NFL teams played only 12 games in the 1951 regular season. Only two teams made the playoffs in that era; The two division winners played in the NFL Championship Game. The Week 11 game featuring the Detroit Lions at the Los Angeles Rams looked as if it could determine the NFL’s National Division champion. The game is a classic regular season game of the 1950s NFL.
1951 Rams and Lions Rosters and Match Up
Los Angeles entered the game at 7-3. The Lions held a 6-3-1 record. Over 67,000 people attended the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game was played on December 9, 1951.
The 1951 Los Angeles Rams roster featured many players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Rams owned a great luxury at quarterback, trading off between two such Hall of Famers. Bob Waterfield exchanged QB duties with Norm Van Brocklin. The Rams also featured receivers Elroy Hirsch and Tom Fears. The team’s defensive line featured Andy Robustelli, although most fans know him for his days with the New York Giants. The Rams’ lineup also featured other stars, such as Tank Younger, who played under legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling. “Deacon” Dan Towler led the team in rushing. The roster also included former Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis.
The 1951 Detroit Lions roster also hosted a large number of 1950s NFL stars. A pair of Texans, quarterback Bobby Layne and running back Doak Walker, shined as the two brightest. Walker won the 1948 Heisman Trophy; Lions teammate Leon Hart won the 1949 Heisman. Detroit’s roster also featured other stars including Hall of Famers Lou Creekmur and Jack Christiansen. Many believe defensive back Don Doll is a strong Hall of Fame candidate as well. The team also featured Pat Harder, a member of the Cardinals “Million Dollar Backfield” of the 1940s with the great Charley Trippi.Embed from Getty Images
Back and Forth 1950s NFL Classic
The Rams took a 3-0 in the first quarter, powered by a Waterfield field goal. Los Angeles took a 6-3 lead in the second quarter after Waterfield’s second field goal of the half.
A personal foul against the Rams on the ensuing kickoff proved costly. The Lions started with the ball on their own 47. Quarterback Bobby Layne engineered a touchdown drive to put the Lions ahead 10-6. Waterfield kicked his third field goal of the half as the second quarter expired. The score stood 10-6 at halftime, in favor of the Lions.
Lead Changed Hands in Third Quarter
Bob Waterfield drove the Rams 79 yards on the first possession of the second half. Dan Towler capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown. The Rams led 16-10.
Things looked bright for the Rams when Jerry Williams intercepted Layne on Detroit’s ensuing possession. Los Angeles started on Detroit’s 43-yard and looked to take control of the game. The Lions’ defense held, however, and the Rams only managed three yards. Waterfield missed a field goal, and the Rams missed an opportunity to extend their lead.
A key play happened on the last play of the third quarter. Lions running back Doak Walker fumbled on a double reverse. Lady Luck nodded toward Detroit, however, as Walker recovered the fumble and dashed 11 yards for a touchdown. The Lions led 17-16 as the third quarter closed.
A Thrilling Fourth Quarter
The Rams drove to the Lions 15 to start the fourth quarter. They gained nine yards on the next two plays, but the ferocious Lions stopped Towler on third-and-one. Bob Waterfield kicked his fourth field goal of the game. Los Angeles led, 19-17.Embed from Getty Images
On Detroit’s next possession, Layne threw a pass that was deflected by Rams defensive end Andy Robustelli. Rams defensive back Charlie Toogood snagged the ball for an interception. The Rams had the lead and the ball on Detroit’s 32. The division title moved closer to the Rams’ grasp.
Van Brocklin completed an 18-yard gain to Elroy Hirsch for a first down on Detroit’s 14-yard line. The Lions, however, wouldn’t go down easy. Their defense held the Rams to a field goal attempt. Detroit blocked the field goal.
The blocked kick opened the door for quarterback Bobby Layne to lead a comeback. The Lions offense stalled, however, and the Rams forced a punt. Los Angeles took over with great field position on their own 49.
A 13-yard pass brought the Rams inside the Lions 30. Detroit’s defense again stiffened up and forced yet another Waterfield field goal attempt. He made his fifth field goal of the game to put the Rams up, 22-17.
About four minutes remained in the game.
The Lions started on their own 21. Bobby Layne loved situations like this. He knew he owned a chance to win the game for the Lions. He threw a crucial 20-yard pass to Doak Walker that brought the Lions to midfield. Next, he took the ball himself for a 25-yard run. He then called the ol’ halfback option play. Walker tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass. The extra point gave Detroit a 24-22 lead with just over two minutes left in the game.Embed from Getty Images
Down to the Wire Finish
Waterfield came in at quarterback for the Rams. He threw incomplete on first down but the Lions committed a costly penalty. A roughing-the-passer penalty (yes, even in the 1950s!) gave the Rams 15 yards.
Van Brocklin replaced Waterfield at quarterback after the hit. Earlier that season, Van Brocklin set a game record for passing yards. He tossed to Hirsch on a play that brought the Rams into Lions territory, but the Rams moved no further. They eventually turned the ball over on downs.
Detroit ran out the clock and won a critical game, 24-22.
The win lofted Detroit into first place in the NFL’s National Division with one game left to play. The Rams fell into a second place tie with the Chicago Bears.
The New York Times reported that Bob Waterfield’s five field goals set a single-game NFL record. Chicago Cardinal Paddy Driscoll set the previous record with four against the Columbus Tigers in 1925. (According to the box score, although the NYT reported the Driscoll set the record against the Bears.)
The loss gave Detroit an opportunity to win the 1951 NFL National Division. A win over the San Francisco 49ers in the final week of the season would clinch the division title and a spot in the NFL Championship Game.
The Rams needed to win and hope.
That situation isn’t the best for NFL teams but it worked in the Rams’ case. The Rams soundly defeated the Packers. The San Francisco 49ers beat the Lions. The combination of outcomes sent the Rams to the 1951 NFL Championship Game.
All was not lost for Lions fans, however. Detroit went to the NFL Championship Game the next three seasons and won two championships.
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