*It was the year of the legendary Penn State-Miami college football national championship game and the Bill Buckner error that haunted Red Sox Nation for 18 years. Either of these events is on the short list in the discussion for most dramatic sports moment of the modern era. To have both of them in the same year puts 1986 sports right at the forefront of greatness. But there was more…
*The baseball postseason was already shaping up as one of MLB’s best ever, even before the Buckner play. The ALCS matchup of the Red Sox and Angels, along with the NLCS battle between the Mets and Astros were each filled with drama and plot twists.
*John Elway delivered The Drive for which he is most remembered, the 98-yard march in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship Game at Cleveland to tie a game the Broncos eventually won in overtime. Think about this—this is a Hall of Fame quarterback authoring his signature moment and it was, at best, the third-most dramatic event in the year of 1986 sports.
*The college football season had plenty of action outside of Penn State and Miami. It was the time of Switzer and The Boz at Oklahoma, of Jim Harbaugh quarterbacking Michigan and guaranteeing a win at Ohio State.
*How about college basketball? The NCAA championship game was a nailbiter between Louisville and Duke. It’s noteworthy in that it was the first appearance on the national stage for Mike Krzyzewski and the last one for Denny Crum, who heretofore had been considered “Mr. March.” Monday night in Dallas represented two ships passing in the night.
*The NBA and NHL didn’t have incredible drama, but they did have two proud franchises winning championships. The Boston Celtics were perhaps the greatest champion of all time as they demolished the league. And the Montreal Canadiens briefly interrupted Wayne Gretzky’s domination of the NHL to capture a Stanley Cup.
TheSportsNotebook has preserved all the great memories of 1986 sports through the following content offerings…
*The season-long narrative of the 1986 college football season. This download starts from the beginning and the championship hopes of Penn State, Miami and Oklahoma and goes through the entire year. You’ll look back on not just the national championship push, but the key games in conference races week-in and week-out and every major bowl game. Download the story of the 1986 college football season today.
*A compilation of articles that tell the story of the 1986 MLB season from the eyes of its best teams. We look at the four division winners—Mets, Red Sox, Angels and Astros on their paths through the regular season. Then it’s time to go game-by-game into the postseason, all the historic moments and including the little ones that time forgot. Download the 1986 MLB season today.
*The 1986 NFL season is shared through a compilation of articles that tell the story of nine different playoff teams—from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants to Elway’s Broncos, to Marty Schottenheimer’s Browns to a lot more. We also look at the Dallas Cowboys in the year that the excellence of head coach Tom Landry finally ended after two decades of playoff teams. Download the 1986 NFL season today.
You can also read individual articles on…
*The Road To The 1986 Final Four—see how Louisville, Duke, Kansas and surprising LSU made their way to Dallas.
*The season-long narratives of the Celtics and the Canadiens, starting from the early days of October and November and going game-by-game through their postseason runs.
The year of 1986 sports was one that created moments that defined a generation. Read about all of them and a lot more at TheSportsNotebook.com
The 1986 Los Angeles Rams were coming off a breakthrough year, one in which they displaced the San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC West and reached the conference championship game. They spent much of ’86 looking to build on it before a late fade left them going into the offseason with a sour taste in the mouth.
Los Angeles did something you don’t see too many teams do when they come off a big year—they made a change at quarterback. Dieter Brock had been a veteran place-holder in 1985, but the offense had no one that could open up the field for their great running back Eric Dickerson. Jim Everett, 23-years-old with a rifle arm, had been drafted third overall by the Houston Oilers, but did not come to terms. The Rams swooped in and traded for Everett.
There would still be a quarterback carousel, with Everett splitting time three ways with veterans Steve Bartkowski and Steve Dils. So Dickerson still had to take on a heavy load, but the future Hall of Famer had broad shoulders. He ran for over 1,800 yards and was a 1st-team All-Pro.
Dickerson ran behind a line that included 1st-team All-Pro guard Dennis Hannah and two more Pro Bowlers, Jackie Slater and Doug Smith. There was a rookie in Tom Newberry who eventually grew into a Pro Bowler himself. The combination of this line and Dickerson was perfect for head coach John Robinson’s power-oriented scheme.
But the quarterback instability held the offense back. Even though Henry Ellard was a terrific wide receiver he only caught 34 balls for 447 yards. The other leading receivers were Dickerson and Barry Redden out of the backfield. The one-dimensional nature of the offense resulted in a unit that only ranked 17th in the league in points scored.
The defense made up for it. The fourth-best D in the league was built on excellence in the secondary. Corner LeRoy Irvin picked off six passes and was 1st-team All-Pro. On the other corner, Jerry Gray intercepted eight balls and was a Pro Bowler. Inside linebacker Carl Ekern was another Pro Bowl player. The combination of great defense and a great running back at least gave the Rams a path to victory and they were adept at getting the most from it.
Robinson’s formula was in display in St. Louis against the Cardinals to start the year. Even though Bartkowski only threw for 91 yards, Dickerson rolled up 193 yards on the ground and Los Angeles won 16-10. They did it again in a home game with San Francisco, steering clear of turnovers, intercepting two passes and rallying from a 13-3 deficit to win 16-13 on a late field goal.
Bartkowski played well at lowly Indianapolis, going 18/26 for 162 yards and providing air support to Dickerson’s 121-yard performance on the ground. The result was a 24-17 win. But the winning streak came to an end in a bad loss against a weak Philadelphia Eagles team. Bartkowski threw a couple interceptions to dig his team a 34-zip hole on the road. Dickerson enjoyed a good game, gaining 164 yards and the Rams made the final score a respectable 34-20. But this loss was ugly.
The result was a quarterback change to Dils. He managed the game at home against Tampa Bay, going 11/22 for 118 yards. But the worst team in the NFL still managed to push Los Angeles into overtime. The Rams were again saved by Dickerson, who rolled up 207 yards and preserved a 26-20 escape. The problems with the LA offense were exposed the following week when the running back had his first tough game of the season in Atlanta. He only rushed for 73 yards while counterpart Gerald Riggs rolled up 141 and the result was a 26-14 loss.
Bartkowski returned to the lineup and threw for only 48 yards at home against a poor Detroit Lions team. The Rams might have been embarrassed, but safety Nolan Cromwell came up with an 80-yard Pick-6 early on. Combined with a Dickerson touchdown they played from ahead rather than behind and hung on to a 14-10 win.
Another Pick-6 keyed another survival home win, this one against Atlanta, who was an NFC West team prior to 2002. Mark Jerue brought one 22 yards to the house and the Rams built a 14-0 lead. This time they shut down Riggs, while Dickerson pounded out a 170-yard day in the 14-7 win.
The Rams were 6-2, but it wasn’t exactly inspiring anyone. Dils came back to the lineup for a highly anticipated Monday Night date in Chicago. It was a rematch of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game and the Bears were on their way to a 14-2 season.
Both defenses were ready and the game was only 3-3 in the third quarter. Irvin came up with a huge play, recovering a fumble and bringing it 22 yards for a touchdown. The offense stayed bogged down though and Chicago eventually took a 17-10 lead. Dils then came up big, hitting speedy Ron Brown on a 65-yard touchdown pass that tied it. When kicker Mike Lansford later drilled a 50-yard field goal the Rams were leaving the Windy City with a stunning 20-17 win.
It was another game that might not have been pretty, but they had beaten an elite team and were firmly in the mix for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs at 7-2. But a bad letdown the following week in New Orleans resulted in an ugly 6-0 loss and ushered in the Everett era.
The young gunslinger got the call at home against New England, the defending AFC champ and eventual division champ again this season. Ellard welcomed the chance to play with a quarterback who could get him the football and he caught eight passes for 129 yards. Dickerson ran for 102 yards and Los Angeles built a 28-16 lead in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t close, gave up two TD passes to Tony Eason and lost again 30-28.
New Orleans, another NFC West team prior to the 2002 realignment, made their return visit to Los Angeles and even though Everett only threw for 56 yards, the classic D&D combination—Dickerson & Defense—made up for it. Dickerson ran for 116 yards, Cromwell intercepted two passes and the Rams chiseled out a 28-16 win.
Los Angeles had faded from the race for the top playoff seed, but at 8-4 they still led the NFC West by a half-game over San Francisco. The Rams closed November by beating the playoff-bound Jets on the road. Everett hit Kevin House on a 60-yard touchdown pass, the defense forced four turnovers and held New York to 89 rush yards and the result was a 17-3 win. San Francisco played New York’s other team—the eventual Super Bowl champion Giantson Monday Night and lost. The Rams had firm control of the division with three weeks to go.
They kept control with a 29-10 home win over collapsing Dallas. Irvin’s 50-yard Pick-6 got it started and the Dickerson-led running game picked up where they had left off the previous January, when the Rams had overwhelmed the Cowboys on the ground in a divisional playoff game. The rushing yardage edge was 206-54 and Everett opened things up with a 14/25 for 212 yards performance. The final was 29-14.
There was an opportunity to clinch the division when Miami came to town the following week. The playoff format of the era was the same as MLB’s today—three division winners and two wild-cards, meaning that even though the NFC West champ would be the 3-seed that still meant a week off and automatic entry into the divisional playoffs. With the season finale scheduled for the following Friday night in San Francisco, the last thing Los Angeles wanted was to let this chance slip away and set up a head-to-head battle on the road.
But that’s what happened. Even though the Dolphins were a .500 team, they still had Dan Marino. And even though Everett played well, going 18/31 for 251 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, he wasn’t in Marino’s class. Even though Dickerson ran for 124 yards it couldn’t compensate for Marino’s torching of the Ram defense for 403 passing yards and five touchdowns. And even though the Rams rallied from a 31-21 deficit to tie the game, they lost in overtime 37-31. The 49ers had won earlier in the day in New England and the NFC West would come down to Friday night in Candlestick.
It was an ugly night. Dickerson only rushed for 68 yards and the young Everett was in over his head against Joe Montana. Everett finished 13/35 for 151 yards and three interceptions while Montana played efficiently. Los Angeles dug an early 10-0 hole and the 24-14 loss really wasn’t competitive.
A division title might have been gone, but the Rams had still gotten a wild-card spot. They had a chance at redemption when they traveled to play the Redskins. Dickerson would rush for 158 yards, but he also fumbled three times. It was part of a six-turnover game. Even though the defense played reasonably well and came up with some red-zone stops, the turnovers were too much to overcome in a 19-7 loss.
The three-game losing streak to end the year foreshadowed an ugly offseason. Dickerson would have a contract beef and end up traded to Indianapolis for the 1987 season. That same year also saw a players’ strike that resulted in replacement players being used for three games. The Rams had a mess of a season that ended a run of four straight playoff trips.
But the arrival of Everett was another foreshadowing element and this one meant better days. Robinson would retool the team and in 1988 and 1989 they would be back in the playoffs, including another NFC Championship Game trip in ’89.
After winning Super Bowl titles in 1981and 1984, the 49ers organization took what was for them a step back in 1985. They settled for a wild-card berth in the playoffs. The 1986 San Francisco 49ers spent much of the season on that same trajectory before they rallied at the end for a division title. But a terrible playoff loss left them licking their wounds when the season was over.
Joe Montana was now 30-years-old and his health was starting to become an issue. Montana was only able to start eight games in 1986. He was effective, a 62% completion rate, 7.3 yards-per-attempt and keeping the mistakes to a minimum. But the injury problems would lead head coach Bill Walsh to go acquire Steve Young in the offseason.
Walsh’s West Coast offense had plenty of talent at the skill spots for when backups Jeff Kemp or Mike Moroski had to step in. Roger Craig caught 81 passes out of the backfield. Craig was spelled by veteran Joe Cribbs, no longer the back he had been in Buffalo in the early part of the decade, but still able to catch 35 balls.
More important to the passing game was that a 24-year-old wide receiver named Jerry Rice had a breakout year. He caught 86 balls for 1,570 yards and was 1st-team All-Pro. Dwight Clark, the possession receiver on the other side finished with 61 catches and nearly 800 yards. Tight end Russ Francis wasn’t the Pro Bowler he’d been in his New England days, but he was another viable option underneath, with 41 catches.
It added up to a nice combination of Rice stretching the field, a series of targets able to work underneath, one of the game’s all-time great offensive architects in Walsh overseeing the passing game and another outstanding coach in Mike Holmgren as the coordinator. Even though Rice was the only Pro Bowler, the offensive line was getting old and the quarterback position was unstable, 49ers still ranked 7th in the NFL in points scored.
Ronnie Lott was the anchor of the defense and the future Hall of Fame defensive back was 1st-team All-Pro at free safety. A good draft produced a pair of quality rookie corners in Tim McKyer and Don Griffin. Even though defensive lineman Jeff Stover and Dwaine Board combined for 19 sacks, neither made the Pro Bowl. Nose tackle Michael Carter was an emerging talent that would get Pro Bowl recognition by 1987. The defense, coordinated by George Seifert, finished third in the league in points allowed.
San Francisco opened the season in Tampa Bay. Montana put on a show, going 32/46 for 356 yards. Lott’s two interceptions led a defense that picked off veteran Steve DeBerg seven times. The consequences of this game for the 49ers went beyond their 31-7 win. Montana required back surgery and would be out until November. DeBerg would soon be benched in favor of Steve Young and start the process that would eventually bring the latter to San Francisco.
The Los Angeles Ramshad been a playoff team each year since 1983 and they displaced San Francisco atop the NFC West in 1985. Respect for the 49ers was such that they still went on the road as a 2 ½ point favorite with Montana out. Kemp played pretty well, going 19/24 for 252 yards and hooked up with Rice on a 66-yard touchdown pass. But Kemp threw two interceptions, the Rams were mistake-free and the 49ers lost 16-13.
