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1/02/1982 - The Epic in Miami

A camera shot of downtown Miami, Florida, prior to the start of the game. (Screengrab courtesy of NBC Sports)
A camera shot of downtown Miami, Florida, prior to the start of the game. (Screengrab courtesy of NBC Sports)

On January 2, 1982, the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins were to meet in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, at the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami, Florida. With the calendar inching closer to their confrontation, the coaches of both teams acknowledged concern. Dolphins coach Don Shula wondered if his team could stop San Diego's prolific offense, which had broken a slew of single-season records, including most yardage and most points; Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts set records that year in passes (609), completions (360) and passing yards (4,802), while running back Chuck Muncie tied an NFL record with 19 rushing touchdowns. Additionally, three different receivers had finished with at least a thousand yards, and Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow led the league with 88 receptions.

"We have to make them earn it and make big plays on their own," Shula was quoted stressing in a piece by the St. Petersburg Times. "Fouts has that great rhythm, taking five steps back and then reading the defense and throwing the ball. What we have to do is destroy that rhythm, get a hand in his face, put some pressure on him."

In that same article, Ray Holliman wrote that San Diego coach Don "Air" Coryell was "concerned that Shula might replace (second year quarterback David Woodley) with veteran backup Don Strock, as he did in two of the last four games when Woodley couldn't seem to get the Dolphins' offense untracked."

"Strock is the kind who will just sit back in the pocket and read the defense," Coryell said. "He's the kind of quarterback that can just pick the defense apart."

Both coaches were right in their worries. The Dolphins' were in fact unable to disrupt the rhythm of Dan Fouts, and Don Strock did indeed come in and pick apart the Chargers' defense. By the end of the game, both quarterbacks had broken the previous record for completions and passing yards in a postseason game; it was one of many records set by both teams, who played -- to that point -- the highest-scoring (and one of the greatest) postseason games of all time, a classic that would later be remembered as the "Epic in Miami."

The game was initially uncompetitive, as it didn't take long for the Chargers to show off their offensive prowess. A botched punt and an interception set them up with easy scoring chances, and only 13 minutes in, San Diego held a commanding 24-0 lead.

Facing a deficit no team had ever come back from in a postseason game, Don Shula replaced Woodley, who had yet to produce a single first down, with Don Strock early in the second period. Strock, who spent 13 of his 14 years in the NFL as a backup for the Miami Dolphins, frequently relieved Woodley in the 1980 and '81 seasons, leading many to call the tandem "WoodStrock."

Strock did not disappoint, throwing for four touchdowns and 403 yards in the greatest performance of his career. He revitalized Miami by producing a Uwe von Schamann field goal on his first possession; then, after the Dolphins recovered a Dan Fouts fumble, he continued to move the chains and found tight end Joe Rose in the end zone coming out of the two-minute warning.

In the final minute of the half, Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke missed a 55-yard field goal, handing the ball to the Dolphins at their own 36. Miami moved into the Chargers' territory, though time was against them. With six seconds left and the ball at the San Diego 40, Strock's last pass of the quarter was a 15-yard completion to Duriel Harris, who lateraled it to running back Tony Nathan before hitting the ground; Nathan then took it the remaining 25 yards for the TD, making the score 24-17 and leaving the Orange Bowl crowed in hysterics. Thanks to "87 Circle Curl Lateral," or the hook-and-lateral play, Miami trailed by only seven.

"It was a beautiful, beautiful play," Don Coryell would remark. "Perfectly executed."

"It's pretty hard to believe that a guy would bite on that with six seconds to go," Strock later said. "But when it worked, it made every high school coach in the world happy because every high school has that play."

