The two top contenders in the AFC East met in Miami on November 21, 1971 as the Dolphins hosted the Baltimore Colts. Coached for the second year by Don Shula, the Dolphins came into the game with a 7-1-1 record and six-game winning streak on the line. The backfield combination of FB Larry Csonka (pictured above) and HB Jim Kiick was highly productive and, when they needed to go to the air, QB Bob Griese was an excellent passer. The overachieving defense was scrappy and benefited most from the presence of MLB Nick Buoniconti and safeties Jake Scott and Dick Anderson.
Baltimore, the NFL’s defending champion, was coached by Don McCafferty, who had succeeded Shula when he departed for Miami. 38-year-old QB Johnny Unitas was brittle and no longer great but could still be effective and the running game, led by second-year FB Norm Bulaich, was improved and operating behind an excellent line. The defense was tough, particularly at linebacker where MLB Mike Curtis was flanked by Ted Hendricks and Ray May. The Colts had a 7-2 record and could vault into first place with a win in Miami.
There was a crowd of 75,312 fans in attendance at the Orange Bowl. The Dolphins went three-and-out on their first possession and punted. Baltimore put together a long drive of 77 yards in 14 plays. The Colts converted three third downs with Johnny Unitas passes along the way. The first was to TE Tom Mitchell in a third-and-three situation, the second was to HB Tom Matte on a third-and-10 play to the Miami 47, and the third gained 20 yards to Norm Bulaich (pictured below) while facing third-and-five. That put the ball at the 11, and after Matte ran for seven yards, FB Don Nottingham followed up with a four-yard touchdown carry. Jim O’Brien added the extra point and the visitors had the early 7-0 lead.
A clipping penalty on the ensuing kickoff had the Dolphins starting deep in their own territory and they again had to punt. Baltimore had good starting field position at the Miami 40, but couldn’t move effectively and O’Brien missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.
The teams exchanged punts as the game headed into the second quarter before the Dolphins finally came alive on offense. Bob Griese threw to Larry Csonka for 13 yards on a third-and-eight play and followed up with a completion to TE Marv Fleming for 16 yards. A long carry for an apparent touchdown by HB Mercury Morris was nullified by a clipping penalty but Miami continued to chip away with a run by Csonka and consecutive Griese passes to Jim Kiick. However, after reaching the Baltimore seven, Griese fumbled when hit by DT Jim Bailey while looking to pass and DE Billy Newsome recovered for the Colts.
The teams once again traded punts before a Unitas pass was intercepted by CB Tim Foley at midfield. But a Griese toss to Kiick lost nine yards, Griese fumbled the snap on the next play and had to fall on the loose ball, and a 16-yard completion to Kiick was well short of a first down. Garo Yepremian’s 54-yard field goal try with 1:17 remaining in the first half fell short and the score stayed unchanged at halftime.
The Colts had the ball first in the third quarter and punted from their end zone. Miami made the most of the resulting good field position, advancing 46 yards in eight plays. Griese ran for nine yards on first down and Kiick had a 19-yard gain among his four carries. A pass interference penalty in the end zone gave the Dolphins a first down at the one, and Kiick plunged for a touchdown from there. Yepremian’s conversion tied the score at 7-7.
Miami got the ball back in short order when LB Doug Swift intercepted a Unitas pass at the Baltimore 22 and returned it 12 yards. On the next play, Griese connected with Fleming for a 10-yard TD and, with Yepremian again adding the point after, the home team was ahead by 14-7.
The Colts responded with a long drive of 76 yards in 13 plays. Unitas started the series off with a nine-yard completion to WR Willie Richardson but was injured shortly thereafter while throwing a block on a double reverse and it was Earl Morrall behind center the rest of the way. Morrall completed a third-down pass to TE John Mackey for 18 yards but, two plays later, was sacked by DT Manny Fernandez. Facing third-and-17, he threw to WR Eddie Hinton for a 16-yard gain and Matte gained the needed yard on fourth down to keep the series going. Two more Matte runs set up a four-yard touchdown carry by Bulaich and, with O’Brien booting the extra point, the score was tied once again at 14-14.
That remained the situation as the contest entered the fourth quarter and the teams exchanged punts. A personal foul on the Colts helped Miami out of a second-and-14 situation as they got the ball back again and Griese followed up with a 14-yard completion to WR Karl Noonan. The series finally stalled at the Baltimore 13, but Yepremian put the Dolphins ahead by three with a 20-yard field goal.
The Colts advanced into Miami territory when Morrall passed to Hinton for a 33-yard gain, but after reaching the 35, a throw into the end zone was intercepted by SS Dick Anderson. There were still over three minutes remaining, but the Dolphins never let the visitors get the ball back. Griese threw to WR Paul Warfield for 13 yards to convert a third-and-three situation and Csonka ran for two more first downs to seal the 17-14 win for Miami.
Baltimore led in total yards (268 to 249) while the Dolphins had the edge in first downs (16 to 14). Miami generated more yards on the ground (168 to 100) and the Colts had the net passing advantage (168 to 81). Baltimore turned the ball over three times, to one by the Dolphins.
Bob Griese completed 10 of 16 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown while giving up no interceptions. Larry Csonka rushed for 93 yards on 15 carries while Jim Kiick (pictured above) contributed 52 yards on 14 attempts that included a TD and also caught four passes for 22 yards. Marv Fleming topped the Dolphins with 26 yards on two receptions that included a touchdown.
For the Colts, Johnny Unitas was successful on 9 of 17 throws for 78 yards, giving up two interceptions, and in relief Earl Morrall was 6 of 9 for 99 yards with one picked off. Tom Matte ran the ball 17 times for 44 yards and Norm Bulaich had 5 catches for 41 yards in addition to his 23 yards on 8 rushing attempts that included a TD. Eddie Hinton gained 49 yards on his two pass receptions and John Mackey was right behind with his 46 yards, also on two catches.
The win put Miami a game-and-a-half ahead of the Colts, and while they lost the rematch in Baltimore, the Dolphins finished on top of the AFC East at 10-3-1. The Colts lost the season finale to end up in second with a 10-4 record, qualifying for the postseason as a Wild Card. Both teams won their Divisional round games, Miami in classic fashion over Kansas City in overtime while the Colts more easily dispatched the Browns, and the clubs met for the AFC Championship. The Dolphins dominated in a 21-0 win and went on to lose to Dallas in the Super Bowl.