Kemp came back strong at home against mediocre New Orleans. He hit Rice and Clark seven times apiece, and finished the day 29/44 for 332 yards. Even though a special teams breakdown let the Saints bring the second half kickoff back for a touchdown and get a 17-13 lead, Kemp eventually produced a 26-17 win.
Two years earlier the 49ers and Dolphins had met in the Super Bowl. One year earlier Miami had still be in the league’s elite. The Dolphins would fade to .500 this year and on a visit to the Orange Bowl, Lott picked off Dan Marino twice. It was part of a four-interception day for the defense, the 49ers also rushed for 146 yards and they won the football game 31-16.
San Francisco hosted lowly Indianapolis and dinked around for a half. The game was tied 14-14. The 49ers, favored by (-17.5), got it going in the second half. Kemp hit Rice on three touchdown passes from 45, 16 and 58 yards respectively. They pulled away 35-14 and still made their bettors happy by covering that big spread.
A home game with Minnesota saw Kemp throw for 359 yards and get the Niners out to a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. The Vikings, though they weren’t a playoff team in 1986 were still pretty good. The got a 326-yard passing day from Tommy Kramer, scored a defensive touchdown and eventually stole a 27-24 overtime win.
The 49ers had another bad home game against mediocre Atlanta. They gave up 217 rush yards and failed to score in the second half. The saving grace was that the Falcons turned it over five times and San Francisco still managed to end with a 10-10 tie. Nonetheless in home games against two teams who averaged out to about .500, the 49ers had gone 0-1-1.
A road game against the awful Green Bay Packers was next. The game was played in Milwaukee, where Green Bay used to play three home games a year. The 49ers were outgained 464-222, but the defense was able to get three interceptions. The biggest came when San Francisco clung to a 24-17 lead and Green Bay was driving. Tony Nixon picked off a pass and took it 88 yards to the house to secure the 31-17 win.
It was a win, but the team still wasn’t playing well and they bottomed out in a 23-10 loss at New Orleans (the Saints were in the NFC West prior to 2002). They turned it over four times, only ran for 52 yards and couldn’t dig out of an early 14-0 hole. Montana couldn’t come back too soon.
The great quarterback made his return on November 9 at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. He only threw 19 passes, but he made them count. Montana finished 13/19 for 270 yards, and found Rice three times on touchdown plays of 40-plus yards. The result was a 43-17 win.
But the lack of a running game was devastating in a Monday Night visit to the playoff-bound Redskins. Montana was forced to put it up 60 times. He completed 33 passes and generated 441 passing yards. Rice had a huge night, with twelve catches for over 200 yards. But it was sound and fury that didn’t go anywhere—the Niners never got in the end zone in a 14-6 loss thanks to four turnovers and just 83 rush yards.
The running attack was re-emphasized against Atlanta (also an NFC West team prior to the 2002 realignment). Craig rushed for 101 yards, there were no turnovers and the defense was locked in a 20-zip win. The win moved San Francisco to 7-4-1. They were a half-game back of Los Angeles, but had as their hole card a home game with the Rams on the final game of the season. San Francisco also led the race for the final wild-card spot by a half-game over Dallas.
A Monday Night home date with the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants got off to a great start when Montana threw a pair of first-half touchdowns for a 17-0 lead. But the lead was given away rapidly when the defense allowed three third-quarter TD passes by Phil Simms. The 21-17 loss put San Francisco up against it.
They were a game and a half back of Los Angeles and needed help in the NFC West race. Dallas had also lost, but Minnesota won to pull within a half-game of the wild-card spot. With games coming up against playoff-bound AFC East teams in the Jets and Patriots, the 49ers were in serious trouble.
The good news was that even though the Jets were playoff-bound they were also in the middle of a dramatic late-season collapse where they lost their final five games and went from Super Bowl contender to barely hanging on. The 49ers aided that process by pounding the ball on the ground for 198 yards. They held New York to 38 rush yards and produced a 24-10 win. The Rams won ahead of them and the Vikings won behind them to keep the pressure on. The Cowboys lost again and would fade from the picture.
After three quarters in Foxboro, the 49ers trailed 17-16. The season turned in the fourth quarter. Cribbs had his best game of the season, rushing for 107 yards. Craig added 86 more yards on the ground as the running game continued a late-season revival at the right time. San Francisco rallied to win 29-24. Good news also came from around the league. Minnesota was upset at Houston and San Francisco clinched a playoff berth. Out west, Los Angeles lost in overtime to Miami. The head-to-head showdown for the division title was back on.
The league scheduled this game for a Friday night, with the recent history of both franchises suggesting it would be worth prime-time. The 49ers and Rams had to turn around and get ready on a short week. San Francisco did a much better job of it than did their rivals.
After an early 49er field goal, Montana hit Rice for a 44-yard touchdown pass and the lead was 10-0 after a quarter. Rushing touchdowns were swapped by LA’s Eric Dickerson and Cribbs sending the game to the locker room at 17-7.
The San Francisco defense was clamping down on the great Dickerson though, holding him to 68 yards on 18 rushes. His numbers were barely better than Cribbs, who also carried 18 times and gained 62 yards. Meanwhile, Craig rushed for 80 yards. The rookie McKyer picked off Jim Everett twice. Montana threw another TD pass, a one-yard flip to Francis. The lead went to 24-7 in the third quarter and the night turned into a long party at Candlestick, with a final score of 24-14.
San Francisco was back on top of the NFC West, but that was as far as they would go. After a week off they went to the Meadowlands to play the 14-2 Giants in the divisional playoff round. The game got off to a good start—Rice caught a pass from Montana and broke clear for what appeared to be a sure touchdown. Instead, Rice simply dropped the ball and New York recovered the unforced fumble.
To say the game went downhill from there understates the case. A complete avalanche hit the 49ers. Montana was knocked cold and had to be removed from the game. The Giants won by a stunning 49-3 margin. When asked if the Rice fumble had been the difference, Walsh replied succinctly that had Rice not fumbled the final score would have been 49-10. It was that bad.
But one thing that wasn’t bad was that the fortunes of this great organization had ticked back upward. The draft from the previous spring had included not only McKyer, but also names like Tom Rathman, John Taylor, Charles Haley and Kevin Fagan. All would be huge contributors in the years to come. Over the next three seasons, the 49ers would either be the #1 seed in the NFC or win the Super Bowl or both. Montana and the dynasty had a second wind.
The 1986 Kansas City Chiefs are the one bright spot in a long stretch of franchise futility. The last high point of the Hank Stram-Len Dawson years that included a Super Bowl title was 1971. The first high point of the Marty Schottenheimer-led ascendancy was 1990. The 1986 edition is sort of dropped in the middle, with a surprise run to the playoffs standing out amidst nearly two decades of poor football.
John Mackovic had taken over as head coach in 1983 and produced a pair of 6-10 seasons surrounding an 8-8 year in 1984. The quarterback job was split between 25-year-old Todd Blackledge, one of the Class of 1983 quarterbacks that never made it, and veteran Bill Kenney.
Blackledge was awful, completing just 46 percent of his passes for a meager 5.7 yards-per-attempt. Even in an age friendlier to defenses, it was terrible. Kenney was marginally better, at 52% and 6.2 respectively.
Stephon Paige was a good receiver, catching 52 balls for 829 yards. Henry Marshall was decent, with 46 catches and 652 yards. Carlos Carson had big-play capability, averaging 23.7 yards-per-catch. If there was anyone who could deliver this trio the football more effectively, they would have been better.
The running game was a problem. Mike Pruitt was the leading rusher and he didn’t clear 450 yards. He was joined in the backfield by Herman Head and Boyce Green, both mediocrities.
Yet somehow Kansas City managed to finish 12th in the NFL in points scored. They made improvements in the offensive line, bringing in Irv Eatman and Mark Adickes from the defunct United States Football League. And they relied on an opportunistic defense and special teams.
Bill Maas was the anchor of the Chief defensive line, a Pro Bowl nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme that could tie up blockers. He also got seven sacks. Art Still was on the edge and got to the quarterback 10 ½ times. Pete Koch on the other end had 5 ½ sacks as KC was that rare 3-4 defense that got more plays from its lineman than its linebackers.
The secondary was the pride and joy of the team. Free safety Deron Cherry was the best in the business, a 1st-team All-Pro who intercepted nine passes. Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross were talented young corners. Though neither was a Pro Bowler in 1986, they each had Pro Bowl seasons in their immediate future.
Kansas City opened the season at home against Cincinnati. It was a non-descript game between two teams that hadn’t done anything notable in recent years (the Bengals were now four years removed from the playoff runs under Forrest Gregg). Somehow the game get moved to the 4 PM ET window. Maybe somebody knew something, because this would be arguably the most consequential regular season game once the dust settled at year’s end.
That knowledge was in the future. In the moment, it was just a nice win for the Chiefs. Cherry recovered a fumble in the end zone for the first points of the year. The running game produced, with Pruitt, Jeff Smith and Heard all sharing the load and KC tripled Cincinnati in rush yardage, 180-60. The result was a 24-14 win.
A road trip to Seattle seemed more in keeping with what Kansas City had been in recent years. The running game disappeared, Blackledge tossed up two picks and the Chiefs lost 23-17. But the defensive line turned it around against a subpar Houston Oilers team (today’s Tennessee Titans). The Chiefs got to Warren Moon for seven sacks, two apiece by Maas and Still and the result was a solid 27-13 win.
Blackledge had one of his finer moments the following week in Buffalo. He went 17/29 for 210 yards and two touchdowns, outplaying Jim Kelly who got picked off three times. The Bills were a bad team in 1986 and the Chiefs were able to escape with a 20-17 win. It might not have been impressive, but they were 3-1.
It looked like the good times might continue against the Los Angeles Raiders, one of the top franchises in the entire league through the first half of the 1980s. Kansas City jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but Blackledge and then Kenney were erratic, the running game was gone and the offensive line allowed five sacks. The lead melted away in a 24-17 loss.
The Chiefs weren’t much better the following week in Cleveland, facing a team that would come within a hair of the Super Bowl. Blackledge was sacked four times, the running game only produced 43 yards and the final score was 20-7.
A home date with the lowly San Diego Chargers proved to be the tonic the offense needed. Blackledge went up top to Paige for a 45-yard touchdown strike and the ball was rolling. The defense played its opportunistic football, with strong Lloyd Burress picking off two passes near midfield and bringing both to the house. The Chiefs led 42-34 before the Chargers scored one more touchdown, but in an era that didn’t have the two-point conversion, KC held on to the one-point shootout win.
Kansas City welcomed another horrible team to Arrowhead Stadium in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kenney was in the lineup and was 15/29 for 230 yards, connecting with Marshall five times for 91 yards. The Chiefs should have been in control throughout, but having to settle for field goals on a couple red zone trips kept it tight and the game was tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter. They avoided embarrassment when Smith took off on a 32-yard touchdown run for the win.
A road trip to San Diego started poorly when Kansas City snapped the ball out of their own end zone for a safety. It got worse, when consecutive Charger touchdowns made it a 16-0 game in the second quarter. Then everything turned around. Kenney finished 21/32 for 281 yards and hit Marshall and Carson for touchdowns. Lewis picked off two passes, part of a four-pick day for the defense as a whole. The Chiefs crawled to within 23-21 and then kicker Nick Lowery won it with a 37-yard field goal.
Kansas City kept the momentum going when Seattle made its return visit (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to 2002). After a scoreless first quarter, Kenney opened up. He finished 22/41 for 256 yards and spread the ball to ten different receivers. He tossed three touchdown passes. Even though three interceptions were also in the mix, the Chiefs got an easy 27-7 win over a good team.
Denver was a better team though, leading the division race and Kansas City played horribly in Mile High Stadium. They lost three fumbles, allowed five sacsks, gave up two special teams touchdowns and dug a 31-0 hole, en route to a 38-17 loss. The numbers weren’t as bad the following week at the St. Louis Cardinals, but the result was even more embarrassing. Four turnovers and no running game led to a 23-14 loss against a team that would win only four games in 1986.
Kansas City was at 7-5 and two games back of Denver in the AFC West. The Chiefs were within one game of a wild-card spot, where the Raiders and Bengals were both 8-4 and leading the race for one spot. The Seahawks and Dolphins were right in the rearview mirror at 6-6.
A rematch with Buffalo was next—the schedule formula prior to 2002 had two last-place teams from the same conference playing each other twice—and the result was a disaster. In a game that the Chiefs would appear to have to win, they were outrushed 164-73. Kenney threw three interceptions. Paige had a nice game, catching nine balls for 119 yards, but it wasn’t enough in a disheartening 17-14 home loss to a four-win team.
Kansas City was 7-6. They had lost three straight, the last two of which came to bad teams. They were looking like anything but a playoff team. But they got a break—the Raiders and Bengals both lost ahead of them, the Dolphins lost behind them and there was still a chance. The Chiefs made the most of it.
A visit from Denver was the lynchpin. KC blew open a game that was tied 10-10 at the half. They got five interceptions from five different players. They got five sacks from four different players—Cherry was the only one to have both an interception and a sack. Blackledge broke the tie with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Smith in the third quarter and the rout was on in the final period to the tune of a 37-10 win.
Cincinnati won and stayed in the lead for the last playoff spot, but the Raiders lost and were collapsing. The Chiefs went to the L.A. Coliseum and aided the collapse, with Cherry and Ross each intercepting two balls to help build up a 17-zip lead and then hanging on for the 20-17 win. When Cincinnati lost to Cleveland, Kansas City had improbable control of its playoff destiny.
