Professional football swirled to the most frenetic finish in its history last Sunday to cap a wildly exciting season which set records for attendance, hysteria and plain old-fashioned dramatics. When it was all over, the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers shared the Western Division title, which they must battle over this Sunday for the right to meet the rejuvenated Cleveland Browns, winners of the Eastern Division, for the National Football League title December 29.
When the curtain fell Sunday night, it was the old pros in the league who took the bows. In rain-swept stadiums on the West Coast, one group of old-timers carried their team into the Western Division tie while another group turned back the bid of some obstreperous youngsters for their first shot at the title. In Chicago, a long, lean Texan playing his eighth year of professional football threw the 100th touchdown pass of his pro career and rallied the Detroit Lions to a 21-13 victory over the Chicago Bears.
The brash young Baltimore Colts were victims of the artistry of the home-town Rams' Norman Van Brocklin, a 31-year-old veteran of nine years of pro football warfare and Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch, who is 34 and has been playing college and professional football for 16 years. Twice Van Brocklin passed to Hirsch for touchdowns; the Colts, new to the pressure of a game upon which a championship rested, wilted and lost 37-21. They were leading 7-3, when the public address system boomed, through the rain, "Detroit Lions 21, Chicago Bears 13." The Colts were not the same after that; the nerve-shattering knowledge that they had to win to retain a chance for their first division title cost the young team its poise.
The same announcement in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco seemed to steady the old hands on the 49er team. Yelberton Abraham Tittle, a bald quarterback who has played 10 years of pro ball, hobbled out to replace Rookie Quarterback John Brodie as the second half of the 49er-Green Bay Packers game started under lowering skies. Tittle, with pulled muscles in both legs and recovering from a broken toe suffered in midseason and kept quiet, promptly led his team on scoring drives which brought the 49ers from a 20-10 half-time deficit to an eventual 27-20 victory. Joe Perry, the stumpy, hard-running 49er fullback, carried the ball 27 times, gained 130 yards and scored two of the touchdowns; Perry's time in the league—10 years.
The 49ers hold an important advantage—that of the home field—in next Sunday's game. Should the two teams end the game in a tie, an extra, sudden-death period will be played to determine the best in the West.
The two teams, otherwise, are rather well matched. Both have strong, veteran quarterbacks—Tobin Rote of the Lions, Tittle of the 49ers. Both have powerful running, especially from halfback, where the 49ers have the incomparable veteran, Hugh McElhenny, and the Lions have Hopalong Cassady, the Ohio State All-America of 1955. Cassady has developed magnificently in the last few games and was the driving force in the Lion running attack which salvaged Sunday's game with the Bears.
Both Rote and Tittle have fine targets. Dave Middleton, who plays end or slot back for the Lions, is one of the best young receivers in the league; Tittle has a kangaroolike rookie named R. C. Owens, who can outjump any defensive halfback in the league, and also Billy Wilson, an old pro who can outfake any defensive halfback. McElhenny, who has played offensive end recently, is a topnotch receiver with tremendous speed.
The Lions hold an edge in two very important phases of defense—linebacking and deep pass defense. In blond, strong Joe Schmidt, Detroit possesses, by a good margin, the best middle linebacker in the league. And the four Lion secondary pass defenders, headed by veteran Jack Christiansen, comprise the most polished and effective unit of its kind in pro football.
To offset that advantage, the 49ers have a distinct edge-in-depth at quarterback. Since Bobby Layne was injured for the season against Cleveland two weeks ago, Detroit has been forced to rely on Rote for its quarterbacking. If anything should happen to him the team would be in dire trouble. The 49ers, however, can always fall back on John Brodie, who saved the Baltimore game two weeks ago with a touchdown pass in the last 46 seconds after Tittle had been injured.
All in all, it appears as even a game as you might want. As is usual, the old pros—Tittle, Perry, McElhenny, Wilson for the 49ers, Rote, Christiansen, Schmidt for the Lions—will decide the issue.