“The skies were a sullen gray, heavy with their freight of unspilled snow. The field was a spongy carpet of uprooted turf and the barren infield. The official game-time temperature was 32, but the wind of 20 mph kicked up white caps on Lake Erie and bit deep into the bones of the 79,554 customers.”
— Red Smith, The New York Times, Dec. 28, 1964
There are no lakes, no white caps to be kicked up, near Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. But on Sunday there will be a football game. Not near it. In it.
From the perspective of one of the franchises, though not for the players — they’re far too young — Sunday’s game in Missouri has some deliciously haunting parallels to the one Red Smith chronicled, starting with his honeyed scene-setter, a game played in Cleveland, on a gloomy but glorious Sunday afternoon 57 years ago, in a stadium that no longer exists.
Sunday’s game between the Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs isn’t for the NFL championship, which is what the Super Bowl was called before it was called the Super Bowl, but it is a playoff game that for the Browns has some strikingly similar window dressing to that day five decades ago, when the wind kicked up white caps on Lake Erie, and the Browns kicked the horseshoes off the Baltimore Colts.
The Browns on Sunday will play the Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champs, quarterbacked by the magical, unstoppable Patrick Mahomes.
In the 1964 NFL Championship game the Browns faced the Colts, whose quarterback was Johnny Unitas, at the peak of his Hall of Fame career.
During the regular season the Colts were the class of the NFL. They lost their first game, then won their next 11 in a row, and 12 of 13 to finish the season at 12-2. They led the league in points scored, led the league in fewest points allowed and led the league in Unitases.
The Colts didn’t just beat teams, they humiliated them. They beat Washington 45-17, they beat the 49ers 37-7, they beat the Lions 34-0 and the Bears 52-0.
The Colts scored an average of 31 points per game.
For the season they scored 428 points.
On Dec. 27, 1964, in the NFL championship game, they scored no points.
The Browns beat them 27-0.
In the championship game, the Colts’ offense, which averaged 341 yards per game in the regular season, was held to 181. Unitas averaged 198 yards passing per game. In the championship game he passed for 89 yards.
That Colts team had six future Hall of Fame players: Unitas, running back Lenny Moore, tight end John Mackey, receiver Raymond Berry, tackle Jim Parker and defensive end Gino Marchetti.
The 10-3-1 Browns had five future Hall of Famers, but only four of them — Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Gene Hickerson and Lou Groza — played in the game. The other, rookie running back Leroy Kelly, did not play.
The Colts’ offense was by far the most prolific in the league. Coming into the game the Browns’ defense had gone five years and 57 consecutive games since their last shutout.
Then on Dec. 27, 1964, in the NFL championship game, they shut out the Colts 27-0.
In NFL history, no team has won the Super Bowl by a shutout. Since 1962, no NFL team has won the Super Bowl or the NFL championship game by a shutout — except for the ‘64 Browns.
Counting the next two NFL champions, in 1965 and ’66, plus the 54-year Super Bowl era, the Browns’ 27-point victory over the Colts is tied for seventh as biggest margin of victory in the league’s championship game.
Bottom line: stuff happens.
The Browns on Sunday will play a Chiefs team so good, so dominating, so offensively intimidating, with a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback whose skill set is unlike anything the league has ever seen, that for much of the regular season they seemed to be bored by the competition.
In 1964, the Browns were looked at as a very good team, but the Colts were viewed as a super team. The Colts were a 7-point favorite.
They lost by 27.
The Chiefs, at last glance, are 10-point favorites to beat the Browns. That’s a huge number for a playoff game, especially for a second-round playoff game.
The tournament is down to the final eight. The Browns are one of them, and they are 10-point underdogs.
Worse yet, that sounds about right.
But (all together now), this is why they play the games.
Because stuff happens. Like last Sunday in Pittsburgh.
It’s happened twice to the Chiefs, whose two losses came against two teams, the Raiders and Chargers, that didn’t even make the playoffs.
So the Browns have that going for them.
Now all they need are some skies that are a sullen gray, and heavy with their freight of unspilled snow.