It is a long forgotten relic of football’s golden age. For 10 seasons, from 1960 to 1969, the National Football League (NFL) played a postseason exhibition game called the Playoff Bowl. It was contested between the runners-up in the league’s Eastern and Western conferences, essentially a game to decide third place.
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The game was officially called the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl. Bell was the NFL commissioner from 1946 until he passed away in the middle of the 1959 season. Proceeds from the game went to the Bert Bell Player’s Pension Fund. Over the course of the Playoff Bowl, over $1 million was raised.
From 1933 through the 1950s, the NFL had but one postseason contest, the championship game. It seems surprising now, but at the time it was the only nationally televised NFL game of the year. The Pro Bowl, the league’s all-star exhibition game, was televised intermittently throughout the 1950s. Starting in 1958, it was shown nationally. As for regular season games, each team had its own deal with a local TV station and often built small ad hoc regional networks to show games. More popular teams made separate deals with CBS to carry games regionally.
A new league makes a splash
In 1960, with the formation of the rival American Football League (AFL) came a radical new idea. NBC paid the new league to carry all of its games nationally with regional adjustments. The revenue was split among the eight teams and is credited with helping to keep that league afloat for its first few seasons. Oddly, NBC continued to show the NFL’s Pro Bowl through 1965. Meanwhile, it as ABC that carried the AFL All-Star from 1961-1964.
The NFL’s initial response to the AFL’s TV contract with NBC was to add the Playoff Bowl to the postseason schedule. It was played a week after the NFL Championship Game, and a week before the Pro Bowl, at Miami’s Orange Bowl. The first game drew 34,000. By contrast, the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles the following week drew 57,000.
The Green Bay Packers battle the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 Playoff Bowl
The Playoff Bowl continued on for nine more years, despite criticism from players and coaches that a game for third place was meaningless, even demoralizing and insulting. While some enjoyed the chance to spend a week in Miami, most hated the concept, no one more than the Green Bay Packers’ legendary head coach Vince Lombardi whose team played in two Playoff Bowls. He famously called the game, among other sings, “the S*** Bowl,” a “Losers’ Bowl for losers,” and “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players.” Language!
Two leagues become one--- eventually
In 1966, the Miami Dolphins joined the AFL, taking up residence in the Orange Bowl. However, the NFL continued to hold the Playoff Bowl there as a few months before the Dolphins took the field the two leagues announced they would merge into one starting with the 1970 season.
The final Playoff Bowl was played the on January 3, 1970, the day before the 1969 NFL Championship Game. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Dallas Cowboys 31-0. The next day, day in Minnesota, the Vikings beat the Cleveland Browns 27-7 for the right to play in Super Bowl IV.
The Detroit Lions won the first three Playoff Bowls in their only appearances. Dallas won one and lost two. The Cleveland Browns lost all three times they appeared. The Packers went 1-1, the Eagles 0-2. The Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams both went 2-0. The St. Louis Cardinals won one, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings each lost one.
There was some talk of continuing the Playoff Bowl after the AFL/NFL merger was completed in 1970. However, the number of meaningful postseason games increased as the two leagues were reorganized into two conferences. Instead of 3 playoff games ( the two league championships and the Super Bowl), the total number of postseason games increased to seven, excluding the Pro Bowl which remains to this day. Formerly played the week after the Super Bowl, it has, since 2010, been played on the off-week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, with players from the latter not participating.
Historically, the league considers the Playoff Bowl, like the Pro Bowl and the AFL All-Star games, to be exhibitions. As such, the statistics and the third place title are not part of the NFL record books.
Below, a clip from an NFL Films documentary shows the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings getting ready for the 1968 Playoff Bowl, played on January 5, 1969.