, although along the way they did win one of the greatest postseason games ever played.
The Air Coryell passing attack continue to define the 1981 San Diego Chargers. Even though offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs had departed to begin coaching the Washington Redskins, head coach Don Coryell and quarterback Dan Fouts kept churning out the passing yards.
Fouts threw for over 4,800 yards, had a TD-INT ratio of 33/17 and a completion percentage of 59 percent. Every one of these was a sterling number by the standards of the era and Fouts made the Pro Bowl.
Tight end Kellen Winslow was a 1st-team All-NFL talent, with 88 catches for 1,075 yards. Charlie Joiner didn’t make the Pro Bowl, although with his 70 catches for nearly 1,200 yards it’s hard to see why. Wes Chandler stepped in for the explosive John Jefferson after an early season trade and was a reliable third target. The running game had Chuck Muncie, who rolled up over 1,100 yards and made the Pro Bowl himself. It added up to the most productive offense in the NFL in points scored.
San Diego was lacking in the meat-and-potatoes aspect of football, on the offensive line and on defense. That was best demonstrated by the fact defensive tackle Gary Johnson was the only player outside the skill positions to make the Pro Bowl, and the defense ranked 26th in the NFL in points scored.
The Chargers were under a new defensive coordinator—ironically it was Jack Pardee, who had previously held the Redskins head coaching job that Gibbs took. The de facto coordinator-for-head-coach swap worked out better in Washington than it did in San Diego.
San Diego opened the season in Cleveland in an anticipated Monday Night game. The previous year the Browns had gotten the 2-seed in the AFC playoffs and shared the Chargers’ angst in being eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. Furthermore, Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe won the MVP award, making it a battle between him and Fouts a juicy one for the season’s first prime-time game.
It turned into a rout for the Bolts. Fouts was brilliant, with 19/25 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Joiner caught six passes for 191 yards, while Muncie ran for 161 yards. The 44-14 win foreshadowed a sharp decline for the Browns this season.
A home game with the mediocre Detroit Lions was a better game, going back and forth. The Fouts-to-Joiner combo overcame the lack of a running attack. The quarterback was 18/25 for 316 yards, while Joiner caught seven passes for 166 yards in a 27-23 win. A road win at another average opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs extended the record to 3-0.
The Charger defense forced eight turnovers, including an interception by none other than Johnson at the line of scrimmage, who returned it for the clinching touchdown in a 42-31 win.
San Diego went to Denver, the team they would fight all year for the AFC West crown and played a terrible game. The defense was lit up by Bronco quarterback Craig Morton, the Chargers trailed 35-0 in the third quarter and lost 42-24. Fouts bounced back a week later in a home game against then-AFC West rival Seattle. He threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, frequently targeting running back Clarence Williams out of the backfield in a 24-10 win.
When San Diego got into a passing war you could usually count on Fouts and his cadre of weapons eventually outgunning the opponent. That didn’t’ happen in a home game with the Minnesota Vikings. Fouts was brilliant again, with 310 yards, but Tommy Kramer was even better, throwing for 444 yards and leading a drive for a late field goal to win 33-31.
The worst defense in the league awaited the Chargers when they traveled across the country to play the Baltimore Colts. The result was predictable. Ten different San Diego receivers caught passes from Fouts in a 43-14 win. But a road trip to Chicago, a last-place team, resulted in another loss.
Fouts was wildly erratic, completing 13/43 passes, though his big-play ability did produce 295 yards. The Chargers couldn’t run the ball, while the Bears, with Walter Payton could. San Diego lost 20-17 in overtime, in a game they were a (-11) favorite.
The Chargers survived a shaky home game with the Chiefs. It started well, with a 19-7 lead at halftime, but Kansas City was getting a strong running game behind Joe Delaney, while Muncie couldn’t get going. KC took a 20-19 lead, before Fouts drove his team down the field for a 22-yard field goal from Rolf Benirschke to win it.
San Diego was 6-3 and in good position for the AFC playoffs, making their home date with the Cincinnati Bengals, also 6-3 and leading the AFC Central, crucial. The Chargers got off to a poor start and were trailing 24-7 in the second quarter. Fouts had the offense on the march to get back on the game when he threw a Pick-6. In a 31-7 hole, the game was all but over and it ended 40-17. The implications would ripple into January.
The Chargers had bigger immediate problems than postseason seeding when they turned up flat on a Monday Night in Seattle, against a weak Seahawks team. Air Coryell kept the team in the game for a half, trailing 24-17. But the lack of defense, the lack of a running game and three turnovers led to a 44-23 loss.
That marked two straight defeats by a combined score of 83-40. That’s bad defense by the standards of the 21st century and it was positively horrific by the standards of 1981.
San Diego was now 6-5 and two games back of Denver in the AFC West. Kansas City was nestled in between the two teams at 7-4. Oakland was struggling to capture its Super Bowl form, but they were hanging on the fringe at 5-6 and Oakland was where San Diego was going next.
The Chargers took a small measure of revenge for the previous year’s AFC Championship Game loss when they all but eliminated the Raiders and in devastating fashion. Winslow caught 13 passes for 144 yards and the offense unloaded in a 55-21 win. Denver lost and San Diego pulled to within a game, as the two rivals prepared to meet on the final Sunday in November.
In the biggest game of the regular season, it was the running game that stood tall. Muncie ran for a pair of early touchdowns and the Chargers outgained the Broncos 148-67 on the ground. They forced five turnovers and won decisively, 34-17. The AFC West was now a three-way tie at the top.
The Buffalo Bills were playoff-bound and hoping to avenge a tough loss in San Diego in the previous year’s divisional playoffs. Fouts threw for 343 yards, most of it to Winslow and Joiner, but the running game disappeared this week. San Diego lost the rush yardage battle 145-84 and they lost the football game 28-27. Denver beat Kansas City, so the Chargers were tied with the Chiefs at 8-6 and trailed the Broncos by a game.
San Diego went across the country to Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers were a mediocre team, but playing in an NFC Central division where their ultimate 9-7 record would be enough to win. It turned into a passing battle, with Fouts throwing for 351 yards and Doug Williams throwing for 321. It was a Chargers kind of a game and they got the win, with a late Benirscke field goal pulling it out, 24-23.
Kansas City lost and was eliminated, but Denver won and moved to 10-5. The good news was that the Chargers had the tiebreakers—if they beat the Raiders to close the season, San Diego would have the superior divisional record and could claim the AFC West if Denver lost. The Chargers also had hope of a wild-card, but would need the New York Jets to lose.
The San Diego-Oakland finale was on Monday Night, so the Chargers would know their fate when they took the field. They were pulling for either the Bears to upset the Broncos or the Packers to knock off the Jets.
Any hope of a wild-card faded quickly on Sunday afternoon, as the Jets crushed the Packers early and often. But out in Chicago, the Bears repaid the Chargers for that upset back in October. Chicago upended Denver and San Diego could now take the AFC West with a win. With the Raiders fading fast, the result seemed almost foregone.
Fouts threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Joiner in the second quarter, part of a 14/27 for 222 yards performance. The Bolts led 17-3 at the half and Muncie ran the ball well, gaining 94 yards and enabling San Diego to chisel out a 23-10 win. They had done it the hard way, but they were going to the playoffs as the #3 seed.
In 1981, the alignment was three divisions per conference and the playoff format was the same as what major league baseball uses today, with two wild-cards. So even though San Diego was on the road, they would still get a week off before going to play the 2-seed Miami Dolphins.
