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One of the best champions in Cleveland sports history.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are facing off in the NBA Finals for the third straight season. That’s never happened before in NBA history, and it only happened once in pro football history… and it also involved Cleveland.

In 1952, the Browns won the American with an 8-4 record, while the Detroit Lions won the National division with a 9-3 record (after defeating the defending-champion Rams in the National tiebreaker game). Otto Graham and Bobby Layne were the two top quarterbacks in the NFL that year according to both the AP and the NY Daily News. Detroit traveled to Cleveland on December 28th and defeated the Browns 17-7, with Doak Walker’s 67-yard touchdown providing the biggest blow.

The next season, Graham had a season for the ages by any measure.  You’d be hard-pressed to argue for a better regular season by any quarterback from World War II to 1983, when a Graham-led Browns passing game finished with a Relative ANY/A of +5.00.  The Browns began the 12-game season with 11 straight wins, while Detroit finished 10-2 with both losses coming against the 8-3-1 Rams.  Cleveland lost the season finale in Philadelphia, and then traveled to Detroit for an NFL Championship rematch.

The Browns and Lions were tied 10-10 after three quarters, and Cleveland was up 16-10 late in the game.  But in the final minutes, Layne found an unlikely hero in Jim Doran for a 33-yard game-winning touchdown (video here), with Walker’s extra point providing the margin of victory. The bigger story? Graham having one of the chokiest games in football history, finishing with 2 of 15 for 20 yards with 2 interceptions.

The next year, the Browns and Lions were again the class of the NFL. Cleveland finished with a +174 points differential, while the Lions were at +148, and no other team was at +110. The 9-3 Browns hosted the 9-2-1 Lions in the NFL title game, but the roles would be reversed. Layne was the goat, throwing 6 interceptions with 0 touchdowns, while Graham went 9/12 for 163 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while also rushing for three scores. Cleveland led 35-10 at halftime, and won 56-10. The Browns lost two out of three to the Lions (and the Graham-less Browns would lose another title game to a different iteration of the Lions in ’57), but did finally exact some revenge the third time around.

There have been 11 other times in NFL history that teams met in the playoffs in three straight years, including the Raiders and Steelers facing off a record five straight times from 1972 to 1976.

  • The Browns and Cowboys met in ’67, ’68, and ’69, with Cleveland losing the first but winning the second two games.  Neither team made it to the Super Bowl in any of those years.
  • The Cowboys ended the 49ers season in ’70, ’71, and ’72, with the first two of those games coming in the NFC Championship.  Dallas lost the Super Bowl in ’70, but beat the Dolphins the next year.  Two decades later — sandwiched around a forgettable playoff game in 1981 — Dallas and San Francisco again met in the postseason three straight years.  Yet again, Dallas won the first two games, but the 49ers stole the third one in 1994.  All three years the matchup took place in the NFC Championship Game, and all three seasons, the victor won the Super Bowl.
  • The Raiders lost to the Steelers in ’72 on the Immaculate Reception; a year later, Oakland beat Pittsburgh, before losing to the Steelers in the ’74 and ’75 playoffs.  In ’76, the Raiders beat up on a depleted Steelers squad en route to Oakland’s first Super Bowl.
  • From 1973 to 1980, the Cowboys and Rams met in the playoffs six times, with Dallas winning four times.  The Cowboys won in ’73 and ’75, while the Rams won in ’76.  And then the teams started meeting more frequently: Dallas won 38-0 in 1978, the Rams won 21-19 in 1979, and the Cowboys won 34-13 in 1980.
  • What happened to the Rams in ’77? Well, after beating Dallas in ’76, the Rams lost to the Vikings in Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game, 24-13.  A year later, the Rams lost at home, 14-7, to the Vikings in the division round. In ’78, the Rams — who had also lost in the playoffs to the ’69 and ’74 Vikes — finally snapped the streak, beating Minnesota (before losing to Dallas) in the division round.
  • Not many teams got the best of the Montana 49ers, but the Giants may have been the team’s toughest out.  San Francisco beat New York in 1981, and then won 21-10 in 1984. But in 1985, the Giants won 17-3, and in 1986, New York crushed San Francisco, 49-3.  Foru years later, the Giants upset San Francisco in Candlestick, 15-13, in the NFC Championship Game.  The winner of these Giants/49ers games won the Super Bowl in four of those five seasons.
  • In 1987, the Vikings shocked the 49ers in the playoffs, winning in Candlestick Park as 11-point underdogs.  The next two years, though, the 49ers obliterated the Vikings en route to Super Bowl glory.
  • At the same time that the Cowboys were fighting with the 49ers, Dallas was also crushing the dreams of Packers fans.  Dallas beat Green Bay in the playoffs by double digits in 1993, 1994, and 1995; an upset loss against Carolina in 1996 meant Green Bay didn’t have to beat Dallas to finally capture the franchise’s first Super Bowl since Lombardi.
  • While the Packers were struggling with Dallas, Green Bay got the upper hand on the 49ers three years in a row, knocking San Francisco out of the playoffs in ’95, ’96, and ’97.  In ’98, the Packers were about to do it again — and for the third time in four years in San Francisco — until the Catch II gave San Francisco the win.
  • It’s been 15 years since two teams have met in the playoffs in three straight seasons.  In 2000, Tamp Bay lost 21-3 in Philadelphia as 3-point favorites in a game played with a wind chill of 11 degrees.  In 2001, Tampa Bay lost 31-9 in Philadelphia in a game played in slightly warmer conditions, with the Eagles as 3.5-point favorites.  In 2002, the two teams met for the third straight year in Philadelphia, this time in the NFC Champions Game, on a day when the temperature was 26 degrees at kickoff.  Philadelphia was a 4-point favorite, but Tampa Bay won 27-10, before winning the Super Bowl one week later.

