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Upon further review: NFL third-place games used to be a thing

"Upon further review" is a new recurring segment in which This Given Sunday analyzes quirks and fascinating tidbits from the NFL's history books. 

This weekend in Denver and Seattle, two teams will be eliminated from the NFL playoffs. On Monday, those teams will clean out their lockers and go their separate ways before preparation starts for the 2014 NFL season. 

But long ago, that wasn't the case. Between 1960 and 1969, the NFL held a third-place game called the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl (usually referred to as the Playoff Bowl) each year at the Orange Bowl in Miami. 

As you can probably guess, there was a charity aspect to the game. Bell, who co-founded the Philadelphia Eagles and was once a co-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, spent the final 14 years of his life as NFL commissioner before dying at a game between the Eagles and Steelers in 1959. Pete Rozelle took over the next year and the rest is history. Literally.

They began playing the consolation championship game, which raised money for a player pension fund in Bell's name, in Rozelle's first season. The first nine took place one week after the championship game (falling on the dead weekend between the NFL championship game and the newly-created Super Bowl between 1966 and 1968), except in the final year, when it was moved a day ahead of the championship game. And then, after all of that, we got the Pro Bowl. 

All these years later, the Pro Bowl has ironically moved into the third-place game's former spot on the NFL's annual schedule.

The whole thing gave the NFL another chance to showcase its talent on national television, which at that time didn't feature regular-season games. That became important as the AFL began to emerge, although I'm not sure the Playoff Bowl did much to help. The players called it "Fun Week" and this CBS Sports recap of the 1996 season didn't include a mention of the game, despite the fact all 10 Playoff Bowls aired on CBS.

The first seven Playoff Bowls took place before we had playoffs, so they were matchups between the two teams that finished in second place in their respective conferences (at that point, the East and the West). When conference championship games arrived in '67, the two losers met. 

As a result, the 1967 Los Angeles Rams, the 1968 Dallas Cowboys and the 1969 Rams would be the only teams in NFL history to have gone 0-2 in the NFL playoffs. I say "would be" because, nowadays, the 10 Playoff Bowls are counted only as exhibition games in the record books. 

Really, though, the whole thing seems kind of ridiculous. It'd never fly now. In fact, it barely did then. After his Green Bay Packers beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1963 game, Vince Lombardi called it "the Shit Bowl. A loser's game for losers. Because that's all second place is."

Awesome, Vince, but technically it was for third place.

But nobody felt like a bridesmaid as much as Roger Brown, who played in five of the 10 Playoff Bowls during his 10-year career. At least he won each of them, but Brown never got to play in a championship game. 

“Why are you waking the dead?” Brown griped to the New York Times half a century later. “I was in five of them, and to have played in it five in the 10 years it was in existence is pitiful.”

And the team with the most bronze medals? Naturally, the Detroit Lions, who won three of the 10 Playoff Bowls. 

“That ridiculous game," former Browns quarterback Frank Ryan told the Times, "shows how ridiculous the league was in those days."

Then again, it was the sixties. Everything was ridiculous.

Brad Gagnon

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com (covering Super Bowls XLIV, XLV and XLVI), a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Bloguin, but his day gig has him covering all things NFC East for Bleacher Report.

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