The 1982 NFL season was the strangest in the league’s history. A player’s strike after two games interrupted the season and it didn’t resume until November. When the league picked up on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, there was only time for a nine-game schedule. A decision was made to abolish divisional distinctions, expand the playoffs and just seed each conference 1 thru 8.
The result was a first round of the postseason that had a March Madness feel to it, with four games on both Saturday and Sunday, and jammed into what were then two timeslots (prime-time playoff games were still a ways off into the future).
This blog compilation focuses on the seasons of the league’s six most consequential teams, with a game-by-game narrative of each one. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and has been modestly edited to eliminate obvious redundancies. Playoff games are told in detail from the perspective of the team that won and treated as an epilogue for the team that lost.
You’ll read about the following…
*How the Washington Redskins, in the second year under Joe Gibbs, won the franchise’s first Super Bowl behind the running of big John Riggins.
*The Miami Dolphins made it to a Super Bowl behind a stingy defense, but were held back by offensive shortcomings that led them to draft Dan Marino the following spring.
*The Dallas Cowboys made the NFC Championship Game for a third straight year, but another loss began the gradual descent of the Tom Landry era.
*The New York Jets stepped up and made an AFC Championship Game, with a good defense and some great play from running back Freeman McNeil.
*The Raiders moved to Los Angeles and added two fantastic rookies in Marcus Allen and Howie Long. They rolled to a 1-seed in the AFC before suffering an upset to the Jets.
*The Green Bay Packers made the playoffs for the only time in the nine-year coaching tenure of Bart Starr behind an aggressive passing game led by quarterback Lynn Dickey and talented receivers in James Lofton and John Jefferson.
The 1982 Dallas Cowboys represented the end of a small slice in franchise history and a big slice in another way. It was the third straight year they lost the NFC Championship Game. And though it wasn’t the last time head coach Tom Landry would take a team to the playoffs it was the last time the legend won in the postseason.
Danny White enjoyed a Pro Bowl year at quarterback. He was efficient, with a 63% completion rate that was fourth in the league. He was aggressive, with an 8.4 yards-per-attempt that was second. The only problem was interceptions—he threw twelve in a strike-shortened season that only saw nine games. But in a league more oriented to the downfield game than is the case today, that was something you could live with.
White had plenty of talent around him. Tony Dorsett had another Pro Bowl season at running back, with his 745 yards being second in the league. Tony Hill was a top 10 receiver, catching 35 passes for 526 yards. Doug Cosbie was a solid threat at tight end, 30 catches for 441 yards. And White’s blind side was secure with the presence of Pro Bowl left tackle Pat Donovan. The Dallas offense finished fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was even better, ranking third in points allowed. It started with great talent on the front four. Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Randy White were both 1st-team All-NFL at end and tackle respectively, while Harvey Martin recorded eight sacks at the other end. Linebacker Bob Breunig was a Pro Bowler, as was ballhawk corner Everson Walls who picked off seven passes.
Dallas opened the season at home on the Monday Night stage against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The teams had played in two Super Bowls in 1975 and 1978, the Steelers winning both. But they had missed the playoffs each of the last two years while the Cowboys had gone to a conference championship game.
The Dallas running game had problems from the outset, and Dorsett was held to 30 yards. Even though the Cowboys led 14-13 at the half, the lack of a running attack and four turnovers led to them falling behind 33-14 before a late spurt made the final score a respectable 36-28.
A road trip to a respectable St. Louis Cardinals team was tied 7-7 at the half. This time though, Dorsett was making headway and he gained 98 yards. Hill caught eight balls for over 100 yards while Martin got three sacks. Dallas pulled away 24-7.
The strike hit at this point and play did not resume until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. When the players came back it was determined that the playoffs would be expanded to eight teams per conference. Divisional distinctions were also abolished and it would simply be the top eight in the NFC & AFC standings that qualified.
Dallas came back at home against Tampa Bay, the team they had eliminated in the divisional playoffs in 1981. In a poorly played game, White was at least efficient—11/16 for 158 yards and no mistakes. It was enough to get a 14-9 win. A more complete victory came over Cleveland on Thanksgiving Day. Dorsett ran for 116 yards. White was 13/22 for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Walls picked off two passes and the Cowboys coasted to a 31-14 win behind a 17-point second quarter surge.
The Washington Redskinshadn’t been in the playoffs since 1976, but were off to a 4-0 start under second-year head coach Joe Gibbs. Dallas went to the nation’s capital and jumped out a 17-0 lead, as they kept Washington’s power running attack to 66 yards. The Redskins cut the lead to 17-10, but Cowboy running back Ron Springs bolted 46 yards for the clinching score in a 24-10 win.
A Monday Night visit at the woeful Houston Oilers produced an easy win. After spotting the Oilers a 7-0 lead on a long touchdown pass, White began carving up the Houston secondary. He went 21/27 for 279 yards, finding ten different receivers and throwing for three touchdowns. The final was 37-7.
At 5-1, Dallas was all but assured of a playoff spot—each conference would have one team make the postseason at 4-5. The Cowboys padded their position with a 21-7 home win over mediocre New Orleans. Dorsett and the Saints’ George Rogers, each former Heisman Trophy winners, went over 100 yards, but the Cowboys had a passing game. White was 14/22 for 222 yards while New Orleans could do nothing through the air. Dallas won 21-7.
The Philadelphia Eagles had been the key NFC East rival the past two years. Dallas lost the 1980 NFC Championship Game in Philly and in 1981, the Cowboys outlasted the Eagles for the division title. This year’s Philadelphia team was on hard times and finished 3-6. But one of their moments came in Texas Stadium the day after Christmas. Dallas allowed a defensive touchdown in the first quarter, coughed up a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter and lost 24-20.
