The NFL playoffs following the 1981 NFL season led up to Super Bowl XVI. Both conference champions had losing records the previous season, the only time this has happened. All four of the AFC playoff games were between teams who had never faced each other in the postseason before. This was the only time this happened in either conference since the playoffs were expanded to ten teams in 1978.
NYJ - Jones 30 pass from Todd (Leahy kick) BUF 31-20
NYJ - Long 1 run (Leahy kick) BUF 31-27
Bills defensive back Bill Simpson's interception at the Buffalo 1-yard line with 2 seconds left in the game preserved a 31-27 victory and gave Buffalo their first playoff win since 1965.
The Bills jumped to a 24-0 lead by the second quarter. First New York's Bruce Harper fumbled the opening kickoff while being tackled by Ervin Parker, and Charles Romes returned the ball 26-yards to the end zone. Then after a punt, quarterback Joe Ferguson completed a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Frank Lewis, while interceptions by Simpson and linebacker Phil Villapiano led to a 29-yard field goal by Nick Mike-Mayer and a 26-yard scoring reception by Lewis. However, Jets quarterback Richard Todd threw a 30-yard touchdown to tight end Mickey Shuler, and kicker Pat Leahy added two field goals to cut Buffalo's lead, 24-13.
With about 10 minutes left in the game, running back Joe Cribbs ran for a 45-yard touchdown, increasing the Bills lead to 31-13. But Todd then led the Jets 80 yards in 8 plays and completed a 30-yard touchdown to Bobby Jones. Then after forcing a punt, New York drove for another score, aided by a pass interference call against Bills defensive back Mario Clark that nullified an interception. Kevin Long finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the score to 31-27. The Jets got the ball back with 2:36 remaining and then drove 69 yards to the Buffalo 11-yard line, aided by a holding penalty that wiped out an interception by defensive back Steve Freeman. However, Simpson's interception at the 1-yard line halted New York's comeback with 2 seconds left.
Simpson recorded 2 interceptions, while Lewis caught 7 passes for a franchise postseason record 158 yards and 2 touchdowns. Shuler caught 6 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. Todd threw for 377 yards, while Ferguson threw for 268. Both quarterbacks threw 2 touchdowns and were intercepted four times.
NFC: New York Giants 27, Philadelphia Eagles 21Edit
The Giants jumped to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, but had to withstand an Eagles comeback at the end to hold on to a 27-21 win. In the first quarter, Eagles kick/punt returner Wally Henry fumbled a punt and Beasley Reece recovered the ball at the Philadelphia 26-yard line. A few plays later, quarterback Scott Brunner then threw a 9-yard touchdown to running back Leon Bright (the extra point attempt failed). Later in the first period, Brunner threw a 10-yard touchdown to wide receiver John Mistler, Henry then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Mark Haynes recovered the ball in the end zone to give New York a 20-0 lead. In the second quarter, Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Harold Carmichael, but it was countered by Brunner's 22-yard touchdown to wide receiver Tom Mullady to give the Giants a 27-7 halftime lead. However, New York was shut out in the second half, while the Eagles opened the third period by marching 82 yards to score on running back Wilbert Montgomery's 6-yard rushing touchdown. Montgomery added another touchdown with 2:51 left in the game, but the Giants were able to run out the rest of the clock to preserve the victory. It marked the Giants first post season victory since 1956.
DAL - Hill 9 pass from White (Septien kick) DAL 7-0
DAL - field goal Septien 32 DAL 10-0
DAL - Springs 1 run (Septien kick) DAL 17-0
DAL - Dorsett 5 run (Septien kick) DAL 24-0
DAL - Jones 5 run (Septien kick) DAL 31-0
DAL - Newsome 1 run (Septien kick) DAL 38-0
The Cowboys crushed the Buccaneers, limiting them to 24 rushing yards and forcing 4 interceptions and 4 sacks. After the first quarter remained scoreless, Dallas wide receiver Tony Hill made a 9-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Danny White, and Rafael Septien later added a 32-yard field goal to give the Cowboys a 10-0 halftime lead. Dallas then took the opening kickoff of the second half and marched 80-yards to score on running back Ron Springs' 1-yard rushing touchdown. Two interceptions later in the third quarter led to two more touchdowns by the Cowboys.
AFC: San Diego Chargers 41, Miami Dolphins 38 (OT)Edit
Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirschke kicked the winning 29-yard field goal after 13:52 of overtime, ending a game that became known in NFL lore as the Epic in Miami. This game set playoff records for the most points scored in a playoff game (79), the most total yards by both teams (1,036), and most passing yards by both teams (809). The Chargers jumped to a 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, but after Don Strock replaced starting quarterback David Woodley, the Dolphins scored 17 unanswered points in the second period. On the final play of the first half, Strock threw a pass to Duriel Harris, who then lateraled the ball to Tony Nathan, who then ran 25 yards to the end zone.