San Diego was a 2 ½ point favorite, in spite of being a game and a half behind Miami and on the road. Fouts drove the team down for a field goal. After a defensive stop, Chandler busted a 58-yard punt return for a 10-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the ball hit the ground and took a strange bounce back towards the kicking team and the Chargers recovered.
Muncie scored a touchdown and on the next possession, defensive back Glen Edwards intercepted a pass. San Diego put it in the end zone again and with a 24-0 lead, it looked this one was over. But, to borrow the words of Frank Drepin in The Naked Gun “my night was just beginning.”
The Dolphins made a quarterback change to veteran Don Strock and he quickly put 10 points on the board and had Miami on the San Diego 40-yard line with time winding down in the first half. The Dolphins ran a trick play, the hook-and-lateral, where a pass to the receiver was followed by a lateral to trailing running back. It worked for a touchdown and the score was 24-17 by halftime.
By the early part of the third quarter, that big lead was gone, as the Dolphins scored to tie it. Fortunately for San Diego, Winslow was having the night of his life, one that would be immortalized in NFL lore and he caught a 25-yard touchdown pass for a 31-24 lead. Miami answered right back to tie it, then took the lead 38-31 and then were driving in the fourth quarter for what looked like a clinching field goal.
The Chargers then got a break—or forced one, however you want to look at it. Miami running back Andra Franklin fumbled and San Diego recovered on their own 18-yard line with less than five minutes left. Fouts, who would finish the night 33/53 for 433 yards, led the offense immediately down the field and tied the game up with less than a minute to play.
Miami still drove right back to the San Diego 26-yard line and the Dolphins lined up for a field goal to win it. Winslow, who would finish the game with 13 catches for 166 yards, leapt up and blocked the kick to force overtime.
The Chargers won the coin toss and looked ready to finally end this game when Fouts led them down to the 10-yard line for a try at a chippie field goal in the era of sudden-death overtime. Benirschke hooked it left. The Dolphins got another chance of their own, an easy 34-yard try. San Diego blocked it again. Finally, with 1:08 remaining in the first overtime, Benirschke took advantage of his second chance, hitting a 29-yarder to win the game 41-38
It was one of the greatest NFL playoff games ever played, and the great performances abounded. Muncie had ran for 120 yards, while Joiner and Chandler each went over 100 yards receiving. On the Dolphin side, Strock threw for over 400 yards, but didn’t get the running game support that Fouts got from Muncie.
But the hero of the night was Winslow, with his big stats and blocked field goal. He was dehydrated, suffering exhaustion and the enduring image of the game was him being helped off the field by teammates when it was over, too tired to move.
San Diego now had to play the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati. The Bengals had finished 12-4 to the Chargers 10-6, but had San Diego won the regular season meeting between the two teams, it was the Bolts would have had the edge, owning a tiebreaker with both teams at 11-5. The difference in homefield advantage? Playing in warm San Diego or going to Cincinnati, where the temperatures would be (-32) with the wind chill.
The Chargers fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter before Fouts hit Winslow on a 33-yard touchdown pass. But that was the last offense San Diego showed. Muncie had a decent day running the ball, with 94 yards, but with the icy winds, Fouts couldn’t get anything going, finishing 15/28 for 185 yards and throwing two interceptions.
One of the interceptions was in the end zone in the second half, the most costly of three Charger turnovers that stopped drives. Cincinnati’s offense, geared to short passing with NFL MVP Ken Anderson, was better suited to impossible conditions and San Diego lost 27-7.
The Air Coryell era of the Chargers wasn’t over, but it was getting close. They would make the playoffs again in the strike-shortened year of 1982, but then faded from the postseason picture for the balance of Fouts’ career. This team of promise would never make a Super Bowl, but they entertained a lot of fans and in 1981, left a proud legacy of winning a playoff game that no one who watched will ever forget.
The first three years of the 1980s saw the Dallas Cowboys make three consecutive NFC Championship Games and come up short all three times. No ending was more painful than that suffered by the 1981 Dallas Cowboys, the unfortunate legacy of an excellent team that won a tough NFC East going away.
Dallas was a balanced team, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The offense was anchored by the left side of the offensive line, with Pro Bowlers in tackle Pat Donovan and guard Herbert Scott.
They cleared the way for 1,600-yard rusher Tony Dorsett, who made 1st-team All-Pro. Ron Springs chipped in 625 yards as a #2 back that a lot of teams would have gladly taken to be their starter.
Danny White was in his second year as the starting quarterback, after replacing the legendary Roger Staubach. White cut his interceptions nearly in half, while maintaining his already strong play elsewhere. He completed an excellent 57 percent of his passes, threw for over 3,000 yards and had a solid 7.9 yards-per-attempt.
The defense was similarly strong up front, with a great player in tackle Randy White, a Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer. Defensive end, Ed “Too Tall” Jones also made the Pro Bowl. The secondary was outstanding, with a Pro Bowl rookie in Everson Walls, who picked off 11 passes. Dennis Thurman was a ballhawk on the other corner, with nine picks of his own. Free safety Michael Downs had seven interceptions and the Cowboys had a reliable veteran presence in strong safety Charlie Waters.
They had a legendary head coach in Tom Landry at the helm, and there was little the 1981 Dallas Cowboys didn’t do extremely well. They came out of the gate strong with a 26-10 at Washington. Dallas broken open a 14-7 game in the second half thanks to a ground attack that piled up over 206 yards. The game was the coaching debut of the Redskins’ Joe Gibbs and while the Cowboys would eventually have their share of problems at Gibbs’ hand, they wouldn’t start today.
Another strong running performance led Dallas past the St. Louis Cardinals, with Dorsett gaining 129 yards in a 30-17 win. The great back then went for 162 yards on Monday Night in New England, as Dallas won 35-21. In all three of their victories, the Cowboys had broken games open after halftime, a fruit of consistently winning the ground war by a substantial margin.
Dallas faced the New York Giants at home. White’s efficiency made the difference in a tough defensive game. He was 14/17 for 204 yards and no interceptions in the 18-10. The early season schedule hadn’t been tough for the Cowboys–of the first four opponents only the Giants finished with a winning record, and that was at 9-7–but undefeated was still undefeated and the calendar was flipping into October.
The winning streak ended in St. Louis, as Dallas was unable to gain significant edges anywhere, the game stayed close and the Cardinals won 20-17 on a late field goal. It wasn’t the best place on the schedule for a loss because it came just before a big game in San Francisco. The 49ers were off to a good start, the first time they were looking like a contender in the era of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana and anxious to use this nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game to demonstrate they belonged in the league’s elite.
San Francisco came ready to play and Dallas did not. The Cowboys only rushed for 83 yards, while being carved up by Montana. They trailed 21-0 by the end of the first quarter and suffered a stunning 45-14 rout. And as events unfolded, you could credibly argue that this October 11 game was the one that cost Dallas a Super Bowl title.
Dorsett came back strong the next week at home against the Los Angeles Rams, a team that had been a postseason foil for the Cowboys in the 1970s and then again in 1980. But the Rams were fading to a 6-10 year and Dorsett rolled for 159 yards in a 29-17 win.
Another late Sunday afternoon kick was up against the Miami Dolphins, who were on their way to the AFC East title. The Cowboys trailed 27-14 in the fourth quarter when White took over. He found tight end Doug Cosbie on a 5-yard touchdown pass then hit Springs on a 32-yard scoring pass to win it 28-27. White went 22/32 for 354 yards, and on the defensive side, Thurman and Walls had two interceptions apiece in a clutch win.
