Football Trilogies

SWC75

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The New Orleans Saints beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-23 in New Orleans on September 13 and again in Tampa on November 8th, 38-3. The Bucs then crush Carolina 46-23, lost by the same 24-27 score to two playoff teams, the Rams and the defending champion Chiefs, then won their last four games by a combined 148-75. It sets up a great confrontation between two Hall of Fame Quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the Bucs and Drew Brees of the Saints to see who gets to go against a third Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers in the NFC title game. This game was being discussed on TV yesterday and an old cliché was brought up: “It’s tough to beat a team three times in the same year”. An ex-player turned commentator said that was one of his least favorite sayings. “If you are the better team, you should be able to do it. I’ve bene in that situation twice and both times we won the third game.”

I think the proper version of that saying that it’s hard to beat a good team three times. But then, you’d only be playing them a third time in the play-offs and they must have bene a pretty good team to make the playoff, (although they keep expanding them so that may be less true than it once was). I decided to see how many times this situation has come up and what the results were.

The NFL was founded in 1920 but didn’t split into divisions and hold a championship game until 1933. I’m not going to pour through scores form the 1920’s to see if the improvised schedules they used back then included any three game series. From 1933-1968, there would have to have been a playoff of the Eastern or Western title prior to the championship game for a three game series to be possible. In 1967 the NFL split into four divisions but you had to win your division to get into the playoffs. The AFL decided they wanted an extra game in 1969 but they didn’t have enough teams for four divisions, so they had the first place team in the West play the second place team in the West and vice versa in the semi-finals. That allowed the second place Kansas City Chiefs to play the Oakland Raiders a third time in the AFL title game. From the 1970 merger on, I needed to see if a Wild Card team played the champion of their own division. Of course, now, you can have multiple wild card teams from the same division so they could meet for a third time. Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

The first playoff for a conference title came in 1941 when the Bears and Packers had two of their greatest teams. The bears won 25-17 in Green Bay and the Packers 16-14 in Chicago. Both teams finished 10-1 and then the Bears won the playoff, 33-14. In 1943 the Redskins and the Giants played three consecutive games: tow to end the regular season and a playoff the next week. They got three completely different results. The first game, in New York, was a 14-14 tie. The next week, in Washington, the Giants crushed the Skins, 31-7 to force the playoff, in which Washington crushed the Gints back, 28-0 the next week back in New York. In 1947, the Pittsburgh Steelers played their only post-season game prior to the Super Era, tying their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles for the eastern title at 8-4. The Steelers beat the Eagles 35-24 in Pittsburgh early in the season. But their subsequent game in Philadelphia and the playoff back in Pittsburgh both wound up with the same result: 21-0 wins for the Eagles. The next year in the All-American Conference, primordial versions of the Baltimore Colts and the Buffalo Bills tied for the eastern title at 7-7. The Bills won in Buffalo 35-17 and the Colts in Baltimore by nearly the same score, 35-15. A week later, also in Baltimore, the Bills won 28-17, giving them the honor of losing to the undefeated Cleveland Browns 49-7 for the title. None of these games qualify for our study as there was no regular season sweep.

The Browns moved to the NFL in 1950 and beat everybody but the New York Giants, whose coach, Steve Owen had created something called the “Umbrella Defense”, featuring four defensive backs to combat Otto Graham’s passing game. The Giants shut out the Browns 6-0 in New York and then beat them again in Cleveland, 17-13. Both teams wound up 10-2. But the Browns had a defense, too, and used it to shut down the Giants, 8-3 in the playoff in Cleveland. The same thing happened in the West, where the bears, the dominant team of the 1940’s, were still feisty enough to beat the rams twice, 24-20 and 24-14. The 1950 Rams were the highest-scoring team in NFL history at 38.8 points per game. They scored 43.2 points per game against everybody else and 17.0 vs. the Bears. Both teams wound up 9-3 and met for the western title In Los Angeles. The score was similar to the first two games, 24-14 but this time it was the Rams won. The browns then beat the Rams 30-27 on a last second Lou Groza field goal for the title in one of the greatest games ever played, capping off one of the greatest seasons the NFL ever had.