A road game against a weak Pittsburgh Steelers team was the last hurdle. With the money on the table, Kansas City was outrushed 175-38 and gave up over 350 yards passing. But the defense and special teams, so crucial all year long, would have their finest moment.
Cherry recovered a blocked punt in the end zone and gave the Chiefs a 10-3 lead. After a Steeler field goal, Green brought the kickoff back 97 yards to the house and made it 17-6. Pittsburgh threatened again and lined up for a field goal. It was blocked, with Burruss bringing it 78 yards to the house. It was 24-6 and batten-down-the hatches time with the offense unable to move the ball. Kansas City hung on for a 24-19 win.
That Week 1 win over Cincinnati was the tiebreaker in the playoff picture. Kansas City was returning to the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
The Chiefs went to the Meadowlands to play the New York Jets, who took backing into the playoffs to new levels. After a 10-1 start, New York had lost five straight to close the year and only a strong conference record kept them in the playoffs.
Kansas City scored first on a 1-yard touchdown run by Smith. But they missed the extra point and it was downhill from there. They were outrushed 165-67 with no back gaining more than fifteen yards. Blackledge played poorly, 12/21 for 80 yards and a pair of interceptions. Kenney was acceptable, 8/16 for 97 yards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The Chiefs lost 35-15.
It had been a dramatic playoff run, but wasn’t something that Kansas City could build on. Mackovic was fired after players met with owner Lamar Hunt. The Chiefs collapsed as quickly as they rose up. Not until Marty-Ball arrived three years later would there be lasting football success again in KC.
The time had arrived for the 1986 Denver Broncos. It was John Elway’s fourth year and his first three had been an appropriate mix of success and disappointment for a growing young quarterback. They had reached the playoffs in 1983 and 1984 and gone 11-5 in 1985. In 1986, the Broncos took the next step and reached Elway’s first Super Bowl.
Elway made the Pro Bowl, but his overall numbers weren’t spectacular. His 56% completion rate was barely above the league average and even with one of the game’s all-time great rifle arms, the 6.9 yards-per-attempt was below the league norm. He avoided making mistakes. On the surface that shouts “game manager.” But underneath the numbers, Elway led a mostly pedestrian offense to the sixth-most points in the NFL.
There were no 1,000-yard receivers to bail Elway out. Steve Watson was a good possession receiver and Mark Jackson had some speed, but combined they didn’t reach 1,500 yards. Sammy Winder was the top running back, but he only averaged 3.3 yards-per-attempt. How he made the Pro Bowl is a bit of a mystery. The offensive line was built around Pro Bowl left guard Keith Bishop.
What Denver ultimately had was Elway and the pass-catching ability of the backs. Winder caught 26 balls out of the backfield and the big target was Gerald Wilhite, who led the team with 64 catches.
The defense had more individual talent. Rulon Jones was a 1st-team All-Pro at defensive end and recorded 13 ½ sacks. Karl Mecklenburg was another 1st-team All-Pro at inside linebacker, getting 9 ½ sacks in an aggressive 3-4 scheme. Strong safety Dennis Smith made the Pro Bowl, while corner Mike Harden picked off six passes. For leadership, Tom Jackson was at outside linebacker and the future ESPN analyst was 35-years-old.
But the defense didn’t have its equivalent of Elway and consequently was a mediocre 15th in the league in points allowed.
Denver had lost two crushing games down the stretch to the Los Angeles Raiders in 1985, the games that swung the AFC West title. The Broncos hosted the Raiders in the opening game of 1986 and it was another thriller. It wasn’t necessarily well-played, with double-digit penalties on both sides, but it came down to the wire.
The Broncos trailed 36-28 in the fourth quarter in the era prior to the two-point conversion. Elway, who finished with 239 yards passing, led one of his patented comebacks. After a 51-yard field goal, a touchdown pass to Gene Lang won it 38-36. Denver won again the following Monday Night in Pittsburgh, with Elway going 21/38 for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-10 win over a weak Steeler team.
The running game made an appearance in Philadelphia a week later. The Eagles were coached by Buddy Ryan, the architect of the devastating 1985 Chicago Bears defense that won the Super Bowl. Buddy’s rebuilding project in Philly was just getting started and Winder and Wilhite ran over the Eagles for a combined 195 yards in a 33-7 win.
Denver hosted defending AFC champion New Englandon the last weekend of September and fell behind 13-3 at the half. Elway was erratic, going 18/34 for 188 yards. But by outrushing the Patriots 156-40, the Broncos turned the game around and scored 24 unanswered points. They won 27-20.
The Dallas Cowboys ended the season a mediocre 7-9, but they got off to a strong start and were 3-1 and the visit to Mile High Stadium was a marquee showdown game. After a scoreless first quarter, Elway started making big plays. He finished 12/24 and made those passes go for 300 yards. Wilhite caught two touchdowns out of the backfield and ran for a third in a 29-14 win.
Elway played well again in a road game at San Diego. The Chargers were a poor team, but Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts could still gin it up every once in a while. He and Elway each moved the ball, but the Broncos had a running game and their defense recorded five sacks. It was the difference in an easy 31-14 win.
Another Monday Night visit awaited and this one was in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets who were flying high and had lost just once. Denver still came in a 3 ½ point favorite with their 6-0 record, but on the national stage they laid an egg. Elway threw a couple interceptions, they were outrushed 137-47, fell behind 22-zip in the third quarter and lost 22-10.
The undefeated run might have been over but Denver bounced back with a tough home win over Seattle. The Seahawks were a good team that would compete for a playoff spot to the bitter end. Elway was 18/32 for 301 yards while spreading the ball around. It trumped Seattle running back Curt Warner’s 139-yard day in a 20-13 Bronco win.
Denver’s defense stood stall in the rematch with the Los Angeles Raiders at the L.A. Coliseum. They picked off Raider quarterback Marc Wilson four times and also recovered two fumbles. The coup de grace was Mike Harden’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed a 21-10 win.
The Broncos must have suffered an emotional letdown, because nothing else can explain a horrid home performance against San Diego with Fouts out and backup Tom Flick in. Elway was awful, 13/31 for 196 yards and three interceptions. In spite of being nearly a two-touchdown favorite, Denver lost 9-3.
Special teams keyed the bounceback home game against the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos scored off a fake punt and Wilhite brought a punt 70 yards to the house. The defense also produced a touchdown. This was all in the first half as the lead grew to 31-0 and Denver coasted home to a 38-17 win.
Another visit to the Meadowlands, this one to play the New York Giants, was an anticipated game on the schedule. The Giants were 9-2 and this game was hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview. It would be exactly that and this game lived up to the stakes.
Elway was brilliant against one of the great defenses in the league, going 29/47 for 336 yards and spreading the ball around among all his receivers. The difference was that he did throw a couple picks. The killer came in the second quarter. Denver led 6-3 and was in the New York red zone looking for more. Giant defensive tackle George Martin got his hands on an Elway pass, and managed to rumble 78 yards for a touchdown.
Denver stayed in the game, but giving away a touchdown like that was too much to overcome against a good team on the road. They lost 19-16.
The Broncos were still in control of the AFC West at 9-3, but by no means home free. They had the Raiders in their rearview mirror at 8-4 and in the conference overall were chasing the 10-2 Jets for the #1 playoff seed. Denver would stay fairly stable down the stretch, though the teams around them would do some considerable shuffling.
Cincinnati was chasing a playoff spot when they came to Denver on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but the Broncos recovered well from the tough loss a week earlier. After falling behind 14-10 to a high-powered offense led by Boomer Esiason and a potent running game, Elway threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jackson and then flipped an eight-yard scoring toss to Winder. The Broncos got some good running of their own, with 182 yards on the ground. They led as much as 34-14 before the Bengals scored a couple TDs to make the final a respectable 34-28.
The Raiders lost, as did the Jets. The opportunity to clinch the AFC West and keep in position for the top playoff seed was at hand when Denver went to Kansas City. The teams traded field goals in the first quarter and touchdown passes in the second. But the Broncos couldn’t protect Elway, who was sacked five times. And the great quarterback wasn’t careful with the football, throwing four picks. They bogged down in the third quarter, falling behind 17-10 and then came undone in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs pulled away 37-10.
Another loss by Los Angeles kept Denver in control of the AFC West. At 10-4, they led the Raiders, Chiefs and Seahawks by two games. The Jets lost again, but now the Browns were moving up in the AFC. They were also 10-4, as were the Patriots. In a logjam, Cleveland had the tiebreaker advantage.
First things first. Denver had to clinch the division and they had a Saturday game with the Washington Redskins, who would finish 12-4, on deck. The Redskins scored first, but missed the extra point. Without a two-point conversion to try and make it up, it kept the Broncos with an edge throughout the game and proved decisive. Elway went 20/35 for 282 yards and led the way to a 31-30 win that clinched a second division title in three years.
Denver closed the season with another Saturday date, this one in Seattle. There was still a lot in the line, as they could be seeded anywhere from 1-3. But the Broncos playing for seeding didn’t match the Seahawks playing with desperation. Denver was overwhelmed on the ground, giving up 298 yards rushing in a 41-16 loss.
It took the Broncos out of position for the 1-seed and put their hold on the 2-spot at risk. But the Jets completed a late-season collapse with a loss the following day and it locked Denver into the 2-spot. When the Patriots won on Monday Night they took the AFC East title and were set for a divisional playoff date in Mile High Stadium.
Nearly thirty years later, Broncos-Patriots would be a marquee date on the schedule, featuring Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It wasn’t quite that big of a deal in 1986 when they met on late Sunday afternoon in the final game of the NFL weekend. But this edition of Denver-New England was as good as any of the more heralded games that would take place in future years.
The teams started quietly, with the Broncos getting a good first-quarter drive that ended in a 27-yard field goal. In the second quarter, both offenses put together sustained marches. The Patriots drove 87 yards for a 7-3 lead, capping it off with Tony Eason’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan. Denver responded by going 82 yards, with Elway making it happen on the ground, scrambling 22 yards for a score. New England got a field goal before halftime and the game went to intermission tied 10-10.
Another Bronco drive bogged down in the red zone and they settled for a 22-yard field goal. Denver led 13-10, but they had twice settled for field goals down in close. Elway was also erratic and for the day he would complete just 13 of 32 passes.
Meanwhile, Morgan continued to cause problems for the Bronco secondary, getting loose on a 45-yard touchdown pass off a flea-flicker. New England led 17-13 as the quarter wound down.
The one thing Elway was doing was making big throws. His thirteen completions went for 257 yards and the biggest throw came on the final play of the third quarter. Denver was on the 48-yard line. New England jumped offsides and Elway had a free play. He used it to go deep to Vance Johnson and the result was as 48-yard touchdown pass.
Denver had the lead back at 20-17 and they were running the ball well. Winder rushed for 102 yards and the defense took over the fourth quarter. New England never scored again and Rulon Jones sealed the game when he sacked Eason for a safety. The 22-17 win was Denver’s first playoff victory since their AFC championship season of 1977.
The Broncos were a three-point underdog in Cleveland the next week. An early kickoff of 12:30 PM ET meant that Denver had to deal with the body clock issues that come when western teams travel east. And they were slow out of the gate, with the Browns driving 86 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. Bernie Kosar’s six-yard toss to running back Herman Fontenot put Cleveland up 7-0.
It was the defense that began to flip the script in the second quarter, getting three turnovers. Two of them were turned into points, although red-zone problems continued to hurt Denver. They settled for a 19-yard field goal to get on the board and were later stuck with 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Head coach Dan Reeves couldn’t keep settling for three and he went for it. Wilhite delivered with the touchdown. The Browns got a field goal just before the half and for the second week in a row the Broncos were tied 10-10 at the half.
The teams traded field goals, Denver in the late third quarter and Cleveland in the fourth. With 5:43 to go, the Browns appeared to finally strike the decisive blow. Kosar threw a 48-yard touchdown pass for a 20-13 lead. The Broncos messed up the ensuing kickoff and were pinned on their own two-yard line. The Dawg Pound was going crazy, their excellent defense was playing well and Elway was up against it. Now would be the time he made his legend.
A long 15-play drive began. The defining play was a 3rd-and-18, still deep in Cleveland territory. Elway, eschewing advice from Reeves to get half of it back, rifled a first-down strike to Jackson. He smoothly led Denver down the field and they tied the game with inside a minute left.
“The Drive” is what the game is remembered for and it remains the signature moment of Elway’s extraordinary career. But there was still an overtime to play. Cleveland got the ball first, but the Denver defense held. After getting the ball on their own 40-yard line, Elway faced another tough third down situation, this one requiring twelve yards to get the first down. He drilled a 28-yard strike to Watson. That was, in essence, the ball game. A 33-yard field goal gave Denver a 23-20 win.
The Broncos weren’t given much of a chance in the Super Bowl, installed as a nine-point underdog to the Giants in Pasadena. The game is most remembered for the way New York took over the line of scrimmage in the second half and won decisively, 39-20. Less remembered is that Denver spent the first half keeping the favorites on the ropes.
After an early field goal, Elway then ran for one touchdown and then hit Johnson on a 54-yard pass to put Denver on the one-yard line, already holding a 10-7 lead. But those red zone problems that they’d flirted with against New England and Cleveland, finally came back to bite in a big way. The inability to run inside against the great Giant defense resulted in a goal-line stand, a botched field goal and ultimately set up a New York safety on a later possession when Denver couldn’t flip the field.
Even though the Broncos led 10-9 at the half, the game quickly got away from them in the third quarter. They didn’t score again until they trailed 33-10 in the fourth quarter.
