1981 NFL season

Last updated

1981 NFL season
Regular season
DurationSeptember 6 – December 21, 1981
Start dateDecember 27, 1981
AFC Champions Cincinnati Bengals
NFC Champions San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl XVI
DateJanuary 24, 1982
Site Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan
Champions San Francisco 49ers
Pro Bowl
DateJanuary 31, 1982
Site Aloha Stadium
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The 49ers playing against the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. 1986 Jeno's Pizza - 27 - Dan Bunz (cropped).jpg
The 49ers playing against the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

The 1981 NFL season was the 62nd regular season of the National Football League. The season ended with Super Bowl XVI when the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26–21 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.



The 1981 NFL Draft was held from April 28 to 29, 1981 at New York City's Sheraton Hotel. With the first pick, the New Orleans Saints selected running back George Rogers from the University of South Carolina.

New referee

Cal Lepore, the line judge for Super Bowl III and referee for the Miracle at the Meadowlands, retired prior to the 1980 season. He would later become supervisor of officials in the United States Football League and a replay official in the NFL when it was adopted in 1986. Tom Dooley, who was assigned Super Bowl XV as line judge at the end of the 1981 season, was promoted to referee to replace Lepore.

Major rule changes


Regular season

Scheduling formula

AFC East vs NFC East
AFC Central vs NFC West
AFC West vs NFC Central

Division races

From 1970 to 2001, there were three divisions (Eastern, Central and Western) in each conference. The winners of each division, and a fourth "wild card" team based on the best non-division winner, qualified for the playoffs. The tiebreaker rules were changed to start with head-to-head competition, followed by division records, records against common opponents, and records in conference play.

National Football Conference [2]

WeekEasternCentralWesternWild Card (Home)Wild Card (Road)
1Philadelphia, Dallas1–0–0Det, GB, TB1–0–0Atlanta1–0–06 teams1–0–06 teams1–0–0
2Philadelphia, Dallas2–0–0Det, GB, TB1–1–0Atlanta2–0–0Six teams1–1–0Six teams1–1–0
3Philadelphia, Dallas3–0–0All Five Teams1–2–0Atlanta3–0–0NY Giants2–1–08 Other Teams1-2-0
4Philadelphia, Dallas4–0–0Det, Min, TB2–2–0Atlanta3–1–06 Teams2–2–06 Teams2–2–0
5Philadelphia5–0–0Minnesota, Tampa Bay3–2–0Atlanta, LA, SF3–2–0Dallas4–1–05 Other Teams3-2-0
6Philadelphia6–0–0Minnesota, Tampa Bay4–2–0LA, San Fran4–2–0Dallas, Minnesota4–2–0San Fran, LA4–2–0
7Philadelphia6–1–0Minnesota5–2–0San Fran5–2–0Dallas5–2–03 Other Teams4-3-0
8Philadelphia7–1–0Minnesota5–3–0San Fran6–2–0Dallas6–2–0NY Giants5-3-0
9Philadelphia, Dallas7–2–0Minnesota, Tampa Bay5–4–0San Fran7–2–0Philadelphia, Dallas6–3–0Atl, LA, Min, NYG, TB5-4-0
10Philadelphia, Dallas8–2–0Minnesota6–4–0San Fran8–2–0Philadelphia, Dallas7–3–0Atl, LA, NYG, TB5–5–0
11Philadelphia9–2–0Minnesota7–4–0San Fran8–3–0Dallas8–3–07 teams5-6-0
12Philadelphia, Dallas9–3–0Minnesota7–5–0San Fran9–3–0Philadelphia, Dallas9–3–0Atl, Det, NYG, TB6-6-0
13Dallas10–3–0Det, Min, TB7–6–0San Fran9–4–0Philadelphia9–4–0Atl, Det, Min, TB7–6–0
14Dallas11–3–0Tampa Bay8–6–0San Fran10–4–0Philadelphia9–5–0Atl, Det, GB, Min, NYG, StL7–7–0
15Dallas12–3–0Det, Min, TB8–7–0San Fran12–3–0Philadelphia9–6–0Det, GB, NYG, TB8–7–0
16 Dallas 12–4–0 Tampa Bay 9–7–0 San Fran 13–3–0 Philadelphia 10–6–0 NY Giants 9–7–0

American Football Conference [3]

WeekEasternCentralWesternWild Card (Home)Wild Card (Road)
1Baltimore, Buffalo, Miami1–0–0Cincinnati, Houston1–0–0Denver, KC, SD1–0–07 teams1–0–07 teams1–0–0
2Miami2–0–0Cincinnati, Houston2–0–0KC, SD2–0–06 teams2–0–06 teams2–0–0
3Miami3–0–0Cincinnati, Houston2–1–0San Diego3–0–06 teams2–1–06 teams2–1–0
4Miami4–0–0Cincinnati3–1–0Denver, KC, SD3–1–0Denver, KC, SD3–1–0Buf, Cle, Pit, Hou, Oak2–2–0
5Miami4–0–1Cincinnati, Houston, Pittsburgh3–2–0Denver, SD4–1–0Denver, SD4–1–0Buf, Cin, Hou, KC, Pit3-2-0
6Miami4–1–1Cincinnati, Pittsburgh4–2–0Denver5–1–0Buffalo4–2–0Hou, Pit, SD, KC4-2-0
7Miami5–1–1Cincinnati5–2–0Denver, KC, SD5–2–0Denver, KC, SD5–2–0Buf, Hou, KC, Pit4-3-0
8Miami5–2–1Cincinnati, Pittsburgh5–3–0Kansas City6–2–0Buffalo5–3–0Cin, Den, Pit5-3-0
9Miami6–2–1Cincinnati6–3–0Denver, KC, SD6–3–0Buffalo6–3–0Denver, KC, SD6-3-0
10Miami7–2–1Cincinnati7–3–0Denver7–3–0San Diego6–4–0Buffalo, KC6–4–0
11Miami7–3–1Cincinnati8–3–0Denver, KC7–4–0Denver, KC7–4–0NY Jets6–4–1
12Miami, NY Jets7–4–1Cincinnati9–3–0Denver, KC8–4–0Denver, KC8–4–0Miami, NY Jets7–4–1
13Miami, NY Jets8–4–1Cincinnati10–3–0Denver, KC, SD8–5–0Miami, NY Jets8–4–1Buf, Den, KC, Pit, SD8–5–0
14Miami9–4–1Cincinnati10–4–0Denver9–5–0Buffalo9–5–0NY Jets8–5–1
15Miami10–4–1Cincinnati11–4–0Denver10–5–0Buffalo10–5–0NY Jets9–5–1
16 Miami 11–4–1 Cincinnati 12–4–0 San Diego 10–6–0 NY Jets 10–5–1 Buffalo 10–6–0

