The 1985 NFL season is remembered for the historic defensive dominance of the Chicago Bears. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary, colorful coordinator Buddy Ryan and head coach Mike Ditka, the Bears rolled to a 15-1 regular season record and won the Super Bowl.
But there was much more to the world of the 1985 NFL and the links below, with game-by-game narrative of twelve notable teams bring to light all the great stories of this season. You’ll see the following…
*The process by which the Bears became “The 1985 Bears”, including devastating statement wins over contenders in the Redskins, Cowboys and 49ers.
*Chicago’s push for an undefeated season as it reached 11-0. A big Monday Night game awaited in Miami, and the Dolphins protected the legacy of their 1972 undefeated champions by ending the Bear bid for perfection.
*Miami was part of an excellent three-team race in the AFC East. New England and the New York Jets were both in the mix to the very end, and another big Monday Night game, a Dolphins-Patriots game in the regular season’s penultimate week was the difference. Miami won that battle, but New England later won the war and made a wild-card run to the AFC title.
*The Los Angeles Raiders and Denver Broncos had a great race for the AFC West title, and the Raiders won two head-to-head overtime games late in the year. Los Angeles was carried by MVP running back Marcus Allen. Denver finished 11-5, but missed the playoffs thanks to the Cleveland Browns winning a division title at 8-8.
*The NFC East was another good three-team affair, as the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins fought for the division into December and all three were in playoff contention until the final week. Dallas won a pair of dramatic games over New York and also swept Washington to win the division. The Redskins were the odd team out of the postseason.
*The San Francisco 49ers were the defending Super Bowl champs, but started 3-4. The Los Angeles Rams rolled to a 7-0 start. Then the 49ers made a late run and were ready to steal the division, before the Rams won yet another dramatic Monday Night game, this one in San Francisco. Los Angeles took the division and their great running back Eric Dickerson led them to the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers settled for a wild-card.
This blog compilation contains articles with the game-by-game narratives about all ten playoff teams, plus the notable misses in the Broncos and Redskins. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook and has been edited for this compilation. Together, these twelve articles tell how the 1985 NFL season looked as it was unfolding, through the eyes of its best teams.
The 1985 New York Giants were a team on the rise under third-year head coach Bill Parcells. For the second straight year, they made the postseason and advanced. And for the second straight year, only running into a great Super Bowl champion derailed them.
New York’s reputation and its historic legacy has been about defense, and it starts with outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. “L.T.”, in his fourth year in the league, was a 1st-team All-Pro with 13 sacks as he continued to redefine the OLB position into what it is today—a place for pass-rushers to wreak havoc.
Harry Carson was another Pro Bowl player at inside linebacker, as was defensive end Leonard Marshall who had 15 ½ sacks. All this pressure on the quarterback gave the secondary opportunities to make plays and corner Elvis Patterson and free safety Terry Kinard took advantage—they combined for eleven interceptions.
The defense as a whole ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed, but we shouldn’t overlook an improved offense that was almost as good ranking sixth. Phil Simms was now 30-years-old and he was finally coming into his own, with a Pro Bowl year that saw him throw for over 3,800 yards.
Simms’ 56% completion rate was decent, his 7.7 yards-per-attempt solid, but the 22-20 TD/INT ratio could have been better, even allowing for an era where it was more difficult to throw the football.
The quarterback’s prime target was 23-year-old Lionel Manuel, with wide receiver Bobby Johnson and rookie tight end Mark Bavaro playing supporting roles. But the real help to the quarterback was Joe Morris. The shifty running back ran for over 1,300 yards and helped Parcells’ offense control tempo.
New York opened the season at home against mediocre Philadelphia, and that ability to control the ground game was immediately apparent. They won the rushing battle 192-80 and took home a 21-zip shutout. But the running attack disappeared the next week against another mediocre opponent in Green Bay. The Giants only rushed for 76 yards and gave up a late touchdown to lose 23-20 in Lambeau.
A home game with the subpar St. Louis Cardinals was next, and it was tied 10-10 at the half. Simms opened up in the second half, throwing two touchdown passes and leading a 27-17 win. The return visit to Philadelphia was similarly sluggish.
The Giants only led 10-3 late in the game when Eagles’ defensive back Herm Edwards, the current ESPN commentator, intercepted a pass on the New York 3-yard line and basically walked into the end zone to tie the game. New York fans needed no reminders of Edwards’ role in the Miracle In The Meadowlands of 1978, when he returned a fumble for the winning touchdown on a play when the Giants should have been taking a knee.
This time there would be better ending. In overtime, Patterson picked off Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski (the Eagles seemed stacked with future ESPN analysts) and took it 29 yards for the 16-10 win.
Sunday Night Football was not the norm in 1985, so a Cowboys-Giants game in prime-time at the Meadowlands was most definitely an event. These two teams would join the three-time defending NFC East champ Redskins in a year-long battle for the division crown, and this prime-time game was worth the stage it was played on.
Simms threw a pair of touchdown passes to Manuel, from 51 yards and 23 yards. Backup running back George Adams bolted 70 yards for a touchdown, but the Giants missed the extra point after that TD. Even though they led 26-14, that point would haunt them. Simms threw for 432 yards, but there was no consistency in the running game, Cowboy quarterback Danny White was also having a big night and Dallas rallied for a 30-29 win.
The Giants carried a hangover into mediocre Cincinnati the following week and dug themselves a 21-0 hole. Simms had to put the ball up 62 times, something that undoubtedly left Parcells apoplectic. The quarterback completed 40 for 513 yards and closed to within 21-20. But in the process, he was sacked seven times, New York turned it over four times and Simms threw a Pick-6. They lost 35-30.
Washington came to the Meadowlands next and in a game the Giants needed to have, they returned to their power running and defense roots. A 144-69 rush edge keyed a 17-3 win.
More of the same followed in games against bad teams in the Saints and Buccaneers. The rush edge was 234-113 at New Orleans, balanced between Morris and Adams and the final score was 21-13. In Tampa, Morris racked up 132 yards the Giants won 22-20.
The Los Angeles Rams came to the Meadowlands with revenge on their minds—the Giants went west the previous year and ousted the Rams in the NFC wild-card game. Los Angeles had one of the league’s all-time greats at running back in Eric Dickerson, so Parcells wouldn’t be able to win this one on muscle alone.
Simms came through and made big plays. While he only completed 16/30 passes, they went for 239 yards. And the defense came up with key stops, forcing the Rams to settle for field goals. The Giants won 24-19 and were on a good roll going into a Monday Night date at RFK Stadium in Washington.
It would prove to be one of the most memorable of Monday Night games, but for the wrong reasons. Taylor came on a blitz and sacked Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman. The next thing viewers saw was a panicked Taylor summoning the Washington medical staff to the field. Theisman’s leg had been hideously snapped and his career was over.
The actual results of the game are forgotten, but those were pretty important too. The Giants had a 21-17 lead, but then backup quarterback Jay Schroeder beat them with a late touchdown drive. It was a key NFC East loss that dropped New York to 1-2 in their games against Washington and Dallas.
Defensive pressure revived the team in St. Louis (the Cardinals were an NFC East team prior to 2002). George Martin got three sacks, LT added two more and New York ended up with eight quarterback sacks on the afternoon in a 34-3 rout.
The final quarter of the season was at hand, and New York’s 8-4 record had them tied for first with Dallas, with Washington a game back. There were two wild-card spots available and the runner-up in the Rams-49ers race in the NFC West would be in that mix. New York was in good position to make the playoffs, but it wasn’t a sure thing and this franchise was hungry for its first division title of the Super Bowl era.
Cleveland was playoff-bound, albeit at 8-8, so losing to them at home was a big disappointment. Simms played well, going 23/37 for 289 yards, and Morris ran strong, going for 131 yard. The Giants built a 33-21 lead. But inexplicably, the defense melted down against an offensively-challenged opponent and was beaten by two touchdown passes from Gary Danielson in a 35-33 loss. Dallas won to take control of the division race, though Washington lost to San Francisco and gave the Giants-49ers control in the wild-card race.
New York still had a game to play with Dallas, but the tiebreakers meant that the Giants now needed some help. They got it the very next week. While New York cleaned up on a bad Houston Oilers team (the current Tennessee Titans), winning 35-14 and getting points from both the defense and special teams, the Cowboys were crushed in Cincinnati, losing 50-24. The regular season’s penultimate game in Dallas would be for the NFC East lead.
The Giants got off to a good start, taking a 14-7 lead and in the second quarter they were driving for more. Simms then threw a pass that was intercepted by defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who rumbled 65 yards for a game-tying touchdown. The momentum was shifted and Simms threw two more interceptions. A 28-21 loss ended the NFC East dream.
Now there was a playoff spot to secure. The Giants, 49ers and Redskins were all 9-6, with the Giants now on top of the race for tiebreakers. They would play an early afternoon game on Saturday against mediocre Pittsburgh to secure their wild-card spot. And if the chance to win the first division title in the Super Bowl era had slipped away, the opportunity to host the first postseason game in that same timeframe was still alive.
The Giants came ready to go and they were true to their identity. Morris got the football 36 times and rolled up 202 yards. The defense dominated. The score was 28-3 by half and it ended 28-10. New York was going back to the playoffs.
San Francisco came to the Meadowlands the following Sunday. The 49ers had eliminated the Giants in the divisional round in 1981 and 1984, both times in San Francisco and both times with the Niners on their way to Super Bowl titles. That pedigree led the oddsmakers to install the 49ers as three-point favorites on the road.
New York got on the board first with a 47-yard field goal. The defense had the great Joe Montana under control and Kinard made a big play in the second quarter with an interception that set up a Simms-to-Bavaro touchdown. The 49ers drove inside the 10-yard line before the half was out, but the Giants forced a field goal attempt and the score was 10-3 at the half.
Morris was giving New York its needed edge on the ground, as he ran for 141 yards. The offensive line was also doing the job in pass protection as Simms was not sacked. On other side of the trenches, the 49ers could not run on a cold day where passing was difficult, and Montana was sacked four times.
Simms threw a third-quarter touchdown to make it 17-3. Even though Montana threw for 296 yards, he had to put it up 47 times and San Francisco never really threatened. The game ended 17-3.
New York now had to go to Chicago, where the Bears were 15-1 and enjoying a run of historic dominance on the defensive side of the ball. The Giants couldn’t win with defense against an opponent who was even better.
They made a huge special teams gaffe in the first half. Punter Sean Landeta, standing on his own 5-yard line literally whiffed a punt, as the winds off Lake Michigan played with the ball. The easy Bears touchdown was the only scoring in the first half, but Chicago got a pair of third quarter TDs to pen the game up. Morris only ran for 32 yards, Simms went 14/35 for 209 yards and New York never threatened. They lost 21-0. It was still the closest anyone played the Bears in their run to a Super Bowl victory.
There was still plenty of reason to feel good about where the franchise was headed. They had two straight playoff berths and were only getting eliminated by the league’s best. The Giants were coming. And one year later they would go all the way.
Tom Landry was a civic icon in Dallas, having been the only head coach the Cowboys had ever known since their inception in 1960. He won two Super Bowls, reached three others and made the franchise a playoff perennial. The 1985 Dallas Cowboys were his last team to reach the postseason.
Dallas was coming off a 1984 season that saw them miss the playoff party for just the second time since 1966. The Washington Redskins had become the new power in the NFC East, with Joe Gibbs’ team having won three straight division titles, reached two Super Bowls and won one.
The opening Monday Night game of the season was Redskins-Cowboys in Texas Stadium and Dallas had to make an early statement. And that’s exactly what they did. Six different players intercepted passes, they pulled away and thumped Washington 44-14. The message that Dallas wasn’t going to disappear was received.
Veterans led the team, starting with 32-year-old defensive tackle Randy White, who was 1st-team All-NFL with 10 ½ sacks. Defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones recorded 13 sacks at the age of 34. Tony Dorsett was now 31-years-old and the great running back had some wear and tear, but still churned out over 1,300 yards. Mike Renfro, at age 30, caught 60 passes for 955 yards.