The comeback win, moving the Cowboys to 6-2, was even more important, because a road date in Philadelphia was next. The Eagles were leading the NFC East at 7-1 and were also the team that knocked Dallas out of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game. What’s more, they had simply outmuscled the Cowboys in that game, dominating the ground game on both sides of the ball. Dallas needed this win for the standings and they needed to show that they wouldn’t be pushed over again.
It was another game of facing a double-digit deficit in the second half against a good team. Dallas trailed 14-3, but they were stopping the run this time, holding Philly’s Wilbert Montgomery to 65 yards. White again rallied the troops and again it started with a touchdown pass to Cosbie. This rally ended with a 9-yard touchdown run from Dorsett in a big 17-14 win.
The run of tough games continued with a Monday Night visit from playoff-bound Buffalo. Trailing 14-7 at the half, White continued to build his resume of second-half rallies. He found Dorsett, who turned one pass into a 73-yard touchdown play. Then White hit wide receiver Tony Hill on a 37-yard TD. Dorsett would rush for 117 yards, while the Dallas defense shut down a good Buffalo running back in Joe Cribbs. The Cowboys won 27-14.
Maybe what Dallas needed was to dig themselves an early hole, because doing it the other way didn’t work. In a road trip to Detroit, White opened with two touchdown passes to Drew Pearson and built a 17-0 lead. But this time, the rally came from the other side. Dorsett couldn’t get anything going, while Detroit’s great Billy Sims ran for 119 yards, caught an 81-yard touchdown pass and helped the Lions steal a 27-24 win.
A home date with Washington was next, and the Redskins were gaining steam in the second half of the season. This game was tied 10-10 in the third quarter, but the Cowboys’ rule was simple–if they were running the football, they would eventually break through.
Dorsett gained 115 yards in this game, while Springs added 85. And the breakthrough came with a touchdown pass to Cosbie, who didn’t catch a lot of passes, but seemed to make a disproportionate amount of clutch touchdown receptions. Dallas won this game 24-10.
On Thanksgiving Day, national viewers got to see two of the best backs in football, with Dorsett and Chicago’s Walter Payton. Payton’s team wasn’t as good, but he was the better back on this day, rushing for 179 yards and helping the Bears hold a 9-3 lead into the fourth quarter. But a missed extra point by Chicago loomed large and Dallas made them pay for the mistake, as Springs eventually ran in for the winning touchdown in the 10-9 final.
A few days later, on Monday Night, Philadelphia dropped a tough game in Miami. The result was that Dallas, at 10-3, was in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, with a one-game lead. A road trip to the terrible Baltimore Colts went as expected. White was not able to play, but against the worst defense in the NFL, all backup quarterback Glenn Carano needed to do was hand the football off. The team rushed for 354 yards, with Dorsett’s 175 leading the way in a 37-13 rout.
As Dallas was winning in Baltimore, they got good news from an hour down the road in Washington D.C., where the Eagles were playing the Redskins. Philadelphia lost another tough game. The Cowboys had a two-game lead with two to play. The NFC East wasn’t in the books yet–the Eagles could potentially win a tiebreaker, and the rivals would go head-to-head in their next game. But Dallas was closing in.
The Cowboys followed their formula in the December 13 game with Philly. They dug themselves a little hole, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter. They ran the football and stopped the run, as Dorsett outrushed Montgomery 101-67. And eventually that broke the opponent. Thurman picked off Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski three times and Walls added another pick. White played mistake-free football and threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Butch Johnson for good measure. The 21-10 win clinched the NFC East.
Dallas had at least the 2-seed and a home game in the divisional round secure, and the 1-seed was still in play. The Cowboys and 49ers were each 12-3, but of course San Francisco had the tiebreaker. Dallas would go to New York to face the Giants on the final Saturday of the season where they needed to win and then hope.
The winds were gusting at 20 mph, and while Dallas had something to play for, the Giants were fighting for survival, as they sought their first playoff berth of the Super Bowl era, going back to 1966. Dorsett and Springs were both shut down, and Dorsett fumbled with the Cowboys trying to protect a 10-7 lead late in the game. The Giants tied it in forced overtime. Dorsett fumbled again in OT, though he got a reprieve when the field goal was missed. But White then threw an interception and finally, Dallas lost, 13-10. They would go into the NFC playoffs as the 2-seed.
Dallas faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won the NFC Central with a mediocre 9-7 record. The game was scheduled early Saturday afternoon, the first game of second round action and the Cowboys were a solid (-8) favorite, the biggest spread of divisional weekend.
The game was scoreless through the first quarter, but Thurman made the first big play, intercepting Tampa quarterback Doug Williams. It set up a White-to-Hill 9-yard touchdown pass, and Dallas eventually took a 10-0 lead into halftime.
Dallas’ running game and secondary took the game over the second half. They won the rushing battle 212-74 and four different running backs, including Dorsett and Springs ran for touchdowns in the second half. Two of the scores were set up by interceptions, as the Cowboys’ picked off Williams four times on the day. Dallas pulled away to a 38-0 rout.
San Francisco eliminated the Giants and the showdown for the NFC Championship was set. The Cowboys-49ers game would produce one of the epic finishes in NFL history. Dallas held on to a 27-21 lead late in the game and had San Francisco pinned on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 left. The 49ers drove it down to the 6-yard line. Montana rolled right, couldn’t find anyone and tried to throw the ball out of the end zone. Wide receiver Dwight Clark skied and caught the pass with his fingertips for the touchdown.
That’s the standard recollection of this game and quite accurate, but Cowboy fans remember all too well that the story didn’t end there. White got the ball back and promptly hit Pearson on pass over the middle. The Dallas receiver looked ready to pull away, but he was barely pulled back by his jersey. Today, the play probably gets a flag for a horsecollar tackle and puts the Cowboys on the edge of field goal range.
As it was, they still had time, but White was sacked and fumbled on the next play. San Francisco recovered and that was the game. The 49ers went on and beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
The 1981 Dallas Cowboys were an outstanding team, but there’s a lot of what-ifs. What if they hadn’t no-showed the regular season game in San Francisco and earned homefield advantage for the playoffs? That leads into all the what-ifs for the conference championship game itself.
The Cowboys would make it back to the NFC Championship Game in 1982, but lose again, this time to the Redskins. The proud Dallas franchise had seen its last Super Bowl under Tom Landry and wouldn’t return until ten years later with Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.
Today’s NFL fans have grown accustomed to the New York Giants as a perennial contender, with their four Super Bowl titles, five NFC crowns and numerous playoff appearances over the last three decades. But the early part of the Super Bowl era didn’t go quite as well. The 1981 New York Giants were the team that ended a long run of franchise ineptitude and made it into the playoffs.
New York had last seen the postseason in a 1963 NFL championship game loss, three years prior to the birth of the Super Bowl. In the ensuing eighteen years that posted only two winning seasons and never made the playoffs. The 1981 team was coming off a 4-12 year and there was nothing suggesting this season as a breakthrough year.
Phil Simms was a young quarterback, still trying to find his footing and he played with efficiency. The 54.4% completion rate was pretty good, given the standards of the era and he only threw nine interceptions in ten starts, a reasonable pace. Scott Brunner would fill in for Simms after an injury in November and was considerably more erratic, at 41.6% and just 5.1 yards-per-pass.
