The term “must-win game” has been used in the realm of sports for many generations. It probably is overused these days, having been voiced even before the middle of a typical season. In a more specific tone, what it really means, at least as far as the NFL is concerned, is a team needing to win one specific game which would enable them to go to the playoffs.
There were many games throughout the decade of the 1970s in pro football where a team could point to and claim that such a meeting with an opponent was vital in aiding their effort to make a postseason appearance. The following six games represent just some of the more noteworthy contests to fall under that delegation. These games served as the winning ticket for the victorious team to enter the NFL playoffs during the 1970s.
1971 Detroit at San Francisco
The 1971 season was the first year that the 49ers played in Candlestick Park, and despite going to the NFC Title Game following the 1970 season, the 1971 version of the 49ers had struggled throughout that year. The Detroit Lions were eliminated from the playoffs the week prior to this game, and as a result, they had nothing to lose. The Lions put forth a great effort on December 19, taking the lead over the 49ers in a see-saw affair which was not decided until very late in the fourth quarter. Yet in statistical terms, it appeared as if San Francisco would have little if any trouble defeating Detroit. The 49ers out-rushed and out-passed the Lions, both individually and collectively. They accounted for 357 total yards, compared to 310 for the Lions. Both teams only had one turnover each.
But Detroit remained within striking distance of San Francisco all game long. They answered almost every 49ers score with one of their own. When the Lion rushers Altie Taylor and Steve Owens were stopped, quarterback Greg Landry connected on some critical passes. The San Francisco defense was also aware that Landry was just as dangerous of a runner as any quarterback in the league. He set a (then) NFL record of 530 ground yards the previous season. In 1972, Landry rushed for 524 yards. Nevertheless, the 49ers defense limited the Detroit quarterback to just 25 yards on five carries in this contest, and that statistic was quite important in helping San Francisco triumph.
Frank Nunley and Dave Wilcox were a pair of 49ers linebackers who did yeoman work in keeping the Lions from scoring in the fourth quarter. Nunley also contributed the game-clinching interception on Landry’s final pass of the 1971 season.
Veteran San Francisco quarterback John Brodie did not start the game against the Lions, but he nevertheless managed to lead the 49ers to their ninth win of the year. Brodie scrambled out of his passing pocket in the fourth quarter and scored the winning touchdown from 10 yards out. San Francisco’s 31-27 triumph won them another NFC West title, and granted them a home playoff game the following week against the Cinderella Washington Redskins. Had San Francisco lost to Detroit, they would have not made the playoffs.
“John came off the bench and did a great job,” said 49ers head coach Dick Nolan. “He was our shot in the arm.”
1972 Pittsburgh at San Diego
In 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally made the playoffs in their 40th year of existence. It was a matter of fact that owner Art Rooney’s team was finally “due” for a successful season. Indeed, the 1972 season was magical for the Steelers, as they advanced as far as the AFC Title Game, thanks to Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the divisional playoffs against the Oakland Raiders. But before the Steelers could play the Raiders, they had to win their final game of the regular season at San Diego Stadium to give them an 11-3 record and a berth in the postseason.
Pittsburgh head coach Chuck Noll knew that his team would play an inspired game against the Chargers. What he did not expect, though, was how truly dominant of an effort that the Steelers would exhibit on this day. The Pittsburgh defense shut down the San Diego offense, limiting them to a meager 56 rushing yards, and forcing them into committing seven turnovers.
“Defensively, we have more depth overall,” admitted Noll in the victorious Steelers locker room after the playoff-clinching victory. “This is the money year. We’ll have the champagne in private. The season isn’t over.”
Indeed it wasn’t. But getting to the postseason was the result of a beautiful blending of players on both sides of the ball, and of all levels of experience. Pittsburgh’s phenomenal rookie running back Franco Harris scored the first touchdown against San Diego on a 2-yard run in the first quarter. Backfield mate John“Frenchy” Fuqua duplicated Harris’ score in the second quarter. Wide receiver Ron Shanklin scored the final Steelers touchdown in the fourth quarter. Noll received what would be in his head coaching tenure the first of many victory rides on the shoulders of his Pittsburgh players following the glorious 24-2 Steelers win.
Veteran Pittsburgh center Ray Mansfield summed up his feelings by simply stating, “It’s fantastic.”
