THREE FOR THE MONEY

Playoffs mean payoffs and as the NFL games dwindled down to a precious few, contenders were pitted against contenders. In these cases, the winner really made a score
December 17, 1973

Unlike slums, when you've seen one football game, you haven't seen 'em all. For example, in the three most crucial NFL games last weekend—Cincinnati vs. Cleveland, Oakland vs. Kansas City and Dallas vs. Washington—the teams were supposedly so closely matched that the total spread was only 13 points. As it turned out, 67 points separated the six teams as the Raiders, the Cowboys and the Bengals won laughing and all but clinched playoff berths.

Coach Paul Brown can afford a little smile when he explains the rise of Cincinnati, one of the youngest teams in the league, which, in defiance of the saws about experience, has proved that necessity is the mother of exception. "All we've done is stay with it," says Brown, "and now they're down to our size."

Last Sunday in Riverfront Stadium, the callow Bengals, apparently under orders to get home before dark, beat Cleveland 34-17 behind the passing of Ken Anderson and now seem likely to dethrone Pittsburgh as the AFC Central champion next Sunday in the Astrodome.

If Cincinnati beats Houston and Pittsburgh also wins its season finale in San Francisco, the teams will each finish with 10-4-0 records. The Bengals, however, would take the division crown with a better conference record, relegating Pittsburgh to the wild-card berth.

Anderson, who was not considered particularly august when he played for Augustana (Ill.) College, is the 24-year-old son of a high school janitor and, perhaps as much for his humble background as anything else, he has been bum-rapped by Cincinnati fans ever since he took over from the injured Virg Carter. Indeed, Anderson has been booed for such exotic reasons as a lack of charisma.

"I can't figure our fans," publicity man Al Heim said before the Cleveland showdown. "We've gotten calls asking if we plan to surprise the Browns by starting Cook, when Anderson is the fifth-leading quarterback in the conference. Anderson could complete 16 out of 21 and they would boo him for the five he missed."

On Sunday Anderson was 11 for 19, including three first-half touchdown passes to rookie Isaac Curtis. In the team's first scoring drive, a 58-yard march that ended with a nine-yarder to Curtis, Anderson hit on five of six throws for 43 yards. After Cleveland's Don Cockroft had kicked a field goal, Anderson showed he had some charisma after all by unleashing a 70-yard bomb to Curtis. The other scoring pass covered 20 yards and came with 36 seconds left in the half.

When Horst Muhlmann booted a 10-yard field goal early in the third quarter to boost Cincinnati's lead to 24-3, it seemed the Bengals were home free. But Mike Phipps, who has an uncanny talent for ducking wrathful defensive linemen, got Cleveland its first touchdown on a six-yard pass to Gloster Richardson and, 1:39 later, it looked like the Browns might yet grab another of the slightly mystical victories that had kept them in the race when Van Green picked up a Boobie Clark fumble and returning it 15 yards for another touchdown. But Clark made amends for his fumble by bolting over from the one to make it 31-17. Muhlmann's 45-yard field goal completed the scoring.

After an unexpected opening-day loss to Denver, Cincinnati now sits atop the division whose leader it once trailed by three games. "It took us a number of weeks to get our confidence back," says All-Pro Defensive Tackle Mike Reid. "Our young players have really been surprising. Boobie wasn't in awe of the NFL the way I was. He'll take the ball and run over a middle linebacker the way he would a reserve at Bethune-Cookman."

Clark, a 6'2", 238-pound 23-year-old rookie whom the Bengals picked in the 12th round, has now rushed for 934 yards, only slightly less than the wraithlike veteran Essex Johnson, and he is second in pass receptions with 41.

"We thought we saw Clark's potential early," Brown says, "but sometimes things just seem too good to be true. He showed so much poise and so much maturity in camp this summer that one night when we were sitting around the coaches' room talking, one of us said, 'Hey, do you suppose this guy might be 30 years old and we don't know it?' "

Curtis, Brown's other prize rookie, fled through the Cleveland secondary like a man who has spent 10 years in the NFL and as great as his speed is—he ran the 100 in 9.3 for Cal—his hands have accounted for most of his 43 catches. "It is a little unusual to have youngsters come into the league and show that much maturity," Brown says, "but there was a reason for it. We had to play them because there wasn't any other choice. In the first Cleveland game we lost Chip Myers with a hamstring while he was warming up. Then Charlie Joiner got a broken collarbone on the first play of the game. We've also lost Doug Dressier, our fullback, with a knee injury and Carter, our other quarterback, with a broken collarbone. But we have worn well in the face of all that's happened to us."

Indeed, one more victory and the Bengals will have their opposition worn out.

So will the Raiders, who outclassed the Chiefs 37-7 on Oakland's home turf—or what's left of it. "We go to war" read the Raiders' itinerary, and when they did they went overland, breaking the team record for rushing attempts by 11 with 61 carries good for 259 yards. They steered their running attack away from Middle Linebacker Willie Lanier and Defensive Tackle Curley Culp by having both wide receivers lined up on one flank, creating a strong side without a tight end. The Chiefs overshifted to that side, putting Culp over the center and Lanier opposite the strong-side guard. Oakland then ran most of its plays back to the weak side where Guard Gene Upshaw was head up on Linebacker Jim Lynch and where Tight End Bob Moore could help block.

