The 100th season in the illustrious history of the NFL is just a few months away. Many things that will forever live on in the lore of the league have transpired between now and that inaugural season way back in 1920. That’s especially true in the games where the top two teams battled it out for the honor of being called champion, from the pre-Super Bowl era to the present day.
The league’s first championship game took place in 1933. Prior to that, the NFL champion was simply the team with the best regular season record by winning percentage at the end of the season. 33 years later, the winner of the NFL title game would go on to play the champion of the upstart AFL in a game which would eventually take the name Super Bowl.
But before the championship matchup that is now America’s premier sporting event, there was a multitude of historic championship games. Here, we’re ranking the 10 best NFL title games that took place prior to the Super Bowl era.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Top 10 Championship Games of the Pre-Super Bowl Era
10. 1940 – Chicago Bears 73, Washington Redskins 0
This game is historic and worthy of mention not because it was a down to the wire, barnburner kind of contest. Quite the opposite, actually. The Bears romped to a victory via a final scoreline not seen in American pro football before or since. In fact, the most lopsided shutout in NFL history up to this point came 69 years later when the New England Patriots routed the Tennessee Titans 59-0 on October 18, 2009.
There was quite a bit of trash talk in the leadup to the game. In their lone regular-season game, Chicago felt like they were robbed by a pass interference no-call in the end zone as time expired in a game they lost 7-3. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall went so far as to call the Bears “crybabies” and ahead of the title game, one article in a D.C. newspaper labeled them as “gutless.” But buoyed by the leadership of one of the first great coach-quarterback combos in future Hall of Famers George Halas and Sid Luckman, Chicago won the first of four titles they would take home during the 1940s.
9. 1937 – Washington Redskins 28, Chicago Bears 21
Chicago’s emphatic 1940 triumph was revenge on multiple fronts. Three years earlier, the Redskins bested them in what was a much more evenly matched contest. The 1937 season was notable in that it was the first where kickoffs out of bounds were penalized and a five-yard penalty plus a loss of down were given after illegal forward passes. It was also the Redskins first season in the nation’s capital as Marshall moved the team from Boston due to poor attendance.
Prior to the season, Washington selected Sammy Baugh in the first round of the NFL Draft. He would go on to become one of the best quarterbacks in the early history of the league. The game was much different back then as Baugh led the league with a then-record 81 completions during his rookie season. The game featured three lead changes and saw Baugh complete 18 of 33 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns. Two of them occurred in the fourth quarter and helped his team erase a 21-14 deficit heading into the final stanza. “The First Fifty Years,” a 1969 book that chronicled the early history of the league, called Baugh’s performance “15 years ahead of its time.”
8. 1948: Philadelphia Eagles 7, Chicago Cardinals 0
Long before Nick Foles came off the bench and led the Eagles to its first Super Bowl while winning the game’s MVP award in the process, there was the team’s first title of any kind in 1948. They faced the Cardinals for the title who were one of Chicago’s two teams back then along with the Bears. Both Chicago squads faced off in the season finale sporting identical 10-1 records and played before a then-record crowd of over 51,000. The Cardinals prevailed in comeback fashion, winning 24-21 after trailing 21-10 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Shibe Park in Philadelphia hosted the title game despite the Cardinals having the better record. The game was essentially played in a blizzard which meant that points were going to be amazingly hard to come by. That much became evident when the game remained scoreless heading into the final quarter of play. But the Eagles managed a single touchdown to come out on top, 7-0. It remains the lowest-scoring championship game, pre and post-Super Bowl era, in NFL history.
7. 1963: Chicago Bears 14, New York Giants 10
This particular edition of the championship, the third-last before the Super Bowl era, was played under the backdrop of tragedy. Less than a month earlier, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, TX. It led to one of the more controversial decisions in league history as the commissioner at the time, Pete Rozell, decided not to postpone games, a decision he admitted that he later regretted.
Something had to give when the Bears and Giants met on December 19, 1963. The Giants boasted an immensely potent offense, averaging 31.7 points per game during the regular season. They faced the league’s leading defense which had already earned the moniker “Monsters of the Midway.” Conditions were frigid, with the temperature at kickoff a mere 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps that played a part in the Bears prevailing. After a one-yard touchdown run from Bill Wade in the third quarter made it 14-10, the defense took over in holding the Giants scoreless the rest of the way. It resulted in the Bears eighth NFL crown which was tied for best in league history at the time until the Green Bay Packers won the final title of the pre-Super Bowl era two years later.
6. 1951: Los Angeles Rams 24, Cleveland Browns 17
This particular iteration of the championship game isn’t particularly noteworthy for the final scoreline, even though it was a hardly-fought contest. What makes it more historic is the fact that it was the first-ever title game that was nationally televised. It was also the first time the NFL blacked out a game as it wasn’t available on television in Southern California in an effort to boost attendance. That apparently worked as the 59,475 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum was, at the time, the largest crowd in NFL championship history.
Similar to the game involving the Eagles above, the Rams hosted the game despite the Browns having a better record. In fact, Cleveland came into the game on a 10-game winning streak after dropping their season-opener to the San Francisco 49ers. Clearly, they were the favorite against a club just six years removed from moving to the West Coast from Cleveland. The Rams ended up pulling off the upset with a 73-yard pass to Tom Fears from Norm Van Brocklin breaking a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter. And after falling to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, it remains the only title the Rams franchise has won while residing in the City of Angels.
5. 1950: Cleveland Browns 30, Los Angeles Rams 28
Expectations for the 2019 Browns are as high as they’ve ever been since the team returned to the league after the original version of the team became the Baltimore Ravens. They made arguably the biggest trade of the off-season when they brought in Odell Beckham from the Giants. The team has been associated with near constant mediocrity in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case with the franchise. That becomes abundantly apparent when exploring the Browns early history.