Quarterback Danny White at age 33 was productive, with over 3,100 yards and a 59% completion rate. But he also made mistakes at a rate you would attribute to a younger quarterback, with a TD-INT ratio of 21/17.
There was also some young talent mixed in with the veteran corps. Jim Jeffcoat bolstered the defensive front and got 12 sacks coming off the edge. Corner Everson Walls intercepted nine passes and made the Pro Bowl. White had two targets who were also Pro Bowlers in their prime, wide receiver Tony Hill and tight end Doug Cosbie.
Dallas came off the Washington win and appeared to still be celebrating when their road game at mediocre Detroit began. The Cowboys dug themselves a 26-0 hole before White nearly brought them back. He went 23/38 for 226 yards, mostly to Cosbie and Hill who caught 11 passes apiece. But they came up short 26-21.
Two workmanlike wins over AFC teams, the Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) followed. The defensive front got four sacks against the Browns, a future playoff team, in a 20-7 win. The Oilers weren’t very good, but it was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter before Dallas finally broke through. Dorsett ran for 159 yards, the Cowboys won the turnover battle five-zip and ultimately took the game 17-10.
Sunday Night football was not the norm in 1985, so the Cowboys-Giants game from the Meadowlands was a rare prime-time treat for fans. The Giants were coming off a playoff year and third-year coach Bill Parcells would have them firmly in the NFC East race throughout this year. The game was worth the stage it was put on.
White and Phil Simms staged an aerial war, and White was up to the task. He went 31/46 for 342 yards, with Renfro and Hill both racking up 100-plus yards receiving. It wouldn’t have been White if he didn’t also throw four interceptions, but Dorsett’s running helped compensate for some of that and Dallas stole a big 30-29 road win.
The winning streak continued in a home game with the mediocre Steelers. White was 25/36 for 269 yards, Dorsett rolled up 113 yards and the final was 27-13. Then a hiccup came at Philadelphia. Four turnovers, and the inability to stop Eagles’ quarterback Ron Jaworski resulted in a 16-14 loss.
Dallas still seemed in a funk when a home game with lowly Atlanta began, falling behind 10-0. But the Cowboys got rolling, Dorsett galloped for a 60-yard touchdown run and they won 24-10. A Monday Night visit to the subpar St. Louis Cardinals saw the roles reversed. This time it was Dallas jumping out to the 10-0 lead, but the failure to run the ball was costly as the Cardinals gradually took over and won 21-10.
A return trip to Washington was up next and with the NFC East a packed race, the game was big. The Cowboy defense came up. They intercepted Joe Theisman three more times, including two by Walls. Jeffcoat had five sacks all by himself and Dallas won 13-7.
The story of the 1985 NFL season was the dominance of the Chicago Bears, and they came to Texas Stadium for a nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game still undefeated. The game was nothing short of a disaster for the Cowboys. They gave up two early defensive touchdowns, turning the ball over five times for the game. In the end, the Bears scored as many points as Dorsett had rush yards. He ran for 44 yards and Chicago won 44-0. Dallas’ humiliation made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Chicago was demolishing everyone and Dallas didn’t waste time licking their wounds. They came back with a 34-17 home win over Philadelphia, as White went 20/38 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, all the while staying away from mistakes.
The Cowboys were 8-4 and tied with the Giants for first place, while the Redskins were a game back at 7-5. Dallas was in great tiebreaker position, already 3-0 against their two rivals.
It was time for the late afternoon Thanksgiving feast in Texas Stadium and a revenge date with St. Louis, an NFC East rival prior to 2002, was on the menu. White was brilliant again, 14/26 for 235 yards. Cosbie was the target on 111 of those yards and Hill caught two touchdowns, including a 53-yard strike when Dallas clung to a 21-17 lead. The final was 35-17. On Sunday, Dallas sat back and watched both New York and Washington lose.
But they gave their good fortune right back in a horrific performance at Cincinnati. Playing a team that would only finish 7-9, the Cowboys gave up 274 yards rushing and were ripped in the air by the combination of Boomer Esiason-to-Cris Collingsworth. In the fourth quarter, the score was a stunning 50-10, before Dallas got two meaningless touchdowns at the end.
You couldn’t dismiss this loss the way the Chicago game could have been. And with the Giants coming to Texas Stadium now tied for first again, the Cowboys had to bounce back. Just like they did after the Bear debacle, Dallas stepped up in a big situation.
They were trailing 14-7 in the second quarter and Simms had the Giants on the move. Jeffcoat then got his hands up on a pass, intercepted it and rumbled 65 yards for the tying touchdown. It was one of three interceptions on the day for the Cowboy defense and it changed the momentum, to say nothing of making things even on the scoreboard. Even with White being knocked out and Gary Hogeboom having to come in, Dallas won 28-21.
The sweep of the Giants & Redskins meant the Cowboys had the NFC East clinched. They were the 3-seed, though there was still the chance to move up to #2 in the final week of the regular season. This wasn’t as big a deal as it would be today when that seed differential means a first-round bye is at stake. The format of the time was three division winners and two wild-cards, so Dallas was assured a week off. But getting to the 2-line would still mean a divisional round game at home.
Dallas needed to win and hope the Los Angeles Rams lost on Monday Night Football, where they were playing a good Los Angeles Raiders team that needed the win for the #1 seed in the AFC. The problem was that the Cowboys were playing the desperate San Francisco 49ers, who were the defending Super Bowl champions, but playing a win-or-go-home game for the last wild-card spot.
White didn’t play, and even though Hogeboom led the Cowboys to a 16-7 halftime lead. But there was no running game and the 49ers dominated the second half in a 31-16 win. Dallas would travel to Los Angeles in two weeks for the divisional playoffs.
The Cowboys had a good track record when it came to playoff visits to L.A. They won NFC Championship Games on the road against the Rams in 1975 and 1978 by scores of 37-7 and 28-0. This one didn’t work out quite as well.
Dallas couldn’t stop the great Los Angeles running back Eric Dickerson. He rolled up a playoff record 248 yards rushing. The game was close at halftime, just 3-0 Rams. But the Cowboys had no running game of their own, they were turning the ball over—six times in all—and Dickerson finally broke them down. He ripped off two long touchdown runs in the second half and the final was 20-0.
It was an overachieving year for the Cowboys, given the age of so many key players and team insiders knew when it was over that new personnel was needed. Unfortunately for Landry, he wasn’t able to find the right combination. He coached three more seasons, but never again made the playoffs. The 1985 Dallas Cowboys were the last hurrah of a coaching legend.
The 1985 San Francisco 49ers were coming off a Super Bowl run in 1984 that marked them as one of the league’s all-time great champions. It was the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy in a four-year span, along with another trip to the NFC Championship Game. That’s why a 1985 season that would be a good one by the standards of most anyone else, was a letdown in San Francisco.
It wasn’t for a lack of production at quarterback. Joe Montana was his usual Pro Bowl self, churning out over 3,600 yards, completing 61 percent of his passes and getting 7.4 yards-per-attempt. His best target was out of the backfield, where Roger Craig had a Pro Bowl year of his own, thanks to 92 catches—easily the most on the team.
Montana also had veteran targets, like possession receiver Dwight Clark and tight end Russ Francis. And head coach Bill Walsh began getting a young receiver into the lineup. Jerry Rice, 23-years-old, caught 49 passes for 927 yards as the process of having Rice replace veteran Freddie Solomon as the principal deep threat began.
Craig was also a 1,000-yard rusher, going behind a line that was anchored by Pro Bowl center Fred Quillan and 31-year-old Randy Cross at right guard. The balanced attack ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense, which had been the best in the NFL in 1984, was excellent again, ranking second in points allowed. Michael Carter was a Pro Bowl nose tackle, getting seven sacks as he anchored the middle of the 3-4 defensive scheme. Defensive ends Dwaine Board and Jeff Stover combined for 21 ½ sacks.
Cornerback Eric Wright was the one starter to not only make the Pro Bowl, but be honored as 1st-team All-NFL. Ronnie Lott, one of the greatest defensive backs of all time was at the other corner. Even though he wasn’t a Pro Bowler this season, he still intercepted six passes.
All in all, the only defense better than San Francisco’s was that of the Chicago Bears, who had a historically great year. But for some reason, the combination of elite offense and elite defense only translated into a borderline playoff season.
The frustration began right away at mediocre Minnesota. In a game that was tied 7-7 after three quarters, Montana threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Craig and the 49ers led 21-14. But they lost five fumbles, turned it over seven times in all and in the end, dumped the game 28-21. The hangover dragged into the beginning of a home game with lowly Atlanta, as San Francisco found themselves in a 10-0 second quarter hole.
Craig got rolling and ended up with 184 all-purpose yards and the 49ers won 35-16. All appeared to be well a week later when they went on the road to a very good Los Angeles Raiders’ team and won 34-10. The 49ers got nine sacks, four of them coming from Board.
Then they took another step back, losing a home game to a bad team in New Orleans. Craig was a non-factor and Montana did not play well, going 12/26 for 120 yards. The Saints scored late and stole a 20-17 win.
A return visit to Atlanta was next (prior to 2002, the Falcons and Saints joined the 49ers and Rams in the NFC West, with the Seahawks still in the AFC). Montana lit it up, going 35/57 for 429 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Craig caught 12 of the passes for 167 yards and the final was 38-17. It appeared the 49ers had their mojo back as they got ready to host the Bears.
San Francisco had eliminated Chicago in the previous year’s NFC Championship Game and even though the Bears were undefeated, respect for the 49ers still had them a (-4) favorite at home. It was a perfect chance for San Francisco to re-assert themselves as the team to beat.
Instead, it was Chicago who asserted just how good they were. The only San Francisco touchdown came on an interception return from Carlton Williamson. Craig couldn’t find running room, and while Montana didn’t play badly, he couldn’t make any big plays against the Bear defense in a 26-10 loss.
Things got worse in a road trip to mediocre Detroit. The special teams gave up a 63-yard punt return and Montana struggled, going 15/26, but those completions were kept underneath for just 97 yards. Craig’s running kept the team in it, the 49ers lost 23-21.
To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Rams were off to a 7-0 start. So when San Francisco traveled south to face their divisional rival, they were already staring at a four-game deficit. It was now or never if they were going to get back in the NFC West race.
Montana stepped up and was brilliant. He threw four touchdowns in the first half, two of them to Craig and finished with 303 passing yards on the day. The 49ers raced to a 28-0 lead and ended up winning 28-14. At 4-4, they were far from out of the woods, but they showed they could still look the part of a champion.
They looked it again this next week for different reasons. The opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, were mediocre and coming to the Bay Area. But Montana would miss this game and Matt Cavanaugh had to step in. Cavanaugh stepped up with a 20/32 for 255 yards performance. While Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski threw for 394 yards, the 49er secondary also came up with three interceptions and the result was 24-13 win.
A big Monday Night visit to Denver was up next, with the Broncosin the midst of a race for the AFC West title. The snow was coming down hard, resulting in both Montana and John Elway having erratic nights. The 49ers trailed 17-16, but Montana got them in position for a short field goal at the end. As the ball was snapped, kicker Ray Wersching would be distracted by a snowball that came out of the stands and landed right by the holder. He shanked the kick and San Francisco suffered a controversial loss.
Their backs to the wall again, San Francisco delivered consecutive home wins over AFC opponents in Kansas City and Seattle. Montana threw for 235 yards, while backup running back Wendell Tyler rushed for 111 in a 31-3 rout of the Chiefs. The 19-6 win over the Seahawks came on a Monday Night against a team that had made the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Even though Montana threw three interceptions, the 49er run defense shut down Curt Warner to get the win.
With the record at 7-5, San Francisco was traveling to Washington. The Redskins were another franchise that had been great in the early part of the decade, but was fighting for their season now, also at 7-5. The landscape of the NFC race made it likely that there would only be room for one of them in the playoffs and this nationally televised late Sunday afternoon game had a postseason vibe to it on December 1.
