In the same spectacular fashion that Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears vaults over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers here, the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals went over the top last season. Both teams came off 6-10 records in 1980 to soar over their conferences in 1981. The Bengals changed their stripes, literally and figuratively, with the help of new uniforms and the discipline of coach Forrest Gregg. They finished 12-4 in the regular season, and then defeated Buffalo and San Diego in the AFC playoffs. The 49ers, masterminded by Coach Bill Walsh and strong-armed by Quarterback Joe Montana, had a 13-3 record, best in the NFL. After beating the Giants—yes, the Giants—in the playoffs, San Francisco defeated Dallas 28-27 on a six-yard touchdown pass from Montana to Dwight Clark with 51 seconds remaining in the NFC championship game. In Super Bowl XVI, played under the Pontiac Silverdome, the 49ers repelled a late Cincinnati charge to prevail 26-21. It was the first championship in the club's 36-year history.
For the first time, both New York teams, the Jets and the Giants, qualified for postseason play. The Giants finished at 9-7 and won their wild-card game with Philadelphia. They even put a scare into the 49ers with this sticky-fingered reception (near right, top) by John Mistier, although they ended up losing 38-24. The Jets were 10-5-1 on the year but lost their wild-card playoff with Buffalo. The Jet defense strips Houston's Earl Campbell of the ball (below), while Kevin Long of the Jets finds himself in a mess of Oilers (far right, bottom). At the far right, top, Clark pulls in the pass that beat Dallas and sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
The NFC Central lived up to its reputation as the black-and-blue division. Only Tampa Bay won more games than it lost as the teams kept sacking each other. At the far right, Buccaneer Bill Kollar has Minnesota Quarterback Tommy Kramer in his embrace. Below, the Vikings have Tampa Quarterback Doug Williams in their clutches. The sack was in, too, in the AFC West as, at the near right, Kansas City Quarterback Steve Fuller takes a backseat to the Chargers.
The NFL received an infusion of fresh blood in 1981. The Saints' rookie halfback, George Rogers (bottom right), led all NFL rushers with 1,674 yards and also had the longest run of the year, 79 yards against the Browns. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor (bottom center, tackling Chris Combs of the Cardinals) was the leader of the Giants' defense, a first-team All-Pro, and AP Defensive Player of the Year in his first season.
Defensive End George Martin (below), Taylor's teammate, gives Dallas Quarterback Danny White something to think about. The Jets' Joe Klecko (near right, top) latches on to Bills Quarterback Joe Ferguson. Montana (far right, top) fakes to Running Back Ricky Patton in the Super Bowl game.
Ken Anderson, the 11-year veteran quarterback, and Cris Collinsworth, his rookie wide receiver, made for quite a pair. Anderson (below) led the AFC in passing and threw for 300 yards in the Super Bowl. Collinsworth (near right, catching an Anderson pass in the Super Bowl), had 67, receptions for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns.
On the opposite page, San Diego's Chuck Muncie tries to scale the Bills. Then, in their arctic playoff, the Chargers watched a breathtaking touchdown by the Bengals' Don Bass (bottom right). Tony Dorsett of the Cowboys (No. 33) missed out on the rushing title to Rogers by 28 yards.
A SWEET XVI FOR XLIXers
At first, things didn't bode well for the 49ers. On the opening kickoff Famous Amos Lawrence infamously fumbled the ball to the Bengals on his own 26. But Dwight Hicks saved the day when he intercepted Anderson's pass on the five and returned it 27 yards. From there Montana led the 49ers on a 68-yard TD drive, 14 yards thanks to a Walsh concoction called the Triple Pass (Montana to Patton to Freddie Solomon to Montana to Charle Young).
The Bengals were moving again in the second quarter when Collins-worth fumbled after a 19-yard reception on the San Francisco eight. The 49ers then began the longest drive in Super Bowl history. Earl Cooper got 25 of the 92 yards on a 14-yard run and the 11-yard touchdown pass. Kicker/accountant Ray Wersching then did his number, baffling Cincinnati with his squib kick-offs and booting two field goals to give San Francisco a 20-0 lead at the half.
Late in the third quarter, Cincinnati, losing 20-7, was at the San Francisco three with a first-and-goal. But that's when the 49ers won the game as the defense, led by linebackers Jack Reynolds and Dan Bunz, held on four downs.
As for last year's super Bowl teams, well, they fell victim to parity, complacency or something or other. The world champion Oakland Raiders finished an embarrassing 7-9. Philadelphia did make the playoffs, but only as a wild-card team. Even then, the Eagles lost to the other wild card, the Giants. Dallas appeared to be going to its sixth Super Bowl until Montana found Clark in the corner of the end zone.
In the best of the playoff games, San Diego beat Miami 41-38 in overtime after the Dolphins had come back from a 24-0 deficit. But then the Chargers, spent by that effort and frozen by the -59° wind-chill factor in Cincinnati, succumbed to the Bengals 27-7.
And in the battle for the first draft choice, the New England Patriots (2-14) won by losing to the Colts (2-14) 23-21 in the Stupor Bowl. The Colts' only other victory also came against the Patriots.