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Greatest Chargers Playoff Wins: #2, 1981 vs. Miami Dolphins

The “Epic in Miami” goes beyond being a great game in Charger history to stand on its own as one of the greatest football games ever played. My #2 selection for this list is also the high water mark for the Air Coryell teams of 1979 through 1982 and the defining game for that team and Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Season

Coryell’s teams had been steadily re-writing the league’s offensive record book since 1979. By the time the 1981 season was played though, the team’s defense had badly eroded. Questions about the “character” of the team and whether Coryell could “win the big ones” after posting a 1-2 playoff game record in 1979 and 1980 were also starting to be asked.

Despite the defensive problems and questions, the 1981 San Diego Chargers were sure fun to watch. That team AVERAGED 30 points a game (this is second all- time behind the 2006 team that scored 492 points). JJ had been released after the 1980 season in a contract dispute, but the team went to the same New Orleans Saints well that had given the Chargers Chuck Muncie and drew out Wes Chandler in a Week 5 trade.

Weapons abounded for this team; Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts threw to Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow and Hall of Fame WR Charlie Joiner. 3rd down specialist James Brooks joined short yardage specialist John Cappelliti in providing rest and changes of pace to Pro-Bowl RB Chuck Muncie that led the team with 19 TD’s. The offensive line, composed of veterans Shields, Wilkerson, Macek, White, and Washington had played together for years and this Offensive line, in my opinion, was the best one in Bolts history.

All of this together produced the league’s #1 scoring and yardage offense. Despite the offensive prowess, this team came within a tiebreaker of missing the playoffs completely. To match the best offense in the league, the Chargers had a defense that was one of the league’s worst; 26th in scoring defense and 27th in yardage allowed. Tied with Denver at 10-6, it came down to division record for the Chargers to win the AFC West. Denver lost out on a wild card slot on tiebreakers with the Buffalo Bills.

The Set Up

The Chargers were the #3 seed and knew that they would travel to Miami in early January to play Don Shula’s 11-4-1 Dolphins. #1 seed Cincinnati waited to see who they would host in the divisional round from the AFC wild card game, a backyard brawl between the Jets and the Bills. (The Bills Won 31-27.)

The game was played on Saturday Night, January 2, 1982 in Miami, with a 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time start, in Miami’s Orange Bowl, already a dilapidated dump of a stadium. The weather would definitely play a part as it was 76 degrees with relative humidity of 80% at game time, making the temperature feel like 88 degrees. Charger players later said that it felt like playing football in a sauna and insisted that the temperature increased as the night went on.

The Game

The first quarter was one of the best quarters of Charger football, ever. The scoring started with a field goal from Benirschke. After a stop by the defense, Wes Chandler caught the ensuing punt on San Diego’s 42 yard line, put on the jets and took it to the house. The Chargers took advantage of Miami special teams mistake on the kick off, got the mishandled ball and scored after a short drive. The defense then picked off a Don Strock pass, and the Bolts cashed it in two plays later with a 9 yard pass to James Brooks. The first quarter ended to a mausoleum quiet Orange Bowl and Charger 24-0 lead.

Then the 2nd quarter happened. A strip sack of Fouts resulted in a Miami FG. The Dolphins defense stopped the next Bolt possession and then had a long sustained drive that ended with a 14 yard TD pass to their TE. The Chargers got close enough for a long field try with 30 seconds left in the half, but it was missed by Rolf Benirschke. Miami had 60 yards to go with 30 seconds left and two time-outs. They managed to get to the Charger 40 with 6 seconds left on the clock. The Chargers set up to defend the Hail Mary. What they got was a perfectly executed Hook & Lateral. The 24-0 lead had been pared down to 24-17 at half time, with Miami getting the ball to start the 3rd quarter.

Instead of alternating fantastic quarters, the teams alternated scoring drives and turnovers in the last half of the game. Miami scored a TD on its opening 3rd quarter possession, after a long drive, to tie the game.

1982 AFC Divisional Playoff San Diego vs. Miami pt.1 (via jdthebooster)

The Chargers came back with a long drive of their own, ending with a 25 yard TD pass to Kellen Winslow. Winslow set a playoff record in this game, catching 13 passes for 160 yards and a TD, but that was only the start of a heroic effort for him. Miami answered with a shorter drive, not needing too many plays before completing a 50 yard bomb to Bruce Hardy to tie the game. The quarter ended on a Miami interception of Fouts and long return, with the score tied at 31-31.

