The San Diego Chargers had lost playoff games at home each of the two previous years, coughing up #1 seeds in the process. In 1981, they won a third straight AFC West title, but had to go on the road for the playoffs. Ironically, it would be not having homefield advantage that probably did them in this time, although along the way they did win one of the greatest postseason games ever played.
The Air Coryell passing attack continue to define the 1981 San Diego Chargers. Even though offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs had departed to begin coaching the Washington Redskins, head coach Don Coryell and quarterback Dan Fouts kept churning out the passing yards.
Fouts threw for over 4,800 yards, had a TD-INT ratio of 33/17 and a completion percentage of 59 percent. Every one of these was a sterling number by the standards of the era and Fouts made the Pro Bowl.
Tight end Kellen Winslow was a 1st-team All-NFL talent, with 88 catches for 1,075 yards. Charlie Joiner didn’t make the Pro Bowl, although with his 70 catches for nearly 1,200 yards it’s hard to see why. Wes Chandler stepped in for the explosive John Jefferson after an early season trade and was a reliable third target. The running game had Chuck Muncie, who rolled up over 1,100 yards and made the Pro Bowl himself. It added up to the most productive offense in the NFL in points scored.
San Diego was lacking in the meat-and-potatoes aspect of football, on the offensive line and on defense. That was best demonstrated by the fact defensive tackle Gary Johnson was the only player outside the skill positions to make the Pro Bowl, and the defense ranked 26th in the NFL in points scored.
The Chargers were under a new defensive coordinator—ironically it was Jack Pardee, who had previously held the Redskins head coaching job that Gibbs took. The de facto coordinator-for-head-coach swap worked out better in Washington than it did in San Diego.
San Diego opened the season in Cleveland in an anticipated Monday Night game. The previous year the Browns had gotten the 2-seed in the AFC playoffs and shared the Chargers’ angst in being eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. Furthermore, Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe won the MVP award, making it a battle between him and Fouts a juicy one for the season’s first prime-time game.
It turned into a rout for the Bolts. Fouts was brilliant, with 19/25 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Joiner caught six passes for 191 yards, while Muncie ran for 161 yards. The 44-14 win foreshadowed a sharp decline for the Browns this season.
A home game with the mediocre Detroit Lions was a better game, going back and forth. The Fouts-to-Joiner combo overcame the lack of a running attack. The quarterback was 18/25 for 316 yards, while Joiner caught seven passes for 166 yards in a 27-23 win. A road win at another average opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs extended the record to 3-0.
The Charger defense forced eight turnovers, including an interception by none other than Johnson at the line of scrimmage, who returned it for the clinching touchdown in a 42-31 win.
San Diego went to Denver, the team they would fight all year for the AFC West crown and played a terrible game. The defense was lit up by Bronco quarterback Craig Morton, the Chargers trailed 35-0 in the third quarter and lost 42-24. Fouts bounced back a week later in a home game against then-AFC West rival Seattle. He threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, frequently targeting running back Clarence Williams out of the backfield in a 24-10 win.
When San Diego got into a passing war you could usually count on Fouts and his cadre of weapons eventually outgunning the opponent. That didn’t’ happen in a home game with the Minnesota Vikings. Fouts was brilliant again, with 310 yards, but Tommy Kramer was even better, throwing for 444 yards and leading a drive for a late field goal to win 33-31.
The worst defense in the league awaited the Chargers when they traveled across the country to play the Baltimore Colts. The result was predictable. Ten different San Diego receivers caught passes from Fouts in a 43-14 win. But a road trip to Chicago, a last-place team, resulted in another loss.
Fouts was wildly erratic, completing 13/43 passes, though his big-play ability did produce 295 yards. The Chargers couldn’t run the ball, while the Bears, with Walter Payton could. San Diego lost 20-17 in overtime, in a game they were a (-11) favorite.