Kansas City lacked energy all week. All Hank Stram's scheming and all Lamar Hunt's wealth couldn't fly the team to the Coast a few days early, as had been its practice before previous Raider games, because no airline had enough gas for such a charter. And as if fuel shortages weren't frustrating enough, one of his own backs shorted Stram's brain power. Kansas City won the toss and surprised everyone by electing to defend the south goal rather than to receive. An hour before game time Stram had made an inspection of the damp, poorly sodded playing surface. Noting that the footing was particularly bad at the north end, he reasoned that a team receiving there, since it would also have the sun in its eyes, would fail to move the ball and would surrender field position on a punt. The Raiders played right into the Chiefs' hands, managing only four yards on three downs before punting. Ed Podolak returned the kick to the Kansas City 46 but there the ball played right out of his hands. Oakland's Pete Banaszak recovered Podolak's fumble and the lights went out for Kansas City.

The Raiders scored nine plays later on a nine-yard bullet to Fred Biletnikoff from Ken Stabler, the lefthander who took over for Daryle Lamonica after Oakland failed to produce an offensive touchdown in its first three games, and has become the AFC's leading passer. At the end of the first quarter Oakland got field position at its 46 when an exchange of punts between the league's two best kickers, the Raiders' Ray Guy and the Chiefs' Jerrel Wilson, netted Oakland 24 yards. Five plays later Marv Hubbard (see cover), who led all rushers with 115 yards, burst through the left side of a drawn-up defense on third and four and went 31 yards for the touchdown. That marked the first time this season that a back has made a run of over 20 yards on the uncertain Coliseum footing.

By halftime it was 20-0 and at the start of the second half Stram's mighty bit of pregame strategy came back to haunt him further. Since the Raiders had lost the toss, they got the choice in the second half and received again. They used up over 5½ minutes, marching 50 yards before George Blanda increased their margin to more than three touchdowns with a 27-yard field goal. At that point the Raiders had recorded 18 first downs to the Chiefs' one, had amassed 251 yards to the Chiefs' 22 and had held the ball for 27 minutes and six seconds while Kansas City had only had possession for 8½ minutes. From then on Kansas City played a frantic game of catch-up while Oakland played roll-up, turning two fourth-quarter interceptions into touchdowns.

Kansas City's collapse seems less surprising in view of the fact that this season the Chiefs have not beaten a team that had a winning record when it played them. The Chiefs have not replenished themselves as well as the Raiders. Perhaps most indicative of the divergent paths the two teams now seem to be taking are their quarterbacks. Saturday's contest marked the first time since 1966 that a Chief-Raider game has not matched Len Dawson against Lamonica, and Stabler, the Raider quarterback of the future, clearly outplayed Mike Livingston, the Chiefs' heir apparent.

For once, a win over Kansas City did not clinch the West for Oakland, which holds a half-game lead over Denver, whom it plays in Oakland Sunday for their division's lone playoff spot. The two teams tied in their first meeting and, based on recent performances, the Broncos pose a bigger problem for Oakland than the Chiefs. Indeed, Oakland-Denver may present as clear a picture of the AFC West's future as Kansas City-Oakland did of its past.

The present is still the future in the NFC East. Given some early, footling assistance by the most inept Knight since Don Quixote, Dallas took over the lead in that division by clobbering archrival Washington 27-7.

In the first half the Cowboys plodded to a 3-0 lead and could easily have trailed 9-3 had not Curt Knight blown 23-, 28-and 37-yard field goals.

"We learned a long time ago that we have to play with gusto," Dallas' Calvin Hill said after the game. "We played with gusto in the second half." In the second half Dallas outgustoed Washington 264 yards to 46 and outscored it 24 to 7. But, realistically, gusto did not have that much to do with it. The Redskins are an emotional team that depends only minimally on intellect; the Cowboys are an intellectual team that uses emotion only as it builds up. In the overwhelming second half, George Allen was decisively out-coached by Tom Landry.

"They didn't show us anything new," said Dallas Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. "They do the things that have worked for them. Those things didn't work very well the first time we played them and lost, 14-7. We should have won that game. The defense was very confident going into this one. We thought we could hold them and we did. The only score they got was on a blocked punt."

On the other hand, the Cowboys unveiled three new plays, the most effective being a roll-out in which Roger Staubach sprinted left or right, then either ran or threw to Walt Garrison.

"It puts a heck of a strain on the corner linebacker," Garrison said after the game. "I fake into the line, then slide out for the pass. If the linebacker goes with me, Roger runs. If he comes up to get Roger, he passes to me. Whatever he does, it's a mistake!" Garrison led the Cowboys with four catches for 45 yards; Staubach rushed three times for 18.

When Dallas was in scoring position, Landry put in a play that might easily have been stolen from Ohio State, a power I with three running backs and two tight ends. Rayfield Wright, normally a tackle, went in as a tight end on the left side of the line and Bob Newhouse joined Garrison and Hill in the backfield.

"It gives us a lot of power ahead of the runner, doesn't it?" said Wright later. "Got all that force coming one way, something's got to give." The Redskins gave three times, once when Staubach scored from the five and twice when Hill boomed in from the one and two.

In the first half the Cowboys had sent most of their running plays to the strong side behind Wright's blocking and that of their two good tight ends, Jean Fugett and Billy Joe DuPree, who alternated. In the second half they aimed the play that way, then came back to the weak side. The Redskins had overshifted to the strong side and never adjusted.

"We had that play all the time," said Hill, "but you have to save something for the second half, don't you?"

St. Louis' 32-10 upset of Atlanta virtually assured that both Dallas and Washington will move into the playoffs, the Cowboys as division champions, the Redskins as the wild card. So it is conceivable that they could meet again in the NFC championship game. By then the Redskins may have adjusted to the changes in the Dallas offense. But by then Landry will have some new wrinkles for Allen. You can bet he's been saving something.

TWO PHOTOSCincinnati's Ken Anderson threw three touchdown passes to rookie speedster Isaac Curtis. PHOTORaider George Atkinson, here returning a punt, made an interception leading to a touchdown. PHOTOLeft-handed Quarterback Ken Stabler, the AFC's leading passer, threw for two scores.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)