The Minnesota Vikings, playing with one ear cocked for reports from Chicago's Wrigley Field, won the Central Division championship of the National Football League with a workmanlike 24-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Franklin Field. The Green Bay Packers made the victory worthwhile by edging the Chicago Bears, with whom the Vikings had been tied for the division lead, hanging on while the Bears rallied desperately for 17 points in the fourth period to bring the score to 28-27.
Bill McGrane, the publicity director of the Vikings, established an open telephone to Green Bay Publicity Director Chuck Lane in the Wrigley Field press box and relayed the progress of the Packer-Bear game to the Viking coaches on the field. The Vikings, tied 7-7 at halftime, heard that Green Bay was leading Chicago 7-3 and returned to the field with fresh vigor. Early in the second half the violent Viking tacklers jarred the ball loose from the Eagles' Tom Woodeshick, and Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg recovered on the Philadelphia 40. The Viking offense, which had sputtered much of the first half, came to life with visions of Super Bowl dancing in their heads and converted the fumble into a touchdown in just five plays, giving them a lead they held for the rest of the game.
The scoring play was a 30-yard pass to End Gene Washington, who leaned out of the end zone, keeping his toes in bounds, to catch the ball behind Alvin Haymond, the Eagle defender, who had eased up on the play, thinking the ball was overthrown. Haymond protested so vigorously he was ejected.
For the rest of the game the Vikings contained the Eagles by virtue of the play of their front four, a group of angry men who rank among the best in the league. The Eagles got one more touchdown following a fumble recovery on the Viking 12-yard line, but the Vikings were never seriously threatened, despite the closeness of the score.
For the Bears, theirs was a bitter loss, one that had most of the team in tears after the game. They trailed Green Bay 28-10 as the fourth period began, but when Ronnie Bull slammed eight yards through the heart of the Packer defense to score, the Bears caught fire. They stopped Green Bay cold and got close enough to let Mac Percival kick a 26-yard field goal. That made it 28-20.
Again the aroused Bear defenders, led by Linebackers Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone, slammed the Green Bay offense back, and this time Concannon, firing one of his few accurate passes of the afternoon, hit End Dick Gordon on a deep crossing pattern behind Packer defender Doug Hart. Gordon sped 51 yards for a touchdown, which made the score 28-27 with 3:58 to go. Plenty of time.
Once more the Bear defense stopped Green Bay, and Chicago got the ball on its own 46-yard line with 2:36 left to win the Central Division title. They managed one first down, almost close enough for a field goal, but Ray Nitschke shut off their title drive with an interception, and that was it.
In Philadelphia, the Vikings listened to the end of the game in their dressing room, where Joe Kapp led the cheering for the Packers. At one point, as the Packers surged, Joe said, "Be Santa Claus, Packers, make us a present."
That the Packers did, but it is unlikely that the Vikings will be able to celebrate beyond this Sunday when they go to Baltimore for the Western Conference championship. The Colts are too strong for the courageous Vikings, both on offense and defense. Minnesota can stop the run but it is vulnerable to the pass, and Baltimore is the best-balanced club in football, able to run or pass and just as able to defend against either. The contest in Baltimore should go to the Colts in a canter.
The Eastern Conference championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland's vast and often frigid Municipal Stadium figures to be a much closer contest than the mismatch in Baltimore.
The Browns, after a shaky start under their experienced quarterback, Frank Ryan, ripped impressively through the latter part of their schedule with young Bili Nelsen doing the signal-calling and Leroy Kelly proving that he has no less running power—and even more speed—than Jim Brown.
The Cowboys began fast, slacked off a bit in midseason, then turned it on to clinch the championship of the somewhat punchless Capitol Division with two games left to play.
Last year, in the conference championship game in Dallas between the same teams, the Cowboys cantered to a 52-14 victory. Much of the Cowboy explosion was provided by Bob Hayes, who set up two touchdowns on punt returns of 64 and 68 yards and caught an 86-yard touchdown pass from Don Meredith. The Dallas defense did the rest.
Hayes is back and the defense is intact and the Cowboys should win again, although it will not be nearly so easy. Last year the Cowboys ranked sixth in the league in total defense and first against the rush; the Browns, on the other hand, leaked for 4,666 yards, most of that total being given up to opponents' aerial attacks. So the Brown weakness—pass defense—was pitted against the Cowboy strength, and the Cowboy strength—defense against the run—nullified the strongpoint of the Cleveland offense. This year, during the disorganized early weeks, the Browns lost to Dallas again but the team the Cowboys will face Sunday bears small resemblance to last year's losers or to the stumbling club they defeated 28-7 in their second game this season.
Aside from the obvious lift given the offense by the performance of Nelsen at quarterback, the change in Cleveland fortunes stems from a dramatically improved defense. Blanton Collier, the mild man who coaches the Browns with insight and intelligence, made sweeping revisions and now the Brown defense ranks among the best in the league. Significantly, the biggest improvement has come against passing. The Browns lead the league in interceptions (with 32) and have allowed fewer than half the passes thrown against them to be completed. In 1967 they intercepted only 22 passes, and opponents completed a thumping 55.1% of their attempts (in the playoff Meredith completed 10 of his 12 passes against them for 212 yards and two touchdowns).
The Browns' offense is, surprisingly, better balanced than that of the Cowboys. Paul Warfield has had an exceptional year as a wide receiver, and Gary Collins, out most of the time with an injury, will be back for this game. Collins and Warfield are backed up by ageless Tommy McDonald, who is at his best in big games, and the Brown air attack is considerably sharpened by Milt Morin, a giant of a tight end with enough speed to be used on deep patterns.
