December 26, 2011

1964: Bills Shut Down Chargers to Win AFL Championship

On December 26, 1964 the Buffalo Bills, champions of the American Football League’s Eastern Division, hosted the defending AFL champions, the San Diego Chargers. It was truly a study in contrasts between the Bills, a ball-control team with an outstanding defense, and San Diego, with its potent offense.

Coached by Lou Saban, the Bills had gone 12-2 and defeated the Chargers twice during the season, but didn’t clinch the division until a win over the Patriots in the final contest. The offense was conservative but effective, leading the league in ground-gaining and scoring. Hard-hitting 250-pound FB Cookie Gilchrist (pictured above) was the AFL’s leading rusher (981 yards). QB Jack Kemp, formerly of the Chargers, was a good field general and if a change of pace was necessary, backup QB Daryle Lamonica was capable of effective relief. An additional weapon was rookie PK Pete Gogolak out of Cornell who brought his then-unique soccer-style placekicking to pro football and was successful on 65.5 % of his field goal attempts (19 of 29), making the ball-control offense all the more effective. The rugged defense that allowed the fewest points in the AFL had an outstanding line that included ends Ron McDole and Tom Day and tackles Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway, and had other stars in LB Mike Stratton and FS George Saimes.

Head Coach Sid Gillman’s Chargers were not as dominant as they had been in ’63. They got off to a 1-2-1 start but then ran off six straight wins to take control of the Western Division. While the streaky club lost three of its last four contests, it was good enough for an 8-5-1 record. The Chargers still had an outstanding offense that was transitioning from 36-year-old Tobin Rote to 24-year-old John Hadl at quarterback. They also had the exciting flanker Lance Alworth to pass to and the running game featured all-purpose FB Keith Lincoln, the hero of the 1963 title game with 329 yards from scrimmage, and HB Paul Lowe. And while defense may have been an afterthought, there were outstanding players in DT Ernie Ladd, DE Earl Faison, linebackers Chuck Allen and Frank Buncom, and CB Dick Westmoreland. Injuries were an issue, however, and San Diego would be going into the title game without Alworth, who had injured his left knee.

There were 40,242 in attendance at War Memorial Stadium and it didn’t look promising for the home team as the Chargers quickly drove to a score. Lincoln took off for a 38-yard gain on San Diego’s first play from scrimmage and he accumulated four more running and 11 on a pass reception before Rote threw to TE Dave Kocurek for a 26-yard touchdown that put the Chargers ahead 7-0 at just 2:11 into the first quarter (for good measure Lincoln, also the club’s placekicker, added the extra point).

However, on San Diego’s next series, a play occurred that changed the complexion of the contest. In a second down situation, Rote threw a flare pass toward Lincoln and as the ball arrived Mike Stratton delivered a jarring hit to the star running back that knocked him out of the game with a broken rib (he did kick off to start the second half, but that was the extent of his action for the rest of the day). Once Lincoln was gone, the Chargers offense was unable to sustain a long drive the remainder of the game. (Stratton pictured below just a moment before hitting Lincoln)

The Bills scored on a 12-yard field goal by Pete Gogolak and the score was 7-3 after one quarter of play. DB Speedy Duncan returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Buffalo 35, where he was brought down by LB Paul Maguire, but Rote was intercepted by DB Charley Warner to end the threat.

The Bills began to move the ball again as Gilchrist carried for a 31-yard gain and Kemp threw to TE Ernie Warlick for 27 yards to the San Diego eight yard line. The Chargers held, however, and on fourth-and-four the Bills lined up for a Gogolak field goal attempt. However, holder Daryle Lamonica bootlegged instead and was stopped just short of a first down.

The Chargers were again unable to generate offense and punted. Kemp threw to flanker Elbert Dubenion for 18 yards, runs by HB Wray Carlton and Gilchrist gained another 11, Dubenion ran for 8 on an end-around, and Kemp threw to Gilchrist for 15 yards. Carlton finished off the drive with a four-yard touchdown run (pictured below) that put the Bills ahead, 10-7.

Later in the period, Buffalo added a 17-yard field goal by Gogolak following a 39-yard carry by Gilchrist. With time running out in the half, the Chargers threatened with the aid of a pass interference penalty. However, once more the Bills ended the threat with an interception as Stratton picked off a Rote pass at his 20.

Gillman had started Rote due to his greater experience, but late in the third quarter, John Hadl replaced the ineffective veteran at quarterback for the Chargers. There was no further scoring until 5:28 into the fourth quarter. Kemp connected with end Glenn Bass for a 51-yard gain to the San Diego one yard line. Two plays later, Kemp carried the ball in for the TD that effectively sealed the win for Buffalo.

Gilchrist was finally forced out of the game with bruised ribs in the fourth quarter, once the result was assured. With 26 seconds left, the celebrating Buffalo fans broke through the police line and began tearing down the goal posts while the Chargers were attempting their last play. Buffalo had won the AFL title for the first time by a score of 20-7.

The Bills outgained San Diego (387 yards to 259) and had more first downs (21 to 15). They played outstanding ball-control football, rushing for 219 of those yards and not turning the ball over. Meanwhile, the vaunted Chargers passing game was held to 135 net yards and they suffered three turnovers, all on interceptions.

Cookie Gilchrist ran for 122 yards on 16 carries and caught two passes for 22 more. Wray Carlton added 70 yards and a touchdown on his 18 rushing attempts. Jack Kemp completed 10 of 20 passes for 188 yards and, while he didn’t complete any for TDs, he didn’t give up any interceptions. Elbert Dubenion had three pass receptions for 56 yards and Glenn Bass gained 70 yards on his two catches.

It was telling that, even though he was gone before the game was midway through the first quarter, Keith Lincoln still ended up leading the Chargers in rushing with 47 yards on just three carries. Paul Lowe ran 7 times for 34 yards and Lincoln’s replacement, FB Keith Kinderman, gained 14 yards on four carries. Kinderman also caught 4 passes for 52 yards while Dave Kocurek gained 52 yards as well on his two receptions that included the one TD. Tobin Rote was successful on just 10 of 26 passes for 118 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. John Hadl went to the air 10 times and completed three for 31 yards with one picked off. Lost in the defeat were Speedy Duncan’s three kickoff returns for 147 yards – a 49.0 average.

Afterward, a jubilant Lou Saban said he was glad the Chargers had scored first. “It jarred us quick. It jarred us to our senses – woke us up.”

The teams went on to win their respective divisions in 1965 and met for the AFL title in San Diego. In perhaps a more stunning result, the Bills dominated the Chargers even more thoroughly by a 23-0 score. By that point, Gilchrist was gone, having been dealt to Denver in the offseason. But despite a lesser running game, the defense was still strong enough to carry the club. And while Keith Lincoln was back in the San Diego backfield in ’65, and still capable when healthy, injuries would diminish his effectiveness for the remainder of his career.