Another loss ended the season on the final Monday Night, but not without one of the most memorable moments in the history of Monday Night Football. Dallas had fallen behind 24-13 in spite of having scored a defensive touchdown on a 60-yard Pick-6 from Dennis Thurman. They were backed up on their own one-yard line.
Dorsett got the football, got into the open field and 99 yards later he was in the end zone. It was the longest touchdown run in the history of the NFL, remains the only run of that distance and quite obviously is a record that can only be tied, never broken.
The Cowboys eventually led 27-24 before losing 31-27. But it didn’t matter. The Redskins had clinched the 1-seed, and at 6-3, Dallas was settled into the 2-spot.
A familiar foe came in for the first round—Tampa Bay for the second straight year. The Cowboys were an eight-point favorite after their 38-0 win the year before and the regular season victory. This one came a little tougher.
Dallas drove into the red zone twice in the first quarter, but each time had to settle for a field goal. They were driving again when White fumbled, the ball popped in the air and Tampa’s Hugh Green grabbed it to go 60 yards for the touchdown. Another White interception set up a Buccaneer field goal. The Cowboy quarterback finally got settled down enough to throw a short TD pass to Springs for a 13-10 halftime lead.
Dorsett was running the ball consistently and finished the game with 110 yards. Another long drive got to the two-yard line but again bogged down with a field goal. The Cowboys were keeping the Buccaneers in the game and Tampa quarterback Doug Williams made it hurt with a 49-yard touchdown pass. Dallas trailed 17-16 heading into the fourth quarter.
Williams was having his own turnover problems though. He finished the day with three interceptions and one of them was a killer—Dallas’ Monty Hunter picked one off on the Tampa 19-yard line and went into the end zone.
White, for his turnover problems, was otherwise throwing the ball well in a microcosm of his season. He finished 27/45 for 312 yards and finished it off with a 10-yard TD pass that sealed the 30-17 win. Drew Pearson, the veteran wideout, caught seven passes for 95 yards.
Green Bay was the 3-seed and came to Dallas for the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The Cowboys were again a solid home favorite, at (-7). Once again, they scored first with a pair of field goals. Although this time kicker Rafael Septien hit from 50 yards and 34 yards, so it wasn’t a case of blowing a touchdown chance down close.
And once again, the road underdog came back with a touchdown. Packer quarterback Lynn Dickey hit Pro Bowl receiver James Lofton a six-yard touchdown pass. Dallas bounced back with a short touchdown run from Timmy Newsome. Dennis Thurman then came up with an interception that he took 39 yards to the house. The Cowboys looked in control with a 20-7 halftime lead.
Dickey was a quarterback similar to White, who threw downfield and made his share of mistakes. He and the Packers kept attacking and they mounted two good drives in the third quarter. Now it was the Cowboy defense’s turn to hold in the red zone. Both drives ended in field goals. Dallas got three points of their own and it was 23-13 at the quarter.
The Cowboys mostly controlled the running game, with Dorsett gaining 99 yards. The final tally shows the Packers with more rush yardage and it’s because of what happened on a reverse to Lofton. The speedy wide receiver took it 71 yards for a touchdown. Green Bay missed a big extra point, but the score was 23-19.
White finished 23/36 for 225 yards and a touchdown, which came with his seven-yard pass to Cosbie. But he made one huge mistake when Dallas got the ball back and in control of the game. White threw a Pick-6 deep in his own end and suddenly it was 30-26.
The Packers go the ball back and it was up to the defense to make a stand. Thurman was the one who delivered—he got his third interception of the day. The Cowboys drove it the distance for the touchdown that finally sealed the 37-26 win.
It hadn’t come easy—Dickey threw for 332 yards, but Thurman’s heroics gave Dallas just enough defense. Hill had a big game receiving, with seven catches for 142 yards. The Cowboys were back in the NFC Championship Game for the third straight year.
And for the third straight year, this was where the Dallas season ended. White was knocked out and backup Gary Hogeboom summoned. Hogeboom threw two interceptions, Dorsett was held to 57 yards, while Redskins’ horse John Riggins rumbled for 140. Washington didn’t turn the ball over the Cowboys lost 31-17.
What no one knew then was that, even though Dallas would be back in the playoffs in 1983, again in 1985 and that Landry would coach through 1988, was that the Green Bay game was his last playoff victory. It was a strong season in 1982, but slowly but surely the sun was starting to set on the Landry Era.
The 1982 Green Bay Packers were a breakthrough team in the franchise’s long history. They had only made the playoffs once since the great Vince Lombardi left after the 1967 season. The playoff trip—1972—was a decade in the rearview mirror. And what was supposed to be a triumphant return for Bart Starr—once Lombardi’s quarterback and now his head coach—was going awry. Starr had been coaching for seven years and yet to taste the playoffs. In 1982, the Packers got there.
An offense geared around big-play passing was the key. Lynn Dickey, the 33-year-old quarterback, had a middling completion percentage and was interception-prone, but his 8.2 yards-per-attempt were the third-best in the NFL. Wide receiver James Lofton was a Pro Bowler and averaged 19.9 yards per catch. John Jefferson was terrific in his own right on the other side, and tight end Paul Coffman was another Pro Bowler.
The Packers didn’t have a great running game, with Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis being mostly average, but the passing game was good enough to make Green Bay the fifth-best offense in the league. The defense didn’t have any Pro Bowl talent, although defensive end Ezra Johnson played well with 5 ½ sacks in a strike-shortened nine-game season. The unit as a whole was still good enough to rank 11th in points allowed.
Green Bay had chased a playoff berth to the final game of the 1981 season before being destroyed by the New York Jets in the season finale. The Packers had high hopes coming into the season and it looked like they might be dashed quickly when they fell behind the Los Angeles Rams 23-0 at the half.
