The Cleveland Browns ordered four cases of champagne delivered to the Bel Air West Motel in St. Louis last Saturday night. The bottles were stacked in a refrigerator to await what the Browns hoped would be a barrage of popping corks, spewing wine and gay laughter on Sunday afternoon. A taxi was ready to rush the champagne out to the Cleveland locker room at Busch Stadium the moment the Browns were certain of defeating the St. Louis Cardinals. Fortunately, someone in the Cleveland organization had the discretion to order the champagne on consignment. By Sunday night the four cases were on their way back to the liquor store.
The celebration was to have marked Cleveland's capture of the Eastern Division championship of the National Football League. It will have to be delayed at least until this weekend, and possibly for much longer. By knocking off the Browns 28-19 Sunday before a frozen but delighted home crowd of 31,585, the St. Louis Cardinals have forced the Eastern Division decision into the final hours of the season. Everything now depends on two games: the Giants vs. Cleveland in New York this Saturday and the Cards vs. Philadelphia in St. Louis the next day. If both the Browns and the Cardinals win, the pennant will go to Cleveland by a few percentage points. But a Cardinal victory and a Cleveland loss would bring the city of St. Louis its first pro football championship and another flag to fly beside the one the Cardinal baseball team won last October.
The football Cards are the hottest team in the East and have been the most opportunistic in recent games. After an awful mid-season slump during which they lost three of four games—including two to second-division teams, Dallas and New York—the Cards have been unbeaten for the past five weeks. The only nonvictory in that period was a 10-10 tie that was played—or, rather, wallowed—with the Giants on a Busch Stadium field turned swampy by a steady, pounding rain. The Cards beat Pittsburgh twice in the last five weeks, and in one of the games little Corner Back Pat Fischer epitomized the recent St. Louis play and spirit. He ripped the ball from the arms of John Henry Johnson and ran 49 yards for the winning touchdown in the last two minutes.
Last Sunday the Cardinals needed no such desperate heroics. It was the finest day of the year for the young, scholarly St. Louis quarterback, Charley Johnson (see cover), who was presented a plaque as an outstanding alumnus of New Mexico State just before the game. A couple of hours later Johnson slumped on a bench in the Cardinal locker room, taking small puffs off a cigar and smiling at his plaque. He had a red scratch under his right eye, a long, ragged claw mark along the right side of his mouth, a bleeding cut on the back of his neck and a large, swollen purple bruise on his right biceps. Truthfully, Johnson looked as if he had spent the afternoon being wrestled and chewed by a bear. His pants were undone and wadded around his ankles, and he was too tired either to pull them up or to take them off. But he was not too tired to exult at the comeback of the Cardinals.
"After that first New York game [which the Cardinals lost, 34-17] we decided we had to double up and catch up," Johnson said. "I went back to studying hard. I started taking films home with me again. We changed our entire practice procedure and worked harder. What had happened was we had got away from our preparations during the week. We were still getting high for the games, but we weren't really prepared. You can't get ready in one day. Each game is a week-long job. We quit making that error."
For the Browns, the Cardinals had developed a game plan in which they had confidence. The earlier Cleveland game was a 33-33 tie, and the Cards knew they could move the ball on the Browns' defense. They intended to stay fairly close to the tactics that had proved effective in the first game. The running attack was to concentrate on off-tackle slants and traps. The big difference in the St. Louis offense was that Split End Sonny Randle, one of the NFL's most dangerous deep receivers, was out of this second Cleveland game because of a shoulder separation (it has finished him for the season). As a consequence, prime responsibility shifted to Flanker Bobby Joe Conrad, a drawling Texan who is a tricky receiver but does not have Randle's speed.
The Cardinals hoped to throw repeatedly to Conrad on short sideline patterns and on what, in St. Louis terminology, are called inside slips and comeback switches. On the inside slip Conrad goes 15 yards downfield and breaks across the middle. On the comeback switch Conrad goes down 15 to 18 yards, whirls and runs two or three steps back toward Johnson. The Cardinals also hoped to catch Cleveland in one of the defense patterns in which the weak-side safety crowds up almost over the St. Louis weak-side guard. In that situation Johnson would start play action toward the strong side, then stop and throw back across the field—either to Conrad or to Randle's replacement, Billy Gambrell, who would be man-for-man on the safety and was expected to be clear.
In the first Cleveland game the Browns' linebackers came up fast to cover the St. Louis backs on swing patterns. The idea this time was to swing the backs again, and if the linebackers committed themselves early Johnson would throw to Conrad on quick slant-in patterns.
The man with the primary duty of tagging along with Conrad was Cleveland Corner Back Bernie Parrish, who has his faults on man-for-man coverage but who has contributed mightily toward putting the Browns into their current lofty position and probably saved Quarterback Frank Ryan's job as well. Late in the second Dallas game the Cowboys were leading, 16-13, when Parrish intercepted a pass and raced it in for the winning touchdown. Cleveland's No. 2 quarterback, Jim Ninowski, who is capable of brilliant afternoons but is not as consistent as Ryan, was warming up on the sideline. After Parrish's touchdown, Ninowski sat down again. After that Ryan played five good games in a row, going into last Sunday.
The interception by Parrish was typical of the Cleveland defense this year. The Browns—hurt by the loss through injuries of Defensive Tackles Bob Gain and Frank Parker—play a conservative defense. They seldom blitz. They lay back and give up voluminous yardage—the most, in fact, of any team in the league—and wait for the other side to make a mistake. That style gets the Browns kicked around quite a bit, but until last Sunday they had usually managed to come up with the big defensive plays, and they ranked fourth in the league in fewest points allowed.