1974 New York Giants at St. Louis Cardinals
The 1974 St. Louis Cardinals highlight film was entitled Big Play, Big Season. At the beginning of that season, however, nobody really expected the St. Louis Cardinals to win too many games, or to make too many big plays. They finished the previous year with a 4-9-1 record, and even though second-year head coach Don Coryell was expecting improvement, he just was not sure how much his team would improve. Those feelings were soon to be overcome with high hopes and optimistic excitement all across Missouri, as the Cardinals somehow put together a 7-0 record to start the year.
Then the losing began. Losses to Dallas and Minnesota were followed by wins over Philadelphia and the Giants. Then came two more losses to the lowly Chiefs and Saints. St. Louis needed to defeat the Giants on the final Sunday of the season to claim the NFC Eastern Division Championship, something that it appeared as if would be theirs in a runaway after the second month of the year. Surely the 2-11 Giants would not present much of a challenge to the Cards. But the Giants began the game by playing the spoiler role to the hilt, take a 14-0 lead into the third quarter. Concern and then outright worry and despair enveloped the fans at Busch Memorial Stadium.
But the Cardinals defense made a couple of stops, and then the St. Louis offense finally put together some progressive drives. Then came longer drives. Then came successful drives. Coryell’s bunch managed to score four touchdowns within a nine-minute span of time against the Giants. Greybeards Ken Willard and Jackie Smith each caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Jim Hart, and elusive tailback TerryMetcalf added two more scoring runs to provide the winning points. The Cardinals survived this gut-check to claim a 10-4 record and their first division title and playoff berth since 1948.
“We just came in at halftime and made up our minds to play some football,” said Coach Coryell from the din of celebrations in the St. Louis locker room. “Nobody made any excuses for our first half. Nobody had any alibis, but you could see our desire taking its effect in the final two quarters.”
The Cardinals were unable to extend that desire past the first round of the divisional playoffs, but their playoff-clinching victory over the Giants in 1974 kept them from making headlines as one of the most forlorn “choking” teams in modern NFL history.
1976 Washington at Dallas
Washington head coach George Allen had worked a miracle of sorts. He took a perennial loser and turned them into a winner overnight. In each of Allen’s first four years, he took the Redskins to the playoffs. He even took them to Super Bowl VII in 1972. But in 1975, Washington failed to make the postseason, and in 1976, the fans and the media pundits were somewhat doubtful as to Allen’s ability to get his mostly veteran players to rebound and get back to their previous winning ways. True, Allen had infused some younger players into his roster, but for the most part, Allen continued to trade for older and more experienced players.
All of Allen’s wheeling and dealing helped his team to rebound in a year’s time to challenge his divisional foes, namely the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Cardinals, for the 1976 NFC Eastern Division Title. The Redskins managed to win several games that most predictors felt that they had no business winning, as evidenced by their sweep over the Cardinals. But Washington also suffered upsetting defeats from mediocre teams such as Kansas City, Chicago, and the New York Giants.
It all came down to the final game of the season. St. Louis had beaten the Giants in week 14, and a wild card berth would be theirs if the Cowboys could defeat the Redskins, something that Dallas was predicted by most experts to occur. But if Washington could somehow achieve an upset over the Cowboys, George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” would be going back to the playoffs. As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. Dallas owned a 14-13 lead into the final quarter, but two Redskin touchdown runs, one each by John Riggins and former Cowboy Calvin Hill, boosted Washington to a surprise 27-14 win.
In all reality, it was not as much of an upset as one might think. This was due mainly because Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach had sustained an injury to his throwing hand in the middle of the 1976 season and was never really the same again for the remainder of the year. Once the Cowboys fell behind in their December 12th game against the visiting Redskins, they were unable to complete many passes. As a matter of fact, Staubach would complete only five passes in 22 attempts for a mere 91 total passing yards. Washington also intercepted two Staubach passes in the game and sacked him five times. The Redskins were headed back to the NFC Playoffs.
“We’re too old, too slow, and they say we’re over the hill,” said Allen following the win. “But these guys managed to play 60 minutes. We have the right kind of competitors. We have the kind of guys I like to refer to as solid citizens.”
The clutch victory over Dallas would lead George Allen to his final playoff game as head coach for the Redskins. And although Washington failed to beat the eventual NFC Champion Minnesota Vikings the following week in the divisional playoffs, their 1976 season was certainly one of the team’s most exciting of the decade.
