Today, we’re going to talk about the 1967 Baltimore Colts, a team that won 11 games, lost only once, and tied twice, and believe it or not…they didn’t make the playoffs. One could argue this team could have outpaced multiple Super Bowl winners during the era.
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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be.
A Little Backstory
By the mid-1960s, the Baltimore Colts were still one of the premier franchises in the NFL, led as always by quarterback Johnny Unitas, regarded as perhaps the greatest player of his time. Also by this time, Don Shula, long before he achieved legendary status in Miami, had taken over for Weeb Ewbank as head coach.
But after winning back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and ’59, the Colts struggled to get back to the promised land. In 1964, Baltimore went 12-2, the best record in the NFL that season, but they were shut out in the championship game by the Cleveland Browns, 27-0. The next season, the Colts went 10-3-1, tying the Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFL’s Western division. As a result, they played one of the very few tiebreaker games in postseason history.
On a typically frigid day at Lambeau Field, Don Chandler’s 25-yard overtime field goal gave Green Bay a 13-10 win, the division championship, and the NFL championship, as the Packers beat the Browns the next week. After missing the playoffs in 1966, the Colts came into the ’67 season wanting to run roughshod over the rest of the league.
Setting The Stage: 1967 Season
In the 1967 offseason, the NFL split from two divisions into four, as the Atlanta Falcons entered the league in 1966, and the New Orleans Saints began play in ’67. The Colts were placed in the Coastal division, along with the Falcons, Rams, and 49ers. By definition, the Coastal division was geographically correct, but having two West Coast teams and two East Coast teams in one division just doesn’t make any sense.
Anyway, coming into the 1967 season, the Colts probably figured that they had their new division in the bag. The previous season, Los Angeles finished 8-6, San Francisco went 6-6-2, and Atlanta suffered the typical growing pains of an expansion team by going 3-11. After a surprisingly close 38-31 Opening Day victory over the Falcons, the Colts went on to beat the Eagles, 49ers, and Bears by a combined score of 103-16.
In week five, Baltimore hosted Los Angeles. The Rams had started 3-0 for the first time since 1955 but had lost the previous week to San Francisco. Trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter, the Rams came back to score ten points on a 47-yard field goal by Bruce Gossett, and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Roman Gabriel to Bernie Casey.
Since regular-season overtime had not yet been implemented, the game ended in a 24-24 tie. The next week at Minnesota, the Colts tied yet again, facing a Vikings team that was only 1-4. Baltimore trailed 13-6 after three quarters but tied the game on a 15-yard touchdown run by Tom Matte.
After Minnesota scored another touchdown, Unitas threw a three-yard TD pass to John Mackey, and the game ended in a 20-20 draw. Coincidentally, the Rams also tied that week, playing to a 28-28 deadlock against Washington. This would be the last time Baltimore and Los Angeles wouldn’t record a victory until they played each other on December 17.
In the meantime, the Colts won seven consecutive games. Their only scare was a close 17-13 victory at Washington. They played Green Bay and Dallas close as well, but both the Packers and Cowboys were among the best teams in the league.
Their other victories were each blowouts over Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Rams won seven in a row as well, with hardly a scare in the bunch. In their second-to-last game of the season, Los Angeles outlasted Green Bay at home, 27-24, in their first of two heavyweight matchups to close out the year.
The Climax of the 1967 Season
So the stage was now set for a huge game to end the 1967 regular season: the 11-0-2 Colts against the 10-1-2 Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The winner would advance to the playoffs, while the loser, despite having a double-digit win total, would have to go home, since the wild card had yet to be introduced.
After letting the Rams take a 3-0 lead, Unitas threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Willie Richardson to give the Colts a 7-3 advantage at the end of one quarter. Baltimore should have savored every moment because it was the only time they had a lead all day. For the next three quarters, the Colts were flummoxed on both sides of the ball.
Roman Gabriel played an outstanding game, completing 18 of 22 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Unitas, on the other hand, was only 19 of 31 and threw two interceptions that each setup scoring opportunities for the Rams. Final score: Los Angeles 34, Baltimore 10.
The two teams finished tied for first at 11-1-2. Because they had tied in their first meeting of the season, the Rams won the head-to-head tiebreaker with one win, no losses, and one draw. The Colts’ .917 winning percentage is still the best of any North American sports team that missed the postseason.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be Baltimore’s only disappointment. The next season, the Colts went 13-1, plowing through the rest of the NFL to advance to Super Bowl III, where they were 18-point favorites over the AFL’s New York Jets. We all know what happened that day in Miami, though.
The Jets pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in the history of pro football, proving that the AFL could indeed compete with the NFL. The Colts would end up winning the Super Bowl two years later, but the players have always said that it didn’t make up for the disappointment of years past.
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