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.
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