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NFL playoffs, 1990-91

The NFL playoffs following the 1990 NFL season led up to Super Bowl XXV.

The league expanded its playoff system from a 10-team to a 12-team tournament. With these changes, three wild card teams (those non-division champions with the conference's best won-lost-tied percentages) qualified, up from two the year before.

The format consisted of the following:

  • The three division champions from each conference are seeded 1 through 3 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record.
  • Three wild card qualifiers are seeded 4, 5 and 6 within the conference.

The 3 and 6 seeds played each other in one game and the 4 and 5 in a second game, both making up what was dubbed the "Wild Card Round". The 1 and the 2 seeds from each conference do not participate in this round, earning an automatic berth in the following week's "Divisional Playoff" games, where they face the Wild Card survivors. The 1 seeded team plays against the lowest remaining seed while the 2 seed plays the other remaining team. In a given game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage. In addition, a rule stating that teams from the same division could not play against each other in the divisional round was abolished.

These changes forced the division winner with the worst record in each conference to play during the first round. However, it guaranteed that division winner a home game, unlike in the previous format where the highest seeded wild-card team earned a home playoff game while the lowest-seeded division winner, despite earning a bye, was forced to play the second-seeded or top-seeded division winner (based on the no-divisional matchup rule) and thus could not host any playoff game before their respective conference championship (provided that they were the highest remaining seed).

This system was later modified before the 2002–03 NFL playoffs after the league realigned the teams into eight divisions (four per conference).

Playoff seeds
1 Buffalo Bills (East winner) San Francisco 49ers (West winner)
2 Los Angeles Raiders (West winner) New York Giants (East winner)
3 Cincinnati Bengals (Central winner) Chicago Bears (Central winner)
4 Miami Dolphins Philadelphia Eagles
5 Kansas City Chiefs Washington Redskins
6 Houston Oilers New Orleans Saints


  Wild Card Playoffs Divisional Playoffs Conference Championships Super Bowl XXV
6  Houston 14  
3  Cincinnati 41  
  3  Cincinnati 10  
    2  L.A. Raiders 20  
  2  L.A. Raiders 3  
  1  Buffalo 51  
5  Kansas City 16  
4  Miami 17  
  4  Miami 34
    1  Buffalo 44  
  A1  Buffalo 19
  N2  N.Y. Giants 20
6  New Orleans 6  
3  Chicago 16  
  3  Chicago 3
    2  N.Y. Giants 31  
  2  N.Y. Giants 15
  1  San Francisco 13  
5  Washington 20  
4  Philadelphia 6  
  5  Washington 10
    1  San Francisco 28  

Wild Card playoffs

January 5, 1991

NFC: Washington Redskins 20, Philadelphia Eagles 6

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Redskins 0 10 10020
Eagles 3 3 006

at Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia

The Redskins overcame losing two turnovers and a 6-0 deficit to score 20 unanswered points. The Eagles had a chance to capitalize early with Washington's mistakes, but could only score two field goals from kicker Roger Ruzek. They also had a defense fumble return touchdown overturned by instant replay. However, the Redskins dominated from that point on. Washington quarterback Mark Rypien threw two touchdown passes: a 16-yarder to wide receiver Art Monk and a 3-yard completion to Gary Clark. Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller also made two field goals.

AFC: Miami Dolphins 17, Kansas City Chiefs 16

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Chiefs 3 7 6016
Dolphins 0 3 01417

at Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami, Florida

With 2:28 left in the game, the Dolphins capped an 85-yard drive with quarterback Dan Marino's winning 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Clayton.

However, the Chiefs dominated most of the game. On the Dolphins opening drive they reached midfield, but Marino was sacked on third down and Reggie Roby's punt was blocked by Charles Washington, giving Kansas City the ball at the Miami 37-yard line. After 9 plays and 28 yards, the Chiefs scored on a 27-yard field goal from Nick Lowery. Miami responded with a 40-yard drive, with Marino completing a 12-yard pass to Mark Duper on 3rd and 4 to keep it moving. The drive ended on the Chiefs 40-yard line, where Pete Stoyanovich made an NFL playoff record 58-yard field goal to tie the game.