Carl Monroe took the opening kickoff for the 49ers and took it 95 yards for a touchdown. It set the tone for the entire game. Linebacker Keena Turner returned a fumble 65 yards. San Francisco forced five turnovers in all and used the mistakes to roll to an easy 35-8 win.
While the 49ers were again starting to get their act together, the Rams were reeling. They were down to 9-4, the NFC West race was within a game and San Francisco owned control of the tiebreakers. So when Los Angeles came to Candlestick Park for Monday Night Football it was a battle for the inside track on the division title.
Everything seemed to be going San Francisco’s way and they were a ten-point favorite. The 49ers led 7-3 at the half, but the formula that worked in Washington—scoring on special teams and defense—now turned around and bit them.
Los Angeles returned the second half’s opening kick for a touchdown. With the game tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter, Montana threw an interception that was returned 41 yards. San Francisco lost 27-20 and their hopes an NFC West title were all but gone with two games to play.
The race for the playoffs was still very much on, and the 49ers were tied with the Redskins at 8-6 for the final playoff berth, and of course controlling the tiebreaker. San Francisco went to New Orleans and held serve with a 31-19 win, as Montana went 25/38 for 354 yards.
Washington kept pace and the New York Giants lost, dropping them to 9-6 in a race that had three teams tied for two spots. The pecking order in tiebreakers was Giants-49ers-Redskins. The two NFC East teams each had games on the final Saturday of the season and they both won. So when the 49ers played the Cowboys in a late Sunday afternoon national TV game at Candlestick, it was win-or-go-home.
Dallas had clinched the NFC East, but would have a chance to move up to the 2-seed and host a divisional playoff game if they could win and the Rams would lose on Monday Night against the Raiders (the Rams did). So it wasn’t a pushover game for San Francisco and it didn’t play out that way.
The 49ers were a (-9) favorite, a measurement of how much esteem they were still held in, but they fell behind 13-0 and trailed 16-7 at the half. This writer, a Redskins fan, was watching with intensity and felt real hope for the first time since about the moment Monroe brought the kickoff back in the December 1 game.
But San Francisco controlled the line of scrimmage. They won the rushing battle 109-60, and on defense they got six sacks from six different players. Montana was sharp, 24/34 for 322 yards and the 49ers dominated the second half with 24 unanswered points to win 31-16.
It was off the Meadowlands for the wild-card game. The 49ers had ousted the Giants on the road to Super Bowl titles in 1981 and 1984 and again, the oddsmakers were believers—San Francisco was a (-3) road favorite.
Maybe it was bad body clock, the phenomena of a West Coast team playing an early afternoon kick on the East Coast. Maybe it was just New York’s time. Whatever it was, this wasn’t the 49ers’ day.
They were outrushed 174-94. When San Francisco fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter they were forced to the air. Montana threw for 296 yards, but on 26/47 passing, and he was sacked four times. San Francisco lost 17-3.
It was the beginning of a three-year stretch that would be rough by the extremely high standards Walsh and Montana had set. They would again make the playoffs in 1986 and 1987, this time as NFC West champs, but again lose right away with offensive ineptitude as the reason. Most teams would gladly have taken the wins and the playoff trips, but this franchise in this era wasn’t one of them.
After making the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, head coach John Robinson took the next step with the 1985 Los Angeles Rams. They overcame early adversity and displaced the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers at the top of the NFC West. Then Los Angeles advanced to the NFC Championship Game.
The Rams did all this with a CFL journeyman at quarterback. Dieter Brock was 33-years-old and only played one season in the NFL—this was it, and he was the starter the whole way. Brock was effective, completing 60 percent of his passes in an era where few quarterbacks did that. And he still generated a respectable 7.3 yards-per-attempt. The prime targets were wide receiver Henry Ellard, who finished with 811 receiving yards and tight end Tony Hunter who accumulated 562 yards.
Running the ball and defense was ultimately what Los Angeles was all about though. Eric Dickerson was the key to the offense and he ran for over 1,200 yards in spite of a contract holdout that lasted two regular season games. Dickerson ran behind a truly great offensive line. Four lineman made the Pro Bowl, starting with Hall of Famer Jackie Slater and including Kent Hill, Doug Smith and Dennis Harrah.
The offense still ranked 15th in the NFL, so it was up to the defense to make the Rams stand out. This side of the ball didn’t bring the same amount of raw Pro Bowl talent, but they brought better results.
Los Angeles was able to pressure the quarterback with defensive end Doug Reed and outside linebackers Mel Owens and Mike Wilcher, all of whom combined for 28 ½ sacks. Inside linebacker Jim Collins was a Pro Bowler, as were corners Gary Green and LeRoy Irvin, the strength of the defense as they each intercepted six passes. The Rams defense ranked fourth in the league in points allowed.
The Dickerson contract holdout loomed over the team when they hosted Denver, the defending AFC West champ and who would end this season at 11-5. Robinson turned to an old friend in Charles White to step in for Dickerson. White had played for Robinson at USC in the late 1970s, won a Heisman Trophy and the Trojans won a national title in 1978.
All White needed to do now was provide a stopgap and that’s what he did for his old coach. White ran for 83 yards, keying a 147-63 edge in rush yardage and scored the winning touchdown in a 20-16 win. A week later in Philly, he rolled up 144 yards and Los Angeles won 17-6. Dickerson returned to the team in time for a Monday Night visit to Seattle.
This wasn’t a divisional game the way it would be today. The Seahawks were in the AFC prior to 2002. Dickerson made a big splash in his prime-time debut, rambling for 150 yards and three touchdowns, while Seattle was held to 44 rush yards. The Rams won 35-24 against a team that had made the playoffs each of the previous two years.
Los Angeles hosted lowly Atlanta to end September. After a scoreless first quarter, Brock hit Ellard on a 64-yard touchdown strike, and finished 16/20 for 215 yards on the day. He threw one more TD pass before it was over and the Rams won 17-6. They extended their record to 5-0 with a home win over mediocre Minnesota, overcoming a poor rushing output and using a key red zone stop in the fourth quarter to win 13-10.
A road trip to an awful Tampa Bay team nearly ended in disaster. Los Angeles trailed 20-17, before Carl Ekern picked off a pass and took it to the house. Then they fell behind 27-24 before Irvin got an interception and brought it back all the way to win the game 31-27. The ballhawking continued in Kansas City. The Rams intercepted six passes, two of them by Irvin and they shutout a poor Chiefs team 16-0.
Riding high at 7-0, it was time for San Francisco on the final Sunday of October. The 49ers were struggling at 3-4 and with the Rams playing at home it was time for that proverbial statement game.
It couldn’t have gone any worse. Joe Montana was brilliant and a shocked crowd in Anaheim watched Los Angeles fall behind 28-0 at halftime. Brock would have to throw 51 times. He completed 35 and got 344 yards. But there were also three interceptions and more to the point, the Rams were not going to win an air war with the great Montana. But the early deficit took Dickerson out of the game, even if the final score was a respectable 28-14.
A home game with New Orleans, then a division rival was up next (Prior to 2002, the NFC West was the Rams, 49ers, Saints & Falcons). Everything clicked against a weak opponent. Dickerson ran for over 100 yards. Brock went 15/30, and made big plays, throwing for 256 yards with no interceptions. Hunter caught six passes for over 100 yards. And the defensive front dominated, with nine sacks. It all added up to a 28-10 win.
But the next loss came at the New York Giants, the same team who had upset Los Angeles in the previous year’s wild-card game. The Rams couldn’t keep Phil Simms from making big plays in the passing game, couldn’t cash in red zone chances and despite an early 13-0 lead, lost the game 24-19. An even worse loss went down in Atlanta, when an anemic rush offense led to just nine first downs and a stunning 30-14 rout.
Los Angeles was now reeling, having lost three of four and San Francisco was nipping at their heels. The Rams needed a momentum reversal and they got it right at the beginning of a home game with Green Bay. Kick returner Ron Brown would end up being voted 1st-team All-NFL at the job and he earned it on this day.
Brown brought back the opening kickoff 98 yards. After the Packers tied it 7-7, Brown ran another one back 86. Later in the game he caught a touchdown pass from Brock. With Dickerson back in gear, with 150 yards, Los Angeles won 34-17. They stood at 9-3 and were two games ahead of San Francisco—but there was still a road trip to play the 49ers and the Rams would not win a tiebreaker. So this race was tighter than it appeared on the surface.
And then it got even tighter in a disastrous road trip to New Orleans. The normally reliable offensive line collapsed and allowed nine sacks. Four Los Angeles turnovers punctuated the 29-3 loss, and made the coming Monday Night trip to San Francisco a battle for the division lead.
To say no one believed in the Rams understates the case. In spite of their 9-4 record, they entered the game as (+10) underdogs. Los Angeles was having trouble moving the ball early, but the defense kept them in it and they only trailed 7-3 at the half.
It was time for Ron Brown to do his thing one more time. He fielded the opening kick of the second half on his own 14-yard line and ended up in the end zone.
The 49ers answered with a touchdown, but missed the extra point and it stayed 13-10. Trailing 20-13, Brock hit Ellard with a 39-yard TD pass to tie the game. In the fourth quarter, the unthinkable happened—Montana came up short in a big situation. In his own end, the legendary quarterback threw an interception to Gary Green, who bolted 41 yards for a score. The Rams had an improbable 27-20 upset at a time when their fortunes seemed at the lowest.
The win put the division title within their grasp and Los Angeles sealed it at home against a bad St. Louis Cardinals team. Brock went 13/20 for 216 yards and four touchdown passes in a 46-14 rout.
A #1 seed in the playoffs was out of reach—the dominating 15-1 season of the Chicago Bears saw to that. But the 2-seed was up for grabs. The Rams had the edge, but the Cowboys still had a chance to grab it. It put Los Angeles in the odd position of rooting for San Francisco to beat Dallas in the season finale.
The 49ers did just that, and it meant the Rams’ playoff position was locked in when they closed the year on Monday Night against fellow L.A. residents in the Raiders. It was a tight game, 6-6 after three quarters, but the Raiders had something to play for—the top seed in the AFC—and they eventually won 16-6.
After a week off, the Rams were set to host the Cowboys in a late Saturday afternoon game on divisional round weekend. These two franchises had an extensive recent history in the playoffs. Los Angeles enjoyed their moments, such as 1979, when they went to Dallas and pulled a shocking upset that ended Roger Staubach’s career in Big D.
But these visits of the Cowboys out west hadn’t ended well—twice, the Rams hosted the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game (1975 & 1978) and they lost the two games by a combined score 65-7.
Los Angeles was a (-2) favorite, but even in this you could see the skepticism—with three points being the customary advantage oddsmakers give homefield, the number suggested that the smart money saw Dallas as a narrowly better team, all things being equal. But all things weren’t equal—not when one side had Eric Dickerson.
It was a slow, grinding first half, and a 33-yard field goal from the Rams stood up into the locker room for a 3-0 lead. Then Dickerson turned it loose. He rumbled 55 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. The Rams added a quick field goal after the ensuing kickoff was fumbled and took a 13-0 lead.
The Los Angeles defense was shutting down Dallas, The Cowboys had no running game, they couldn’t get the ball downfield in the passing game and the Rams forced six turnovers. Defensive end Gary Jeter had three sacks, and defensive back Jerry Gray had an interception and in the fourth quarter he recovered a fumbled punt.
Meanwhile, Dickerson kept running. He immediately turned the Gray fumble recovery into a 40-yard touchdown run. By the time the day was done, Dickerson had rushed for an NFL playoff record 248 yards. Los Angeles won 20-0.
The Big Bad Bears awaited in the Windy City, and Los Angeles arrived for an early afternoon kick as a (+10.5) underdog. This time, there would no reprise of the Monday Night Magic they had pulled off in San Francisco as a double-digit dog. The Bears were too good.
