|Dates||December 27, 1975-January 18, 1976|
|Super Bowl X site|
|Defending champions||Pittsburgh Steelers|
The National Football League playoffs for the 1975 season began on December 27, 1975. The postseason tournament concluded with the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X, 21-17, on January 18, 1976, at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
This was the first season in which the league used a seeding system in the playoffs. Thus, the surviving clubs with the higher seeds were made the home teams for each playoff round. The three division champions in each conference were seeded 1 through 3 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record, and the wild card qualifier in each conference became the 4 seed.
However, the league continued to prohibit meetings between two teams from the same division in the Divisional Playoffs. Thus, there would be times when the pairing in that round would be the 1 seed vs. the 3 seed and 2 vs. 4.
Within each conference, the three division winners and one wild card team (the top non-division winner with the best overall regular season records) qualified for the playoffs. The three division winners were seeded 1 through 3 based on their overall won-lost-tied record, and the wild card team was seeded 4. The first round, the divisional playoffs, had a restriction where two teams from the same division could not meet: the surviving wild card team visited the division champion outside its own division that had the higher seed, and the remaining two teams from that conference played each other. The two surviving teams from each conference's divisional playoff games then meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games, hosted by the higher seed. Although the Super Bowl, the third and final round of the playoffs, was played at a neutral site, the designated home team was based on an annual rotation by conference.
|1||Pittsburgh Steelers (Central winner)||Minnesota Vikings (Central winner)|
|2||Oakland Raiders (West winner)||Los Angeles Rams (West winner)|
|3||Baltimore Colts (East winner)||St. Louis Cardinals (East winner)|
|4||Cincinnati Bengals (wild card)||Dallas Cowboys (wild card)|
|Divisional Playoffs||Conference Championship Games||Super Bowl X|
|December 28 - Metropolitan Stadium|
|January 4 - L.A. Memorial Coliseum|
|December 27 - L.A. Memorial Coliseum|
|2) Los Angeles||7|
|3) St. Louis||23|
|January 18 - Miami Orange Bowl|
|2) Los Angeles||35|
|December 28 - Oakland Coliseum|
|January 4 - Three Rivers Stadium|
|December 27 - Three Rivers Stadium|
*Pittsburgh (the AFC 1 seed) did not play Cincinnati (the 4 seed) in the Divisional playoff round because both teams were in the same division.
Despite losing 5 turnovers, the Steelers forced 3 turnovers and held the Colts to 154 total yards of offense, while Pittsburgh's Franco Harris shredded Baltimore's defense with 153 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Steelers scored first after linebacker Jack Ham's interception set up a 61-yard touchdown drive. Terry Bradshaw's 34-yard completion to receiver Frank Lewis paved the way for Harris' 8-yard scoring run. Baltimore responded in the second quarter when Lloyd Mumphord returned an interception 58 yards to set up Glenn Doughty's 5-yard touchdown catch from Marty Domres. Then Harris lost a fumble that was recovered by Colts defensive back Nelson Munsey on the Steelers 19, leading to Toni Linhart's 27-yard field goal that gave Baltimore a 10-7 lead going into halftime.
On the second half kickoff, Munsey recovered a fumble from Steelers returner Dave Brown. But a few plays later, Pittsburgh cornerback Mel Blount intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards to the Baltimore 7-yard line. From there, Rocky Bleier scored on a 7-yard rushing touchdown giving the Steelers a 14-10 lead. In the fourth quarter, a short punt from David Lee gave the Steelers favorable field position, and they scored on Bradshaw's 2-yard run, increasing their lead to 21-10. Now with the game slipping away, Colts coach Ted Marchibroda benched Domres (who had completed only 2 of 11 passes) and replaced him with Bert Jones (who had earlier left the game due to injury), who promptly gave the team a golden opportunity to rally back with a 58-yard completion to Doughty on the Steelers 3-yard line. But on the next play, Ham knocked the ball out of Jones' hand as he was winding up for a pass. Linebacker Andy Russell recovered the fumble returned it for an NFL playoff record 93 yards to the end zone. Russell's play is claimed by some as the longest single football play in time duration.Sports Illustrated called the play the "longest, slowest touchdown ever witnessed.".
"That play has been a source of embarrassment for me for years", said Russell several years later. "There have been so many jokes. Ray Mansfield was the one that said NBC cut to a commercial during the return and came back to catch me score the touchdown. Nonetheless, it was a memorable play in my career."
The game is also notable in that it was the debut game for the Terrible Towel.
