The 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs may have been the best football game I’ve ever seen. To this day, it is the longest NFL game ever played, ending seven minutes and forty seconds into the sixth quarter. It was the second game in NFL history on Christmas day.
The Dallas Cowboys had defeated the Minnesota Vikings earlier that day.
I have vivid memories of that day, and I can recall that I was unhappy about these two games being played on Christmas because our family did a lot of visiting. As a nine-year-old Cowboys fan, I was glad they won but upset that I missed much of the game.
By the time the AFC game started, we had finished all our visits except for one final visit to our neighbors across the street. The father of that family was a football fan, and he made sure the game was on the TV. We all watched it in his Den, and it didn’t take long until we realized this game would be “one for the ages.”
Final Game At Stadium One of the Best
It would be the final game played at Kansas City’s Memorial Stadium on an unusually warm day, with game-time temperatures in the fifties.
1971 was the Dolphins’ sixth year in the league. Like most expansion teams, Miami struggled in their first four seasons, compiling a mediocre 15–39–2 record. But in 1970, they hired a new Head Coach in Don Shula, who had previously coached the Baltimore Colts. The 1970 Dolphins went 10–4 before losing to the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs. Their record in 1971 was 10–3–1, which earned them first place in their division.
The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the original AFL teams and won three AFL titles, more than any other AFL team. They won their first in 1962 as the Dallas Texans. Their next title came in 1966 when they defeated the Buffalo Bills before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. They won the AFL title again in 1969 over the Oakland Raiders and then proceeded to win Super Bowl lV over the Minnesota Vikings.
The 1971 Dolphins had six players voted to play in the Pro Bowl, while the Chiefs had eleven.
The television broadcast of this game was not saved, but I found the radio broadcast on YouTube. Thankfully, there is also some footage of the game, thanks to NFL Films, with commentary from some of the men who played in this classic game. You can find that on YouTube, too. See below.
Who Should I Root For?
I had mixed feelings about who to root for in this game. The Chiefs were my favorite AFC team, but out of the four AFC teams in the playoffs, the Chiefs were the one team that I thought might be able to defeat my Cowboys should the two teams meet in the Super Bowl.
Miami won the coin toss and elected to receive but went three and out before punting. The punt went only 31 yards, and KC took possession on their 43-yard line.
Mixing the run and pass, the Chiefs got the ball down to the Dolphins’ 24-yard line before kicking a field goal to take a 3–0 lead. The biggest gain on this short drive was a 16-yard run by running back Wendell Hayes.
Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud kicked the ball out of the end zone for the second time in a row, preventing the speedy Eugene “Mercury” Morris from returning the kick. After quarterback Bob Griese connected with receiver Paul Warfield for a 24-yard gain, it looked like Miami might have something going, but on a third and long, middle linebacker Willie Lanier intercepted a Griese pass, giving the Chiefs the ball at the Miami 35-yard-line.
After running the ball on five of six plays, the Chiefs got the ball down to the Dolphins seven-yard line. From there, quarterback Len Dawson connected with running back Ed Podolak for a touchdown.
Stenerud again prevented a kickoff return for Miami by booting the ball into the end zone. After five runs in a row gained two first downs, Bob Griese connected with Paul Warfield for a 35-yard gain as the first quarter ended.
On a second and nine from the KC 20-yard line, Griese connected with tight end Marv Fleming for a 16-yard gain to put the ball at the 4-yard line. After getting it to the one-yard-line, fullback Larry Csonka punched it in for the touchdown to close the gap to 10–7.
Miami kicker Garo Yepremiun booted the ball into the end zone, and KC took possession on their 20-yard line. Three straight runs gave the Chiefs a first down, and then Dawson threw a short pass to Ed Podalak, who, with great blocking in front of him, turned it into a 29-yard gain. At this point, there is 9:25 left in the second quarter when there is an interruption in the radio broadcast.
The broadcast resumes with 6:57 left in the first half. Judging by the announcers’ commentary, it sounds like the Chiefs drive ended when Dolphins defensive back Curtis Johnson intercepted a Len Dawson pass. As a side note, I thought the announcers, Dick Carlsen and Bill Grigsby, did a fantastic job.