Dickey rallied the troops in old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers played three home games a year through 1994. He went 17/27 for 237 yards. Jefferson caught six balls for 116 yards and Ivery ran for 109 yards. In a stunning turnabout, Green Bay won 35-23.
The comeback routine continued, albeit not quite as extreme in a Monday Night visit to the New York Giants, who had made the playoffs in 1981. The Packers trailed 19-7, but turned the game around by running the football. Lest you think it was the traditional smashmouth, the big play was Lofton taking a reverse 83 yards for a touchdown. Ivery was able to kick in 94 yards in the more conventional manner and 20 unanswered points led the Packers to a 27-19 win.
Finally rolling at 2-0, it was like a bad dream for Packer fans to have the strike hit and as it stretched on the season appeared at risk. The players and owners didn’t come to terms until November and play resumed on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving.
Seven more games would be played. To adjust for the short season, the playoffs were expanded to eight teams per conference and divisional distinctions were abolished. The conference standings would apply and it would be straight 1 thru 8 seeding.
Green Bay hosted Minnesota in the first game back and even though Dickey was sacked six times, he also completed 15/22 for 244 yards and no interceptions. The Packers won 26-7. Dickey again played well in a return to the scene of last year’s crime—Shea Stadium, the home of the Jets. He was 19/30 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But…there was no running game and New York was able to eke out a 15-13 win in a game neither team could score in the fourth quarter.
The Packers quickly bounced back at home against a mediocre Buffalo team. They forced five turnovers and were ahead 30-7 in the fourth quarter before some garbage time points by the Bills made the score cosmetically respectable at 33-21.
With four wins under their belt, Green Bay was in good shape for the playoffs. By season’s end, one 4-5 team in each conference would end up qualifying. But that needed one more to make sure. Detroit came to Lambeau Field and it turned into a disaster. Dickey threw four interceptions and had to be pulled for David Whitehurst. The backup was sacked five times. The special teams gave up a kickoff return to start the second half. The Packers lost 30-10.
A trip to the winless Baltimore Colts would surely be the antidote. Green Bay ran the ball persistently, if not effectively, with 40 carries for 138 yards. Dickey was erratic, 16/34, but he did produce 213 yards and there wasn’t a flurry of interceptions. The Packers led 20-6 in the fourth quarter.
Then something more embarrassing than the Lions’ loss went down. The putrid Colts rallied to tie the game and no one could win it in overtime. It was the only game all year Baltimore hadn’t lost. At 4-2-1, Green Bay still needed one more win to be sure.
On the day after Christmas in Atlanta, against a respectable Falcons team that would end up in the playoffs themselves, the Packers gave a belated gift to their loyal fan base. Ivery and Ellis shared the load in a running game that rang up 164 yards. Green Bay led 14-7, when Dickey opened up with the home run ball. He hit Lofton twice for touchdowns, once from 80 yards and another from 57. Green Bay won 38-7. They were in.
A road game at Detroit, where the Lions were fighting to make the playoffs ended in a loss. Dickey was picked off four times and the final was 27-24. But the Packers’ 5-3-1 record was still good for the 3-seed and a home game in the first round of the expanded postseason.
It was a strange opening playoff weekend, with doubleheader action going in two time slots on both Saturday and Sunday. The regionalized TV coverage gave the NFL postseason a March Madness feel. The Packers were a 4 ½ point favorite over the St. Louis Cardinals in the early afternoon spot on Saturday.
St. Louis got the first scoring drive, but Green Bay held them at the 1-yard line and forced the chip shot field goal. Dickey came back with a 60-yard TD strike to Jefferson to put the Packers on top by the end of the first quarter.
The game stayed that way until the final six minutes of the second quarter, when all hell broke loose and in a way Green Bay fans were more than happy with. Dickey threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Lofton. St. Louis fumbled on their next possession and the Packers scored again on a short run from Ivery. Free safety Mark Murphy, the current team president, came up with an interception. Green Bay again got in the end zone, this time Dickey throwing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Ivery.
Even though the Cards were able to get on the board by the end of the quarter with a touchdown, they missed the extra point and Green Bay was rolling at 28-9. The defense took over, getting five sacks with great pressure from both edges. Johnson had 1 ½ sacks, while Mike Butler on the opposite end had two more. Dickey played a superb game, 17/23 for 260 yard, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Jefferson caught six passes for 148 yards. The final was 41-16.
The Packers road-tripped to 2-seed Dallasfor the NFC Divisional Playoffs where the run finally came to an end. Green Bay played competitively as a seven-point underdog and was within 30-26 in the fourth quarter, thanks to another long Lofton TD run off the reverse and a big Pick-6 by defensive back Mark Lee. But the good and the bad of Dickey all came to the fore. He was 19/36 for 332 yards and helped keep his team in the game. He also threw three interceptions, the last of which killed the Packers’ best chance to win. The final was 37-26.
It was still a good, albeit shortened season for the 1982 Green Bay Packers. The disappointment came in the following year when they were unable to build on the success and again missed a playoff berth with a loss in the final game of the season. That was the end of Starr’s coaching tenure and the Packers did not get back to the postseason until 1993, when Brett Favre was in town.
After 22 years in Oakland, the Raiders packed up and moved south. They arrived in their new home with a proud tradition of excellence, but also seeming on the downswing. After winning the Super Bowl in 1980, the franchise went 7-9 in 1981, ending a string of sixteen consecutive winning seasons. The 1982 Los Angeles Raiders returned to the league’s elite thanks to two great rookies embarking on Hall of Fame careers.
Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 1981 and was drafted by the Raiders. With the team having moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum, Allen didn’t even have to change home fields and he picked up in the NFL where he’d left off in college. Allen finished fourth in the league in rushing and was also one of his team’s top receivers.
It was good enough for first-team All-NFL and it should have been good enough for the MVP award. But 1982 was a strange year in the NFL—a players’ strike reduced the schedule to nine games. The voters gave the award to Redskins’ kicker Mark Moseley.