The team was initially founded in 1946 as part of the first real competitor to the NFL, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). The league eventually folded in 1949 but not after the Browns had won all four titles that were contested. That success paved the way for them being among three AAFC teams that the NFL absorbed. And they proved themselves formidable, going 10-2 in 1950 which was tied with ths Giants for the best record in the Eastern Division. That required a playoff to determine who would make the NFL title game. The Browns prevailed in what remains the only game in NFL history to finish with an 8-3 scoreline.
That precipitated the first championship encounter between the Browns and the formerly Cleveland Rams. It looked as if the Rams would prevail when they took a 28-20 lead into the fourth quarter. But buoyed by a defense that proceeded to force two interceptions, the Browns responded. An Otto Graham pass to Rex Bumgardner in the end zone cut it to 28-27. And with the ball inside the 20 with 28 seconds left, Lou Groza kicked a short field goal to complete the comeback. Perhaps the most notable stat was Dante Lavelli’s 11 catches which set an NFL title game record that stood until 1959.
4. 1945: Cleveland Rams 15, Washington Redskins 14
December 1945 was a euphoric time for the US. Just a few months earlier, World War II officially came to an end with Japan’s unconditional surrender. Many NFL players served during the war, including some who made the ultimate sacrifice. And to this day, the league continues to show its appreciation for those who’ve served or are currently serving in the Armed Forces with its “Salute to Service” campaign.
The title game that year was a veritable “Ice Bowl” 22 years before the Packers and Cowboys faced off on the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field. Temperatures at kickoff were -8 degrees Fahrenheit, which at that time were the coldest conditions for a championship matchup in NFL history. And long before the botched snap involving Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos that led to a 2-0 scoreline early in the Seattle Seahawks eventual win in Super Bowl XLVIII, there was what happened at the conclusion of the 1945 season.
In the first quarter, Sammy Baugh attempted a pass in the end zone. Of course, back then, the goalposts were situated at the goal line. NFL rules stipulated at the time that if a pass hit the post, it would result in a safety. And that’s exactly what happened, making the score 2-0. The final score of the game should give you an indication as to how crucial Baugh’s error turned out to be. It led to the Redskins owners Marshall successfully lobbying to get rid of the rule after the season.
3. 1953: Detroit Lions 17, Cleveland Browns 16
Perhaps no other two franchises are more associated with ineptitude in the modern NFL than the Lions and Browns. Neither has appeared in a Super Bowl. Along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they’re the only teams in the Super Bowl era to finish a season without a single win. But during the 1950s, things were markedly different. Both teams won three titles during the decade, tied for the most in the NFL in that time. And the Browns made a whopping seven title game appearances in the 50s, including six straight between 1950-55.
All three of Detroit’s triumphs over the course of this period came at Cleveland’s expense. The second of these matchups which occurred two days after Christmas in 1953 was, without a doubt, the most compelling. It took place at Briggs Stadium, the Lions’ home facility before they moved into the Silverdome.
Doak Walker, who eventually had the award given to college football’s best running back each year named after him, opened up the scoring for the Lions. The two teams traded field goals in the second quarter and after Chick Jagade scampered into the endzone, the score was 10-10 heading into the fourth. Lou Groza kicked consecutive field goals before Jim Doran caught a 33-yard pass from Bobby Layne late in the final stanza to give the Lions the win. Four years later, they routed the Browns 59-14 but haven’t even played for a title since.
2. 1933: Chicago Bears 23, New York Giants 21
The first thing that comes to mind when most sports fans think of Wrigley Field is its status as the hallowed home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs since 1914. But it should also be noted that the facility hosted six NFL title games during the pre-Super Bowl era, including the first one that was ever contested in 1933. That season saw the league split into Eastern and Western Divisions for the first time with the two divisional winners battling it out for the crown.
Those two sides turned out to be the Bears and Giants who were quite familiar with one another when they met on the north side of Chicago on December 17, 1933. They faced off twice during the regular season with each team tallying a win. The Bears boasted two of the most iconic running backs of the early NFL in Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange, a.k.a. the “Galloping Ghost.” The former played a part in Chicago’s go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left in the game. And, as “Ironman” football was a norm back then, Grange made a tackle as time expired which sealed the win.
1958: Baltimore Colts 23, New York Giants 17 (OT)
Back before the current age of state of the art, stand-alone facilities, most NFL teams played at MLB venues. It included the Giants who began play at the Polo Grounds in 1925, then moved to Yankee Stadium in 1956 where they’d remain until 1973. They also spent one season at Shea Stadium before moving to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. And it was the 1958 edition of the NFL title game at “The House that Ruth Built” that remains among the most iconic contests in NFL history.
It was a game of firsts. After Frank Gifford caught a 15-yard touchdown pass that put the home-standing Giants up 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, it was time for famed Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas to build his legend. Facing third and long from his own 14, Unitas completed an 11-yard pass to keep the drive alive. He subsequently made three successful passes on the next four plays which made possible a 20-yard field goal from Steve Myhra to tie the game and force sudden-death overtime. His heroics led to the coining of the term “two-minute drill.”
But he wasn’t done. After the Colts forced a Giants three and out, they started the ensuing drive at their own 20. It was then that Unitas led his team on a 13-play drive that culminated in Alan Ameche punching it in from one yard out to give the Colts their first-ever NFL title. The “down to the wire” nature of this championship clash led to it becoming known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
It was a seminal moment in American sports history that played a part in the NFL eventually becoming the nation’s most popular pro sports league. It wasn’t until 59 years later that another league title game went into overtime when the Patriots stormed back from a 28-3 second-half deficit to ultimately shock the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl LI. By then, the NFL’s showpiece event had become not just an American obsession, but a global phenomenon.