Miami went three and out before punting. The Chiefs took possession at their 39-yard line. On first down, running back Ed Podalak ran for 32 yards. A four-yard run gave them a second and six from the Miami twenty-five, but a clipping penalty on the next play pushed them back to the 37-yard line, making it second and eighteen. The Chiefs then ran two reverse plays in a row to receiver Elmo Wright, who gained a total of 16 yards. The KC offensive line was winning the battle against the Miami defense.
On fourth and two, the Chiefs elected to attempt a field goal. It was supposed to be a fake field goal, but there was a breakdown in communications. Coach Hank Stram carefully explained the fake to kicker Jan Stenerud. He told Stenerud that the ball would be snapped to him, not to holder Len Dawson.
Stenerud was then supposed to follow the two pulling guards on a sweep. Stram told Stenerud not to look at snapper Bobby Bell; otherwise, the Dolphins might figure out it was a fake. But apparently, Bell wasn’t told that Stenerud wouldn’t be looking at him, got worried about it, and snapped the ball to Dawson. Stenurud, now caught entirely off guard by what had just happened, attempted the field goal and missed what would have usually been an easy success.
When Dawson asked Bell why he didn’t snap the ball to Stenerud like he was supposed to, Bell replied, “he wasn’t looking at me, and he didn’t look like he was prepared to take the snap.” So, what could have been a 13–7 lead, or possibly even a 17–7 lead, remained a 10–7 lead.
After taking over at their 20-yard line, the Dolphins completed two of three passes to get the ball to their 39-yard line. Three runs in a row, one a quarterback draw, were not enough to gain a first down, and Miami was forced to punt. The Dolphins, known for their strong ground game, were not having much success running the ball against the KC defense.
A good punt pinned the Chiefs back on their 8-yard line. With only 1:34 left in the half and a three-point lead, KC wanted nothing more than to run out the clock and get ready for the second half. A holding penalty pushed the Chiefs back to their 4-yard line. A turnover here would be costly. A handoff to Podalak gained six yards, but a big hit by defensive end Frank Cornish caused Podalak to fumble the ball, and Miami defensive back Dick Anderson recovered it at the 13-yard line. Three risky passes by Griese gained only five yards, and the Dolphins settled for a chip shot field goal.
Tied At Halftime
Although the Chiefs had outplayed Miami in the first half, they went into the locker room tied at ten. Three crucial mistakes had cost KC dearly. First, the interception when they were deep in Miami territory, the miscommunication on the fake field goal, and lastly, the fumble that allowed Miami to tie the score just before halftime.
The Chiefs began the third quarter on their 25-yard line. On third and eleven, Dawson hit Elmo Wright for a 15-yard gain. Mixing the run with short passes, the Chiefs got the ball into Miami territory. From the Miami 45, Dawson connected with Otis Taylor at the 36. Taylor lateraled the ball to Podalak, who ran it down to the five-yard line. But the play was wiped out due to a clipping penalty.
The Chiefs returned to the run and got the ball down to the Miami 22-yard line. The announcers did a great job of pointing out how well every player on the Chiefs offense was blocking. A penalty against Miami put the ball at the 17-yard line. Going exclusively to the running game, KC scored their second touchdown to go up 17–10. The 15-play drive took almost ten minutes off the clock.
A good kickoff return by Mercury Morris gave Miami the ball at their 29-yard line. Griese connected with Howard Twilley for a 23-yard gain. Two runs and a pass gained another 17 yards before Griese connected with Warfield for a 23-yard gain. Two plays later, the Dolphins tied the score 17 to 17.
Yepremiun’s kickoff went into the end zone, and KC took possession at their 20-yard line. Two runs and then a fourteen-yard reception by Ed Podolak put the ball at the 46-yard line. A jarring tackle by Dick Anderson caused Wendell Hayes to fumble the ball, and Miami Recovered it. Miami got it down to the KC 15-yard line before linebacker Jim Lynch intercepted a Bob Griese pass.
Starting from their 9-yard line, two runs by Wendell Hayes gained 15 yards, and a pass to tight end Willie Frazier gained another 13 yards. After a short run and a delay of game penalty, Dawson went for it all and connected with Elmo Wright for a 63-yard gain. A pitchout to Hayes from the two-yard line put the Chiefs back in front 24–17.