Kansas City responded with a drive to the Dolphins 30-yard line, featuring a 33-yard reception by receiver Stephone Paige, but it ended with no points when safety Jarvis Williams intercepted a pass from Steve DeBerg. After an exchange of punts, Miami drove to the Chiefs 39-yard line. Stoyanovich attempted another long field goal, this one 57 yards, but this time he missed and Kansas City got rolling with a 16-yard run from Christian Okoye. Then DeBerg got his team into the end zone with two completions to Paige, the first for 16 yards and the second a 26-yard touchdown to make the score 10-3. Miami later threatened to score with a drive in KC territory, but Neil Smith stripped the ball from Marino and J.C. Pearson recovered it, keeping the score at 10-3 by halftime.

Kansas City had to punt on their first drive, and Brian Barker's 44-yard kick pinned the Dolphins back at their own 6-yard line. Miami was forced to a three and out, but Roby's 64-yard punt sent Kansas City all the way back to their own 30. DeBerg started off the possession with a 26-yard completion to Emile Harry. Following a sack and an incompletion, the Chiefs faced 3rd and 15. On the next play, running back Todd McNair picked up 13 yards on a screen pass, and on 4th down and 2 from Dolphins 36, Okoye rushed five yards for a first down. Two more DeBerg completions advanced the ball to the 1-yard line, but an intnetional grounding penalty moved the ball back 10 yards and Kansas City ended up settling for a 25-yard field goal from Lowery. Then on the first play of the Dolphins next drive, Duper lost a fumble while being tackled by Deron Cherry, and Dino Hackett recovered for the Chiefs on the Miami 29-yard line. Three runs by Okoye gained 8 yards, and then Lowery kicked his third field goal to give his team a 16-3 lead.

Miami fought back with a 66-yard, 10-play touchdown drive. On the last play of the third quarter, Sammie Smith converted a fourth down with a 2-yard run. Then Marino connected with Mark Clayton for a 23-yard gain, setting up his 1-yard touchdown pass to Tony Paige that cut the deficit to 6 points with 12 minutes left. DeBerg responded with a 33-yard completion to Harry on the first play of the Chiefs ensuing drive, but it stalled on the Dolphins 41-yard line and Berker had to punt it away, giving the Dolphins the ball at their own 15 where Marino led his team 85 yards for the game winning score, starting with a 37-yard to tight end Ferrell Edmunds. After 10 plays and three third down conversions, Marino finished the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Clayton, giving Miami a 17-16 lead with 3:28 left in the game.

Kansas City took the ball back and fought hard for a winning field goal, driving into Dolphins territory where Okoye's 26-yard burst moved the ball to the 26-yard line. But on the next play, a holding call wiped out his 12-yard run and pushed the team back 10 yards. As the final seconds of the game approached, the Chiefs could only make it back to the 34. Lowery, who had made his last 22 field goals, attempted a game winner from 52 yards out, but it fell just short.

Marino finished the game with 19 of 30 completions for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Stephone Paige caught 8 passes for 142 yards and a score.[1][2]

January 6, 1991

AFC: Cincinnati Bengals 41, Houston Oilers 14

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Oilers 0 0 7714
Bengals 10 10 14741

at Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio

In week 16 of the regular season, Cincinnati had defeated Houston on the road 40-20. Now at home in Riverfront Stadium, playing against an Oilers team without starting quarterback Warren Moon, who suffered a dislocated thumb in their prior meeting, the results would be even better.

The Bengals crushed the Oilers by jumping to a 34-0 lead in the third quarter and holding the ball for 39:45. On the opening drive, they drove 70 yards in 11 plays, including a 46-yard completion from Boomer Esiason to tight end Rodney Holman, to score on a 1-yard run by fullback Ickey Woods. From this point on, the Oilers never recovered. Before the end of the half, Bengals kicker Jim Breech made two field goals, while safety David Fulcher's 43-yard interception return set up another touchdown on a 2-yard reception by Harold Green. Houston finished the first half with one first down and 36 yards, while Cincinnati gained 15 first downs, 222 yards, and 20 points.

In the second half, Bengals running back Eric Ball scored on a 3-yard touchdown run, while Esiason ran for a 10-yard touchdown and threw a 9-yard score to tight end Eric Kattus. Houston wide receiver Ernest Givins caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Cody Carlson to prevent a shutout. Esiason finished the game with 14 of 20 completions for 150 yards and two touchdowns, while also running for 57 yards and a score.

