Due to Christmas, the Divisional playoff games were held in a span of three days. The AFC playoff games were played on December 24 while the NFC games were held on December 26. It also marked the only year since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that one conference held both of its divisional playoff games on one day and the other conference held both of its games on the other day. In every other season since 1970, the conferences have split their playoff games over the two days.
This was also the last season that the NFL used an eight-team playoff tournament.
Note: As per the rules of the NFL playoffs prior to the 1990 season (notwithstanding the strike-shortened 1982 season), the Denver Broncos (the AFC 1 seed) did not play the Oakland Raiders (the 4 seed) in the Divisional playoff round because both teams were in the same division.
BAL - Laird 61 interception return (Linhart kick) 7-7
BAL - field goal Linhart 36 BAL 10-7
OAK - Casper 8 pass from Stabler (Mann kick) OAK 14-10
BAL - Johnson 87 kickoff return (Linhart kick) BAL 17-14
OAK - Casper 10 pass from Stabler (Mann kick) OAK 21-17
BAL - Lee 1 run (Linhart kick) BAL 24-21
OAK - Banaszak 1 run (Mann run) OAK 28-24
BAL - Lee 13 run (Linhart kick) BAL 31-28
OAK - field goal Mann 22 31-31
OAK - Casper 10 pass from Stabler OAK 37-31
On a play known as the Ghost to the Post, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler threw a 42-yard completion to tight end Dave Casper on a post route to set up the game-tying field goal with 29 seconds left in regulation. Casper, nicknamed "The Ghost" by his teammates, also caught a 10-yard touchdown pass 43 seconds into the second overtime period to win the game. The game featured nine lead changes before it was over
Oakland's Carl Garrett started off the game with a 40-yard kick return to the Colts 41-yard line. But they could not take advantage and lost the ball when Mark Van Eeghen's fumble was recovered by defensive back Lyle Blackwood. The rest of the quarter was a defensive struggle, but with less than a minute left, Oakland scored first with running back Clarence Davis's 30-yard touchdown run. Oakland then forced a three and out deep in Baltimore territory and got the ball back with great field position at the Colts 48. They seemed to be in prime position to increase their lead, but Baltimore's Bruce Laird intercepted Stabler's pass and returned it 61-yards for a touchdown. Later in the quarter, Baltimore mounted their first sustained drive, moving the ball from their 20 to the Raiders 19-yard line. Following a dropped interception by Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum, Toni Linhart's 36-yard field goal gave them their first lead of the game. Oakland responded with a drive to the Colts 23-yard line, but with less than a minute left, Baltimore lineman John Dutton recovered a fumble from Davis to preserve the 10-7 score going into halftime.
The Raiders scored on their first drive of the second half with Stabler's 41-yard completion to Cliff Branch setting up his 8-yard touchdown pass to Casper. To make matters worse for the Colts, Blackwood was injured on the drive and had to miss the rest of the game. But Baltimore's Marshall Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards to the end zone. On Oakland's next possession, they lost their fourth turnover of the day when Laird picked off another Stabler pass, this one on the Raiders 40. But the Raiders defense rose to the occasion, forcing a punt that was blocked by Ted Hendricks and recovered by linebacker Jeff Barnes, who returned it to the Colts 16-yard line. Two player later, Casper caught a 10-yard touchdown pass to make the score 21-17.
Baltimore scored on their first drive of the fourth quarter, driving 80 yards to a fourth down 1-yard touchdown run by Ron Lee. But Oakland quickly struck back, starting with Garrett's 43-yard kickoff return to his own 47. After two incompletions, Stabler kept the drive going with a 25-yard pass to Van Eagan. Then Colts defensive back Nelson Munsey was hit with a 24-yard pass interference penalty while trying to cover Branch in the end zone, and Pete Banaszak ran the ball into the end zone on the next play. Baltimore stormed right back with a touchdown on their own on a 73-yard drive, started off with Bert Jones' 30-yard completion to Raymond Chester and followed up with a 16-yard swing pass to Lee. Lee then moved the ball to the 14-yard line with a 13-yard run, and scored from there on the next play, giving the Colts a 31-28 lead. Baltimore's defense quickly forced a punt, giving the offense the ball in good field position with a chance to put the game away. But the Raiders stopped them on three consecutive runs, all on tackles from lineman John Matuszak.
