The LA Chargers play the Miami Dolphins this week in a rematch of the 1981 AFC Divisional round game. It’s the NFL’s 100th season, providing a wonderful time to use their game this week as a way to look back at this truly amazing game.
Context: Miami’s Maulers
The 1981 Dolphins finished the regular season with a great 11-4-1 record. They were led by an outstanding defence which ranked 5th in terms of points allowed. Their offence wasn’t as productive, led by the forgettable QB combination of Don Strock and David Woodley who both threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 1981. Running the ball was their best strength, behind a line led by the future Hall of Famer in Dwight Stephson at guard and 4 time Pro Bowl selection Ed Newman. Miami that season averaged over 4 yards-per-carry scoring 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Context: Sky-high San Diego
Coming off a third AFC West title with a 10-6 record, this was the pinnacle of the ‘Air Coryell’ Chargers. They led the league offensively in points (478), passing yards (4,873) and total yards (6,744). Quarterback Dan Fouts was carving up the league to the tune of 4,802 passing yards, with 33 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. His impressive season earned Fouts a third Pro Bowl selection and eventually a spot in the Hall of Fame. He had an awesome arsenal of playmakers surrounding him on offence.
His receivers Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler were amazing in 1981. They combined for 12 touchdowns and 2,045 yards despite not even playing a full season together. All of this before mentioning the future Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow at tight end, he was a man amongst boys in 1981. Winslow had 1,075 yards and 10 touchdowns reinventing everyone’s opinion of the tight end. Their defence though was ranked 26th out of 28… so to say they were a one-sided team would be an understatement.
The first quarter was absolute domination by the Chargers in every phase of the game. They raced to a 24-0 lead with a 32-yard field goal, a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by Chandler, a 1-yard rushing touchdown and an 8-yard passing touchdown by Fouts. It was like Miami was hit by a tornado, they couldn’t get a foothold in the game, everything seemed to go in San Diego’s favour.
It continued into the second quarter for Miami who’s opening drive featured an incompletion, two sacks and a fumble. Future Hall of Famer Don Shula made the decision to replaced Woodley with Strock and boy did it work. Strock kept leading Miami down the field, resulting in 17 points with touchdown passes to Joe Rose and Tony Nathan. The most amazing play of the game was when Strock hit Duriel Harris with a 25-yard pass, who as he was being tackled lateraled it to Nathan who strolled in to score. Trust me when I say you need to see it to believe it!
Miami kept on rolling, with Strock finding Joe Rose for a 15-yard touchdown that tied it up 24-24. But San Diego wasn’t going to give up that easy, with Fouts hitting Winslow beautifully for a 25-yard touchdown. Strock kept going though and at the end of the third quarter threw a 50-yard touchdown to his tight end Bruce Hardy.
Now into the fourth quarter and the game on a knife’s edge, Miami looked most likely to advance to the AFC championship. After an interception by Lyle Blackwood of a Fouts pass, he lateralled it to Gerald Small. Small took it all the way down to the 15-yard line before Nathan once again ran it in for a touchdown.
They had the lead and after a San Diego drive stalled, they had the ball. While merely trying to run out the clock, Andra Franklin had the ball stripped away, and the Chargers had a chance. Fouts went down the field eventually finding James Brooks in the back of the endzone for the tying score. After taking over at their own 40-yard line, Miami drove down to San Diego’s 26-yard line with time about to expire. It seemed that Uwe von Schamann would be Miami’s hero as he lined up to kick the game-winning field goal, but Winslow managed to get through just enough to block the kick and send it to overtime.
With the heat, humidity and emotion sapping every single player, coach and fan of almost every emotion. To play overtime seemed almost too much to comprehend for everyone, and I think it was for the Dolphins, who again drove down the field at home, in front of a raucous crowd of 73,735 fans. Only to have another von Schamann game-winning field goal blocked, this time by defensive end Leroy Jones.
This seemed to drain the Dolphins completely as the game not soon long after was over. Fouts hit Joiner over the middle for a 39-yard catch setting up kicker Rolf Benirschke for a game-winning 29-yard attempt. Benirschke hit the kick and the Chargers advanced.
Winslow’s immense performance of 13 catches for 166 yards and a blocked field goal is one of the greatest of all time. Afterwards, Winslow draped on a bench in the locker room, every sinue of his body aching but still ecstatic in victory, gave a quote that lives in NFL lore.
“I feel,” he said, “as if I’ve been to the mountaintop.”Kellen Winslow, 1981 AFC Divisonal Championship
Alex Riley is a 49ers fan who’s followed the game since 2010. He’s currently at the University of Leicester. You can find him on Twitter at @NFLRiley and his blog at www.rileynfl.wordpress.com
Image from www.touchdownactu.com