It was still a breakthrough year for the 1986 Denver Broncos, the first of three Super Bowl trips in a four-year span. The season still produced the great moment of Elway’s career and one of the most famous drives in NFL history. The only thing it missed was the Super Bowl trophy.
The 1986 Dallas Cowboys marked the beginning of the end of the Tom Landry era. After a strong start, they were a contender for a second straight NFC East title and a Super Bowl. By season’s end they were sub-.500 and would never contend again in the Landry era.
Dallas was trying to get younger. Tony Dorsett, the great running back was now 32-years-old and their big play receiver Tony Hill was 30. Both had decent years—Dorsett rushed for 748 yards and Hill had 770 receiving yards, but they were a far cry from their once-explosive selves. Former Pro Bowl tight end Doug Cosbie dipped to 28 catches with 312 yards.
So the Cowboys added Herschel Walker from the now-defunct United States Football League to go with Dorsett in the backfield. Walker ran for 737 yards and was also the team’s leading receiver with 76 catches for 837 yards. Dallas used its first-round draft pick on UCLA wide receiver Mike Sherrard who caught 41 passes for 744 yards.
The quarterback position was in flux. Danny White, the 34-year-old veteran started six games and played well. He completed 62% of his passes and his 7.6 yards-per-attempt was solid. White had eliminated the mistakes of his younger days and has a TD/INT ratio of 12-5. But an injury put the job in the hands of 24-year-old Steve Pelleur for much of the year.
Pelleur’s 57% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt were good enough, given the era. But the 8-17 TD/INT ratio left a lot to be desired. The Dallas offense ended the season ranked 14th in the NFL in points scored.
The biggest problem was that the Cowboys lacked talent on the meat-and-potatoes spots in the offensive line and defense. There were no Pro Bowlers in either spot and the defense was where the age factor really stood out.
Three defensive lineman—Too Tall Jones, John Dutton and Randy White were on the wrong side of 30. They were all still respectable players and all of them—particularly White, a future Hall of Famer—had been great players in their day. But that day was past.
Dallas did get a boost from 25-year-old defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who recorded and the secondary tandem of free safety Michael Downs and corner Ron Fellows, who each intercepted five passes. The Cowboy defense ended the season ranked 18th in the NFL.
The season started on Monday Night Football and the New York Giants were in town. After a scoreless first quarter, the running backs got rolling. Dorsett caught a 36-yard touchdown pass and Walker went over from a yard out and a 14-0 lead. But the Giants, off two straight playoff seasons and looking for a breakout year, took leads of 21-17 and 28-24.
White had the last word—he completed 23/39 passes for 279 yards and no interceptions. Hill caught five balls and went over 100 yards. Walker finished the deal with a 10-yard touchdown run that won the game 31-28.
Dorsett was great at lowly Detroit, going for 117 yards in an easy 31-7 win. The passing game was back and humming at home against mediocre Atlanta. White went 23/30 for 280 yards and four touchdowns, including a 22-yard strike to Sherrard that put the Cowboys up 35-27 in the fourth quarter. But three turnovers caught up to Dallas and they eventually coughed it up, losing 37-35.
The defense owed the team a good game and they provided it at the St. Louis Cardinals, picking off Neil Lomax four times, including a Pick-6 from Fellows. Walker caught five passes for 82 yards in the easy 31-7 win.
Dallas went to Denver for a high-profile game against John Elway and a Bronco team that would eventually make the Super Bowl. White’s body was starting to give and Pelleur was forced into action. He got no help, with the running game only producing 41 yards. He didn’t help himself, throwing three interceptions. The Cowboys dug themselves a 22-0 hole and lost 29-14.
The schedule was tough in the early going—the Giants, Broncos and Washington Redskins constituted most of the league’s elite and when Washington came to Texas Stadium on October 12 it marked the third game against the trio in six weeks. The Cowboys were ready and played their best game of the season.
It started on defense, with the potent Redskin ground attack held to 71 yards. Dallas also got four sacks. Pelleur was outstanding, going 19/30 for 323 yards, with Walker being the prime target—his six catches produced 155 yards. Dallas led 16-0 at the half and it could have been worse, with one drive stalling inside the five-yard line. The final was 30-6.
The Cowboys had taken out their two top NFC East rivals at home and they continued the march through divisional games by winning at Philadelphia and beating St. Louis at home (the Cardinals were an NFC East time prior to 2002).
The Pelleur-to-Walker combination bailed Dallas out in Philly, as the two combined eight times for 62 yards and the Cowboys overcame some poor rush defense to win 17-14. White returned for the Cardinal game and threw second-quarter touchdown passes to Sherrard and Hill to open both the game and the offense up. Walker sandwiched a 19-yard touchdown run in between and the rout was on to the tune of a 37-6 final.
Dallas was 6-2 and primed for a trip to the Meadowlands. The Giants were also 6-2. Oddsmakers saw the teams as essentially even, spotting New York as a three-point favorite based on homefield. This would prove to be a seminal game in the history of both franchises.
White got the start and early in the game he broke his hand. His season was over. Pelleur came in and played very well against a great defense, going 28/38 for 399 yards. Walker carried 26 times for 120 yards. But he was sacked five times and on three times scoring drives for the Cowboys were stopped by missed field goals from reliable veteran Rafael Septien.
Meanwhile, the Giants ran for 199 yards of their own and pulled out a 17-14 win. New York never lost again and won the first of what would be two Super Bowl titles in a five-year span. For Dallas, the collapse had begun.
Dallas hosted the Los Angeles Raiders, another power of the early 1980s that was set for a late collapse. But the Raiders would keep their hopes alive a little longer. In a sloppy game in the late afternoon at Texas Stadium, Pelleur threw five interceptions in a 17-13 loss. The Cowboys responded with a 24-21 win at a poor San Diego team, although even here they were forced to rally from 21-10 down.
With the record at 7-4, there was still every chance to stay in the playoff race when Dallas went to Washington for a late afternoon game at old RFK Stadium. The Redskins were tied with the Giants for first place and again, the oddsmakers still liked Dallas—the fact they were only a three-point road dog indicates the Cowboys and Redskins were seen as even on a neutral field. The game would prove how mistaken that assessment was. Dallas was in a 34-0 hole by halftime and lost 41-14.
There was still hope for the last wild-card spot. Dallas only trailed San Francisco by a half-game. But the traditional Thanksgiving Day game didn’t provide the Cowboys any kind of kickstart to the stretch drive. Even though Dorsett ran for an early touchdown against a good Seattle team, Dallas was outrushed 201-127, trailed by seventeen points at the half and lost 31-14.
The 49ers lost on Sunday, so there was still hope in Big D. But it was illusory. Dallas went to NFC West-leading Los Angeles and got crushed in the trenches. Pelleur was sacked five times, the Cowboys only generated 84 rush yards and they were run over by the great Eric Dickerson. The final was 29-10.
Any glimmer of hope was officially gone by the end of the next week with a terrible home loss to the Eagles. Walker did his best to keep his team breathing, taking an 84-yard touchdown pass from Pelleur and running for 120 yards. But the defense gave up a late touchdown pass in a 23-21 loss.
Dallas was now under .500. They would fail to post a winning season for the first since 1965. One game later they finished the collapse in a 24-10 loss to one more of the league’s elite, the Chicago Bears. Landry gave Reggie Collier a start at quarterback and he was sacked seven times. Dallas was a losing team for the first time since ’64.
And it wouldn’t be the last time either. They would struggle to a mediocre losing season again in 1987 and by 1988 they would collapse to 3-13. Jerry Jones bought the franchise following that season, dismissed Landry and brought in Jimmy Johnson. The good times were over for Tom Landry in Big D as of the second half of the 1986 season.
Bill Parcells had Big Blue on the move. The Giants made the playoffs in 1984 and 1985. Each time they won a game and each time they were only eliminated the eventual Super Bowl champs. The 1986 New York Giants took the final step—they won the Super Bowl with a great regular season and dominating postseason run.
It was all about defense with the Giants and that started with outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. “LT” had the best year of a Hall of Fame career. He terrorized defenses with 20 ½ sacks and became the last defensive player to win the MVP award.
Taylor had plenty of company. Inside linebacker Harry Carson made the Pro Bowl at age 33. Defensive end Leonard Marshall was another Pro Bowler and he recorded 12 sacks. Nose tackle Jim Burt enjoyed a Pro Bowl season and tied up blockers to enable playmakers like Taylor to do their thing. And overseeing this defense as coordinator was the great Bill Belichick.
New York’s defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed, trailing only the legendary Chicago Bears defense, fresh off their own great Super Bowl run in 1985. In fairness to the Giants we should note that New York played a tougher schedule than did Chicago.
The greatness of the defense obscures the fact that the Phil Simms-led offense was pretty good at moving the football. Simms threw for over 3,400 yards and averaged 7.5 yards-per-attempt. The interceptions were a problem—22 in all—but in a different era than our own, it wasn’t a fatal flaw.
Simms had two 1st-team All-Pro players as part of the supporting cast. Tight end Mark Bavaro was the favored target and the 23-year-old caught 66 passes for just over 1,000 yards. And running back Joe Morris rolled up over 1,500 yards on the ground even though he missed a game in the regular season. Morris ran behind a line that was keyed by Pro Bowl left tackle Brad Benson, while center Bart Oates was on the cusp of a run that saw him eventually make five Pro Bowls himself.
Running the ball and throwing to the tight end were the keys to an offense overseen by coordinator Ron Erhardt. But they could also stretch the field. Wide receivers Bobby Johnson and Stacy Robinson didn’t see the ball a lot, but they averaged 17-plus yards a pop when Simms did go their way.
If all this weren’t enough, the Giants won key intangible areas of play as well. Sean Landeta was the league’s best punter in 1986. And New York’s aggressive, attacking defense combined with a conservative offense, created a game flow where they consistently enjoyed edges in penalty yardage throughout the season. They weren’t going to give away games and they were awfully tough to beat.
But get beat they did in the opening game of the season, on the Monday Night stage in Dallas. The Cowboyswere the defending NFC East champs and had beaten the Giants in a big game here down the stretch in 1985. Simms made big plays, his 22/45 night going for 300 yards. Johnson and Bavaro each caught seven balls. When Simms hit Johnson on 44-yard touchdown pass, New York was ahead 28-24 in the fourth quarter, having come back from deficits of 14-0 and 24-21. But the Cowboys rallied for the winning touchdown.
Forget the Super Bowl for a moment—the Giants had never even won the NFC East since the division was created in the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Losing a tough game in Dallas must have made the Big Blue faithful wonder if they would ever survive the behemoths of their own division, including the Washington Redskins who had a recent Super Bowl title under Joe Gibbs.
New York played with a bit of hangover at home against a woeful Chargers team, but intercepted Dan Fouts five times to win 20-7. They went on the road to face the Los Angeles Raiders next. Though the Raiders would miss the playoffs, they were on a run of four straight postseason trips that included a Super Bowl win. They also started this season 8-4 before collapsing. So when Morris ran for 110 yards to key a 14-9 victory, it was a big deal.
The Giants played another ho-hum home game against a mediocre opponent in the New Orleans Saints. They gave up a 63-yard touchdown pass early and spotted the Saints a 17-0 lead. Then the Simms-to-Bavaro combination heated up. Bavaro caught seven passes for 110 yards, including the game-winner in a 20-17 victory.
Simms was erratic in a road game at the St. Louis Cardinals and there was no running game. The defense bailed them out with seven sacks, two apiece by LT, Carl Banks and Marshall. The Giants came home and beat up the lowly Philadelphia Eagles in a late afternoon kick. After a scoreless first quarter, a 30-yard touchdown run by Morris got the ball rolling. It ended in a 35-3 avalanche with the Eagles gaining just 117 total yards.
New York traveled west to face a good Seattle team that would contend for a playoff spot until the final week of the season. The Seahawks played indoors, at the Kingdome, but they were as tough an out at home as they are in our own day. The Giants were a three-point underdog, indicating oddsmakers did not yet see this as a great team. This game gave them no reason to change their minds. Simms threw four interceptions in a 17-12 loss.
A Monday Night against the Redskins would be significant for the New York in two ways. The city was focused on the Mets, who were playing Game 7 of a dramatic World Series against the Red Sox that night. And this would be the night that in retrospect we know was where the 1986 New York Giants really caught fire.
The Giants dominated the ground attack against a Redskins team that was renowned for doing that same thing in the Joe Gibbs era. Morris carried 31 times for 181 yards and New York built up a 20-3 lead. Washington only mustered 32 yards on the ground, but came all the way back to tie it 20-apiece. Morris had one more answer with a three-yard touchdown run that won it.
Morris enjoyed another huge game when Dallas came to the Meadowlands, piling up 181 yards. Simms played his worst game of the year, 6/18 for 67 yards but the running of Morris combined with five sacks for the defense and the Cowboys’ getting flagged for 113 yards in penalties, all resulted in a 17-14 New York win.
The Giants had beaten their two biggest rivals in a tough NFC East race and they put together another divisional win in Philadelphia a week alter. Morris ran for two touchdowns, led the way to a 17-0 lead and New York hung on 17-14.
A road trip to competitive Minnesota was a war and the Giants trailed 13-12 after three quarters. Simms stepped up and he hit Johnson with 25-yard touchdown pass for the lead. The Vikings went back ahead 20-19, but Simms was coming through today. He finished 25/38 for 310 yards and led a drive to a game-winning field goal, 22-20.
John Elway and the Denver Broncos came into the Meadowlands on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving in a high-profile game seen as a possible Super Bowl preview. Oddsmakers rated the teams even and gave New York only the three-point edge for homefield.
