It had never happened before. It might never happen again—or at least not until next year. It even turned a few eyes away from the Christmas tree lights in Rockefeller Center and got them gazing westward, in the direction of East Rutherford, N.J., where, get ready now, Giants Stadium was the scene of not one but two playoff games last weekend.
O.K., so they were only wild-card games, and New York went in looking for a sweep and got only a split: The Jets lost to the New England Patriots 26-14 on Saturday; the Giants dethroned the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers 17-3 on Sunday. But, hey, Giants Stadium was virgin playoff territory. Now it has been initiated. The Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium—all those venues of past glory—are ripe with history, with memories. The sneakers game on the ice in the '30s. Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche and sudden death. Joe Namath whipping his deep ones against the Oakland Raiders. Well, now Giants Stadium, the House of Wild Cards, has a few, too.
Close your eyes and what do you see? Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien crumpled to the ground under the furious Patriot onslaught, 49er quarterback Joe Montana battered by the relentless Giant rushers, little Joe Morris scooting and swerving for 141 yards against a 49er team that came into the game with a long roster of major injuries and escaped two steps ahead of the ambulance.
The Giants didn't so much beat the 49ers as put them out of their misery. Niner coach Bill Walsh seemed almost relieved when this long, emotional, problem-filled season was over.
January 6, 1986
"What do you think of the Giants against the Bears next week?" someone asked him. He shook his head.
"I'm going to turn off football very quickly," he said. "As soon as I get into the shower."
The 49ers would have been better off facing almost any other team. The one thing they didn't need was a slugfest against a mean, nasty outfit whose emotional fires were stoked by the memory of five straight losses to San Francisco, two of them in playoff games.
The heart of the Giant defense is the line, backed up by six linebackers who rotate into the four spots, all big, rough guys who go 234 pounds or more. They rushed in waves and gave poor Montana a terrible time. He came into the game taped like a mummy. He said that during the week he had taken several shots of cortisone and one of a painkiller to deaden his aching ribs. The Giants also knocked the Niners' star running back, Roger Craig, out of the game with a battered knee and forced him to drop five passes. Halfback Wendell Tyler saw only token action because of a bad knee. Guard Randy Cross was out. Tight end Russ Francis left with a bad ankle. The Giant secondary, injured and shaky itself, never was tested because Montana never got time to get much going downfield.
Montana, who had missed a crucial practice day on Thursday, was sacked four times and constantly whacked after his release. He spent the day running for his life. Twice he went down on air sacks, near misses by Leonard Marshall, the 285-pound end, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
"He was rattled by the way we went after him," Marshall said, "by the way we went after his face."
"One time," defensive end Casey Merrill said, "when he got off the ground and looked up, his eyes were glazed. He stayed on one knee, then he sort of got up in pieces. I knew something was wrong. Oh, yeah, he took some hits."
Everything was out of sync for the 49ers. The Giants, going against a San Francisco defense that was almost as banged up as its offense, got on top early with a field goal on their opening drive, a short touchdown drive in the second quarter and a long one on the first series of the second half, and then they sat back and missed a couple of field goals and diddled around and waited for the 49ers to do something. It wasn't to be.
The Niners made some strange decisions, some strange calls. On their only decent drive of the day, keyed by three Giant penalties, they reached the New York 16. First down, and the Giants called timeout. Tyler had just hit them for a pair of back-to-back 10-yard runs up the middle. The Giants obviously were adjusting their defense and firming up inside. The Niners' first play was Craig up the middle. It gained a yard. Then they pulled their wideouts and went with two tight ends on second-and-nine and tried to jam it in with Tyler. Another yard. Why? Walsh was asked about it afterward. "Frankly, I don't remember," he said. The drive ended with a 21-yard field goal, a token gesture that kept San Francisco from being shut out for the first time since 1977.
With two minutes left in the game, the 49ers had a third-and-15 on the Giants' 18-yard line. They went with a play-action pass. Why a play fake? Who would it fool? No one could say.
After one of the 11 dropped passes by 49er receivers, a hurried, off-balance throw, Montana turned to the bench and held out his hands, palms up, and shrugged.