I’m a ‘Skins fan, I love Moseley and he hit some clutch kicks in 1982. But seriously? Allen was the key to an offense that was second-best in the NFL, which in turn carried a defense that only ranked 22nd. He deserved to be the first player in history to win the Heisman Trophy and NFL MVP in back-to-back years.
The other rookie was Howie Long. He wasn’t the instant impact player that Allen was, but Long recorded 5 ½ sacks in the short season and joined a defensive unit anchored by good veterans in outside linebacker Ted Hendricks, end Lyle Alzado and corner Lester Hayes. Hendricks was 1st-team All-NFL and Hayes made the Pro Bowl.
Jim Plunkett was at quarterback and the 35-year-old was good at creating the big play. While his 58% completion rate was average, his 7.8 yards-per-attempt was sixth in the league. His 15 interceptions were also pretty high, but in an era that relied on the deep ball more than today’s game does, Plunkett was valuable.
So was tight end Todd Christensen, who caught 42 passes for 510 yards and wide receiver Cliff Branch was the long ball threat, with 30 catches for 575 yards. The skill position talent carried an offense that lacked Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line.
Los Angeles opened the season on the road in San Francisco against the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. The Niners would have a tough year this season and it started year. After digging a 14-6 hole, the Raiders rallied behind a 116-yard performance from Allen. The defense held San Francisco to 60 yards on the ground and Los Angeles won 23-17.
A week later they went to Atlanta and blew out a decent Falcons team 38-14. Allen caught a 14-yard touchdown pass to start the scoring and ran for another in the second quarter to extend the lead to 17-7. Branch caught six passes for 138 yards. And then the strike hit.
The labor discord wiped out seven games from the schedule. When play resumed the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the league settled on a plan that would abolish divisions and simply take the top eight teams in each conference for the playoffs, setting up a 16-team “Super Bowl Tournament.”
Los Angeles returned to action on the Monday Night stage against the San Diego Chargers and what a return it was. The Raiders fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter. Ironically, the Chargers had taken the same lead at the same point over the Dolphins in an epic playoff game the previous January. They blew that lead before rallying to win. The Raiders also came all the way back…and they didn’t let the Bolts off the hook. Los Angeles used a balanced offense and simply took the game over, scoring 38 unanswered points and staying undefeated.
A tough schedule continued with a road game at defending AFC champion Cincinnati. The Raiders were trailing 7-0 in the first quarter and near midfield when Plunkett threw a Pick-6. They climbed back into the game, trailing only 21-17, but the running game never got going in this one and the Bengals pulled back away to win 31-17.
The schedule finally got easier with four straight games that finished the season with sub-.500 records. Allen ran for 156 years against Seattle while linebacker Rod Martin had a Pick-6. Los Angeles jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the second quarter and then the tables nearly turned from the Charger game. The Seahawks came back, but the Raiders held on, 28-23.
In a road trip to Kansas City, they played poorly for three quarters but three red-zone stops on defense kept Los Angeles in striking distance, down 9-7. In the fourth quarter, Plunkett opened up. On a day that was seven degrees with the windchill, the veteran quarterback found Christensen for the go-ahead touchdown pass and then later hit Calvin Muhammad on a 35-yard strike. The Raiders got out of KC with a 21-16 win.
A late afternoon game on Saturday against the Rams marked the Raiders’ first game with their new intra-city rivals. The game was a wild affair, and Plunkett’s performance sums that up. He threw for 321 yards and he also threw four interceptions. The Raiders were down 21-7, up 30-21 and down again 31-30. But Allen was the constant—he rushed for 93 yards and caught eight balls for 61 yards. The Raiders got a 37-31 win.
With two games to play, the Raiders were 6-1 and had pretty much locked up a playoff berth. They crushed Denver on the day after Christmas, with five interceptions and seven sacks involving ten players overall. The team effort on defense led a 27-10 win.
The season finale was another game with the Chargers and it was again a wild one. Los Angeles had a 10-3 lead when defensive back Mike Davis picked off San Diego’s Dan Fouts and took it 56 yards to the house. The lead later grew to 20-3.
Now it was the Chargers’ turn to come back. They were a team again bound for the divisional round of the AFC playoffs and Fouts led them to 24 consecutive points. The Raiders tied it, then got another Pick-6, this one a 52-yard return by James Davis. Los Angeles eventually led 41-27 and finally prevailed 41-34.
Plunkett went 17/28 for 227 yards with Christensen catching six passes for 86 yards. Allen capped off his splendid year with 126 yards on 20 carries. The Raiders were 8-1 and going into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the AFC.
The first round of the NFL playoffs in 1982 felt like the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, with regionalized coverage and highlights coming in and out. Los Angeles hosted Cleveland in the late afternoon window on Saturday. The Browns had only finished 4-5, but it took time for the Raiders to get rid of them.
Los Angeles got an early field goal, set up by Plunkett and Branch hooking up on a 64-yard pass. Cleveland got the field goal back in the second quarter. The Raiders countered with an 88-yard drive capped off by an Allen touchdown run. The Browns came right back, with former USC quarterback Paul McDonald playing on his old turf, throwing a 43-yard touchdown pass. Los Angeles got a field goal just before halftime to lead 13-10.
The Browns took the opening kickoff and immediately drove deep into the red zone. Then the Raiders recovered a fumble and were finally able to decisively change momentum. They were controlling the ground game, with a 140-86 edge in yardage and they drove 89 yards off the fumble for another Allen touchdown run.
Plunkett finished 24/37 with 386 yards, though he did throw two interceptions. Before the third quarter was over, another Los Angeles touchdown drive sealed the 27-10 win.