The Rams defense scored 2 touchdowns in the first half while running back Lawrence McCutcheon ran for an NFL playoff record 202 yards on 37 carries. Los Angeles started the game off with a 79-yard scoring drive, 51 of them from McCutcheon, on the way to a 5-yard touchdown run by quarterback Ron Jaworski. Then on the first Cardinals play, Rams linebacker Jack Youngblood intercepted a pass from Jim Hart and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. St. Louis returner Terry Metcalf gave his team a chance to get back in the game with a 67-yard kickoff return, but they lost the ball again when Youngblood forced a fumble from Jim Otis that Rams lineman Fred Dryer recovered. Later on, Los Angeles defensive back Bill Simpson intercepted a pass from Hart on the first play of the second quarter and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown, making the score 21-0.
Dwayne Crump returned the ensuing kickoff 28 yards to the St. Louis 40-yard line, and the team came back to score on an 8-play, 60-yard drive, featuring a 21-yard reception by running back Jim Otis. Otis finished the possession with a 3-yard touchdown run, but the extra point was blocked by Youngblood and the Rams responded on the first play of their next drive with Jaworski's 66-yard touchdown pass to Harold Jackson, making the score 28-6. Shortly before the end of the half, Hart completed a 23-yard pass to Mel Gray that set up Jim Bakken's 39-yard field goal, cutting the score to 28-9 going into intermission.
In the third quarter, the Cardinals drove 80 yards in 12 plays, including a 19-yard reception by Metcalf, to score on Hart's 11-yard touchdown pass to Gray and cut their deficit to 28-16. But in the fourth quarter, Simpson intercepted another pass and returned this one 28 yards to the Cardinals 36-yard line. Receiver Ron Jessie eventually scored the final touchdown for the Rams when he recovered a fumble from McCutcheon and ran it into the end zone with just over 4 minutes left in the game. By the time Cardinals running back Steve Jones finished the ensuing 68-yard, 12-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run, the game was well out of reach.
Youngblood had an outstanding performance. In addition to his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown, he also recorded a sack, blocked an extra point, and forced a fumble. Meftcalf racked up 229 total yards, (8 carries for 27 yards, 6 receptions for 94 yards, 2 kickoff returns for 102 yards, 2 punt returns for 6 yards). Jaworski completed 12/23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. Hart completed 22 of 41 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted 3 times.
The Raiders outgained Cincinnati in total yards 358-258, rushing yards 173-97, and first downs 27-17, while also recording five sacks, jumping to a 31-14 lead, and holding off a frantic Bengals comeback in the final period.
Oakland kicker George Blanda made a 31-yard field goal, while quarterback Ken Stabler threw two touchdown passes in the first half, one for 9 yards to Mike Siani and an 8-yard one to Bob Moore. Cincinnati's lone score in the first half was an 8-play, 65-yard drive ending with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Stan Fritts. The Raiders then scored on their first drive of the second half with running back Pete Banaszak's 6-yard touchdown run to take a 24-7 lead. Then after the Bengals marched 91 yards to cut the lead, 24-14, with Lenvil Elliott's 6-yard touchdown run, Stabler threw his third touchdown pass of the game, this time a 2-yard pass to tight end Dave Casper.
Trailing 31-14 in the fourth quarter, the Bengals managed to come back with two unanswered touchdowns. First, Cincinnati defensive back Ken Riley intercepted a pass from Stabler and returned it 34 yards to the Raiders 34-yard line, setting up Ken Anderson's 25-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Joiner. Then the Bengals defense forced Oakland to punt for the first time in the game, and Ray Guy's kick went just 38 yards. Three minutes later, Anderson's 14-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Curtis cut the score to 31-28. With 4:19 left in the game, Bengals defensive lineman Ron Carpenter recovered a Banaszak fumble on the Raiders 37-yard line. But on the next play, linebacker Ted Hendricks sacked Anderson for an 8-yard loss, pushing the Bengals out of field goal range. Anderson completed a 5-yard pass to Bruce Coslet on second down, but his next two passes were incomplete, resulting in a turnover. The Bengals managed to force a punt with 50 seconds left, but on a desperate attempt to block the kick that narrowly missed, linebacker Chris Devlin ran into Guy, drawing a penalty that gave the Raiders a first down and let them run out the clock.
"Al Davis went to a lot of trouble to get Hendricks on his team", Bengals coach Paul Brown bitterly remarked after the game. "And today it finally paid off for him". "I've never been prouder of a football team then the Cincinnati team we brought in here today", he added. "They never quit."
Stabler threw for 199 yards and three touchdowns, with 1 interception. Anderson threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
With 24 seconds left in the game, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw the 50-yard winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson on a play that became known as the Hail Mary pass. Pearson's last minute touchdown reception remains a strong part of Cowboys lore. To many Minnesota fans, however, Pearson's touchdown should have never counted because of an alleged offensive pass interference penalty that was not called by game officials.
