1990 Rule Change Makes Ravens-Steelers Possible
OLD RULE BARRED INTRADIVISIONAL MATCHUPS
By Joe Platania
OWINGS MILLS -- Under a previous set of NFL playoff rules, the following would have never happened:
- The Ravens would never have played the Tennessee Titans in that classic 2000 second-round showdown, but might have been assigned to take on Miami or Oakland instead.
- Pittsburgh would not have been the team to knock the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens out of the 2001 postseason. It could have instead been New England, who went on to win its first championship that year.
- The Ravens would not be playing the Steelers this Saturday in a second-round game (4:30 p.m., WJZ-TV, WIYY-FM), no matter what happened last weekend.
From the 1970 merger until 1989, the final season that featured five playoff teams per conference instead of the current six, teams from the same division were not permitted to meet in the divisional playoff round, also known as the second round.
It wasn’t until 1990 a second Wild Card team was added to the mix in both the AFC and NFC, resulting in another Wild Card game for each conference and six teams seeded with no further restrictions regarding when teams could play each other.
No one has really been able to come up with a concrete reason why this was the case. Perhaps with two meetings per year, it might have been taboo in those days to have three intradivision games in a season before the conference championship game, when it would have been absolutely necessary.
This was a rule that greatly affected the Baltimore Colts in 1970, 1975 and 1977 when there was just one Wild Card team per conference and the divisional round was the first playoff game instead of the second. It served as a big break in the former season, but an unlucky one in the two latter years.
Using the rules as they were at the time, the Wild Card team took on the division winner with the best record. The 1970 Colts, AFC East champions with an 11-2-1 mark, would have played the second-place Miami Dolphins (10-4), but they were in the same division, so the matchup wasn’t allowed to happen.
Instead, the Colts got to play a home game against a Cincinnati Bengals franchise in just its third year of operation. The Bengals had gone 7-20-1 in their first two American Football League seasons before joining the newly-formed AFC in the merger agreement.
Cincinnati’s dream season ended with a 17-0 loss to the powerful Colts at Memorial Stadium. Baltimore got an even bigger break when the Dolphins, in their first season under ex-Colts head coach Don Shula, lost to the Oakland Raiders, 21-14. The Colts beat Oakland the following week and went on to win Super Bowl V.
Five years later, the Colts were back in the playoffs after four dreadful seasons that featured the dismantling of the roster by general manager Joe Thomas. While that was going on, the Pittsburgh Steelers shook off four decades of losing with three division titles, four playoff appearances and their first championship.
Pittsburgh won the AFC Central with a 12-2 record, best in the conference. Using the rules as they stood at the time, they should have played the Wild Card team in the divisional round, but that happened to be the Bengals, who finished second in the Central at 11-3.
Since such a matchup was prohibited, the AFC East champion Colts had to go to Three Rivers Stadium because their 10-4 record was two games inferior to Pittsburgh’s. The newly-dynastic Steelers won a 28-10 game that featured the first appearance in the stand of the "Terrible Towels."
In 1976, things went more according to plan. With an 11-3 record, the conference’s second-best in 1976, they would take on the team with the third-best mark, the Central Division champion Steelers (10-4). Pittsburgh won at Memorial Stadium, 40-14, featuring Donald Kroner’s private plane crashing into the upper deck about 15 minutes after the game ended.
The following year, a strong AFC West race resulted in one of the greatest, but disappointing games in Baltimore football history. Denver had the conference’s best record at 12-2, but Oakland finished right it as an 11-3 Wild Card team.
The Broncos and Raiders couldn’t meet right away since they were in the same division, putting Oakland squarely in the path of the East champion Colts. The 37-31 double-overtime game those teams played at Memorial Stadium on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve afternoon ranks among the most thrilling in league history.
Even though local fans may have dreaded it, those ‘77 Colts should have been playing the Steelers for a third straight year, with the Colts’ 10-4 record being the AFC’s second-best to Denver’s and the 9-5 Steelers’ mark ranking as the third-best record. However, the ‘77 Steelers scored 283 points and allowed 243, the most they had given up and the fewest they had scored since their most recent sub-.500 season six years earlier. Predictably, Denver annihilated Pittsburgh, 34-21, so it’s reasonable to assume the Colts would have finally gotten their revenge.
But thanks to a now-discarded playoff rule, they did not get that opportunity.
Posted January 10, 2011, also published in Issue 157: January 2011