The Miami Dolphins had made history in 1972, when they not only won the Super Bowl, but did so with a perfect season. The 1973 NFL season was almost more of the same—the Dolphins didn’t go undefeated again, but they were certainly the league’s best. They won a third straight AFC crown and a second straight Super Bowl championship.
Defense was the key to Miami’s success and the foundation was a couple of great safeties. Dick Anderson won Defensive Player of the Year and Jake Scott made 1st-team All-Pro. Defensive end Bill Stanfill was one of the league’s best pass rushers, getting 18 ½ sacks in a 14-game schedule, and in an era where teams didn’t pass nearly as often as they do today.
Miami’s defense was the best in the league and the offense wasn’t too shabby either. The backfield combo of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris combined for nearly 2,000 yards, running behind a line keyed by guard Larry Little. Bob Griese enjoyed a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, with the help of one of the great big-play threats of all-time, Paul Warfield on the outside.
The Dolphins played a tougher schedule than in 1972. That, combined with the simple law of averages, made another perfect season unrealistic. They lost in Week 2 to the Oakland Raiders. But Miami still rolled to a 12-2 season and an easy AFC East crown.
The AFC East not only had the league’s best team, they had the league’s best player. The infamous O.J. Simpson had the best season of his Hall of Fame career, rushing for over 2,000 yards and winning the MVP award. The Juice, running behind All-Pro guard Reggie McKenzie, led the Bills to a 9-5 season. They were in contention for what was just a single wild-card berth.
Buffalo was one of several teams that were evenly balanced and jousting to emerge as the challenger to Miami. The AFC West had three viable contenders. The division’s traditional powers were the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. The Denver Broncos were newly emergent.
The Raiders had the league’s third-best defense and they had Pro Bowl talent at the Big Three skill positions—Ken Stabler at quarterback, running back Marv Hubbard and wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff. They had the early season win against the Dolphins. But Oakland also struggled with some inconsistency. With two weeks to go, the Raiders were 7-4-1, and had head-to-head showdowns with the Chiefs and Broncos on tap to finish the season.
Kansas City was no longer the team that had won the Super Bowl four years earlier or played an epic playoff battle with Miami in 1971. The Chiefs’ Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson was now 38-years-old and splitting time with Mike Livingston. But K.C., with the great Willie Lanier still anchoring a good defense from his linebacker spot, leveraged early wins against Oakland and Denver to keep themselves in the hunt.
Denver had the most productive offense of the AFC West Trio, with 35-year-old quarterback Charley Johnson having a big year. Tight end Riley Odoms was a favored target, and running back Floyd Little provided the ground support. Defensive holes held the Broncos back, but a key November win over Pittsburgh gave Denver a puncher’s chance in the final two weeks.
With the money on the table in December, the Raiders stepped up. On a late Saturday afternoon, they demolished the Chiefs 37-7 and eliminated Kansas City. That set up the finale with the Broncos. With the Raiders at 8-4-1 and the Broncos at 7-4-2, the loser of this game would not be able to get the wild-card. In today’s NFL world, this game would have been flexed to Sunday Night. Oakland won a tough 21-17 decision and returned to the playoffs.
Three more contenders were in the AFC Central. The Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off a breakout year in 1972, and the emerging Steel Curtain continued to play well. There was instability at quarterback, with Terry Bradshaw only starting nine games, but Franco Harris and Ron Shanklin had good years at running back and wide receiver respectively. Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White anchored a ferocious defensive line.
Cincinnati was coached by the legendary Paul Brown and had an assistant coach named Bill Walsh. The quarterbacks coach, Walsh tutored Ken Anderson in the type of high-percentage, low-mistake passing game that would one day become the West Coast offense. The Bengals used good overall balance on offense and combined them with two potent pass-rushing defensive tackles in Mike Reid and Ron Carpenter.
Cleveland didn’t have quite as many weapons as their two rivals. A September game when the Steelers blasted the Browns 33-6 underscored the gap that existed between Cleveland the division’s two best. But the Browns still stayed on the fringes of playoff contention much of the year.
The Bengals and Steelers split their two October meetings. Both won big games in November. Pittsburgh won a Monday Night showdown over Washington and the knocked off Oakland six days later. Cincinnati beat Buffalo 16-13 in a game that would prove to be the AFC’s most significant regular season contest.
Cleveland hung in, getting a tough win over Cincinnati in October and then taking a revenge game over Pittsburgh at the end of November. But in the season’s penultimate game, the Bengals beat the Browns 34-17 and sent Cleveland packing.
Both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh reached the final week at 9-4. On Saturday night, the Steelers blew out the San Francisco 49ers 34-17 and clinched one playoff spot. The following afternoon, the Bengals got a 27-24 win over the Houston Oilers, giving Cincy the AFC Central crown on a tiebreaker. Both teams edged out Buffalo.
