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 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.


The 1981 NFL Draft was held from April 28 to 29, 1981 at New York City’s Sheraton Hotel. With the first pick, the New Orleans Saints selected running back George Rogers from the University of South Carolina.

New referee

Cal Lepore, the line judge for Super Bowl III and referee for the Miracle at the Meadowlands, retired prior to the 1980 season. He would later become supervisor of officials in the United States Football League. Tom Dooley, who was assigned Super Bowl XV as line judge at the end of the 1981 season, was promoted to referee to replace Lepore.

Major rule changes


Regular season

Scheduling formula

AFC East vs NFC East
AFC Central vs NFC West
AFC West vs NFC Central

Final standings



Main article: 1981–82 NFL playoffs

Jan. 2 – Texas Stadium
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
NFC Championship
5 NY Giants 24
Jan. 24 – Pontiac Silverdome
1 San Francisco 38
Divisional playoffs
Wild Card playoffs N1 San Francisco 26
Jan. 2 – Miami Orange Bowl
A1 Cincinnati 21
Super Bowl XVI
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
AFC Championship
5 Buffalo 21
1 Cincinnati 28

* Indicates overtime victory

Records, milestones, and notable statistics

Records Set

Minnesota Vikings
Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Rams (219) vs Atlanta Falcons (63), Oct 11, 1981

Records Tied

San Diego Chargers (vs Oakland Raiders) Nov 22, 1981
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:

Statistical leaders


Points scored San Diego Chargers (478)
Total yards gained San Diego Chargers (6,744)
Yards rushing Detroit Lions (2,795)
Yards passing San Diego Chargers (4,739)
Fewest points allowed Philadelphia Eagles (221)
Fewest total yards allowed Philadelphia Eagles (4,447)
Fewest rushing yards allowed Detroit Lions (1,623)
Fewest passing yards allowed Philadelphia Eagles (2,696)


Most Valuable Player Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year Bill Walsh, San Francisco
Offensive Player of the Year Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Defensive Player of the Year Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants
Offensive Rookie of the Year George Rogers, Running back, New Orleans
Defensive Rookie of the Year Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants
Man of the Year Lynn Swann, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh
Comeback Player of the Year Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Montana, Quarterback, San Francisco

Coaching changes

Stadium changes

The home of the San Diego Chargers, San Diego Stadium, was renamed Jack Murphy Stadium in memory of local sportswriter Jack Murphy

Uniform changes

Regular season game not broadcast by Network TV

Date Time Teams Local TV Announcers
September 5, 1981 8:00 PM EDT Minnesota @ Tampa Bay KSTP-TV (Minnesota)
WTOG-TV (Tampa Bay)


  1. ^ 100 Things Dolphins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Armando Salguero, Triumph Books, Chicago, 2020, ISBN 978-1-62937-722-3, p.185