From the start of the National Football League in 1920, each season’s champion was determined based on the regular season standings. Then in 1932, the Portsmouth Spartans and the Chicago Bears finished their regularly scheduled games tied for first place. So, for the first time in NFL history, a one-game playoff was staged on Dec. 18, 1932, to determine the league champion.
A blizzard with deep snow and sub-zero wind chill blew into Chicago and made it impossible to play the game at Wrigley Field. So, the game was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium and played on a modified field -- only 80 yards long and 30 feet narrower. The end zones were not regulation size and the sidelines butted up against the stands.
The Bears proceeded to shutout the Spartans, (who in 1934 moved to Detroit and became the Lions) 9-0. Portsmouth was playing without their star player Earl “Dutch” Clark who had already left the club and resumed his offseason job as the basketball coach at Colorado College.
The lone touchdown of the game was a disputed pass play from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. Rules at the time stipulated that a forward pass had to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Spartans contested that Nagurski did not drop back five yards before firing the jump pass to Grange. The play stood and the Bears later added a safety to put the final touches on their victory
The game, witnessed by 11,198 fans, included a number of modifications to the playing rules to accommodate the cramped playing surface. As a result, the game became an earmark for a new era in pro football. Several rule changes were instituted the following season.
In 1933, the rule regarding the use of inbound lines or hashmarks was re-written to require that the ball be spotted on the hashmarks on every play. Another rule change that season was the movement of the goal posts from the end line to the goal line. On Feb. 25, 1933, the NFL discontinued the use of the Collegiate Rules Book and began to develop its own rules. The most significant change was that the forward pass became legal anywhere behind the scrimmage line.
On July 8, 1933, the NFL was divided into two divisions for the first time and the winners of each division were to play a championship game to determine the league champion. On Dec. 17, 1933, the Bears defeated the New York Giants, 23-21 in the first official NFL championship game.
View the game program and a rare action photo from the game that are housed in the Hall of Fame's collection.
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