OLD SCHOOL: A look back to Baltimore’s controversial first playoff game

Street Talk OLD SCHOOL: A look back to Baltimore’s controversial first playoff game

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Baltimore’s First Post Season Football Game

Even though the 2010 Bills have played just 5 games, historians are already making comparisons between this team and the worst in their franchise’s history. The 2010 Bills are 0-5, have the 30th ranked offense and the 29th ranked defense that has allowed at least 34 points in each of its last 4 games. Now they come to Baltimore to face a Ravens team that is almost a 2 touchdown favorite.

They have been compared to the 1-12-1 1968 Bills, a team that finished last and earned a consolation prize – the right to draft OJ Simpson. Comparisons have also been made to the pre Jim Kelly Bills of 1984-85 when the northwestern New Yorkers finished both seasons at 2-14.

Then of course there’s the worst Bills team that I ever saw – the 2-12 1976 team. That Buffalo squad finished the 1976 season here in Baltimore losing 58-20 to the division champion Colts. The 58 points scored that day still stand as the most scored in game by any Colt team.

While there are similarities between this Bills team and the franchise’s worst teams of all time, they do have a winning record here in Baltimore in NFL games. From 1970-83 Buffalo posted a 7-5-1 against the Colts from 1970-1983 in Baltimore and they are 1-2 against the Ravens. Their last victory in Baltimore occurred on Halloween day 1999 as Doug Flutie’s late heroics made the Bills 13-10 winners on their way to their last playoff appearance.

Speaking of playoffs the Bills have never met the Colts or Ravens in a NFL playoff game but they have faced the Colts in the post season in the old All America Football Conference (“AAFC”).

Most Baltimoreans think of the 1958 Championship game victory over the Giants as Baltimore’s first post season football match, but Baltimore’s first was played 10 years and sixteen days before the Greatest Game Ever Played, and was filled with controversy.

The AAFC

The league formed after World War II, putting teams in NFL cities such as Chicago and New York, but also in non NFL cities such as Cleveland and San Francisco. About half the teams made money. The biggest fiscal losers were the Miami Seahawks, who ran out of money in 1946 and were moved to Baltimore along with their green and silver jerseys for 1947.

The name Colts was chosen by a write in contest. Then owner Bob Rodenberg chose the name Colts from 1,877 entries mailed in. The winner was submitted by Charles Evans from Middle River, the more righteous owner of the Colts name – not the Irsay family.

The 1947 Colts were just 2-11-1, but with rookie and future Hall of Famer YA Tittle at quarterback joining the Colts in 1948. They played .500 football, good enough to tie for the Eastern Division title with the 7-7 Buffalo Bills who were coming off an 8-4-2 campaign in 1947 and were considered a better team than the Colts at the start of the year.

Tittle had a star receiver in Billy Hillenbrand who averaged 19 yards a catch on his 50 receptions; fullback Bus Mertes a hard inside runner on offense; former Bear Lee Artoe and future Pro Bowler Dick Barwegan to anchor a solid line; and rookie kicker Rex Grossman, the grandfather of the former Bears and now Redskins backup quarterback of the same name, who made all of his 43 point after touchdown tries and led the AAFC in field goals in 1948.

The West Division of the AAFC was ruled by the 14-0 Cleveland Browns, who would not only finish the 1948 season as the first unbeaten and untied team to win a championship that year but also would win every AAFC championship from 1946-1949 before they joined the NFL in 1950. You never hear about this Browns team mentioned in the same breath as the 1972 Dolphins because the NFL does not consider AAFC records official, something historians have been lobbying the NFL to do for many years.

The Colts and Bills would have to play for the division championship for the right to meet the Browns for the 1948 AAFC Championship.

The Colts and Bills split their games that season. The Bills won the first meeting while the Colts returned the favor in Baltimore 35-15 during week 14 to force the playoff – a game that would be played in Baltimore.

1948 AAFC Eastern Division Playoff

December 12, 1948, Municipal Stadium, Baltimore

The Colts and Bills would meet before 27,327 enthusiastic fans on a wet December Sunday for the AAFC Eastern Division title.

The Colts grabbed a 3-0 lead on a Grossman field goal and led after one period. The Bills gained the lead on a scoring throw from former Notre Dame quarterback George Ratterman to Zeke O’Connor and took a 7-3 lead into halftime.

Tittle though began completing passes to Hillenbrand in the second half and Mertes was gaining good yardage with almost every carry. These produced two long Colts scoring drives in the third period, each finished with Mertes touchdown runs.

The Colts had a 17-7 lead moving to the final period.

Ratterman then hit Bill Gompers on a long scoring play on their first drive that period to cut the Colt lead to 17-14. Then the game stalled as both teams traded punts.

With a little over 5 minutes left Ratterman began to move the Bills from his own 25. After gaining a couple of first downs and with the clock running, Ratterman threw a  pass in the flat to running back Chet Mutryn who ran several steps, was hit by Barwegan, fumbled, and the Colts John Mellus recovered.

With a first down the Colts were on their way to the championship game.

Unfortunately linesman Tom Whelan ruled a Tittle to Mutryn pass incomplete even though Mutryn had the ball and ran several steps with it before being tackled. Whelan simply made a mistake and of course there was no replay.

The Bills kept the ball, and the crowd began to try and get on field and get to Whelan. Baltimore’s finest had their hands full.

The Bills needing just a field goal to tie the game had one problem; they did not have a field goal kicker and had converted only one field goal the entire season. A touchdown was a necessity and they accomplished exactly that.

A few plays after Whelan’s bad call, Ratterman hit Alton Baldwin for a 25 yard scoring pass moving the scoreboard in the Bills favor, 21-17.

With almost nothing on the clock, Tittle’s last pass was intercepted by Bucketts.  Hirsch returned the errant pass 20 yards for a Bills score – FINAL: Bills 28 Colts 17.

The enthusiastic crowd Baltimore was now an angry mob that stormed the field and the police had to protect and escort Whelan from the field for fear for his safety.

The Bills went on to Cleveland and lost the championship game to the unbeaten Browns 49-7.  The Colts would win just one game in 1949 and one game in 1950 before folding. They returned to the NFL in1953 before moving after the 1983 season.

It’s a little known Baltimore football fact that this 1948 playoff game against the Bills was our city’s first ever professional post season game.

And it produced one of the worst officiating calls in playoff history. 

Let’s hope a similar blunder doesn’t unfold this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

 

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Kurt Backert

About Kurt Backert

Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would eventually lead Kurt on a journey to the world of fantasy football in the late 1980's where he's captured more titles than John Wooden's UCLA Bruins   Kurt carries a distinction that no other fan of the NFL can boast about.  He is the reigning NFL National Trivia Champion and he credits his Dad for passing on such passion for the game, something Kurt also hopes to pass along to his 9-year-old son. More from Kurt Backert

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