The Giants had a tough time with Elway, who threw for 336 yards. But they made big plays and none was bigger than in the second quarter, when Denver led 6-3 and was driving for more. Defensive tackle George Martin got his hands on a pass, came up with an interception and rumbled 78 yards the other way for a score. It was the biggest of the four turnovers New York collected and combined with Morris’ 106 rush yards, enough to pull out a 19-16 win.
New York was 10-2 and tied for first with Washington. Dallas had started a late-season fade and was already down to 7-5. The Giants, Redskins and Bears—also 10-2—were the class of the NFC and they came down the stretch fighting for playoff position.
The San Francisco 49ers were fighting just to make the postseason, but Joe Montana commanded enough respect to make the 49ers a three-point home favorite against the Giants on Monday Night Football.
New York dug themselves a 17-0 hole, but it would be Simms, not Montana, leading the great comeback for a national TV audience. He rifled three touchdown passes in the third quarter, finishing 27/38 for 388 yards. Robinson caught five balls for 116 of those yards and the Giants won 21-17 to keep pace with the Redskins and Bears, who had each won on Sunday.
December 7 was the defining moment of the regular season, as New York went to Washington and old RFK Stadium to play for first place in the NFC East. The Giants’ defense sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the league. They got six interceptions from six different players. Taylor was in beast mode, getting three sacks. New York won 24-14 in a game that didn’t feel that close.
The Giants were in complete command of the division, with a one-game lead and control of the tiebreakers with two weeks to play. When the Redskins lost in Denver the following Saturday afternoon, New York clinched their first NFC East title.
There was still the matter of the #1 seed and Chicago was even with New York at 12-2, though the Giants held the tiebreaker edge thanks to a better record against common opponents—that rally against the Vikings, a team that had split its two games with the Bears, was the difference.
Morris had a huge day at home against St. Louis (the Cardinals were an NFC East team prior to 2002), going for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 27-7 win. New York finished off the season the following Saturday with a 55-24 rout of lowly Green Bay.
In the first quarter, Simms threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Bavaro, a blocked punt produced another touchdown and Morris ran for a third. It was 21-zip and the party could start at the Meadowlands. The road to the Super Bowl would come through Giants Stadium.
San Francisco was a familiar playoff foe for New York. The Giants lost out west in the divisional round in both 1981 and 1984, both leading to Super Bowl wins for the 49ers. New York took a measure of revenge in the wild-card game in 1985 at home. San Francisco had some momentum coming into this game, having rallied to steal the NFC West title from Los Angeles and the Giants were only a three-point favorite.
On the game’s first possession, the Giants let Jerry Rice break into the clear and it looked like the 49ers had first blood. In a sign that this was New York’s year, Rice simply dropped the football. It was a completely unforced effort. It would be the Giants driving for the game’s first score, a 24-yard TD pass from Simms to Bavaro.
It was 7-3 after the first quarter, but the avalanche was about to start. An interception of Montana set up a 45-yard touchdown run from Morris. Another New York drive was extended by a successful fake-field goal attempt and ended when Simms tossed a 15-yard scoring pass to Bobby Johnson.
With New York already in complete control at 21-3 and San Francisco pinned deep in their own end, the finishing blow came from Burt. He broke through and crushed Montana, knocking him cold on the hard artificial turf and ending his afternoon. It’s almost an afterthought that Montana got rid of the pass, but it was intercepted by Taylor who brought it back 34 yards for the touchdown.
Morris finished the game with 159 yards, while the 49ers only mustered 29 yards on the ground. The rout continued in the second half. The final was 49-3 and an anticipated playoff battle had just turned into one long party on an early Sunday afternoon.
An anticipated battle with the Bears did not materialize—the Redskins had gone to Soldier Field on Saturday and upset Chicago. Instead of a showdown between two of the great defenses in the modern era, it would be Round 3 against a divisional foe the Giants had already beaten twice.
The winds were heavy for the 4 PM ET kick, so much so that Parcells opted to take the wind rather than the ball when New York won the opening toss. It would be a smart move. The Giants drove for a 47-yard field goal, a kick not possible to make going against the wind today.
On the ensuing drive, New York was driving again and reached the 26-yard line. An incomplete pass on third-and-10 seemed to mean another field goal attempt. But the Redskins chose to accept a holding penalty and try and push the Giants out of field goal range. Simms responded by hitting Lionel Manuel for 25 yards. He hit Manuel one more time, an 11-yard touchdown pass that put New York firmly in command at 10-0.
The second quarter would be critical—could Washington answer now that they had the wind? They had chances, driving into field goal range, but a botched snap cost them points. Morris fumbled it away, but the Giant defense made a stop on 4th-and-1. The score was still 10-0 and given the quality of the New York D, combined with the weather conditions, it might as well have been 35-0.
New York would outrush Washington 117-46. The Redskins were forced into throwing 50 times on a day when passing was shut down for half the game. The final was 17-0 and the Giants were going to the Super Bowl.
A rematch of that November game with Denver was the last step and by now everyone was on board the Giant bandwagon. In spite of the presence of Elway, New York was installed as a decisive nine-point favorite in Pasadena.
They did not play well defensively in the early part of the game. Elway led one drive a field goal and another for a touchdown in the first quarter, the latter drive aided by a pair of personal foul penalties on the Giants—one when Taylor foolishly picked up a flag he didn’t like and threw it. In between, Simms hit tight end Zeke Mowatt on a short touchdown pass and the score was 10-7 going into the second quarter.
Denver drove to the one-yard line for first-and-goal. It looked like this might be a long day for the Giants. Instead, it was the moment their defense completely turned the game around.
Elway rolled out on first down, but was stopped by Taylor. Some unimaginative playcalling on the Denver sideline took the ball away from Elway the next two snaps and put it in the hands of Sammy Winder. He failed once up the middle and another time on a sweep—why the Broncos thought they could beat the Giant defense to edge in a constricted goal-line situation is a question only then-offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and head coach Dan Reeves can answer.
When Denver shanked the field goal, the goal-line stand was complete. New York eventually flipped the field and had the Broncos pinned deep in their own end. It appeared Elway had gotten some breathing room on a pass to Clarence Kay. But it was erroneously ruled incomplete, with no instant replay in place to overturn a call. Martin made it hurt by sacking Elway for a safety and the game went to the locker room at 10-9.
The second half completely belonged to New York and to Simms in particular. The quarterback hit Bavaro on a 13-yard touchdown pass, led another drive a field goal and his 44-yard pass to Phil McConkey off a flea-flicker set up a short touchdown run by Morris. Simms finished the day 22/25 for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was a Super Bowl record for completion percentage and it won Simms game MVP honors.
At 26-10, and no two-point conversion available, the game was all but over. If there was any flickering hope there were ended when New York got an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter to set up another touchdown. Elway didn’t have a bad day—22/37 for 304 yards—but he was sacked four times and the Giants dominated on the ground, 138-52. Combine that with Simms being red-hot and New York just had too much. The final was 39-20.
The Super Bowl championship of 1986 was the high point of a great run for Parcells with the Giants that lasted from 1984-90. After a brief stumble in 1987 when a players’ strike messed up the season, New York ripped off a double-digit wins each of the next three years. And even though ’86 was the best Parcells team, it wasn’t the last championship—another Lombardi Trophy was coming in 1990.
The 1986 New England Patriots didn’t make a Super Bowl run like they had in 1985. But in its own way, the ’86 Patriots were just as impressive. While the 1985 AFC Championship had a magical quality to it, with three straight road playoff wins, the 1986 team showed its mettle by winning the franchise’s first division title since 1978.
The running game had been the key to the ’85 playoff run, but the Patriot ground attack staggered badly in 1986. The legendary John Hannah, one of the great offensive lineman in history, had retired at the top of his game, going out on both a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl year. Losing Hannah was a blow to anyone, but especially to the Patriots, who lacked Pro Bowl talent anywhere else up front.
Even though Mosi Tatupu made the Pro Bowl for his blocking work at fullback, neither of the prime ball-carriers—Tony Collins and Craig James—cleared 450 rush yards for the entire season.
New England still finished with the second-most prolific offense in the NFL so that tells you the passing game must have been firing on all cylinders. Tony Eason had an excellent season at quarterback, bouncing back admirably from a miserable night in the Super Bowl.
Eason was a high-percentage passer and his 62% completion rate was near the top of the league. On a related note, his interception percentage of 2.2% was also close to the best in the NFL. Even better is that this efficiency did not compromise the team’s ability to get some big plays—Eason’s 7.4 yards-per-attempt was a bit better than the league average and when you combine that with high-percentage and no-mistakes passing, you have something pretty good.
Stanley Morgan was easily the best of the receivers, catching 84 passes and stretching the field with a 17.8 yards-per-catch average. Morgan made the Pro Bowl and if you paid him too much attention defensively, Irving Fryar could also beat you deep. Fryar caught 43 passes and also averaged better than 17 yards a pop.
The offense designed by head coach Raymond Berry—once the favored target of the great Johnny Unitas—was diverse, and Collins caught 77 passes out of the backfield. Greg Baty rounded out the group of Eason’s prime pass-catchers at tight end.
New England’s defense was a 3-4 scheme built around aggressive play from the outside linebackers. Andre Tippett played the position as well as anyone not named Lawrence Taylor in his heyday and he recorded 9 ½ sacks while making the Pro Bowl in 1986. Don Blackmon added 7 ½ more sacks on the other side. More pressure came up front from rookie defensive end Brent Williams. The seventh-round draft pick recorded seven sacks, while Gavin Veris got 11 more.
With opposing quarterbacks facing steady pressure from both sides of the pocket and from two different levels of the defense, it was a good scheme to be a corner in. Raymond Clayborn was a Pro Bowler and Ronnie Lippett picked off eight passes. All in all, the Patriots defense ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed.
New England opened the season with a home date against the awful Indianapolis Colts and it went as easily as expected. Eason went 18/29 for 252 yards, with Morgan catching seven balls for 116 of those yards. Blackmon got three sacks right out of the gate, the defense forced three turnovers and the Patriots won 33-3.
The New York Jets had joined the Patriots and Dolphins as playoff teams out of the AFC East in 1985 and the Jets would be a contender for all of this season. That made a Thursday Night trip to the Meadowlands an anticipated game, and not just because Thursday Night games were an exception to the rule back then.
Eason was brilliant again, throwing for 414 yards. The defense dominated in every way, with four sacks and taking away the ground game. The result was a 20-6 win.
After two straight wins over divisional foes (the Colts were in the AFC East with the division’s four current teams prior to 2002), the Pats dropped close games to good teams in Seattle and Denver.
The Seahawk loss was a tough one to swallow. On a rainy day in Foxboro, Eason threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to Morgan, from 44 and 30 yards. With a 31-21 lead, a 3-0 start was in the Patriots’ grasp. Then they allowed a defensive touchdown and allowed a 67-yard touchdown pass to Dave Krieg, losing the game 38-31.
Denver would ultimately make the Super Bowl, so the 27-20 loss on the road was no big deal. The second-half meltdown was the disappointment—the Patriots led 13-3 at the half, but the offensive line was terrible—no running game and Eason was sacked five times. The Broncos took over after halftime.
Lippett came up with a huge game the next week at home against Miami. He picked off Dan Marino twice, part of a three-interception day against the future Hall of Fame quarterback who made 1st-team All-NFL in 1986. The big downside was Eason being knocked out, but Steve Grogan was as good a fallback option as there was in the league. Morgan caught six passes for 125 yards and the Patriots won easily, 34-7.
The Jets made their return visit to Foxboro and Grogan was still behind center. The story at the outset was the complete inability of the Patriots to stop the run. New York ran up a 177-17 edge in rush yardage and built a 24-zip lead. Grogan brought the Pats roaring back, hitting Morgan on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Fryar on a 69-yard strike. New England pulled to within 24-17, but the hill was too high to climb and the game ended 31-24.
Grogan went one more game in Pittsburgh against a shaky Steelers team and he made sure Eason would feel some pressure upon his return. Without the benefit of a running attack, Grogan carved up the Steelers to the tune of 18/26 for 243 yards and three touchdowns. The defense recorded five sacks, two by Tippett in a 34-0 rout.
Eason’s return at lowly Buffalo was overshadowed by two things. The first was that few Patriot fans may have noticed—the night before the Red Soxhad blown Game 6 of the World Series to the Mets, the game ending with the infamous error by Bill Buckner.
The other thing overshadowing Eason was more appealing to New England fans and it’s the play of the defense. Lippett again had two interceptions against a future Hall of Famer, this time Jim Kelly—although unlike Marino, Kelly and his team were very much in a developmental phase. Tippett rang up 3 ½ more sacks, as the Pats made Kelly’s day positively miserable in a 23-3 win.
The Patriots hosted mediocre Atlanta and dinked around until the third quarter. They gave up over 200 yards on the ground for the game and were clinging to a 12-10 lead. Fryar lit a spark with a 59-yard punt return and Veris rose up defensively with 2 ½ sacks, as New England finally took control in a 25-17 win.
Another ho-hum start came at Indianapolis and the Patriots trailed this one 14-6 at the half. To lose to a division rival on its way to a 3-13 season would be disastrous in a tough race for the playoffs. Lippett helped turn the game around with a couple interceptions, Eason threw a pair of short touchdown passes and New England got it going in the second half to win 30-21.
The winning streak was now quietly at four games as the Patriots visited the Los Angeles Rams, who were leading the NFC West at the time of the game and ended up as a wild-card. When New England dug themselves a 28-16 hole in the third quarter it looked like that winning streak was more a product of weak competition than Patriot excellence.