These were the first instances of a team having beaten another team twice during the regular season, having then to face them again in the post season and it was also the first times a team that had lost twice to a team during the regular season beat that team in the post season. Of course, we are not talking about one team that’s clearly better than another. That’s the nature of an old-fashioned playoff: the teams are going to be well-matched: they have the same record.

In 1952, the Detroit Lions roared, beating the Rams 17-14 in LA and 24-16 two weeks later in Detroit. Then they beat the Rams 31-21 in Detroit in a playoff for the western title and the Browns 17-7 in the championship game. This was the first ‘hat trick’ in NFL history: beating the same team twice during the regular season and again in a playoff. Again, that’s more impressive then that it would be now, as the teams had the same overall record and all the games were close enough to have gone either way.

The 1957 Lions fell behind the 49ers at San Francisco, 10-28, made a dramatic comeback to take a 31-28 lead only to lose on an “alley-oop”, (Hail Mary) to former basketball player RC Owens on the last play, 31-35. The got revenge in Detroit, 31-10, only to again fall behind in the playoff in San Francisco, 7-24. They launched another comeback to win that one, 31-27, this time with no heroics from Owens. They then accepted a gift of 7 turnovers from the Browns to win the title 59-14. They’ve never even played for one since.

The Giants had won the championship in resounding fashion, 47-7 over the Bears in 1956 but could not repeat in 1957 because those Browns and their new phenomenon, Jim Brown, beat them twice to win the eastern title. In 1958 the Gints turned the tables, their defense being the only one able to contain Brown, in Cleveland, 21-17, in New York 13-10, thanks to a long field goal in a snowstorm by Pat Summerall and 10-0 on the same field a week later. That evened up the 2-0 teams. The Colts then beat the Giants in the famous overtime game.

The AFL had one playoff, in 1963 when the Buffalo Bills and the Boston Patriots tied at 7-6-1 for the eastern title. The Bills won in Buffalo 28-21 and the Patriots in Boston, 17-7. The Pats then won the playoff, in Buffalo 26-8. Similar to the AAFC in 1948, it didn’t really matter as the best team in the league was in the western division, in this case the San Diego Chargers, who demolished the Patriots, 51-10.

In 1965 the Baltimore Colts seemed to have supplanted the Green Bay Packers as the best team in the NFL West and, in fact the NFL. They’d rolled to a 12-2 season in 1964, only to be upset by the browns in the title game. They lost in Green Bay 17-20 in the second game of the season but rolled to eight wins in row after that while the Packers had a bad stretch, losing 3 of 5 games with one of the wins being a 6-3 squeaker over the last place Rams. But the Colts had quarterback problems. First Johnny Unitas went down. It seemed to matter little when his back-up Gary Cuozzo, threw for 5 touchdowns in a 41-21 win over the Vikings. But then he was hurt as well and there was no third string quarterback. The Colts traded for Ed Brown, a veteran quarterback who didn’t know their playbook and prepped halfback Tom matte, who had played quarterback for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, (who hated to pass) as an emergency quarterback, completely with a list of basic plays strapped to his wrist. The Colts were tied by the Lions, shut out by the Bears and sent packing by the Pack in a 27-42 fog bowl game in Baltimore in which Paul Hornung ran for five touchdowns. They then traveled to LA to face the Rams, who had suddenly won three in a row, including a 42-7 rout of the Browns. Matte led the team to a gritty 20-17 win, rushing for 99 yards in what amounted to a ‘wildcat’ formation, despite going 0 for 2 on his passes.
That set up a playoff in green bay, won by the Packers, 13-10 on a field goal the Colts claim to this day wasn’t good. The Packers then beat the Browns in the title game, 23-12, Jim Brown’s last game and first of three straight championships for the boys in green. The 2-0 teams were now 3-2.

