The Original Christmas Day Football Game

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Saturday December 25th 1971

Up to 1971 the NFL avoided playing on Christmas day. Case in point, in 1960 the championship game, which would have been played on Sunday December 25, 1960, was moved to Monday December 26 out of respect for the holiday. By the 1970’s television money ruled the NFL, and the networks felt that daytime Monday football would draw less ratings than a Christmas game, so the 1971 Divisional playoffs started on Saturday December 25th, with two more divisional playoff games to be played the next day.

1971 Miami Dolphins

The AFL expansion Miami Dolphins compiled a 15-39-2 record from 1966-1969. For 1970 owner Joe Robbie lured Baltimore Colt head coach Don Shula to south Florida to take over the young Dolphins. The Dolphins did not win from 1966-69 but General Manager did Joe Thomas stockpile the team with promising young players such as QB Bob Griese and RB Larry Csonka. He picked up discarded players from other teams such as LB Nick Buoniconti and guard Larry Little. All would become Hall of Famers.

His best move though was sending the Dolphins first round draft choice in 1970 to the Browns for All Pro WR Paul Warfield another eventual Hall of Famer. Now the young Griese had a viable target to go along with a promising ground game

This collection of talent, with Shula’s leadership led them to a surprising wild card 10-4 record in 1970, although they lost to the Raiders on a muddy field in Oakland 21-14 in the 1970 AFC divisional playoffs.

In 1971 they started the season 9-1-1, including beating the defending champion Colts 17-14 in Miami to take over the AFC Eastern Division lead. In December they went into slump, losing easily, 34-13 as heavy favorites to a young New England Patriot team. Then the next week in the game that many thought would decide the AFC East championship, John Unitas connecting on 16 of 19 passes in perhaps his last great performance to beat the Dolphins 14-3 in Baltimore.

As good as the Dolphins had become, they still could not beat the elite teams. The December slide dropped Miami from controlling the AFC East to a Wild Card candidate – again. If the Colts beat the lowly Patriots during week 14 in Baltimore, the Dolphins would again be just a Wild Card.

To the surprise of the football world, the Patriots did it again. Jim Plunkett hit Randy Vataha with an 88 yard scoring strike and the Patriots upset the Colts 21-17. By default the Dolphins won their first AFC title and earned a trip to face the AFC West Division Champion Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs.    

December 25, 1971, Dolphins at Chiefs, Municipal Stadium, Kansas City

While the Dolphins and Chiefs entered their Christmas day game with 10-3-1 records the Chiefs were a solid favorite. In six previous meetings the Chiefs had never lost to Miami, beating them by an average score of 31-7 during those games. The Chiefs were just two years removed from a dominating Super Bowl IV victory and they had 10 of the 11 starters from that great defense to take the field on that Christmas Day playoff.

The Dolphins did have the best rushing offense in the league but that was countered by the Chiefs run defense which trailed just the Colts as the best in the AFC in 1971. When you lined the teams up, man to man, the Chiefs not only were far more experienced but were a better football team. But as a wise man once said, “That’s why they play the games.”

In what would be their last game played at Municipal Stadium before moving into Arrowhead Stadium, Chief veteran quarterback and Super Bowl IV MVP Lenny Dawson led the Chiefs on a sustained drive that ended with a Jan Stenerud field goal. Before the first period ended Dawson drove the veteran Chiefs to a touchdown as he hit RB Ed Podolak with a 7 yard scoring pass. The first period ended with no surprises, the Chiefs led 10-0.

To everyone‘s surprise as much as the Chiefs controlled period one, the Dolphins ground attack controlled the second period.  Csonka ended a drive with a one yard TD run, and before halftime Dolphin kicker Garo Yepremian tied it with a field goal, 10-10 at the half.

In third quarter Dawson drove the Chiefs to the lead, with fullback Jim Otis scoring from a yard out, 17-10 Chiefs. Griese drove the Dolphins back and the third period ended tied 17-17 after running back Jim Kiick scored on a short run.

The 4th period saw Dawson take the Chiefs 91 yards for the go ahead score, the big play was a long pass to WR Elmo Wright, setting up Podolak’s three yard scoring run , Chiefs 24-17.

With four minutes to play Griese got the ball back and marched the Dolphins 71 yards to the tying score, hitting Warfield on several passes, with the payoff being a five yard throw to TE Marv Fleming, the former Green Bay Packer’s score made it 24-24, with 1:36 remaining.

The Dolphins had surprisingly fought the Chiefs to a standoff, but the ensuing kickoff took the wind out of their sails. Podolak fielded Yepremian’s kickoff and raced seventy eight yards to the Dolphin 22. Now with the goal posts on the goal line, and not in the back of the end zone as they are today, a 1974 rule change, the Chiefs were set for the winning field goal attempt.

Stenerud, the Chiefs Pro Bowl kicker and eventual Hall of Famer, lined up for an easy 31 yard kick, he hit it clean, but it sailed wide right, shocking every player on the field and the millions of fans watching on television. For just the fourth time in NFL-AFL history a game was going to Sudden Death overtime.

The fifth period saw Stenerud miss another field goal, Buoniconti blocked it. Yepremian also had a shot to win late in the fifth period but his 52 yard attempt was short.

The game moved into the sixth period, with three minutes elapsed Griese started the game winning drive from his own thirty.  On first down, Kiick gained 5 yards, but on second down, Csonka stormed for 29 yards on a play named, roll right trap. It was a marvelous call by Griese. Knowing that the aggressive Chief linebackers, led by Hall of Famers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, along with Jim Lynch were the fastest in the league, the play is a basic misdirection run. The Chief linebackers bit on the fake and their speed put them out of position to make the play.  Csonka was eventually brought down at the Chiefs 36. Kiick and Csonka each gained a few yards the next couple of plays, setting the stage for a Yepremian field goal attempt. The 5’7” native of the Greek island of Cyprus ended the NFL’s longest game at 22:40 into overtime with a 37 yard field goal.

While the Dolphins won the NFL’s longest game and Yepremian, Griese, Buoniconti, and Csonka became household names, the Chief’s Podolak set a NFL playoff record by gaining 350 all purpose yards – a record that stands today.

For the Dolphins, their first post season victory propelled them to the AFC championship game where they beat the Colts in Miami, 21-0. Their season ended with a 24-3 loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI.

After that loss Csonka approached Shula and told him how much losing the Super Bowl, hurt, so much so he promised Shula that they would win every game the next season. A prophecy that turned out to be true as the 1972 Dolphins became the second pro football team in history to go unbeaten and win the championship after they beat the Redskins in Super Bowl VII. They ended 1972, with a 17-0 record.

The Dolphin dynasty truly started that Christmas day in 1971, not only did they win the NFL’s longest game, but they proved they could play with any team, no matter how experienced or talented. It would lead to perfection the next year, and another Super victory the year after that, and started them on a road that would lead to the NFL history books.

 

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About Kurt Backert

Kurt Backert
Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would...more

2 Raves on “The Original Christmas Day Football Game

  1. ravcolt on said:

    The 14-3 victory by Unitas and Colts over the Dolphins should be required video for any quarterback that plays in the NFL. Unitas was a master surgeon who had a bum arm, but he ate up most of the clock the entire first half with two masterful scoring drives.

  2. Kurt Backert on said:

    It was classic quarterbacking at it’s best, his play action fakes were masterful , and as you noted, he could only throw about 10 yards downfiled that day with his arm. That game made the cover of Sports Illustrated that week, although to many that game is remembered for the Mike Curtis hit on the drunk fan who ran on the field

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