In 1982, the NFL played a nine-game schedule due to a player’s strike. When everyone returned, the league went to a unique playoff format.
The NFL playoffs are awesome, right? Imagine a Super Bowl Tournament.
In 1982, the NFL gave its fans exactly that.
It all happened due to a year unlike anything we’ve seen before or since in pro football. In ’82, the league endured its first meaningful work stoppage, with players walking out over myriad concerns. The result was the cancellation of Weeks 3-10 as the league and NFLPA worked to bridge gaps during the 57-day holdout.
A season was on the brink, but finally a breakthrough. Football was back.
When the players strapped the pads back on in November, the NFL made an unprecedented move. At the time, the playoff format had three division winners per conference, seeded Nos. 1-3, with the two remaining best records across the conference representing the Wild Card round matchup. The NFL decided to blow that up for only the ’82 season.
After discussion, the new postseason format was created. The conferences would abolish divisions for the purpose of playoff seeding, and eight teams from each of the AFC and NFC would qualify.
Also, the NFL did away with the term “playoffs” and went with Super Bowl Tournament.
To date, it remains the only time since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970 where divisions weren’t factored into the seeding. This led to the NFC having the Washington Redskins — as they were known at the time — and Dallas Cowboys as the conference’s top two seeds.
Additionally, two teams with a losing record over the nine-game schedule qualified for the postseason. In the AFC, the Cleveland Browns got in at 4-5 before being promptly pounded by the Oakland Raiders. The NFC, the Detroit Lions made the tournament, entering the playoffs for the first time since 1970. Like the Browns, the Lions were bounced immediately.
For the TV networks, the arrangement was a nightmare in the Wild Card round. With all 16 teams playing on the same weekend, NBC and CBS had the chore of figuring out which games to broadcast in certain markets, while cutting in with updates for games from outside areas.
Over the initial weekend, the NFL had some of the unique matchups in league postseason history. For example, the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Cardinals matched up at Lambeau Field. Neither team had won a playoff game since 1967, with the Cardinals’ last playoff victory being the 1947 NFL title. Green Bay, powered by quarterback Lynn Dickey, won 41-16.
Then there’s the curious case of the seventh-seeded New England Patriots visiting the Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl. New England entered the tournament at 5-4, but reached the postseason in large part to The Snowplow Game, a 3-0 win over Miami in December which centered around a convict on work release driving a tractor onto the field.
In the Wild Card round, the Dolphins got their revenge with myriad fans wearing mini snowplows on their heads, winning 28-13.
As the tournament continued, Washington and Miami advanced to Super Bowl XVII, a rematch of Super Sunday 10 years prior. In 1972, it was the Dolphins finishing off the only perfect season in NFL history. This time, though, the game would be remembered for bruising Washington running back John Riggins going off tackle on 4th and 1, setting sail on a 43-yard touchdown run. Washington won its first Super Bowl, 27-17.
In 1983, the NFL reverted back to its traditional postseason format and verbiage, not changing until its addition of two wild card teams — one per conference — for the 1990 season.
But in 1982, the league almost lost its season amid turmoil and came out with the most bizarre postseason format and branding the NFL has ever produced.