1973 NFL Playoffs – A Year of Redemption for 3 Teams

Seemingly every year in pro football, or at least every few years, a couple of teams that meet each other in the regular season, will then go on to meet each other again in the playoffs. In 1973, that occurrence happened three times in the NFL postseason. This first of three segments to this story begins with the incumbent world champions at the beginning of the 1973 season, the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins were fresh off of their historic perfect season from the previous year, and all the talk around the league wondered just how long Miami would keep their winning streak going. As it turned out, in the second week of the 1973 season, the Dolphins discovered the answer to that question. The Oakland Raiders upended Miami, 12-7, thanks to the placekicking of old pro-George Blanda, who booted four field goals for Oakland’s points.

The Raiders defense did yeoman’s work on this day, limiting the Dolphins to just 105 total rushing yards on 24 carries. They also limited Miami quarterback Bob Griese to just 90 total passing yards.

1973 NFL Playoffs (Dolphins vs. Raiders)

The game was ironically played at the University of California’s Memorial Stadium because the Oakland A’s baseball team was using the Oakland Coliseum for their World Series game versus the New York Mets on the same day. Going into this game, the Dolphins had won 18 straight contests. But the Raiders put an end to that, and the huge and partisan Oakland crowd went into a frenzy, knowing that their team had just notched a bit of pro football history on this day. Their team had ended a world champion’s winning streak.

“It has been a long time since I’ve had to talk about losing,” said Miami head coach Don Shula after this game.  Dolphins’ fullback Larry Csonka was equally as humble with his remarks after the final gun. “We were the champions going into this game,” Csonka said. “The Raiders looked like champions coming out of it.”

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game on December 30, at Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium. Both the Raiders and the Dolphins had won their division titles. They had also both won their first-round divisional playoff games. Now they would meet each other one more time to decide who would represent the AFC in Super Bowl VIII. Despite losing to the Raiders early in the regular season, Miami was picked by the oddsmakers to be the favorite to win the 1973 AFC Title Game.

In their first game, Oakland’s defense effectively stunted the Dolphins’ running attack. Well, that did not happen the second time around. In fact, Miami’s running backs accrued a total of 266 ground yards in the championship game. They had success with virtually every type of running play…sweeps, draws, off-tackle plays…you name it. The Raiders just did not have an answer to stopping guys like Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick.

The Dolphins’ ground game was so effective, that Bob Griese only threw an incredible six passes all game long, and he only completed three of those. Shula just did not need his quarterback to throw the ball…their rushing attack was working so well in the sequel. Shula later said that “I wasn’t surprised by the success of our running game. We felt that we had a good one, and we wanted to go out and establish it.”

Miami’s defense played the way that they had played all throughout 1973. They were not spectacular, but they were steady. They would permit Oakland to have a few decent drives in the game, but they rarely permitted them to have any tangible moments of success. Oakland’s only touchdown in the game, coming on a 25-yard pass from Ken Stabler to Mike Siani, was achieved only with the help of a rare mix-up in the Dolphins secondary.

The Dolphins prevailed in this second winner-take-all meeting, 27-10. They had managed to avenge their early loss to the Raiders, thereby proving to at least some of their critics that the results of some regular-season games can be exaggerated.

1973 Playoffs (Cowboys vs. Rams)

The 1973 Dallas Cowboys were expected to be competitive, having been only one year removed from a world championship. They made it as far as the NFC Title Game in 1972.

The Los Angeles Rams, however, had never got that far in their recent history, but they certainly got more competitive in 1973 with the addition of a couple of new/old players. The Rams obtained the services of quarterback John Hadl in a trade from the Chargers, and wide receiver Harold Jackson, who came to Los Angeles in a trade from the Eagles. Then they started winning.

These two teams met each other in the fifth week of the 1973 NFL season. The Rams held a perfect 4-0 record going into this meeting, and Dallas owned a 3-1 record at this point in their schedule. This game between these two strong teams would say a lot in reference to how challenging each would be for the remainder of the year. The Rams had the benefit of playing this game before their home crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Not that such a locale really mattered, but the natural grass field surface can sometimes take a while for a team like Dallas to get used to because the Cowboys played their home games on an artificial surface.

If you thought that Dallas possessed more team speed than the Rams, you’d best think again. Los Angeles had one player who definitely showed off his speed to the Cowboys’ defensive secondary. Harold Jackson stunned Dallas by catching seven passes for 238 yards. His four touchdown receptions in the first half boosted the Rams to what appeared to be an insurmountable 34-14 halftime lead. True to their pedigree, however, the Cowboys came back strong in the second half. Nevertheless, they committed too many mistakes, and they fell just short, losing to Los Angeles, 37-31.