The first half was dominated by the defenses of both teams. The Vikings longest gain in it would be a 16-yard run by quarterback Fran Tarkenton early in the second quarter. The Vikings were eventually forced to punt, and the ball hit the ground near returner Cliff Harris. Thinking the ball had been touched by Harris, Dallas' Pat Donovan desperately tried to dive on it, but the ball slipped away from him and was recovered by Fred McNeill for Minnesota on the Cowboys 4-yard line. Chuck Foreman eventually took the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard score to give the Vikings a 7-0 lead. The Cowboys had some success moving the ball on their next two drives, but the first ended with a missed field goal, and after a Mel Renfro interception sparked a drive to the Vikings 24, the team failed to convert a 4th and inches situation and the score would remain 7-0 going into halftime.
Dallas mounted the first sustained scoring drive of the game with their first possession of the second half. A late hit by Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg turned Preston Pearson's 14-yard reception into a 29-yard gain. Then Staubach hit tight end Billy Joe Dupree for a 17-yard completion to the Vikings 19. Doug Dennison then rumbled downfield for a 10-yard carry, and three plays later he tied the game on a 4-yard scoring run.
Early in the fourth quarter, Dallas took a 10-7 lead on a 24-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch. Following an exchange of punts, Tarkenton completed 4/6 passes for 37 yards on a 70-yard, 11-play drive, which included a 13-yard run on a reverse by Brent McClanahan. McClanahan eventually finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Vikings a 14-10 lead with 5:24 left in the game. Dallas went three and out on their ensuing drive, giving the ball back to Minnesota with 3:12 left and a giving the team a great chance to run out the clock. They managed to force Dallas to use up all their timeouts, but on a 3rd and 2 situation, Cowboys safety Charlie Waters broke through Foreman's block attempt and tackled Tarkenton for a 3-yard loss as time ran down to the two-minute warning. "That play cost us the game", Tarkenton later said. "It wasn't the Hail Mary pass. We had the game in control but didn't make the play."
The Cowboys got the ball back on their own 15-yard line with only 1:51 left. Staubach started the drive with a pair of completions to Pearson, who had not yet caught a pass in the game, moving the ball to the Dallas 31. However, on the next play, Staubach fumbled a low snap in shotgun formation and was downed for an 8-yard loss. A few plays later, facing 4th down and 16, he threw a 25-yard completion to Pearson to set up the winning "Hail Mary pass." The fourth and 16 completion proved to be a foreshadowing of events to come, as this play had its own minor controversy. Minnesota argued that Pearson was out of bounds when he made this catch. The official ruled that he was forced out by Nate Wright, which replay appeared to confirm. At the time, a catch by a receiver who is forced out of bounds in midair by a defender counted as a reception (this rule would change in 2008).
These two would participate in a more controversial play two plays later. After Preston Pearson dropped a wide open pass in the middle of the field with 32 seconds left, Staubach launched a deep bomb to Drew Pearson, who caught the ball through tight coverage by Wright at the 4 and ran into the end zone for a 50-yard scoring reception that Staubach called (in the postgame interview) a "Hail Mary" pass, which helped popularize the use of this term to describe such a play. Wright fell down as the ball came down, and the Vikings argued that Pearson pushed off and should have been flagged for offensive interference. The play drew the ire of Minnesota's Alan Page, who was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard penalty that allowed Dallas to kick off from the 50, and ejected. Tarkenton then vehemently argued with the referees, inspiring fans to throw objects onto the field, one of which was a liquor bottle that struck official Armen Terzian in the head, creating a large forehead gash and rendering him unconscious. Terzian had to wear a bandage, later requiring 11 stitches, as he walked off the field and replaced by substitute official Charley Musser for the final two plays. The NFL later banned glass bottles from being sold at stadiums. The fan who threw the glass bottle at Terzian was eventually found by police, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, and was sentenced to a 100 dollar fine. Meanwhile, the Cowboys "doomsday defense" put the finishing touches on the team's victory by sacking Tarkenton twice on the final two plays of the game.
It was another disappointing end to a spectacular season for the Vikings. They had finished the season with an NFC best 12-2 record and quarterback Fran Tarkenton won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award, and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award, while Foreman amassed 1,761 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns. The day only got worse for Tarkenton, as he soon learned his father had died of a heart attack while watching the game. The upstart and youthful Cowboys, not expected to do much after an 8-6 season in 1974 and the loss of several key veterans, would go on to defeat the Rams and lose to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
Staubach finished the game 17/29 for 246 yards and a touchdown, along with 24 rushing yards. Pearson was the top receiver with 4 receptions for 91 yards, all on Dallas' final game-winning drive. Foreman was the top rusher of the game with 56 yards and a touchdown, and caught 4 receptions for 42 yards. Dallas outgained Minnesota in total yards 356-215.