After both teams punted once more, Oakland got the ball back with 2:55 left in regulation on their own 30. After a 14-yard reception by Davis and an incompletion, the "Ghost to the Post" to Casper advanced the Raiders to the Baltimore 14-yard line. A few plays later, they faced fourth down and 1 from the 6. Rather than risk the game on a fourth down conversion attempt, Oakland decided to kick the field goal, and Errol Mann sent it through the uprights from 22 yards, tying the game and sending it into overtime.
After forcing Baltimore to punt on the opening drive of overtime, Oakland drove 41 yards in nine plays to set up a field goal attempt for Mann, but the kick was blocked by Mike Barnes. After another punt, Oakland drove to the Colts 35-yard line. On second down, Stabler was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Fred Cook, pushing his team out of field goal range. But then he kept the drive alive with a 19-yard completion to Branch, setting up Casper's 10-yard touchdown catch less than a minute into the second overtime period to win the game.
Casper finished with 4 receptions for 70 yards and three touchdowns. Oakland linebacker Monte Johnson had 20 tackles and finished the game with a broken Vertebrae in his neck.
DEN - Odoms 30 pass from Morton (Turner kick) DEN 21-14
PIT - Brown 1 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick) 21-21
DEN - field goal Turner 44 DEN 24-21
DEN - field goal Turner 25 DEN 27-21
DEN - Dolbin 34 pass from Morton (Turner kick) DEN 34-21
Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson's 2 interceptions and a fumble return set up 17 Denver points as the Broncos defeated the Steelers. Denver scored first after John Schultz's blocked punt set up running back Rob Lytle's 7-yard rushing touchdown. Pittsburgh responded with quarterback Terry Bradshaw's 1-yard rushing touchdown. But in the second quarter, Jackson picked up a fumble by Steelers running back Franco Harris and returned it 35 yards to the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. On play later, running back Otis Armstrong ran the ball into the end zone to give the Broncos a 14-7 lead. Harris later tied the game before halftime with a 1-yard touchdown run. After the teams exchanged touchdowns in the second half, Denver kicker Jim Turner made a 44-yard field goal to give the Broncos a 24-21 lead. Then on the Steelers ensuing possession, Jackson intercepted a pass from Bradshaw to set up another Turner field goal. Jackson later recorded his second interception of the game, leading to wide receiver Jack Dolbin's 34-yard touchdown reception to put the game away. Harris finished the game with 92 rushing yards, 4 receptions for 20 yards, and a touchdown.
DAL - DuPree 28 pass from Staubach (Herrera kick) DAL 14-0
DAL - field goal Herrera 21 DAL 17-0
DAL - Dorsett 23 run (Herrera kick) DAL 24-0
DAL - field goal Herrera 31 DAL 27-0
DAL - Dorsett 7 run (Herrera kick) DAL 34-0
DAL - field goal Herrera 27 DAL 37-0
CHI - Schubert 34 pass from Avellini (Thomas kick) DAL 37-7
Safety Charlie Waters led the Cowboys to a 37-7 victory by setting an NFL playoff record of 3 interceptions. Dallas built a 17-0 halftime lead, with the aid of running back Doug Dennison's 2-yard touchdown run and quarterback Roger Staubach's 28-yard scoring pass to tight end Billy Joe Dupree. In the second half, running back Tony Dorsett recorded two rushing touchdowns and Efren Herrera added two more field goals. The Bears were limited to 224 total yards and did not score until the fourth quarter when the game was already out of reach.
LA - Jackson 1 pass from Haden (Septien kick) MIN 14-7
The Rams had easily defeated an aging Vikings team in the regular season 35-3 in October on the nationally televised Monday Night Football, and after years of frustrating playoff losses in the cold of Green Bay and Minnesota, the Rams finally had a home playoff game against a cold weather team. In addition, Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton was injured in that Monday night game and diagnosed with a broken leg. But as luck would have it, Los Angeles was engulfed in a torrential rainstorm.
