A stellar 1971 season for the Miami Dolphins ultimately ended in disappointing fashion. The Dolphins reached the Super Bowl for the first time that year but failed to score a touchdown in a 24-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI.
On this day 50 years ago, Miami clinched a return trip. The Dolphins overcame a second-half deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship, 21-17.
Since losing the Super Bowl, the Dolphins had reeled off 15 straight wins as they arrived at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 31, 1972. Miami was undefeated, but it was Pittsburgh, who many saw as a team of destiny. The Steelers were coming off an improbable win over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional playoff on a 60-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris that came to be known as the “Immaculate Reception.”
Since the early parts of the season when Bob Griese went down with a leg injury, Miami had gone with veteran Earl Morrall under center. On the final day in December in 1972, Morrall got Miami on the board with a touchdown toss to Larry Csonka that followed a 37-yard run on a fake punt by Larry Seiple. As the Dolphins trailed 10-7 early in the second half and were struggling on offense, head coach Don Shula made the difficult decision to turn to a now-healthy Griese.
The change paid immediate dividends as Griese’s first throw went to Paul Warfield for 52 yards and a first down. Eight plays later, Jim Kiick carried the ball into the end zone to put Miami ahead for good.
Following a blocked field goal by the Miami special teams unit early in the fourth quarter, Kiick’s second touchdown run of the game extended the lead to 21-10. With less than six minutes remaining, the Steelers drew back to within a score on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to Al Young. The final two possessions for Pittsburgh, however, ended in Bradshaw interceptions, courtesy of Miami’s Nick Buoniconti and Mike Kolen.
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Griese threw just five passes for Miami but completed three of them for 70 yards. Mercury Morris paced the Dolphins’ ground attack with 76 yards rushing. Harris put up an identical rushing total for Pittsburgh in the loss.
Two weeks later, it would be Griese who got the start at quarterback as the Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to complete the NFL’s first and only perfect season. With appearances from 1971 to 1973, Miami became the first team to reach three straight Super Bowls. Its second trip was clinched in the Steel City on this day a half-century ago.