Dickerson was held to 46 yards rushing and Brock’s deficiencies were completely exposed. He’d managed to skate in the Dallas game despite going 6/22 for 50 yards. Without Dickerson to cover for him in Chicago, Brock went 10/31 for 66 yards. The Rams only threatened to score once, at the end of the first half, trailing 10-0. But clock mismanagement cost them a field goal attempt, and they ended up losing 24-0.
It wasn’t the end of the success in Los Angeles for Robinson. They made the playoffs again in 1986 and 1988, losing in the wild-card game both times. In 1989, they reached the NFC Championship Game again, but were again routed, this time by San Francisco.
During this stretch, Dickerson moved on to Indianapolis, his contract problems never really going away. But this team’s NFC West title and its running back’s great playoff performance are a part of the 1985 NFL season that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The 1985 Los Angeles Raiders produced the league’s MVP and looked primed to make a run and at least get to the Super Bowl. Then some inopportune mistakes undid it all and marked the practical end of the Tom Flores era in franchise history.
Marcus Allen was in his fourth year in the league and already had a Super Bowl MVP trophy on his shelf, following the 1983 season. In ’85, Allen was at his best. He ran for 1,759 yards. His 67 receptions were second on the team and he was at his best when the Raiders came thundering down the stretch in the AFC West race. Allen won the MVP award.
The steadiness of the running game was necessary, because there was inconsistency at quarterback. Early in the season, Marc Wilson took the reins from Jim Plunkett for good, but Wilson—a favorite of owner Al Davis—often struggled. He completed a bit less than 50 percent of his passes, only managed 6.7 yards-per-attempt and had a TD-INT ratio of 16/21. Even in an era when passing stats weren’t gaudy, this represented mediocrity.
Wilson was bailed out by Allen and the presence of Todd Christensen, the best tight end in the NFL, who caught 82 passes for 987 yards. The defense was more than capable of pulling its weight, led by Howie Long, a 1st-team All-NFL defensive end, and nose tackle Bill Pickel who had 12 ½ sacks.
The linebacking spots were in good hands, with Matt Millen on the inside and Rod Martin on the outside. And the corners still had the great Mike Haynes at one spot, now 32-years-old, but still a 1st-team All-NFL performer, and another great, Lester Hayes, age 30 on the other side. The Raiders weren’t a perfect team, but they were still awfully tough to beat.
Los Angeles hosted the New York Jetsto open the year. The Raider defensive front was smothering, getting ten sacks. Sean Jones recorded three coming off the edge and Lyle Alzado had two more coming up the middle. With the Jets coming off consecutive losing seasons the 31-0 thrashing didn’t seem like a big deal, but it turned out that New York would prove to be a playoff team in 1985.
Plunkett was the starter to open the season, but the next two weeks put an end to that. On a Thursday night, the Raiders lost 36-20 at a bad Kansas City team. Then Los Angeles came home and were pummeled 34-10 by the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. Plunkett was not at fault in either case—he was a combined 57/82 for 561 yards in the two games and the running attack was non-existent. But he was injured and with the owner in Wilson’s corner, there was no looking back.
A visit to Foxboro to play the Patriots had become almost a must-win and the Raiders trailed 20-14. It wasn’t Wilson that delivered them—it was defensive scoring. Alzado recovered a fumble in the end zone. Sam Seale and Hayes each brought interceptions to the house and Los Angeles got a 35-20 win. But they hadn’t seen the last of this New England team.
There was nothing in Allen’s season thus far that suggested an MVP run. He got it going with a 126 yards when Kansas City made their return trip west. Wilson also played well, 18/29 for 241 yards and no mistakes in a 19-10 win. Allen then ran for 107 yards in a 23-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, completing a two-week run over weak teams that got Los Angeles back on track.
The Cleveland Browns would make the playoffs in 1985, albeit at 8-8, and the Raiders trailed 20-14 in the fourth quarter of their visit to the Dawg Pound. In spite of thirteen penalties, LA finally pulled it out, as Wilson hit Christensen on an 8-yard touchdown pass to win the game. Los Angeles came home to face mediocre San Diego on the Monday Night stage and kept the winning going. They controlled the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and getting 111 yards from Allen in a 34-21 win.
Each of the previous two years the Raiders had met the Seattle Seahawks, an AFC West rival prior to 2002, in the postseason. Los Angeles ripped Seattle in the 1983 AFC Championship Game. The Seahawks returned the favor in the previous year’s wild-card game. With both teams in the hunt, this November 3 game in the Kingdome was a big one, but Wilson was a disaster.
He threw four interceptions, the Raiders gave up a special teams touchdown and they lost the game 33-3. Wilson played much better in a home game against the Chargers, going 18/32 for 297 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But San Diego’s Dan Fouts was even better, going 26/41 for 436 yards and four touchdowns. The Raiders had leads of 20-13, 27-20 and 34-27, but Fouts kept coming back and LA ultimately fell in overtime 40-34.
Los Angeles stood at 6-4, tied with Seattle for second in the AFC West and trailing Denver by a game. San Diego was also lurking at 5-5, so there wasn’t any room for error. Allen began to take matters into his own hands. He ran for 135 yards and caught six passes against Cincinnati, including the game’s only touchdown in a 13-6 home win. The Seahawks and Chargers both lost. And even though the Broncos won, the Raiders still had two games in the next three weeks against their hated rival.
Denver came to the L.A. Coliseum and by rights should have been able to get out with a win. Wilson threw three interceptions, while John Elway had a pretty good game. But the Raiders had Marcus Allen, who ran for 173 yards and Los Angeles got a 31-28 win in overtime that pulled them into a tie for first with four games left.
The Raiders opened the month of December with a 34-24 win at woeful Atlanta. They trailed 17-13 at the half, but got three consecutive touchdowns, with Allen running for 156 yards and Christensen catching seven passes for over 100 yards. It set up another big battle with the Broncos, this one in Mile High Stadium, with both teams at 9-4.
Denver came out rolling and took a 14-0 lead at the half. Wilson would throw four interceptions and generate just 93 yards in the air. Once again, it was Allen—with a lot of help from the defense—that came to the rescue. The running back went for 135 yards. Elway was forced into three interceptions. Los Angeles pulled even and once again managed an overtime win, 17-14. It concluded as unforgettable a sequence of games as there’s even been in the Raiders-Broncos rivalry.
The win came LA firm command in the AFC West. Seattle and San Diego had both faded from playoff contention altogether. Los Angeles had a one-game lead on Denver with two to play, and the tiebreaker belonged to the Raiders. They put the AFC West on ice at home against Seattle, with Allen running for 109 yards, the defense shutting down Seahawk counterpart Curt Warner and winning 13-3.
Los Angeles had at least the 2-seed wrapped up, but Miami was still in pursuit of the 1-seed. The Dolphins won on the final Sunday of the season, so the Raiders needed to win their finale, a local battle on Monday Night with the Los Angeles Rams. The game would be played in Anaheim, then the home city for the Rams.
MNF featured the two best running backs in football, with Allen and the Rams’ Eric Dickerson. The Rams were a good team who had clinched the NFC West. But they also had nothing to play for, being locked into the 2-seed in the NFC.
Both defenses played great football and the score was tied 6-6 after three quarters. Dickerson ran for 98 yards. But Allen did it again—he carried 24 times for 123 yards. It was ninth straight game of 100-plus yards and Los Angeles won 13-6.
The playoffs beckoned. Everyone knew the Chicago Bears in the NFC, with their historically great defense, were the top-heavy favorites to win it all. But the public salivated at either the nasty Raiders, with their silver-n-black tradition, or Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as the Super Bowl foil. At the very least, a Raiders-Dolphins AFC Championship battle was looked forward to—the teams had been the 1-2 seeds in three of the last four years and in the playoffs together all four seasons, but never played.
All those possibilities were just one part of what made the ultimate demise of this season so disappointing.
New England won the wild-card game and came west as a 5 ½ point underdog. The Raiders spotted the Patriots an early touchdown, but came roaring back, ripping off 17 straight points and taking a 17-7 lead. But before the first half was out, the Patriots scored 10 consecutive points of their own. A wild second-quarter was concluded with LA got a field goal and took a 20-17 lead into the locker room.
Allen did what Allen does, and that’s roll up 121 yards. But the Patriots had an answer in Craig James, who rushed for 104. And the New England defense was not letting Allen get free on pass plays, where he caught just three balls for eight yards. It put more pressure on Wilson, and he wasn’t up to the task, throwing three interceptions.
Lest we put it all on the quarterback, the Raiders didn’t play well collectively. They turned it over six times overall and the costliest came on the kickoff after the Patriots tied the score 20-20. The kick was fumbled, and squirted into the end zone and New England recovered. Wilson’s offense never made a real threat after that and the season ended 27-20. The Patriots went on to upset the Dolphins the next week before turning into fodder for the Bears in the Super Bowl.
The 1985 season marked the end of the early 1980s excellence of the Raiders. Under Flores, they reached the playoffs five times in the six seasons from 1980-85, had been the AFC’s #1 seed three times and won a Super Bowl. Flores only coached two more seasons with the Raiders and they wouldn’t make it back to the postseason until 1990, when Art Shell was at the helm. An era ended on a late Sunday afternoon against the Patriots.
John Elway’s Broncos were coming off consecutive playoff seasons in 1983-84, and they were on the threshold of an AFC dynasty, one that would reach three Super Bowls between 1986-89. The 1985 Denver Broncos were sort of dropped in the middle. They missed the playoffs due to a couple heartbreaking losses, but also finished 11-5 and only the weird balance of power in the AFC cost them a postseason spot.
Elway was coming off his breakout year of 1984 and he threw for over 3,800 yards in ’85. The young gunslinger was still erratic though, not quite the polished pro that would become arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
He completed 54% of his passes, which was decent in the football world of 1985. But his 6.4 yards-per-attempt was fairly low, especially given his arm strength. He threw 22 touchdown passes, but the 23 interceptions were high even allowing for the era.
Denver was also dealing with a fall-off in production from running back Sammy Winder, who went from a Pro Bowl year in 1984 to barely over 700 yards rushing. Winder wasn’t helped by an offensive line that lacked Pro Bowl talent. The receivers were solid, with Steve Watson being a more possession-oriented target and Vance Johnson the deep threat. Collectively, even with the shortcomings, Elway’s offense still ranked eighth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense had more pure Pro Bowl talent, starting with 1st-team All-NFL inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, who recorded 13 sacks. Corner Louis Wright was another Pro Bowler, as was strong safety Dennis Smith, who could cause havoc with his blitzing. Mike Harden, on the opposite corner of Wright intercepted five passes.
Rulon Jones keyed the pass rush and the defensive end got 10 sacks in a Pro Bowl season of his own. But in spite of this, the defense was still proportionally worse than the offense, ranking 13th in points allowed.
Denver opened the season with a marquee game against the Los Angeles Rams, another team that had made the playoffs the previous two years and would also finish 11-5 this season. It was a battle between the arm of Elway and the legs of the great Ram running back Eric Dickerson.
Elway threw two touchdown passes and the Broncos took a 16-10 lead after three quarters. But they lost the rushing battle 147-63 and the Rams eventually wore them down, taking home a 20-16 win.
The first home game came against a weak New Orleans Saints team, and Elway opened it up with a 65-yard touchdown pass to Butch Johnson, then threw two more TD passes before the first half was out. The quarterback finished with four touchdown passes on the game and 353 yards in a 34-23 win. And he kept it rolling in a road game against another bad NFC team, the Atlanta Falcons. Elway threw for 291 yards, spreading the ball around in a 44-28 win.
Another marquee opponent awaited in Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. Marino had won the MVP award in 1984 and his team reached the Super Bowl. Though Elway would surpass Marino as the top quarterback in the famed draft class of 1983, the Miami QB was off to the better career start. And he outplayed Elway in this game at Mile High Stadium.
Even though Denver won the rushing battle thanks to 103 yards from Winder, but Elway was erratic, going 18/37 for 250 yards. Marino went 25/43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns. The Broncos led 23-20 after three quarters, but once again, a big win escaped them in the fourth quarter, falling 30-26 at home
A shaky game from Elway against the subpar Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), saw him throw three interceptions, but Houston wasn’t good enough to take advantage and the Broncos grabbed a 31-20 win at home. They got another less-than-impressive win over a bad team in edging the Indianapolis Colts 15-10 on the road. In this case it was red-zone execution, as four trips inside the 20-yard line ended in field goals.