The Giants relied on the running game, with Rob Carpenter running for 748 yards. Johnny Perkins was the top receiver at 858 yards. It was overall, a relatively talent-less offense, with no Pro Bowlers and they finished 22nd in the league in points scored.
It was defense that made it happen and in the process starting defining an entire generation of Giants football. Harry Carson made the Pro Bowl from his inside linebacker spot. A young corner, 23-year-old Mark Haynes, would have a good career and was growing into his role.
But no one made the impact of a rookie out of North Carolina by the name of Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor took his place at outside linebacker and it’s not enough to say he was Defensive Rookie of the Year or 1st-team All-Pro or even that he won NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lawrence Taylor completely revolutionized football, that rare player big enough to play close to the line and defend the run, quick enough to drop into coverage and an absolutely devastating pass rusher. He would become known as simply “L.T” and he became the standard for outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
L.T. wasn’t the only member of the defense that would change football. The coordinator was Bill Parcells and the staff included Bill Belichick. The 1981 New York Giants might have come from nowhere, but the benefit of hindsight makes it easy to understand how this defense ranked third in the NFL in points allowed, or to forget the Ray Perkins was actually the head coach.
The way season started in Philadelphia, against the defending NFC champion Eagles. The Giants were outrushed 178-55, dropping a 24-10 decision. A trip to Washington, to face another team that would be better at the end of the year than at the beginning produced an ugly game.
Neither team ran the ball, but this time New York forced four turnovers, the last a fumble recovery by defensive tackle George Martin at the Redskins 8-yard line who returned it for a touchdown and a 17-7 win. Simms played well in a home win over lowly New Orleans, going 28/41 for 324 yards, as both Perkins and Gary Shirk had 100-yard receiving days in a 20-7 win.
Simms made some big plays in Dallas, but also threw three interceptions as the Giants lost 18-10 to the Cowboys. So far though, there was reason to be happy. No one expected New York to compete with Philadelphia or Dallas, the class of the entire conference, and the Giants had beaten the two teams that were seen as more on their level. But there was no explaining away a bad performance at home against Green Bay. The New York defense was pounded on the ground by an offense not known for its running game, they dug themselves a 20-0 hole and lost 27-14.
The sluggish play carried over into a home date with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals and the game was scoreless into the second quarter. Finally, Simms hooked up with Perkins for a touchdown pass and the offense got rolling. Simms threw for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, spreading the ball to nine different receivers. Carpenter ran for 103 yards and the 34-14 win was the most balanced offensive effort of the young season.
If St. Louis was the most balanced game, the 32-0 win at lowly Seattle was the most complete all-around game. The Giants ran for 213 yards, led by Carpenter, and held the Seahawks to 29 yards rushing. New York then went to Atlanta and won an overtime thriller. Simms played another good game, going 19/32 for 256 yards and no interceptions, while Perkins caught five passes for 126 yards. It was enough to escape 27-24.
The Giants’ five wins were against teams that would finish 1981 with a losing record, but beating them all indicated that New York was at least rising above that level.
It was time for the Battle of the Big Apple, as the Giants faced the Jets. At the time, the Jets still played their home games in New York City itself, at old Shea Stadium, so the trip to the Meadowlands made it a true home game for the Giants, or at least as much as possible given their locations.
It didn’t help. The Jets were surging toward a playoff berth and dominated in a 26-7 win. The Giants rushed for just 55 yards and their only touchdown came on defense.
Another bad performance at Green Bay followed, as the Giants again dug a 20-0 hole against the Packers and turned it over seven times. This time New York made a strong rally, but still came up short 26-24.
The reason for two Giants-Packers games was that, prior to the realignment of 2002, the schedule format called for the two teams that finished last in each conference’s five-team divisions (the NFC East & NFC Central in this case, with the NFC West having just four teams) to play each other twice. The Green Bay sweep would have a surprising impact on the playoff picture, as they joined New York in rising to contention.
Any thought of the playoffs probably seemed to be fading badly when the Giants lost their third straight game, this one a heartbreaker to the Redskins. New York had a 20-10 lead on their home field in the third quarter and when this defense, that should have been lights out. But they gave up 184 yards rushing and were not able to run it themselves to control the clock. The Redskins tied it 27-27 and then won in overtime.
To make matters worse, Simms injured his shoulder and would miss the balance of the season. The hope now rested with Brunner—which is to say, New York needed to run the football and play defense like they never had before.
That’s exactly what happened in Philadelphia. The Giants and Eagles were tied 10-10 in the third quarter, but Carpenter pounded out 111 yards and after getting a go-ahead field goal, Terry Jackson picked off a Ron Jaworski pass and brought it 32 yards to the end zone. New York had the 20-10 win and no one could have guessed this represented two teams that were ships passing in the night in the 1981 season.
The San Francisco 49ers were having a big year in the first season of success under Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. New York dug a 14-0 hole and while the defense settled down, Brunner was no match for Montana. The Giants’ quarterback went 13/34 for 162 yards and threw three interceptions in a 17-10 loss.
At 6-7, New York wasn’t out of it. There were seven teams bunched up with six or seven wins. But with only one playoff berth left, there certainly wasn’t any room for error and help was still needed.
The winds were swirling at 28 mph on the first Sunday of December against the Los Angeles Rams, who had fallen hard to 6-10 this season after a decade of being among the NFL’s best. The Giants were outrushed and Brunner only threw for 67 yards. But Brunner took care of the ball, the rest of the offense followed suit and a three-zip margin in turnovers swung the game to New York, 10-7.
In the meantime, results elsewhere fell New York’s way and all contenders for the final NFC playoff berth were tied at 7-7. The Giants continued to take care of business in St. Louis, as Carpenter ran for 117 yards and even with Brunner only throwing for 86 yards, the defense delivered a 20-10 win.
Four teams were 8-7, but two of them, Tampa Bay and Detroit, would play head-to-head for the NFC Central title. That left the Giants and Packers—and Green Bay had the edge going into Week 16, thanks for that head-to-head sweep. New York also had one other hope—unbelievably, Philadelphia had come back to the pack and were 9-6. The Eagles still had the first of what was two wild-card spots, but if they lost and the Giants won, New York could move ahead on the divisional record tiebreaker.
These scenarios were all well and good, but they presumed a Giants’ victory—and New York had to face NFC East champ Dallas. The Cowboys still had a shot at the #1 seed if the 49ers lost their regular season finale. And the Giants-Cowboys game would take place on Saturday, in advance of all other NFC games.
The weather was again brutal in the Meadowlands, with 20 mph winds. The first half went by scoreless, the teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but then Dallas got a field goal to get the lead and had the ball late in the game in positon to run out the clock.
New York’s defense was shutting down Dallas’ star running back Tony Dorsett and they forced a Dorsett fumble, recovered by Martin. It looked like the offense would miss the opportunity, but Brunner completed a 4th-and-13 pass and kicker Joe Danelo tied the game with a 40-yard field goal. We were going to overtime.
Dorsett fumbled again in overtime and the Giants took over at midfield. A 23-yard run by Brunner off a bootleg set up a Danelo field goal. But he missed, one of three missed field goals on the afternoon.
The defense delivered one more time, as rookie Byron Hunt intercepted a pass and set up another field goal try. This time, Danelo delivered. The 13-10 win kept New York alive.
Now the Giants needed help from an unusual source—the Jets were hosting the Packers and the crosstown rival also needed to win to make the playoffs. It made for a Sunday when two long-suffering fan bases in the Big Apple were united together. And the Jets made it look easy, crushing Green Bay 28-3. New York was going to the postseason.