The 49er defense was minus its All-Pro cornerback, Eric Wright. Michael Carter, the Pro Bowl noseguard, was in and out with a sprained ankle. Ronnie Lott, normally a powerful force against the run from his free safety spot, played with a broken left pinky that made the hand practically useless and reduced his tackling to shoulder bumps. He shouldn't have been on the field.
"I couldn't cover the tight end," he said, referring to Mark Bavaro, who had five catches, including a TD. "I couldn't make the kind of plays that would have been easy for me. On Morris's long run [30 yards], I had an easy tackle and I couldn't make it."
Morris is now the heart of the Giant offense. This year he set club records for rushing yards (1,336) and touchdowns (21). Against the Niners he picked up 141 yards on 28 carries, most of them darting, slashing bursts of energy, Walter Payton-style. For three years the 5'7", 195-pound Morris tried to find cracks in an offensive line that was keyed to pass blocking, that went shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt, reducing the running game to a study in frustration. This season the line loosened up. The new line coach, Fred Hoaglin, got the players to split wider, to take their chances on pass blocking and open up the lanes for little Joe. He breathed the cool, clear air of freedom and rushed his way into the Pro Bowl.
"Last year you'd run a play once and that was it," Morris says. "They were concerned about protecting for the passer. We had always been a fullback-oriented team, but in the off-season they started putting in halfback plays, more traps, some sprint draws, things to utilize my speed and get me into the secondary. The line had more room to work, and they did a great job blocking, plus we got big No. 44 from the USFL [225-pound fullback Maurice Carthon], who's just been destroying people with his blocks."
On Sunday the Giants' running game will get the ultimate test against the Chicago Bears, whose defensive tackle, Steve McMichael, says, "Anyone who thinks he's going to run on our defense, with seven or eight people right up close to the line, is making a serious mistake. Miami beat us with quick passes and with a quarterback who rolled out, away from the pressure. They opened our eyes and everybody else's."
The Giants' Phil Simms basically is a classic five-step and seven-step dropback passer. The question is: In one week of practice can his drop be changed to three steps so he can throw quickly on rhythm or roll out when he has to?
"He can and will," says the Giants' offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt. "We have the three-step drop in our offense."
O.K., the Giants made the New Jersey Meadowlands fans happy last weekend, but the Jets faithful had to go away teary-eyed.
The Patriots had been the classic postseason screwup team. They had never won a playoff game (going 0 for 3) in the 19 years since pro football adopted its Super Bowl format. They always managed to figure out ways to self-destruct, but they erased all that against the Jets. They played a near-perfect game, keyed by a vicious defense and a thoroughly professional performance by their third-year quarterback, Tony Eason.
Eason has a strong arm, capable of putting big numbers on the board, but Jets-Patriots games aren't designed for that. The teams are mirror images of each other. Both defy you to stop their running and both have solid run-stopping defenses, so their games usually come down to a matter of big plays and mistakes, the quick, unexpected deep strike, the crucial turnover. On Saturday the Patriots didn't turn the ball over once; the Jets turned it over four times. New England drew a holding penalty on the game's first scrimmage play but, after that, zero.
Eason threw deep twice and connected both times, accounting for 10 of the Patriots' 26 points and a 13-7 halftime lead. The Jets' Ken O'Brien tried going deep once, in the second quarter, and the result was an interception. It came on a classic bit of free-safety play by Fred Marion, who isn't in the Pro Bowl but should be. As cornerback Raymond Clayborn fell off the Jets' Wesley Walker, who was streaking down the left side, Marion delayed his coverage, suckering O'Brien into thinking he had an open target. Then at the last minute he swooped over to pick off the pass. That was the last deep one O'Brien tried.
Eason made his first long connection early in the second quarter on third-and-three, an old bit of Vince Lombardi strategy—throw deep on third-and-short. Until then New England's game plan had been conservative, a grinding type of offense that had the Patriots down 7-3. The Jets' defensive coach, Bud Carson, respected the Pats' running, but what he feared was the double-wideout threat of Irving Fryar and Stanley Morgan.
Carson hoped for a windy day, figuring that would hamper the Patriots' long game. The weatherman obliged early, but by the second quarter the 15- to 30-mph gusts were dying down. Carson also sought to counter the threat with a new, seven-defensive-back alignment for long-yardage situations.