Berry put the game in Eason’s hands, calling for 52 pass plays and the quarterback delivered. Eason completed 36 of those passes and produced 375 pass yards. He spread the football around, hitting Morgan seven times and Collins on ten occasions out of the backfield. Two touchdown passes to Fryar pulled out a 30-28 win.
New England was 8-3, but the Jets were riding high. They were 10-1, not having lost since that Thursday Night defeat to the Patriots all the way back in Week 2. But little did anyone know that the Jets would lose every game for the rest of the regular season (well, one person knew it—NBC analyst Paul Maguire predicted it on-air at the time, but it would take a few weeks before anyone else saw that as more than bluster).
When the Patriots jumped out to a 15-0 lead on the Bills, it looked like an easy day. But they were unable to get the ball downfield—James and Collins combined for 14 catches—and couldn’t run the ball. Buffalo went ahead 19-5, before Eason led a winning drive capped off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Baty. It hadn’t been easy, but it was a win and it pulled New England to within a game of first place with four weeks to go.
The Patriots’ wild-card position at this time was strong—with two berths available, they led the pack at 9-3, with two teams at 8-4, the Los Angeles Raiders and whomever of the Cleveland Browns & Cincinnati Bengalsdidn’t win the division.
New England’s rushing woes hit their low point at mediocre New Orleans, when they got only two yards on the ground. Fortunately they forced five turnovers, scored off a blocked punt and Williams scooped up a fumble that he took to the house. It was enough to eke out a 21-20 win. They pulled even with the Jets, while the Raiders and Bengals also lost.
Cincinnati came to Foxboro and there was a chance to all but seal up a playoff spot, but the Patriots’ defense turned in perhaps their worst showing of the season. It was certainly the worst effort by the defensive front, which was overwhelmed for 300 yards rushing in a 31-7 loss. San Francisco came into town next and the result was similar—crushed on the ground, 198-60 in yardage, three turnovers and a 29-24 loss.
New England would close the season on Monday Night in Miami. The Dolphins had slipped from their playoff status of previous years and at 8-7 were out of the playoff picture. And it was likely to be a must-win spot.
The Patriots and Jets were each 10-5. New England controlled its destiny for the division title based on record against AFC East teams. But a Jets’ loss—which happened—didn’t necessarily clinch, because a Patriot loss would drop them into a tie on division record and move the tiebreaker to conference record, where the Jets had the edge. So from the perspective of the AFC East, New England-Miami was the only game that mattered.
In the meantime, the two-game losing streak had New England clinging to a one-game lead on Cincinnati, Kansas City and Seattle. The Patriots position on tiebreakers here was horrible, thanks in no small part to the losses to the Bengals and Seahawks (who were an AFC team prior to 2002).
Sunday did not go well if you were a Pats fan. The Bengals, Chiefs and Seahawks all won. New England’s position was simple—win, and take the AFC East title. Lose, and go home. And the oddsmakers said the Pats were (+3.5) underdogs.
To give this prime-time matchup further context, let’s consider that the Orange Bowl in Miami was generally considered the Patriot House of Horrors. Winning the AFC title game there in 1985 cured a lot of ills, but if the team concluded a late-season collapse it would bring those bad memories back. And this all took place in the backdrop of the entire New England region still reeling from the Red Sox coming within a strike of winning the World Series before losing.
Eason was ready to meet the moment though. He found Morgan on an early 22-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots took a 13-3 lead.
Then Eason was knocked out, as if to demonstrate that everything possible really was going to wrong. Marino, after five quarters of poor play against New England finally awoke and rifled a couple TD passes of his own. The Dolphins were now ahead 20-13.
Grogan was a clutch performer though and he responded well. He ran in for a seven-yard touchdown to tie the game. And when Marino put Miami back on top 27-20, Grogan responded again. He threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Collins, who caught seven passes for 73 yards. Grogan then broke the tie by hitting Morgan on a 30-yard touchdown play.
Morgan caught eight passes for 141 yards. Grogan finished 15/24 for 226 yards, giving the Patriots the kind of relief effort that Red Sox fans only wished had come from Calvin Schiraldi. The 34-27 win sent New England to the playoffs.
The NFL used a three-division format with two wild-cards at the time, so being the 3-seed didn’t get you a home game the way it does today. But it did get you a bye and the Patriots took a week off, knowing that a return visit to Denver was up next.
New England acquitted themselves reasonably well on a late Sunday afternoon in Mile High Stadium. The defense forced Elway into an erratic 13/32 performance. Eason was efficient, 13/24 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But the lack of a running game finally did the Pats in. As did the presence of Elway on the other side who still threw for 257 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown strike on the final play of the third quarter that gave the Broncos the lead. The final was 22-17.
It might not have been a Super Bowl run for the 1986 New England Patriots, but it was still a very nice season. The disappointment comes less from the playoff loss, but from the fact that this was the end of the brief high point under Raymond Berry. The Pats played winning football for two more years, but did not make it back to the postseason. They collapsed in 1989 and didn’t come back to life until five years later, when Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe were in town.
The 1986 Minnesota Vikings marked a new era in franchise history. The legendary head coach Bud Grant retired for good after 1985. Grant initially retired in 1983, then came back after a disastrous season in 1984. This time around the Vikes did what they should have done the first time and hired Grant’s long-time offensive coordinator Jerry Burns as the new head man. The Vikings had a winning season in 1986 and set the tone for a strong run in the latter part of the 1980s.
Burns had a terrific staff around him. Monte Kiffin, who would one day become a great defensive coordinator was the linebackers coach. The secondary was run by Pete Carroll, who merely became one of only three men in history to win both a college football national title and a Super Bowl.
Tommy Kramer was a veteran quarterback at age 31 and he was productive, throwing for 3,000 yards. Kramer’s 55% completion rate was about league average, but he made up for it with an 8.1 yards-per-attempt that was in the league’s upper crust.
But Kramer had always been able to make big plays. What made his 1986 season so impressive was that he cut back on his mistakes—the TD/INT ratio was 24-10 and more important was that he only threw interceptions on 2.7% of his passes, well above the league average.
Kramer had a diverse group of targets that started with Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan, who caught 58 passes for 859 yards. Wide receiver Anthony Carter didn’t make the Pro Bowl this season, but he had that kind of talent and he caught 38 passes for an outstanding 18.1 yards-per-catch. Darrin Nelson was terrific out of the backfield, catching 53 balls while also rushing for 793 yards. Leo Lewis provided a complementary big-play threat, catching 32 balls and also being over 18 yards per catch.
The running game wasn’t great. Nelson was a smallish back more suited to catching the ball and he was the leading rusher. There was no Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line although 25-year-old left tackle Gary Zimmerman joined Carter as being a player on the verge of that type of breakout. Even so, there was still enough weapons on hand for the Vikings to rank fourth in the NFL in points scored.
Minnesota’s defense was led by a rising star in Keith Millard. The defensive tackle finished with 10 ½ sacks, and had a future that would see him win Defensive Player of the Year by 1989. Strong safety Joey Browner was a Pro Bowler, and defensive end Dough Martin finished with nine sacks. The Viking D didn’t get the same attention as the high-powered offense, but they ranked fifth in the league in points allowed.
The season didn’t start well—Minnesota was outrushed by a weak Detroit team 224-62 and they lost 13-10 at home. The Vikings were able to turn it around against the horrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Defensive end Chris Doleman came up with a 59-yard Pick-6 in the first quarter and the Vikes forced three turnovers in a 23-10 win. It got them off the schneid, but it was a less than inspiring road win over the worst team in the league.
Kramer opened things up the following week at home against a subpar Pittsburgh Steeler edition. He threw a 55-yard touchdown strike to rookie wide receiver Hassan Jones, then again found Jones from six yards out. Kramer went 19/27 for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the easy 31-7 win. Green Bay came to the Metrodome next and Kramer exploded, throwing four touchdowns in the first quarter alone. By game’s end, he was 16/25 for 241 yards and threw six TDs. Jordan and Jones were each over 100 yards receiving and the final was 42-7.
After home wins by a combined score of 63-14, a visit to Soldier Field to play the defending Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears was a rude awakening. Kramer struggled against the league’s best defense, the Vikes were outrushed 171-45 and they lost 23-0.
But though the shutout might have been embarrassing, there was no shame losing on the road to a team that would go 14-2 and run away with the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay). And Minnesota would respond with two big wins.
The rain was coming down in San Francisco against the 49ers, who were two years removed from a dominating Super Bowl run of their own and would win the NFC West this season. The Vikings caught a huge break with Joe Montana being hurt and Jeff Kemp in as the starting quarterback. They were able to take advantage.
A defensive touchdown led to a 14-7 first-quarter lead, although when the Niners scored 17 unanswered points, it looked like the game was set to get away. Kramer responded. He hit Carter with a 35-yard touchdown pass and finished the game 26/41 for 326 yards. A field goal tied it and the Vikings ultimately won 27-24 in overtime.
It was a sweet win, but even sweeter was a revenge win over the Bears back in the Metrodome. Kramer flipped a pass to fullback Alfred Anderson who took it 37 yards to the house. Kramer then stretched the field with Carter on a 60-yard touchdown play. The defense would shut down the great Walter Payton and Minnesota got a surprisingly easy 23-7 win in a game they were a (+9) underdog.
The Vikings were 5-2 and it was fine to think about a return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. But the schedule didn’t get any easier—two teams on their way to 12-4 seasons and conference championship game appearances were on deck.
Minnesota hosted the Cleveland Browns and jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead, with Kramer going 18/35 for 261 yards and Nelson rushing for 118 yards. The Vikings were lined up for a field goal that would have put them in complete control in the third quarter. Instead, the kick was blocked, returned for a touchdown and the momentum turned. Minnesota lost 23-20.
A road game in the nation’s capital with the Redskins was a big shootout between Kramer and counterpart Jay Schroeder. Kramer threw for 490 yards and had his team ahead 38-26. But the defense allowed 375 pass yards to Schroeder and the Vikes lost the ground game 109-75. They were nearly saved by Washington’s special teams’ ineptitude—the Redskins missed three extra points, including on each of their two touchdowns that wiped out the Minnesota lead. The game went to overtime at 38-38, where Washington won it.
Playoff hopes were now dangling by a thread at 5-4 and the Vikes needed a road win in Detroit. Browner got it started off right with a Pick-6. The defense held the Lions to 81 rush yards in a 24-10 win. A week later the Vikings slugged it out admirably with the ultimate Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But Kramer was knocked out in the second half while counterpart Phil Simms threw for over 300 yards. Another narrow loss to a very good team was the result, 22-20.
The tough schedule and the tough luck in close games continued in a road trip to Cincinnati. Wade Wilson started in Kramer’s stead against a Bengals team that would finish the season 10-6. Wilson was erratic, 15/32 for 181 yards and Minnesota lost 24-20.
With a record of 6-6, the playoffs seemed like a longshot. The Bears had run off and hid from the NFC Central at 10-2. The lowest wild-card team was the 49ers, sitting at 7-4-1. But Minnesota finally got a soft spot in the schedule and they took advantage.
Wilson carved up Tampa Bay to the tune of 22/33 for 339 yards, with Jordan catching seven balls for 97 yards. The final was 45-3. Kramer returned for a road trip in Green Bay and led the way to a 32-6 win. Nelson gained 71 yards on just eight rushes and also caught five passes for 67 yards.
The result was that the Vikings pulled within a half-game of the 49ers and the schedule was still in Minnesota’s favor. They had games against the mediocre Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints to close the season. The playoff dream was still alive.
But the dream died hard in Houston. Kramer was awful, going 3/13 for 47 yards and being yanked for Wilson—who was even worse with three interceptions. Minnesota lost 23-10. It wouldn’t have mattered—San Francisco won each of their last two games and caught the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West title—but it was a tough way to get eliminated.
There was still the matter of a winning season. Minnesota hadn’t finished over .500 since the shortened strike year of 1982 and hadn’t done so in a full schedule since the division title run of 1980. Wilson got the start at home against the Saints to try and get win #9.
Wilson delivered, going 24/39 for 361 yards and three touchdowns. Jones, the rookie, who made sporadic splashes, made one here, catching five passes for 100 yards. Nelson caught six passes and Jordan hauled in seven more as Wilson spread the ball around. The final was 33-17.
To miss the playoffs in spite of having a top-five ranking in both offense and defense was disappointing, as the close losses against good teams—the Browns, Redskins, Giants and Bengals in the difficult late October/November stretch—were too much to overcome. But a foundation was in place. Carter, Millard and Zimmerman kept getting better. Kramer gave way to Wilson. And the Vikings made the playoffs each of the next three years.
The talk of a dynasty was freely in the air for the 1986 Chicago Bears as the season began. They were coming off a 1985 season where they simply demolished the NFL and won the Super Bowl. The ’86 Bears were awfully good in their own right, but quarterback instability proved to be their undoing in the end.
Defense was the team’s calling card and even with celebrated coordinator Buddy Ryan gone to Philadelphia as the head coach, Chicago still played the best defense in the NFL. They were anchored by future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, who was 1st-team All-Pro. So was linebacker Wilbur Marshall and the third prong of the linebacking corps, Otis Wilson, had eight sacks.
Chicago’s front four was ferocious, led by Pro Bowler defensive tackle Steve McMichael on the interior, with ends Dan Hampton and Richard Dent coming off the edge. The three combined for 29 ½ sacks. And with this kind of pressure coming on the quarterback, the secondary was liberated to be aggressive. Corner Mike Richardson intercepted seven passes and strong safety Dave Duerson made the Pro Bowl.
