All this week, I was gearing up to write up something in my Throwback Thursday about some, or all, of the Colts' Super Bowl appearances. But then Josh Wilson swooped in and unknowingly stole my idea. Oh well.
That gave me an opportunity to focus on a game which I had a perfect opportunity to write about earlier this season, but didn't. It's time to throw it way back to the game known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
As odd as it sounds, in 1950s, the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns were really the premier NFL teams. From 1950-1959 one of these two teams appeared in every single NFL Championship Game. It's also worth noting that the Detroit Lions reeled off three championships in the 50s as well.
The Colts? Well the team was founded in 1953, and 1958 was only the second winning season in the team's brief history.
Both teams entered the '58 championship with identical 9-3 regular season records, although each team finished with those records in different ways.
The Giants began the season with a 2-2 record, with their first three games on the road. The Giants would win seven of their next eight, though (including a win over the Colts) to finish at 9-3.
However, the Giants and Browns both finished with a 9-3 record, which meant the two teams would have to play a playoff game the week before the championship to determine the Eastern Conference champion. The Giants would shut out the Browns 10-0 to complete the season sweep of Cleveland, and advance to the championship.
The Colts, on the other hand, steamrolled right through the Western Conference. They won their first six games (five by double figures) before losing to the Giants in Week 7, and losing Johnny Unitas for two games due to injury.
Even without Unitas, the Colts continues to win. In week 10, the Colts had a shot to wrap up the Western Conference title with a win over the San Francisco 49ers. However, the Colts were down 27-7 at halftime, and it looked bleak.
Four second half touchdowns later, though, the Colts found themselves on top of the 49ers, 35-27, and on top of the Western Conference. With the conference, and spot in the NFL Championship, wrapped up, Head Coach Weeb Ewbank opted to rest the starters for the final two games.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To start the game, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell started his back-up quarterback, Don Heinrich, allegedly to see how the Colts would react. The move didn't exactly work as Heinrich turned the ball over on his first drive, and the offense was forced to punt on his second. Still, if a team has a serviceable back-up, this is quite the shrewd move (in my opinion).
Charley Conerly would play the rest of the game at QB for the Giants.
I would also like to pause here to acknowledge just how elite this Giants coaching staff was. Howell was the head coach. His Offensive Coordinator? Vince Lombardi. His Defensive Coordinator? Tom Landry.
Back to the game. I mentioned the Giants had a rather inauspicious start, but the Colts were right on their heels. First drive? Unitas was hit by Sam Huff and lost a fumble. Second drive? Unitas as intercepted. Third drive? Huff blocked a Colts field goal. Needless to say, it was a rugged start.
The Giants would end up scoring first on a Pat Summerall field goal. However, the Colts would follow-up with an Alan Ameche touchdown run, and Unitas would find Raymond Berry for another score it put the Colts up at halftime.
In the third, the Colts had a chance to put the Giants away. Facing third down and the ball on the one-yard-line, the Colts handed the ball to Ameche, who was stuffed. On fourth down Ewbank made the (correct) decision to go for the touchdown. Ameche was stopped again, and the Giants took over on downs. A deflating moment for the Colts offense.
It only took the Giants four plays to go 95 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to only four points.
With the Colts offense now struggling, the Giants were able to score again to start the fourth quarter and jump ahead 17-14.
On the ensuing drive, the Colts drove into Giants territory, but kicker Bert Rechichar missed a 46-yard try. The Colts would get another chance to score, but two sacks of Unitas pushed the Colts back, and they were forced to punt.
With a hair over two minutes to play, the Giants had a golden opportunity to put the Colts away. Facing fourth and inches around mid-field, the Giants elected to punt the ball away.
The stage was set for Unitas and the Colts. The drive started out with two incomplete passes before Unitas found Lenny Moore for a first down. Then Unitas found Berry for a first down. Then he found Berry again. And again. Unitas threw to Berry three straight plays to move the ball 62 yards deep into Giants territory.
Steve Myhra, who was only 4 of 10 on field goals in the season, booted the game-tying field goal with seven seconds to play.
The game was headed for overtime. But, as Unitas would later recount, the players didn't know what overtime actually was.
"When the game ended in a tie, 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."
Unitas would proceed to lose the coin toss, and the Giants would get the first crack at winning the game. Much like the beginning of regulation, though, the Giants started poorly. Don Maynard fumbled, but recovered, the opening kick-off. The Giants proceeded to go three-and-out and gave the ball back to Unitas.
The Colts drove down to the Giants seven yard line. Here is where most "Armchair Coaches" would insist on kicking the winning field goal. But remember, Myhra has missed more kicks than he had made through the season. Unitas threw a six yard swing pass to Jim Mutscheller that was nearly intercepted.
When asked about this play later, Ewbank has said he told Unitas to keep the ball on the ground, to avoid an interception. Regardless, Unitas called for a pass uttering one of my favorite football quotes (emphasis is mine):
One play later Ameche ended the game with a touchdown run, securing the game, and the World Championship for the Colts.
The game was dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played" although the stat line would not reflect that. Still, the game drew in a, then record, television audience, despite the fact that the game was blacked out in New York.
The next five years were up and down for both teams. They would meet again in the championship the next year, but the Colts routed the Giants to win another title. Within the next five seasons, the Giants would play for the title every year except 1960. They lost every time.
The Colts would end up parting ways with Ewbank after the 1963 season. Ewbank would move on to coach the AFL's New York Jets, and the Colts would hire some guy by the name of Don Shula.
The game was one for the ages, though, and brought the Colts their first ever NFL title.