Both teams finished the 1958 season with a 9–3 record. For the Giants, it was their fifth consecutive winning season, a stretch that included an NFL Championship in 1956. In contrast, 1958 was only the second winning season in Colts' history since the team's founding in 1953.
Baltimore started off the season winning their first six games before losing to New York, 24–21, in week 7 of the regular season. However, Colts starting quarterback Johnny Unitas was injured at the time and did not play in the game. Three weeks later, Unitas returned to lead the Colts to a critical come-from-behind win against Hall of Fame quarterback Y. A. Tittle and his San Francisco 49ers. Trailing 27–7 at halftime, Baltimore stormed back with four unanswered touchdowns to win, 35–27, clinching the Western Conference championship. This allowed them to rest their starters for the final two games of the regular season, both on the road in California.
New York started the season 2–2, then won seven of their last eight games, including a critical 19–17 win over the defending champion Detroit Lions on December 7. In that game, New York fell behind late when the offense lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Later on, however, the Giants stopped Detroit punter Yale Lary on a fake punt attempt and drove for the go-ahead score. They then secured the win by blocking a Lions field goal attempt as time expired in the game. In the final game of the regular season, the Giants defeated the Cleveland Browns with Pat Summerall's game-winning 49-yard field goal on the final play (the longest field goal made in the entire season among all NFL kickers). The win enabled them to tie the Browns for the conference title, and though the Giants had won both games against Cleveland in the regular season, the rules of the time required a tiebreaker playoff game on December 21. At Yankee Stadium in 20 °F (−7 °C) weather, the Giants defeated the Browns for a third time in a shut out, building a 10–0 lead at the half, which was the final score.
After clinching their conference title on November 30, the Colts rested key players in the final two games, road losses in California. Baltimore had a week off and entered the title game as 3½ point favorites to gain their first league title.
The game got off to a rough start for both teams. On Baltimore's first drive, New York linebacker Sam Huff forced a fumble while sacking Johnny Unitas. Defensive back Jimmy Patton recovered the ball at the Colts 37. One play later, Baltimore took the ball back when defensive end Gino Marchetti forced a recovered fumble from quarterback Don Heinrich. But all the Colts managed to do with their next drive was lose another turnover when a Unitas pass was picked off by Lindon Crow. After forcing a punt, Unitas completed a 60-yard pass to Lenny Moore at the Giants 26-yard line. But Baltimore's drive was halted at the 19 and Steve Myhra's field goal attempt was blocked by Huff.
On the Giants next drive, Heinrich was replaced by Charley Conerly for the rest of the game. New York then drove to the Colts' 30-yard line, featuring a 38-yard run by Frank Gifford.
On third down, Conerly threw a pass to wide-open fullback Alex Webster, but he slipped before the ball arrived and it fell incomplete. Pat Summerall then kicked a 36-yard field goal to put New York on the board. In the second quarter, Baltimore defensive end Ray Krouse recovered a fumble from Gifford to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Colts running back Alan Ameche. On their next drive, New York got a big scoring opportunity when they recovered a fumbled punt from Jackie Simpson on the Colts 10-yard line. But a few plays later, Gifford fumbled again, and Baltimore lineman Don Joyce recovered on his own 14. The Colts subsequently drove 86 yards in 15 plays, including a 16-yard scramble by Unitas on 3rd and 7, to score on Unitas' 15-yard touchdown pass to Raymond Berry, giving them a 14–3 halftime lead.
That fumble by Gifford and the fumble later were forced by defensive back Milt Davis of the Colts—despite playing with two broken bones in his right foot—and both led to touchdowns for the Colts.
Then early in the third quarter, Baltimore reached the New York 1-yard line. But on third down, Ameche was stopped for no gain, and the Colts turned it over on downs after Ameche was tackled trying to go wide at the 5-yard line on a great play by linebacker Cliff Livingston, on a fourth down halfback option play. It was a huge reversal of momentum.
The Giants then went 95-yards in just four plays, scoring on Mel Triplett's 1-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 4, with a score of 14–10. The drive was highlighted by an unforgettable 86-yard pass play from deep within the Giants own territory at the closed end of the stadium: Quarterback Charlie Conerly threw to Kyle Rote downfield left-to-right across the middle where Rote then broke an arm tackle at about mid-field; then Rote fumbled when hit from behind at the Colts 25, but NY Giant running back Alex Webster, who was trailing the play, picked up the ball and ran it all the way to the 1-yard line where he was knocked out of bounds.