In the game known as the "Mud Bowl", running back Chuck Foreman led the Vikings to a victory by recording 101 rushing yards in a torrential rainstorm. Minnesota Head Coach Bud Grant's strategy was to have quarterback Bob Lee throw early before the field lost traction. The Vikings scored first on Foreman's 5-yard touchdown run which capped a 70-yard drive. From that point on until the fourth quarter, both teams remained scoreless while the field turned into a quagmire. The Rams had two chances to score, but quarterback Pat Haden threw an interception in the end zone and kicker Rafael Septien missed a field goal. Then early in the final period, Sammy Johnson scored on a 1-yard rushing touchdown. With less than a minute left in the game, Haden threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Harold Jackson to cut the score 14-7. The Rams then recovered the ensuing onside kick, but Haden threw another interception to end the game.
DEN - Moses 74 pass from Morton (Turner kick) DEN 7-3
DEN - Keyworth 1 run (Turner kick) DEN 14-3
OAK - Casper 7 pass from Stabler (Mann kick) DEN 14-10
DEN - Moses 12 pass from Morton (kick failed) DEN 20-10
OAK - Casper 17 pass from Stabler (Mann kick) DEN 20-17
Oakland scored first on the opening drive of the contest with Errol Mann's 20-yard field goal. But on the Broncos' second play, quarterback Craig Morton threw a 74-yard touchdown to wide receiver Haven Moses.
The score remained 7-3 until the third period. The Broncos recovered a fumble at the Oakland 17-yard line and then advanced the ball to the 2-yard line. On the next play, running back Rob Lytle was hit in mid-air by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, and lost the ball. Oakland nose tackle Mike McCoy picked up the loose ball and began returning it for an easy touchdown, but the play was prematurely blown dead by an official on the opposite side of the field. The officials ruled that Lytle was stopped before the fumble, even though replays clearly showed the ball was knocked free at the moment of contact. With no instant replay challenge rules available to Oakland at the time, Denver retained possession. The Raiders were then penalized half the distance to the goal for arguing the call, and Jon Keyworth scored a Denver touchdown on the next play to give Denver a commanding 14-3 lead. The officials made another erroneous call in the game, replays showed, in favor of Oakland when they ruled an acrobatic touchdown catch by Broncos wide receiver Jack Dolbin as incomplete.
Early in the fourth quarter, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dave Casper, cutting the Broncos' lead to 14-10. However, linebacker Bob Swenson intercepted Stabler on Oakland's next drive, and three plays later, Moses caught a 12-yard touchdown pass. With 3:16 left in the game, Casper scored on a 17-yard touchdown pass to cut the score, 20-17, but the Broncos' held the ball for the rest of the game and ran out the clock.
DAL - Richards 32 pass from Staubach (kick blocked) DAL 6-0
DAL - Newhouse 5 run (Herrera kick) DAL 13-0
MIN - field goal Cox 33 DAL 13-3
MIN - field goal Cox 37 DAL 13-6
DAL - field goal Herrera 21 DAL 16-6
DAL - Dorsett 11 run (Herrera kick) DAL 23-6
The Cowboys defense held the Vikings to 66 rushing yards and 6 points. Minnesota again started quarterback Bob Lee, who was playing for the injured Fran Tarkenton. Dallas took the early lead after defensive end Harvey Martin's fumble recovery set up wide receiver Golden Richards' 32-yard touchdown reception. In the second quarter, another fumble recovery by Martin led to a 46 yard drive, which featured Danny White's 22-yard run on a fake punt and running back Robert Newhouse's 5-yard rushing touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Cowboys linebacker Thomas Henderson forced Vikings punt returner Manfred Moore to fumble and it was recovered by Dallas tight end Jay Saldi. Five plays later, running back Tony Dorsett rushed for an 11-yard touchdown to put the game away.
The Denver Broncos were making their first trip to the postseason. Denver was the last of the old AFL teams to make it to the playoffs.
Denver was the first team to win a conference championship in their first playoff appearance. The only team to accomplish that feat since were the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who were officially considered a new team even though they inherited their original roster from the Cleveland Browns in 1996.
This was the only time that both conference champions defeated their conference's defending champion in the playoffs, with Denver beating Oakland and Dallas downing Minnesota.