Monday, May 21, 2007

The 1967 Baltimore Colts

Fact: The Baltimore Colts finished with the NFL’s best record in 1967 yet failed to make the playoffs.

Impossible you say? Au contraire my friend. Actually the Colts and the Los Angeles Rams tied for the league’s best record in 1967, each team finishing 11-1-2. Before 1967, the NFL divided itself into Eastern and Western Conferences with each conference winner playing each other for the NFL championship. If two teams finished tied for the best conference record, then a tiebreaker game was played to determine the conference champ. That actually happened to the Colts in 1965. They and the Green Bay Packers finished with 10-3-1 marks and had to play in a tiebreaker game for the right to meet the Eastern Conference champion (the Pack prevailed 13-10 in OT and then beat the Browns the following week for the NFL title).

All that changed in 1967. The NFL added a 16th franchise, the Atlanta Falcons, and the league split into four divisions, the unforgettably named Century, Capital, Coastal, and Central divisions. Each division winner made the playoffs. No wild cards. Before 1967, the Colts and Rams would have played for the conference crown. Now, the Coastal division winner had to be determined by a tiebreaker rule. The Colts and Rams played twice in 1967. They tied once. The Rams won the other matchup. So the Rams won the tiebreaker and the Colts stayed home despite tying the Rams for the league’s best record (for some reason combined point differential in the head-to-head matchups was the tiebreaker rather than head-to-head record).

Four notes about this unusual occurrence:

1) The Rams and Colts were clearly the two best teams in the league. Besides their records, the Rams led the league in point scored (398) and points allowed (196), while the Colts were right behind them in each category (394-198). Compare those teams’ points scored to points allowed differential (+202, +196) to the league’s three other division winners, the Packers (+123), the Cowboys (+74), and the Browns (+37).

2) While they didn’t meet in the postseason, as it turned out the Colts and Rams did play to determine the Coastal division winner. They faced each other in the final game of the regular season knowing the division title was on the line. The Rams were 10-1-2 and the Colts were 11-0-2. Yes, the Colts entered the final week of the regular season undefeated! They led 7-3 after one quarter, but the Rams came back to crush them 34-10, sacking NFL MVP Johnny Unitas 7 times in the process. Other than the 1972 Dolphins, the 1967 Baltimore Colts are the only team in the Super Bowl era that hadn’t lost a game going into the season’s final week. That week 14 loss to the Rams didn’t just cost them a playoff spot; it cost them a shot at an undefeated season.

3) As you may know, many consider the 1968 Baltimore Colts to be the greatest team never to win a Super Bowl. The Colts went 13-1 that year and were absolutely dominant all the way up to Super Bowl III where they, along with the rest of the world, were shocked by the New York Jets. So in 1967 and 1968 the Colts lost a combined two regular season games, yet failed to win a single Super Bowl. The only other team to lose as few as two games in two years, the 1972-1973 Dolphins, won two Super Bowls. (The 1985-1986 Bears lost three regular season games in 16-game seasons and won one Super Bowl). The 1968 Colts loss in the Super Bowl was such an incredible upset that I think its obliterated memories of the 1967 Colts’ choke job against the Rams. No one ever talks about how the Colts blew an undefeated season in their last game.

4) Had the NFL kept the old alignment rather than split into four divisions in 1967, the Rams and Colts would have played for the Western Conference title and the 9-4-1 Green Bay Packers would have stayed at home. The change allowed the Pack to win the new Central division and go on to an unprecedented third-straight NFL championship and a second Super Bowl win in Vince Lombardi’s final season.


Mike said...

I like the old names for the divisions. Which one was Miami in? I figure coastal, but "century" would be cooler.

Rob said...

Miami was in the American Football League then. The AFL started out in 1960 with two 4-team divisions, added Miami in 1966 and Cincinnati in 1968. Miami played in the unimaginatively named Eastern Division with the Jets, Patriots, Bills, and Oilers. The NFL only had the four "C" divisions in 1967, 1968 and 1969. They went to 6 divisions when the leagues merged in 1970.

Brad said...

If the nfl had kept the two conference format in '67, the schedules for the teams would've been different than the '67 schedules they actually played. The rams and colts had both beaten the packers by the skin of their teeth (literally) in '67, and both games were packer road games. The rams and colts didn't have to play the packers again in the regular season in '67, as they had in previous seasons. The best we can say about what would've been in '67 is "we will never know". By the way, when people whine about the realignment of the nfl in '67, they never include the playoff realignment in the afl in 1969. That was the final year of the afl as a separate league, and afl management decided to include the second place teams in their post season. If not for that decision, the Kansas City Chiefs would not have won Super Bowl IV, because they wouldn't have been there. The Chiefs finished 1-1/2 games behind the Oakland Raiders that year. So, if you're going shed tears for the '67 colts, at least be consistent, and include the '69 jets and raiders. Those were the two teams the chiefs beat on their way to Super Bowl IV.

Anonymous said...

In 1967, the 16th team the NFL added was the New Orleans Saints. The Atlanta Falcons entered the league in 1966 as the 15th team.

Chi Town Pat said...

Brad is absolutely on point. The Colts recovered an on side kick and Unitas had to scramble for 7 yards on a fourth and 6 before throwing a touchdown pass in the last minute to escape with a 13-10 win over the Packers. The Rams blocked a Packer punt in the last 54 seconds to set up their winning touchdown in a 27-24 final. The game was meaningless to the Packers who had already clinched their division. The Packers fourth loss of the season came in the following week in another meaningless game against the Steelers in their final game of the regular season The Packers thoroughly dominated the Rams 28-7 in the Western Conference Title game just 2 weeks after the Rams win over the Packers

The 69 Chiefs finished the regular season 11-3, The Jets record was 10-4. The Chiefs beat the Jets and Raiders on the road giving up a combined 13 points in those games.

Both of these teams were worthy Super Bowl Champs that easily qualified for the playoffs under the existing format at that time. Playing their best football in the post season.

asfhgwt said...

I will always believe that the Packers' Donny Anderson intentionally allowed his punt to be blocked in 1967 in the last minute of that Rams game. If you watch the film, he takes his good old time getting that kick off--when the whole world knew the Rams were going to try to block that punt (and they had been good at it in prior games). Why would he do it? He either had a betting interest in the game or the Pack preferred to face the Rams in the playoffs, if possible, rather than the Colts.

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