Fittingly enough, the battle was fought at the farthest reaches of pro football's America.
In Miami, on his third run from scrimmage, O. J. Simpson darts for the hole between guard and tackle, finds it cluttered, and sweeps around left end for 75 yards and a touchdown.
In Seattle, as if telepathically in touch with his rival, Walter Payton pops for nine yards on a halfback draw, follows up with a 10-yard burst over center and then swings right for a 19-yard gain that sets up a touchdown.
Simpson stagnates for a bit—at least he seems stagnant—with 10 runs averaging merely four yards apiece. Then, early in the second half, he tries left end again for 19. Next, a pitchout that produces 16 more yards.
In the third quarter, Payton stays on the sidelines most of the time, exhausted, but returns to shoot right end for 18—only to have the run called back by a penalty. Still, he hangs in—eight yards, six, three, three, four, then a 36-yard spurt with a pitchout. With time running out, the message board in the humid Kingdome flashes word that Simpson has finished his day's work and taken the NFL rushing lead by three yards. Payton, who had sat out the previous series, goes back in with 58 seconds to play. He carries three times for 12 yards, ending the game with a five-yard thrust off left tackle.
Final score: O. J. Simpson 203 yards, Walter Payton 183. Along the way last Sunday, if anyone was really interested, the Miami Dolphins beat the Buffalo Bills 45-27 and the Chicago Bears manhandled the Seattle Seahawks 34-7. But the real battle was between the NFL's two leading rushers. Payton, who has led the league since early in the season, had the best day of his two-year pro career but still lost 20 yards to the fast-charging Simpson. Payton ended the afternoon with 1,341 yards on the ground—nine more than O.J.'s 1,332.
As the transcontinental combat so vividly demonstrates, 1976 has been the year of the running back. With only one weekend of the regular season remaining, eight men have already broken the once meaningful 1,000-yard mark, while three or four others need only average performances to surpass it in the final game. Besides Payton, who runs against Denver in his last game, and Simpson, who closes against Baltimore, this year's Grand Gang includes the Colts' Lydell Mitchell (1,166), Los Angeles' Lawrence McCutcheon (1,144), San Francisco's Delvin Williams (1,116), Minnesota's Chuck Foreman (1,077), Washington's Mike Thomas (1,035) and Pittsburgh's Franco Harris (1,024). Within shooting distance of 1,000 yards are Cleveland's Gregg Pruitt (who would probably be there now had he not been hampered by injuries in recent games), Denver's Otis Armstrong, Oakland's Mark van Eeghen and Pittsburgh's Rocky Bleier. New England's Sam Cunningham was headed for 1,000 yards until he hurt his shoulder; his replacement, Don Calhoun, has gained 540 yards in the last four games, giving the Patriots 1,325 yards from one position.
This year more players have run for 100 yards in a game than ever before. Along with the dozen players at or near 1,000, 31 others have rushed for 100 or more in at least one game. In the 181 games played so far, 43 players have rushed for 100 yards or more 93 times. Payton leads with seven such games, followed by Simpson with six and both Harris and Williams with five.
In addition to the group statistics, there has been at least one individual performance this season that borders on the miraculous: Simpson ripping the Detroit Lions wide open for 273 yards on Thanksgiving. That broke the professional record of 250 yards he held jointly with Spec Sanders, who played for the New York Yankees of the AAFC. What made the new record more impressive was the fact that only four days earlier, Payton had been held to only 40 yards in 17 carries by the stingy Lions, who then were leading the NFC in defense against the run. It also boosted Simpson, for whom this once looked to be a lost season, into the AFC's rushing lead for the first time this season.
Up to that point, Mitchell had been the AFC leader. Last weekend, for a little more than 24 hours, Mitchell was back on top, both in the conference and the league. That, though, was a fluke of scheduling. Mitchell gained only 54 yards against St. Louis in a Saturday game that the Colts lost 24-17, but he still took a slim lead over both Payton and Simpson.