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A Forgotten Rivalry and the Battles for Perfection



Most people might not know this, but the 49ers and the Browns had one of the sports bigger rivalries in the late 1940s. While those two teams ruled the rest of the AAFC with an iron fist for all four years of the conference's existence, one year stood out among the rest. In 1948, both teams battled for perfection. Only one succeeded.


The Lead-up


In the conference's first two years of existence, the Browns ran roughshod over their competition, winning the first two titles with ease. Meanwhile, the 49ers just could not find a way to surpass them in the standings. Of course, it didn't help that they continued to lose to Cleveland. In four previous meetings, the 49er had won just once. But after winning by two touchdowns in their first matchup in 1946, the Browns had had their way with the 49ers, winning each time thereafter through the 1947 season.



By 1948, both squads seemed ready to seize the AAFC championship. Led by quarterback Frankie Albert, the 49ers tore through their schedule. Down went the Bills (35-14), the Dodgers (36-20), the Yankees (41-0) and the Los Angeles Dons (36-14).


While the 49ers were running through their schedule like a hot knife through butter, the Browns were doing much the same. After squeaking by the Dons 19-14, they annihilated the Bills 42-13 and Rockets (28-7 and 21-10). By the time the two teams met in Cleveland on November 14th, both were undefeated and yearning for the collision course that the conference needed.


The First Game


It was a crisp autumn afternoon in Cleveland's cavernous Municipal Stadium with more than 82,000 filling the seats. Inside the locker room, tensions were so high in the atmosphere that you could cut the air with a knife.


On the field, the two teams didn't disappoint. Otto Graham got the Browns on the board fist, taking the ball himself into the end zone in the first quarter. Later in the period, Joe Perry tied the game with a one-yard plunge.


From there, neither team scored for a while. All through the second quarter and into the third, back and forth the defenses went, neither willing to give up on their unblemished record. Finally, Edgar Jones ended the drought with a four-yard stride that put the Browns up by a touchdown. The score would remain the same the rest of the game. Browns 14, 49ers 7.


The Second Lead-up


With the Browns now clearly in the driver's seat of their division, the 49ers were forced to play catch-up. After that disappointing loss, they beat the Dodgers in a 63-40 shootout. Meanwhile, the Browns beat the Yankees 34-21 and the Los Angeles Dons 31-14. Two weeks after their much anticipated clash, the two teams met again with first place on the line.



The Second Game


It was a cool late-autumn day in San Francisco when the rematch took place and Kezar Stadium was filled to nearly its capacity with 59,785 eager spectators in attendance. Unlike the previous slugfest, this one was a shootout from the start.


It began with a 41-yard connection between Dante Lavelli and Otto Graham. That was followed with a 24 yard field goal by Lou Groza to end the first quarter. San Francisco took control in the second, with a two yard plunge into the end zone by Joe Perry and a four yard strike between Alyn Beals and Frankie Albert to put the 49ers up 14-10 entering the half.


After Albert's second touchdown of the game opened up the half, it looked like the 49ers were on their way to victory. But like the great quarterback that he was, Otto Graham took control of the game, throwing three touchdown passes to Marion Motley (6 yards), Dub Jones (20 yards) and Edgar Jones (33 yards) before the third quarter had concluded.


Down by 10 entering the fourth quarter, all seemed lost for San Francisco, but the 49ers refused to go down quietly. They marched down the field before Albert threw a six yard touchdown to Perry, closing the deficit to just three. But fate was not on the 49er's side that day as they lost 31-28.


The Aftermath


After the rematch, the two teams won the rest of the way with the Browns beating the Dodgers 31-21 and the 49ers beating the Dons 30-21. The Browns would go on to trounce the Bills in the AAFC Championship Game 49-7 while the 49ers sat in their homes pondering what could have been.


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