Seattle was an AFC West team prior to 2002 and they had been a foil for Denver in both 1983 and 1984. In ’83, it was the Seahawks who knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs. Denver returned the favor by winning a close division race in ’84. In their first game of this season, the Broncos played opportunistic football, winning the turnover battle 4-0, getting five sacks and pulling out a 13-10 overtime win.
Two more divisional games followed, this time on the road. Denver dominated Kansas City on the ground, took a 24-0 lead by the second quarter and won 30-10. The Broncos gave it right back in San Diego, not running the ball, falling behind 27-3 and losing 30-10.
It was time for another marquee game, and this time it was the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and the stage was Monday Night Football. The snow was coming down in Mile High Stadium and Elway met the challenge. He threw the ball 50 times, completed 28 and got 261 yards, admirable numbers in the conditions.
And the snow ended up playing a decisive role—the Broncos led 17-16, but Joe Montana got the 49ers in position to try a short field goal for the win. As the ball was snapped, a snowball came out of the stands and landed in front of the holder, creating enough of a distraction for the kick to be missed. Denver had a controversial win, and at 7-3, they were in the lead in the AFC West.
Elway was again erratic at home against the Chargers, going 20/42 for 215 yards, but the Broncos were good enough to escape with a 30-24 overtime win. It set up a huge three-week period where they would play the Los Angeles Raiders twice. The Raiders were 7-4 and a game back of the Broncos. The Seahawks were also lingering at 6-5.
The first game took place at the L.A. Coliseum. Elway played efficiently, completing 19/32 passes for 164 yards. But he couldn’t get the ball down the field, and Raider running back Marcus Allen ran for 173 yards. It went to overtime and the Raiders won 31-28.
Denver came back and won 31-23 at mediocre Pittsburgh, thanks to four sacks from Mecklenburg, and four interceptions overall, including a 42-yard Pick-6 by Harden that sealed the game. The Broncos and Raiders were now tied at 9-4 with the Seahawks fading from the race. Los Angeles visited Denver for the big showdown on December 8.
The Bronco secondary was again in a ballhawking mood, picking off four passes, three of them from Smith. They took a 14-0 lead. But they were struggling to run the football and Elway couldn’t pick up the slack, going 18/36 for 158 yards and three interceptions of his own. Allen was having a MVP year and he went a long way toward solidifying it in this game—again it went to overtime and again the Broncos lost, 17-14.
Denver was now really up against it for the playoffs in spite of their 9-5 record. They trailed the Raiders by a game and would lose the tiebreaker. There were only two wild-card berths available and the AFC East had three teams at 10-4. The problem was that the AFC Central was so mediocre that Cleveland would win it at 8-8, meaning a worthy team elsewhere would get squeezed out. Denver was “poised” to become that team.
A late Saturday afternoon game with Kansas City almost ended the playoff bid. Denver played a terrible football game, specifically Elway, who threw five interceptions. But here’s where the quarterback showed the magic that would define his career—even on a bad day, he found a way to make a play, and his 22/37 for 301 yards enabled Denver to steal a 14-13 win.
Los Angeles clinched the AFC West, but Denver still had hope for a wild-card. Coming into the final week, they were chasing the New York Jets and New England. Both teams would play at home against mediocre teams in Cleveland and Cincinnati. It wasn’t a great shot, but Denver only needed one of them to lose.
First things first though. The Broncos had to beat the Seahawks in the old Kingdome on a Friday night telecast. Denver dug themselves a 17-0 hole, including allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown. Elway then invited the entire Bronco team onto his back. He threw for 432 yards and personally carried his teammates to a 27-24 win that kept the playoff dream alive.
Alas, it was not to be. The Jets won in a blowout and the Patriots pulled away in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. The Broncos would miss the playoffs at 11-5. It wasn’t particularly fair, but there were plenty of postseason thrills for this franchise and this quarterback in the immediate years ahead.
Marty Schottenheimer enjoyed a long and successful career as an NFL head coach, one marked by tough running games, good defense and, regrettably, a lot of playoff heartbreak. All of those were present in his maiden voyage at the helm of the 1985 Cleveland Browns.
The Browns had reached the playoffs in 1980 as the #1 seed in the AFC before a heartbreaking loss to the Raiders. Cleveland snuck into the postseason again in the strike-torn year of 1982 with a 4-5 record and was quickly eliminated.
Midway through 1984, they were falling apart at 1-7 when Schottenheimer got the job in midseason. The team finished on a respectable note, splitting their last eight games and setting the tone for Marty’s first full year.
In addition to the coaching change, the Browns were breaking in a new quarterback. Bernie Kosar, a local high school product who had won a national championship for the Miami Hurricanes in 1983, was in his rookie year. Kosar opened the season on the bench behind 34-year-old Gary Danielson, but the rookie would ultimately start ten games.
The passing production was, to be kind, rather modest. Kosar completed 50 percent of his throws for a low 6.4 yards-per-attempt. It was the running game that drove the Browns. Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were both 23-years-old and each bulldozed for over 1,000 yards and Mack made the Pro Bowl. They did it in spite of an offensive line that lacked Pro Bowl talent of its own.
There wasn’t a lot of talent at the wideouts, but the Browns did have a great tight end. Ozzie Newsome was perfect for a quarterback who excelled in the short game, as Kosar did. Newsome caught 62 passes for 711 yards and enjoyed a Pro Bowl year of his own.
Cleveland’s offense was 23rd in the NFL in points scored, but the defense more than picked up the slack. A pair of outside linebackers, Chip Banks and Clay Matthews Sr. (father of the current Green Bay Packers LB of the same name) combined for 17 sacks and each made the Pro Bowl. So did nose tackle Bob Golic, the brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic. The secondary was led by strong safety Al Gross who intercepted five passes.
A home game with the Cardinals, who then played in St. Louis, saw the veteran Danielson start at quarterback and he threw two touchdown passes in bringing the Browns back from a 17-3 deficit to lead 24-17. But Cleveland lost the turnover battle 3-0, the game went to overtime and St. Louis won 27-24.
The Browns hosted the archrival Steelers, who had won the old AFC Central (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Houston Oilers) the previous two years and reached the AFC Championship Game in 1984. The Cleveland running game asserted itself, winning rush yardage 145-54 and the football game 17-7. A visit to a playoff team in Dallas didn’t go as well, a 20-7 loss where the Browns token touchdown came at the end.
Mack got rolling in San Diego, with 130 yards and the Browns overall ran for 275 yards in a 21-7 win over a mediocre opponent. In a home game with the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots, the Browns turned it over five times…and still managed to win 24-20. Kosar came in and went 9/15 for 105 yards.
The Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) were a bad team, but like the Browns, they had a quarterback whose NFL journey was in its infancy, in this case Warren Moon. The game in the Astrodome was ugly for a half and Cleveland trailed 6-0. But Kosar was able to make big plays, his 8/19 going for 208 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Weathers, The Browns won 1-6.
Kosar again played reasonably well in a home game with the Los Angeles Raiders, going 10/22 for 140 yards. In fact he outplayed counterpart Marc Wilson, who was 15/36 for 213 yards. But this was a rare game where Cleveland didn’t have the edge in the backfield. Los Angeles’ Marcus Allen was in the midst of an MVP year and the Raiders ultimately finished 12-4. The Browns came up just short 21-20. They lost another home game a week later to the ten-win Washington Redskins, getting just 97 yards rushing in a 14-7 defeat.
Two big divisional road games, at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were next and the losing continued. In the rain at old Three Rivers Stadium, the Browns were outrushed 155-66 by the Steelers and lost 10-9. A week later, they couldn’t contain the passing combination of Boomer Esiason-to-Cris Collingsworth took a 27-10 beatdown at the hands of the Bengals.
With a four-game losing streak and 4-6 record and visit from the woeful Buffalo Bills was just what the doctor ordered. Byner ran for 109 yards, Mack added 94 and Cleveland churned out a 17-7 win. Cincinnati made their return trip across the state the following week and Mack rolled up 117 yards in a 24-6 payback win.
The AFC Central was weak in 1985, and the Browns’ 6-6 record actually had them tied for first with the Steelers. What’s more, the Bengals and Oilers were each in pursuit at 5-7. It was excitement driven by a shared mediocrity as the season hit the homestretch.
Cleveland paid a visit to the Meadowlands to face Bill Parcells’ New York Giants who would ultimately reach the second round of the NFC playoffs. Both teams were built on defense so the scoring outburst the ensued was quite unexpected. The Browns trailed 33-21 and Kosar was struggling, Schottenheimer turned to Danielson and the veteran delivered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to steal a 35-33 upset. By day’s end, Cleveland was in sole possession of first.
Kosar returned to the lineup at mediocre Seattle a week alter and played well, going 18/31 for 249 yards. But this time, the running game failed and the defense couldn’t contain Seahawks’ quarterback Dave Krieg. The 31-13 loss enabled Cincinnati to pull even in the division race at 7-7, with Pittsburgh and Houston both losing.
The Oilers were now 5-9 and the Browns were a (-10) favorite when Houston came to the Dawg Pound for the season’s penultimate game. Kosar played mistake-free football, going 14/28 for 161 yards. He ran for one touchdown and flipped a short TD pass to Newsome for a 14-7 lead. Two more short touchdown passes in the third quarter extended the lead to 28-7 and the Browns hung on 28-21.
Cincinnati lost, and the Bengals and Steelers were both 7-8, one game back of the Browns at 8-7. Cleveland had the tiebreaker against both teams, but if a three-way tie occurred, the Bengals would take the AFC Central. Moreover, the Browns had a difficult road trip to face the New York Jets, a 10-5 team facing a win-or-go-home scenario.
The good news was that the schedule was no easier for the Bengals or Steelers. Cincinnati had to go to New England, who was identical to the Jets—dealing with a must-win at 10-5. And the Steelers had to face the Giants, who also had their back to the wall to qualify for the postseason. In summation, all three teams were on the road against superior opponents who had everything to play for.
Cleveland and Pittsburgh were each in the Meadowlands, as the Steelers played on Saturday afternoon at the Giants. Any sense of drama to the AFC Central race was snuffed out when the Steelers lost. The Browns could celebrate on Saturday night as they wrapped up the division. The following day, Cleveland did make a little history—in their 37-10 loss they became the first team to reach the playoffs without a winning record, finishing 8-8.
The playoff format prior to 1990 had five teams per conference making it, with three division winners and two wild-cards. So even with the mediocre record, the Browns still got a week off before going to Miami. The Dolphins were the defending AFC champs and Dan Marino was the 1st-team All-NFL quarterback.
In a Saturday afternoon game that opened the divisional round weekend, Cleveland was ready to shock the world. They ran for 251 yards, and Byner scored two touchdowns. When he rumbled 66 yards for a score in the third quarter, the (+10.5) underdog Browns were ahead 21-3.
But alas, there was no passing game—Kosar was just 10/19 for 66 yards and Marino came blazing back. The Dolphins scored two touchdowns before the third quarter was out and finally got the game-winner with a little less than two minutes to play. Cleveland had its heart broken in a 24-21 loss.
The Schottenheimer-Kosar era had gotten underway, and Cleveland would get better. They would make the playoffs each of the next three seasons and twice reach the AFC Championship Game. But this wouldn’t be a story of the Browns in general or Marty Schottenheimer in particular, if it didn’t end in some awful heartbreak. Two losses to John Elway’s Broncos are each a part of NFL lore. But unlike our own day, at least the Browns were winning. It started in 1985.
The New York Jets had been a playoff team at the outset of the 1980s, reaching the postseason in 1981-82 and getting to the AFC Championship Game the latter trip. Then head coach Walt Michaels suddenly retired, Joe Walton took over and the Jets promptly went 7-9 the next two seasons. Walton needed to deliver a playoff season and that’s what he did, as the 1985 New York Jets contended all year for the AFC East crown and ultimately got in as a wild-card.
