In Jan. 1982, the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins played one of the greatest NFL games of all time. Almost 40 years later, its memory endures.
The NFL has existed for over a hundred years, spanned numerous generations, and logged thousands of games.
Only one is known as The Epic in Miami.
How many games shape careers? How many represent the apex of an iconic team, while simultaneously representing the start of its end? How many were played in a historical venue and include a 24-0 lead, a late comeback by the team which blew said advantage, and goes almost a full five periods in sweltering heat?
For the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, their 1981 AFC Divisional playoff was supposed to be a good game. It became legendary.
Entering the second day of 1982, the Dolphins were home at the Orange Bowl hosting the favored Chargers, who were giving 2.5 points that afternoon. Miami went 11-4-1 in the regular season, while San Diego was the AFC’s third seed at 10-6.
In many cases, great games are defined by their endings. They lack pizazz and flair for three quarters, but a field goal as time expires or a touchdown in the final minute leaves the impression of grandeur spanning 60 minutes.
With The Epic in Miami, the drama began immediately.
On a 76-degree night in 80 percent humidity (real feel of 88 degrees), San Diego raced out to a 24-0 first-quarter lead, spurred on by a 58-yard Wes Chandler punt return for a score. After a Chuck Muncie 1-yard plunge and an 8-yard toss from quarterback Dan Fouts to running back James Brooks, San Diego was out to a seemingly insurmountable edge.
And then the Dolphins stormed back.
Future Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula went to the latter portion of his famed WoodStrock quarterbacking duo, inserting Don Strock for the sputtering David Woodley. Strock, a career backup, had the game of his life. The ninth-year pro revived Miami, scoring 10 quick points in the second quarter to close the gap.
Then, with the Dolphins at San Diego’s 40-yard line and six seconds until halftime, Miami shocked a nation. Shula called for a hook-and-lateral to running back Tony Nathan. It worked to perfection. Miami scored and the Orange Bowl, once quiet, was whipped into bedlam.
“It’s pretty hard to believe that a guy would bite on that with six seconds to go,” Strock told FOX Sports of 87 Circle Curl Lateral, “but when it worked, it made every high school coach in the world happy because every high school has that play.”
The second half was a see-saw affair which saw Miami take a late 38-31 lead. With under five minutes left in regulation and at San Diego’s 18-yard line, the Dolphins’ Andra Franklin fumbled. The Chargers recovered and furiously drove downfield, culminating in the absurd.
At Miami’s 9-yard line with 1:06 to play, Fouts targeted star tight end Kellen Winslow in the end zone. The ball sailed over his head. Somehow, Brooks was in the end zone and caught the errant throw, tying the game. For Fouts, it’s a memory he’ll always cherish, telling the Chargers’ official website the following:
“It’s designed to go to Kellen, which was a good idea. But, in the thousands of times we ran that play … never once did the running back figure in. James Brooks made the smartest football play I have ever been associated with. He ran the base line of the end zone. My ball was intended for Kellen; Kellen was exhausted and really, out of nowhere flashes JB to make the catch for the score. To this day, it’s the most amazing play I’ve ever been associated with.”
For Winslow, it was about the only play he didn’t make on the evening.
A future Hall of Fame tight end, Winslow had his capstone performance that humid Florida night. He caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. On Miami’s ensuing drive, he blocked Uwe von Schamann’s 43-yard field goal attempt in the dying seconds, forcing sudden death.
In between his moments of greatness, Winslow was writhing in pain on the Orange Bowl sidelines, cramping up with exhaustion. It was his personal tour-de-force, a monument to arguably the first modern-era player at his position who caught more than he blocked.
“(This game) is the main reason, I believe, that he’s considered one of the greatest of all time and a Hall of Famer,” Fouts said of Winslow on the Chargers’ site. “This happened to be Kellen’s week to shine, and he did shine, and I think we’re all grateful for the effort he put forth in that game.”
In overtime, tied at 38, the Chargers missed a 27-yard field goal. Von Schamann had another chance to complete the Dolphins comeback later in the period but again had his kick blocked. Finally, with only 1:08 remaining in overtime, San Diego kicker Rolf Benirschke scored the winning points on a 29-yard attempt.
San Diego 41, Miami 38.
For the Chargers, elation. The playoffs had been a cruel mistress to San Diego, with head coach Don Coryell’s group knocked off as heavy favorite in the 1979 Divisionals by the Houston Oilers. The following year, the Chargers reached the AFC title game, but lost to the visiting Oakland Raiders.
Now, Coryell and Co. were one game away from the Super Bowl again. It’s the closest they’d get.
One week later, the Chargers traveled to Cincinnati for a date with the Bengals. After playing in brutally hot conditions, San Diego was subjected to the coldest game in NFL history, with a wind chill of -32 degrees (at the time, the temperature was calculated at -57 degrees).
In short, the Chargers played at a temperature difference of 120 degrees in a week.
Cincinnati won the game, 27-7, advancing to Super Bowl XVI. San Diego made the playoffs again with largely the same team in 1982, but fell in the Divisional round … to the Dolphins … at the Orange Bowl.
Afterwards, San Diego didn’t reach the postseason until a decade later before finally reaching Super Sunday in 1994, where it was thrashed by the San Francisco 49ers.
For the Chargers, The Epic in Miami is almost inarguably the greatest victory in franchise history. Incredibly, a poll in the 1990s among Dolphins fans also saw The Epic in Miami voted as the greatest game their team ever played in, despite losing it and having won two previous Super Bowls.
The NFL has existed for 101 years and produced hundreds of memorable games.
None have matched The Epic in Miami.