Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Eve Classic

I'm a football fan. I've been a football fan all my life, and I have seen a lot of football games.

Most have been entertaining. Not all have been memorable.

It seems to me that there are three things, any one of which can make a football game truly memorable:
  • Extreme conditions

  • A remarkable individual performance

  • A fantastic finish
When I say "extreme conditions," I'm talking about something like the "Ice Bowl," in which severe weather plays a significant role in the outcome.

Of course, I guess that could also mean playing a game under unusually stressful circumstances. This would have applied, I suppose, if the NFL had played its regularly scheduled games the weekends after the 9/11 attacks or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When I say "a remarkable individual performance," I'm talking about something like the day 45 years ago this month when Chicago Bears rookie Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers.

And when I say "a fantastic finish," I could be talking about something like the "Ice Bowl," which had the coldest air temperature ever recorded in an NFL game.

But sometimes what makes a game's finish truly fantastic is the fact that the issue is not resolved in the regulation 60 minutes and overtime is required.

One day, I guess, the NFL will perfect its overtime provision. It will probably have to experiment with different formats, including the one currently in use in the NCAA, in which each team gets a chance on offense, and the game continues if neither team has the lead after both have had that opportunity.

In that arrangement, it is advantageous to get the ball second. That way, your team knows how much it must score either to win the game or force another overtime period.

As things stand now in the NFL, the first team to touch the ball might score and the other team would never have that opportunity. Consequently, in this arrangement, it is to a team's advantage to get the ball first.

Of course, that practically assumes that, if you get the ball, you're going to score. It doesn't always work out that way.

It didn't work out that way 33 years ago today.

I remember the Christmas Eve of 1977 quite well. My family was visiting my grandmother in Dallas, as usual. And, as usual, I was sick that Christmas Eve.

When I think back on my adolescence, I recall being sick during the Christmas holidays — usually a cold but occasionally a virus — a lot more frequently than I recall enjoying good health.

And on Christmas Eve 1977, a stomach virus was keeping me close to the bathroom in my grandmother's house.

It was a Saturday, the first day of the NFL playoffs. The Oakland Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champions, but they had lost the AFC West to the famed Orange Crush of Denver so they were the AFC's wild–card team and had to travel to Baltimore to play the Colts, winners of the AFC East.

I remember stretching out on my grandmother's sofa and my father sitting in one of her parlor chairs. My mother must have been doing some last–minute Christmas shopping. My grandmother and my brother may have been with her.

My father and I are the only ones who were in that living room that afternoon, and we watched an intense struggle between the Raiders and the Colts, a back–and–forth affair that went into overtime, then went into a second overtime.

It wasn't the longest game ever played. That was the AFC playoff game between Miami and Kansas City on Christmas Day in 1971.

It wasn't a championship game. If it had been a championship game, it might have been the longest one ever played.

The championship game that holds the distinction as the longest remains the AFL title game between the Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers on Dec. 23, 1962. The Texans won that game, 20–17, 2:54 into the second overtime period.

The Colts–Raiders game falls somewhere in between. It went into a second overtime period, it matched future Hall of Famers and great coaches, it never appeared to be in either team's pocket until tight end Dave Casper scored the winning touchdown.

I will always remember watching it with my father in my grandmother's living room on Christmas Eve 1977.

Ironically, the teams may be poised to make some more holiday memories this weekend. The teams will meet in Oakland on Sunday.

Neither team can clinch a playoff spot on Sunday, and it is highly unlikely that the teams can match what their franchise ancestors did in Baltimore 33 years ago.

But it might be fun to watch — and possibly memorable.

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