The Dolphins capped a short drive after the pick with a 12 yard TD run by Tony Nathan early in the 4th. Miami had its first lead of the game. The 4th quarter played out with Miami stopping the Chargers next possession and then going on a long drive to try and put the game away, closing out an amazing comeback. In what be the first of many bullets dodged by the Chargers that night, Tony Nathan fumbled deep in Charger territory, within field goal range. Fouts had a chance to put together a drive for the tying TD halfway through the 4th quarter and it happened. James Brooks caught his 2nd receiving TD with 3 minutes left to go in the game.

I and pretty much every other Charger fan were really afraid that the Bolts had left too much time on the clock for Miami. Sure enough, the Chargers poor defense allowed the Dolphins to run a good two minute drill, getting the ball to just inside the 30 with seconds left on the clock. Von Schamann lined up to kick the winning field goal and all of us in San Diego were bitterly cursing the defense, Coryell, and Don Shula. Then Kellen Winslow leapt up at just the right moment and blocked the Field Goal! Winslow had given the Chargers an overtime chance in what had looked like a squandered opportunity for a blowout playoff win.

With the opening possession of overtime, the Chargers mounted a long drive and it looked like the Chargers could escape with the win, it what had already been an incredible football game. Just entering field goal range, Chuck Muncie fumbled on the 34 and Miami recovered the ball. Watching the game on TV in San Diego, most of us knew what would happen next, and it did. Miami drove down to the 20 and once again, Von Schamann lined up to kick the game winning field goal. And once again, Kellen Winslow, who had staggered off the field visibly cramping and exhausted earlier in overtime, leapt up and blocked another field goal attempt.

1982 AFC Divisional Playoff San Diego vs. Miami pt.2 (via jdthebooster)

Fouts, Brooks, and Joiner were not going to be denied as they drove the ball down the field. The big play of the final drive was a 35 yard catch and run to Joiner, who was injured on the tackle. The Chargers were in Field Goal range after that play. A couple of Brooks runs and Coryell sent out the field goal unit on 3rd down with the ball on the Miami 18. Benirschke cashed in the attempt, and the Chargers were able to win. For the second year in a row, the Chargers were going into the AFC Championship Game.

How It Played Out

This game spawned many names. Being a lover of the sport in addition to being a Chargers fanatic, my favorite is "The Game No One Should Have Lost" (the Sports Illustrated name for it). Routinely appearing in lists and NFL documentaries with titles like “Greatest Games Ever Played”, this game featured magnificent individual performances and just about everything an individual game could offer, except defense. It also gave football history a transcendent photo; a picture that captures the essence of the cliché phrase of “leaving it all on the field”.

The Chargers were emotionally and physically drained after that game, heck, even 32 years later, I can clearly remember the emotional roller-coaster just watching the game and feeling exhausted at the end of the nearly 74 minutes of some of the most intensely competitive football I’ve ever seen. The challenge waiting for them in Cincinnati was one of the cruelest ironies that fate could have authored.

The excellent 12-4 Bengals team waiting for them would have made a tough enough challenge, but weather would also factor into this game. An Artic flow spread down through Great Lakes into the Upper Midwest Friday and Saturday, and the frigid temperatures had become extreme by Sunday. Game time temperatures were -9, with a sustained wind of 25 mph, meaning that it felt like -40 degrees to the players and fans in attendance.

For the Chargers, it meant that they had an effective 130 degree temperature change from what they dealt with in Miami. I will never forget the icicles hanging off of Dan Fouts’ beard during the Chargers 2nd drive. Playing in their second game that earned a name of its own in an 8 day span, the Chargers lost “The Freezer Bowl” 27-7.

The Bengals went on to face the 49ers in the Super Bowl. The same day that the Chargers were frozen out on advancing to the Super Bowl, Joe Montana authored the first chapter of his eventual legendary career with a touchdown pass in final seconds of the NFC Championship Game. That Dwight Clark reception, known ever since as “The Catch”, propelled San Francisco to its first Super Bowl appearance. That Super Bowl, one of the more competitive games from that era, featured two first time participants. The 49ers narrowly won their first Championship and it would not be their last. Cincinnati, like the Chargers, is still looking for their first Super Bowl win.