December 21, 2013

1974: Raiders Stun Dolphins in AFC Divisional Playoff Game

The Miami Dolphins had won the Super Bowls following the 1972 and ’73 seasons and were looking to make it three straight as they faced the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoff round on December 21, 1974. Coached by Don Shula for the fifth year, Miami featured a highly productive ground game on offense led by FB Larry Csonka. QB Bob Griese was an able field general who, on the occasions when he passed, was very effective and WR Paul Warfield was a deep threat who kept defenses honest. The fact that Csonka and Warfield, along with HB Jim Kiick, were lame ducks in Miami because of having signed with the World Football League’s Memphis Southmen for 1975 didn’t limit their performance in ‘74. Defensively, the team was strong with solid ends Bill Stanfill and Vern den Herder, aging MLB Nick Buoniconti anchoring a fine corps of linebackers, and the outstanding safety tandem of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson. The Dolphins topped the AFC East with an 11-3 record and appeared primed for another title run.

Oakland, coached by John Madden, was an annual title contender but had not been to the Super Bowl since representing the AFL after the 1967 season. QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler was an exciting performer who led the league with 26 TD passes during the regular season. The starting wide receivers were excellent, with Cliff Branch providing the speed and Fred Biletnikoff the reliability as a possession receiver.  The stable of running backs was a good one and the defense, while not the best, was rugged. The Raiders topped the AFC West at 12-2 and, in the eyes of many fans, the Raiders and Dolphins were the league’s two best teams and this Divisional playoff, as a result, was the “real” Super Bowl.

There were 52,317 fans in attendance on a gray Saturday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The game got off to an exciting start when Miami WR Nat Moore ran the opening kickoff back 89 yards for a touchdown. Garo Yepremian added the extra point and the Dolphins were ahead by 7-0 after just 15 seconds of action.

The contest settled into a battle for field position as the teams traded punts until the Raiders put together a seven-play, 78-yard drive to get on the board in the second quarter. Ken Stabler completed two nine-yard passes, to Fred Biletnikoff and FB Marv Hubbard, and HB Clarence Davis had a 19-yard carry to the Miami 36. Three plays later, Stabler connected with HB Charlie Smith for a 31-yard TD and George Blanda’s extra point tied the score.

The Dolphins responded with a long scoring drive of 63 yards in 11 plays. The first six were running plays, with HB Benny Malone, Larry Csonka, and Jim Kiick carrying the load. Facing third-and-four at the Oakland 29, Bob Griese threw to Kiick for five yards and, after getting to the 16, Yepremian kicked a 33-yard field goal with just over a minute remaining in the half. The Dolphins held a 10-7 lead at halftime.

The teams again exchanged punts to start the third quarter. On their second series, the Raiders advanced 60 yards in nine plays. Stabler passed to Biletnikoff for 20 yards on the first play, taking the ball into Miami territory, and a pass to TE Bob Moore on third-and-seven was just enough for a first down. A run by HB Pete Banaszak picked up nine yards and Davis gained eight. Finally, Stabler connected with Biletnikoff for a 13-yard touchdown. Blanda added the PAT and Oakland was on top for the first time by 14-10.

The Dolphins came back with another score. Griese helped his cause with a nine-yard scramble and Malone and Csonka had good gains along the way. A pass interference penalty on the Raiders gave Miami a first down at the Oakland 16 and, from there, Griese threw to Paul Warfield for a touchdown. Yepremian’s extra point attempt was blocked by DE Bubba Smith, but the Dolphins remained ahead by two points at 16-14.

The teams again traded punts until, on the last play of the third quarter, Csonka ran for 15 yards to spark a drive that covered 60 yards in nine plays. With Malone and Csonka running effectively and Griese completing a pass to Warfield for 20 yards along the way, the visitors reached the Oakland 28. Yepremian kicked a 46-yard field goal to widen the Miami lead to 19-14.

After another exchange of punts, and with less than five minutes remaining in the game, the Raiders scored in spectacular fashion. Stabler threw to Cliff Branch, who made a diving catch at the Oakland 28. However, CB Henry Stuckey failed to touch him and the alert Branch leaped up and ran the distance for a 72-yard TD. Blanda’s extra point put the home team on top at 21-19 with 4:37 remaining to play.

In response, the Dolphins went 68 yards in just four plays. Griese threw to Nat Moore for 23 yards and then Miami ran at the Oakland defense, with Csonka picking up a total of 22 yards on two carries. Finally, Malone (pictured below) swept around end on a 23-yard touchdown run that put Miami back in the lead. Yepremian added the extra point and it was 26-21 with a little over two minutes on the clock.

Starting from the Oakland 32 after the ensuing kickoff, Stabler completed passes to Biletnikoff of 18 and 20 yards and two more throws, to Branch and WR Frank Pitts, got the ball to the Miami 14. Facing third-and-one, Coach Madden called for a running play and Davis gained six yards off tackle for first-and-goal at the eight. The time remaining was now down to 35 seconds and the Raiders used their final timeout. On the next play, with the primary receivers well covered Stabler seemed about to be sacked by Vern Den Herder but caught a glimpse of Davis in the end zone and threw while falling forward. Leaping amid a crowd of defenders, Davis pulled the ball away from LB Mike Kolen and fell to the ground for a touchdown (pictured at top). Blanda again converted and Oakland had a two-point lead.

That was enough. The Dolphins got the ball back, but Griese threw a pass that was intercepted by LB Phil Villapiano, and the Raiders won the classic encounter and advanced by a final score of 28-26.

Oakland had more total yards (411 to 294) and the edge in first downs (19 to 18). The Dolphins ran the ball well, totaling 213 yards on the ground (to 135 for the Raiders) while Oakland had 276 net passing yards to Miami’s 81. Each team recorded two sacks and turned the ball over one time apiece.

Ken Stabler  (pictured below) completed 20 of 30 passes for 293 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.  Fred Biletnikoff had 8 catches for 122 yards and a TD and, with the long scoring reception, Cliff Branch contributed 84 yards on three catches. Clarence Davis led the team’s running attack with 59 yards on 12 attempts while also accounting for two pass receptions for 16 yards and the game-winning score. Marv Hubbard was right behind with 55 yards on 14 carries.

For the Dolphins, Bob Griese was successful on 7 of 14 throws for 101 yards and a TD, while one pass was picked off. Larry Csonka rushed for 114 yards on 24 attempts and Benny Malone gained 83 yards on 14 carries that included a touchdown. Paul Warfield caught three passes for 47 yards and a TD.

“When you lose like that, you know it wasn’t meant to be,” said Don Shula. “Your dreams just go down the drain.”

The loss did indeed end Miami’s dream of a third consecutive NFL Championship, but, ironically enough considering the speculation that the winner of this game would be sure to advance to the Super Bowl, the Raiders did not make it that far as they lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.

Oakland topped the AFC West again in 1975, and again reached the AFC title game before falling to the Steelers. The Raiders finally achieved the elusive NFL Championship in ’76. As for the Dolphins, the loss to the Raiders did mark the end of an outstanding run that was highlighted by the three straight AFC titles as well as the back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The loss of the veterans Csonka, Warfield, and Kiick in 1975 had an effect, with Csonka’s role at fullback proving difficult to replace. Miami just missed the playoffs with a 10-4 record and fell to 6-8 in 1976; the Dolphins would not return to the postseason until 1978.