With Kelly and Ernie Green, who is back from an injury that sidelined him for a good deal of the campaign, the Browns mount the best running attack around. Kelly, not as big as Jim Brown, has duplicated Brown's ground-gaining feats since taking over from the ex-All Pro. He brings a small plus to the Cleveland attack: he blocks, which makes Green a better ballcarrier and provides Nelsen with more protection.
The Cleveland offensive line gives Nelsen ample time to throw, and it is helped-by Kelly and Green picking up blitzes (opposing defenses have deposited the Cleveland quarterback on the seat of his pants only 28 times this year). But its sternest test to date will be furnished by the rush of the Cowboy line and linebackers. The Dallas defenders, led by Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh, have sacked opposition quarterbacks 51 times during 1968, the high for the league.
The Dallas ground attack has nothing to match the explosive threat of Kelly, but the Cowboys have gained about as much yardage rushing as Cleveland. Don Perkins, their rather small fullback, is a determined, stubborn runner with quickness but something less than Kelly's top speed. He, too, is an exemplary blocker and he helps to make holes for Craig Baynham, who replaced the injured Dan Reeves at the other running-back spot. Baynham is a steady, strong runner but he is not the kind of game-breaker Reeves was. The loss of Reeves deprived the Cowboys of their strongest weapon inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
The Dallas passing game is devastating, although it, too, has suffered a trifle this year from the absence of Reeves, a former college quarterback who was probably the best halfback in the league at throwing the option pass. Meredith has come up with his usual assortment of contusions this season, but even so he has had the best year of his career. In Hayes and Lance Rentzel he has the fastest pair of wide receivers in football. The Cowboys probably will not demolish the Cleveland pass defense but they will certainly puncture it.
In backup strength the teams are about equal. Ryan, who was benched in the third game of the season, is still one of the most accurate long passers in the game. Craig Morton, Meredith's replacement at quarterback, showed much more poise and accuracy during 1968 than he did in 1967.
The Cowboys, says Tom Landry, their coach, are better this season. "This is the best Cowboy team ever," he said huffily when Dallas adherents were miffed by lackluster performances following an early loss to Green Bay. "People are using a different yardstick to measure us by. I don't know what they want."
Well, by any yardstick the Cowboys should be better than Cleveland. They have an edge in passing; although the Browns are more of a deep threat running, the Cowboy defense has been together longer and is superior to Cleveland's. That should be enough to put the Cowboys into their third straight NFL championship game, this time against the Baltimore Colts in Dallas on Dec. 29.
Baltimore may prove no more of a bargain for the Cowboys than was Green Bay in the last two championship games. The Colts are like the Packer championship clubs—sound of wind and limb and possessed of no flaws.
The Cowboy-Packer games were both spectacular affairs. Cowboys vs. Colts may turn out to be less so, because of the possibility that the airtight defense on both sides may stifle offensive display. However, it is unwise to assume that a game will be quiet and low-scoring because both teams have strong defenses. Two seasons ago the Packers and the Cowboys were both among the league leaders defensively, and yet the score was 34-27. The Arctic Bowl in Green Bay last year between the same two teams produced 38 points, though both had to skate precariously on the thin ice of Lambeau Field. On a reasonable surface you might have expected two or three more touchdowns. It is not likely, but this year's game could be high-scoring, too.
On offense Baltimore has a clear edge at quarterback, even though Earl Morrall's record is almost identical to Meredith's. The two quarterbacks finished one-two in passing in the NFL. But Baltimore certainly comes up with better support for Morrall than the Cowboys do for Meredith, and that could be a major factor. Behind Morrall is Johnny Unitas, who missed almost the entire season with the grandfather of all tennis elbows. Unitas returned to action briefly late in the year and demonstrated that while he may not be able to throw deep quite as well as before, he is still a master at picking apart a defense, reading a blitz and spearing a receiver on those sideline and slant-in passes that keep a drive alive and allow a team to control the game. Morton, Meredith's replacement, has had little experience in championship games.
The Colt passing attack is not based on the bomb; Jimmy Orr, Ray Perkins and Willie Richardson cannot match Dallas' Rentzel and Hayes in pure speed. But Orr has more subtlety in his patterns than either of the Cowboy ends, and in John Mackey the Colts have one of the two or three best tight ends in the business. The running backs on the two clubs are about equal; Don Perkins gives the Cowboys the best bet for a long always a threat on the option pass for Baltimore.
The Cowboys will have more difficulty penetrating the Baltimore defense than they will that of Cleveland. The Colts gave up only 144 points, same as the '63 Bears and fewer than any other team since 1946. They should put great pressure on Meredith with a quick line and linebackers who are more apt to blitz than Cleveland's, though the Colts are not primarily a blitzing defense. But when they do send Dennis Gaubatz, Mike Curtis or Don Shinnick on a scalping expedition, the element of surprise works heavily in their favor.
Yet, though the Colt defense is superb, it is spotted with young players just maturing in their positions. It is unlikely that it will react as well as the veteran Cowboy unit under championship pressure. Most of the Dallas defense has been together as a group for three years now and the reactions are instant and accurate. Since both teams employ an unusual number of patterns on both offense and defense, the game could well be decided in the guessing contests between offensive and defensive signal-callers. When that happens it is almost axiomatic to go with the older defense—in this case, Dallas.
The game is a tossup, but the flip should favor the Cowboys. After all, they have lost two tossups in a row.