1981 Final Standings



Jan 2 – Texas Stadium
3 Tampa Bay 0
Dec 27 – Veterans Stadium Jan 10 – Candlestick Park
2 Dallas 38
5 NY Giants 272Dallas27
Jan 3 – Candlestick Park
4 Philadelphia 211San Francisco28
NFC Championship
5NY Giants24
Jan 24 – Pontiac Silverdome
1 San Francisco 38
Divisional playoffs
Wild Card playoffsN1San Francisco26
Jan 2 – Miami Orange Bowl
Super Bowl XVI
3 San Diego 41*
Dec 27 – Shea Stadium Jan 10 – Riverfront Stadium
2 Miami 38
5 Buffalo 313San Diego7
Jan 3 – Riverfront Stadium
4 NY Jets 271Cincinnati27
AFC Championship
1 Cincinnati 28

* Indicates overtime victory

Records, milestones, and notable statistics

Records Set

Minnesota Vikings
Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Rams (219) vs Atlanta Falcons (63), Oct 11, 1981

Records Tied

San Diego Chargers (vs Oakland Raiders) Nov 22, 1981
Los Angeles Rams (vs Atlanta Falcons) Oct 11, 1981

Baltimore Colts Defense

The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst defenses in NFL history; they set five dubious defensive records:

Statistical leaders


Points scoredSan Diego Chargers (478)
Total yards gainedSan Diego Chargers (6,744)
Yards rushingDetroit Lions (2,795)
Yards passingSan Diego Chargers (4,739)
Fewest points allowedPhiladelphia Eagles (221)
Fewest total yards allowedPhiladelphia Eagles (4,447)
Fewest rushing yards allowedDetroit Lions (1,623)
Fewest passing yards allowedPhiladelphia Eagles (2,696)


Most Valuable Player Ken Anderson, quarterback, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year Bill Walsh, San Francisco
Offensive Player of the Year Ken Anderson, quarterback, Cincinnati
Defensive Player of the Year Lawrence Taylor, linebacker, NY Giants
Offensive Rookie of the Year George Rogers, running back, New Orleans
Defensive Rookie of the Year Lawrence Taylor, linebacker, NY Giants
Man of the Year Lynn Swann, wide receiver, Pittsburgh
Comeback Player of the Year Ken Anderson, quarterback, Cincinnati
Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Montana, quarterback, San Francisco

Coaching changes

Stadium changes

The home of the San Diego Chargers, San Diego Stadium, was renamed Jack Murphy Stadium in memory of local sportswriter Jack Murphy

Uniform changes


This was the fourth and final year under the league's broadcast contracts with ABC, CBS, and NBC to televise Monday Night Football , the NFC package, and the AFC package, respectively. The league then negotiated to have all three networks renew their deals for another five years. [4]

John Madden became the lead color commentator for CBS, replacing Tom Brookshier who moved into a play-by-play role. However CBS Sports executives debated on whether Madden should be paired with incumbent lead play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall or should #2 announcer Vin Scully be promoted to the role. To resolve the situation, both Scully and Summerall were paired with Madden in four-week stretches. Scully was paired with Madden during the first four weeks of the season while Summerall was primarily covering the US Open Tennis Championships. Then Summerall called games with Madden while Scully covered the Major League Baseball playoffs for CBS Radio. After the eighth week of the NFL season, CBS Sports executives decided that Summerall had better chemistry with Madden than Scully did. Scully was later assigned as a consolation prize the NFC Championship Game. After the season, he would move to NBC to cover Major League Baseball and golf, but he decided to never call NFL games again. [5]

Regular season game not broadcast by Network TV

DateTimeTeamsLocal TVAnnouncers
September 5, 19818:00 PM EDT Minnesota @ Tampa Bay KSTP-TV (Minnesota)
WTOG-TV (Tampa Bay)

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  1. 100 Things Dolphins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Armando Salguero, Triumph Books, Chicago, 2020, ISBN 978-1-62937-722-3, p.185
  2. "1981 NFL Standings Through Week 1". champsorchumps.us. Retrieved March 17, 2024.
  3. "1981 NFL Standings Through Week 1". champsorchumps.us. Retrieved March 17, 2024.
  4. Brulia, Tim. "A CHRONOLOGY OF PRO FOOTBALL ON TELEVISION: Part 3" (PDF). Pro Football Researchers.
  5. Weintraub, Rob (May 23, 2016). "The Day Vin Scully Didn't Land That N.F.L. Broadcasting Job". The New York Times.
  6. "1981 NFL Standings Week by Week". champsorchumps.us. Retrieved March 17, 2024.