The 1979 NFC Championship Game was a fun setup between a plucky upstart and a team trying to shed a label. Then the action began.
Have you ever wondered what the dullest game in NFL history is?
Considering the stakes, look no further than the 1979 NFC Championship Game.
On Jan. 6, 1980, the Los Angeles Rams visited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Rams, who entered the conference title game as a 3.5-point favorite, were a pedestrian 9-7 in the regular season but won the NFC West. In the Divisional round, Los Angeles ended Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach’s career, going into Texas Stadium as a decided underdog and winning, 19-17.
For the entirety of the 1970s, the Rams were labeled as chokers. Six times they reached the playoffs and nary a Super Bowl appearance. Going into the 1979 season, Los Angeles had lost in four of the previous five NFC Championship Games.
As for the Buccaneers, they were trying to become something they had never been: a winner.
Tampa Bay was an NFL expansion team in 1976 and went 0-26 across its first two seasons before winning the final two games of its 1977 campaign. After going 5-11 the following year, the Buccaneers shocked the football world by winning the NFC Central.
And after beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional round, the second-seeded Buccaneers found themselves one home win away from Super Bowl XIV against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
In a game played out of complete desperation, both Tampa Bay and Los Angeles struggled mightily.
The Rams had backup quarterback Vince Ferragamo under center, replacing the injured Pat Haden. Ferragamo went 12-of-23 for 163 yards, solid numbers by the era’s standards.
Then there was the combination of Buccaneers quarterbacks Doug Williams and Mike Rae. Williams went a grotesque 2-of-13 for 12 yards and an interception before tearing his bicep. Rae came in almost guaranteed to outperform Williams’ evening, and he did.
However, it was by a slim margin. Rae also went 2-of-13 but for 42 yards and without a turnover.
Somehow, running back Jerry Eckwood tied for the team lead in passing yards on this afternoon, throwing a halfback pass for 42 yards on his only attempt.
While you’d think Tampa Bay’s epic offensive ineptitude would mean an embarrassing, blowout loss, that would be incorrect. That’s because the Rams failed to score a single touchdown throughout, instead scoring only on a trio of Frank Corral field goals from 19 and 21 yards in the second quarter, and then a merciful, clinching 23-yarder in the final period.
All told, the Rams outgained the Bucs by a 369-177 margin, amassing 23 first downs while only allowing seven. And yet for almost the full 60 minutes, Tampa Bay had an opportunity to make one big play and win.
In the Super Bowl era, it remains the only conference title game to be played without either team finding the end zone. It’s also the worst passing day any team has suffered from its quarterbacks in a postseason game over that span, with Williams and Rae combining to go 4-of-26 for 54 yards and an interception.
For the Rams, it was a Super Bowl trip long in the making. And, as a decided underdog two weeks later in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl against Pittsburgh, Los Angeles led into the fourth quarter before falling 31-19.
However, the Rams finally got their Super Bowl 20 years later, albeit located in St. Louis. Incredibly, they once again faced the Buccaneers in the NFC title game and nobody scored a touchdown until 4:44 remained in regulation, when St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner found receiver Ricky Proehl for the eventual game-winning 30-yard strike, giving the Rams an 11-6 victory. Again, no touchdowns for Tampa Bay.
Three years later, hindered by a plodding passing attack, the Buccaneers finally won their first title.
Still, the ’79 NFC Championship Game remains a seminal moment for both franchises on a brisk January day in 1980. One proved it could win the game nobody believed it possessed the heart to emerge victors in, while the other showed it was no longer a doormat simply by participating.
Unfortunately, the 60 minutes of football weren’t as dramatic as the storylines.