Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eagles-Packers Revisited

It is ironic, I suppose, that the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles will meet in the first round of the playoffs this afternoon.

Those with little appreciation for NFL history may only realize that it is a rematch of the season opener, but, as Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, neither team is really the same as it was back in September.

It was also a little more than 50 years ago — on Dec. 26, 1960 — that the two teams played for the NFL championship. Sports Illustrated called that game one of the greatest moments in Philadelphia history.

It was also the only championship game Vince Lombardi ever lost.

If a football fan from 2011 could be transported back to that time, he might find little about the game that he would recognize. It is safe to say that things were different half a century ago.

That game was played in the same city — Philadelphia — as today's game will be, but it won't be played in the same stadium.

The place where the 1960 title game was played — Franklin Field — still stands, as it has for more than 100 years. The University of Pennsylvania plays its football games there, as it did then, but no professional football team has called Franklin Field home since the 1970s.

The teams that met on Franklin Field in 1960 looked very different than the teams that will face each other on Lincoln Financial Field today. Their recent histories are different, too. The Eagles and Packers of 1960 were making their first postseason appearances in more than a decade while their counterparts in 2010–11 are fixtures in the playoffs.

In 1960, of course, the nation was on the brink of political and societal upheaval that no one could anticipate. For that matter, the NFL was about to embark on a decade of change that would bring serious competition from the upstart American Football League and lead, ultimately, to first the expansion of the NFL's playoff field followed by the establishment of a Super Bowl to crown an overall champion and, eventually, the merging of the leagues.

That was still in the future in 1960, though. In 1960, things were still being done the way they had almost always been done in the NFL. The two conference winners in the NFL, the Packers and the Eagles, advanced to face each other in the championship game.

The Sunday on which the game would have been played was Christmas Day, and the NFL did not want to play a game on Christmas Day so it was played instead on Monday, Dec. 26.

Franklin Field did not have lights in those days so the game began at high noon Philadelphia time. Television wasn't as prevalent as it has become, and the phenomenon of night games was still years away. For that matter, Monday Night Football didn't come along for another decade.

The underdog Eagles trailed, 6–0, thanks to two Don Chandler field goals, then took the lead at halftime on a Norm Van Brocklin–to–Tommy MacDonald touchdown pass and a Bobby Walston field goal.

The Packers retook the lead on a Bart Starr–to–Max McGee touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, then the Eagles took the lead for good on a touchdown run by Ted Dean.

The Packers, who outgained the Eagles by more than 100 yards, weren't done. With time running out, Philly's Chuck Bednarik tackled Green Bay's Jim Taylor just short of the goal line to preserve a 17–13 win.

The Eagles have been to a couple of Super Bowls in the half century that has passed, but they have never finished a football season as undisputed champions since that day.

This will only be the second time the Eagles and Packers have faced each other in the playoffs. The teams did not meet in the postseason again until January 2004, when Philadelphia beat Green Bay, 20–17 in the divisional playoffs. That game, too, was played in Philadelphia.

History suggests it will be a close game, but I'm inclined to think it may be high scoring. This afternoon, I have no doubt that Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Philadelphia's Michael Vick, who are probably the best two quarterbacks still standing in the NFC, will combine for more than the 30 points that the Eagles and Packers put on the board back in 1960 — or the 37 points they produced seven years ago.

But I think it will be the best game of the weekend — Nick Folk's game–winning field goal for the Jets notwithstanding.

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