December 17, 2014

1967: Rams Defeat Colts in Climactic Battle for Coastal Division Title

The NFL game in Los Angeles on December 17, 1967 featured a final-week showdown for the Coastal Division crown between the host Los Angeles Rams and visiting Baltimore Colts. Baltimore came into the contest undefeated at 11-0-2 and would win the division outright with a victory. The Rams were a game behind at 10-1-2 and would have the same record as the Colts if they came out winners, which would give them the division title due to a new tiebreaking procedure. With the league having split into four four-team divisions (two per conference), adding a new playoff level as a result, ties for first would no longer result in an extra game being played – the team scoring the most points in the two regular season meetings of the clubs would be awarded first place. Since the Colts and Rams had tied when they met earlier in Baltimore, a win for the Rams would deliver the division title and a spot in the Western Conference Championship game.

Los Angeles had not been to the postseason since 1955 and endured a great deal of mediocrity since then until the arrival of Head Coach George Allen in ’66. Allen’s specialty was defense, and the Rams had a good one, particularly on the line. DT Roosevelt Grier had been lost to a knee injury in the preseason, but Roger Brown was swiftly obtained from Detroit to take his spot and, together with ends Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy and DT Merlin Olsen, became part of what was called “the Fearsome Foursome”. OLB Maxie Baughan was the leader of an outstanding group of linebackers and, while the backfield was less impressive, it included excellent FS Ed Meador. The offense was conservative but competently directed by QB Roman Gabriel (pictured above), who had good deep receivers in split end Jack Snow and flanker Bernie Casey while FB Dick Bass and HB Les Josephson handled the bulk of the running game.

The Colts were coached by Don Shula and were typically among the league’s better teams. QB Johnny Unitas was the key to the pass-oriented offense, as he had been for the past decade, and he had outstanding receivers in flanker Willie Richardson and TE John Mackey. The running game was less effective, but not bad, and the defense was solid, especially at linebacker and in the backfield.

There were 77,277 fans in attendance at the Memorial Coliseum for the showdown. The Rams opened the scoring with a 47-yard field goal by Bruce Gossett, while the Colts put together a 65-yard drive that ended with Johnny Unitas throwing to Willie Richardson for a 12-yard touchdown and Lou Michaels adding the extra point.

Baltimore again reached LA territory, but Michaels missed a 37-yard try for a field goal (his first failure after ten straight successes). On the next play, the Rams came through with a big play to start the second quarter as Roman Gabriel, firing the ball 50 yards in the air, connected with Jack Snow, who got beyond two defenders for an 80-yard TD. Bruce Gossett converted to give the home team a 10-7 lead.

Late in the period, Baltimore advanced deep into LA territory. However, as Unitas dropped back to pass, he was hit by Deacon Jones and his poor throw was intercepted by Ed Meador at the 12, who returned it seven yards. With time running down, Gabriel directed the Rams on an 81-yard drive that concluded with a throw to Bernie Casey for a 23-yard touchdown. Gossett converted and, rather than potentially being behind or tied, Los Angeles took a 17-7 lead into halftime.

Midway through the third quarter, the Rams increased their margin when Gossett booted a 23-yard field goal. The Colts fought back, advancing 61 yards in 15 plays as Unitas converted two third downs with pass completions to Richardson of 19 and 11 yards. But a quarterback draw came up short on another third down deep in LA territory, and the Colts opted for a 14-yard Michaels field goal as the fourth quarter commenced.

The Rams responded with a 67-yard series that essentially clinched the win. Gabriel was successful on all four of his passes including, under a heavy rush, a toss to Casey that then set up a nine-yard touchdown throw to TE Billy Truax. Gossett tacked on the PAT and Los Angeles was ahead by 27-10.

The LA defense took control for the remainder of the contest, harassing Unitas and effectively shutting down the Baltimore offense.  FB Dick Bass punctuated the decisive win with a two-yard TD after Unitas was sacked for an eight-yard loss to his four yard line on a fourth down play. The Rams were Coastal Division champions by a final score of 34-10.

LA had the edge in total yards (328 to 262) although the Colts led in first downs (18 to 16). The Rams sacked Unitas seven times, while Baltimore recorded none of Gabriel, and the Colts turned the ball over twice, to one suffered by Los Angeles.

Roman Gabriel was outstanding as he completed 18 of 22 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns while giving up no interceptions. Billy Truax had 5 catches for 51 yards and a TD and Jack Snow, with the 80-yard touchdown on his lone reception, led the Rams in receiving yards. Bernie Casey contributed 78 yards on his four catches that included a score. Dick Bass topped the LA rushers with 36 yards on 12 carries with one TD and also caught four passes for 27 more yards.

For the Colts, Johnny Unitas was successful on 19 of 31 throws for 206 yards and a TD while being intercepted twice and taking a major battering from the LA front four. TE John Mackey caught 5 passes for 72 yards and Willie Richardson also pulled in 5 for 57 yards and a score. FB Tony Lorick rushed for 39 yards on 13 attempts.

“The crux of our defensive plan for this game was not to allow Unitas enough time to throw the ball, because he can thread the needle in a crowd,” explained Coach George Allen.

“The offense put some points on the board early,” added Deacon Jones. “And so we were able to dictate to Mr. Unitas what we wanted him to do, and that was pass.”

The Rams fell to Green Bay in the Western Conference Championship game by a 28-7 score the following week, a disappointing finish to an outstanding season. They finished second in 1968 before winning another division title in ’69, but would never reach the NFL Championship under George Allen. Baltimore came back with a 13-1 season in ’68, despite the loss of Johnny Unitas for virtually the entire season, and won the NFL Championship before being monumentally upset by the New York Jets, champions of the AFL, in Super Bowl III. Don Shula, who moved on to Miami in 1970, would get another shot at guiding a team to an undefeated season, and would succeed in '72.

Roman Gabriel ranked third in passing as he threw for 2779 yards and a career-high 25 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the first of three consecutive years. Bernie Casey caught 53 passes for 871 yards (16.4 avg.) and eight touchdowns and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the only time in his career.

It was the Los Angeles defense, in particular “the Fearsome Foursome”, that would leave the most enduring memory. The Rams allowed the fewest points in the NFL (196, two less than the Colts) and Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen were consensus first-team All-NFL selections as well as being named to the Pro Bowl along with Roger Brown, Maxie Baughan, and Ed Meador.

(pictured below L to R, #74 Merlin Olsen, partially hidden Lamar Lundy, #75 Deacon Jones, #78 Roger Brown)