The last ‘true’ playoff game for a division or conference title between teams that were tied was in the AFL in 1968 when both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders went 12-2. The Chiefs won in KC, 24-10, the Raiders in Oakland two weeks later 38-21, the playoff in Oakland was never much of a game and the Raiders jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and won 41-6, behind 5 Daryle Lamonica TD passes. Joe Namath then out-dueled Lamonica in the AFL title game 27-23 and upset the mighty Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III. The next season the AFL decided they wanted to expand their playoffs with the 1 vs. 2 concept in the semi-finals. The Chiefs ended the Jets’ reign, 13-6 while Lamonica threw another 6TD passes in beating the Houston Oilers 56-7. They were heavily favored to beat the Chiefs again but the Chief’s pass rush proved too much for the Raiders in a 17-7 win in Oakland. The Chiefs then demolished the Vikings, 24-7 in the last Super Bowl before the merger.

When the NFL split into four divisions in 1967, they decided they didn’t want unscheduled playoff games to break ties so they developed the ‘tie-breaker’ concept, a series of tests that would be used to determine which team of two tied for the lead in a division should advance to the playoffs. The first tie breaker was head-to head competition and that decided a tie in the new ‘Coastal’ division in 1967. The Colts and the Falcons were paired with the Rams and 49ers in this four-team “frequent flyer” division and the Colts and Rams wound up tied with records of 11-1-2. They had tied in Baltimore in the season’s 5th week. The Colts then tied the Vikings, 20-20 the next week. Those were the only blemishes on their record until they traveled to LA for the last game of the regular season. The Rams had tied the Redskins 28-28 the same week that the Colts were tying the Vikings. That plus an earlier loss to the 49ers put them in the position of chasing the Colts the whole season. But the “Fearsome Foursome” got geared up and sacked Johnny Unitas 7 times, forcing him into two interceptions in a 34-10 Rams win. The Colts had the best record ever for a team that didn’t make the playoffs, something that may have given birth to the ‘Wild Card’ concept.

I looked at every playoff rematch against a divisional rival from 1970-81 and every one of them had a regular season split. It took the wacky 1982 playoffs, expanded aft er the first strike season, to break through. The Dolphins, Jets and a Patriots all made the playoffs from the AFC East. One of the canceled games was between the Dolphins and the Patriots so they didn’t play twice during the regular season. But the ‘fish’ beat the jets three times: 45-28 in New York 20-19 in Miami and 14-0 in the AFC title game in Miami before losing to John Riggins and the Hogs in the Super Bowl. The redskins had beaten the Cowboys in the playoffs but had a regular season game with them canceled so they didn’t qualify for “The List”.

In 1983 the Seahawks beat the now Los Angeles Raiders twice during the regular season, 38-36 in Seattle and 34-21 in LA but could not handle them in the AFC title game, 14-30. In 1986, the Giants beat the redskins three times: 27-20 in New York, 24-14 in Washington and then 17-0 back in New York for the NFC championship. They then went on to beat the broncos in the Super Bowl. The 1989 Steelers opened their season with an 0-51 loss to the arch-rival Browns in Three Rivers Stadium. They beat the Browns later in Cleveland 17-7 but they lost twice to the Oilers, 0-27 in Houston and 16-23 in Pittsburgh before beating them in the playoffs in Houston 26-23.

In 1991, the Chiefs swept the Raiders 24-21 in KC, 27-21 in LA and 10-6 a week later in KC. The next year the Chiefs beat the Chargers 24-10 in San Diego and 16-14 in KC, only to lose to them 0-17 in San Diego in the playoffs. In 1993 the Raiders swept the Broncos, 23-20 in Denver, 33-30 in LA and 42-24 in LA in the playoffs. In 1994, the Steelers swept Bill Belichick’s Browns, 17-10 in Cleveland, 17-7 in Pittsburgh and 29-9 in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The same year the Vikings beat the Bears 42-14 in Chicago and 33-27 in Minnesota but lost to them 18-35 at home in the playoffs. In 1997 the Patriots swept the Dolphins 27-24 in Boston, 14-12 in Miami and 17-3 in the playoffs back in Boston and the Packers did the same to the Buccaneers, 21-16 in Green Bay, 17-6 in Tampa Bay and 21-7 in Green Bay in the playoffs, (the Battle of the Bays). In 1998, the Cowboys beat the Cardinals 38-10 in Dallas and 35-28 in Arizona but lost to them 7-20 in Dallas in the playoffs. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 15-3 in 1999. The three losses were all to the Tennessee Titans, 20-19 in Jacksonville, 41-14 in Tennessee and 33-14 in the playoffs back in Jacksonville, (a week after the Jags had ended both Dan Marino’s and Jimmy Johnson’s careers with a 62-7 win in the first round of the playoffs). That was the Titans team that came up two years short against the Rams in the Super Bowl.