The 6-3 Jets were up next for the AFC divisional playoffs. The Raiders turned a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead, but it got away in the fourth quarter. After New York took a 17-14 lead, Plunkett threw two interceptions in the final three minutes. It ended a sloppy game where both teams turned it over five times and it ended the Raiders season.
In spite of the disappointing ending, it was still the start of great things. The Raiders were settled in their new home (at least temporarily) and a year later they got over the postseason disappointment by winning the Super Bowl.
The Jets had made the playoffs in 1981, the first postseason appearance since the days of Joe Namath. One year later they took it one step further—the 1982 New York Jets won two playoff games and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game to cap off a year where a players’ strike reduced the regular season to nine games.
Freeman McNeil, the 23-year-old running back, was the focal point of the offense. He won the rushing title with 786 yards and his 5.2 yards-per-attempt was also at the top of the league. McNeil made 1st-team All-Pro and should have received strong MVP consideration in a year that voters made the strange decision to give the award to Washington Redskins’ kicker Mark Moseley.
Wesley Walker gave the offense a deep threat and the speedy receiver caught 39 passes for 620 yards. The offensive line was anchored by two Pro Bowlers, right tackle Marvin Powell and center Joe Fields who was the best in the game.
It added up to a great support system for quarterback Richard Todd, and Todd responded with a solid season. His 59% completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt were each Top 10 for NFL quarterbacks. His TD/INT ratio was 14-8, and his interception rate of was fourth in the league. The Jets’ offense, overseen by coordinator Joe Walton, was the third-best in the league in scoring.
The playoff run of 1981 was keyed the defensive front four, a group that got to the quarterback so frequently they were named The New York Sack Exchange. This unit slipped a bit in 1982, but defensive end Mark Gastineau still got six sacks.
In spite of not having any Pro Bowl talent, the defense—the specialty of head coach Walt Michaels—still ranked tenth in the NFL in points allowed.
In 1981, the Jets had been one of three AFC East teams to make the playoffs. They had lost a heartbreaker to Buffalo in the wild-card game, while Miami won the division. And the first game of 1982 would be a home date against the Dolphins in the late Sunday afternoon national TV window.
Todd connected to Walker on a 29-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and the game was tied 7-7. After that, the roof fell in. Todd threw three interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns and they were down 45-14 before getting a couple garbage-time touchdowns to make the score deceptively respectable. Was this going to be the “same old Jets”?
A trip to New England to face a competitive, if not great, Patriots team was now a key test. McNeil ran for 106 yards, keying a 254-61 edge in rushing yardage. The only touchdown New York allowed was off a kickoff return and they got on track with a 31-7 win.
Just as they were on track, the players went out on strike and stayed away until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. The schedule was gutted. When they returned, it was decided that teams would play out the final seven games on their slates after which eight teams per conference would go to the playoffs. Since divisional schedules were a miss, those distinctions were abolished and it would simply be the top eight teams in the conference standings overall.
New York’s return game was against the Baltimore Colts, a division rival in these pre-2002 days. The Colts were awful and would only get a single tie game to show for 1982. The Jets crushed them 37-zip behind 123 yards from McNeill, who also caught a touchdown pass from Todd.
A tougher game against playoff-bound Green Bay awaited at home. Todd and counterpart Lynn Dickey each played reasonably well, but the Jets’ defense again shut down the running game. They led 15-13 after three quarters and hung on in a scoreless final period. Todd opened up in the following game, a Monday Night visit to mediocre Detroit. He and Walker hooked up on touchdown passes from 56 & 41 to open up a lead and then once more from 19 yards to seal the 28-13 win. Todd finished the game 23/32 for 384 yards.
The run of games against NFC teams continued with a home date against Tampa Bay, who had made the playoffs in 1981 and scraped in again this season. McNeil rushed for a couple early touchdowns, while the defense completely shut down the Bucs’ talented James Wilder. The final was 32-17. The Jets were 5-1 and all but assured a playoff berth with three weeks to left (there would be one 4-5 team that ended up qualifying in each conference).
Now it was time to aim for a higher seed, and another nationally televised game with Miami was on deck. This one was in the early window on a Saturday afternoon. The Jets played better this time, with Todd throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Walker and a 45-yard strike to Derrick Gaffney. But they missed an extra point in the process and only led 19-17 when Miami made one last drive and won it with a 47-yard field goal.
In a strange twist on a strange schedule year, all of the Jets’ games with NFC teams had remained intact, and they went to Minnesota the day after Christmas. The Vikings were a pretty good team, who would get to the second round of the playoffs. Linebacker Bobby Jackson had the day of his life. He blocked a field goal and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown that started the scoring. He intercepted a pass and brought it 71 yards to the house to end the scoring. The final was 42-14.
On the day after New Year’s, the Jets played poorly in Kansas City, losing 37-13. It was a costly loss in terms of seeding. It dropped them into a three-way tie for fourth. Because New York had played only five AFC games, they were in a bad position on tiebreakers. Instead of getting a home game, they got the 6-seed. Which meant a trip to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were 7-2, the defending AFC champs and a four-point favorite.
On a busy weekend with eight first-round games, meaning regionalized TV coverage for the only time in NFL playoff history, the Jets-Bengals kicked off in the early window on Sunday. The game started poorly for New York. Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, the league’s MVP in 1981, threw a 32-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Curtis and another short TD pass. The Jets only got a field goal from Pat Leahy sandwiched in between and it was 14-3 after the first quarter.
A little trickery got New York rolling. Gaffney threw the ball of a reverse and found McNeil for a 14-yard touchdown pass. Cincinnati looked ready to respond with another touchdown drive, but defensive back Johnny Lynn intercepted Anderson on the goal line. The tide was turning.
Todd and Walker would be productive today, connecting eight times for 145 yards. One of them was a short touchdown pass that put the Jets on top in the second quarter and another Leahy field goal made it 20-14 at the half.
