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Christmas Day game was prelude to Miami’s perfect season

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Just like this year, Christmas Day 1971 saw unseasonably warm temperatures in northern cities. In Kansas City, it was in the upper 60s as the defending NFL Champion Chiefs prepared to host the Miami Dolphins in a first-round playoff game.

For the 6-year-old Miami Dolphins franchise, they prepared for their second playoff game in team history under second-year coach Don Shula.

Shula guided Miami to a 10-4 record and a playoff berth in his first season. In 1971, the Dolphins won the AFC East Division for the first time with a 10-3-1 record. Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Bob Griese, Manny Fernandez, Nick Buoniconti and others became better known outside of south Florida following this game.

Along with the weather, it was also rainy, making the Municipal Stadium playing field muddy and sloppy. Miami had the task of overcoming the sloppy field (as did the Chiefs) as well as a hostile crowd.

Kansas City was making its first defense of the championship they won 11 months before when they upset the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings, 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. Shula knew a little something about those kinds of upsets; the New York Jets and Joe Namath stunned his heavily favored Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III following the 1968 season.

This game featured a number of momentum shifts. The Chiefs put up 10 points in the first quarter, assisted by a turnover. Miami came back with 10 points in the second quarter, helped by a fumble recovery.

In the third quarter, Jim Otis put the Chiefs ahead with a one-yard plunge. Miami tied it on a 1-yard plunge by Kiick.

In the fourth quarter, Ed Podolak, who had the game of his life, scored on a 3-yard run. Miami tied it with 1:25 remaining on a 5-yard toss from Griese to tight end Marv Fleming.

Podolak took the ensuing kickoff 78 yards down to the Miami 22. The Chiefs were set up to win, but Jan Stenerud, one of the league’s great kickers, missed a 31-yard attempt, sending the game into overtime.

“I was planning what I was going to do in my offseason,” Buoniconti told The New York Times. “The chances were one in a million he would miss that kick.”

Buoniconti blocked a long Stenerud field goal attempt that would have won the game for the Chiefs in the first overtime, so the game went to another extra period.

With 7:20 left in double overtime, Dolphins’ kicker Garo Yepremian got his chance to end the game with a 37-yard field goal. He did not miss and the Dolphins were just one win away from the Super Bowl.

They beat the Baltimore Colts 21-0 the following Sunday to advance to Super Bowl V, but Roger Staubach and the powerful Dallas Cowboys were waiting.

The Cowboys dashed Miami’s hopes in the Super Bowl 24-3, but the foundation was set for what was to come the following year: a perfect 17-0 season that is still the standard every team seeks to match. The Carolina Panthers, at 14-0, are the latest challengers.

The Christmas Day game is part of the positive legacy of the NFL (yes, there is some bad stuff). This game was full of history. It still stands today as the longest game ever played: 82 minutes and 40 seconds.

No fewer than 15 Hall of Famers played or coached in that game. Shula and Kansas City Coach Hank Stram have their place in Canton.

The game was the last one played in Municipal Stadium. The Chiefs moved into the new Arrowhead Stadium the following season.

In the end, this game put the Miami Dolphins, along with pro football in Florida, into the upper echelon. This state would not only host Super Bowls, but Floridians now had a team worthy of participating in them.

Just one year later, Miami would make history again.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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