The best football game ever played—last year's championship epic between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants—seems likely to return for another showing this season, the casts even stronger.
The New York Giants, who grow mightier from week to week as the pro football year wanes, clinched the Eastern Conference title by demolishing Cleveland 48-7 last Sunday; Baltimore, after a shaky spell in midseason, took over the Western Conference lead by outrunning the San Francisco 49ers through the last handful of minutes in their game 34-14. Baltimore need only tie the feckless Los Angeles Rams on Saturday to ensure its second conference title.
San Francisco, which plays the Green Bay Packers, and the Chicago Bears, who meet Detroit, retain mathematical chances to tie for the Western title, but in the light of the recent form of the Colts, theirs must be faint hopes.
The Colt and Giant victories were very similar performances, although the New York triumph was the more impressive. Both these teams are superbly equipped with very large, very strong football players who have been in the National Football League long enough to qualify as experts in their arduous trade. Both have really fine quarterbacks, both have good running backs, cagey, sure-handed receivers, and both have a certain serene confidence in their ability which allows them to retain complete poise and assurance in almost any circumstance.
The Colts flew to San Francisco Thursday, facing a jinx which had seen them lose 10 games in a row in Kezar Stadium. They were a relaxed, unperturbed group, however; they laughed off the inevitable predictions of defeat they were exposed to in the Clift Hotel as they waited for Saturday afternoon. A bootblack, not recognizing a member of the Colt party in a barber chair, bet a shoe-polish salesman a year's free shines against 75 cans of shoe polish, and the Colt grinned. The bishop of the Catholic diocese in San Francisco granted special dispensation for the Colt Catholics to eat meat on Friday evening. "I shouldn't, after what you did to us in Baltimore," he said gruffly. "But I will because I don't want your boys to collapse after our boys whip them."
Surprisingly, San Francisco fans seemed immensely confident that the 49ers could reverse the 45-14 shellacking visited upon them by the Colts in Baltimore only two weeks before. Tickets were impossible to find at $50. apiece. "Sell?" said one fan. "Gosh, it'd cost you five bucks just to look at my ticket." The chef who prepared the team meals for the Colts at the hotel advised Coach Weeb Ewbank, Owner Carroll Rosenbloom and General Manager Don Kellett that the 49ers would whip the Colts; he was unceremoniously ushered from the dining room as a result. Ewbank worried for a while that the chef might retaliate by serving the team a case of food poisoning, but the meals were good and wholesome.
Riding to the game, the Colts were relaxed and confident. When the bus passed University of San Francisco, Bill Pellington, a linebacker, pointed to the campus. "Hey, Gino," he said to Marchetti, Baltimore's all-pro defensive end. "They tell me you were so famous there that they retired your grades." Marchetti, who may have attended four classes during his career at USF, nodded agreement.
In their dressing room, the Colts were still relaxed, although they were no longer joking. In the 49er dressing room, the atmosphere was grim and still. "It's our turn now," someone said into the silence.
But it wasn't. The 49ers played a much better game than they had in the massacre in Baltimore, but they simply could not match Colt manpower or finesse. Raymond Berry, one of the finest ends of the last decade, caught two touchdown passes, one in the end zone on a prodigious leap for an unbelievable grab. ("It'll work, Coach," he told Ewbank earlier in the game, of the pattern he ran to get free. "I'm aware of it, Raymond," said Ewbank. "I just wanted you to know," Berry replied.) Lenny Moore ran 64 yards to a touchdown with a Unitas pass after changing his planned route in mid-course; he was supposed to slant in over the middle. "I saw that cat come in too far," he said, speaking of the defensive halfback covering him. "So I just broke back out to the outside and hoped Johnny would read me." Johnny read, him, and the pass found Moore in the clear behind the 49er defender.
Milt Davis, thin and scholarly, who plays defensive halfback for the Colts (and off season studies dentistry), had one of the six interceptions which crushed San Francisco hopes. He dived to pick off the pass, fell to his knees and ran 57 yards for a touchdown. "Somebody was hollering 'Lateral, lateral!' " he said. "I got about 11 blocks though and I figured I'd go for the six." Davis later pulled a hamstring muscle and may miss the Ram game. Alan Ameche, the powerful Colt fullback, has bruised ribs but should play. Both would be available for a championship game.
