The American Football League Championship game on December 26, 1965 featured a rematch of the previous year’s participants. This time it was the Buffalo Bills, now defending champs, going on the road to face the San Diego Chargers.
The Bills easily topped the Eastern Division with a 10-3-1 record. They were still coached by Lou Saban and QB Jack Kemp (pictured at right), a former Charger, was again lining up behind center and coming off of a season in which he received AFL Player of the Year recognition. But temperamental star FB Cookie Gilchrist had been dealt to Denver and not adequately replaced and injuries cost the offense the services of flanker Elbert Dubenion and split end Glenn Bass for most of the season. Flanker Bo Roberson and rookie TE Paul Costa helped to fill the void, but it was once again the rugged defense that allowed Buffalo to dominate its division. The unit that contained AFL All-Stars in DT Tom Sestak, LB Mike Stratton, CB Butch Byrd, and safety George Saimes was solid throughout. In addition, pioneering soccer-style PK Pete Gogolak led the AFL with 28 field goals.
San Diego won the Western Division for a third consecutive season by going 9-2-3. Under the direction of Head Coach Sid Gillman, the Chargers had the league’s highest-scoring offense. QB John Hadl was developing into a top passer and flanker Lance Alworth was the premier player at his position, possibly in either league. HB Paul Lowe led the AFL in rushing and versatile FB Keith Lincoln was formidable when healthy, which had not been the case through much of ‘65. The defense was strongest on the line, featuring DE Earl Faison and DT Ernie Ladd, and linebackers Chuck Allen and Frank Buncom led a capable group. Moreover, the Chargers had beaten and tied the Bills during the regular season and, playing for the championship at home, were 6.5-point favorites to win.
There were 30,361 fans in attendance on a pleasant day at Balboa Stadium. The game settled into a defensive battle with no scoring in the first quarter. CB Speedy Duncan of the Chargers intercepted a Jack Kemp pass at the San Diego 33, but San Diego had to punt from midfield. On their next series, starting from deep in their own territory, Paul Lowe took off on a 47-yard run, but the Bills tossed John Hadl for consecutive losses and the home team had to punt again. Coach Gillman chose to have rookie FB Jim Allison handle the punting rather than Hadl, in order to keep the quarterback rested, but when the first two kicks went just 19 and nine yards, respectively, Hadl took over that chore.
Early in the second quarter, a promising series for the Chargers reached the Buffalo 28 but Herb Travenio missed a 35-yard field goal attempt that was partially deflected. The teams exchanged punts until late in the period when the Bills put together a six-play, 80-yard drive. FB Wray Carlton had two eight-yard carries and Kemp passed to Paul Costa, who made an outstanding catch for a 22-yard gain. Following two short running plays, Kemp then threw down the middle to TE Ernie Warlick in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown. Pete Gogolak kicked the extra point.
Following a short possession, the Chargers punted and Butch Byrd gathered in the 40-yard kick at his 26, evaded two tackles, and sped down the right sideline for a 74-yard touchdown. Gogolak converted again and the visitors were staked to a 14-0 lead.
On San Diego’s next offensive play, Hadl’s pass was intercepted by LB Harry Jacobs, who returned it to the Chargers’ 20, but the Bills were unable to pad their lead when Gogolak missed on a 24-yard try for a field goal. The Chargers advanced to the Buffalo 24 in the waning seconds of the first half as Hadl threw to Lance Alworth for 22 yards, ran for another 13, and completed two more short passes. But Travenio was wide on a 31-yard field goal attempt to close out the half.
The Chargers had the first possession in the third quarter and punted. The Bills went right to the air and a Kemp pass to Bo Roberson gained 49 yards to the San Diego 24, and while the Bills didn’t reach the end zone, they came away with an 11-yard field goal by Gogolak (pictured at left) that expanded Buffalo’s margin to 17-0.
Duncan returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to the Buffalo 48 and Keith Lincoln ran for 10 yards on first down. But after advancing to the 29, the Chargers tried to convert a fourth-and-one situation and a mix-up in the backfield caused them to lose five yards and turn the ball over on downs. It proved to be their last opportunity to get back into the game.
Following a punt by Buffalo’s Paul Maguire that pinned the Chargers back at their one yard line, the Bills blitzed Hadl, who hurried a long pass from his end zone that Byrd intercepted and returned to the San Diego 23. The Chargers continued to play tough on defense, but the Bills further added to their lead with a 39-yard Gogolak field goal.
Down by 20-0 as the game headed into the fourth quarter, the Chargers again turned the ball over on downs in their own territory and Buffalo capped the scoring with a Gogolak field goal from 32 yards. San Diego never again threatened in the remaining time and Buffalo won by a final score of 23-0.
The Bills led in total yards (260 to 223) and first downs (23 to 12). They also recorded five sacks, at a loss of 45 yards, to two by San Diego. The Chargers turned the ball over twice, to one by Buffalo, and were unable to take advantage of scoring opportunities.
Jack Kemp was not especially efficient with his passing, completing 8 of 19 throws, but they were good for 155 yards and a touchdown against one interception. Bo Roberson had three catches for 88 yards and Ernie Warlick contributed three receptions for 35 yards and a TD. Wray Carlton led the Bills with 63 rushing yards on 16 carries. Butch Byrd (pictured below) made significant contributions with an interception that he returned 24 yards and the touchdown on the punt return. Pete Gogolak was successful on three of his five field goal attempts.
For the Chargers, John Hadl, harried by the fierce pass rush, was successful on 11 of 23 throws for 140 yards and gave up two interceptions. Lance Alworth, who was double-teamed throughout the contest, caught four passes for 82 yards and Paul Lowe gained 57 yards on 12 carries, although most of that total came on one play.
“I can’t believe it,” said Jack Kemp regarding the final score. “Nobody expects to shut out the Chargers.”
“We just got beat,” stated a disappointed Coach Gillman of the Chargers. “We lost to a fine football team. The Bills have excellent personnel and coaching. What else is there to say?”
The AFL Championship game triumph proved to be the end for Coach Saban, who resigned to become head coach at the University of Maryland. Joel Collier, the assistant coach who had been in charge of the defense, was elevated to the top job. The Bills once again finished first in the Eastern Division but lost the title game to Kansas City and went into decline, not posting another winning record until 1973. The defeat for the AFL Championship also marked a transition for the Chargers. After having appeared in five of the league’s first six title contests, they did not appear in another. San Diego remained a respectable team but was blocked by the Chiefs and Raiders in the Western Division even while posting records above .500 for the remaining four AFL seasons before the merger with the NFL in 1970. The Chargers did not reach the postseason again until 1979.