January 5, 2010

1964: Keith Lincoln Leads Chargers to Blowout of Patriots for AFL Title

The San Diego Chargers won the AFL’s Western Division in 1963 with an 11-3 record and featured perhaps the most explosive offense in either league that year. Coached by the innovative Sid Gillman, they had two outstanding running backs in HB Paul Lowe (1010 yards) and FB Keith Lincoln (826 yards rushing, 325 receiving). 35-year-old veteran QB Tobin Rote led the AFL in passing overall as well as completion percentage (59.4) and yards-per-attempt (8.8). He had flanker Lance Alworth to throw to, who caught 61 passes for 1205 yards with 11 touchdowns. The defense, to be sure, was solid and built around DE Earl Faison, DT Ernie Ladd, LB Chuck Allen, and CB Dick Harris.

The title of the weaker Eastern Division came down to a tiebreaking playoff game between two 7-6-1 teams, the Boston Patriots and Buffalo Bills. Boston won, 26-8, and thus had the unenviable task of heading west to meet up with the Chargers on January 5, 1964 before a crowd of 30,127 at Balboa Stadium. Under Head Coach Mike Holovak, the Patriots featured the league’s top scorer in split end/placekicker Gino Cappelletti, veteran QB Babe Parilli, and a solid defense that included DE Larry Eisenhauer, DT Houston Antwine, and linebackers Nick Buoniconti and Tom Addison.

It didn’t take long for the Chargers offense to begin dissecting the Patriots defense. On the second play from scrimmage, Lincoln broke loose up the middle on a 56-yard run that set up a two-yard quarterback keeper touchdown by Rote seven plays later. On their next possession, it was Lincoln taking off once again on a 67-yard touchdown run (by this point his rushing line was 2 carries for 123 yards).

The Patriots fought back and scored on a 7-yard run by FB Larry Garron to cut the San Diego lead to 14-7. However, the Chargers came right back as Lowe took off on a 58-yard touchdown jaunt. It was 21-7 in favor of San Diego at the end of the first quarter.

The scoring onslaught calmed a bit early in the second quarter with the two teams exchanging field goals. San Diego scored one more touchdown before the half on a 14-yard pass play from Rote to split end Don Norton for a 31-10 lead. Lincoln touched the ball four times during the period, with one run for 44 yards and three catches for another 46 yards. His totals at halftime stood at 6 rushing attempts for 176 yards and 5 pass receptions for 66 yards – a total of 242 yards from scrimmage on just 11 touches.

If the first half had been tough for the Patriots, the second half turned into a nightmare. Babe Parilli faced an overwhelming pass rush and the offense was unable to move. The Chargers kept piling on points: Rote threw a 48-yard TD pass to Alworth in the third quarter, and backup QB John Hadl passed to Lincoln for a 25-yard TD in the fourth quarter and ran one in from a yard out himself to cap the scoring. The final tally was 51-10.

Keith Lincoln’s final totals were truly staggering – he rushed for 206 yards on 13 attempts with a TD, caught 7 passes for 123 yards and another score, and even threw an option pass for a 20-yard gain. His combined total of 329 yards ranks second in NFL/AFL postseason history, as does his 15.85 yards-per-carry rushing average. He outgained the entire Boston Patriots offense, which totaled 261 yards.

The title game performance certainly provided a highlight reel for the ’63 Chargers. Tobin Rote (pictured handing off to Lowe below) completed a tidy 10 of 15 passes for 173 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. John Hadl added 7 completions in 11 passes for another 132 yards and a score. While Paul Lowe was overshadowed by his backfield mate’s performance, he contributed 94 yards on 12 carries and the long TD run. And while Lincoln was the top pass receiver as well as rusher, Lance Alworth also had a typically good outing with 4 catches for 77 yards and a score. Altogether, the Chargers gained 610 yards (still an NFL/AFL postseason record) and turned the ball over just once on a fumble.

By contrast, Parilli and his backup, Tom Yewcic, completed 17 of 37 passes for 228 yards with two picked off. Falling behind so quickly, Boston ran the ball just 16 times for 75 yards with FB Harry Crump leading the team with 18 yards on 7 attempts. Gino Cappelletti gained 72 receiving yards on two catches, while HB Ron Burton had the most receptions, with 4 (for 12 yards).

A triumphant Sid Gillman had the players’ championship rings engraved with “World Champions” rather than “AFL Champions”, and stated, “If anyone wants to dispute the claim, let them play us.” The war between the young AFL and the established NFL was still going on and there was not yet a Super Bowl to pit the two league champions against each other. It has often been a subject of speculation as to what might have happened had the Chargers, with their well-balanced team featuring the potent offense, had gone up against the NFL champion Chicago Bears, with a tremendous defense but nondescript offense.

Regardless, the Chargers were definitely the best team in their league and remained contenders, winning the Western Division again in 1964 and ’65, but losing to Buffalo each time in the title game. While the Patriots improved their record in 1964 to 10-3-1, they finished second to the Bills and didn’t appear in the postseason again until 1976, at which point they were the New England Patriots.

Keith Lincoln had a very good, if injury-marred, career. A bit small for a fullback at 6’1” and 215 pounds, he played the position because Lowe was well-established at halfback and the stocky Lincoln was the better inside runner. As he demonstrated against the Patriots, he also had breakaway speed and was a good receiver out of the backfield. His performance in the AFL Championship game following the 1963 season has stood the test of time as one of the greatest in pro football history.