The six interceptions—four off John Brodie, who started the game, and two off Tittle—were the result of a closely coordinated pass defense. "The line, the linebackers and the secondary worked together very well," Ewbank said. "We put enough pressure on their passer, and the linebackers, particularly, did a fine job." The Colt linebackers have intercepted 13 passes this season, four of them in this game. Don Shinnick alone has six interceptions, which must be close to a record for linebackers.
The Giants hit an offensive peak against the Browns, behind Charlie Conerly, a quarterback who ages as gracefully as wine. The two Giant lines—offense and defense—established astonishing mastery over Cleveland. A pro scout, watching from the press box, was awed.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "They don't have to red dog on defense. The four big men put on enough pressure. And no Brown has gotten through the Giant offensive line. I've never seen a line take a whipping like that before. The Giants are on them like mad dogs."
The Giants, who like beating Cleveland more than any other team in the league, completely dominated the game. Cleveland had injuries: Ray Renfro, one of its top receivers, was out with a pulled muscle; Walt Michaels, a key linebacker, was hurt and some of the other Cleveland linemen were hobbled by various sprains and contusions. Jim Brown, Cleveland's phenomenal fullback, was knocked silly by a cracking collision with the Giant line, abetted by Linebacker Sam Huff, early in the game. He played in a daze for most of the first period before he was taken out.
But it would have made little difference had all the Browns been healthy. Conerly called a beautifully intelligent game, sending his receivers scooting into gaps in the Cleveland secondary time and again' and throwing with marvelous accuracy. The Giants, after running Washington out of Yankee Stadium last week, passed the Browns out of contention in this game. Conerly threw 21 times, completed 14 for 271 yards and three touchdowns; Don Heinrich, the much-booed replacement for the Giants' old pro, had a respectable 8 of 16 for 92 yards and one touchdown.
The supposedly sophisticated New York fans poured out of the stands about two minutes before the game ended and made a determined effort to tear down the goal posts while the two teams were going through the motions of finishing the game. Police were powerless to stop them; then the public-address announcer informed the unruly that unless they cleared the field, the game could be declared forfeit to the Browns. In the face of so grievous a contingency, the mob reluctantly squeezed itself behind the side and end lines and the game was played out.
"I wouldn't have asked for a forfeit even if the last two minutes of the game hadn't been played," Cleveland Coach Paul Brown said afterward. He had discreetly led his warriors to the dressing room when the New York fans invaded the field, returning when order was restored. "We didn't even belong on the same field with them today," he added.
Brown's sentiments were not echoed by Coach Red Hickey of San Francisco. "We gave it all we had," he said dolefully after his loss to Baltimore. "We played a far better game than we played against them in Baltimore. But we just couldn't cope with them. This Baltimore team hasn't any flaws. And they've got a great bench. Ameche gets hurt and they send in Pricer and it doesn't slow them down at all. And Davis goes out and they've got another defensive halfback just about as good. We had some boys crippled up, but that didn't matter. You're not fit to play in this league if you can't disregard minor injuries. That's the mark of a pro and our boys were pros today."
Then, in answer to a question, he sounded an unwitting warning to the Giants.
"How do I compare the Colts with Cleveland?" he said. "There is no comparison. This is a truly great team—one of the finest pro teams of modern football. Cleveland doesn't compare with them at all."
DISASTER LOOMS here over Cleveland's Quarterback Milt Plum in the person of giant Giant Rosey Grier. New York defense crushed Plum and the Brown team.
GIANT HALFBACK ALEX WEBSTER STARTS THROUGH YAWNING HOLE IN CLEVELAND LINE TO SET UP ANOTHER NEW YORK TOUCHDOWN
DISHEVELED FANS CRADLE PIECES OF GOAL POST RIPPED DOWN BY HAPPY CROWD
COLOR OF THE WEEK: COLT ON THE LOOSE
Raymond Berry, Baltimore's league-leading pass catcher, clutches a Johnny Unitas pass to his stomach in the end zone of the San Francisco 49ers for Colts' first touchdown in 34-14 rout. The official signals a touchdown as 49ers' Abe Woodson (40) and home town fans watch helplessly.