High-percentage passing was the order of the day for Gang Green. In our day, a 61% completion rate is something that’s usually achieved by two-thirds of quarterbacks. In 1985, clearing the 60 percent threshold was hardly the norm and that’s what Ken O’Brien did. Nor did it come at the expense of yardage, as he generated eight yards per attempt and accumulated nearly 3,900 yards in a Pro Bowl year.
The receiving corps was above-average, with Wesley Walker as a deep threat and 22-year-old Al Toon working as a possession receiver. Kurt Sohn was a competent third option. But O’Brien’s favorite targets, unsurprisingly, were those who excelled in the short game. Tight end Mickey Shuler caught 76 passes for 879 yards, while Freeman McNeil caught 38 more out of the backfield.
McNeil also ran for over 1,300 yards and made the Pro Bowl, while Johnny Hector was a solid change-of-pace back that ran for 572 more. The Jets’ offense ranked seventh in the NFL in points scored in spite of lacking Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line.
The defense was even better, ranking seventh in the league. Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau were holdovers from the “Sack Exchange” of 1981 fame, which harassed quarterbacks at a record-setting rate. Klecko, now 32-years-old, was 1st-team All-NFL at tackle with 7 ½ sacks. Gastineau was on the edge and recorded 13 ½ sacks en route to the Pro Bowl.
Barry Bennett wasn’t a part of the Sack Exchange, but he got in the spirit of things up front with 7 ½ sacks of his own. Inside linebacker Lance Mehl made the Pro Bowl, rounding out the most important parts of the 1985 defensive unit.
There was nothing to suggest a playoff run when the Jets visited the Los Angeles Raiders to open the season. Even allowing the Raiders were a playoff perennial, just two years removed from winning the Super Bowl and on their way to a 12-win season, this was still an embarrassment. The Jets ran for just 62 yards and were shut out 31-0.
A poor first quarter at home against the lowly Buffalo Bills followed, and the Jets trailed 3-0. Then the season immediately turned for the better. They scored 21 second quarter points, McNeil ran for 192 yards and New York won 42-3. The defensive dominance continued in a road game with Green Bay. The Packers were a mediocre team, but had a good offense. In a late afternoon start at old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers used to play three home games a year, the Jets won 24-3.
New York hosted a subpar Indianapolis Colts team and used a well-balanced offense to win 25-20. O’Brien was 20/30 for 240 yards and no interceptions, while McNeil ran for 115 yards. A road win at Cincinnati, the third straight played in the late Sunday afternoon window, came by a 29-20 count. In a game where the teams combined for 29 penalties, O’Brien went 19/28 for 211 yards to make the difference.
The night of October 14 was going to be special no matter what. The Jets were retiring the#12 worn by the legendary Joe Namath on Monday Night Football. The opponent was the Miami Dolphins, who had reached the Super Bowl the previous year with quarterback Dan Marino winning the MVP award.
And the night became even more special for Jets fans by what happened on the football field. O’Brien went 18/28 for 239 yards and no interceptions, while the defense kept Marino contained, restricting him to short passes underneath. The final was 23-7 and really should have been worse, as the Jets bogged down for field goals inside the five-yard line twice in the first half and keeping Miami in the game until the second half.
New York came out of this win and went to New England to face a surging Patriots team that would join the Jets and Dolphins in the AFC East title race. It was an uncharacteristic day for O’Brien—he got the ball downfield, and Walker caught six passes for 140 yards. But he was erratic, only completing 15/21 passes. The running game was contained, the Jets lost the turnover battle 3-1 and ultimately fell 20-13 in a game close all the way.
Seattle had reached the playoffs each of the previous two years and were in contention to do so again when they came to the Meadowlands. The Jets trailed 7-0 and were driving to tie it up, when they fumbled and watched it returned 79 yards to the house. It would have been a good spot to fold, but New York didn’t. McNeil ran for 151 yards, they took over the second half and won 17-14. It would be the Seahawks, an AFC team prior to 2002, that faded from the playoff race.
New York traveled to Indianapolis to face the Colts, who were in the AFC East prior to 2002. The Jets dominated the trenches, outrushing the Colts 201-53, taking a 35-3 lead by halftime and winning 35-17. A big rematch with Miami took place on late Sunday afternoon in the old Orange Bowl.
The Jets trailed 14-3 until a pair of O’Brien touchdown passes gave them a 17-14 lead. The quarterback threw for 393 yards, but he was also sacked five times and Marino got the last say. The Dolphin QB threw for 362 yards, including a 50-yard TD strike in the fourth quarter to beat New York 21-17.
When the Jets went to Tampa Bay to face a horrible Buccaneers team, it looked like New York hadn’t gotten over the tough loss, as they spotted the home team a 14-0 lead. To say the Jets then took over falls in the category of understatement. O’Brien would throw for 367 yards and five touchdowns, with Toon being the lead target with 113 yards receiving. By the time the first quarter was over, the score was 17-14 and the Jets never stopped, piling on in a 62-28 win.
On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, New England made their visit to the Meadowlands in a game the Jets needed. Each team drove deep in the first quarter before settling for a field goal. McNeil was injured early in the game and had to leave. But O’Brien and Walker covered for the versatile back. O’Brien was 20/33 for 311 yards, with Walker catching six passes for 168 yards. They chiseled out a 16-13 win.
New York’s 9-3 record had them atop the AFC East, a game ahead of both Miami and New England. But they got stuck with a road trip for Thanksgiving, going to Detroit, who was a mediocre opponent, but always tough to handle at home in this spot.
McNeil was still out and even though Hector ran for 114 yards, the pass defense couldn’t stop Lion quarterback Eric Hipple in a 31-20 loss. The Patriots and Dolphins both won on Sunday to create a three-way tie for first. There were two wild-card spots available, but the runner-up of the Broncos-Raiders battle in the AFC West was going to be involved in that.
The Bills, in the midst of a 2-14 season, were the perfect opponent. A visit to Rich Stadium on December 8 started slowly with a scoreless first quarter. Then O’Brien threw a 20-yard touchdown strike to Shuler. Then backed up in the shadow of their own end zone, O’Brien and Walker hooked up on a 96-yard scoring play. The final was 27-7.
Both AFC East rivals won, while the Raiders beat the Broncos to take the AFC West lead. Denver was the only other competition for the two wild-card spots were now 9-5, a game back of everyone in the AFC East.
In a strict sense, New York controlled their destiny, because they owned the tiebreakers on the Patriots and Dolphins thanks to conference record. In a practical sense though, the Jets still had to play the Bears, who were in the midst of a 15-1 season marked by historic defensive dominance and that would end with a Super Bowl trophy. A Saturday afternoon game was in the Meadowlands and Chicago had everything all sewn up for the playoffs, but New York still couldn’t move the ball and lost 19-6.
Miami beat New England on Monday Night to take control of the division. Denver won and kept pace. The Jets entered the final week of the season needing either a victory over the Cleveland Browns, who led their division, albeit at 8-7, or a loss by Denver. There was a faint hope of still winning the division, but that would require the Dolphins to lose at home to the Bills.
On a Friday night TV special, Denver rallied to beat Seattle and put the pressure on. New York got a break on Saturday when a Pittsburgh loss meant that Cleveland clinched their division and had nothing to play for. The Jets-Browns game was tied 10-10 in the second quarter, but a short TD run by Hector gave New York a lead going into the locker room, another one in the third quarter gave them a cushion and the Jets just kept piling on, winning 37-10. Miami won as expected, but New York was returning to the playoffs and would host a game to boot.
A third Jets-Patriots game went down at the Meadowlands on the final Saturday of December with 20 mph winds blowing. What had been such a nice year ended up with a sour ending. The Jets turned it over four times and forced none of their own. O’Brien was concussed early in the game and the era before the protocols, kept playing before finally having to leave in the third quarter down 23-7. The team couldn’t run the ball and they lost 26-14. New England ended up in the Super Bowl, going through Miami in the AFC Championship Game.
It was still a nice comeback year for the Jets and they would keep the winning going for one more season, enjoying a playoff run in 1986 before sliding back to mediocrity.
The 1985 Miami Dolphins were in the franchise’s third year with Dan Marino quarterback. The first two years had seen a pair of AFC East titles, a Super Bowl trip and an MVP award. All that was left was to win the Lombardi Trophy itself. The Dolphins didn’t achieve that goal in ’85, but they made a good run at it, and in the process were able to defend their organization’s proudest legacy.
Marino didn’t win a second straight MVP award, but he did almost everything else. The quarterback with the rapid-fire release was 1st-team All-NFL, throwing over 4,100 yards and 30 touchdown passes. He did it in spite of wide receiver Mark Duper missing a chunk of the season due to an injury.
Mark Clayton, another Pro Bowl wideout, stepped up with 70 catches for nearly 1,000 yards. Veteran Nat Moore caught 51 passes for a little over 700 yards. Bruce Hardy was a reliable target at tight end and no one on the entire team caught more passes than Tony Nathan did out of the backfield, snagging 72 balls for 651 yards.
The offensive line was in good hands, with future Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson enjoying a 1st-team All-NFL campaign at age 28. Left guard Roy Foster was also in his prime, at 25, and a Pro Bowl talent. But while the protection was good, the running game was not. Nathan’s 667 rush yards led the team.
Even so, it was the only weakness on an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored. The defense was starting to show slippage, especially when compared to the first few years of the decade when they carried the team prior to Marino. There were no Pro Bowlers to be found, but ranking 12th in the league in points allowed was still plenty good with an attack like this.
Miami opened the season at the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) and no one saw what was coming. The Oilers had gone 5-27 over the previous two seasons and when the Dolphins got a Pick-6 from corner William Judson and took an early 13-0 lead, and it looked this would be a nice and easy Week 1 tuneup.
What happened is that Marino would be knocked out of the game and Houston’s up-and-coming quarterback Warren Moon went 12/17 for 270 yards. Even with backup Dolphin quarterback Don Strock hitting Duper on a 67-yard touchdown pass and giving his team a 23-19 lead, the Oilers stole a shocking upset with a late touchdown.
Marino returned for a home game with Indianapolis and went 29/48 for 329 yards and no interceptions, repeatedly hooking up with Clayton who went over 100 receiving yards. A 30-13 win got the Dolphins back on track and the quarterback then carved up Kansas City to the tune of 23/35 for 258 yards and spreading the ball to nine different receivers in a 31-0 rout.
Miami went to Denver on September 29 for their first real test. After playing three teams that would all finish 6-10 or worse, a battle between Marino and John Elway, against a team that was coming off an AFC West title and would win 11 games this year, would provide a good barometer for when the Fish really stood.
The test was passed. In a good game, the Dolphins trailed 23-20 in the third quarter, before Marino threw a 46-yard touchdown pass. With a 30-23 lead in the fourth quarter, the defense got a key red-zone stop, forced a field goal and then closed out the four-point win. Marino outgunned Elway with 390 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions.
A rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game came with Pittsburgh. The Steelers were on their way to a 7-9 season, but they played tough in South Beach. Marino threw three interceptions and the Dolphins trailed 20-17, but they were able to put together one last touchdown drive and win 24-20.
It was time for the Monday Night stage, and the opponent would be the New York Jets, who were also 4-1. The performance in the Meadowlands was nothing short of disastrous. Marino didn’t make mistakes, but the Jets kept him firmly under wraps, at 13/23 for 136 yards. And the flaws Miami had up front were exposed, as New York won the rushing battle 245-74 and took the football game decisively, 23-7.
A home game with the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn’t much better, but in this case, the opponent was so bad, that the Dolphins survived. Favored by (-13), Miami blew a 38-21 lead and the game turned into an air war between Marino and Steve DeBerg. The latter actually got the better of Marino in the numbers, with 365 yards and four touchdowns compared to Marino’s 302 and three TDs. But Marino led the drive for a late field goal to win 41-38.