In the third quarter, Miami tied the game, 24-24, with Strock's 15-yard touchdown completion to tight end Joe Rose. Each team then scored two touchdowns, with San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts's 9-yard tying score to James Brooks with about a minute left in regulation. Dolphins kicker Uwe von Schamann had a chance to win the game on the last play of regulation, but his field goal attempt was blocked by Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow.
In overtime, the Chargers took the opening kickoff and advanced to the Miami 8-yard line, but Benirschke missed a 27-yard field goal attempt. Then after both teams exchanged punts twice, the Dolphins reached the San Diego 17-yard line, only to see von Schamann's 34-yard attempt get blocked by defensive lineman Leroy Jones. The Chargers then drive to the Miami 10-yard line, where Benirschke eventually kicks the winning field goal.
Strock turned in the best game of his life, completing 29 of 43 passes for 403 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Fouts put on one of the best performances of his hall of fame career, completing 33 of 53 passes for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns. The image of an exhausted Winslow, who finished the game with 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, being helped off the field by two of his Chargers teammates has been constantly replayed ever since.
BUF - Butler 20 pass from Ferguson (Mike-Mayer kick) 21-21
CIN - Collinsworth 18 pass from Anderson (Breech kick) CIN 28-21
The Bengals won their first playoff game in team history after Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson's fourth-down pass fell incomplete, thus enabling Cincinnati to take over and run out the clock.
Two key plays allowed the Bengals to start their first two drives in Buffalo territory, and they took advantage of their field position with touchdowns on each one. First, defensive back Mike Fuller returned a punt 27 yards to the Bills 42-yard line. Six plays later, Charles Alexander scored a 1-yard touchown run. On Buffalo's ensuing drive, defensive back Ken Riley intercepted a pass from Ferguson and returned it to the Bills 48-yard line. Cincinnati then drove 48 yards in 8 plays and scored with fullback Pete Johnson's 1-yard run to take an early 14-0 lead. Late in the second quarter, Ferguson's 54-yard completion to Jerry Butler set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Joe Cribbs, cutting the score to 14-7 by halftime.
In the third quarter, a 44-yard touchdown run by Cribbs tied the game, but he was injured on the play and was forced to sit the rest of the game out. Cincinnati scored again with Alexander's 20-yard touchdown run, but was countered by Ferguson's 20-yard touchdown pass to Butler. With 10:39 remaining in the game, Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, giving Cincinnati the lead, 28-21. The Bills drove to the Cincinnati 21-yard line with about three minutes left to play, and it appeared that Ferguson completed a fourth-down pass to Lou Piccone to gain a first down. However, Buffalo was called for a delay of game penalty, and Ferguson's pass attempt on the next snap fell incomplete. The Bengals were then able to take over and run out the clock.
Anderson finished the game with 14 of 21 completions for 192 yards and a touchdown. Johnson, the team's leading rusher with 1,077 yards during the season, was held to just 45 yards, but it did not matter as the Bengals still racked up 136 yards on the ground, 72 of them and two touchdowns from Alexander. Ferguson threw for 202 yards and a touchdown, but completed only 15 of 31 passes and was intercepted twice. Cribbs finished with a career postseason high 90 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. Butler caught 4 passes for 98 yards and a score.
NFC: San Francisco 49ers 38, New York Giants 24Edit
SF - Young 8 pass from Montana (Wersching kick) SF 7-0
NYG - Gray 72 pass from Brunner (Danelo kick) 7-7
SF - field goal Wersching 22 SF 10-7
SF - Solomon 58 pass from Montana (Wersching kick) SF 17-7
SF - Patton 25 run (Wersching kick) SF 24-7
NYG - field goal Danelo 48 SF 24-10
NYG - Perkins 59 pass from Brunner (Danelo kick) SF 24-17
SF - Ring 3 run (Wersching kick) SF 31-17
SF - Lott 20 interception return (Wersching kick) SF 38-17
NYG - Perkins 17 pass from Brunner (Danelo kick) SF 38-24
25-year old San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana lead the 49ers to victory in his first ever playoff game, completing 20 of 31 passes for 304 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 1 interception. His top target in the game was receiver Dwight Clark, who caught 5 passes for 104 yards.