The Chargers survived a shaky home game with the Chiefs. It started well, with a 19-7 lead at halftime, but Kansas City was getting a strong running game behind Joe Delaney, while Muncie couldn’t get going. KC took a 20-19 lead, before Fouts drove his team down the field for a 22-yard field goal from Rolf Benirschke to win it.
San Diego was 6-3 and in good position for the AFC playoffs, making their home date with the Cincinnati Bengals, also 6-3 and leading the AFC Central, crucial. The Chargers got off to a poor start and were trailing 24-7 in the second quarter. Fouts had the offense on the march to get back on the game when he threw a Pick-6. In a 31-7 hole, the game was all but over and it ended 40-17. The implications would ripple into January.
The Chargers had bigger immediate problems than postseason seeding when they turned up flat on a Monday Night in Seattle, against a weak Seahawks team. Air Coryell kept the team in the game for a half, trailing 24-17. But the lack of defense, the lack of a running game and three turnovers led to a 44-23 loss.
That marked two straight defeats by a combined score of 83-40. That’s bad defense by the standards of the 21st century and it was positively horrific by the standards of 1981.
San Diego was now 6-5 and two games back of Denver in the AFC West. Kansas City was nestled in between the two teams at 7-4. Oakland was struggling to capture its Super Bowl form, but they were hanging on the fringe at 5-6 and Oakland was where San Diego was going next.
The Chargers took a small measure of revenge for the previous year’s AFC Championship Game loss when they all but eliminated the Raiders and in devastating fashion. Winslow caught 13 passes for 144 yards and the offense unloaded in a 55-21 win. Denver lost and San Diego pulled to within a game, as the two rivals prepared to meet on the final Sunday in November.
In the biggest game of the regular season, it was the running game that stood tall. Muncie ran for a pair of early touchdowns and the Chargers outgained the Broncos 148-67 on the ground. They forced five turnovers and won decisively, 34-17. The AFC West was now a three-way tie at the top.
The Buffalo Bills were playoff-bound and hoping to avenge a tough loss in San Diego in the previous year’s divisional playoffs. Fouts threw for 343 yards, most of it to Winslow and Joiner, but the running game disappeared this week. San Diego lost the rush yardage battle 145-84 and they lost the football game 28-27. Denver beat Kansas City, so the Chargers were tied with the Chiefs at 8-6 and trailed the Broncos by a game.
San Diego went across the country to Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers were a mediocre team, but playing in an NFC Central division where their ultimate 9-7 record would be enough to win. It turned into a passing battle, with Fouts throwing for 351 yards and Doug Williams throwing for 321. It was a Chargers kind of a game and they got the win, with a late Benirscke field goal pulling it out, 24-23.
Kansas City lost and was eliminated, but Denver won and moved to 10-5. The good news was that the Chargers had the tiebreakers—if they beat the Raiders to close the season, San Diego would have the superior divisional record and could claim the AFC West if Denver lost. The Chargers also had hope of a wild-card, but would need the New York Jets to lose.
The San Diego-Oakland finale was on Monday Night, so the Chargers would know their fate when they took the field. They were pulling for either the Bears to upset the Broncos or the Packers to knock off the Jets.
Any hope of a wild-card faded quickly on Sunday afternoon, as the Jets crushed the Packers early and often. But out in Chicago, the Bears repaid the Chargers for that upset back in October. Chicago upended Denver and San Diego could now take the AFC West with a win. With the Raiders fading fast, the result seemed almost foregone.
Fouts threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Joiner in the second quarter, part of a 14/27 for 222 yards performance. The Bolts led 17-3 at the half and Muncie ran the ball well, gaining 94 yards and enabling San Diego to chisel out a 23-10 win. They had done it the hard way, but they were going to the playoffs as the #3 seed.
In 1981, the alignment was three divisions per conference and the playoff format was the same as what major league baseball uses today, with two wild-cards. So even though San Diego was on the road, they would still get a week off before going to play the 2-seed Miami Dolphins.