A defensive struggle in which both teams combined for 12 turnovers (7 for Pittsburgh, 5 for Oakland) turned into an offensive battle as the Steelers managed to stop the Raiders' final drive for the winning score as time ran out.
As the two dominant teams of the era in the AFC, Oakland and Pittsburgh would eventually face in five consecutive playoff games from 1972-1976. The Raiders and Steelers also played in three consecutive AFC Championship games from 1974-1976.
Already bitter rivals dating back to the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff game (see: the Immaculate Reception ), Raiders' officials, including team owner Al Davis and head coach John Madden, accused the Steelers and Three Rivers Stadium groundskeepers of intentionally allowing the artificial playing surface to ice over, in an effort to slow Oakland's propensity for using a wide-open aerial attack as part of its offensive game plan.
The game started out ugly, as Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw was picked off twice in the first quarter. However, Oakland fared no better, as George Blanda's missed 38-yard field goal attempt after Bradshaw's second interception was the closest they would get to scoring in the first half. In the second quarter, Steelers safety Mike Wagner intercepted a pass from Ken Stabler to set up Roy Gerela's 36-yard field goal.
This would be the only score of the first three quarters. In the third quarter, the Raiders blew two big scoring chances. After recovering a fumbled punt by the Steelers, the Raiders got a first down on the Pittsburgh 16-yard line. Then quarterback Ken Stabler threw a short pass to Pete Banaszak, only to watch him fumble the ball as he turned upfield, and linebacker Jack Lambert recovered it. Then after Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum recovered a fumble from Lynn Swann at midfield, Oakland gave the ball back again when Lambert recovered a fumble from running back Clarence Davis on the Steelers 30-yard line. The turnover led to a 5-play, 70-yard drive that ended on running back Franco Harris' 25-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 10-0 lead. Oakland stormed back, scoring in less than two minutes on a drive that lasted just six plays, three of them receptions by tight end Dave Casper. Stabler finished the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mike Siani that cut the score to 10-7.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Lambert recorded his third fumble recovery, this one from running back Marv Hubbard on the Oakland 25, setting up Bradshaw's 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver John Stallworth. Bobby Walden fumbled the snap on the PAT, which kicker Roy Gerela recovered but failed to convert on a drop kick, keeping the score at 16-7. Later on, Bradshaw was knocked out of the game when he took a knee-hit to the head by linebacker Monte Johnson. A few plays later, Oakland recovered their fourth fumble of the day with 1:31 left in the game. The Raiders then drove to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line, where they faced third down and 2 yards to go with 18 seconds left on the clock. They opted to have George Blanda kick a 41-yard field goal (his longest of the season and last of his NFL career) to pull the deficit to 6 points. Then Hubbard recovered the ensuing onside kick with 9 seconds remaining to give Oakland one last attempt to win the game. Cliff Branch then caught a 37-yard reception, but he was stopped at the Pittsburgh 15-yard line by Mel Blount before he could get out of bounds and the clock ran out. Aside from his touchdown run, Harris ran for 54 yards on 26 carries, while also catching 5 passes for 58 yards.
Raiders defender George Atkinson knocked Swann into a severe concussion that would have him hospitalized for 2 days. Swann, however would go on to win the Super Bowl MVP award with yardage records. Lambert set an AFC Championship Game record with three fumble recoveries in the game. This was Oakland's 6th AFC championship loss in the last 8 years.
Quarterback Roger Staubach threw for 220 yards and 4 touchdown passes while also rushing for 54 yards as the Cowboys upset the favored Rams. The first passing attempt by Los Angeles quarterback James Harris, who was coming off an injury and making his first start since the 13th game of the season, was intercepted by Dallas linebacker D.D. Lewis. This set up Staubach's first touchdown pass, a screen to running back Preston Pearson for 18 yards. A 4-yard touchdown reception by Golden Richards and a diving catch in the end zone by Preston Pearson put the Cowboys up 21-0 by halftime. Dallas scored again on their first drive of the second half on a shovel pass to Preston Pearson for his third touchdown reception of the game. Toni Fritsch later added three field goals. Harris gave way to backup Ron Jaworski, but only John Cappelletti's 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter prevented the Rams from being shut out. Pearson finished the game with 7 receptions for 123 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 20 rushing yards. The Dallas defense allowed only 118 yards, a mere 22 on the ground, and sacked Jaworski 5 times.