The Eagles had arrested their late slide with a blowout win over the Cardinals, so New York traveled to Philadelphia for the wild-card game. A team built on defense and controlling tempo with the running game would like nothing more than some gift points and that’s exactly what the Giants had waiting for them two days after Christmas.
New York recovered a fumble off a punt and Brunner found running back Leon Bright with a nine-yard touchdown pass. A missed PAT kept the score 6-0. Brunner then hit wide receiver John Mistler with a ten-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Philadelphia botched it and Haynes recovered in the end zone. The crowd—indeed the entire country was stunned as the seven-point underdog Giants took a 20-0 lead into the second quarter.
Philadelphia scored a touchdown, but Brunner answered with a touchdown pass to Tom Mullady for a 27-7 lead. When the Eagles scored on the first possession of the third quarter, it was time to get a little nervous, as that missed extra point now seemed to loom large. The Giant defense stayed in control of the game, but the offense was unable to get that one field goal that would have put the game away in the era prior to the two-point conversion in the NFL.
The Eagles finally cut the lead to 27-21 with 2:51 left and they logically kicked it deep, trusting their defense. But Carpenter, who rushed for 161 yards, was never bigger than he was right now. He moved the chains and New York never gave up the football, preserving the win.
New York’s magical ride finally ended in San Francisco. Montana threw for 304 yards and Brunner wasn’t going to keep up in a game like that. The Giants trailed 24-7 and ended up losing 38-24.
It’s still tough to imagine a sweeter ending for Giants fans. They had their long-sought playoff appearance and they closed the year by beating Dallas to make the postseason and then knocking Philadelphia out once they got there. Not a bad legacy for the 1981 New York Giants.
The 1981 Philadelphia Eagles go down as one of the big disappointments in a franchise history that has inflicted a lot upon its great fan base. The Eagles came into 1981 fresh off three straight playoff appearances and had reached the Super Bowl in 1980. After a blazing start in 1981, they looked ready to finish the job. But the subsequent collapse saw them first give up the NFC East and then make an early playoff exit.
Head coach Dick Vermeil oversaw a team with the best defense in the NFL. Nose tackle Charles Johnson was a first-team All-Pro, and other Pro Bowlers included inside linebacker Frank LeMaster, outside linebacker Jerry Robinson and corner Roynell Young.
On the other corner was 27-year-old Herm Edwards, to achieve later fame as a head coach and ESPN analyst. This group gave up the fewest points in the league.
The offense only had one Pro Bowler, right tackle Jerry Sisemore, but they still ranked fifth in points scored. Wilbert Montgomery ran for over 1,400 yards and was second on the team in receptions. Harold Carmichael, the 6’8” receiver led the team with 61 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving. The quarterback was another future ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski.
“Jaws” threw for over 3,000 yards and his 54.2% completion rate was pretty good for this era, as was the 6.7 yards-per-pass. The TD-INT ratio of 23/20 could have been better, but it was manageable by the standards of 1981.
Philadelphia was hungry to avenge their Super Bowl loss to the Oakland Raiders the previous January and started out the season looking like they intended to do exactly that. The Eagles opened the season at the New York Giants, who had been awful for well over a decade. Philly spotted New York a 3-0 lead and then gradually took over the game thanks to 178-55 edge in rush yardage behind Montgomery. The final was 24-10.
A visit to the New England Patriots, who were expected to good, produced another solid ground effort with Montgomery’s 137 yards leading the way. Philadelphia broke open a 3-3 game at the half with the combination of the running game and five interceptions on defense leading a 13-3 win.
Thursday Night games were rare at this time, and the Eagles-Bills game between two contenders was a good one. Buffalo was the defending AFC East champs and would make the playoffs again in 1981. Philadelphia trailed 14-10 at the half before Jaworski found Carmichael with a touchdown pass to get the lead.
It was Jaws’ best game of the young season, going 20/32 for 240 yards and no interceptions. Montgomery rushed for 125 yards, that top-rated defense took over the second half and the 20-14 win moved the Eagles to 3-0. Philadelphia returned home to play Washington, and took over late, turning a 14-13 fourth quarter lead into a 36-13 win.
Another prime-time game opened up October, this one on Monday Night at home against the Atlanta Falcons. At the start of the season it was an anticipated battle between one team who had won the NFC crown in 1980 and another who had been the NFC’s top playoff seed. The Falcons struggled to a 7-9 record this year, but they gave the Eagles a tough game. Philadelphia survived 16-13 because Jaworski steered clear of mistakes while the defense picked off Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski twice.
The defense dominated a weak New Orleans team, holding the Saints to 90 rush yards and forcing four turnovers in a 31-14 win. Philadelphia was riding high at 6-0 and looking every bit like the next Super Bowl champions.
The first crack in the armor came in Minnesota, where the Vikings were leading the NFC Central. Jaworski threw for 330 yards, but four turnovers doomed Philly in a 35-23 loss. Minnesota would fall even worse than Philadelphia, falling out of the playoffs, but the Vikes had handed the Eagles their first loss.
Montgomery ran for 119 yards at home against Tampa Bay, the team that would eventually win the NFC Central, while the defense intercepted Doug Williams three times in a 20-10 win that closed October. The first day of November would bring the Dallas Cowboys to town, Philly’s only competition for the division crown and a rematch of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game.
In that playoff victory, Montgomery had run wild. He didn’t this time and the Eagles generated only 94 rush yards. Even so, after Jaworski found Carmichael on an 85-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter for a 14-3, everything looked right with the world. But the failure to run the ball caught up with Philly and the defense cracked in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 loss.
Two losses in three games were cause for concern, but Philadelphia responded with offensive outbursts in two straight blowout wins. Jaworski threw five touchdowns in a 52-10 win at the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, while Montgomery and the ground attack piled up the yardage in a 38-13 demolition of the woeful Baltimore Colts.
The record was 9-2 and in spite of the Dallas loss, everything was still just fine in Philadelphia. It was then, just prior to Thanksgiving, that the wheels of the season came off.
The Eagles and Giants were tied 10-10 after three quarter when New York got a field goal and Jaworski threw a Pick-6 that led to a 20-10 loss. The quarterback similarly struggled on Monday Night in Miami, going 12/24 for 91 yards. The Eagles still led 10-3 against the soon-to-be AFC East champs, but another fourth quarter failure led to a 13-10 loss.
A road trip to Washington was next and again Philadelphia was in position to win, leading 13-6 in the fourth quarter. After the Redskins kicked a field goal, Jaworski threw a Pick-6 near midfield, leading to a 15-13 loss, one of three interceptions on the day.
Just like that, Philadelphia was two games back of Dallas with two to play and the postseason was not yet secure. The Eagles’ road game with the Cowboys was next and if Philly could win this game, they were still in position to win the NFC East on a tiebreaker.
One more time, the Eagles failed in the second half, this time for a late Sunday afternoon national audience. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but again failed to make headway on the ground against the Cowboy defense. Jaworski couldn’t get it done without the ground support and threw four interceptions, leading to a 21-10 loss.
The team with the best defense in the NFL had given games up late four straight weeks. They would have to take the long road to the Super Bowl…that is, if they even made the playoffs at all. Unbelievably, the Eagles needed to win at home against the Cardinals, or hope the Green Bay Packers lost in the finale, in order to qualify.
