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A Game No One Should Have Lost

In one of the most exciting football games ever played, Miami came from way back only to lose to San Diego in overtime

Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:21PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:28PM
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By John Underwood

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 11, 1982 issue of Sports Illustrated.

It is the one great irony of professional football that magnificent games such as San Diego's wonderful, woeful 41-38 overtime AFC playoff victory over Miami are almost always decided by the wrong guys. Decided not by heroic, bloodied men who play themselves to exhaustion and perform breathtaking feats, but by men in clean jerseys. With names you cannot spell, and the remnants of European accents, and slender bodies and mystical ways. Men who cannot be coached, only traded. Men whose main objective in life, more often than not, is to avoid the crushing embarrassment of a shanked field goal in the last 30 seconds.

There, at the end, in a moist, numbed Orange Bowl still jammed with disbelievers after 74 minutes and 1,030 yards and 79 points of what San Diego Coach Don Coryell called "probably the most exciting game in the history of pro football," was Dan Fouts. Heroic, bloodied Fouts, the nonpareil Charger quarterback. His black beard and white jersey crusted with dirt. His skinny legs so tired they could barely carry him off the field after he had thrown, how many? A playoff-record 53 passes? And completed, how many? A playoff-record 33? For a playoff-record 433 yards? And three touchdowns?

Ah, Fouts. The real Smilin' Jack of Air Coryell. The guy Otto Graham says activates "the greatest offense" in pro football history. (Outrageous comparisons are a dime a dozen around the Chargers these days.) Smilin's Dan takes his offensive linemen -- Billy Shields, Doug Wilkerson, Don Macek, et al. -- to dinner after a no-sack day and sets NFL passing records with every other breath. If he'd only pay his union dues, what a terrific fellow Fouts would be. Fouts should have decided this game.

Or Kellen Winslow. There, at the end, his magnificent athlete's body battered and blued by a relentless -- if not altogether cohesive -- Miami defense, Winslow had to be carried off. Time after time during the game he was helped to the sidelines, and then, finally, all the way to the dressing room, the last man to make the postgame celebration. Staggering, sore-shouldered, one-more-play-and-let-me-lie-down Winslow, looking as if he might die any minute (the only sure way he could have been stopped), catching, how many? A playoff-record 16 passes? For a playoff-record 166 yards?

Winslow is listed as the tight end in the San Diego offense. The Dolphins know better. Like the 800-pound gorilla, Winslow plays just about wherever Winslow wants to play: tight end, wide receiver, fullback, wingback, slotback. Even on defense, as Miami discovered when he blocked what would have been the winning field goal and thereby spoiled what Dolphin Guard Ed Newman called -- another drum roll, please -- "the greatest comeback in the history of professional football." Winslow should have decided this game.

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