By Ken Crippen
- Professional Football Researchers Association
Published: March 22nd, 2009
The San Diego Chargers were a seven-point favorite to win the game, but most experts believed that they would win by a larger margin. How could you not think that the Chargers would win easily? They were ranked first in passing offense, first in rushing offense, first in passing defense, and first in running defense. The Buffalo Bills were second in rushing defense, but seventh in total offense. San Diego coach Sid Gillman was so confident of his victory, he told a Buffalo News reporter “You know, there is no way we can lose this game on Sunday…We’re going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl.”
The Chargers had stars like flanker Lance Alworth, quarterback John Hadl, running backs Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln, and defensive tackle Ernie Ladd. The Bills traded away their star running back – Cookie Gilchrist – before the season, their best receivers Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass were lost due to injury and Bass’ backup Charley Ferguson pulled a hamstring three weeks prior to this game and was not activated. Center Dave Behrman did not play due to muscle spasms in his back and safeties Gene Sykes and Tom Keating were lost for the season. The Bills were facing a rout by the mighty Chargers.
The Bills won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball, starting their first series of the game with three straight runs (one by Billy Joe and two by Wray Carlton) gaining ten yards and a first down. A missed tackle by Jim Warren on a pass from Jack Kemp to Bo Roberson netted the Bills 12 yards and another first down. Warren would redeem himself two plays later by intercepting Kemp’s pass to Roberson, giving San Diego the ball on their own 33-yard line.
San Diego’s longest play of their first drive netted them 20 yards on a pass from John Hadl to Lance Alworth. Unfortunately for the Chargers, this was their only first down of the series, with San Diego gaining a mere one yard on the next three plays. This forced San Diego to bring in Jim Allison to punt the ball. Allison’s kick went off the side of his foot for a net of 19 yards, which would be his longest punt of the game.
A few ineffective drives later, San Diego regained possession, where they drove into Buffalo territory for a 35-yard field goal attempt. The Herb Travenio kick was deflected by Tom Sestak and Mike Stratton, giving the ball back to the Bills. After an exchange of punts, Buffalo put up the first points of the game on a Jack Kemp pass to Ernie Warlick in the end zone. The Pete Gogolak extra point gave the Bills a 7-0 lead with less than five minutes remaining in the first half.
The scoring in the first half would not end there. Butch Byrd returned a John Hadl punt 74 yards for the second touchdown of the game. Byrd commented, “Henry Schmidt and Tommy Janik gave me big blocks after I caught it. I stepped inside and tried to stay along the sidelines. The referee said I stayed in bounds by about a half-inch…Paul Maguire knocked down two guys at about the ten…Man, he really hit ’em. That sprung me.”
San Diego’s offense never clicked. Even when they drove into Buffalo territory, field goal attempts were either blocked or went wide of the uprights. Buffalo’s offense, however, stayed on track. Three of their first four possessions in the second half resulted in points. The defense was the star of the game, as they held San Diego scoreless. The shutout was the first in AFL Championship Game history and it was the first time that the Chargers have been shutout since a 41-0 loss to the Boston Patriots on December 17, 1961.
How did the Bills win? Well, for the first time, Buffalo double-teamed a receiver. In this case, it was Lance Alworth. Buffalo defensive coach Joe Collier said “We double-teamed Alworth on almost every play. When he lined up at flanker, Booker Edgerson and Hagood Clarke double-covered him. When he was at split-end, it was George Saimes and Booker.” This held Alworth to 82 receiving yards and no touchdowns. Also, the Bills blitzed linebackers Mike Stratton, Harry Jacobs, and John Tracey along with safety George Saimes. In addition to blitzing, the Bills applied constant pressure from the front four to force Hadl to scramble often and hurry his passes. On the offensive side of the ball, the Bills implemented a two tight end formation with backup Ernie Warlick as the second tight end. Jack Kemp commenting on other offensive strategies, “We just wanted to roll out more and do some things like bootlegs and play action passes.”
Coach Sid Gillman said, “We just got beat. We lost to a fine football team. The Bills have excellent personnel and coaching. What else is there to say?” Charger quarterback John Hadl added, “They kicked the Devil out of us.” AFL Commissioner Joe Foss summed it up this way, “Lou’s boys did everything right today.”
The Bills may not have been first in the league in total offense and first in total defense like the Chargers, but they had the heart to overcome the year’s adversity and win the championship. “This is the only club we didn’t beat this year,” said Bills coach Lou Saban. “And, of course we wanted this one real bad.” Bills defensive tackle Tom Sestak added, “That was a championship ball game. We knew that we had six months to recuperate, so we went all out.”