The first time the two teams played each other in the playoffs was in the 1972 AFC Championship Game, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl VII. The Dolphins were undefeated heading into that contest, winning all their previous 15 games. Don Shula drove the team hard, using the previous years’ Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys as motivation all year long.
“I hated the feeling after losing that game, and I didn’t want to feel that away again.” said Shula. “So our goal was not only to get back to the Super Bowl, but to win it.” A loss in the AFC Championship Game would have negated everything they accomplished by winning each of the 15 games preceding it.
Conversely, the Steelers were just beginning their run of success that decade. They were coming off their “Immaculate Reception” victory over the Oakland Raiders the previous week and were looking to make their first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl.
PREFECTION GOES ON THE ROAD
In those days, the AFC championship game was rotated among the three divisions, unlike the seeding method now in place, and Pittsburgh was in line to host the AFC title game in 1972. So on Dec. 31st the Dolphins faced the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium, and not the Orange Bowl, despite their perfect 15-0 record. Fortunately, despite the mid-winter date, the temperature was in the 60s, conditions more suited to a Dolphins’ home game rather than a Steelers one.
“That wasn’t my call. (Larry) Seiple did it on his own. Thank God he made it.” - DON SHULA
Miami opened with Earl Morrall at quarterback, who had replaced the injured Bob Griese in the fifth game of the year, although Griese was finally healthy and available to play. But it was the Steelers who jumped off to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when guard Gerry Mullins recovered quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s fumble in the end zone to finish a 10-play drive.
The Dolphins didn’t generate any offense on their first few possessions and it looked like they would hand over the ball back to the Steelers when punter Larry Seiple lined up to kick the ball away yet again in the second quarter. But instead, Seiple pulled the ball back down and scampered 37 yards on the fake punt to give the Dolphins a critical first down. The play kept Miami’s drive alive and Morrall took advantage of it, throwing a nine-yard TD pass to Larry Csonka to knot the game at 7-7.
“Watching film of the Steelers I saw they would sometimes turn their backs on the punter to cover the kick and I thought it might give me the opportunity to run,” said Seiple. “So when I saw them do it on that play I decided to take off.”
“A lot of people think of me as a punter, but I was actually drafted as a running back. And I played a lot as a tight end once I joined the Dolphins, so I knew how to run the football.
“I just didn’t want to face Coach Shula if I didn’t make it.”
“That wasn’t my call,” said Shula. “Seiple did it on his own. Thank God he made it.”
“We had position, momentum, everything, when that happened,” said Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll. “That changed the game.”
Indeed it did, although it also took a switch at quarterback. After Morrall continued to struggle and kicker Roy Gerela gave the Steelers a 10-7 lead, Shula inserted Griese into the game in the third quarter, his first game action since suffering a broken leg back in October. And it paid immediate dividends.
Griese ignited a touchdown drive when he connected on a slant pass with Paul Warfield that Warfield turned into a 52-yard gain. Jim Kiick finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run to give Miami its first lead of the game, 14-10.
The Dolphins extended that lead to 21-10 when Griese led the Dolphins on another scoring drive, again capped by a touchdown run by Kiick, this time from three yards out.
Bradshaw brought the Steelers back with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Al Young midway through the fourth quarter, but the Dolphins’ “No-Name” defense stiffened and took over the game. They intercepted Bradshaw twice the rest of the way, including one by Nick Buoniconti at midfield with 2-1/2 minutes to play to give the Dolphins a 21-17 win, the AFC title, and a Super Bowl berth.
Dolphin fans know the rest of the story well. Miami went on to Los Angeles where they defeated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to close out their 17-0 “Perfect Season” and earn their first NFL Championship. But if it weren’t for an unlikely play by an unknown punter the previous game in Pittsburgh, the Dolphins may not have even made it to LA.
STEEL CURTAIN TRAPS THE DOLPHINS
The Steelers, behind Bradshaw and their “Steel Curtain” defense, were looking to win their fourth Super Bowl in six years. They scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and were never headed, coasting to a 34-14 win. Even with Csonka back, Miami gained only 25 yards on the ground and didn’t do much better in the air.
The Dolphins did manage to get as close as 20-7 when Griese hit Duriel Harris with a seven-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, but Miami scored only once more the rest of the way when Don Strock, who replaced Griese in the fourth quarter, directed a 76-yard scoring drive late in the game. It turned out to be the last game Csonka ever played, and as well as Griese’s last appearance in the post-season. It wasn’t exactly the way they wanted to go out.
MARINO BATTLES HIS HOMETOWN TEAM
Marino, a huge Steelers fan while growing up in that city, had already shredded NFL passing records in 1984, his second season in the league, including his groundbreaking total of 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards passing. The Marks Brothers, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, also helped contribute to that aerial assault with Pro Bowl seasons themselves with help from Nat Moore, Tony Nathan and a host of others. Despite strong defenses by both teams (Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula compared the Steelers defense to their great “Steel Curtain” unit), the game was expected to be an offensive shootout. And it fully lived up to those expectations.
It didn’t take the Dolphins long to begin the fireworks. In their very first possession of the game, Marino led Miami on a 67-yard touchdown drive in four plays, with the score coming on a 40-yard TD pass to Clayton.
The shootout was under way, and the Steelers exhibited some offensive firepower of their own by taking a 14-10 lead in the second quarter after a 65-yard touchdown pass from Mark Malone to John Stallworth.
All that did was to get Marino mad. And facing a Steelers blitz, he riddled Pittsburgh’s defense.
“When they blitzed, it gave the offense a chance for big plays. And we hit a lot of big plays today.” - DAN MARINO
First, he led the Dolphins to two touchdowns in the final 2:52 of the quarter, with the first coming on a 41-yard scoring pass to Duper, followed by a two-yard TD run by Nathan that was set up by a 28-yard completion to Joe Rose. The two scores gave the Dolphins a 24-14 halftime lead.
Marino followed that by engineering touchdown drives on each of the team’s first three possessions in the second half, starting off with a 36-yard TD toss to Duper. After a Malone-to-Stallworth one-yard score, Marino responded by connecting with Duper (41-yards), Nathan (20 yards), and Moore (28 yards) to set up a one-yard TD dive by Woody Bennett. On the next possession Moore caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Marino to close out the Dolphins’ scoring. A late Pittsburgh TD merely cut the final margin to 45-28.
“When they blitzed, it gave the offense a chance for big plays,” said Marino. “And we hit a lot of big plays today.”
The Dolphins amassed 569 yards in total offense, with Marino going 21-32 for 421 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. His passing yardage and touchdown totals set AFC Championship Game records that still stand. Nathan had eight catches for 114 yards, Duper had five catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns, and Clayton added four catches for 95 yards and a TD. While the Steelers had 455 yards in total offense themselves, the Dolphins defense forced four turnovers, including three Malone interceptions.
“We won today like we’ve been winning all year long,” said Shula. “We made things happen. We came up with the big plays. Every time the Steelers did something offensively, our offense responded with a score of its own.”
Unfortunately, Miami wasn’t able to duplicate that performance against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks later in Super Bowl XIX. But the win over Pittsburgh will always be remembered by Marino, and by Dolphin fans, as one of the greatest games of his Hall of Fame career.
There’s no telling where this year’s Dolphins – Steelers playoff matchup is heading. But if Miami’s two previous wins is any kind of a guide, featuring game-changing performances from players as diverse as an unheralded punter and a Hall of Fame quarterback, then this year’s edition should be just as memorable.