 (Duriel Harris laterals it to Tony Nathan after catching a 15-yarder from Don Strock. Screengrab courtesy of NBC Sports)

The Dolphins carried the momentum into the second half, and by the time Strock completed his thirteenth pass in a row -- a 15-yard touchdown to Joe Rose -- the game was tied at 24 and the Chargers, who had controlled the game from the offset, were suddenly the ones against the ropes. Dan Fouts got them right back in it with a 25-yard touchdown to Kellen Winslow, who later had to leave the game with an injured shoulder, a pinched nerve, a swollen eye, a split lip, cramps and dehydration from the humidity.

Miami answered with a pair of touchdowns to make it 38-31 in their advantage. With under five minutes left in regulation, the Dolphins were deep into San Diego territory and were poised to either run out the clock or give themselves a double-digit lead. But on second-and-8, the ball was knocked out of the hands of running back Andra Franklin and onto the turf, where San Diego's Pete Shaw recovered the crucial fumble.

With under sixty seconds to go and the Dolphins still possessing a 38-31 lead, Dan Fouts -- who had led his team into the red zone -- faked a pass, stepped forward and aimed for the right side of the goal area. The pass was intended for Kellen Winslow, who was unable to get to the ball in time. But wide receiver James Brooks darted out from behind Winslow and caught it near the corner of the end zone with 58 seconds left. The extra point was good, and -- thanks to the exhausted defense of the Miami Dolphins -- the score was deadlocked at 38.

"That one was just pure luck," Fouts later told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't even see James Brooks."

 (Brooks reels in his second touchdown of the game, tying it up at 38 all with 58 seconds left. Screengrab courtesy of NBC Sports)

After the touchdown, Don Coryell ordered Benirschke to squib kick it instead of punting, much to chagrin of Dan Fouts, who was noticeably upset over on the sideline. The Dolphins started at their own 40 and came dangerously close to turning it over when one of Strock's throws went through the hands of San Diego free safety Glen Edwards. Later in the drive, another Strock pass was picked off by cornerback Willie Buchanon, who fumbled the football before he took a step and gave it right back to them. Had that same play occurred twenty years later, it likely would've gone as an incomplete pass, but in 1982, it was good for an unconventional eleven-yard gain.

Miami got as far as the 25 before lining up to kick a potential game-winning field goal from 43 yards away. It was then that Winslow, who had been gasping for air on the sideline, hobbled back onto the field to try to deflect the kick. The snap to von Schamann was high, the kick was low, and Winslow managed to sky high enough to get a hand on the football, causing it to sputter sideways and sending the game to an extra period. "It was the biggest thrill of my life," said Winslow. "I felt like I scored three touchdowns."

"My recollection is that we had players continuing to help Winslow up, he was so tired," Shula would tell the Sun-Sentinel. "And then he'd go on and make another big play. We should have left him on the ground."

San Diego won the all-important coin toss and began the overtime session with the football. Winslow joined the offense intermittently while being treated by the team trainer, and caught two monster passes on the drive that gave the Chargers two new sets of downs. That set the stage for Rolf Benirschke, who had not missed all season from within thirty yards. He lined from 27 yards away to end the game once and for all. The snap was good, the hold was good, but Benirschke's kick sailed to left, and the game was forced to continue.

By this point, both teams were positively swamped by the humidity of south Florida, particularly the defenses, who struggled to keep the offensive units at bay. After Benirschke's miss, the Dolphins assumed control and marched into the red zone before getting stopped on third down. Eleven minutes into the overtime, Uwe von Schamann got his second chance to kick the game-winner -- this one from 34 yards. Yet once again, his kick was too low and was deflected for the second time in the game -- this time by defensive end Leroy Jones.

With double overtime looming, Fouts led the Chargers down the field and positioned Benirschke for a 29-yarder, the contest's fourth attempt to end via field goal. At last, 13 minutes and 52 seconds into the extra session, the kick was good, and one of the longest playoff games in NFL history came to a climactic close: 41-38. Kellen Winslow, having poured his soul into the Chargers' victory, famously had to be helped off the field by a pair of teammates.

"We worked so hard, fought so hard to come back, and we had a chance to win," Miami linebacker Kim Bokamper said after the game. "We were up, down, up again ... on a roller coaster. Finally, we wind up on a junk pile."

