Dolphins-Chiefs put a hold on Christmas dinners nationwide
KANSAS CITY (Dec. 25, 1971) – It was early in the second overtime, right around the time when this Christmas Day classic between Kansas City and Miami became historic, that Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti wrestled Chiefs running back Ed Podolak to the muddy turf at old Memorial Stadium.
“I thought he’d get up and be all ticked off at me and cussing me,” Buoniconti said, remembering Podolak having to clean sod from his facemask. “But we were so dead tired. Eddie looked at me and said, ‘Nick, do you think this game will ever get over?’”
That’s surely what football wives were saying across the country as their Christmas dinners were delayed by this epic 1971 AFC divisional playoff game that remains the longest game in NFL history.
The Dolphins and Chiefs battled for 82 minutes, 40 seconds before Garo Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal to give Miami a 27-24 victory, a victory that at once catapulted the Dolphins into dynasty mode and set in motion the decline of the Chiefs who would not play another postseason game for 15 years.
Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson will never forget the feeling he had walking off the field for the final time at Memorial Stadium – the Chiefs moved into Arrowhead Stadium in 1972.
“I thought that was the best team we ever assembled, better than the Super Bowl team of 1969,” he said. “I was healthy the whole year, Otis Taylor had a terrific year, Ed Podolak had a tremendous year, and the defense was really the strength of our team.
“I think the significance of that game was that it cost us a Super Bowl ring,” Dawson continued. “I think if we had won that ballgame, we would have gone on and played the Dallas Cowboys, and we had a better chance of beating them than the Miami Dolphins because I think we matched up better with them. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Dawson may have had a point because the Dolphins, who defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts the following week in the AFC title game, went on to lose badly to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI, 24-3.
Then again, the Dolphins made amends by winning every game they played in 1972, then won a second consecutive Super Bowl following the 1973 season. They were clearly a team on the rise in 1971, and quarterback Bob Griese said the win in Kansas City began that ascension.
“It was the day the Dolphins turned the whole thing around,” he said. “Everybody knew Kansas City was the power of the old AFL and AFC. This was the hump game for the Miami Dolphins.”
And for the Chiefs it was the game that began a tortuous term as a NFL also-ran.
“The main thing is the disappointment,” said Podolak, who played the game of his career in amassing 350 all-purpose yards, a NFL playoff record that still stands. “Because my life has gone on, the sting from losing is obviously not as acute as it was during the time I was still playing, but it was very difficult to get over during the years I was playing. You could see as my career went on that our team was not going to make it back for another chance at the Super Bowl. It became more and more painful while I was playing. Now, it’s just a day I was proud of.”
Kansas City opened a quick 10-0 first-quarter lead on a Jan Stenerud field goal and Dawson’s 7-yard TD pass to Podolak, but the Dolphins pulled even by halftime, and then the teams traded two touchdowns apiece in the second half, the last on Griese’s 5-yard pass to Marv Fleming to produce a 24-24 tie with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter.
Podolak fielded the ensuing kickoff and raced 78 yards to the Miami 22 before Curtis Johnson made what proved to be a game-saving play.
“He was the safety on the play, and he wisely kept the angle on me,” Podolak said. “He never gave me the chance to cut back on him. I’ve looked at it a number of times to see if there was anything else I could have done, and there wasn’t. Of course, we all thought it was good enough at the time.”
It wasn’t. After three clock-killing runs to position Stenerud for the winning kick, the first and only pure kicker enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame pushed a 31-yard attempt wide right.
Stenerud had another chance to win it in overtime, but Buoniconti – who made 20 tackles in the game – sliced through to block a 42-yard attempt, and on the game went until Yepremian finally brought it to an end.
“There were a lot of things about that game that could have changed the outcome,” said Dawson. “I thought we had a better team than Miami; that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to win, but I thought we had a better team in the matchups. Stenerud missed a field goal, but it never should have gotten down to that. We had many other opportunities to score but we didn’t get it done.”
Forty-seven years later, no matter where Podolak goes, people bring up the Christmas Day game.
“There’s no question that the game being on Christmas has added to the folklore,” Podolak said. “Everybody I run into can remember where they were because it was Christmas. It helped tremendously with my celebrity status. I get a number of calls every year for Super Bowl-related appearances. A lot of people in the entertainment world and movie industry consider me an equal in celebrity status because of that day. It has allowed me to enjoy that part of life. If the game had never gone six quarters, no one would have known my name.”