This is my own subjective ranking of the 5 greatest playoff wins by the San Diego Chargers. The criteria I used were: most improbable wins (biggest upsets), significance to that particular team’s legacy, how deep into the post-season the game was, and historical significance to the franchise.
1980 Divisional Round Game vs. Buffalo
Several factors got this game onto the list: It was the Charger’s first post-season win since December of 1963; a 16 season drought of missing post season play or having a “one and done” situation. (may that run of futility never be threatened.) It was also the first playoff win for the legendary Air Coryell teams.
The playoff format was a little different in those days; with only 3 divisions, 5 teams made the playoffs. All of the division winners got a bye week, while two wild-card teams from each conference battled it out. Five teams in the AFC had 11-5 records. The #3 seed was 11-5 Bills, who had edged out a 10-6 Patriots team to win the AFC East outright. All of the other divisions went to tiebreakers to determine which teams were the divisional champions, who were wild-cards, and the playoff seeding. With some arcane tie-breaking formula awarding San Diego the #2 seed, the Bolts hosted this game.
This was a fairly even match-up, with one of the league’s best offenses going against a superb defense that was one of the first in the NFL to play a 3-4. The Chargers defense had started to erode in 1980 and the Bills offense was fairly average. The game itself was a typical hard fought playoff game, but a sloppy one. Both teams turned the ball over 3 times. Bills QB Joe Ferguson left the game with an injury in the 1st quarter; though he would return, he was clearly struggling in the 2nd half. The Bills did have a 14-10 lead going into the 4th quarter, but a Benirschke FG cut the lead to 1 and then a 50 yard TD strike from Dan Fouts to Ron Smith, a back-up WR that had just the one catch and the most important on the day, gave the Bolts the lead and eventual win. 16 years of playoff futility had finally ended.
Chargers v Bills 1979 (via Aaron Paladino)
Chargers v Bills Part 2 1979 (via Aaron Paladino)
How It Played Out
On the other side of the AFC playoff bracket, the Oakland Raiders had blown out the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card Game. The day after the Chargers pulling out the win against Buffalo, Oakland traveled to Cleveland to battle the AFC's #1 seed. In one of the most vicious playoff games I can remember watching, the Raiders managed to throttle league MVP Brian Sipe and the rest of the Browns, winning 14-12. The AFC Championship Game would be played in San Diego. The teams had split their regular season games, each team winning at home. Behind QB Jim Plunkett, the Comeback Player of the Year, Oakland jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the 1st quarter and played keep away the rest of the game, winning 34-27. Oakland went on the beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.