"When it went through, the stadium was absolutely still," Benirschke told the Sun-Sentinel in 1993. "I turned to the holder and said, 'What`s the matter, didn't it go through?' It was so calm, so still, so quiet, it was like time froze for a moment. And then I looked over to our sideline and saw the guys jumping up and down, a little band of cheering Chargers in a very big stadium."

 (Kellen Winslow is helped off the field after lifting his team to the AFC Championship Game. Screengrab courtesy of NBC Sports)

San Diego and Miami's showdown was eventually christened the Epic in Miami, though it had to go through a few screeners to finally get its nickname. The Miami Herald labeled it "The Miracle That Died" the next day, while Sports Illustrated gave it "A Game No One Should Have Lost" in their next edition. Regardless of what it was named, everyone involved agreed it deserved to be called one of the greatest games of all time.

"It was a game that begged description, a masterpiece with few equals, an example of just how entertaining a professional football game can be," the Associated Press proclaimed. "It was the National Football League at its best."

"This was the greatest game I've ever played in," Fouts said. "I didn't know how it looked to people upstairs, but I've never been in a game that had that kind of excitement. We never lost confidence. Even when they went ahead, we knew we could come back."

"That's the best ballgame I've ever been associated with," Don Coryell said. "Odds of blocking two critical field goals like that has to be 1,000 to one. ... I've never had a team put out such a tremendous effort. It's a shame one team had to lose."

"A great game," Don Shula later called it. "Maybe the greatest ever."

And a record-breaking one at that. With 79 combined points, Chargers-Dolphins was the highest-scoring playoff game of all time, surpassing Chicago's 73-0 victory over Washington in 1940 and Detroit's 59-14 win over Cleveland in 1953. (In 1995, Philadelphia and Detroit broke the record with a 58-37 stomping in favor of the Eagles.) Also broken was the record for combined yardage by both teams (1,030).

Dan Fouts matched his regular season prowess by becoming the single-game playoff record-holder in passes (53), completions (33) and yards (433). It was the first game in NFL history in which both quarterbacks threw for over 400 yards, and had the Dolphins come back to win, it would have been (at the time) the largest comeback ever.

And then there was Kellen Winslow, who had the best performance of his gritty, Hall of Fame career with 13 catches and 166 yards -- both playoff records at the time. Winslow even managed to block a field goal despite suffering from a multitude of ailments, many of them brought on by the heat. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of his performance was that Winslow -- who reportedly had a post-game temperature of 105 degrees -- later revealed that he lost 13 pounds from playing in that game.

"I've never felt so close to death before," Winslow said afterward. "That's what Muhammad Ali said in Manila and that's how I felt out there at the end."

Several Dolphins players, however, would contend for years that Winslow couldn't have been that fatigued and played as well as he had.

"There was no way that Kellen Winslow was so winded that he had to be continually helped off the football field," wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo told ESPN in 2006. "I just don't buy it. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it today."

"Every time I see it you wonder whether he should have gotten an Academy Award for the performance," Kim Bokamper said. "It gnaws at some people, and it certainly gnaws at me."

Following their four-hour-and-three-minute marathon with the Dolphins, the last thing the weary Chargers needed was another game in inhospitable weather. Yet that's exactly what they got the following week when they traveled to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game. The conditions of the "Freezer Bowl" were too much for the Chargers, who had their season end in sub-zero temperature.

In the strike-shortened 1982 season, David Woodley returned as the Dolphins' starting quarterback, with Strock still used in relief. In the postseason, they once again faced the San Diego Chargers and exacted a bit of payback, stomping them 34-13. The Chargers fell off after that and wouldn't make the playoffs for another ten years. The Dolphins got all the way to Super Bowl XVII before losing to the Washington Redskins, 27-17. Woodley would remain Miami's quarterback until 1984, when they drafted future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

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