The biggest news of the 1980 National football League season is the name of one team that didn't make the playoffs --assured, while Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris & Co. will have to start all over again if they want to break the record of two straight Super Bowl titles their team shares with Green Bay and Miami.
The Packers and Dolphins, of course, could both tell the Steelers a thing or two about now drastically fortunes can change in the NKL. So could such other former Super Bowl winners as Baltimore, Kansas City, and the New York Jets. In fact, of the 10 teams that qualified for this year's playoffs, only two -- Dallas and Oakland -- have ever captured the big prize before.
Obviously, this year's theme is one of change -- epitomized not only by Pittsburgh's failure to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1971 but also by the amazing Cinder ella stories of Buffalo and Atlanta. And there were other surprise teams, too, such as Cleveland, which beat out both the Steelers and the Houston Oilers to win the power-packed AFC Centeal Division crown, and Oakland, which turned what was supposed to have been a rebuilding year into an 11-5 season and a wild-card berth.
So it should be an interesting three weeks, involving more than the usual number of unfamiliar faces as the six division champions and four additional "wild card" entries battle for the right to square off in Super Bowl XV on Jan. 25 in New Orleans.
The division winners -- Philadelphia, Minnesota, Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, and San Diego -- get the first of these weeks off, while the wild cards go head to head Sunday in a pair of preliminary battles that may prove just as interesting and meaningful as the alleged main events coming up later.
One of them, for instance, features the Los Angeles Rams, who went all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to Pittsburgh a year ago, against the perennially contending Cowboys in Dallas. Both teams had fine seasons and finished with records that would have won most division titles, but wound up second best in their respective groups.
The other wild-card game pits the always powerful Houston Oilers against the Raiders in Oakland. This game has the added irony of matching teams that began the season by swapping star quarterbacks. Former Raider signal caller Ken Stabler will thus now lead the Oilers against his exteammates. But Dan Pastorini, who went to Oakland in the trade, has been out with an injury for most of the season, giving veteran Jim Plunkett a late-career chance to blossom once again in a starter's role.
The winners of these games advance to the conference semifinals the following weekend, and it goes on from there until only two survivors are left to head for New Orleans.
Meanwhile, for the remaining 18 NFL teams, including not only Pittsburgh and Miami but such other recent top contenders as the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins, it's already a case of "wait till next year."
The final weekend of the season was like a dream come true for Commissioner Pete Rozelle and his schedule-makers --last games, seven teams were in contention for the five AFC playoff spots -- and not one of them had yet clinched a division crown or even a wild-card berth.
Five of these teams, however -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland, and San Diego -- had their fates in their own hands, since they knew that by winning their finales they could assure themselves of being in the playoffs one way or another. For the two other clubs -- Pittsburgh and New England -- it was a question of winning their own games and hoping that some of the other contenders lost.
The pieces of the puzzle began falling into place early Sunday afternoon as the Raiders rolled to a 33-17 win over the hapless New York Giants to nail down one berth. Cleveland, meanwhile, got involved in a real donnybrook with the Bengals in Cincinnati, but the Brown pulled it out 27-24 as Don Cokcroft kicked a 22-year field goal with 1:22 left and the defense stopped Cincinnati's final desperation drive at the 13 yard line as time expired. That gave Cleveland its first division championship since 1971 -- and of course settled another playoff berth.
Houston also had its hands full against Minnesota, even though the game was meaningless for the Vikings, who had already clinched their own division title. But Earl Campbell, who gained 203 yards for the day, scored the winning touchdown with 1:58 left as the Oilers prevailed 20-16 to assure themselves a wild-card spot.
Then late in the day out on the West Coast, Buffalo snapped a 13-13 tie on Nick Mike-Mayer's 25-yard field goal and held on for an eventual 18-13 margin over the pesky San Francisco 49ers. The victory clinched the AFC East crown, putting the finishing touches on a trully incredible turnaround for a team that had been only 7-9 a year ago and had been picked by many experts to wind up last this season.
