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1981 NFL season

Updated: 2017-05-24T04:23Z
1981 National Football League season
Regular season
DurationSeptember 6 – December 21, 1981
Start dateDecember 27, 1981
AFC ChampionsCincinnati Bengals
NFC ChampionsSan Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl XVI
DateJanuary 24, 1982
SitePontiac Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan
ChampionsSan Francisco 49ers
Pro Bowl
DateJanuary 31, 1982
SiteAloha Stadium
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.

Major rule changes

  • It is illegal for any player to put adhesive or slippery substances such as the product "stickum" on his body, equipment or uniform. This rule is known as both the "Lester Hayes Rule" and the "Fred Biletnikoff Rule" since both players were notorious for using sticky substances to make it easier for them to intercept/catch passes.
  • An offensive player who comes into the game wearing an illegal number for the position he takes must report to the Referee before the start of the next play.
  • The penalty for an ineligible receiver who touches a forward pass is a loss of down.
  • The penalty for illegal use of hands, arms, or body (including holding) is reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards.
  • The penalty for intentional grounding is modified: loss of down and 10 yards penalty from the previous spot, or if the foul occurs more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, loss of down at the spot of the foul.

Regular Season games not broadcast by Network TV

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

Final standings

W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT = Winning Percentage, PF= Points For, PA = Points Against

AFC East
(2) Miami Dolphins1141.719345275
(4) New York Jets1051.656355287
(5) Buffalo Bills1060.625311276
Baltimore Colts2140.125259533
New England Patriots2140.125322370
AFC Central
(1) Cincinnati Bengals1240.750421304
Pittsburgh Steelers880.500356297
Houston Oilers790.438281355
Cleveland Browns5110.313276375
AFC West
(3) San Diego Chargers1060.625478390
Denver Broncos1060.625321289
Kansas City Chiefs970.563343290
Oakland Raiders790.438273343
Seattle Seahawks6100.375322388
NFC East
(2) Dallas Cowboys1240.750367277
(4) Philadelphia Eagles1060.625368221
(5) New York Giants970.563295257
Washington Redskins880.500347349
St. Louis Cardinals790.438315408
NFC Central
(3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers970.563315268
Detroit Lions880.500397322
Green Bay Packers880.500324361
Minnesota Vikings790.438325369
Chicago Bears6100.375253324
NFC West
(1) San Francisco 49ers1330.813357250
Atlanta Falcons790.438426355
Los Angeles Rams6100.375303351
New Orleans Saints4120.250207378


  • Baltimore finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
  • San Diego finished ahead of Denver in the AFC West based on better division record (6–2 to Broncos' 5–3).
  • Buffalo was the second AFC Wild Card based on head-to-head victory over Denver (1–0).
  • Detroit finished ahead of Green Bay in the NFC Central based on better record against common opponents (5–5 to Packers' 4–6).


Divisional Playoffs
  Jan. 2 – Texas Stadium    
NFC Wild Card GameNFC Championship
 3 Tampa Bay 0
Dec. 27 – Veterans Stadium  Jan. 10 – Candlestick Park
 2 Dallas 38 
 5 NY Giants 27 2 Dallas 27
Jan. 3 – Candlestick Park
 4 Philadelphia 21   1 San Francisco 28 Super Bowl XVI
 5 NY Giants 24
  Jan. 24 – Pontiac Silverdome
 1 San Francisco 38 
 N1 San Francisco 26
Jan. 2 – Miami Orange Bowl
AFC Wild Card GameAFC Championship  A1 Cincinnati 21
 3 San Diego 41*
Dec. 27 – Shea Stadium  Jan. 10 – Riverfront Stadium
 2 Miami 38 
 5 Buffalo 31 3 San Diego 7
Jan. 3 – Riverfront Stadium
 4 NY Jets 27   1 Cincinnati 27 
 5 Buffalo 21
 1 Cincinnati 28 
* Indicates overtime victory

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 PlayerKen Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Coach of the YearBill Walsh, San Francisco
Offensive Player of the YearKen Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Defensive Player of the YearLawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants
Offensive Rookie of the YearGeorge Rogers, Running back, New Orleans
Defensive Rookie of the YearLawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants

Records Set

  • Most Passes Attempted, Season, 709
Minnesota Vikings
  • Most Punts, Season, 114
Chicago Bears
  • Most Yards, Punt Returns, Both Teams, Game, 282
Los Angeles Rams (219) vs Atlanta Falcons (63), Oct 11, 1981

Records Tied

  • Most Touchdowns, Passing, Single Team, Game, 7
San Diego Chargers (vs Oakland Raiders) Nov 22, 1981
  • Most Touchdowns, Punt Returns, Single Team, Game, 2
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:

  • Most Points Allowed, Season, 533
  • Most Touchdowns Allowed, Season, 68
  • Most First Downs Allowed Season, 406
  • Most Yards Allowed, Season, 6,793
  • Fewest Punt Returns, Season, 12


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