The combination of a loss and narrow escape didn’t shake Miami from the doldrums when they went to Detroit. A team that would finish 7-9 scored ten quick points and Eric Hipple outplayed Marino in a 31-21 loss. Now a big battle awaited at New England, where the Patriots were right in the mix with the Dolphins and Jets for the AFC East title.
Miami took a 10-0 lead, but with the wind blowing and the rain coming down in Foxboro, the Dolphin issues with running the ball couldn’t be overcome. They lost rushing yardage 203-91 and lost the game 17-13, an ominous foreshadowing of how the season would ultimately end.
No one expected the Dolphins to be in third place more than halfway into the season, but at 5-4, that’s where they are, with the Patriots at 6-3 and the Jets setting the pace at 7-2. There were two wild-card spots available and the AFC West had had several teams in the mix.
There wasn’t much cushion left for Miami when the Jets came south for the rematch in the late Sunday afternoon TV window. Marino came up clutch. He hit Duper on a 60-yard touchdown pass, and when the Dolphins trailed 17-14 in the fourth quarter, Marino-to-Duper came through again, a 50-yard scoring strike and a 21-17 win.
It was the lynchpin for a surge to the finish. Marino threw for 330 yards in a 34-20 win at Indianapolis (prior to 2002 the Colts were in the AFC East with the division’s four current teams). Another division road win came at Buffalo. In spite of a sluggish game against terrible team, it was a rare situation where the running game carried the Fish, to a 23-14 win.
The biggest story in the NFL was the play of the Chicago Bears. They were 11-0, had a historically great defense and the possibility of an undefeated season was real. The legacy of the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated champion in the Super Bowl era was at risk, and the nation was ready to tune in when the Bears and Dolphins met in the old Orange Bowl on the Monday Night stage.
Chicago’s defense was historic, but it was Miami’s defense that made the plays on this night. They got six sacks and intercepted three passes. Marino only completed 14/27 passes, but he got the ball downfield and made them count for 270 yards. The team’s best receivers were able to get open, with Duper, Clayton and Moore accounting for all the catches and for three touchdowns. The Dolphins led 31-10 by halftime and won 38-24.
The AFC East race was now a three-way tie, everybody at 9-4. Miami went to mediocre Green Bay, took a 20-3 lead, and then gave up three straight touchdowns. Trailing 24-20, Marino came through again. He went 30/44 for 345 yards and delivered two more touchdowns down the stretch for a 34-24 win.
Out west, the Raiders had taken the division lead, and Denver was now at 9-5 and the only serious contender left for the wild-card spots. The Dolphins had the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Broncos and were in good position. The Miami position got even better the following Saturday when the Jets lost to the Bears. It meant that a Dolphins-Patriots Monday Night game was for sole possession of the AFC East lead.
Miami was a five-point favorite and they took a 27-13 lead. But New England was able to tie the game when a fumbled punt was returned for a touchdown. Marino didn’t have a great night, but strong safety Glenn Blackwood intercepted two passes and the great quarterback led one final drive with the money on the table. A 47-yard field goal produced a 30-27 win.
The win clinched the playoffs for the Dolphins, but they could still range anywhere from first to third in their division. But with their final game at home against the Bills, who were 2-13, no one associated with the Jets or Patriots were under any illusions.
Miami forced six turnovers and coasted to an easy 28-0 win. The win secured at least the 2-seed and the Dolphins still had a chance at homefield advantage going into Monday Night. But the Raiders beat the playoff-bound Rams and secured the top line in the AFC playoffs.
Head coach Don Shula had a week off to get ready for the divisional playoff game with the Cleveland Browns, who had become the first team to make the playoffs at 8-8 in a bad division. Cleveland had a rookie quarterback in Bernie Kosar, who had been hero in South Beach, for leading the Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 1983. The head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was just starting a successful career of his own.
The Dolphins were a hefty (-10.5) favorite and an early drive produced a 51-yard field goal. Then the Browns started pounding the ball on the ground. They would rush for 251 yards and Earnest Byner ran for two touchdowns, including a 66-yard jaunt in the third quarter that made the score a stunning 21-3.
Marino struck back with lightning speed. He threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Moore, and before the third quarter was out, Ron Davenport bolted 31 yards for a score that made it 21-17 with plenty of time left.
The offense then started to slow, but with Kosar only going 10/19 for 66 yards, Cleveland was unable to get any separation or keep Miami off the field. Marino kept the pressure on, with Nathan coming out of the backfield for ten catches and 101 receiving yards. And with 1:57 left, Davenport scored one more touchdown and the Dolphins had survived 24-21.
Everyone anticipated a trip to Los Angeles for the AFC Championship Game. But the following afternoon, the Patriots upset the Raiders. Miami was now sitting on a home game to get back to the Super Bowl. And by the time they took the field it was known that Chicago would be the opponent.
The rain was coming down in south Florida, the second time the Dolphins and Pats met in inclimate weather, though the wind wasn’t a problem in this game. What was a problem was that Miami couldn’t stop the run. They lost the rushing battle 255-68 and Marino was up and down, throwing for 248 yards, but also two interceptions. The Dolphins trailed 17-7 at half and lost 31-14.
It was a surprise dud of an ending to the season. It’s tough to say Miami blew a golden opportunity, because in spite of the regular season win over Chicago, the Bears would still have been the Super Bowl favorite. But Marino’s quick-strike release was an ideal matchup for the attacking Chicago defense. It would have been interesting to see what happened had the Dolphins not come up small in the rain against the Patriots. And, as it turned out, Miami would not get back to the playoffs until 1990, and still haven’t been back to a Super Bowl.
The franchise had never made the Super Bowl, or even an AFC Championship Game. The last playoff appearance had been in the strike-torn year of 1982. They had undergone a coaching change mid-season in 1984. There was nothing to suggest history in the making, but that’s what the 1985 New England Patriots made, becoming the first team to reach the Super Bowl with three road playoff wins.
Head coach Raymond Berry had made his fame as the top receiver of the legendary Johnny Unitas back in their days with the Baltimore Colts. But it would be running the football that would define these Patriots at their most critical moments.
The offensive line was anchored by left guard John Hannah, one of the greatest offensive lineman to ever play football and still a 1st-team All-NFL player at age 34. Left tackle Brian Holloway was another Pro Bowler, as they cleared the way for Craig James and Tony Collins. James ran for over 1,200 yards and made the Pro Bowl himself. Collins rushed for 657 and was a threat catching the ball, with 52 receptions for 549 more yards.
Andre Tippett gave the Patriots’ 3-4 defensive scheme the requisite monster at outside linebacker. Tippett, who played with a disruptive force exceeded only by the incomparable Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, recorded 16 ½ sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL. On the opposite side, outside linebacker Don Blackmon got 8 ½ more sacks.
An aggressive defensive requires a corner who can lock down in coverage and that’s what Raymond Clayborn did. Another Pro Bowler, Clayborn intercepted six passes. Free safety Fred Marion picked off seven in a Pro Bowl campaign of his own.
Collectively, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL. With this caliber of D, and the ability to run the football, playing quarterback was an ideal job. But instability was a problem behind center. Tony Eason opened as the starter, but veteran Steve Grogan was waiting in the wings for the chance to reclaim the job he once held.
Whomever played quarterback had limited receiving targets. Irving Fryar, the first overall pick in the 1984 draft, made the Pro Bowl, but that was as much for his punt return talents as it was his receiving skills. He was respectable, with 39 catches for 670 yards, but not a true #1 receiver. The same could be said for Stanley Morgan, who finished with 760 yards. The good news was that both had speed and could keep a defense on its heels.
The season opened at home against a mediocre Packers team. There was no sign of quarterback problems, as Eason went 21/28 for 241 yards. James took over on a 65-yard touchdown run. In spite of losing four fumbles, New England built a 26-6 lead in the fourth quarter and hung on to win 26-20.
James made another big play, with a 90-yard touchdown reception in Chicago. The problem was, it came with the Patriots trailing 20-0 in the fourth quarter and was the only sign of life the Pats’ offense showed all day in a 20-7 loss, as they rushed for 27 yards. But in fairness, the 1985 Chicago Bears were starting a season where they would do this to a lot of people and they weren’t done with the Patriots.
A trip to woeful Buffalo was next, and New England was sluggish, leading just 10-7 until Fryar broke an 85-yard punt return to seal an ultimate 17-14 win. A sloppy home game against the Los Angeles Raiders followed. The Pats turned it over four times, gave up three defensive touchdowns, watched Eason complete just 13/36 passes and they lost 35-20. The Raiders were on their way to a big year, but they hadn’t seen the last of these Patriots.
It didn’t look anything special was brewing in Foxboro though after another loss followed. New England went to Cleveland. The Browns were a mediocre team, even though they would sneak into the postseason at 8-8 thanks to an awful division. Eason played reasonably well, going 20/38 for 340 yards and Morgan caught six passes for 140 yards.
But this time the Patriots were outplayed in the trenches. They didn’t create holes on offense, they didn’t pressure the quarterback on defense and they lost the football game 24-20 to slip to 2-3.
The Bills made their return trip to Foxboro and it would be a seminal point in the season. After throwing two interceptions, Eason got the hook. Grogan came in and promptly went 15/19 for 282 yards, repeatedly hooking up with Fryar. Despite the poor start, the Patriots won 14-3.
A big home game with the contending New York Jets was next. Grogan didn’t play well overall, going 11/32 for 171 yards. But the defense kept the team in it and the game was tied 6-6 after three quarters. The quarterback then delivered at money time, throwing for one touchdown, running for another and leading the way to a 20-13 win. New England followed it up with a 32-14 rout at lowly Tampa Bay, behind a 197-79 rush edge and 14/21 for 237 yards performance from Grogan.
Any doubt that the Patriots were coming were eliminated when the defending AFC champion Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino came to town. In the wind and the rain, the Pats trailed 13-3 in the fourth quarter. It was New England who had a ground game, winning the rushing battle 203-91. And it was Grogan, not Marino, who came through in the final quarter. Grogan tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass, ran for another and stole a 17-13 win.
Riding high at 6-3, the Patriots blasted the subpar Colts in a 34-15 home win. The receivers came up big—Fryar caught one touchdown pass and returned a punt to the house, while Morgan added seven catches for 120 yards.
Grogan’s fourth quarter magic continued at Seattle. The Seahawks had been in the playoffs each of the past two years, though they slipped to 8-8 this season. New England trailed 13-7, but Grogan first hit James on a 23-yard touchdown pass and then hooked up with Fryar for another to keep the winning streak alive.
On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, Grogan’s magic finally crashed hard—he broke his leg at the Meadowlands against the Jets in a battle for first place. Eason was summoned. The defense kept the team in the game with some red-zone stops, forcing New York to settle for field goals. Eason would eventually heat up and go 23/34 for 210 yards and force overtime at 13-13. But the Jets still pulled it out. The win streak was over and Eason had to regain everyone’s confidence as December beckoned.
It was a three-way dogfight in the AFC East. The Patriots and Dolphins were each 8-4 and chasing the 9-3 Jets. With two wild-cards available, the runner-up in the Broncos/Raiders AFC West race, where both teams were also 8-4, would be in the mix.
New England took care of their business at Indianapolis (prior to 2002 the Colts were in the AFC East, along with the division’s four current teams). It wasn’t always pretty, as fourteen Patriot penalties let the inferior team stay in the game. But Eason went 20/29 for 293 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 38-31 win and give everyone a shot in the arm. The Jets had lost on Thanksgiving at Detroit, so the Pats and Dolphins each moved into a three-way tie for first.
New England hosted Detroit and were able to take care of the Lions with the old-fashioned ground game. James keyed a 216-105 edge in rush yardage for a 23-6 win. Both AFC East rivals won, but the biggest immediate significance was that the Raiders beat the Broncos for the AFC West lead.
This worked to New England’s advantage—they had the tiebreaker on Denver and did not on Los Angeles. And now the Pats, along with the rest of the AFC East, had a one-game advantage on the Broncos. There was at least some cushion in the wild-card race.