Cincinnati's most lopsided playoff win in franchise history was the result of a team effort. The Bengals racked up 187 yards on the ground even though no player rushed for more than 57 yards, and added another 162 yards through the air, though no one caught more than 2 passes. Overall, the Bengals gained 349 yards while holding Houston to 227, with just 69 rushing yards. Ironically, Houston had helped get Cincinnati into the playoffs by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in their final game of the season, causing the Bengals to win the AFC Central based on tiebreaker rules.

As of 2013, this has been Cincinnati's last playoff win to date.

NFC: Chicago Bears 16, New Orleans Saints 6

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Saints 0 3 036
Bears 3 7 3316

at Soldier Field, Chicago

The Bears defense held the Saints to 65 rushing yards, 6 first downs, and two field goals. Chicago also recorded 365 yards of total offense. Bears running back Neal Anderson compiled 166 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards, and threw a 22-yard halfback option pass. Chicago kicker Kevin Butler made 3 field goals, and quarterback Mike Tomczak completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end James Thornton. New Orleans' only scores were two field goals by kicker Morten Andersen.


Divisional playoffs

January 12, 1991

AFC: Buffalo Bills 44, Miami Dolphins 34

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Dolphins 3 14 31434
Bills 13 14 31444

at Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, New York

In a shootout, the Bills jumped to a 13-3 lead in the first quarter, and kept pace with the Dolphins as the two teams matched each other score for score for the rest of the game. The Bills scored first with wide receiver Andre Reed's 40-yard touchdown reception. Then after Buffalo jumped to a 20-3 lead in the second quarter with running back Thurman Thomas' 5-yard touchdown, Miami quarterback Dan Marino cut the Bills' lead to 20-10 with a 64-yard touchdown completion to wide receiver Mark Duper. Before halftime, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver James Lofton, and Marino scored on a 2-yard touchdown run. The teams exchanged field goals again the in third period. During the final quarter, Roy Foster, an offensive lineman who played in an eligible receiver position, caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to cut the Dolphins deficit to 30-27. But the Bills countered with Thomas' 5-yard touchdown run. Miami then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Kelly capitalized with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Reed to clinch the game. Marino's 8-yard touchdown to wide receiver Tony Martin closed out the scoring.

Kelly, who returned to start for the Bills after missing the last 2 games of the season with a knee injury, passed for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also rushing for 37 yards. Reed was also a big factor, recording 123 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown catches. Lofton caught 7 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. Thomas led the Bills ground attack with 32 carries for 117 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns, while also catching 3 passes for 38 yards. Marino threw for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was intercepted twice. Duper caught 3 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. Running back Sammie Smith rushed for 99 yards and caught a 9 yard reception.

NFC: San Francisco 49ers 28, Washington Redskins 10

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Redskins 10 0 0010
49ers 7 14 0728

at Candlestick Park, San Francisco

Quarterback Joe Montana passed for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half to lead the 49ers to a 21-10 score by halftime. Redskins receiver Art Monk had a superb performance, recording 10 receptions for 163 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown catch from Mark Rypien to give his team a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. San Francisco tied the game with running back Tom Rathman's 1-yard rushing touchdown, but Washington took the lead again with kicker Chip Lohmiller's 44-yard field goal. In the second quarter, Montana then took control of the game by throwing two touchdowns: a 10-yarder to wide receiver Jerry Rice and an 8-yarder to wide receiver Mike Sherrard. San Francisco dominated Washington's offense for the rest of the game, intercepting Rypien 3 times with linebacker Michael Carter returning one 61 yards for a touchdown.

January 13, 1991

NFC: New York Giants 31, Chicago Bears 3

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Bears 0 3 003
Giants 10 7 7731

at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

The Giants defense dominated the game by allowing only 27 rushing yards and 3 points. New York quarterback Jeff Hostetler, playing because starter Phil Simms suffered a season-ending injury, completed 10 out of 17 passes for 122 yards. He also threw 2 touchdown passes: a 21-yard completion to wide receiver Stephen Baker and a 3-yarder to tight end Howard Cross. Hostetler also ran for 43 yards, including a 3-yard rushing touchdown. Giants kicker Matt Bahr made a 46-yard field goal and running back Maurice Carthon scored a 1-yard touchdown.