Now there was only one playoff spot remaining, and it remained for the very last game of the season -- a Monday night clash between San Diego and Pitssburgh -- to settle that question. The Steelers' own last faint possibility of making the playoffs via the complicated tie-breaking formula had evaporated on Sunday when New Orleans was unable to upset New England. But the Patriots, by winning that game 38-27, had kept their chances alive -- if Pittsburgh could stop the Chargers.
That didn't happen, however, as a relentless San Diego attack led by quarterback Dan Fouts, running back Chuck Muncie, and a host of glu-fingfered receivers proved too much for the fading Steelers to handle. The result was a 26-17 triumph that wasn't really as close as the score indicates, lifting the Chargers to the AFC West crown.
Things were much less complex in the National Conference. Here the five playoff berths were already clinched, and all that remained was the question of whether Philadelphia or Dallas would be the East Division champion, with the other taking one of the wild-card spots. The teams met headon, but the Cowboys not only had to win the game -- they had to win it by 25 points or more. Incredibly, they actually built such a lead (35-10), but the Eagles struck back make it a 35-27 final, leaving the teams tied with 12-4 season records and giving Philadelphia the division crown via tie-breaking points.
The big season-long story in the NFC, though, had to be that of Atlanta -- a team that rebounded from a 6-10 record the previous year to win nine straight games near the end of this season and end up matching the Eagles and Cowboys for the best overall won-lost record in the league. The Falcons also, of course, won the West Division title in the process, while Minnesota took the perennially weak Central Division crown and Los Angeles grabbed the last wild-card spot.
Another major turnaround this year was made by Detroit, which tied for the league's worst record in 1979 at 2-14, but was in contention for a playoff spot much of this season before eventually losing out to Minnesota on tie-breaking points after both finished with 9-7 records. One reason for the Lions' comeback , of course, was that their sorry record a year ago netted them the No. 1 draft choice, which meant former Heisman Trophy-winning running back Billy Sims from Oklahoma. Sims lived up to his advance billing, too. leading his team to several big early-season victories and playing well all year in a strong bid for rookie-of-the-year honors in his conference.
Another rookie running back who came less publicized but was also a big reason for his team's success was Joe Cribbs of Buffalo, whose ground gaining feats opened up the passing lanes for quarterback Joe Ferguson and made the Bills' attack work.
Among the veterans, Campbell had his usual big rushing year for Houston, while elsewhere it was the quarterbacks who got most of the attention -- especially Fouts, Brian Sipe at Cleveland, Steve Bartkowski at Atlanta, Ron Jaworski at Philadelphia, and Danny White, who overcame the pressure of replacing Roger Stauback to guide Dallas to success in his first year as a regular.
National Football League Final Standings American Conference National Conference East East W L T Pct c-Buffalo 11 5 0 688 New England 10 6 0 .625 Miami 8 8 0 .500 Baltimore 7 9 0 .438 Ny Jets 4 12 0 .250 Central c-Cleveland 11 5 0 .688 w-Houston 11 5 0 .688 Pittsburgh 9 7 0 .563 Cincinnati 6 40 0 .375 West c-San Diego 11 5 0 .688 w-Oakland 11 5 0 .688 Kansas City 8 8 0 .500 Denver 8 8 0 .500 Seattle 4 12 0 .250
National Footbal League Final Standings National Conference East W L Pct e-Phila. 12 4 0 .750 w-Dallas 12 4 0 .750 Washington 6 10 0 .375 St. Louis 5 11 0 .313 Ny Giants 4 12 0 .250 Central -Minnesota H9 7 0.563 Detroit H9 7 0.563 Chicago 6 10 0 .375 Tampa Bay 5 10 1 .344 Green Bay 5 10 1 .344 West c-Atlanta 12 4 0 .750 w-Los Angeles 11 5 0 .688 San Francisco 6 10 0 .375 New Orleans 1 15 0 .063 c-division champion w-in playoffs as "wild card" team Preliminary playoffs, Sunday, Dec. 28 Los Angeles at Dallas Houston at Oakland Divisional playoffs, Jan. 3 & 4
Opponents and sites to be determined Conference championships, Jan. 11 Opponents and sites to be determined Super Bowl at New OrleansM Jan. 25 Opponents to be determined