The 49ers jumped to a 24-7 lead in the second quarter, and scored 2 touchdowns in the final period to secure the victory. San Francisco took the opening kickoff and advanced 85 yards to score on Montana's 8-yard touchdown to tight end Charle Young. The Giants countered with quarterback Scott Brunner's 72-yard touchdown completion to wide receiver Earnest Gray. Then after the 49ers went ahead, 10-7, in the second quarter, San Francisco defensive back Ronnie Lott intercepted a pass from Brunner to set up wide receiver Freddie Solomon's 58-yard touchdown reception. Linebacker Keena Turner recovered a fumble on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, and Ricky Patton scored on a 25-yard touchdown run a few plays later to give the 49ers a 24-7 lead. Later, a 48-yard field goal by New York kicker Joe Danelo made the score 24-10 at halftime. In the third quarter, Brunner completed a 59-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Johnny Perkins to cut the score, 24-17. But in the fourth quarter, running back Bill Ring scored on a 3-yard rushing touchdown, and Lott returned his second interception of the game 20-yards to the end zone. Brunner then made a 17-yard touchdown to Perkins to close out the scoring.
In a game subsequently known as the Freezer Bowl, the Bengals defeated the Chargers, 27–7. Despite a game-time temperature of −9 °F (−23 °C) and a 35-mile-per-hour wind that sent wind chills as low as –59 °F, Bengals' quarterback Ken Anderson threw for 161 yards and 2 touchdown passes, with no interceptions, and rushed for 39 yards to lead his team to a victory. Cincinnati's defense intercepted San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts twice and recovered 2 fumbles, while their offense didn't commit a single turnover until late in the final period when the game was already out of reach.
Cincinnati scored first with a 31-yard field goal from kicker Jim Breech. Then Chargers' rookie kick returner James Brooks lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and the Bengals scored a touchdown on an 8-yard pass from Anderson to tight end M. L. Harris, increasing their lead to 10-0. In the second quarter, the Chargers cut their deficit to 10-7 with Fouts' 33-yard touchdown pass to Kellen Winslow. But on the Chargers' next drive, Fouts was intercepted by Bengals defensive back Louis Breeden. Breeden's interception set up another Bengals touchdown on Pete Johnson's 1-yard run, giving them a 17–7 lead. The Bengals completely took over the game from that point on. Breech kicked another field goal in the third quarter to increase the lead to 20–7. Then in final period, Anderson put the game away with an 3-yard touchdown completion to receiver Don Bass.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers 28, Dallas Cowboys 27Edit
SF - Solomon 8 pass from Montana (Wersching kick) SF 7-0
DAL - field goal Septien 44 SF 7-3
DAL - Hill 26 pass from White (Septien kick) DAL 10-7
SF - Clark 20 pass from Montana (Wersching kick) SF 14-10
DAL - Dorsett 5 run (Septien kick) DAL 17-14
SF - Davis 2 run (Wersching kick) SF 21-17
DAL - field goal Septien 22 SF 21-20
DAL - Cosbie 21 pass from White (Septien kick) DAL 27-21
SF - Clark 6 pass from Montana (Wersching kick) SF 28-27
In a play that would become immortalized as The Catch, 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping grab at the back of the end zone to score the winning touchdown with 51 seconds left in the game. San Francisco opened the scoring with quarterback Joe Montana's 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon. However, Dallas countered with a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien, and then Tony Hill's 26-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Danny White. Montana then threw a 20-yard touchdown to Clark, to retake the lead, 14–10. Then a controversial pass interference penalty on 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott nullified his interception and gave the Cowboys a first down at the San Francisco 12-yard line. Three plays later, running back Tony Dorsett scored on a 5-yard rushing touchdown to give Dallas a 17–14 lead by halftime.
In the third quarter, the 49ers regained the lead again with a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Johnny Davis. However, Septien made a 22-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. Then, Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls recovered a fumble to set up White's 21-yard touchdown to tight end Doug Cosbie to give Dallas a 27–21 advantage. With 4:54 left in the game, San Francisco found themselves with the ball at their own 11-yard line. They marched 83 yards to the Dallas 6-yard line, where Montana threw a high pass that Clark just managed to grab for the game winning touchdown. Other contributors on the final 89-yard drive that led to the play now referred to as “The Catch” included Freddie Solomon (WR), Lenvil Elliott (RB), Earl Cooper (FB), Mike Wilson, Charle Young (TE), Dan Audick (LT), John Ayers (LG), Fred Quillan (C), Randy Cross (RG), and Keith Fahnhorst (RT).
However, the Cowboys still had enough time left in the game for one last drive. White threw a completion to Drew Pearson that almost went for a touchdown, but 49ers defensive back Eric Wright made a key tackle by getting one hand inside Pearson's jersey and dragging him down. Two plays later, Lawrence Pillers sacked White, forcing a fumble that was recovered by 49ers lineman Jim Stuckey, and the 49ers had their victory. Clark finished the game with 8 receptions for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns.