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Pro Football: The Game Nobody Saw

4 minute read

“We threw the game. Is that what you want to hear?” growled Coach Vince Lombardi, after his Green Bay Packers conveniently lost their way into a tie with the Baltimore Colts for the National Football League’s Western Conference championship. Convenient y, that is, for the N.F.L. — which scheduled a play-off on nationwide TV for the same afternoon that the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills were to battle it out for the championship of the rival American Football League. Poor A.F.L. Last week, in 74 minutes of crunching football, the Packers managed to eke out a 13-10 victory over a wounded but still ferocious Colts team that was making do with a converted halfback at quarterback, and thereby earned the right to play the Cleveland Browns for the league title. An estimated 30 million TV fans watched the Colts-Packers exhibition; in the New York City area alone, 2,000,000 viewers kept tuned to the N.F.L. — while only 150,000 switched over to the A.F.L. They saw a pretty good game too — the biggest upset of the season, as a fired-up Buffalo team walloped a San Diego squad that everybody said was so good it did not even belong in the A.F.L.

Scores to Settle. The Chargers ranked No. 1 in the league both in total offense and total defense. They had the A.F.L. ‘s top passer in Quarterback John Hadl, the top rusher (1,121 yds.) in Halfback Paul Lowe, the best pass receiver in Flanker Lance Alworth, and a monstrous (276 Ibs. per man) defensive line anchored by the biggest man in football: 6-ft. 9-in., 315-lb. Ernie Ladd. What’s more, they had already clobbered the Bills once this season, 34-3. The odds makers made San Diego a 6½-point favorite. “According to the newspapers,” muttered one Buffalo player, “there’s no way we can even finish second in this game.”

That was enough to get the Bills’ goat. “Beating San Diego is the biggest thing in my life,” gritted Bills Quarterback Jack Kemp, who was a Charger until Coach Sid Gillman let him go for the waiver price of $100. Bills Defensive Back Butch Byrd also had a personal score to settle with Charger End Don Norton, who boasted publicly that he could beat Byrd on passes any time he wanted to. Byrd not only covered Norton like a blanket (Norton caught only one pass all afternoon), he also ran a punt back 74 yds. for Buffalo’s second touchdown.

All White. Kemp’s revenge was even more dramatic. Operating behind an impenetrable wall of blockers (“Look at me,” he said afterward, pointing to his uniform. “I’m still all white!”), he was the master field general, coolly dissecting the Chargers’ defenses, completing eight of 19 passes for 155 yds. —including an 18-yd. TD bullet to Ernie Warlick. Whenever the Bills bogged down, Kemp called on Pete Gogolak, whose soccer-style kicking accounted for eleven points.

Buffalo’s devastating defense did the rest. Not once were the Chargers able to get inside Buffalo’s 20-yd. line. By the time the afternoon was over, San Diego Quarterback Hadl had lost 45 yds. attempting to pass, and the Bills had shut out the Chargers for the first time in four years, 23-0. “Our defensive team was so high,” said Buffalo Assistant Coach Joe Collier, “that I was talking to their kneecaps.”

Like most of the Bills, who had sneaked a pregame TV peek at the earlier-starting Colts-Packers contest, Collier was not at all impressed: “Before today’s game, San Diego was the best team in pro football. Now what does that make us?”

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