Revisiting the 1971 Miami Dolphins & the playoff game that changed everything

The Miami Dolphins historical playoff game against the Chiefs in in 1971 changed a course of history for the team like no other.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Divisional Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs / Focus On Sport/GettyImages
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22 years, 8 months and 12 days. 8290 calendar days. 

When the Dolphins kickoff against the Chargers this season, that’s how long it will have been since their last playoff victory. A whole generation has passed since Wannstedt beat the Colts in overtime, securing our first and only post-marino playoff win.

Every consequent decision that has been made since that era has led to inferior results. Despite fielding teams that on paper could compete with the NFL’s best, they haven’t been able to get past the wildcard round. 

Perhaps it’s less of a talent issue and rather a question of mentality. Lesser NFL teams have made better strides. The current organization has assembled a roster flush with talent that should be fully capable of taking the next step. The next step being not just making playoffs, but competing for a Lombardi Trophy. 

In the early Dolphins days, the team was in a similar circumstance. Four years of helplessness under George Wilson led way to Shula who coached them to their first playoff appearance - a loss against the Raiders. 

A team ripe with unrecognized talent, the turning point came in Shula’s second year. On Dec 25, 1971 the Dolphins would travel to Kansas City and walk away with their first playoff victory. The 27-24 overtime win propelled them to further success, subsequently appearing in three straight Super Bowls. At 82 minutes and 40 seconds, it remains the longest game in NFL history.  

At that period of time the Chiefs were a force in the NFL, having appeared in two Super Bowls while winning one. With 11 pro bowl players on the roster - several of whom future hall of famers - there was no need for them to fear the fish. In fact the Dolphins had yet to beat the Chiefs in any of their previous 6 encounters. 

And because of that, the Dolphins were overlooked despite fielding a roster comparable to that of the Chiefs. Len Dawson was matched by Griese, Otis Taylor by Paul Warfield and Willie Lanier by Nick Buoniconti. Kansas City was favoured by reputation. As Bob Griese explained to NFL Films: “They (Kansas City) were the elite in the old AFL, now the AFC. When we went into Kansas City, we just wanted to play well. We just wanted to be respectable.”

Knowing their capability, Shula told his players that it was ‘Our Day’ during the pregame huddle. With strong determination and a hint of luck (missed field goals) this Fins outlasted the Chiefs. Larry Csonka who claims to have lost 18 pounds in the game, demonstrated that day the sort of mentality that led to future championships. As he puts it: “It was the first time we realized that we could play heads up football with just about anyone”. 

Years later Shula reflected on the encounter: “This game is sometimes overshadowed by the Super Bowl wins and the Perfect Season, but 1971 was a very important season. We started to gain confidence. Players started to play to their maximum potential. And this game was the first time that rise became apparent.”

This current team should take note. They have a roster comparable to any of the contending teams in the AFC. Last year they had gone toe to toe with the Bills after barely making the Wild Card. Like the Dolphins of 1971, they need to upgrade their expectations and focus on not just on making the playoffs but winning their matchup. If they are able to do so, if they are able to get over this slump, there’s no telling how far this team can go. It’s been done before, it can happen again. It's part of the DNA of this organization.