The teams swapped field goals in the third quarter and at 23-17, it looked like a dramatic fourth quarter was in store. Instead, New York blew the game open.
McNeill rumbled 20 yards for a touchdown. The Bengals again looked poised to respond, and again the Jets turned them back on the doorstep. This time it was defensive back Darroll Ray—he picked off Anderson on the two-yard line and 98 yards later was in the end zone. The game was all but over. Lynn finished with two interceptions, the Sack Exchange got to Anderson four times and one more tack-on touchdown made the final 44-17.
New York was the lowest-seeded team left in the AFC, so they went to Los Angeles to play the top-seeded Raiders in a game that was late Saturday afternoon on the East Coast. The Raiders were led by rookie running back Marcus Allen, who joined McNeil as a 1st-team All-Pro back.
This should have been a showdown between the two players who deserved to be the top two in the MVP voting. I’d have voted for Allen, who was a better receiver than McNeil, and a weak Raiders’ defense made them more offense-dependent. But today belonged to McNeil.
McNeil rushed for 101 yards, while Allen could only manage 36. The Jets built a 10-0 lead by halftime, keyed a 20-yard Todd-to-Walker touchdown pass and a field goal from Leahy. The Raiders got on the board in the third quarter and followed it up with a 7-yard touchdown pass by Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett. The Jets were facing a 14-10 deficit going into the fourth quarter.
New York wasn’t going anywhere though. The offense was moving the ball, and Walker had a strong day with seven catches for 169 yards. They mounted a drive and fullback Scott Dierking finished it off with a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:45 left.
Now it was time for linebacker Lance Mehl to be the closer. He intercepted Plunkett and appeared to lock the game up. McNeil then made his one big mistake and fumbled the ball back. No problem—Mehl intercepted Plunkett again and the 17-14 upset was in the books.
Round Three with Miami would settle the AFC Championship. Rain pounded the Orange Bowl and before and during the game, and the field was an absolute mess. The Jets were upset the Dolphins hadn’t put the tarp out, presumably to nullify New York’s more explosive offense. If that was the plan, it worked. Neither team could move the ball or take care of it—they combined for nine turnovers and 19 punts, but Miami’s running game & defense approach eventually churned out a 14-0 win.
The season should still have been a reason to celebrate. The Jets had not only advanced in the playoffs for the first time since the Namath era, they had beaten the AFC’s defending champs and #1 seed on the road. But the aftermath of the season would bring surprises.
Michaels resigned less than three weeks after the game, citing burnout, but with conspiracy theorists believing the Jets wanted to promote Walton. They did, and the team took a brief step back to 7-9 for a couple years before Walton got them back to the playoffs in 1985-86. But they never got as far as the AFC Championship Game and this was also Todd’s last real high point. In that regard, the inability to build off success, was “the same old Jets.”
Miami came into the season licking their wounds from a crushing playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, in the greatest divisional round game ever played. The 1982 Miami Dolphins made amends for that defeat and went all the way to the Super Bowl behind an outstanding defense.
The Dolphin defense only had one Pro Bowler, nose tackle Bob Baumhower, but the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Coordinator Bill Arnsparger oversaw a unit that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed.
The supporting cast included defensive end Doug Betters, who grew into the Defensive Player Of The Year by 1983. Miami also had Kim Bokamper and Bob Brudzinski at linebacker, along with the Blackwoods, Glenn and Lyle in the secondary. The last names led to the nickname “The Killer B’s”. One non-B player, cornerback Don McNeal, was pretty good himself with four interceptions in a schedule that was only nine games due to a players’ strike.
Head coach Don Shula built his offense around the running game, with Andra Franklin rushing for over 700 yards and making the Pro Bowl. Franklin ran behind an offensive line that had two veteran Pro Bowl guards, Bob Kuechenberg and Ed Newman. In between was 25-year-old center Dwight Stephenson, who ultimately made the Hall of Fame. That’s a pretty good way to establish muscle in the middle.
The running game was badly needed, because David Woodley was a liability at quarterback. His 55% completion rate was about league average in this era, but was poor at getting the ball downfield for chunk yardage and mediocre at avoiding interceptions. It stands to follow that the receivers, Jimmy Cefalo and Duriel Harris, didn’t have good numbers, although it’s fair to wonder where the reason for that ultimately was.
Miami opened the season at the New York Jets, who had made the playoffs themselves in 1981. This was a late Sunday afternoon kick in old Shea Stadium and the Dolphins made an early statement. Tommy Vigorito returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown. Glenn Blackwood and McNeal each had Pick-6’s. Miami built a 45-14 lead and closed out a 45-28 win.
The Colts were an AFC East rival up until 2002, and they were in Baltimore until 1984. They were also terrible in 1982 and Woodley threw a couple first quarter touchdowns for a quick lead and the Dolphins did just enough the rest of the way for a 24-20 win.
At 2-0, the strike hit and play did not resume until right before Thanksgiving, leaving time for seven more games. The league decided to abolish divisional distinctions and just take the top eight teams in each conference for the playoffs, the one and only time the postseason has been 16 teams.
Miami went to Buffalo for the first game back and got six interceptions from six different players in a 27-10 win. The following Monday Night they played at Tampa Bay, who had reached the playoffs two of the previous three years and would make it again this year. The Dolphins dug a 16-3 hole and Shula pulled Woodley. Don Strock, the epitome of a solid veteran backup, went 17/34 for 204 yards, but also threw four interceptions. Miami lost 23-17.
The defense stepped it up in a home game against the playoff-bound Vikings. Larry Gordon led the way, getting two of the Dolphins’ five sacks and one of their three interceptions. Franklin rushed for 129 yards and the final was 22-14.
Snow pounded New England for a December 12 game against the Patriots. The conditions made moving the ball impossible and kicking no less difficult. Until New England got into field goal range and then a snow plow appeared at a timeout and cleared a space for Patriot kicker John Smith. Miami lost 3-0.