In 2000, the Giants swept the Eagles, 33-18 in Philly, 24-7 in New York and 20-10 in the playoffs in New York. In 2002, the Steelers swept the Browns with three field goals: 16-13 in Pittsburgh, 23-20 in Cleveland and 36-33 in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. In 2004 the Packers beat the Vikings 34-31, twice, once in each city. But in the playoffs in Green Bay the Vikings won 31-17. Meanwhile, the Rams swept the Seahawks, 33-27 in Seattle, 23-12 in St. Louis and 27-20 in the playoffs in St. Louis. In 2008 the Steelers swept the Ravens in three tough-as-nails games: 23-20 in Pittsburgh, 13-9 in Baltimore and 23-14 in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. In 2009, the Cowboys swept the Eagles, 20-16 in Philadelphia, 24-0 in Dallas and a week later, 34-14 in the same venue.

There wasn’t another team trying to complete a sweep in the playoffs until 2017, when the Saints did it against the Panthers, winning 34-13 in Carolina, 31-21 in New Orleans and 31-26 in New Orleans in the playoffs. Today’s Saints- Buccaneers game is the first chance since then for a team to sweep.

The List of teams that have swept two regular season games and had to play that team for the third time in the playoffs:

1950 Giants 6-0, 17-13; Browns 8-3
1950 Bears 24-20, 24-14; Rams 24-14
1952 Lions 17-14, 24-16; Lions 31-21 (over Rams)
1958 Giants 21-17, 13-10; Giants 10-0 (over Browns)
1965 Packers 20-17, 42-27; Packers 13-10 (over Colts)
1982 Dolphins 45-28, 20-19; Dolphins 14-0 (over Jets)
1983 Seahawks 38-36, 34-21, Raiders 30-14
1986 Giants 27-20, 24-14; Giants 17-0 (over Redskins)
1989 Oilers 0-27, 16-23; Steelers 26-23
1991 Chiefs 24-21, 27-21; Chiefs 10-6 (over Raiders)
1992 Chiefs 24-10, 16-10; Chargers 17-0
1993 Raiders 23-20, 33-30; 42-24 (over Broncos)
1994 Steelers 17-10, 17-7; Steelers 29-9 (over Browns)
1994 Vikings 42-14, 33-27; Bears 35-18
1997 Patriots 27-24, 14-12; Patriots 17-3 (over Dolphins)
1997 Packers, 21-16, 17-6; Packers 21-7 (over Buccaneers)
1998 Cowboys 38-10, 35-28; Cardinals 20-7
1999 Titans 20-19, 41-14; Titans 33-14 (over the Jaguars)
2000 Giants 33-18, 24-7; Giants 20-10 (over the Eagles)
2002 Steelers 16-13, 23-20; Steelers 36-33, (over Browns)
2004 Packers 34-31, 34-31; Vikings 31-17
2004 Rams 33-27, 27-12; Rams 27-20 (over Seahawks)
2008 Steelers 23-20, 13-9; Steelers 23-14 (over Ravens)
2009 Cowboys 20-16, 24-0; Cowboys 34-14 (over Eagles)
2017 Saints 34-13, 31-21; Saints 31-26 (over Panthers)

That’s 25 playoff games between a team that swept the regular season and the team they swept. The 2-0 team won 17 of the 25 games. So it’s certainly possible to do so, even likely. But there’s no guarantee in the NFL playoffs.
 

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