The Miami Dolphins had gone undefeated through the regular season and were looking to move on to the Super Bowl as they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC Championship on December 31, 1972. The Dolphins had immediately benefited from the arrival of Don Shula as head coach in 1970, reaching the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and topping the AFC in ’71. It seemed as though they would be in trouble when star QB Bob Griese (pictured above) went down with a broken ankle in the fifth game, but 38-year-old backup Earl Morrall stepped in and the club kept winning. The ball control offense set a league record with 2960 rushing yards and bulldozing FB Larry Csonka and fleet HB Eugene “Mercury” Morris both reached the thousand-yard mark. When the Dolphins needed to go to the air, WR Paul Warfield was one of the best deep threats in the league. The “No-Name” defense in reality had plenty of outstanding players, including pass rushing ends Bill Stanfill and Vern Den Herder, MLB Nick Buoniconti, and the excellent safety tandem of Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. After going 14-0, Miami won a tough AFC Divisional battle over the Browns to reach the conference title game.
The Steelers, coached by Chuck Noll, were an up-and-coming club that was in the postseason for the first time since 1947. After going 11-3 during the regular season to top the AFC Central, Pittsburgh won a hard-fought Divisional round game over the Raiders thanks to an astonishing play – the “Immaculate Reception” – scored by FB Franco Harris. Harris had rushed for 1055 yards as a rookie while third-year QB Terry Bradshaw continued his development. The defense was especially strong, with an outstanding line anchored by DT “Mean Joe” Greene, a fine pair of outside linebackers in Jack Ham and Andy Russell, and a group of backs that included a rising star in CB Mel Blount. A source of concern coming into the game, however, was that several of the players were battling the flu, including Bradshaw.
There were over 50,000 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium on a 63-degree day in Pittsburgh. The Dolphins had the first possession and it ended with SS Glen Edwards intercepting an overthrown Earl Morrall pass that he returned 28 yards to the Miami 48. Pittsburgh moved methodically in ten plays, with Franco Harris carrying on the first four and seven times overall for 35 yards. Facing third-and-two at the Miami three, Terry Bradshaw ran around left end but fumbled into the end zone when hit by Jake Scott. OT Gerry Mullins recovered for a touchdown and, with Roy Gerela adding the extra point, the Steelers had the early 7-0 lead. However, Bradshaw was shaken up on the play and Terry Hanratty came in at quarterback when Pittsburgh next had the ball.
The teams exchanged punts and, as the first quarter ended, the Dolphins had a first down at their 46 after a Morrall throw to TE Marv Fleming picked up 15 yards. The series stalled at the Pittsburgh 42, but Larry Seiple, lined up to punt, caught the Steelers napping and instead took off and ran 37 yards to the 12 (pictured below). Two plays later, Morrall threw to Larry Csonka for a nine-yard TD and Garo Yepremian added the extra point to tie the score. Neither team was able to get out of its end of the field for the remainder of the half as they traded punts and failed at connecting on long passes. The score remained 7-7 at the half.
Pittsburgh took the second half kickoff and drove into Miami territory. On third-and-13, Hanratty completed a pass to TE John McMakin for 22 yards and followed up with a throw to WR Ron Shanklin for 24 yards to the Miami 37. The Steelers got another big gain, this time on a draw play as HB John “Frenchy” Fuqua ran for another 24 yards. The series finally stalled at the seven and Gerela booted a 14-yard field goal to put Pittsburgh back in front by 10-7.
When the Miami offense came on the field, Bob Griese was at quarterback, making his first appearance since suffering the injury in Week 5. After two short running plays, Griese went to the air and connected with Paul Warfield for a 52-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 24. The Dolphins got a huge break when LB Jack Ham intercepted a pass that was nullified by an offside penalty on the Steelers. The series continued and ended after 80 yards and 11 plays with HB Jim Kiick taking a pitchout and running two yards for a touchdown. Yepremian added the PAT and Miami was on top by 14-10.
The teams exchanged punts to finish off the third quarter. Pittsburgh had good field position to start the final period at the Miami 48 following a 33-yard Seiple punt. Harris ran for seven yards but then Hanratty threw two incomplete passes and a 48-yard field goal attempt by Gerela was blocked.
Taking over at the Pittsburgh 49, the Dolphins put together another scoring drive. Griese passed just once in the 11-play possession, as Csonka, Kiick, and Mercury Morris carried the load. Kiick again finished off the drive with a three-yard touchdown carry and Yepremian’s extra point made Miami’s lead 21-10.
Terry Bradshaw was back behind center for the Steelers as they took possession at their 29 following the kickoff. He wasted no time moving the team down the field, completing a nine-yard pass to TE Larry Brown and following up with consecutive 25-yard completions to WR Al Young and Shanklin. The fourth play was a 12-yard TD pass to Young and Gerela’s conversion cut the Miami lead to four points.
The Dolphins went three-and-out on their next series and had to punt. Bradshaw was tossed for a nine-yard loss, threw an incomplete pass, and then was intercepted by Nick Buoniconti. Miami was able to run the clock down to 48 seconds, turning the ball over on downs at the Pittsburgh nine. Two plays later, LB Mike Kolen intercepted Bradshaw’s last-gasp pass and the Dolphins were winners by a score of 21-17.
Miami had the edge in total yards (314 to 250), with 193 of that total coming on 49 running plays, and first downs (19 to 13). The Dolphins also recorded the only two sacks of the game on defense. The Steelers turned the ball over twice, late in the contest, while Miami suffered the one early turnover.
Bob Griese completed three of five passes for 70 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions after relieving Earl Morrall, who was 7-of-11 for 51 yards with a TD and an interception. Mercury Morris led the ground attack with 76 yards on 16 carries while Larry Csonka contributed 68 yards on 24 attempts and also scored on his one catch. Jim Kiick (pictured above) gained just 12 yards on 8 carries, but two were good for TDs. Marv Fleming caught 5 passes for 50 yards and Paul Warfield, thanks to his one long reception on Griese’s first throw, gained 63 yards on his two catches.
For the Steelers, both Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty were successful on 5 of 10 passes, with Bradshaw tossing for one TD while giving up the two late interceptions while Hanratty’s completions gained 57 yards. Franco Harris ran for 76 yards on 16 attempts. Al Young was the team’s top receiver with four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown.
Miami, with Bob Griese starting at quarterback, went on to crown its undefeated season with a win in the Super Bowl over the Washington Redskins. The Dolphins won a third consecutive AFC Championship in 1973 and again won the Super Bowl. The Steelers were a 10-4 Wild Card team in ’73, losing to Oakland in the Divisional playoff round, but would succeed Miami as the NFL’s top team with back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 1974 and ’75.