An early Saturday afternoon game with the Jets gave Miami a chance to get their fifth win, which would all but salt away a playoff berth (only seven teams would finish 5-4 or better). In a tight game, Strock again come on in relief and went 7/8 for 54 yards. Trailing 19-17, the Dolphins got a 47-yard field goal from Uwe von Schamaan to win it.
A Monday Night game with Buffalo, who had been to the playoffs in both 1980 and 1981 and was pushing to get back, was next. Miami fell behind 10-0 and Woodley only threw for 88 yards, but Franklin and fellow running back Tony Nathan led the way on a rushing attack that gained 161 yards and the Dolphins closed out a 27-10 win. They finished the season the day after New Year’s in Baltimore. The Colts had a miserable year, only getting one tie. Woodley went 14/22 for 239 yards and three touchdowns in an easy 34-7 win.
Miami was rolling into the playoffs with the #2 seed. The first-round opponent was New England, who finished 5-4. The Snow Plow Game had drawn national attention (they would have called it “Plowgate” today) and the rematch in the warmer conditions of the old Orange Bowl got more focus than it probably deserved, given that the Dolphins were the clearly superior team and came in a 7 ½ point favorite.
The first quarter went by scoreless and the Patriots mounted the first scoring threat, before the Miami defense held inside the 10-yard line and forced a field goal. Miami then began to move the ball, with Woodley tossing a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bruce Hardy and Franklin going from a yard out. It went to the locker room at 14-3.
The Patriots got another field goal in the third quarter, but there was no two-point conversion in the NFL back then, so it was still a two-score game and when Miami’s Woody Bennett scored on a two-yard run, the Dolphins were firmly in command.
Woodley played an excellent game, going 16/19 for 246 yards and two touchdowns, finished it off with another two-yard flip to Hardy. A meaningless Patriots touchdown ended the game at 28-13. Miami had outrushed New England 214-77 and controlled the game in every way. Now the Dolphins had the rematch everyone really wanted to see—the Chargers were coming back for another divisional round matchup.
Miami didn’t get a lot of respect was listed as a 1 ½ point underdog on their homefield. But they had the revenge factor, and both teams had this incentive—the top-seeded Los Angeles Raidershad been upset by the Jets the previous day. The winner of this game would host the AFC Championship Game.
Woodley delivered another clutch postseason outing, going 17/22 for 295 yards and he got the scoring started with a short first-quarter touchdown pass to veteran receiver Nat Moore. In the second quarter he threw another TD pass, Franklin ran in for one and von Schamaan added a field goal.
The 24-0 score in the second quarter was surreal—it was the same lead the Chargers had in the 1981 playoff game, before the Dolphins began their comeback. So when Fouts threw a 28-yard touchdown pass and ultimately cut the lead to 27-13 by halftime, there was reason to be nervous.
Miami’s second-quarter field goal had come after bogging down inside the 10-yard line. In the third quarter they turned it over twice, once inside the 10-yard line. The defense prevented San Diego from making it closer though, picking off Fouts three times in the second half and five times for the game. Finally, Woodley, ran it in from seven yards out and a 34-13 win was in the books.
Woodley had played the two best games of his career when it mattered most. The ground game pounded out another 214 yards, with Franklin and Nathan more or less splitting the load. Glenn Blackwood had two interceptions and linebacker A.J. Duhe had two sacks. Miami was peaking at the right time.
Rain pounded the Orange Bowl for the AFC title game. Just like the snow game in New England, the extreme weather made doing anything all but impossible. Woodley “only” threw three interceptions, but he got the better of it because Jets counterpart Richard Todd threw five. The teams combined for nine turnovers and 19 punts.
After a scoreless first half, a seven-yard touchdown run from Bennett gave Miami what looked like an insurmountable 7-0 lead in these conditions. Duhe then sealed the deal when he picked off a Todd pass and went 35 yards to the house. The fans went home soaked, but happy. The 14-0 win had the Dolphins in their first Super Bowl since their three-year run atop the AFC from 1971-73.
Miami played the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, a rematch from 1972 when the Dolphins beat the Redskins to complete their perfect season. This time around it went Washington’s way.
The Dolphins were able to strike on two big plays in the first half, a 76-yard touchdown pass from Woodley to Cefalo and a 98-yard kickoff return by Fulton Walker. They led 17-10 at the half and 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. But the offense was doing nothing and other than the two big plays, there was nary a threat to be found.
Eventually, Washington’s big offensive line and running back John Riggins wore the Killer B’s down. Riggins converted a 4th-and-1 into a 43-yard touchdown run and Miami ultimately lost 27-17.
By the next season, Shula would solve his quarterback problem—he drafted a guy named Dan Marino in the first round and put him in the lineup early in the season. It worked well enough to put the Dolphins in the playoffs each of the next three years, to win another AFC title in 1984 and to settle the quarterback position for nearly two decades.
The 1982 New England Patriots began the season with a new head coach in Ron Meyer, and they produced a new identity—a defense-oriented team that plowed their way, quite literally, to a playoff berth in an NFL season that was marred by a strike.
New England, after five straight winning seasons from 1976-80, had collapsed and finished 2-14 in 1981. Head coach Ron Erhardt was let go and the organization reached into the college ranks to find Meyer, who had built the SMU program into the best in the old Southwest Conference, league that included Texas.
Meyer emphasized the running game and second-year back Tony Collins enjoyed a solid, if up-and-down year. Collins ran behind left guard John Hannah, still a Pro Bowler at age 31, and still the man widely regarded as the best offensive lineman in the game.
Those were the only real standouts on the offensive side of the ball though. Steve Grogan’s season was marred by injuries. Officially he only missed three games, although that’s only due to the strike. Grogan didn’t play until late November.