San Diego was a 2 ½ point favorite, in spite of being a game and a half behind Miami and on the road. Fouts drove the team down for a field goal. After a defensive stop, Chandler busted a 58-yard punt return for a 10-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the ball hit the ground and took a strange bounce back towards the kicking team and the Chargers recovered.
Muncie scored a touchdown and on the next possession, defensive back Glen Edwards intercepted a pass. San Diego put it in the end zone again and with a 24-0 lead, it looked this one was over. But, to borrow the words of Frank Drepin in The Naked Gun “my night was just beginning.”
The Dolphins made a quarterback change to veteran Don Strock and he quickly put 10 points on the board and had Miami on the San Diego 40-yard line with time winding down in the first half. The Dolphins ran a trick play, the hook-and-lateral, where a pass to the receiver was followed by a lateral to trailing running back. It worked for a touchdown and the score was 24-17 by halftime.
By the early part of the third quarter, that big lead was gone, as the Dolphins scored to tie it. Fortunately for San Diego, Winslow was having the night of his life, one that would be immortalized in NFL lore and he caught a 25-yard touchdown pass for a 31-24 lead. Miami answered right back to tie it, then took the lead 38-31 and then were driving in the fourth quarter for what looked like a clinching field goal.
The Chargers then got a break—or forced one, however you want to look at it. Miami running back Andra Franklin fumbled and San Diego recovered on their own 18-yard line with less than five minutes left. Fouts, who would finish the night 33/53 for 433 yards, led the offense immediately down the field and tied the game up with less than a minute to play.
Miami still drove right back to the San Diego 26-yard line and the Dolphins lined up for a field goal to win it. Winslow, who would finish the game with 13 catches for 166 yards, leapt up and blocked the kick to force overtime.
The Chargers won the coin toss and looked ready to finally end this game when Fouts led them down to the 10-yard line for a try at a chippie field goal in the era of sudden-death overtime. Benirschke hooked it left. The Dolphins got another chance of their own, an easy 34-yard try. San Diego blocked it again. Finally, with 1:08 remaining in the first overtime, Benirschke took advantage of his second chance, hitting a 29-yarder to win the game 41-38
It was one of the greatest NFL playoff games ever played, and the great performances abounded. Muncie had ran for 120 yards, while Joiner and Chandler each went over 100 yards receiving. On the Dolphin side, Strock threw for over 400 yards, but didn’t get the running game support that Fouts got from Muncie.
But the hero of the night was Winslow, with his big stats and blocked field goal. He was dehydrated, suffering exhaustion and the enduring image of the game was him being helped off the field by teammates when it was over, too tired to move.
San Diego now had to play the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati. The Bengals had finished 12-4 to the Chargers 10-6, but had San Diego won the regular season meeting between the two teams, it was the Bolts would have had the edge, owning a tiebreaker with both teams at 11-5. The difference in homefield advantage? Playing in warm San Diego or going to Cincinnati, where the temperatures would be (-32) with the wind chill.
The Chargers fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter before Fouts hit Winslow on a 33-yard touchdown pass. But that was the last offense San Diego showed. Muncie had a decent day running the ball, with 94 yards, but with the icy winds, Fouts couldn’t get anything going, finishing 15/28 for 185 yards and throwing two interceptions.
One of the interceptions was in the end zone in the second half, the most costly of three Charger turnovers that stopped drives. Cincinnati’s offense, geared to short passing with NFL MVP Ken Anderson, was better suited to impossible conditions and San Diego lost 27-7.
The Air Coryell era of the Chargers wasn’t over, but it was getting close. They would make the playoffs again in the strike-shortened year of 1982, but then faded from the postseason picture for the balance of Fouts’ career. This team of promise would never make a Super Bowl, but they entertained a lot of fans and in 1981, left a proud legacy of winning a playoff game that no one who watched will ever forget.