Today, sports on Christmas Day are built around the NBA. In recent years, it was a college bowl game that was only the sports action. Perhaps no Christmas Day sports were as consequential as 1971 when the NFL played its divisional playoff round and one of them would be the longest NFL game ever played.
The fact that the divisional playoffs were played on Christmas tells you right off the bat how different the times were. Today this same round will begin on January 14, but in an era with 14 regular season games, no bye weeks and only eight teams making the playoffs, that’s four weeks shaved off the current timetable. Christmas Day fell on Saturday and fans could start the day with Dallas-Minnesota at 1 PM ET on CBS, followed by Kansas City-Miami on NBC in the late time slot and the incomparable play-by-play man Curt Gowdy in the broadcast booth.
Dallas was a team coming in down the stretch and a key November 21 shutout of Washington had swung the NFC East race in the Cowboys favor. They finished the season at 11-3 and were looking to return to the Super Bowl. One year earlier, Dallas won the NFC title in the first year of the merger in 1970, but dropped a heartbreaker to the then-Baltimore Colts on a last-play field goal. Minnesota won the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North) at 11-3 and were not seriously challenged. The Vikings had their own Super Bowl demons to exorcise—in 1969 they lost to Kansas City as a double-digit favorite.
Homefield advantage for the playoffs was pre-determined by rotation among the division champs and it wasn’t until 1975 that merit become the basis for determining venue. Dallas-Minnesota was up north in the old outdoor stadium the Vikes played in until 1982. Both teams had tremendous defensive talent. The Cowboys had Bob Lilly anchoring the defensive front, Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley manning the fort at linebacker and the corners were held down by Herb Adderly—a key part of Vince Lombardi’s team in Green Bay—and Mel Renfro. A player whose name didn’t live on as long was strong safety Cornell Green and he was All-Pro in ’71. The Vikes were no less stocked. The “Purple People Eaters” defense was keyed by a dominating line with Carl Eller, Alan Page and Jim Marshall.
The game was as hard-hitting as this personnel would suggest. Dallas led a field goal battle at halftime by a score of 6-3, and then broke it open in the third quarter. Duane Thomas ran for one touchdown, Roger Staubach passed for another, and even though Minnesota closed to 20-12 in the fourth quarter, there was no two-point conversion in effect and the Cowboys coasted home.
The Dolphins were coached by Don Shula, who’d left a powerhouse in Baltimore to take over the job of the expansion franchise. With a defense that was mostly filled with no-names, but played together as a team, the Fish got off to a 10-1 start, nearly coughed up the AFC East with consecutive road losses to the Patriots and Colts, and then righted the ship by beating Green Bay (now a bad team with the Lombardi era officially in the past) in the season finale to clinch the division. Kansas City was one of the great teams of the early Super Bowl years. They represented the AFL two times prior to the merger and had the big ’69 upset of Minnesota to their credit.
Whomever won, the Chiefs-Dolphins games was going to be a seminal contest in the history of the AFC. One was a team on the rise, led by young quarterback Bob Griese and looking to make their mark with championships. Another was a group of championship veterans, led by 36-year old quarterback Len Dawson and on its last hurrah. Two ships were passing in the night and it was only a question of whether 1971 would mark the turning point.
The Chiefs did not have tremendous skill position talent around Dawson, save for wide receiver Otis Taylor. But a running back named Ed Podolak had a huge day on Christmas. He caught a short TD pass from Dawson and Kansas City, playing at home, had a 10-0 lead after the first quarter. Miami bounced back, as Miami used its ground attack, shared between Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick to get back in the game and it was 10-10 at halftime.
It was more back-and-forth in the second half. Each team got a short touchdown run and it went into the fourth quarter at 17-17. But a three-yard run from Podolak appeared to have Kansas City in control at 24-17. But Griese rallied the Dolphins for a late score to tie the game 24-24.
Podolak was on his way to a record-setting day. He would produce 349 all-purpose yards, a playoff record that still stands. And he set up Kansas City for a miracle finish when he returned the kickoff 78 yards to set up a potential game-winning kick from Jan Stenerud. Miami stepped up and blocked the kick and forced overtime.
One overtime came and went. Both Stenerud and Miami’s Garo Yepremian—each among the top kickers of their generation—missed a long try. Finally Miami got into field goal range and Yepremian hit the game-winner. After 82 minutes and 40 seconds, this game had a winner. No football game has ever waited longer for its conclusion.
Miami went on to shut out Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, continuing the changing of the guard—first beating the veteran Chiefs, then Shula taking out his old team. Dallas didn’t give up another touchdown the rest of the season, beating San Francisco for the NFC title and then easily winning the Super Bowl over Miami. The Dolphins would be back though—in 1972 they would go undefeated and win the Super Bowl, a feat not duplicated since. They won again in 1973. But they never waited longer for a win than they did on Christmas Day 1971.