Turnovers still plagued Philadelphia in the finale, as they gave it up five times. But this time it didn’t matter. The defense forced six turnovers of their own, Montgomery ran for 108 yards, while Jaws was a sharp 13/19 for 172 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The 38-0 win wasn’t necessary—Green Bay lost to the New York Jets decisively—but after the collapse, the Eagles had at least played their way to the postseason rather than backing in.
And there was still an opportunity for redemption. They would host the NFC wild-card game against the New York Giants, who had played their latter part of the year with backup quarterback Scott Brunner and had offensive problems most of the year.
The playoff game turned out to be a nightmare. The Eagles fumbled a punt, setting up a touchdown. They fumbled a kickoff that was recovered by the Giants in the end zone. Montgomery ran for just 65 yards, while New York counterpart Rob Carpenter went for 161. Philadelphia fell behind 20-0 and though they closed to 27-21 with less than three minutes to go, the top-rated defense was unable to get the ball back.
It’s difficult to imagine a team with the best defense and a top-five offense only finishing 10-6 and flaming out like this in the playoffs. The 1981 Philadelphia Eagles team simply found ways to lose games at the worst possible time and it foreshadowed the end of this brief era of franchise ascendancy.
Philadelphia missed the playoffs in the strike-shortened year of 1982, and Vermeil resigned, citing burnout. The Eagles went into disrepair for a few years, before Buddy Ryan gave them a few short years of contention in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The franchise didn’t make the Super Bowl until the Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb era in 2004, and even that period is marked by several playoff disappointments. But perhaps no disappointment was bigger than a potentially great team collapsing at the end of 1981.
The 1981 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a team trying to avoid falling back into the abyss. The franchise that was founded in 1976 had their breakthrough year in 1979 when they reached the NFC Championship Game. But after slipping back to 5-10-1 in 1980, the Buccaneers entered 1981 needing to prove they weren’t a one-year wonder. They made the necessary improvements and were able to win a balanced division.
Head coach John McKay didn’t have great talent to work with—only two players had Pro Bowl years in 1981. One of them was defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, easily the team’s best player and two years removed from being Defensive Player of the Year. The other was tight end Jimmie Giles, who caught 45 passes for 786 yards.
Doug Williams was at quarterback and the strong-armed 26-year-old threw for over 3,500 yards with a solid 7.6 yards-per-attempt and a respectable 19/14 TD-INT ratio. Williams favorite target was not Giles, but big-play receiver Kevin House, who racked over up over 1100 yards.
The running game lacked consistency, undoubtedly due in large part to the lack of talent up front. Jerry Eckwood led the team for 651 yards and while backup James Wilder would eventually become one of the league’s best, the 23-year-old was still learning in 1981.
Tampa Bay’s offense struggled and ranked 18th in the NFL in points scored. But the defense made up for it. They weren’t bursting at the seams with talent, but in addition to Selmon, they had a ballhawking free safety in Cedric Brown, who picked off nine passes. The defense also benefitted from the addition of rookie outside linebacker Hugh Green.
The opening game of the season was on a Saturday night against the Minnesota Vikings, who had won the old NFC Central (the Bucs plus the four current teams of the NFC North) in 1980. Minnesota had taken the division eight times in the 1970s and Tampa Bay needed to quell any ideas of a long-term restoration.
Williams threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to House and the Bucs led 14-13 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings were driving when Neal Colzie intercepted a pass on the 18-yard line and took it all the way to the house, sealing a 21-13 win.
The running game went completely AWOL in Kansas City the following week, rushing for just 12 yards in a 19-10 loss. Another loss came at Chicago, the worst team in the division. Tampa’s Mike Washington got the game off to a good start with a Pick-6, but the Bucs gave up a special teams TD and again failed to run the ball in a 28-17 loss.
Eckwood and Wilder combined to get the ground attack going at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. They combined for 147 yards, and with adequate support, Williams played an efficient, mistake-free game, going 17/30 for 162 yards. The Bucs won 20-10.
The Detroit Lions would be in the mix all season long this year. They came to Tampa and grabbed a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Williams answered by twice finding House for touchdowns, throwing two more touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and the defense got two interceptions apiece from Brown and Cecil Johnson. The result was a 28-10 win.
Eckwood and Wilder made a good tag-team again in Green Bay, combining for 152 yards and the defense picked off four Lynn Dickey passes in a 21-10 win. The winning streak came to an end the following week in an exciting game at Oakland.
The Bucs trailed 15-0 against the defending Super Bowl champions (although the Raiders would miss the playoffs in 1981), but a Williams-to-House 77-yard touchdown strike keyed a rally where Tampa got a 16-15 lead, before Oakland answered one last time with a field goal to win it.
It was a tough part of the schedule, as Tampa Bay again went on the road to face a Super Bowl team from 1980, this time the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. And the Eagles were off to a strong 6-1 start. Tampa Bay was a (+9.5) underdog and looked the part. Williams was an erratic 19/45 for 243 yards and intercepted three times, while the defense allowed 189 rush yards in a 20-10 loss.
An easier opponent, the Bears at home, brought better results. Eckwood outrushed the great Walter Payton and Tampa enjoyed a 209-92 advantage in rush yardage. Williams threw two long touchdown passes, 81 yards to Giles and 51 to House in the 20-10 victory.
Tampa Bay was 5-4 and the Chicago game was the first of three divisional games in a four-week span. The subsequent trip to Minnesota couldn’t have gone much worse, as the Bucs were outrushed 205-43 and gave up the game’s first 23 points before making the final cosmetically close, at 25-10. Minnesota was emerging as the team to beat in the NFC Central.
A sluggish start at home against Green Bay followed, as Tampa Bay trailed 3-0 going into the second quarter, with the Packers driving. Then Brown turned the tide, with an interception and 81-yard return for a touchdown. It unleashed the floodgates, as the Bucs picked off backup Packer quarterback Rich Campbell four times and their own third-string running back James Owens ran for 112 yards in a 37-3 rout.
Tampa Bay went to New Orleans on the final Sunday of November and spotted the lowly Saints a 14-0 lead, before again getting rolling and winning easily. Williams went 16/24 for 218 yards and two touchdowns, while House caught six passes for 107 yards. The final was 31-14.
The next week’s home game with Atlanta required some later heroics. The Bucs trailed 23-17 in the fourth quarter. But Williams was playing well, finishing the day at 19/29 for 336 yards and no interceptions. He also threw two touchdowns and the biggest one was the 71-yard strike to House to win the game 24-23.
While Tampa Bay was winning, Minnesota had been flailing. The Vikings, once 7-4, dropped three in a row and with two weeks to go, the Bucs were suddenly in sole possession of first place, with Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit all a game back.
A tough home loss to a good San Diego Chargers team ended the win streak. Williams and Dan Fouts went back-and-forth in a passing war, each clearing the 300-yard barrier. San Diego kicked a late field goal to win 24-23. The Vikings also lost though, and even though the Packers and Lions both won to move to 8-7, the Bucs still had control of their playoff fate.
Tampa Bay would visit Detroit for the final game of the season. Both teams held a tiebreaker edge on the Packers, so Bucs-Lions was straight-up for the division title. As far as the wild-card went, Tampa Bay began the season’s final week in decent shape here too. Conference record was the key tiebreaker when multiple teams were packed together and Tampa had the edge of everyone here.
But on the Saturday of the last week, the New York Giants upset the Dallas Cowboys 13-10 in overtime. The win ensured that the wild-card contenders Eagles and Giants would win at least nine games. And that in turn meant that Tampa Bay had to win the NFC Central or go home.