1978 New York Giants at Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFL Championship in 1960, but since then, they had known nothing but defeat. Then in 1976, the young and fiery Dick Vermeil was hired as the team’s latest head coach. Within two seasons, the Eagles started to win again. Vermeil whipped them up to a frenzy by 1978, and plenty of victories resulted. The Eagles had miraculously defeated the New York Giants on November 19, thanks to “The Miracle in the Meadowlands,” a fumbled handoff that was returned for a score with just seconds left in the game. That unusual and unexpected victory kept Philly in the playoff chase in 1978.
By the final week of that eventful year, Vermeil’s team was slated to play the Giants again but this time, at home in Veterans Stadium. A win in this game would give the Eagles a Wild Card berth in the NFC Playoffs. The weather on December 17 was sunny, but cold and windy. So windy, in fact, that 22 mile-per-hour gusts were swirling all throughout the stadium all game long. Films from that day show trash flying in and out of team huddles. A strong rushing attack would certainly be the deciding factor in this struggle.
The Eagles possessed just such a runner who could cut through the wind squalls and the Giants defense as well. Philadelphia tailback Wilbert Montgomery broke into New York’s secondary several times in the contest, as he rushed for a game-high 130 yards and two touchdowns, which kept the Eagles in charge of the action. But Eagles fullback Mike Hogan added another 100 yards to add an exclamation point to the outcome. The Eagles were simply too inspired not to win this game. Whenever it appeared as if the Giants might try to make a comeback, the Philly defense rose up and thwarted them with three interceptions, the most important of which coming in the fourth quarter, when Eagles linebacker Frank LeMaster snared a Joe Pisarcik pass and returned it nine yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
A loss in this game to the Giants would have meant another year of “waiting until next year” for the Birds. But Philadelphia’s 20-3 win enabled them to go to the next round…to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
“It’s like a dream come true to be able to say that we are winners, a playoff team,” admitted Vermeil after the win over New York. “It’s a real, real warm feeling.”
1979 Kansas City at Tampa Bay
The warm feelings in Florida were a long time in coming back in 1979. Expansion teams in the NFL rarely win many games in their earliest years. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into the league in 1976 and lost their first 26 league games before finally claiming their first victory late in 1977. By 1979, head coach John McKay had put together a team with a very strong defense, and a vastly improved offense, featuring halfback Ricky Bell, who followed McKay from the campus at the University of Southern California to Tampa Bay, and who rushed for 1,263 yards in 1979. The Buccaneers’ defense allowed a league-low 247 opposing first downs all year long, and they surrendered only 237 points in 1979, which was easily the best mark in the entire NFL. The Bucs were primed for victory.
But just like the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1979 Tampa Bay team started to lose games at the absolute worst time of the year. They only needed one more win to claim the NFC Central Division Title. Then came a one-point loss to the rival Minnesota Vikings, a 14-0 loss to another rival, the Chicago Bears, and a 23-7 defeat, courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers. Only one game remained, and if the Buccaneers would lose to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs on December 16, they would go from a sure playoff team to just another team who would be watching the playoffs on television.
Fortunately for McKay’s team, they had an ally going into their contest with the Chiefs…the Florida weather. A deluge of rain fell on Tampa Stadium all game long. Not a drizzle, mind you. A full-blown downpouring of rain, rain, rain. It never let up.
Neither did the Tampa defense on this day. Defensive end Lee Roy Selmon and linebacker David Lewis led a ferocious charge into the Chiefs’ offensive backfield. Numerous fumbles resulted, as Kansas City could earn only four first downs and 58 rushing yards in fourth quarters.
Ricky Bell managed to obtain 137 of his team’s 224 rushing yards in this game, but the Bucs were never able to score, as they committed three untimely turnovers. The struggle wound down to the final minutes, when Tampa Bay placekicker Neil O’Donoghue was given one last chance to lift his team to a win, and to give his team a division championship. O’Donoghue came through with a 19-yard field goal through the pouring rain, and the Buccaneers were losers no more. They were going to the playoffs.
“We out-scored them 3-0,” exclaimed Coach McKay from a jubilant Tampa Bay locker room. “They (his players) held up under all of this pressure. I’m proud of them. (And) we did it on a bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon in Tampa (laughter).”
Each of the above six winning teams during the 1970s were unfortunately unable to go on and win a Super Bowl in the year that they clinched playoff berths that were depicted here. But they did give the league a whole lot of excitement, and fans of the 1970s in the NFL are still fondly remembering those games, those teams, and those very special years.
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Editor’s Note: Joe Zagorski’s first book, The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade, was released in 2016. His second book, The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence is scheduled for release in December of 2019. His third book, America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, will be released in February of 2020.