In the first part of TheSportsNotebook’s NFL Championship Sunday extravaganza, we opened up NFL championship history to look at 1978, and celebrated the greatness of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. But the downside of that was, the games were lacking in drama. To pick a year where both championship games went down to the wire, let’s focus in on 1987, a year I would argue was the best in terms of competitive drama. Both title games went down to a final battle on the goal line.
1987 was a tough year on fans, as the players went on strike two games into the season. The owners took a hard line and used replacement players for three games, before the regulars decided to throw in the towel and come back. That tense three-week period was captured in the movie The Replacements, and the Washington Redskins took full advantage of that time to go 3-0 and build up the regulars a cushion when they came back.
The ‘Skins had been one of the NFL’s best teams in the early 1980s and still were, but it had been four years since they’d reached the Super Bowl and the previous year they’d been shutout in this round by Bill Parcells’ New York Giants. Aided by the work of The Replacements, they won the NFC East going away, finishing with an 11-4 record.
Minnesota’s replacements didn’t handle the opportunity quite as well. Even though the Vikings’ record was only 8-7 overall, their regular players posted the same 8-4 record that Washington had and they were playing their best down the stretch. After a 2-5 start, Minnesota won six of their last eight to get into the playoffs. One of those losses though, was an overtime defeat at home to Washington, one that nearly cost them a wild-card berth.
Washington was an unusual team for a championship contender in that quarterback controversy tailed them all the way through the season. Jay Schroeder started most of the games, but he didn’t have the confidence of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs and the boss started to turn to veteran Doug Williams more frequently. It was Williams who threw two long touchdown passes to wide receiver Ricky Sanders and beat the Vikings in that season finale, it was Williams who got the start when the Redskins beat the Bears in the divisional playoffs and it would be Williams getting the call in the NFC Championship Game.
In the late 1980s, Minnesota would become known as the talented team that could never put it all together into a Super Bowl run (come to think of it, I guess not that much has changed). The franchise’s last Super Bowl trip had been 1976 and they had still yet to win one. That core group of talent was just coming together this year, and it was led by sack specialist Chris Doleman on the outside, strong safety Joey Browner, wide receiver Anthony Carter and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. Washington countered with its legendary “Hogs” offensive line, that included current ESPN college football analyst Mark May and the defense was led by corner Darrell Green, whose blazing speed had put the ‘Skins in this game when he returned a punt for a touchdown in the win at Chicago and whose lockdown cover skills gave the defense tremendous freedom.
The AFC Championship Game was a rematch of a game that was already seen as historic. Denver beat Cleveland in the 1986 title game when John Elway led a 98-yard drive into the win at the Cleveland “Dawg Pound” to force overtime, where the Broncos eventually won it. Denver was subsequently hammered by the Giants in the Super Bowl, so when they again paired up with Cleveland for this year’s game, both teams felt like there was unfinished business.
When I think of Elway in those years, I think of a quarterback who singlehandedly kept basically mediocre teams afloat and a review of the roster confirms that belief. The only other Pro Bowlers on the Broncos were offensive lineman Keith Bishop and inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. Cleveland was coached by Marty Schottenheimer, whose playoff struggles would one day become the stuff of legend and we were right at the grass roots of that in 1987. Bernie Kosar was his quarterback, a signal-caller who took a backseat only to Elway, and there was more defensive talent on hand, with outside linebacker Clay Matthews (father of today’s Green Bay linebacker of the same name), and corners Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. In an era where the AFC was seen as much weaker than the NFC—and at least at the top, that was true—the Browns were seen as the one team physical enough to bang with the best of the other conference.
Over the years, Schottenheimer has taken a lot of unfair criticism for his playoff record—in a lot of those years, it was his own coaching that made a mediocre team look better than it was—but it has to hurt the old coach that he never cleared the hurdle that was Elway and the Broncos, because Cleveland was the more complete team.
When Championship Sunday came, Minnesota-Washington was the first game. The Redskins were in the rare position of hosting a championship game after going on the road for the divisional round (a circumstance that wouldn’t happen again until Indianapolis in 2006)), since after blowing out favored New Orleans in the wild-card round, the Vikes decisively shocked top-seeded San Francisco. The game in RFK Stadium won’t win any awards for offensive brilliance—Williams was only 9-for26, while Minnesota’s Wade Wilson was 19-of-43. But it was tight throughout. Washington struck with a 42-yard pass to versatile running back Kelvin Bryant, before the Vikings answered and it went to halftime at 7-7. The ‘Skins got a field goal in the third. Minnesota tied it up early in the 4th, but the drive ended on the 1-yard line. Williams would throw a touchdown pass to Pro Bowl receiver Gary Clark, making it 17-10.
Minnesota mounted on last drive, and got inside the Redskin 10-yard line. It was 4th-and-goal from the 6. At this point, I have to protest how Wikipedia describes the final play. It’s recalled that Wilson tossed a pass into the hands of running back Darrin Nelson in the end zone, but that Nelson dropped it. My own memories of that play recall Green putting a rattling hit on Nelson at the precise moment the ball arrived and stopping the catch. You can call it the bias of a Redskin fan, or you can check out the YouTube clip below and make up your own mind. Either way, Washington was going to the Super Bowl.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the prior year’s drive, but Elway led his team down the field and hit running back Sammy Winder on a 20-yard swing pass to make it 38-31. Denver’s defense wasn’t going to stop Cleveland by normal means at this point, and the Browns just coolly marched inside the 5-yard line. Kosar handed the ball to running back Earnest Byner who looked headed for the end zone. At the last moment, a no-name defensive back for Denver named Jeremiah Castille reached in, stripped the ball and the Broncos recovered. It was a stunning turn of events, at a time when it appeared the overtime coin flip would settle the conference championship. On fourth down, Denver voluntarily took a safety and hung on 38-33.
The Super Bowl between Denver and Washington wouldn’t provide anywhere near this kind of drama. The Redskins scored a SB record 35 points in the second quarter and won Gibbs’ second of what would be three rings. But the day both teams won their spot in San Diego was one for the ages.