Miami took possession at their 29-yard line. A quick pass to Marv Fleming gained 13 yards. A reverse to Warfield almost spelled disaster for the Dolphins when he fumbled, but Miami recovered. An incompletion on second down put Miami in a third-and-thirty situation. A completion to Warfield gave Miami a first down. Miami got the ball to the KC 38 before facing another third down. A completion to Warfield brought the ball down to the twelve-yard line. Two plays later, Griese connected with Marv Fleming for a touchdown. The successful extra point tied the score at twenty-four all.
Miami kicked off, and Ed Podalak returned the kick 78 yards to the Miami 22-yard line. Three straight runs lost two yards, and the Chiefs set up for a 31-yard game-winning field goal with 35 seconds left. Stenerud, who was the best kicker in the NFL, missed it to the right. Said Stenerud, “I make that kick 49 out of 50 times. To this day, I still have no idea how I missed it.”
The Dolphins took possession at their twenty-yard line with 31 seconds remaining. Three straight runs gained nothing, and since the Chiefs had all three timeouts remaining, they forced Miami to punt. Kansas City received the punt with a fair catch and five seconds left in the game. NFL films capture Coach Hank Stram conversing with Jan Stenerud about possibly attempting a 68-yard field goal. But Stram elects not to risk it, and the game goes into overtime.
Kansas City won the coin toss, and Garo Yepremiun kicked a line drive to keep the ball away from Ed Podalak. Defensive tackle Buck Buchanon caught the ball, calmly turned around, and lateraled it to Podalak, who ran it to the Chief’s 47-yard line. A screen pass and four straight runs gave Stenerud another chance to kick a game-winning 42-yard field goal. This time, the kick was blocked by defensive back Tim Foley.
Miami took possession on their 25-yard line, and two good runs brought it out to the forty. After an incompletion made it third and six, Griese connected with Howard Twilley for twelve yards. Griese, who was playing this game with an injury to his shoulder, took a big hit and was slammed to the ground. The following two plays lost 5 yards, and the Dolphins faced a third and fifteen. An incompletion forced a Dolphins punt.
KC took possession on their seventeen-yard line. A ten-yard pass completion to Podolak brought it out to the 27-yard line, but the Dolphins no-name defense allowed nothing more. KC’s Jerrell Wilson punted for the first time in the game.
Miami started from their 38-yard line, and on a third and four, Griese connected with Howard Twilley for a first down. Miami could get no further, and Yepremiun missed a 52-yard field goal attempt.
From their 20-yard line, the Chiefs moved to midfield, but on third and five, defensive back Jake Scott intercepted a Dawson pass. Miami had excellent field possession at their 45-yard line but went three and out and punted. KC took possession at their 15-yard line, but they, too, went three and out. After a booming 50-yard punt by Jerrel Wilson, Miami took over at their 30-yard line.
A five-yard run by Jim Kiick was followed by a draw play to Csonka, who gained 29 yards. Three straight runs gained another six yards. Garo Yepremiun ended the game with a successful 37-yard field goal.
A Super Bowl Run
The following week, Miami defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion, the Baltimore Colts, before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl Vl. The Dolphins won the next two Super Bowls and remain the only NFL team with a perfect season.
The Chiefs’ fortunes went in the opposite direction, as they would not make another playoff appearance until 1986.
The Chiefs gained 213 yards rushing in this game and outgained the Dolphins in total yardage 451 to 407. But they had four costly turnovers at inopportune times.
There were some impressive individual performances in this game, most notably Ed Podolak, who gained 85 yards rushing, 110 yards receiving, and 154 yards on returns. His 350 all-purpose yards remain an NFL record.
Chiefs running back Wendell Hayes gained 100 yards rushing on 22 carries, while Chiefs receiver Elmo Wright gained 104 yards receiving.
Dolphins middle linebacker Nick Buonniconti had twenty tackles, while Dolphins receiver Paul Warfield had seven receptions for 140 yards.
Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud was so upset about his performance in this game that he considered retiring during the off-season and is still bothered by it to this day.
Here’s an interesting side note. When Don Shula arrived at the Miami airport, his car wouldn’t start, and he hitch-hiked a ride back to his house.
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Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.
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