AFC: Los Angeles Raiders 20, Cincinnati Bengals 10

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Bengals 0 3 0710
Raiders 0 7 31020

at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles

The Raiders, who had defeated Cincinnati 24-7 during the regular season, recorded 235 rushing yards (with 140 of them coming from running back Marcus Allen), while holding the Bengals to just 182 total yards and sacking Boomer Esiason four times (Three by lineman Greg Townsend), but still had to score 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory.

After forcing a punt on the opening drive, the Raiders drove to the Bengals 24-yard line, only to turn the ball over on a failed 4th and 1 conversion attempt. Los Angeles then drove to midfield where Jeff Gossett's punt pinned the Bengals back at their own 5-yard line. But Cincinnati still managed to drive 87 yards in 9 plays and score on Jim Breech's 27-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 12:07 left in the second quarter. Los Angeles quickly countered with Bo Jackson rushing three times for 36 yards and Marcus Allen rushing once for 19 on the way to a 13-yard touchdown pass form Jay Schroeder to Mervyn Fernandez.

On the third play of the second half, Jackson broke off a 34-yard run, but was knocked out of the game on the play, and the team failed to score when Bengals safety David Fulcher intercepted Schroeder's pass and returned it 11 yards to the Cincinnati 19-yard line. After forcing a punt, the Raiders drove 45 yards in 8 plays and scored on a 49-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal to increase their lead to 10-3. Cincinnati responded with a 13-play, 71-yard drive to score on Boomer Esiason's 8-yard touchdown pass to running back Stanford Jennings, tying the game with just under 12 minutes left in the game. But the Raiders took over the game from that point with consecutive scoring drives. First, Schroeder's 41-yard touchdown bomb to tight end Ethan Horton put them up 17-10 at the end of a 7-play, 80-yard drive. Then after a Townsend sack forced the Bengals to punt, Los Angeles put the game away with a 62-yard drive that ate up 5:13 and ended on Jaeger's 25-yard field goal with 19 seconds left in the game.[3]

This was Bo Jackson's final NFL game, having injured his left hip during the third quarter while being tackled from behind by Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker.[4] The injury was later revealed to have caused a degenerative bone condition in Jackson's hip called avascular necrosis. Before being knocked out of the game, he rushed 6 times for 77 yards. Some Bengals fans theorize that this injury to one of the greatest athletes ever placed a curse on the Bengals franchise (sometimes called "the curse of Bo Jackson"), and that this curse is partially responsible for the Bengals' notorious failure to field a competitive football team for most of the next decade and a half.

This game is also notable for being Marcus Allen's last 100-plus yard rushing performance with the Raiders, as well as the last postseason game the Bengals would play in until 2005. To this day the Bengals have not won another playoff game. Their winless playoff streak is the longest among all 32 NFL teams.

Conference championships

January 20, 1991

AFC Championship: Buffalo Bills 51, Los Angeles Raiders 3

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Raiders 3 0 003
Bills 21 20 01051

at Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, New York

Raiders head coach Art Shell became the first African-American coach to take his team to a conference championship game, but the results were not in his favor.

The Bills shredded the Raiders, limiting quarterback Jay Schroeder to 13 of 31 completions for 150 yards and intercepting him 5 times, while also holding running back Marcus Allen to just 26 yards on 10 carries. On offense, the Bills amassed 502 total yards, including 202 yards on the ground. Running back Thurman Thomas rushed for 138 and a touchdown while also catching 5 passes for 61 yards, while running back Kenneth Davis tied an AFC playoff record with 3 rushing touchdowns. Buffalo also set an NFL playoff record by scoring 41 points in the first half. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly threw for 300 yards and two touchdown passes to wide receiver James Lofton, who finished the game with 5 receptions for 113 yards. Thomas recorded a 12-yard touchdown run, while Davis scored from 1 yard, 3 yards, and 1 yard out. Linebacker Darryl Talley returned one of his two interceptions 27 yards for a touchdown.

On Buffalo's opening drive, Kelly completed six consecutive passes, the last one a 13-yard touchdown throw to Lofton after he recovered a fumbled snap in shotgun formation. The Raiders responded with a 41-yard field goal from Jeff Jaeger, but Buffalo stormed back with another touchdown just four plays after the ensuing kickoff, set up by Kelly's 41-yard completion to Lofton. After a punt, Los Angeles defensive back Gary Lewis intercepted a pass from Kelly. But two plays later, Talley intercepted a pass from Schroeder and returned it for a touchdown. The Raiders were forced to punt on their next possession, and Buffalo stormed down the field again, scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run by Davis on fourth down and goal. An interception by Nate Odomes set up Davis' second touchdown less than a minute later, and before the half ended, Lofton caught his second touchdown pass to give the Bills a 41-3 first half lead.

