Game 5: MIAMI @ CLEVELAND; October 15, 1973
On Monday Night, October 15, 1973, the Miami Dolphins rolled into Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium as slight favorites to defeat the home standing Cleveland Browns, who were 3-1. Many wondered aloud if this game would equal the 20-14 1972 playoff classic won by Miami when Jim Kiick scored the go-ahead touchdown in the game’s final, desperate, moments. It was one of the most exciting games played by Miami during the NFL’s one and only Perfect Season.
The Cleveland Browns were the dominant franchise in the old All-American Football Conference from its inception in 1946 until its demise after the 1949 season. Led by the legendary Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and Hall of Fame quarterback Otto
Graham, the Browns were seldom challenged in the AAFC.
Cleveland won all four league titles, losing only four games over that span.
In 1948, the Browns ran the table undefeated, culminating in a 35-7 win over Buffalo in the AAFC championship game. (The NFL does NOT give Cleveland credit for a perfect season because these games, mostly against vastly inferior teams, did not take place in the NFL). When the league folded, the Browns, the 49ers, and the first team known as the Baltimore Colts, were absorbed into the NFL.
Most observors believed the Browns would be over matched by the top teams in the NFL. But they were proven wrong when Lou Groza’s last minute field goal gave Cleveland a 30-28 victory over the L. A. Rams in the 1950 NFL title game. Cleveland would make it to the championship game for five more consecutive seasons, winning two more NFL titles in 1954 and 1955, Thus, counting the AAFC title games, from 1946 to 1955 the Browns made it to the Championship game for 10 consecutive seasons, a record that WILL NEVER BE BROKEN!!
In 1964, led by the incomparable running back, Jim Brown, the Browns claimed their fourth NFL championship. That 1964 title represents the city of Cleveland’s LAST CHAMPIONSHIP IN ANY MAJOR SPORT!!
The Cleveland team in October of 1973 resembled the Cleveland team that nearly upset the Dolphins in the previous playoff season. Quarterback Mike Phipps was back. His top receivers, Frank Pitts, Fair Hooker and TE Milt Morin were ready to go. Running backs Leroy Kelly and Bo Scott were joined by new star Ken Brown. Future Hall of Famer Gene Hickerson anchored the offensive line.
But Miami’s coaching staff noticed something wasn’t quite right. Cleveland’s offense had averaged only 11.7 points per game over the last three games. And the passing game produced only 98 yards per game over that stretch. (Indeed, Phipps would end the season with only 9 TD passes vs. 20 interceptions). Both Shula and his outstanding defensive coordinator, Bill Arnsparger, believed the Dolphins’ defense WAS BETTER than any defense had faced in 1973. They decided that the key to beating the Browns was to contain their running game and maintain good field position. Sooner or later, Miami’s offense, which had scored 75 points in their last two victories, would produce enough big plays to defeat a very sound Cleveland defense.
Cleveland fans were extremely excited as kickoff neared at 9:05 PM. Most of them had been drinking for several hours hoping THIS would be the year their beloved Brownies would finally get to their first Super Bowl. (HINT: as Super Bowl XLVIX approaches in 2015, Browns’ fans are STILL WAITING for their first Super Bowl appearance!)
It was a damp, dreary, windy night in Cleveland. Passing the ball would be difficult, especially so for deep passes. Clearly, the team that ran the ball the best would have a distinct advantage. Larry Csonka, from nearby Stow, Ohio, was familiar with these conditions. He reveled in them! He hoped Bob Griese would give him plenty of carries and plenty of chances to move the chains and score touchdowns.
After a scoreless first quarter, Griese finally got the offense rolling. Garo Yepremian lined up a 36 yard field goal attempt. The winds swirled coming in from Lake Erie. But Garo’s kick was right down the middle and Miami led 3-0.
Cleveland dominated the rest of the second quarter. A 30 yard field goal by Don Cockroft tied the score at 3-3. Then, just before halftime, Cockroft drilled a long 44 yard 3-pointer and the Browns led 6-3 at intermission.
In Miami’s locker room, the coaches decided to forego sweeps and slow-developing plays in favor of straight ahead quick-hitting plays. A few minutes into the third quarter Mercury Morris broke a quick-hitter FOR 70 YARDS, all the way down to the Cleveland 9!! Two Csonka runs moved the ball to the two. On third down, Csonka bulldozed through Jerry Sherk for the touchdown that put Miami ahead 10-6! “Now we’ve got a bang-up ball game,” said ABC’s Howard Cosell. “And it’s the BROWNS who are getting banged-up,” replied Dandy Don Meredith.
Late in the third quarter a Browns’ drive stalled at the Miami 28. Don Cockroft’s third field goal (a 35 yard effort) narrowed Miami’s lead to 10-9 entering the final quarter.
In last year’s playoff game, QB Mike Phipps was intercepted FIVE TIMES by the Dolphins’ defense. Midway through the final quarter Phipps launched a long pass toward midfield. It was PICKED-OFF by Miami’s “Captain Crunch,” linebacker Mike Kolen! Kolen returned the pick all the way to the Cleveland 18 yard line!
Quarterback Bob Griese knew THIS was the time to turn the game over to Larry Csonka. The bruising fullback’s first two carries gained only five yards. on third and five both of Miami’s wide outs drew double coverage (the Warfield Factor). So Griese simply handed off to Csonka who roared for nine yards and first and goal at the four! Two carries later, Csonka scored the game clinching touchdown and the Dolphins had defeated Cleveland by a score of 17-9!
On the night, Morris ran 13 times for 94 yards, 70 of them on the biggest play of the night. Larry Csonka, gained 114 yards (and BOTH touchdowns) on 21 bruising carries. “Plain and simple, it was too much Larry Csonka tonight,” said Howard Cosell.
Next up for Miami, the 4-1 Buffalo Bills led by O. J. Simpson. Where else to play this battle for first place than in the historic Orange Bowl? The 1973 Miami Dolphins were now 4-1.