In 1985, the Bears combined the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL with the second-best scoring offense. The health of quarterback Jim McMahon, an issue even in the best of times—he only started 11 games in the ’85 regular season–, was a major problem throughout 1986.
McMahon only started six games, and head coach Mike Ditka ran out everyone from Mike Tomczak to Steve Fuller to bringing in Doug Flutie at season’s end. Had the year gone on any further, Ditka would have undoubtedly summoned Rick Sutcliffe from the Cubs to start a few games.
But when all else failed, Ditka could always give the ball to Walter Payton. Nearing the end of his career, the Hall of Fame running back enjoyed another stellar season in 1986. He rushed for over 1,300 yards, his 37 catches were second-most on the team and he made the Pro Bowl. Payton ran behind an offensive line anchored by 1st-team All-Pro tackle Jimbo Covert.
Willie Gault, the receiver and former track star, gave the Bears some field-stretching capability and he caught 42 passes for 818 yards. But Gault was the only receiver to really make an impact. The rest of the passing game went to Payton, fullback Matt Suhey and tight end Emory Moorhead. The offense slipped to 13th in the league in points scored.
Chicago opened the season at home with the Cleveland Browns, a team that made significant improvements and reached the AFC Championship Game this season. The Bears lost a fumble in the end zone and spotted the Browns a 7-0 lead. Chicago turned it around behind 113 yards from Payton, a 58-yard Pick-6 from Marshall and won 41-31. But the leaky pass defense and the lack of pressure on the quarterback was an early concern.
Buddy Ryan made a celebrated return to the Windy City in Week 2, and Tomczak made his first start. It would take Ryan until 1988 to get the Eagles winning, but he made the defense tough immediately. Chicago had to grind out a 13-10 overtime win behind 177 rushing yards from Payton.
A Monday Night visit to lowly Green Bay was up next. Chicago hadn’t played well in Lambeau Field the year before, trailing into the fourth quarter. They struggled again this year, trailing 12-10 after three quarters. But again, they rallied. Butler hit a 52-yard field goal for the lead. McMichael recorded a sack in the end zone for a needed safety. Fuller got his chance at quarterback and tossed a 42-yard touchdown pass. The Bears won 25-12.
McMahon was healthy for a road game at Cincinnati that would prove to be one of the most impressive displays of the seasons. The Bengals were an improved team that won ten games and the Bears simply dismantled them. McMahon was 13/22 for 211 yards and three touchdowns, including a 53-yard strike to Gault that gave Chicago a 21-0 lead by the second quarter. The defense completely shut down emerging Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason and the final was 44-7.
The Minnesota Vikings, the closest thing Chicago had to competition in the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay), came into Solider Field next. McMahon was a difference-maker again, going 12/19 for 204 yards. Little-used receiver Keith Ortego caught six passes for 157 yards. Payton ran for 108 yards. The defense sacked Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer seven times, two each from Duerson and McMichael. The result was a 23-0 shutout.
McMahon was erratic the following week against the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), but he still made his 13 completions go for 208 yards. Five different defenders were able to sack Warren Moon and the Bears churned out a 20-7 win. But a quick return trip to Minnesota brought an early end to the undefeated season—the defense allowed a couple long TD passes early and with McMahon down for the count again, Chicago had no response. They lost 23-7.
An uninspiring 13-7 win over a poor Detroit Lions team at least put Chicago back in the winning column. Marshall returned a fumble 12 yards for a 1st-quarter touchdown and that was the only time the Bears saw the end zone. McMahon played and was mistake-free, but couldn’t get the ball downfield. He would be out again by the following week and when the caliber of competition improved, the Bears got caught again.
A Monday Night visit from the Los Angeles Rams was a rematch of the 1985 NFC Championship Game. Both teams had backup quarterbacks in. Both teams had great running backs, but Payton was not able to get anything going for the third straight week, held to 61 yards. Meanwhile, Eric Dickerson ran for 111 yards. The defense had to do it again and almost did, holding a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. But they surrendered a long touchdown pass and a fourth-quarter field goal that resulted in a 20-17 loss.
Ditka turned to Tomczak at quarterback and the Ohio State product led Chicago to road wins at Tampa Bay and Atlanta. An early 37-yard touchdown pass to Gault got things going against the woeful Buccaneers, while Payton ran for 139 yards in the 23-3 victory. The Falcons were an average team and Tomczak gave them an early Pick-6 that resulted in a 10-0 deficit. The defense held Atlanta to 80 passing yards and Chicago eventually fought its way back for a 13-10 win.
McMahon was back in uniform for a home date with Green Bay on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. In a sloppy game, the Bears survived 12-10 the most important play came when McMahon was sacked by Green Bay’s Charles Martin. The Packer defender picked McMahon up and in a blatant cheap shot threw him down hard on his shoulder. The quarterback was finished for the season. Green Bay, even as a bad team had always given Chicago fits. Now a dirty play resulted in the Bears’ hopes for a repeat title basically ending.
Tomczak returned to the fold for a home date with the subpar Pittsburgh Steelers. He went 19/30 for 235 yards, but also threw two interceptions. Payton had a hard time finding running room, needing 31 carries to get 90 yards, but he tied the game 10-10 with a fourth-quarter touchdown run and Chicago won in overtime. The running game then completely overwhelmed Tampa Bay, with a balanced attack resulting in a 245-50 rush advantage and producing a 48-14 win.
There were two games left and at 12-2, Chicago had easily salted away the NFC Central. They were also locked into at least one home game for the playoffs. The New York Giants were also 12-2 and would hold the edge on a tiebreaker that came down to common opponents—the Bears loss to the Vikings was the difference in the fight for the #1 seed. Chicago would need to win out and get help.
But they help they really needed was at quarterback and Ditka made a desperation gambit. Two years earlier, Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College and authored one of the most memorable moments in the history of sports, his desperation pass to Gerald Phelan that beat Miami on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Flutie’s lack of size led the NFL to pass on him and he went to play in Canada. Ditka now decided it was time to turn the keys to the car that was the defending Super Bowl champions over to him. It was an insane decision and it didn’t work.
Chicago still beat Detroit on Monday Night, though they trailed 13-3 after three quarters before scoring 13 unanswered points. The season finale in Dallas was meaningless—New York had won on Saturday of the final weekend to clinch the top seed. Flutie’s good numbers—8/14 for 152 yards for a 24-10 win over a collapsing team gave some false hope to the Bear faithful.
Just how over his head Flutie was became apparent when the Washington Redskins came to town two weeks later. Chicago had everything going for them—while Washington was an exceptionally good wild-card team at 12-4, they were also beat up after their playoff win over the Rams. With the game on a Saturday, the Redskins were also on a short week. The Bears were a (-7) favorite, but completely imploded.
When Chicago’s Dennis Gentry returned the opening kickoff to the Washington 35-yard line, and the Flutie offense responded by going three-and-out it was a bad sign. It got worse. Flutie finished 11/31 for 134 yards and threw two interceptions. The Redskins defense, not worried about the pass, focused on Payton and shut him down. And the Chicago defense finally cracked in the second half.
The Bears led 13-7 at halftime, but gave up 20 points after intermission while doing nothing offensively. The repeat bid ended with a 27-13 loss that was as gloomy for Chicago fans as the weather was on the dank day in the Windy City.
When a team goes 14-2, it’s unfair to call the year a disappointment. But if there were ever a time it seemed appropriate to even think such thoughts, it was with the 1986 Chicago Bears. The hopes of a dynasty never got going. This year was the first of three straight seasons that would end with home playoff losses. The Bears of the late 1980s were excellent football teams, but the inability of McMahon to stay healthy cost them a shot at being a dynasty.
The 1986 Cleveland Browns came closer than any team has in franchise history to reaching the Super Bowl. After a stellar regular season and an epic playoff win, it took the signature moment from one of the NFL’s signature players to deny them at least a chance at the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Cleveland had already tasted some playoff heartbreak in 1985. After winning a weak division title at 8-8, they’d had the Miami Dolphins of Dan Marino in a 21-3 hole, before Marino rallied for a win. Even so, there was optimism alive again in Cleveland and the Browns came out and backed it up in 1986.
Bernie Kosar was in his second year as starting quarterback and the growth in his game was evident. He threw the fewest interceptions-per-pass than any other QB in the league. And that didn’t come at the expense of production in the passing game—Kosar’s 58% completion rate and his 7.3 yards-per-attempt were both slightly above the league average.
Kosar benefitted from a juiced-up receivers’ corps that got a lift from rookie Webster Slaughter, a legitimate deep threat. Slaughter caught 40 balls for 577 yards and was a perfect complement to the possession-style of Brian Brennan, who caught 55 passes for 838 yards.
The combination of a smart quarterback and an innovative offense coordinator in Lindy Infante kept a lot of people involved in the passing game. Reggie Langhorne caught 39 passes, as did 30-year-old tight end Ozzie Newsome. Herman Fontenot was a terrific target out of the backfield, catching 47 passes. Earnest Byner caught 37 more, and even the more bruising fullback, Kevin Mack, got in the act with 28 catches.
No team with Marty Schottenheimer as its coach is going to neglect the running game. Mack led the way with 665 yards and veteran Curtis Dickey added 523. The Browns had a Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Cody Risien and by the time you put all of this together it added up to the fifth-best offense in the NFL.
The defense ranked eleventh and was keyed by two excellent corners. Hanford Dixon was 1st-team All-Pro, while Frank Minnifield made the Pro Bowl. Two other starters also made it to Hawaii, outside linebacker Chip Banks and nose tackle Bob Golic (brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic). The 3-4 defensive scheme got a further boost from the defensive ends, with 34-year-old Carl Hairston and Reggie Camp combining for 16 sacks.
Cleveland had as tough a test as you could want for Week 1—they had to go to Chicago, where the Bears were coming off a dominating 1985 Super Bowl run and primed for another run where they would go 14-2. The Browns lost 41-31, but the fact Kosar went 23/40 for 282 yards against a defense considered one of the best of all-time a year earlier gave some reason for hope. Had the Browns not shot themselves in the foot with 11 penalties, they might have won the game.
A road date with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) was next. For the second straight week the Browns were outrushed by a substantial margin and they trailed 13-9 in the fourth quarter. Kosar took over, finding Langhorne on a 55-yard TD strike and then leading another drive that ended with a Byner touchdown run. Cleveland hung on to win 23-20.
The problems in rushing yardage disparity hit rock bottom on a Thursday night home game with Cincinnati. The Browns were crushed 257-83, and this time they couldn’t protect Kosar either. He was sacked four times in an embarrassing 30-13 loss. The hangover seemed to linger for a while in a home game with a poor Detroit Lions team ten days later. It was 7-7 in the third quarter before Gerald McNeil’s 84-yard punt return for a touchdown lit a spark and the Browns won 24-21.
Pittsburgh was in a stretch of mediocre seasons, but a road date in old Three Rivers Stadium was never easy. This one wasn’t either. The game went back-and-forth, but the difference was that Cleveland stretched the field better, the prime example being Langhorne catching four passes for 108 yards. A four-yard touchdown run from Byner ultimate pulled out a 27-24 win.
The Kansas City Chiefs would make the playoffs this season and they came to the Dawg Pound next. Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Kosar threw short touchdown passes to Byner and Newsome. The defense was able to shut down the KC running game and sack quarterback Todd Blackledge four times. The result was a 20-7 win.
But the Browns gave it right back a week later when the lowly Green Bay Packers came to town. After taking a 14-3 lead at the half, Cleveland was unable to run the ball and put the game away. They ultimately blew it 17-14. There was no solace in the moment and the only one in retrospect was that the Packers still saw something in Infante, making him their head coach two years later.
Minnesota was a contending team that would compete to the end for a playoff spot and Cleveland’s road trip to the old Metrodome saw them dig a quick 17-3 hole. It was the special teams, coached by Bill Cowher, that again lit a spark. A Viking field goal attempt was blocked and brought back for a touchdown. The running game found its traction for the first time this season and Dickey rushed for 106 yards, including a 17-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. A pair of short field goals put the Browns over the top in a 23-20 win.
Cleveland churned out a 24-9 win at awful Indianapolis. Kosar struck quickly with a 14-yard TD pass to Brennan and a 72-yard scoring play to Fontenot, both in the first quarter. Kosar finished 15/25 for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the easy win.
Two big games against the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Raiders were on deck. These had been the two best teams in the AFC in the first part of the 1980s—the Browns had lost playoff games to both– and each was fighting for its life this time around. Any new up-and-comers had to deal with the old guard first.
The Dolphins came in on Monday Night and the Browns asserted themselves on the ground. Led by Dickey’s 92 yards, they enjoyed a 168-56 edge on the ground. The more experienced Kosar was a match for Marino this time around. He was 32/50 for 401 yards, while Marino threw for 295 yards. The only downside was red-zone execution—on three trips inside the 10-yard line Cleveland settled for field goals and it made the 26-16 final closer than it had to be.
Miami would fall short of the playoffs, as would the Raiders who were on deck next. But the oddsmakers still weren’t buying on the Browns, making them a 6 ½ point underdog in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Cleveland played down to expectations this time. Kosar was sacked six times, the offense only generated eight first downs and they lost 27-14.
The Browns were still 7-4 and had two straight divisional home games coming up, with Pittsburgh and Houston (the Oilers joined the Browns, Bengals and Steelers in the old AFC Central). The Steeler game was another back-and-forth affair and this time the Cleveland offense was on its game. They got 35 first downs in this game, allowed no sacks and Kosar was 28/46 for 414 yards, spreading the ball to nine different receivers. The game went to overtime tied 31-31 when Kosar went 36 yards to Slaughter to win it.
