The 10 Greatest Pre-Merger NFL/AFL Championship Games (1933 to 1970)

By Tom Pollin
December 21, 2011 1:15 am
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On the second play, Wilson frees Osmanski for the touchdown
From the birth of the NFL in 1920 to 1932 league titles were awarded to the team with the best winning percentage with ties not counted. In 1932 the Portsmouth Spartans (who became the Detroit Lions in 1934) and the Chicago Bears tied for first with 6-1 records plus both teams tied each other twice during the regular season. The championship was decided by an extra game that ultimately had to be played indoors at the Chicago Stadium due to weather conditions.

Due to the success of the 1932 playoff game, the team owners met and voted on some rule changes:
  • The ten team league was split into an Eastern and Western division with both meeting at seasons end in a Championship Game
  • To increase the number of field goals and decrease the number of tie games, the goal posts were moved from the back of the end zones to the goal lines.
  • And as the most influential change, forward passes were allowed from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage instead of a passer needing to be five yards back before he could throw.
With these changes in place the 1933 season brought the game a giant step closer towards the style we enjoy today with a championship game finishing the season. The importance of the league championship game changed after the 1970 AFL/NFL merger but up to then there were some hard-fought, historic games played to crown each season’s champion.

Since they’re all distinctive classics it would be an impossible task to rank these in order of game quality and importance so, presented by date here are the stories of the ten best League Championship Games from 1933 to 1970.

December 17, 1933 - Wrigley Field, Chicago
Chicago Bears 23 - NY Giants 21

An estimated crowd of 26,000 fans came out to watch the 11-3 Eastern Division Champion New York Giants face the 10-2-1 Western Division Champion Chicago Bears. The teams split their two meetings during the season, each winning at home.

The Bears opened the scoring with two field goals in the first and second quarters by “Automatic” Jack Manders to take a 6-0 lead. The Giants responded before the end of the half with a 29 yard touchdown pass from tailback Harry Newman to Red Badgro to go up 7-6.

In the third quarter with the Bears leading 9-7, the Giants’ Max Krause scored on a one-yard run to retake the lead 14-9. The Bears answered with a 92-yard drive behind the punishing running of Bronko Nagurski. With the Bears down to the Giants’ eight-yard line they took advantage of the new passing rule. Nagurski took another handoff but just before diving into the line he jumped and completed an eight yard touchdown pass to Bill Karr for a 16-14 Bears’ lead. In the fourth quarter the Giants drove to the Chicago eight yard line and then pulled a trick play of their own as Ken Strong took a handoff, faked a reverse, lateraled the ball back to Newman who passed back to Strong in the end zone for the touchdown and a 21-16 lead.

The Bears followed by driving to the New York 36 yard line. On the next play Nagurski took the handoff and jumped again, completing a pass to Bill Hewitt. As the Giants’ defenders converged on Hewitt he lateraled to Karr who covered the final 25 yards for the touchdown and a 23-21 lead with less than two minutes to play. On the Giants’ final possession they drove to their own 40-yard line when Red Grange secured the victory for the Bears on the game’s final play, wrapping up Red Badgro by the arms before he could lateral the ball away.

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame each member of the Bears earned $210.34 for winning the championship while each Giants’ player received $140.22. In a story the following day, the Associated Press described it as "probably the most spectacular game of the year" and "a brilliant display of offensive power".

December 9, 1934 - Polo Grounds, New York
NY Giants 30 - Chicago Bears 13

The rematch of 1933’s championship game ranks No. 8 on NFL Films list of bad weather games and is known as “The Sneakers Game”.

The Bears had built on their previous season’s success by going 13-0 and were riding an 18 game win streak into the game against the 8-5 New York Giants. Freezing rain the previous night left the Polo Grounds turf a sheet of ice that cleats didn’t have much effect on.

Giants’ end Ray Flaherty mentioned to head coach Steve Owen that he had played a game in college under similar conditions. The team had switched from cleats to sneakers to get better footing. The Giants searched but couldn’t find a sporting goods store open in Manhattan on Sunday so Owen sent assistant equipment manager Abe Cohen to Manhattan College to see if he could get basketball shoes since Cohen also worked there.

In the meantime the Bears used their size advantage against the Giants to push them around on the icy field and establish a 10-3 lead on a field goal and a Bronko Nagurski touchdown run. The Bears increased that lead to 13-3 in the third quarter before Cohen arrived with nine pairs of sneakers he obtained after using a hammer to break into Manhattan College’s locker room.

Giants’ players changed shoes and suddenly could cut and maneuver around the slipping and sliding Bears. Ed Danowski threw a pass to Ike Frankian that the Bears intercepted on the two yard line but Frankian stole the ball away for a touchdown as the Bears’ defender slipped to the turf.

Running back Ken Strong broke free on the Giants’ next possession for a 42 yard touchdown run and later scored on an 11 yard run. Danowski finished the Giants’ 27 point fourth quarter with a nine yard touchdown of his own. The Bears’ unbeaten streak was finished and the New York Giants had their first title under the new playoff system.

 

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By Tom Pollin
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