Greatest Chargers Playoff Wins: #3, 1963 vs. Boston Patriots

Photo by Charles Aqua Viva/Getty Images

You would figure that a League Championship would be special and it is. For what this game meant to the Franchise and its eventual effect on the direction that NFL Football, the 1963 AFL Championship game comes in at #3 on this list.

The Season

In 5 of the first 6 years of the Chargers existence, they were the AFL Western Division representatives in the AFL Championship Game. They were the unquestioned class team of the AFL; while other teams had one or two year flashes of excellence, the Chargers were almost machine like in their dominance of the rest of the league in the regular season, with the exception of 1962. The Chargers dominance did not carry through into Championship Games of 1960, 1961, 1964 and 1965, either. I have previously detailed the injury issues of 1962 and Coach Gilman’s reaction to the pratfall of 1962.

For a variety of reasons the 1963 season was overwhelmingly dominant even by the Chargers' standards at the time: the insanity of the Rough Acres training camp, the Dianabol, the systematic strength and conditioning training, the professional veteran leadership of QB Tobin Rote, the team’s health, and talented young players hitting their stride in professional football; for these reasons, everything came together for Gilman and the Chargers in 1963.

The Chargers had the AFL’s #1 scoring offense and the league’s #1 scoring defense on their way to an 11-3 record to earn their 3rd appearance in the AFL Championship Game in 4 years. I imagine (I was 1 year old at the time) that this team looked like the 2006 version of the Chargers; dominant on both sides of the ball and really fun to watch for a fan of the team.

The Set-Up

In the AFL East, there were no dominant teams. Buffalo and Boston (a few years before becoming New England) had fought to a 7-6-1 record and were tied for 1st place in their division. Apparently, the AFL’s tiebreaking formulas left a little to be desired, because instead of declaring a winner, the teams had to decide things on the field one week after the season ended. The Chargers watched and rested…

With Boston winning, Gilman went to work. The Chargers had beaten Boston in both of the regular season games, but with slim margins of victory, 17-13 at home and 7-6 in Boston. Gilman, the earliest documented coach to make use of film study, had noticed that the Boston defense’s game plan against the Chargers’ deep passing attack was to blitz. The blitzes were also effective in slowing down the Chargers two-headed monster of a running game in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe.

Gilman devised an offensive game plan that completely countered the Chargers offensive tendencies. Deep routes to Lance Alworth would be replaced with swing passes to Lincoln and Lowe. Power runs right behind future Hall of Fame Tackle Ron Mix would be replaced by draws and misdirection runs. Gilman dubbed the game plan "Feast or Famine". After getting stymied by a tough defensive team in the form of the Houston Oilers in the 1960 and 1961 AFL Championships, Gilman was determined to shake things up for the challenge Boston’s defense would present in the 1963 Championship.

The Game

Originally scheduled for December 22, 1963, the game was actually played on January 5, 1964. The tie-breaker game had created a one week delay and the AFL postponing the November 24, 1963 games due to the assassination of President Kennedy created the other 1 week delay.

The Chargers took the field that day and flawlessly executed an offense that had been installed only during the previous week. By the time the Patriots had figured out what was happening, the game had been put away by the Chargers. San Diego’s first drive resulted in a 2 yard rushing TD from Rote on a bootleg. Then the modified running scheme happened, resulting in a 67 yard TD run from Lincoln and another 58 yard run from Lowe. The Chargers jumped out to a 21-7 1st quarter lead and the rout was on.

Another long drive was capped by 14 yard TD pass to Don Norton to close out the scoring in the first half. With a 31-10 lead to start the 3rd quarter, Gilman did not call off the dogs. When Boston stopped blitzing in the 2nd half of the game, the Chargers went back to what they did best, big plays from Rote to Future Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth. His 48 yard TD reception from Rote was the only score of the 3rd quarter and finished Rote’s day.

2nd year QB John Hadl replaced Rote in the 4th quarter and completed the Chargers’ scoring with a 25 yard swing pass to Lincoln and QB sneak from the 1 to finish off the day. The only thing that went wrong for San Diego that afternoon was a failed 2 point conversion in the 4th Quarter. The Chargers finished the day with 7 TD’s scored, one FG, and a final score of 51-10. The star of the game was Keith Lincoln; he had 329 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches, with a rushing TD and a receiving TD. This performance is laughably ranked #20 by ESPN on the "All-Time Greatest Playoff Performances" list.

How It Played Out

After the game, Sid Gilman publicly challenged George Halas, the coach and owner of the 1963 NFL Champion Chicago Bears, to "one more game to see who has the best football team in the world". The Bears declined the challenge. Gilman instructed the jeweler making the Chargers’ Championship rings to inscribe them with "1963 World Champions", figuring that the Bears had forfeited by not accepting the challenge.

Some of the more bottom line minded owners from both leagues (and TV executives) pondered the idea of a game between the AFL and NFL Champions. As negotiations for merging the two leagues were completed in 1966, arrangements were made for the first "World Championship Game" in professional football. The first one of these games, played on January 15, 1967 was the only "Super Bowl" to be televised on two networks and to not sell out.

For Gilman, the Championship enhanced his reputation as top-tier coach. The success of the Chargers from 1960- 1965 and the later success of their biggest challenger in 1963, the Oakland Raiders under first year head coach Al Davis (a Gilman disciple), transformed the way offense was played in the AFL by 1967. The vertical passing game, with a power running game, would be adopted by most professional football teams by the time the leagues merged in 1970. That style of offense and corresponding defensive philosophy to counter it would dominate professional football until the early 1980’s.

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