This is a great time of year to be thankful for what we have, where we have been, and what the future holds. Although the Chargers have lost their way a bit in recent years, the month of December used to hold such incredible promise! This advent calendar is an attempt to hearken back to these days of December joy. Each day will bring a new advent from the Bolts’ history that make it wonderful to be a Chargers fan.
Dec. 5: The Epic in Miami
Playoff football is special. Sometimes the win-or-go-home atmosphere raises a good game into the halls of greatness. Once every few decades, however, a game earns such a title regardless of the time of year. THIS game happened to be in the playoffs. THIS game happened to be one of the greatest spectacles on Earth.
This game in particular, won by the Chargers in overtime (41–38), is one of the most famous in NFL lore because of the conditions on the field, the performances of players on both teams, and the litany of records that were set. To really set the mood, it was referred to in the Miami Herald as the "Miracle That Died", while Sports Illustrated dubbed it the "Game No One Should Have Lost".
In the days before Patriots dominance, the Dolphins finished the 1981 regular season by winning the AFC East with an 11–4–1 record. San Diego won their 3rd straight AFC West title in 1981 with a 10–6 record, beating out Denver, who also finished 10–6. The Chargers' high-powered offense led the NFL in scoring (478 points), passing yards (4,739), and total yards (6,744). Yow! However, San Diego's defense ranked only 26th in the league (at the time there were only 28 teams) Ow!
By the time the first quarter ended, San Diego had a commanding 24–0 lead. It looked like the outcome of the game was already decided. After Miami's next drive resulted in an incompletion, two sacks, and a fumble (which Miami recovered), coach Don Shula replaced QB David Woodley with backup Don Strock early in the second quarter to see whether he could spark the Dolphins offense. That’s exactly what he did.
Later in the half, San Diego faced a fourth down on the Dolphins’ 37-yard line. The Chargers decided to attempt a 55-yard field goal, but missed, giving the ball back to the Dolphins near midfield. Three plays later, Miami moved the ball to San Diego's 40-yard line with only six seconds left in the half. A kick was out of the question, so they attempted one last play, a clear Hail Mary. In a play known as a "hook and lateral" (and lovingly remembered as Hook and Ladder for short), Strock took the snap and threw to Duriel Harris at the right side of the 25-yard line. Harris caught the ball and immediately lateraled it outside-and-back to the trailing Tony Nathan. The Chargers defense was completely surprised, and Nathan took it untouched for 29 yards down the sideline and a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24–17. Going into the locker rooms at halftime, the Dolphins had closed the game to within one score and regained all the momentum in the world. The Chargers had apparently Chargered, right?
In the 3rd Quarter, Miami immediately tied the game. Then San Diego immediately responded with a TD of their own! And then Miami tied it up again! AND THEN Miami intercepted Dan Fouts (Editor’s note: better known as Doug Fouts), lateraled AGAIN, and soon scored a TD to bring them to the lead. The NFL’s leading offense quickly tied it up again before the 3rd quarter ended.
As the 4th quarter neared its end, the Dolphins had a 7 point advantage. Fouts led his team on a 4-minute drive down to Miami's nine-yard line with only 58 seconds left in regulation. A heavy Dolphins pass rush forced Fouts to throw a blind pass intended for Kellen Winslow into the end zone. The pass sailed over Winslow's head but went right into the arms of would-be-blocker James Brooks for a touchdown to tie the game.
Then the Chargers tried a squib kick, but the Dolphins maximized on the now-great field position. They moved from their own 40 down to the Chargers’ six-yard line with just enough time for one more play. Kellen Winslow extended his reach just enough to deflect the kick and this game headed to overtime! 38-38.
With the players of both teams exhausted and dehydrated, everyone was hoping for a quick end to the madness, but that would not be the case. San Diego won the coin toss and marched down the field, driving inside the Dolphins 10-yard line. They then attempted a game-winning 27-yard field goal, but a bad snap and poor hold made the kick sail wide left. Miami then drove deep into Chargers territory, setting up a 35-yard field goal attempt for the Dolphins to win. The kick was low, and defensive lineman Leroy Jones managed to leap in the air and block it.
San Diego took over at its own 16-yard line after the blocked field goal. Fouts led his team 74 yards to Miami's 10-yard line, where they attempted a 29-yard field goal. This time, the kick was good, giving the Chargers a 41–38 win after 13 minutes and 52 seconds of overtime play.
Chargers coach Don Coryell after the game:
"I have coached for 31 or 32 years and this is tremendous...There has never been a game like this. It was probably the most exciting game in pro football history."
Miami coach Don Shula agreed:
"A great game...Maybe the greatest ever."
Chargers running back Hank Bauer:
"The locker-room celebration was more low key than other locker rooms I'd been in. It was more of 'Thank God that's over. Thank God we got out alive.'“
But perhaps the best performance of the game was put in by Kellen Winslow. In addition to his blocked field goal, he recorded an NFL-playoff-record 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, despite suffering numerous injuries. During the contest, he was treated for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a gash in his lower lip that required three stitches. Picturing of an exhausted Winslow being helped off the field by two teammates after the game is an enduring image in NFL lore and has been replayed constantly ever since.
"I've never felt so close to death before," Winslow said afterward. "That's what Muhammad Ali said in Manila and that's how I felt out there at the end."
Ever since the Epic in Miami, the San Diego Chargers have not defeated the Dolphins in Miami. Until that day, though, we’ll always have the Epic to fall back on.
-Jason “ANOTHER blocked kick??” Michaels