The Minnesota Vikings were looking for a bounce back season after an uncharacteristically mediocre performance in 1972. The VIkes of this era had an elite defense. The famed “Purple People Eaters” were the second-best unit in the league, led by Carl Eller and Alan Page up front. Offensively, Fran Tarkenton was now 33-years-old, but he could still scramble and play high-percentage football from the quarterback position.
Minnesota’s offense got a huge boost when running back Chuck Foreman won Offensive Rookie of the Year, running behind a line anchored by tackle Ron Yary. The Vikings beat the Raiders to open the season. They knocked off the Browns. They got a big 10-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
The NFC Central wasn’t particularly good and the Vikes blasted the Lions, their nearest competition, twice. At 12-2, Minnesota coasted back into the playoffs.
Los Angeles also finished 12-2. John Hadl was the All-NFL quarterback and he led the league’s most prolific attack. Lawrence McCutcheon ran for over 1,000 yards, while fullback Jim Bertelsen rushed for 854. Harold Jackson was a big-play receiver who averaged over 22 yards-per catch. Jack Youngblood and Fred Dyer made for a potent pass-rushing combo off the defensive ends. The Rams had the league’s fourth-best defense.
L.A. kicked the season off with a win over the Chiefs. They hammered Atlanta, the top challenger in the old NFC West. And the Rams won a 37-31 shootout with contending Dallas in early October. Los Angeles won the division by three games and got back into the playoffs for the first time since 1970.
Atlanta, at 9-5, was angling for the wild-card berth and had to fight with the Redskins and Cowboys, who were at the top of the NFC East. Dallas got a big year from the great Roger Staubach at quarterback. Staubach’s 62 percent completion rate was exceptional by the standards of the era, especially given he still averaged 8.5 yards-per-attempt. Calvin Hill ran for over 1,100 yards and the Cowboy offense was second only to the Rams for points scored.
The Redskins had one of the league’s top linebackers in Chris Hanburger and a Pro Bowl receiver in Charley Taylor. Verlon Briggs and Bill Brundige were terrific on the defensive front and Kenny Houston was a Pro Bowl strong safety.
Washington and Dallas were both well-balanced and the Redskins got the early drop with a 14-7 head-to-head in on Monday Night football. Dallas got big wins over Cincinnati and Denver. Down the stretch this race came. The Redskins were 9-3. The Cowboys were 8-4. They were playing head-to-head in Week 13, fighting both each other, as well as trying to edge out the Falcons for the wild-card berth.
Dallas got an easy 27-7 win and took control of the tiebreaker. Both teams hammered weak opponents in the finale to hold off Atlanta. The Cowboys were division champs, the Redskins were the wild-card.
The playoffs started the weekend before Christmas in Minneapolis. The Vikings got a good game from Tarkenton and jumped out to a 24-13 lead on the Redskins, and then hung on for a 27-20 win.
Later that afternoon in Oakland, the Raiders got a precision, mistake-free performance from Kenny Stabler and blew out Pittsburgh 33-14. It was a little revenge for a controversial loss the Steelers had handed the Raiders the previous year and just one more part of a building rivalry.
On Sunday afternoon, Miami began their title defense against Cincinnati. The playoff format of the time did not seed teams for the playoff bracket and instead set the matchups and sites using a system that rotated between the divisions. That’s why the teams with the AFC’s best records met in the first round and it was simple good fortune for the Dolphins that they got to be at home.
Miami dominated on the ground, rushing for 241 yards and getting 106 from Mercury Morris in an easy 34-16 win. The final game of Divisional Round Weekend was in Dallas, where the Rams drew the short straw on the rotation system—having to play on the road with a 12-2 record. The Cowboys led 17-16 in the fourth quarter, when Staubach connected with Drew Pearson on an 83-yard touchdown strike. Dallas added a clinching field goal to get the 27-16 win.
The rotation system smiled on the Cowboys, who again got to host a team they were two games behind in the standings. Minnesota came into Dallas for the NFC Championship Game. This time, homefield didn’t matter. The Vikes intercepted Staubach four times and cruised to the Super Bowl with a 27-10 win.
The AFC Championship Game down in Miami was another blowout. The Dolphins pounded out 266 yards on the ground, took an early 14-0 lead over the Raiders and cruised to the win in another 27-10 final.
Miami and Minnesota went down to Houston to play the Super Bowl at Rice Stadium. As good as the Vikings were, the Dolphins were a great team that was simply locked in. The same formula of a pounding running game delivered the goods again. Csonka rushed for 145 yards and won game MVP honors. Griese, who only had to throw six passes in the AFC Championship Game, went to the air just seven times in the Super Bowl. A 24-7 win gave Miami their repeat title.