More overtime thrills awaited against the Oilers, who only won five games, but had Warren Moon at quarterback and would become a playoff perennial the very next season. The Browns trailed 3-0 after three quarters. Kosar was uncharacteristically sloppy, throwing three interceptions. But the defense bailed him out, picking off Moon and backup Oliver Luck (father of Andrew Luck) six times. Mack ran for 121 yards and Cleveland eventually tied it 10-10 and then got a field goal in OT for the win.
Cleveland was 9-4 and leading the Central. Cincinnati was just a game back though. There was a head-to-head battle coming up in two weeks in Cincy, where the Bengals could pull even and sweep the season series.
First things first. The Browns had to beat Buffalo, a poor team in 1986, but one with Jim Kelly at quarterback. It wasn’t easy, and it took 141 yards on the ground, balanced between Mack and Dickey, combined with a 3-1 turnover edge to scrape out a 21-17 road win.
Cincinnati held serve and set up the showdown game. In the meantime, the other leading contenders in other divisions—the Jets, Patriots and Broncos had all lost, dropping them to 10-4. Cleveland had the superior conference record meaning that if they could stay atop the Central, that would translate into a #1 seed for the playoffs.
Again though, first things first. The Browns were a three-point underdog in Cincinnati. Cleveland completely flipped the script from that awful Week 3 Thursday Night performance. This time Mack ran for 93 yards. Kosar was 13/29 for 246 yards, a lower percentage than he was used to, but stretching the field with Slaughter and Langhorne. Cleveland clinched the division with a 34-3 rout.
Cleveland began preparations for the home finale with San Diego with the idea they needed to win in mind. But on Saturday, Denver lost its regular season finale, and the Browns clinched the top seed. They still rolled over the four-win Chargers 47-17, dominating every which way and Brennan catching seven passes for 176 yards.
The playoffs were at hand. After a week off, the Browns hosted the New York Jets. After a 10-1 start that had New York thinking about a Jets-Giants Super Bowl (the Giants were the top seed in the NFC and would ultimately win it all), the Jets collapsed and lost their last five games. But they righted the ship with a 35-15 win over the Chiefs in the wild-card game and even though the Browns were installed as a (-7) favorite, this game would push them to the very brink.
It was an early afternoon game on Saturday and the Jets caught the Browns napping with a 42-yard flea-flicker touchdown in the first quarter. Kosar responded by leading a 98-yard drive, capped off by a 37-yard pass to Fontenot that tied it. The teams traded field goals in the second quarter, the Jets getting theirs on a late defensive lapse by Cleveland where they allowed immobile quarterback Ken O’Brien to scramble for a fourth-down conversion.
Cleveland’s offense began to bog down. There was no running game to speak of and the Jets scraped out another field goal for a 13-10 lead after three quarters. The Browns were forced to throw constantly—Kosar would put the ball in the air a playoff-record 64 times. Even with a quarterback as smart as Bernie, you’re asking for trouble with that. Early in the fourth quarter he threw an interception in the end zone. And as the game hit the crunch point, Kosar threw another interception in his own end that set up a 25-yard touchdown run by Freeman McNeil. There was 4:14 left and Cleveland trailed 20-10.
The comeback began on 2nd-and-24 from their own 18-yard line. After throwing an incompletion, Kosar was roughed by Jets’ defensive end Mark Gastineau. Given new life, the Browns drove for a touchdown that ended with a one-yard plunge from Mack.
Cleveland’s defense was amazing all day long. They got a playoff record of their own, nine sacks. But they were never better than on the run defense that followed this touchdown, stuffing the Jets quickly and getting the ball back for Kosar. The Browns were on their own 32-yard line, there were 51 seconds left and they trailed 20-17.
Slaughter got loose down the right sideline and Kosar put it on the numbers for a 63-yard touchdown pass. Cleveland actually had a chance to win it in overtime, but settled for a short field goal that produced overtime.
Another big play from Kosar, this one a 35-yard pass to Langhorne down to the Jets 5-yard line had everyone ready to celebrate. Cleveland went for the field goal immediately…and shanked it. But the defense wasn’t letting the Jets go anywhere.
With 2:38 to go in the first OT, the Browns got the ball for the final drive. Mack’s running was starting to finally chew up yardage. Cleveland got the ball into the red zone again, now early into the second overtime. Four years earlier, kicker Mark Moseley had won an improbable MVP award when he was with the Washington Redskins. All of Cleveland now just wanted him to make a simple chipshot. Moseley delivered and the Browns had an amazing 23-20 win.
So much about this game would be ironic the following week and only in Cleveland could fate turn around and slap them back so quickly. One week later, with Denver coming in, it was the Browns who had control of the game late, 20-13. It was the opponent who led a 98-yard touchdown drive. This time it was John Elway, starting the drive with little more than five minutes left and with it effectively announcing to the world that he had arrived as an elite quarterback. And it was the Browns on the short end of a 23-20 overtime loss.
It’s that drive—or The Drive—that lingers in NFL lore and in the hearts of Cleveland fans. And given the franchise has yet to even reach the Super Bowl, maybe that’s inevitable. But the 1986 Cleveland Browns in particular deserve a better fate.
They went from fringe playoff team in 1985 to true contender in 1986. They won a historic playoff game of their own. And given how good the New York Giants were, no one was probably beating them in the Super Bowl anyway. Let’s cut these Browns a break in the historic legacy and remember all the good that they did.
Cincinnati had been mired in mediocrity since the playoff years of 1981-82, where they reached the Super Bowl in ’81. Veteran quarterback Ken Anderson had to be moved aside for up-and-coming Boomer Esiason. The young left-handed quarterback and future CBS studio analyst had a breakout season.
Esiason completed 58 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdown passes. His 17 interceptions weren’t ideal, but in a different era he was about the middle of the league in terms of INTs as a percentage of passes thrown. And his ability to stretch the field more than made up for anything else. At 8.4 yards-per-attempt, Esiason was the best big-play quarterback in the NFL In 1986 and he threw for nearly 4,000 yards.
It was enough to put him in the Pro Bowl, and he was joined by running back James Brooks, who ran for over 1,000 yards, averaged five yards a pop and also caught 54 passes. Esiason’s other targets included Eddie Brown, 58 catches for 964 yards. And Esiason connected most frequently with another future TV personality—Cris Collingsworth, who caught 62 passes and went over 1,000 yards.
Tight end Rodney Holman rounded out the pass-catching brigade and Esiason was protected by a line that had two Pro Bowlers. Anthony Munoz was the best left tackle in football and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Max Montoya also had a Pro Bowl season at right guard. It added up to an offense that was third-best in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was more problematic, even with future Steelers legend Dick LeBeau calling the shots as the coordinator. Cincinnati got some big plays from outside linebacker Emmanuel King, who finished with nine sacks. A pair of rookie defensive backs, corner Lewis Billups and strong safety David Fulcher each had an impact. Veteran defensive ends, Ross Browner and Eddie Edwards each had a modest impact with 6 ½ sacks apiece.
But there was no Pro Bowl talent and the defense ranked 23rd in the league in points allowed.
Cincinnati opened the season with a late afternoon kick in Kansas City. It was an odd game to put in the late afternoon window, with neither team having shown any signs of life. But maybe NBC, who televised the AFC in this era, knew something. This would prove to be arguably the most consequential game of the regular season.
At the time it just looked like another dreary performance by the Bengals. Even though King led a good pass rush with three sacks, Cincinnati was whipped up front, lost the rushing battle 180-60 and the football game 24-14.
Esiason squared off with another young gun, Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, in the home opener the following week. Esiason connected with Brown on first-half touchdown passes of 35 & 17 yards. The Bengals led 21-9 before Kelly came back and put the Bills ahead 26-21. The Cincy defense forced a safety and Esiason made the final strikes, tying the game and ultimately pulling out a 36-33 overtime win.
Thursday Night games were relatively rare, so the Bengals’ visit across the state to defending AFC Central champ Cleveland had a special aura to it. And Cincinnati took advantage of their moment on center stage. They pounded the ball on the ground, with fullback Larry Kinnebrew going for two short touchdown runs and winning the rushing battle 257-83. The game was tied 13-13, thanks to a defensive touchdown by the Browns, but the Bengal control of the trenches was too much and they pulled away to a 30-13 win.
A long week was followed by a disastrous home game with Chicago. Esiason threw four interceptions and there was no running game to speak of in a 44-7 loss. But this was a Bears’ team fresh off a dominating run to the Super Bowl title in 1985 and a 14-2 season this year. The blowout didn’t raise too many eyebrows.
And Cincinnati got their running game back in gear when they went on the road to play the Packers. Green Bay was a terrible team in 1986 and this game was at old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Pack used to play three times a year. Brooks ran for a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, one from 27 yards out and the Bengals approached nearly 200 yards on the ground. They jumped out to a 27-7 lead and hung on to win 34-28.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were another proud franchise on some ho-hum times in 1986, but they came to Cincinnati and gave the Bengals a tough game on a Monday Night. Esiason was only 15/30 passing, the running game wasn’t quite as dominant and the Bengals trailed 19-14 in the fourth quarter. But Esiason made the most of his completions, getting 231 yards and running back Jeff Hayes broke a 61-yard touchdown run. Cincy pulled it out, 24-22.
A home game with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) was a battle between Cincinnati’s running game and the Houston passing game led by Warren Moon. Cincinnati ran for 224 yards, took a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter and was driving inside the ten-yard line ready to put the game away. Then a fumble was taken 92 yards the other way and in a stunning turnabout, the Bengals were down 28-24. They had one more drive left in them and Brooks, who rushed for 133 yards, bolted in from 21 yards out to get the win.
The three-game winning streak had Cincinnati rolling at 5-2, but a road trip to Pittsburgh tripped them up. The running game numbers got reversed, as it was the Steelers rolling up 238 yards on the ground and the final was 30-9. But things returned to normal the following week in Detroit, as Brooks’ 120 yards led a potent ground attack and a 24-17 win.
Houston was a division rival at this time—the old AFC Central was the Bengals, Browns, Steelers and Oilers—so a return trip to the Astrodome was up next. After a horrible start saw Cincinnati in a 26-0 hole, Esiason led a furious rally. He threw three consecutive touchdown passes, including one to Munoz and the Bengals made a game of it. But the poor start was too much to overcome in a 32-28 loss.
Taken individually, the losses at Pittsburgh and Houston weren’t big deals, as both were at least competitive division rivals. But “competitive” doesn’t mean the Steelers and Oilers weren’t still mediocre in the big picture and going 0-2 in those trips would haunt the Bengals down the stretch as they went scraping for wins.
Home games with winning teams in Seattle and Minnesota were next. The Bengals ripped the Seahawks 34-7, getting defensive touchdowns from both Edwards and Billups to break the game open in the second half. The Bengals then jumped out to a fast 21-10 first quarter lead on the Vikings. Esiason would go 17/25 for 252 yards. The game settled down and the defense salted it away, getting four sacks and holding on to the 24-20 win.
Cincinnati was sitting on an 8-4 record and tied for first with Cleveland. They were also tied with the Los Angeles Raiders for the final wild-card spot if it came to that. There was plenty of reason to be excited when the Bengals visited Denver on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
The Broncos would reach the Super Bowl this season, so it would take a great effort to beat them. The Bengals instead played their sloppiest game of the season. They fumbled six times, lost it three times and dug a 34-14 hole. Esiason threw a couple late TD passes to Collingsworth to make the score close, but it wasn’t enough. They slipped a game back of the Browns and had another tough road trip, this one to playoff-bound New England.
With the season likely hanging in the balance, the Bengal running game had its best game in a year of excellent games. They pummeled the Patriots for 300 yards on the ground. Brooks had 163 of those yards and it included a 56-yard touchdown bolt. Stanley Wilson had a 58-yard touchdown run that broke a 17-7 game open in the third quarter. Cincinnati won 31-7, kept on Cleveland’s heels and moved one game ahead of what was a three-team trio of the Raiders, Chiefs and Seahawks (in the AFC prior to 2002) chasing them for the last wild-card spot.
A home date with Cleveland gave Cincy a chance to take control of the AFC Central. But Esiason was awful, 14/31 for 151 yards and two interceptions. Brooks was shut down, held to 43 yards rushing. The Browns were coming on strong and they clinched the division with a 34-3 win.
The news got worse—the Chiefs and Seahawks had both won and Kansas City now held the tiebreaker advantage among the 9-6 teams. The Bengals were next in line, but also had to play the playoff-bound New York Jets in the finale.
Cincinnati took care of their business. The Jets were fading fast, having come from 10-1 to 10-5 and would barely hang on to a wild-card berth. The Bengals spotted them a 7-0 lead on the opening kickoff being returned for a touchdown and trailed 21-17 at the half.
Then Esiason went to work. He found Holman on a 34-yard TD pass. A 42-yard touchdown strike to Collingsworth followed. Collingsworth had another touchdown catch, and Munoz again to get in on the fun with a two-yard TD reception. The final was 52-21.
Cincinnati had done its part, but they didn’t get help. At the same time this was going on, Kansas City was scoring three special-teams touchdowns in Pittsburgh to escape the Steelers 24-19. That Week 1 visit to the Chiefs, oddly set up in the late afternoon window, had proven to be decisive in settling the last playoff berth. The Bengals were also hurt by those losses in Houston and Pittsburgh—it was conference record that enabled the Jets to still take the other wild-card spot in a logjam of four 10-6 teams.
Even so, Cincinnati was clearly coming with Esiason and head coach Sam Wyche. 1987 would be a strange year, split apart by a three-week strike early on and the Bengals briefly lost their momentum. But they got it back in 1988, in time for Esiason to win an MVP award and lead the team back to the Super Bowl.