It was fitting that a big play to House was the key moment in the Silverdome. Tampa Bay trailed 7-3 and was backed up in their own end when Williams found House on an 84-yard touchdown pass. The teams traded field goals as the defenses took over and it was 13-10 in the fourth quarter.
Detroit had the ball deep in their own end when Tampa’s David Logan scooped up a fumble at the 21-yard line and took it into the end zone. The Lions were able to answer with a touchdown, but the Buccaneers salted away the 20-17 win.
Williams wasn’t great, completing just 8/19 passes. But he got 172 yards out of the completions and didn’t make any mistakes. Meanwhile, Brown had picked off Lion quarterback Eric Hipple twice, going along with the big Logan fumble recovery in an opportunistic day for the Bucs.
With a 9-7 record, no one was expecting anything from Tampa Bay in the playoffs. The format prior to 1990 had the #3 division winner seeded straight into the divisional weekend, so the Bucs were going to Dallas as a (+8) underdog, the biggest spread of the second round.
They hung with the Cowboys through a scoreless first quarter, but then it got ugly. Williams was intercepted four times, and the defense was run over for 212 yards on the ground. The final was 38-0.
Tampa Bay’s second division title in three years still established that they were a legitimate player in the NFC Central. They made the playoffs again in 1982. And while a long period of losing was ahead for this franchise, it wouldn’t be under the watch of John McKay or Doug Williams.
The Minnesota Vikings had settled into a pattern of mediocrity by the time the 1980s arrived. The franchise had dominated the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) through the 1970s, but 1977 was the last time they were really among the NFL elite.
The Vikings still won division titles in 1978 and 1980, but they were now anywhere from 9-7 to 7-9. The 1981 Minnesota Vikings continued that pattern, with a disappointing late season fade that cost them a division crown.
Minnesota had evolved from a defense-first team during its heyday to one that relied on its offense. In 1981, the Vikings ranked 13th in the NFL in points scored, while struggling to a 21st ranking in points allowed.
The key to the offense was a good group of receivers. Ahmad Rashad made the Pro Bowl at age 32, as did tight end Joe Senser. And the best skill player of all was running back Ted Brown, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 83 passes to lead the lead the team.
Quarterback Tommy Kramer had plenty to work with, as he completed a solid 54.3% of his passes, although Kramer’s 24 interceptions, while not intolerable in this era, were on the high side. Particularly given that his 6.6 yards-per-pass was not exceptionally high.
Defensively, Minnesota had a Pro Bowler in veteran outside linebacker Matt Blair. And right tackle Ron Yary, a future Hall of Famer, was still going strong at age 35. But there weren’t enough like them on defense or in the trenches to make the Vikings a playoff team.
Whatever problems Bud Grant’s team had, they had still won the NFC Central in 1980, and the season opener saw them go to Tampa Bay, who had taken the division in 1979. Minnesota trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter and was driving to take the lead, when Kramer was picked off in the red zone and the ball taken the other way for a touchdown. It was a fitting dagger in a game where the Vikes ran 83 plays to 50 for the Buccaneers, but turned the ball over four times.
Minnesota came home to the old outdoor Metropolitan Stadium for a Monday Night date with the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. The Raiders didn’t have a good year in 1981, but you would never have guessed it on this night. The Vikings were outrushed 149-42, the Raiders scored two touchdowns on defense and Minnesota took a 36-10 rout.
A home game with Detroit was now getting perilously close to must-win in September. Brown rushed for 77 yards along with catching nine passes for 115 yards. Minnesota had leads of 14-0 and 23-14, before falling behind by a point and then getting a late Rick Danmeier field goal to win 26-24.
The turnaround continued with two more wins over NFC Central foes. Minnesota played Green Bay in a road game at Milwaukee, where the Packers used to play three games a year. After spotting the Packers a 10-0 lead, the Vikes took over, with Brown running for 109 yards in a 30-13 win. Then they won a home game with the Bears, shutting down the great Walter Payton, getting 97 yards from Brown, taking a 17-0 lead and holding on for a 24-21 win.
Minnesota went to San Diego in Week 6. The Chargers were the two-time defending AFC West champs, would win a third division crown this year and had the most feared passing attack in the NFL with Dan Fouts at quarterback. This game showed Tommy Kramer at his best. The Viking quarterback had the ability to be genuinely prolific and with a 444-yard performance he outgunned Fouts in the latter’s house.
Trailing 31-24, Kramer threw what appeared to be a tying touchdown to Terry LeCount. But a botched extra point kept Minnesota down by a point. No matter. Kramer led his team back into field goal range and Danmeier won it with a 38-yard field goal.
Another impressive win came next at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, who were the defending NFC champs and came to the old Met at 6-0. Kramer threw four touchdowns, no interceptions and Brown caught ten passes out of the backfield in a 35-23 win that was never close.
Just as the Vikings were getting people excited though, they slipped back. In a home game with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota abandoned the running game, threw 55 times and lost 30-17. The running game was completely unproductive the following Monday Night in Denver, as the Vikings fell behind the Broncos 19-3 before late rally made the game cosmetically close at 19-17 (the two-point conversion was still more than a decade away in the NFL).
A home game with Tampa Bay was going to be key in what was proving to be a stacked NFC Central race, with the Vikings, Buccaneers, Lions and Packers all jousting. Minnesota played a terrific game against Tampa, as Brown got back into the flow with 129 yards rushing and eight catches. Senser caught eight passes for 101 yards, as Minnesota took a 23-0 lead in the third quarter and won 25-10.
Kramer showed his ability to stretch the field in a 20-10 home win over the New Orleans Saints. The quarterback was little erratic, at 19/40, but he made the completions count for 287 yards, including big downfield throws to receivers Sammy White and LeCount.
The record was 7-4 and Minnesota was in first place as they got set for their third Monday Night appearance of the season, this was one in Atlanta. The Falcons would struggle to a losing record after a 1980 season where they had won twelve games. The national audience watched the best and worst of Tommy Kramer on display.
Kramer threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns, keeping the Vikings in the game. But he also threw four interceptions and the most costly was a Pick-6 that came with the score tied 24-24 and gave Atlanta the lead. Two more drives resulted in field goals, but Minnesota could not get over the hump and lost 31-30.
Three straight divisional games loomed, and the Vikings, at 7-5, still had sole possession of first and were a (-7) favorites in a home date with the Packers. Kramer hit Rashad for a 50-yard strike in the first quarter, then followed it up with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Senser and a 14-0 lead. In spite of the early lead, the Vikings abandoned the run, opting to throw the ball 55 times. Kramer threw five interceptions and the game completely got away, in a 35-23 loss.
The NFC Central was now a three-way tie with the Vikings, Buccaneers and Lions all at 7-6 and the Packers a game back.
Minnesota’s next game was in Chicago, the division’s one non-contender. It was a defensive battle, and the Vikings had a 7-3 lead in the fourth quarter. For some reason though, Minnesota again did not give Brown the ball even though the game situation made it possible. They threw 36 times, only ran it 19 and their five turnovers did them in. The Bears got a late 72-yard touchdown pass and won 10-9.
Tampa Bay moved to 8-6, while Minnesota was joined by Detroit and Green Bay at 7-7. The Vikings-Lions game the following Saturday was now a literal playoff game for Minnesota. In the final week, Detroit would play Tampa Bay head-to-head, and Lion victory over the Vikings would thereby ensure that either Detroit or Tampa would finish the season at 9-7. Minnesota, obviously, could not afford an eighth loss.