"It was crazy," Eason said. "They were double-covering all our wide receivers. I'd never seen them do that before. It had me rubbing my eyes."
Then came the third-and-three situation, and Pats coach Raymond Berry sent in the deep-pass-to-Fryar call. "We call the play 'Irving, we'll see you,' " Eason said. "In the huddle I asked him how he felt, and I got a typical Irving reaction—'Oh, yeah, man, throw it!' "
The Patriots caught New York in a safety blitz, and Fryar got single coverage. The gain was good for 39 yards, setting up a field goal. Two series later the Patriots had a first down on the Jets' 36. Eason spotted something—neither he nor the coaches would say what—in the Jets' defense, and he checked off to a quick up to Morgan. This time he caught the Jets in an all-out blitz—free safety, linebackers, the works. He had to throw quickly, and he put the ball into Morgan's hands 30 yards downfield; it was about as well as a pass could be thrown. The Patriots had a 13-7 lead with the half drawing to a close.
Now the complexion of the game changed. The Jets had to get things done quickly and the Patriots could turn their pass rush loose. The most devastating aspect of that was linebacker Andre Tippett and defensive end Garin Veris loading up on their left side and rushing in tandem, attacking the weakest point of the Jets' pass protection, right tackle Marvin Powell and whoever stayed in to help him.
O'Brien had been sacked 62 times in the regular season, an NFL record. The flip side is that he had the lowest interception rate and the highest ranking of any NFL quarterback, plus the AFC's highest completion percentage. Yet he had taken heat for all the sacks, for holding the ball too long.
Part of the heat for all those sacks went to left tackle Reggie McElroy, who started the year O.K. but then had a pair of tough games late in the season against the Bears' Richard Dent and the Browns' Carl Hairston. Practically no one mentioned Powell, once a Pro Bowler but this season a guy with serious pass-blocking problems. Power rushers killed him. The Patriots' Kenneth Sims had a pair of All-Pro days against him, but then Sims broke his left leg against the Colts, and in came Veris, a second-round draft pick out of Stanford. He's a bit light at 255 and not known for upper-body strength, but he has great quickness. Usually Powell could dance with the speed rushers.
"Here's the thing about a speed rusher like him," Patriot defensive line coach Ed Khayat said. "He gets them off-balance with his speed, but then he knows how to use his power."
On the Jets' last play of the first half O'Brien went back to pass. Veris put on a rush, occupying the second tight end, Rocky Klever, and knocking Powell off-balance. In came the 241-pound Tippett, the NFL's 1985 sack leader and the league's most devastating linebacker this year, taking a wide, looping rush through a big hole to Powell's inside. He crashed into O'Brien, who went down in a heap.
The diagnosis was a slight concussion. At halftime, coach Joe Walton asked backup quarterback Pat Ryan to question O'Brien about plays, formations.
"He was getting them right, but he was giving them to me late," Ryan said. "It's only a matter of time until those concussions get to you. You get too many concussions and you get battle brain."
O'Brien started the second half. He lasted six plays—five handoffs and an incomplete pass that Tippett forced. Then Walton got him out of there, and Ryan took over. By the time he took his first snap, though, the 13-7 Patriot lead had grown to 23-7. New England drove for a field goal, and then on the kickoff linebacker Johnny Rembert stripped the ball away from Johnny Hector—and ran the fumble in for a 15-yard touchdown. Ryan marched the Jets for a TD, but then the Veris-Tippett rush got him.
They teamed up for an 11-yard sack. They combined for a deflection-interception that Veris, who had his best day as a pro, returned 18 yards to set up a field goal. They forced another sack, Veris's third. The Patriots ended up with five sacks, and they could have had more if the Jets had tried to go long.
To celebrate this first, history-making playoff win, the Patriots now travel to Los Angeles to face the Raiders on Sunday. Eason was at his very best against the Jets (12 for 16 for 179 yards and one TD), and he'll have to have another good day against the Raiders' pass-rushing monsters. The Veris-Tippett twosome will be drawing a bead on right tackle Henry Lawrence & Co., and Henry has had his problems this year. Berry has his team peaking at exactly the right time, as the Jets found out so very sadly in the House of Wild Cards.