A big Monday Night date was up in Miami for the season’s penultimate game. The teams took the field knowing the Jets had already lost to the Bears and first place was on the line. In this time period, going to the old Miami Orange Bowl for the Patriots was akin to the Red Sox going to Yankee Stadium. Things just didn’t end well. And this Monday Night was no different.
Eason struggled with three interceptions and New England fell behind 27-13. But he also turned 14 completions into 217 yards and cut the lead to 27-20. When the Patriots subsequently recovered a fumbled punt at the Dolphin 15 and ran it for the tying touchdown, it looked their Orange Bowl luck might finally be changing. This was the year that luck would change, but not tonight. Miami won it 30-27 on a late field goal.
New England entered the season finale against the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals with their playoff fate able to swing any number of directions. They could win the AFC East and rise as high as the #2 seed, although that would require both the Dolphins and Jets losing. The Patriots could also miss the postseason and when Denver beat Seattle on a Friday night it affirmed that New England was indeed playing a win-or-go-home game for the home fans on Sunday.
Two more games on Saturday impacted the Patriots-Bengals matchup. When the Jets beat the Browns it ended whatever faint hopes New England had of stealing the AFC East. But the Steelers loss to the Giants also ended the AFC Central race in Cleveland’s favor, due to a confluence of tiebreakers with Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Bengals now had nothing to play for and the Patriots had everything.
New England was also the superior team in any case, and James pounded away for 142 yards on the ground. The Pats led 20-6 at halftime, with Eason finding Morgan on a 50-yard touchdown pass. The lead was cut to 20-16 in the fourth quarter but the New England ground game re-asserted itself. The Pats finished with 281 rushing yards and backup Robert Weathers took off on a 42-yard touchdown run that sealed the deal in the 34-23 win. They were back in the playoffs.
Round Three with the Jets got it started. The teams were seen as essentially even, but New York’s tiebreaker edge had them at home and the Patriots were a three-point underdog.
Winds were blowing at 20mph on a dank December day in Jersey. The Patriots got an early field goal. After the Jets took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, New England answered with another field goal and then Eason hit Morgan on a 36-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-7 at the half.
New England launched a deep drive to start the second half, but bogged down on the three-yard line. Even so, the field goal extended the lead to two possessions, at 16-7. And they were running their game plan to perfection. Eason was efficient, and ultimately finished the day at 12/16 for 179 yards and no interceptions. Meanwhile, the Jets turned it over four times and none was more costly than the fumble Patriot linebacker Johnny Rembert returned 15 yards for a touchdown.
It was 23-7 and still the third quarter, but in the era prior to the two-point conversion, this was a three-possession game now. Then Jets’ quarterback Ken O’Brien, one of the most pinpoint passers in the league in 1985, left with a concussion. The game was all but over and it ended 26-14.
New England now traveled west to face the top-seeded Raiders in a late Sunday afternoon tilt that would bring the divisional round of the playoffs to a conclusion. Oddsmakers said Los Angeles was a 5 ½ point favorite.
Eason struck first with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lin Dawson. Then the Raiders got rolling. They scored 17 straight points, including an 11-yard touchdown run by their MVP running back Marcus Allen. In a wild second quarter, the Patriots immediately rallied back, with a short touchdown run by James and a field goal to tie it up. The Raiders still got a field goal of their own to end the half with a 20-17 lead.
New England wasn’t stopping Allen on the ground, where he ran for 121 yards. What the Patriots were doing was preventing the extremely versatile back from being a part of the passing game where he caught just three passes for eight yards. Raider quarterback Marc Wilson had the same inconsistency issues that had dogged Eason and with his security blanket taken away, Wilson threw three interceptions.
The Patriots also recovered four fumbles and the biggest one came after a third-quarter field goal tied it 20-20. The ensuing kickoff was fumbled and defensive back Jim Bowman tracked the loose ball down in the end zone for a gift touchdown. It was 27-20. With New England getting James going, for 104 yards, and their defense playing well, the game ended there without a serious threat by the Raiders.
It meant another Round Three and this time in the franchise’s House of Horrors. The Patriots were going back to the Orange Bowl on what would prove to be a rainy late Sunday afternoon. And for the second week in a row, they were a 5 ½ point dog.
A drive inside the 10-yard line resulted in just a field goal for New England, not a good sign against the high-powered Dolphin offense. Marino answered with a second-quarter touchdown pass, but Eason came right back, flipping short TD passes to Collins and tight end Derrick Ramsey to make it 17-7.
And before the half was over, Miami had their own red-zone problem. A dropped TD pass was followed by a blown field goal and the ten-point lead held into the locker room.
Eason wasn’t exactly lighting it up—he would finish the game 10/21 for 71 yards, but if Fantasy Leagues had been in vogue in 1985, the quarterback’s day would have been huge, as he threw his third touchdown pass of four yards or less, connecting with Weathers in the third quarter to make it 24-7.
Miami had been in this spot the previous week against Cleveland, trailing 21-3 as a home favorite. Marino turned it loose in time to save that game and when the Pats fumbled a punt and set up a quick Dolphin touchdown in the fourth quarter, the wailing surely began across the six states of New England.
But just as the Red Sox eventually solved Yankee Stadium, the Patriots would solve the Orange Bowl. A three-pronged rushing attack, with James, Weathers and Collins leading the way to a 255-68 demolition in ground yardage. Eason stayed away from mistakes, while Marino threw two picks having to play from behind without a running game.
New England calmly answered Miami’s touchdown with one more of their own and the 31-14 win was complete. The Patriots had their first Super Bowl berth.
A rematch with the Bears was up in New Orleans. For the third straight game, no one expected New England to win…and this time, they met an opponent that was just too good.
This Chicago team was historically great, particularly on defense. The Patriots rushed for just seven yards. Eason was obviously rattled, threw six incompletions and was yanked, the only starter in Super Bowl history to not complete a pass. The result was a 46-10 demolition. There’s a minor myth out there that this game destroyed Eason’s psyche. In reality, he would come back and lead this franchise to an AFC East title in 1986.
Fortunately, Chicago’s greatness is well enough accepted that the legacy of the 1985 New England Patriots is still seen in a positive light. They went as far as they could and much farther than anyone expected. They didn’t win a championship, but at a time when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were still 15 years away, this ’85 team was a big salve for the sports fans of New England.
Joe Theismann was still at quarterback, but the 36-year-old was nearing the end of the line–an end that would arrive in hideous fashion later this year. Theismann struggled in the 11 games he did start, throwing 16 interceptions against just eight touchdown passes.
John Riggins was the same age and the big running back suffered the same decline and end of his career, albeit without the injury. Riggins struggled to a 677-yard season and George Rogers emerged as the primary running back.
The Pro Bowlers on offense were steady wide receiver Art Monk, who caught 91 passes for over 1,200 yards, along with the reliable left side of the offensive line, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm. The ‘Skins also incorporated a feisty rookie receiver in Gary Clark into the mix. But in the end, none of it was enough to keep Washington’s offense dropping from being one of the league’s best, to ranking just 20th in the NFL in points scored.
Defensively, Washington ranked 11th in the league in points allowed, just as they had each of the previous two years. There were good players, particularly future Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green, in just his third year, and defensive ends Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, who combined for 29 1/2 sacks. But there were no Pro Bowl seasons from anyone.
Washington opened the season on Monday Night in Dallas, and it quickly became clear that these weren’t the same Redskins. Theismann threw five interceptions and the Cowboys coasted to a 44-14 win. The ‘Skins bounced back with a 16-13 win over the Houston Oilers, but it was an unimpressive win over a bad team. On the positive side, Gibbs at least got the running game going, with Riggins and Rogers keying an attack that got 240 yards on the ground.
More problems went down at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. The ‘Skins were two-touchdown favorites against a team that would finish the season 7-9. Washington lost 19-6, with Theismann struggling to 15/34 for 124 yards.
The start of the season hit rock bottom in Chicago, against the Super Bowl-bound Bears. The Redskins lost 45-10, and the game became infamous for Theismann being forced into punting duty and delivering a one-yard punt deep in his own end.
Struggling at 1-3, Washington had to return to Monday Night, as the St. Louis Cardinals came to town. In 1984, the Cardinals and Redskins had fought a thrilling battle for the NFC East crown on this field. This year’s St. Louis team would finish 5-11 and they proved to be the antidote for the ‘Skins. Riggins and Rogers each rolled for over 100 yards in a 27-10 rout. Riggins kept rolling at home against Detroit, for 114 yards in a 24-3 win.
Washington went to the Meadowlands to face the rising New York Giants. They had made the playoffs for the first time under Bill Parcells the previous year and were better in 1985. The Redskins couldn’t run and while Theismann threw for 272 yards, he also threw three interceptions in a 17-3 loss.
The next two weeks saw the ‘Skins get over. 500. They won a tough game against a Cleveland Browns team that was only .500, but was just starting the physical style of play under Marty Schottenheimer that would make them a serious contender the rest of the decade. Riggins ran for 112 yards and churned out a 14-7 win.
Riggins missed the following week at lowly Atlanta, troubled by the ailing back that would lead to his retirement at the end of the year, but Keith Griffin took his place and along with Rogers, the Redskins didn’t miss a beat. They rolled up over 300 yards on the ground in a 44-10 blowout.
The Cowboys came to RFK Stadium for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game and Riggins was back in the lineup. But he, and everyone else, was shut down, while Theismann threw three interceptions. The 13-7 loss dropped the ‘Skins to 5-5, two games back of the Cowboys and Giants. It made the coming Monday Night visit by Parcells, Lawrence Taylor and New York, all the more important.
It proved to a great game and one that no one who saw it will ever forget. But the latter was for the wrong reasons. Theismann, after throwing an early touchdown pass to tight end Don Warren, dropped back to pass off a flea flicker early in the second quarter. No one was open and he was crushed by Taylor. He went down, and his leg snapped behind him in a terribly awkward manner. His season was over, as was his career and he received an ovation from both Redskins and Giants players as he was wheeled off in a stretcher.
The Redskins turned to untested Jay Schroeder, who had thrown eight passes in the season to date. Tonight he went 13/20 for 221 yards, including a big 14-yard TD pass to tight end Clint Didier that gave Washington a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter. It stood up and they were still in contention, even as Theismann was on everyone’s mind and heart.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE JOE GIBBS ERA WITH THE REDSKINS
A 30-23 win over the mediocre Pittsburgh Steelers, keyed by three interceptions from the defense followed, and Washington was now within a game of first place, as Dallas suffered their own humiliation at the hands of Chicago the same day.
On December 1, another big late Sunday afternoon national TV home game awaited with the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams were 7-5, and the loser would really be up against it in the push for the playoffs, at a time when only five teams per league qualified. The Redskins again laid an egg in a big spot. They allowed the opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown, turned the ball over five times and lost 35-8.
Washington needed to win three in a row and hope for a break. And it almost worked out for them. Rogers rumbled for 150 yards at Philly and they rallied from 12-3 down with two second half touchdowns. Another rally came against the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals. Trailing 24-7, Schroeder repeatedly found Monk, who caught 13 passes for 206 yards and the Redskins won 27-24.
The Redskins were 9-6, as were the Giants and 49ers. Two of them would make the playoffs, and with the tiebreakers as they were, the ‘Skins were the one standing without a chair. They needed to win at St. Louis and get one break.
On a Saturday doubleheader, the Giants won the early game and clinched their spot. The Redskins played the late game and Rogers took it over, racking up 206 yards on the ground and Washington won 27-16. Now they were in an odd spot–they needed to root for the Cowboys, who were in San Francisco.
Dallas had clinched the NFC East the prior week, and they led 16-10 at the half. But desperation mode kicked in for San Francisco and they dominated the second half, winning 31-16. The string of making the postseason under Joe Gibbs had ended in Washington.
It was the end of the era in a lot of ways, as Theismann and Riggins gave way to Schroeder and Rogers. One year later though, the Redskins would be a 12-win playoff team. And two years later, they would be hoisting another Super Bowl trophy.