That Saturday afternoon in the Silverdome proved to be a deflating end to a once-promising playoff run. The Viking rush defense was pounded by Billy Sims and the Lions. Kramer threw four interceptions and the result was a 45-17 blowout.
Minnesota closed the season at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. The 10-6 loss that sent the Vikes to a losing season was depressing, although perhaps nothing could be more depressing than having to finish the season by playing a meaningless game in temperatures that were (-8) with the windchill. Fittingly, Brown was ignored, only getting six carries and the lack of a running game meant turnovers—four of them in all—causing the defeat.
The 1981 Minnesota Vikings are an unfortunate case of missed opportunity. They weren’t going to a Super Bowl in any case—the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the NFC. But another Central division title was theirs for the taking and this franchise, built on a tradition of physical football, seemed to abandon that at the season’s most critical moment.
The New England Patriots were gradually starting to become a franchise with expectations in the latter part of the 1970s. In 1976, the Pats got their first playoff berth of the Super Bowl era. In 1978 they won the AFC East. Even the three years where they missed the playoffs (1977, 1979, 1980) were marked by winning seasons.
Thus, while they were a far cry from a dynasty, they had played consistently well enough to merit excitement at the start of each season. That’s what makes the complete collapse of the 1981 New England Patriots even more disheartening.
The Pats had talent, starting with left tackle John Hannah, a 1st-team All-Pro and in the conversation as the greatest offensive lineman of all time. They had balance at the skill positons, with fullback Sam Cunningham and a good rookie in Tony Collins in the backfield. Stanley Morgan was a 1,000-yard receiver with big play capability. Steve Grogan was at quarterback, and while he was mistake-prone, he also had a demonstrated capacity to be prolific.
Defensively, there weren’t any Pro Bowlers in 1981, but inside linebacker Steve Nelson had achieved that designation previously and the corners were very talented, with Raymond Clayborn and Mike Haynes both having lockdown ability.
In spite of all this, the Patriots were mediocre on offense (15th in the NFL in points scored) and subpar on defense (22nd in points allowed). But even those disappointing ranks should have at least given the team a respectable record. Instead, the 1981 New England Patriots mastered the art of losing close games and the losses just piled up, all the way to the number one pick in the ensuing spring’s NFL draft.
New England opened the season at home with the Baltimore Colts and in spite of playing a bad team, the Pats allowed 249 yards on the ground and dropped a 29-28 decision. The next game was in Philadelphia, where the Eagles were coming off a Super Bowl appearance and would get off to a 6-0 start in 1981. The rush defense again faltered, allowing 220 yards, in a 13-3 loss.
Grogan threw three interceptions at Philly and had been relieved by Matt Cavanaugh, the quarterback of Pitt’s 1976 national championship team, but mostly unaccomplished in the NFL. Cavanaugh got the call for a Monday Night home date with the Dallas Cowboys and threw four interceptions of his own. Facing a 1st-team All-NFL running back in Tony Dorsett, it’s no surprise that the defense continued to get muscled up front, again allowing over 200 yards in a 35-21 loss.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were falling into mediocrity, two years removed from the last Super Bowl title of the Steel Curtain era, but they jumped out to a 14-zip lead on New England. The Patriots still trailed 21-7 when Cavanaugh rallied the offense to tie the game, forcing overtime on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Morgan. But the Steelers won in OT, 27-21.
New England’s season had already slipped away—no team had ever made the playoffs after an 0-4 start and that streak would hold until the San Diego Chargers pulled it off in 1992. The Pats at least got their first win in Week 5. They beat a decent Kansas City Chiefs team, 33-17 at home.
The rush defense was no better, but this time the Patriots answered with a potent ground game of their own, as Collins led an attack that piled up 240 yards. Another running back, Andy Johnson, got in the act with the passing game, finding Morgan for a touchdown on a halfback pass.
New England traveled to old Shea Stadium to face the New York Jets, who were trying to recover from a slow start themselves, having begun the year 1-3-1. Grogan stepped in for Cavanaugh and was brilliant, going 19/32 for 330 yards. But there was no running game and the Jets pulled it out 28-24. These two division rivals, within a half-game of each other coming in, would go in opposite direction. The Jets won ten games and made the playoffs.
The Johnson-to-Morgan passing combination worked to create another touchdown pass the next week at home against the Houston Oilers. More important, Collins outrushed the great Houston back Earl Campbell and the Pats won going away, 38-10. The following week in Washington, they were in position to get some momentum, when they jumped out to an early lead against a lowly Redskins team.
But two deep drives resulted in field goals and kept Washington in the game. When New England gave up a punt return for a touchdown, the Patriots ended up on the wrong side of a 24-22 final. Just as the Jets game gave an opponent new life, this one did the same for the Redskins—they stormed on to finish 8-8 after losing the first five and one year later won the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Patriots kept free-falling.
New England had the lead at defending Super Bowl champion Oakland the following week, up 17-13 in the fourth quarter, with Grogan delivering a strong 17/30 for 233 yards performance. But the inability to run the ball caught up with the Pats in the fourth quarter and the Raiders won 27-17.
More heartbreak came at home against archrival Miami. Grogan got the game off to a strong start, hitting Morgan on a 76-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots led 17-6 against a team that would ultimately win the AFC East and get the 2-seed in the playoffs. But Grogan also threw four interceptions, the rush defense again allowed 200-plus yards and the game went to overtime tied 27-27. The Dolphins won it with a field goal.
A strong defensive effort against the Jets went to waste in a 17-6 loss. Another AFC East rival squarely in the mix of the playoff race was the Buffalo Bills, the defending divisional champs who would be a wild-card this year. New England was competitive on the road, with the improbable Andy Johnson-to-Stanley Morgan passing combo producing its third touchdown of the year on a 56-yard play. The Pats led 17-13 before the Bills drove for the winning touchdown.
Cavanaugh was back behind center, and he would end up starting seven games this season. In a home date with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, he went 17/24 for 245 yards, but threw two interceptions. Cardinal counterpart Neil Lomax was 20/28 for 280 yards and no picks and St. Louis won 27-20.
The calendar went to December and though New England was a miserable 2-11, there was still a chance to play spoiler, with a road game in Miami and home date with Buffalo. They were tied 14-14 with the Dolphins, but the typically poor rush defense again caught up with the Pats in the fourth quarter of a 24-14 loss. Their problems came early against Buffalo, giving up a couple early touchdowns in a 19-10 defeat.
It was showdown time in Baltimore to end the season. The Patriots were 2-13, while the Colts hadn’t won since the season-opener in Foxboro. The loser of this game got the top pick in the draft. Third-string quarterback got a start for New England, but threw three interceptions. Cavanaugh came in and went 11/16 for 145 yards, but it wasn’t enough. One more close loss ended the season, 23-21.
The 1981 season was misery for New England, with the bookend losses to Baltimore—a much more horrific team, who set defensive records for incompetence—being the lowlight point. But how things shook out in the NFL draft is probably even worse.
Marcus Allen was the Heisman Trophy winner and available. The Patriots, along with several other teams, passed on Allen. New England drafted defensive tackle Kenneth Sims out of Texas, who proved to be a monumental bust. Allen, of course, would be a Super Bowl MVP by 1983, a league MVP by 1985 and make the Hall of Fame.
In fairness to New England, Sims was a consensus #1 choice, and they aren’t the only team who would have made the mistake. And ten teams passed on the chance to draft Allen. But given how disappointing the 1981 season was in Foxboro regardless, the draft legacy was just one more dose of salt in the wound.