The Giants then went ahead early in the fourth quarter with Conerly's 46-yard completion to tight end Bob Schnelker setting up his 15-yard touchdown pass to Gifford. On both of Baltimore's next drives they moved the ball into scoring range, but came up empty both times. First they drove to the Giants 39-yard line, only to have Bert Rechichar miss a 46-yard field goal. Then they got the ball back on the New York 42 following a fumble recovery by Joyce. But after driving to the 27-yard line, Unitas was sacked twice in a row (once by Andy Robustelli and once by Dick Modzelewski), moving the ball back 20 yards and pushing the Colts out of field goal range.
Faced with fourth down and inches on their own 40-yard on their ensuing drive, New York decided to punt with a little over two minutes left in the game (on the third down play before the punt, Marchetti was knocked out of the game with a broken ankle. He refused to leave for medical treatment and watched the rest of the game sitting up on a stretcher on the sidelines). The Colts took over at their own 14-yard line and Unitas engineered one of the most famous drives in football history—a 2-minute drill before anyone called it that. After starting the drive with two incompletions, Unitas made a critical 11-yard completion to Moore on third down. Following one more incompletion, he threw three consecutive passes to Berry, moving the ball 62 yards to the Giants 13-yard line. This set up a 20-yard tying field goal by Myhra with seven seconds left to send the game into sudden-death overtime—the first overtime game in NFL playoff history. As Unitas later stated, the players had never heard of overtime before the game. "When the game ended in a tie, we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, 'Send the captain out. We're going to flip a coin to see who will receive.' That was the first we heard of the overtime period." An NFL preseason exhibition game played three years earlier in Portland, Oregon, had been settled by sudden-death overtime, but this was the first time an NFL game of any significance needed overtime to determine a winner. Bert Bell, the commissioner of the NFL, had just implemented the sudden-death overtime rule for this game.
The overtime rule stipulated that a coin toss would be held at midfield. The available player-captains of the respective teams would attend it and the visiting team would choose heads or tails. The winning side of the toss would choose whether to receive the ball or kick off. Unitas called for the Colts and lost the toss. With Marchetti injured and on the sidelines, head referee Ron Gibbs gave the instructions to Colt co-captain Unitas, and Giants' co-captains Rote and Bill Svoboda: 'The first team to score, field goal, safety, or touchdown, will win the game, and the game will be over.'
Don Maynard received the opening kickoff for the Giants and muffed the catch, but recovered it on the Giants 20-yard line. Even in his autobiography You Can't Catch Sunshine, Maynard states that he was not only disappointed in the botched attempt, but also at the commentators for saying he fumbled the ball due to their lack of knowledge of football and its terminology by not knowing the difference between a fumble and muffing the ball. After a three-and-out series, the Giants punted. On their ensuing drive, Baltimore drove 80 yards in 13 plays (all called by QB Johnny Unitas) on a tired NY defense. Ameche made several critical plays on the drive, catching an 8-yard pass on 3rd and 8 from the Colts 33, and later rushing 22 yards to the Giants 20-yard line. Berry also made a big impact, catching two passes for 33 yards, including a 12-yard reception on the New York 8. Following a 1-yard run by Ameche and a 6-yard catch by tight end Jim Mutscheller, Ameche scored on a third down 1-yard touchdown run with 6:45 left to win the game, 23–17.
During overtime, when the Colts were on the eight-yard line of the Giants, someone ran out onto the field of Yankee Stadium, causing the game to be delayed; rumors have stated that it was actually an NBC employee who was ordered to create a distraction because the national television feed had gone dead. The difficulty was the result of an unplugged TV signal cable, and the delay in the game bought NBC enough time to fix the problem before the next play.
It was the last time the championship game had gone to overtime until Super Bowl LI, when the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34–28, just 3:58 into the overtime period.