The Rams would lose only twice during the course of the 1973 regular season, and the Cowboys rebounded from their loss in Los Angeles to post a 10-4 regular-season record, good enough for the NFC Eastern Division championship. As luck would have it, both of these teams would meet again in the first round of the NFC divisional playoffs in 1973. One has to realize that back in that year, a team’s record did not matter when deciding where a playoff game would be played. The only factor that mattered was where a playoff game was held the previous season. For example, the Washington Redskins played both of their 1972 postseason games at home.

In 1973, they would play their first postseason game on the road (at Minnesota). Because of this, and because Dallas played both of their 1972 postseason games on the road, they were slated to be the home team in their 1973 playoff game versus the Rams.

Dallas head coach Tom Landry had one major job to accomplish against Los Angeles, that being to stop or at least slow down the performance of Harold Jackson. The Cowboys could ill-afford a repeat of the downright torching that Jackson bestowed upon Dallas in the fifth week of the 1973 season. Landry’s defense managed to accomplish their mission, as they limited Jackson to just one catch-all game long.

In fact, this second meeting greatly resembled the first meeting, only in reverse. It was Dallas that jumped out to a big first-half lead, 17-0. Then the Rams came back strong in the second half. The score stood at 17-16 late in the fourth quarter when Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach spotted rookie wide receiver Drew Pearson running a deep down-and-in pattern. Staubach threw the ball deep down the middle, in the hopes that Pearson could somehow snare the ball over the two Rams defensive backs who were covering him.

Somehow, someway, Pearson did manage to grab the ball. An even more fortunate occurrence happened less than a second later when the two Los Angeles defenders who were covering Pearson fell down after leaping in the air in their attempt at knocking down the ball.

Pearson jumped for the ball too, but he landed on his feet. In fact, he was probably more shocked than anyone when he noticed that nobody was in his way between himself and the Rams goal line.

Pearson’s 83-yard catch and carry for the deciding touchdown gave Dallas a 27-16 payback victory over the Rams. It was truly a great moment of redemption for the Cowboys and the beginning of several years of playoff failures for the Rams.

1973 NFL Playoffs (Raiders vs. Steelers)

Rounding out this Playoff Redemption series for the year 1973 are a couple of teams which are two of the most memorable of that decade. When talking about the 1970s in the NFL, the discussions will often include the likes of the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those two teams accumulated five world championships during the decade of the 1970s.

In 1973, however, their rivalry was really only in its second year. The year before, that epic season of 1972, saw what the most memorable play in pro football history was arguably, and maybe even in all of sports history, the Immaculate Reception. The Raiders felt that they had been screwed by the referees in that game, and they vowed to get their revenge.

Oakland (5-2-1) got their opportunity for some payback in the ninth week of the 1973 regular season when Pittsburgh (7-1) visited the Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders had everything going for them. They were at home, the field surface was soggy and muddy, and the Steelers were ripe for an upset. This would be the game where more was made out of it than the plays on the field.

Somehow, several of Oakland’s practice footballs were used in the game. Those balls came with profanities clearly written on them! And even worse, they were vastly underinflated! Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Hanratty told me to forget the big fuss that was made out of Tom Brady’s deflated footballs. Hanratty told me that he could push his thumb into those Oakland footballs all the way down to his first knuckle!

Despite all of this, the Steelers managed to beat the Raiders on this day, 17-9. Pittsburgh defensive end Dwight White somehow intercepted two passes in Oakland territory to set up two Pittsburgh scores. How often does a defensive lineman intercept two passes in one game?!? Rarely, if ever.

Prognosticators figured that they would witness more strange occurrences when these two teams met again in the first round of the 1973 AFC Divisional Playoffs. The rematch on December 22, 1973, would also be played at the Oakland Coliseum, and it would turn out to be nothing like the regular-season meeting. The Raiders undoubtedly had revenge on their minds, probably not just from their earlier meeting, but also from the Immaculate Reception game as well. Their revenge would not be misplaced, as they dominated the Steelers in this playoff tilt.

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    Oakland forced Pittsburgh into making several key mistakes. Three Terry Bradshaw interceptions led to three Oakland scores. The most noteworthy of which was a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown by veteran Raiders cornerback Willie Brown in the third quarter.

    None of the footballs in this playoff game were underinflated, and no, there were no obscenities written on any of them.

    Pittsburgh head coach Chuck Noll was probably muttering some obscenities to himself as he watched his prized defense being torn to shreds by Kenny Stabler and Company. Oakland registered 74 offensive plays, compared to Pittsburgh’s 46. The Raiders also accrued 24 first downs, compared to the Steelers’ 15 first downs. Oakland built a 23-7 lead after three quarters, and they would not leave their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.

    The Raiders finished this playoff game versus the Steelers by outscoring them in the fourth quarter and posting a 33-14 victory. They had avenged their previous two straight losses to Pittsburgh and gave their fans a glorious win to savor. Revenge is very sweet, and in the NFL’s most bitter rivalry during the decade of the 1970s, revenge for the Raiders was doubly sweet.

    Host and Author of Pigskin Past - Joe Zagorski

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