Welcome back to “Games That Shaped the NFL” for this, the second edition!
This ongoing series will look back at important games in NFL history with a focus on games that led to important rule changes or had a significant impact on the league in some way. The goal of this series is to provide those fans who are new to the game a look at the league’s history and hopefully give them an understanding of how certain aspects of the league came to be.
1958 NFL Championship
Baltimore Colts at New York Giants
December 28th, 1958
Led by starting quarterback Johnny Unitas, who the previous year won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, the Baltimore Colts won the league’s Western Conference with a record of 9 wins and 3 losses. They were able to win the conference with two games remaining, allowing them to rest their key players for the final two regular-season games.
However, the Eastern Conference race was much tighter. The final week of the season saw the Cleveland Browns, with a record of 9 and 2, visit the New York Giants, who were 8 and 3. A win or tie would win the conference for the Browns. With the game tied at 10, Giants kicker Pat Summerall missed a 31-yard field goal with 4:30 minutes left on the clock. However, he would get a second chance a couple of minutes later and connected on a 49-yard kick that proved to be the game-winner for a 13 to 10 Giants victory. That meant both teams finished with identical 9 and 3 records atop the conference.
A tiebreaker game would be played the following week, which saw the Giants claim the conference with a 10 to 0 win. This set up a match with the Colts for the NFL Championship. This game was a rematch of one from the regular season, which saw the Giants win 24 to 21. However, Unitas did not play in that game.
The first half was very sloppily played, as both teams combined for six turnovers (three for each team). Summerall opened the scoring with a 36-yard field goal; however, a fumble by Giants running back Frank Gifford would set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Colts running back Alan Ameche. Another Gifford fumble would set up a long drive by the Colts that ended in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Unitas to Raymond Berry and a 14 to 3 halftime lead for the Colts.
The second half saw the momentum swing in the Giants favor after stopping the Colts on fourth down at the one-yard line. Four plays later, the Giants scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Mel Triplett. They would take the lead early in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Charley Conerly to Gifford.
Late in the game, while facing a fourth down and inches on their own 40-yard line, the Giants elected to punt. This gave the Colts the ball on their own 14-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game. Running the “hurry-up/no huddle offense” (which was far less common at the time), Unitas would lead one of the most famous drives in NFL history. After a third down completion to Lenny Moore, Unitas would complete three consecutive passes to Berry, moving the ball to the Giants 13-yard line. A 20-yard field goal tied the game with seven seconds left, sending the game into sudden-death overtime.
This would be the first such game in NFL history.
At this time, NFL regular season games tied at the end of regulation ended as a tie: there was no overtime played. Sudden-death overtime was approved for the 1946 championship game; however, no game ended in a tie until the 1958 game. As such, players were unfamiliar with the rule or what would happen next.
“When the game ended in a tie,” Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas remembers, “we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We’re going to flip a coin to see who will receive.’ That was the first we heard of the overtime period.”
The Giants won the coin toss and received the kickoff to start overtime. However, they failed to move the ball and punted it to the Colts, who started the next drive on their own 20-yard line. On the 13th play of the drive, Alan Ameche would score one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history as he ran the ball in on a 3rd and goal play from the one-yard line, winning the game and the championship for the Colts.
This game proved to be a turning point for the NFL. During the 1950’s, the NFL had been growing as one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States. This game, viewed by an estimated 45 million people, helped cement the NFL’s spot near the top and showed it was a viable television product.
A couple years later, Lamar Hunt would start a rival league known as the American Football League (AFL). Within the next decade, the AFL and NFL would merge under the NFL banner. 26 teams played in the NFL during the 1970 season, the first season after the merger, whereas there had only been 12 teams for the 1958 season.
By 1970, the NFL had television deals in place with both CBS and NBC to carry all the NFC and AFC games respectively. This season also saw the debut of “Monday Night Football”, as ABC agreed to televise one game per week on primetime on Monday nights.
This huge growth that the NFL experienced in the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s, is in part credited to the 1958 Championship. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was said by Giants owner Wellington Mara to have attributed professional football’s surge in popularity to the game, because it “happened just at that time, in that season, and it happened in New York”.
You can read the first edition in the series of Games That Shaped the NFL here