Buffalo increased their lead to 48-3 with Davis' third touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Later on, Scott Norwood closed out the scoring with a 39-yard field goal.

Buffalo recorded a total of six interceptions, the third highest total ever in a single NFL game. Defensive back Mark Kelso recorded his fourth career postseason interception in the game, a Bills' record.

NFC Championship: New York Giants 15, San Francisco 49ers 13

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Giants 3 3 3615
49ers 3 3 7013

at Candlestick Park, San Francisco

In a mostly defensive battle, 49ers running back Roger Craig's fumble with 2:36 left in the game led to Giants kicker Matt Bahr's 42-yard game-winning field goal as time ran out. Bahr was New York's only scorer, as he made 5 out of 6 field goals. Although the Giants outrushed the 49ers, 152 yards to 49, the game was tied 6–6 at halftime.

During the first half, Dave Meggett on a halfback option rolled out and delivered a strike to fullback Maurice Carthon. Carthon dropped the ball in the back of the end zone. It was the closest the Giants would get to scoring a touchdown. In the third quarter, a 61-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana to wide receiver John Taylor gave San Francisco the lead, 13-6. Bahr then made a 46-yard field goal that made it 13-9.

In the fourth quarter, Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler was hit at the knees by 49ers defensive tackle Jim Burt. Hostetler was injured on the play, but managed to walk off the field under his own power. Giants linebacker Carl Banks later recalled that the defense was infuriated by the play and looked to strike back. "It was unspoken...that if you hurt one of our guys, we knew who to go after," Banks said.[5]

On the 49ers' next drive, Montana called a pass play on third down. With the New York defense covering all of his receivers, Montana was forced to move outside the pocket to make a play. Although Lawrence Taylor took a swipe at Montana and missed, he slowed Montana enough so that Leonard Marshall — whom 49ers fullback Tom Rathman had initially taken out of the play on a pancake block but who had also gotten up — to rush in and hit Montana at full speed from his blind side. Montana was already suffering from a lingering back injury and Marshall's hit broke a finger on his throwing hand and gave him a severe concussion, as Montana struggled to stand for the remainder of the game. The 49ers almost turned the ball over as Marshall's hit caused a fumble, but the ball skipped past Giants cornerback Mark Collins and lineman Steve Wallace recovered enabling the 49ers to punt.

Hostetler returned for the next drive but could not manage a first down. A fake punt, however, caught the 49ers off guard and linebacker Gary Reasons ran for thirty yards. The 49ers were undermanned on the play with only 10 men on the field, leaving a gaping hole that Reasons was able to exploit.[6] Hostetler then drove New York to the opposing 21-yard line, but could get no further and nearly threw an interception on a third down pass toward the end zone. Bahr kicked his fourth field goal of the game with 5:47 left to bring the score to 13-12.

Steve Young came in to replace Montana on the next drive, and the 49ers tried to run as much time as they could off the clock. On the second play off the drive Brent Jones got behind the Giants defense and Young hit him for a twenty-five yard gain, and two plays later Craig picked up a first down with a six yard gain. On the very next play, Young handed the ball off to Craig again, but Erik Howard stopped him behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble that fell right into Taylor's arms. This was the only turnover of the game.

With 2:36 left and with all three timeouts, Hostetler and the Giants began driving again. He hit Mark Bavaro for nineteen yards on the first play and later hit Stephen Baker for thirteen more on a second down to set up a short run by Ottis Anderson for two yards and a first down. New York called two running plays to get the ball to the middle of the field, and with four seconds left Bahr was called on to try to win the game. His kick went through the uprights as time ran out and the Giants won 15–13.

The game was featured in the NFL's Greatest Games as the End of a Dynasty.

Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19

Further information: Super Bowl XXV
Game summary
1 2 34Total
Bills (AFC) 3 9 0719
Giants (NFC) 3 7 7320

at Tampa Stadium, Tampa, Florida

  • Date: January 27, 1991
  • Game attendance: 73,813
  • Referee: Jerry Seeman
  • TV announcers (ABC): Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, and Frank Gifford



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