Times were different in 1972. The conference title game's location was not based on record superiority, an unbeaten team could somehow enter the Super Bowl as underdogs and perfection was a possibility – for one team, at least.
Super Bowl VII in Pasadena, CA will forever be remembered as the day the town of Perfectville opened its gates, but that day was the culmination of two years of hard work. The Dolphins were on the cusp of a championship the year prior, Shula's second season in Miami. The first of the three consecutive Super Bowl appearances didn't do go as planned, but the loss served as the springboard for back-to-back Lombardi celebrations in South Florida.
"It stuck with us," Little said about the lopsided loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. "That was a terrible feeling that day. I thought, 'no, I don't ever want to feel this way again.'"
Little and the Dolphins would not have to experience a loss of that magnitude again until the 1974 Divisional Playoffs; or a loss of any nature for the next 18 games. Miami's two Super Bowls were the product of a stretch of games in which the Dolphins posted an unprecedented mark of 32 wins and just two losses.
The NFL postseason is the ultimate pressure cooker. One mistake can derail a possession, a game and ultimately, an entire season. The 1972 Dolphins carried that pressure not just through the playoffs, but each week providing a chance for the opposition to spoil an unblemished record. For Hall of Fame right guard Larry Little, that pressure was nearly non-existent.
"We never spoke about [going undefeated] during the season," Little said. "The only time we felt pressure was the last game of the regular season to get to 14-0. But if we didn't win those next three games, we would not accomplish our goal of winning the Super Bowl. Teams played us tough but we managed to win [them all] one way or another."
If the NFL's playoff scheduling wouldn't do the undefeated Dolphins any favors, then Mother Nature certainly did. Miami, at 15-0, traveled to Three Rivers Stadium to take on the 12-3 Pittsburgh Steelers on an unusually balmy winter afternoon.
"We go into Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game on New Year's Eve, and it's 68 degrees," Little said. "So that was in our favor. It's normally in the 10's or 20's."
Miami prevailed with its 16th consecutive victory, needing only one more win to claim football's ultimate prize. Despite the unblemished record, the Dolphins entered the game as 1-point underdogs.
"I felt we were disrespected," Little said. "They called [Washington] the over-the-hill gang. No way we were going to let old men win that game on Super Bowl Sunday."
Little was right.
Miami rolled up a 14-point lead with just over two minutes to play in the game. The Dolphins only mistake of the day, a botched field goal attempt, resulted in Washington's lone score as the offense went back to work with a punishing ground game.
After setting a then-record with 2,960 rushing yards in the regular season, Miami bruised and battered the over-the-hill gang to the tune of 184 yards at a 5.0 yards-per-rush clip.
"I could always run," Little said of his exceptional blocking out in space on Miami's famed toss sweeps. "When I lost those 20 pounds, a cornerback or safety trying to take me on was like suicide. [There was] no way I'd let a [defensive back] take me on, head on, and get away with it. I took a lot of pride in what I was doing."
Little, a member of the 1970's NFL All-Decade team, know he had to get on his horse in order to carve a path for the diminutive Mercury Morris.
"I had to get out there fast because I was pulling for Mercury," Little said. "Mercury was fast as hell so I had to get out there in front of him."
Every game features a turning point where the end-result becomes evident. In that Super Bowl, Little recalls one of his favorite plays, and the moment he knew the perfect season was imminent.
"We had a play called P10 Express," Little said on the Drive Time Podcast. "The center and myself would exchange blocks; he would block back and I would pull around and block the linebacker. But the linebacker ran out of the picture, so next thing I know here's [Larry] Csonka running the ball, so I slowed up because no way [Csonka] would ever catch me. So I slowed up and he ran right by me. And I knew then – he gained about 25 or 30 yards – this game was going to be easy as pie."
Nothing about playing for Don Shula was easy. The practices were grueling, the conditioning was demanding, but the results were rewarding. Little attributes significant credit for his career to the legendary coach.
"[Shula] was the man that probably made me to be the football player I was," Little said. "When I first met him, I went to his press conference because I was here the year he came. I walked up to him [and introduced myself]. The first thing he asked me was 'how much do you weigh?' I told him I was at 285 and he walked away [without] saying a word. When I got the reporting date letter, it said my reporting weight would be 265. When I lost that weight, it actually made me a better football player."
Today, 265-pound offensive lineman do not exist. Times were certainly different back then, but one fact remains true in the 100-year history of the NFL – Perfectville's population remains at one.