There was a time when the NFL didn’t care much about competitive advantages. Shortly after the merger in 1970, the NFL was the Wild West. Stick-em on fingers, hard objects wrapped in tape on hands, tarps lifted from fields days in advance, heat into visiting locker rooms, and wind through stadium tunnel doors before field goal attempts. Pretty much anything went and the NFL itself was the biggest offender thanks to a ridiculously crazy NFL playoff system.
Prior to the 1975 season, NFL playoff home-field advantage was based on a year-to-year divisional rotating system. Regular season performance meant nothing to postseason home field. Most NFL fans know that the undefeated ’72 Miami Dolphins played the AFC Championship game on the road in Pittsburgh against the 11-3 Steelers but that was just the most visible tip of the unfair NFL playoff iceberg.
In that same ’72 postseason, the 11-3 Redskins had the best record in the NFC and hosted the wildcard Cowboys in the championship game at RFK Stadium. What most Redskin fans don’t know is that the Skins would’ve played the NFC title game on the road in San Francisco against the 8-5-1 49ers if the Niners had won the previous week over Dallas. It was the NFC West’s turn to host the title game if they were in it but Dallas roared back from 15 points down in the 4th quarter to pull off the win and allow RFK to host the NFC Championship game.
In 1970, the 10-4 Cowboys hosted the wildcard Lions in the first round when based on record (and a rule prohibiting division teams from facing each other until the championship game), they should’ve been on the road against 12-2 Minnesota while the 49ers hosted the Lions. The Cowboys played in Super Bowl V three weeks later.
1971 was messed up. The two best teams in the NFC faced each other in the first round while the same happened in the AFC. 11-3 Dallas opened up at 11-3 Minnesota while the 9-5 49ers hosted the wildcard Redskins at Candlestick. The Redskins should’ve played their first franchise playoff game since 1945 in Minnesota based on a fair seeding system but instead lost at San Francisco 24-20.
In the AFC, the two best records faced off in a Christmas Day multi-overtime epic. However, KC and Miami should’ve hosted games that first weekend against Baltimore and Cleveland respectively.
The Redskins had the best record in the NFC in 1972. They faced Green Bay in their first-ever playoff game at RFK Stadium. They dominated the Packers 16-3 to advance to the title game the following week. With a seeding system in place, the Skins would’ve faced San Francisco in the first round while Dallas would’ve traveled to Lambeau for an Ice Bowl rematch 5 years after the first one.
The AFC title game featured 14-0 Miami AT Pittsburgh in ’72. Can you imagine the outcry if the 2007 16-0 Patriots had played the AFC Championship game on the road?
In ’73, the L.A. Rams went 12-2 and played a first-round game on the road against 10-4 Dallas. The Cowboys won that game and then incredibly got to host 12-2 Minnesota in the NFC Title game a week later. They lost that one.
The AFC was really screwed up in ’73. Miami had the best record (12-2) but had to host division-winner Cincinnati instead of wildcard Pittsburgh while Oakland got the Steelers at home when they should’ve been on the road at Cincinnati.
1974 was the last year of the alternating home sites. Minnesota beat the Rams in Minneapolis 14-10 in the NFC Championship game to advance to Super Bowl IX. That game should’ve been played in Los Angeles. Both teams went 10-4 in the regular season and the Rams beat the Vikes 20-17 which with a tiebreaking seeding system would’ve put the title game in L.A.
The AFC was twisted around in ’74. The first-round had Miami at Oakland in the classic “Sea of Hands Catch” game when the Dolphins should’ve been hosting Pittsburgh in the first round. Instead, the Steelers got a break and played a home game against Buffalo and won that game on their way to an AFC Title appearance in Oakland. The Steelers won that game and went on to win their first Super Bowl. A seeding system would’ve forced them to win two road games instead of one.
It was a different time for sure but it’s still amazing to think that a league as intent now on competitive fairness played it so unfairly back then. Super Bowl matchups are etched in the minds of fans but how the teams got there is hazy. Baltimore’s Jim O’Brien kicked a 32-yd field goal to beat Dallas in Super Bowl V. Dallas had an unfair road to that game. Perhaps Minnesota if given the fair opponent at the proper time could’ve been a better foe for the Colts.
Imagine if the ’71 epic Chiefs-Dolphins Christmas Day game had been played a week later as it should have. Instead of an unusually balmy 60-degree day at Arrowhead, the warm-weather Dolphins would’ve played a week later on a sub-freezing day. Perhaps Super Bowl VI would’ve featured the Chiefs against the Cowboys.
History tells us that Super Bowl IX featured Pittsburgh beating Minnesota 16-6 for the Steelers first of what would be many World Championships. But the Steelers got a huge break when they got to host a first-round game against Buffalo instead of playing a road game in Miami. The Vikings should’ve played the NFC Championship game on the road in Los Angeles but held on in a close 14-10 win at home instead. Competitive fairness would’ve likely given us a far different Super Bowl IX. Rams vs Dolphins would’ve given Miami a chance at a 3-peat. Rams vs Raiders was a possibility too.
The league worries now about tenths of PSI pound differential and scant percentage points on PAT probability. It’s so meaningless compared to what they allowed to happen in the early 1970’s.