Sunday, December 28, 1958First quarter
NY – FG Pat Summerall 36, 3–0 NY
BAL – Alan Ameche 2 run (Steve Myhra kick), 7–3 BAL
BAL – Raymond Berry 15 pass from Johnny Unitas (Myhra kick), 14–3 BAL
NY – Mel Triplett 1 run (Summerall kick), 14–10 BAL
NY – Frank Gifford 15 pass from Charley Conerly (Summerall kick), 17–14 NY
BAL – FG Myhra 20, 17–17 TIE
BAL – Alan Ameche 1 run, 23–17 BAL
Referee: Ron Gibbs
Umpire: Lou Palazzi
Head Linesman: Charlie Berry
Back Judge: Cleo Diehl
Field Judge: Chuck Sweeney
Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. EST
The NFL had five game officials in 1958; the line judge was added in 1965 and the side judge in 1978.
The gross receipts for the game, including $200,000 for radio and television rights, were over $698,000, the highest to date. Each player on the winning Colts team received $4,718, while Giants players made $3,111 each.
Seventeen individuals (including coaches and administration) who were involved in this game are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They are:
An estimated 45 million people watched the game on television in the United States. This audience could have been even greater except that because of NFL restrictions, the game was blacked out in the greater New York City area. Still, the impact from this game is far reaching. A year later, Texas billionaire Lamar Hunt formed the American Football League, which began play with eight teams in the 1960 season. The growth of the popularity of the sport, through franchise expansion, the eventual merger with the AFL, and popularity on television, is commonly credited to this game, making it a turning point in the history of football.
The game is, to date, one of only two NFL championship games–the other being Super Bowl LI—ever decided in overtime. The drive by Baltimore at the end of regulation, with Unitas leading the team quickly down the field to set up the game-tying field goal, is often cited as the first instance of a "two-minute drill", for which Unitas became famous.
Baltimore head coach Weeb Ewbank led the Colts to a second straight championship game win over New York the next season. He was fired from the Colts after the 1962 season (7–7), and moved to the AFL's New York Jets, formerly Titans, in 1963. In the 1968 season, Ewbank led the AFL champion Jets to victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III, also considered a monumental victory in the history of pro football.
The Giants head coach was Jim Lee Howell, and he was aided by two coordinators who went on to greatness themselves. The defensive coordinator was Tom Landry, who left the team in 1960 to take over the expansion Dallas Cowboys. He led them to two Super Bowl championships in the 1970s, and was the runner-up in two NFL championship games (1966, 1967) and three Super Bowls in his three decades as head coach. The offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi, who left the team following the game to take the head coaching position with the Green Bay Packers in January 1959. Lombardi led the Packers to five championships in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls, and had the Super Bowl Trophy named after him after his death. In order to advance to both of those Super Bowls, Lombardi's Packers needed to defeat Landry's Cowboys in the 1966 and 1967 NFL championship games.
New York's fortunes would take a turn for the worse after this game. They made it to the NFL championship game four times over the next five seasons, but lost each one, including a loss to the Colts in 1959. They would not win their next playoff game until the 1981 postseason.
Writer Mark Bowden, at the urging of his editor Morgan Entrekin, set out to write a book about the game in 2006, looking ahead to the 50th anniversary. Bowden credited Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule with the "best game ever" phrase which he chose for his book title. Eagles' coach Andy Reid helped him analyze the film footage he was able to secure. Bowden said that while many who played in the game whom he interviewed (particularly Giants) maybe quibbled with the "best" characterization, they, "to a man, remark[ed] on how radically the popularity of the game jumped after that season." Bowden dedicated his book to David Halberstam. Halberstam's book The Fifties provided source information and context for The Best Game Ever, and Halberstam's sports books also were inspiring to Bowden. When asked about any insight writing the book had given him, Bowden remarked in part, "I wonder, if you got a group of New York Giants from 2006 or ’07 together 50 years from now, whether you would get the same sort of hilarity and knee-slapping comradeship that you find still exists among these [surviving 1958-game-veteran] players."
ESPN presented this game to a national audience on December 13, 2008. This presentation is a two-hour documentary which includes restored footage with colorization as well as a living room approach which included players past and present and fans. This was put together by ESPN Films and NFL Films. Expert Jeffrey Muttart was asked to reconstruct the controversial call on the field, and after research and utilization of today's technology, he denied the Giants' first down (therefore, the call made by the officials was correct).
Source:The NFL's Official Encyclopedic History of Professional Football, (1973), p. 111, Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, NY, LCCN 73-3862