New England’s offense still had a good deep threat in wide receiver Stanley Morgan, and veteran fullback Mark van Eghen, a key part of the great Oakland Raiders’ teams of the 1970s, chipped in to help Collins. But on balance, an offense that had been one of the league’s best continued a downward decline that began in ’81 and finished 22nd in the NFL in points scored in 1982.
The defense wasn’t loaded with talent—in fact, they only had Pro Bowler, an outstanding corner in future Hall of Famer Mike Haynes. But the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. A new defensive coordinator named Jim Mora joined the staff.
Mora would ultimately become legendary for repeatedly saying “Playoffs?!” in disbelief to a reporter when he was coach of the Indianapolis Colts nearly two decades later. But more important was that he was a solid football coach, and he turned this modestly talented Patriot defense into the seventh the NFL, marking dramatic improvement from recent years.
New England opened the season at the Baltimore Colts, who were then an AFC East rival, along with the division’s four current teams. The Colts were an awful team this year and finished 0-8-1, but they led this game 13-10 in the second half. The ultimate difference was that Collins was running well, gaining 137 yards. New England forced four turnovers and a 30-yard touchdown pass by backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh gave them the lead and the final was 24-13.
A home game with the New York Jets, coming off a playoff season in 1981 and bound for the AFC Championship Game this year, didn’t go quite as well. The Patriots got just five first downs and rushed for only 61 yards. By comparison, the Jets got thirty first downs and ran for 254 yards. The final was 31-7.
The labor dispute boiled over after two weeks and there were no more games until just prior to Thanksgiving. When the season resumed on November 21, there were just seven weeks left. The league decided to expand the playoffs to eight teams per conference and they also eliminated divisional distinctions. It would just be the top eight in the AFC & NFC that would qualify.
New England’s first game back was at Cleveland, two years removed from an 11-5 season and who would scrape into the playoffs this year. This game would prove to be significant when we got to the end of the season, although you would be hard-pressed to guess that by the ugliness in which it was played. It was a scoreless tie into the fourth quarter. The Patriots outrushed the Browns 169-97, but Cavanaugh completed only three passes and New England lost 10-7.
The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) came to Foxboro as a shadow of the team that had blown out the Patriots in the 1978 playoffs. The Oilers still had the great running back Earl Campbell, but little else. They only won one game in this strike year and it wasn’t coming on the day Grogan returned. The Patriot quarterback hit Morgan with a 62-yard touchdown pass, Collins ran for 161 yards and New England jumped out to a 29-7 lead before winning 29-21.
A poor performance at subpar Chicago followed, with the Pats only gaining 46 yards on the ground, falling behind 23-0 and losing 26-13. The Miami Dolphins came to Foxboro next for the game and moment by which this season is remembered in New England.
Snow blanketed the region and the field and neither team could move the ball. The Patriots and Dolphins combined for 72 passing yards. In a scoreless tie, the Pats got themselves into field goal range. At which point a snowplow conveniently appeared during a timeout and cleared an area for kicker John Smith. He booted a field goal for the game’s only points.
“The Snowplow Game” took its place in Patriot lore and became revived around the league in future years when the controversies over Bill Belichick spying and Tom Brady allegedly deflating footballs hit the national media. The win moved New England to 3-3 and kept them in the playoff hunt.
Mora’s defense delivered another shutout in Seattle and with the Seahawks playing indoors at the Kingdome, this one wasn’t weather-aided. The Patriots forced six turnovers and held Seattle to 53 rush yards in a 16-0 win. But on the verge of the playoffs, New England played an awful game in Pittsburgh, giving up over 200 yards on the ground and losing 37-14.
We were down to the last game of the season and the Patriots were one of three teams at 4-4 that were vying for two playoff spots. One of them was the Browns, whom New England had lost to. The other was Buffalo—who was coming to Foxboro for the finale. It was a straight—up, win and go on, lose and go home, battle.
The Bills had been a good team in recent years, winning the AFC East in 1980 and reaching the playoffs in 1981. They had a pretty good quarterback in Joe Ferguson, a talented running back in Joe Cribbs and were installed as a (-3.5) road favorite for this game.
Smith kicked a field goal to put the Patriots on the board first, but the Bills responded with a consecutive touchdowns. A missed extra point kept the score at 13-3. Grogan threw one touchdown pass in the second quarter and another in the third. The Patriots missed an extra point of their own to keep their lead at three points, 16-13. Buffalo tied it with a field goal.
New England then won two key red zone battles to swing the game. Collins scored from a yard out. When the Bills drove inside the 10-yard line themselves, the Patriots held. They still led 23-19 and Grogan’s third touchdown pass of the game clinched the 30-19 win. He finished the day 20/34 for 260 yards in his best game of a troubled season.
The 5-4 record wasn’t the most impressive of playoff seasons, but after missing at 9-5 in 1977 and 10-6 in 1980, maybe New England was owed some good fortune.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Snowplow Game ended up not mattering. Had the Patriots lost that game to finish 4-5, they would still have won tiebreakers over the two other 4-5 teams, the Bills and Seahawks, thanks to a head-to-head win.
The snowplow wouldn’t be needed for the playoff rematch with the Dolphins. Miami was 7-2 and hosted the game in South Beach. On a late Saturday afternoon in January, New England’s season came to an end.
The Patriots started the playoff game reasonably well, going through a scoreless first quarter and then getting on the board with a Smith field goal. But they were outrushed 214-77, were down 14-3 by half and 28-6 in the third quarter before scoring a meaningless touchdown at the end.
It would be the one high point of the short Ron Meyer era in New England. The head coach would be gone by midway through the 1984 season. Haynes would be traded away a year later. Grogan would continue to struggle with injuries. But Collins was a building block and would be a key part of the team that finally gave New England its first Super Bowl trip in 1985.