As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

  • TN

    The Raiders’ victory over the Steelers in 1976 didn’t lead to their first Super Bowl; they had already lost to the Packers in Super Bowl II.

    • First Super Bowl win is what I had meant.

  • Wolverine

    It was before my time, but the 1970’s Rams sound like they were a great franchise that suffered from terrible timing (stuck in the same conference at the same time as the great Vikings and Cowboys teams of the era). Most fans today probably can’t name a player on one of those teams (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an NFL films feature on them…unlike the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys, and Vikings).

    • Richie

      “Most fans today probably can’t name a player on one of those teams”

      If true, this is sad. Those Rams had one of the most famous team nicknames ever: The Fearsome Foursome (Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones).


      • Wolverine

        My mistake, I thought the Fearsome Foursome was earlier (like late 60’s). Maybe I just assumed that because they wore the blue and white uniforms, not the later blue and yellow.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Merlin Olsen was the most famous of the Rams which was a contender in the 60s and 70s. I can tell you Chuck Knox did hear some of the same criticism Marty S. heard as a postseason coach. There was a perception those 1973-78 Rams teams weren’t as aggressive as you sometimes need to be in the playoffs. The worst loss may have been to a underdog Vikings team at home in the mud, this might have been 1977.

          • mrh

            From 1973-80, the Rams made the playoffs every year, averaging almost 11 wins a year (most of those being 14-game seasons).

            Their SRS those years: 13.4, 3.9, 9.1, 10.5, 8.4, 3.2, -0.6, and 6.5. Only one SB appearance, a loss in ’79, when they had a negative SRS. Playoffs are not always fair.

            They featured 4 HoFers: Olsen, Jack Youngblood, Tom Mack, and Jackie Slater. Only Olsen, thanks to the great nickname and his later TV career, is well-known (not to denigrate his career, he is a legit HoFer but he stayed famous long after he was done playing). None played glamor offensive positions.

            Isaiah Robertson – wtd career AV of 100, should probably be in the HoF with them. Of the 159 players in the Hall whose career started in 1960 or later, the AV-era, 80 have wtd career AV of 100 or more and 79 have WCAV of less than 100 (including Mack and Slater). 5 retired players have exactly 100 WCAV: Cortez Kennedy, Gary Zimmerman, and Jimmy Johnson are in the HoF; Steve McNair and Robertson are not.

            Full disclosure: I was a Colts fan in those days and hated the Rams with a passion since the late 60s. But those were some good teams.

            • sacramento gold miners

              Couldn’t agree more about those 1973-78 Rams teams, they just couldn’t get it done, and the revolving door at QB was part of the problem. Isaiah Robertson was a tremendous linebacker, but kind of reminds me of kicker Gary Anderson. Excellent career, but a bad play comes to the forefront when talking about the player. Its not fair, but sports aren’t really set up that way.

  • Richie

    Funny that the Browns and Lions faced off in 3 straight championship games, considering they are the only 2 teams that have been in existence for the entire Super Bowl era and haven’t been to a Super Bowl.

    • Deacon Drake

      I they should have “decade of Dominance” t-shirts made

  • Richie

    In the Super Bowl era, there have been four matchups that have happened 8 times:

    The Cowboys and Rams have played 8 times (each winning 4).
    The 49ers and Giants have played 8 times (each winning 4).
    The Cowboys and Packers have played 8 times (each winning 4).
    The Broncos and Steelers have played 8 times (with the Broncos winning 5 of those).

    The 7-time matchups are: Cowboys-49ers, Cowboys-Vikings, Packers-49ers and Vikings-Rams. Since the 49ers and Rams seem like unlikely playoff contestants in 2017; the Cowboys-Vikings matchup looks like the only one with a chance to move into the lead spot next year.

    • Mark Growcott

      In NFL Playoff history 8 matches is the most between 2 opponents. 6 instances now, the other 2 instances are Bears/Giants and Giants/Packers.

      • Richie

        Yeah, I should update my spreadsheet to pre-Super Bowl. It shouldn’t take long, since they didn’t play many playoff games before then.

        • JeremyDeShetler

          Only 56 games if you include the AFL, AFFC, and all tie-breaker games.

  • Four Touchdowns

    Pretty cool article, I love this kinda stuff.