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A year ago the Buffalo Bills found themselves in somewhat the same position they are in this week. It was being suggested around the country that the American Football League championship game would be as thrilling as an evening with Lawrence Welk, and the fault was Buffalo's. The Bills were defending champions—a freak event in itself, many said—but they had too many injuries and not enough offense to be able to repeat.
Their opponents were the San Diego Chargers, one of the best teams ever assembled in the AFL. Paul Lowe was leading the league in rushing, Lance Alworth was having a brilliant season catching passes and the San Diego defense still had Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison as its terrorists. In 1964 the Bills had beaten the Chargers for the championship. But that was the year Alworth was hurt and Keith Lincoln was knocked out of the game early. It was difficult to believe that the Bills might do it again. "If we don't beat them by at least three touchdowns, I'm going to quit and become a plumber," said one of the Chargers.
The man who said that is still playing. But the Bills, who worked themselves into a state of righteous fury reading about their inadequacies, are still champions. They humiliated the Chargers 23-0 last year in the playoff game. It was a day that San Diego Coach Sid Gillman will forget about as soon as he forgets how to lace his shoes.
Change the name of Buffalo's opponent, and next Sunday's game begins to sound familiar. The new opponent is Kansas City, perhaps the finest team in AFL history. The Chiefs are big, fast and loaded with ability. They have good passing, good running, good blocking, good kicking and a solid defense. Seven Chiefs were elected to the AFL All-Star team, and there might have been more if the size of the Kansas City group had not become embarrassing. The Chiefs wrapped up the West with two games left to play. Buffalo would not have made it into the championship game at all had Boston not blown a game to the Jets in the final week.
So Kansas City should win the AFL championship. That's obvious. Right? Well, right. You would have to think so. But the Bills are nowhere near as underdoggish as they were last year, when they won easily. The reasons are: 1) the fact that the game will be played in Buffalo, which could give the Bills an emotional edge; 2) the possibility of deep snow, which could turn the game into a sloppy, skidding affair that anybody could win; and 3) Buffalo's esprit de corps, which may well be superior to that of the Chiefs.
Man for man, beginning with the quarterback, the Chiefs are superior. It is not that Len Dawson of Kansas City is better than a healthy Jack Kemp. The thing is that Kemp is not healthy. In training camp he had a tennis elbow. His throwing arm has hurt him all year. A strong passer and tricky outside scrambler, Kemp finished the season with a completion average of .427, a figure that most teams could not win with. If his arm is too painful in the championship game he will be replaced by Daryle Lamonica, who, with time and experience, should become a first-rate quarterback.
Dawson also has had arm trouble, but not this year. He exercised steadily throughout the spring and showed immediate improvement in the fall. He has the power now to drill a pass between fast-closing defensive backs, and he can throw deep. His coach, Hank Stram, says Dawson is the most accurate passer in the AFL. This year Dawson hit for 26 touchdowns and threw only 10 interceptions while building up a .560 completion percentage. Oddly enough, if he has to be replaced in the championship game a number of Kansas City fans will be cheered. Dawson is leading the league, but the Chiefs' No. 2 quarterback, Pete Beathard, has attracted an enthusiastic following. "We could win with Pete right now if we had to," says Stram. Of course, he would rather not have to.
In running backs, the Chiefs have a slight advantage. With Kemp not hitting his passes consistently this year, the Bills had to get steady contributions from their runners, and they did. Fullback Wray Carlton, a veteran who can be depended upon for the tough short yardage, had his best season with 696 yards and a 4.5 average. One factor that helped Carlton raise his total was the appearance of rookie Halfback Bobby Burnett of Arkansas. Burnett carried the ball 232 times for the 1965 Razor-backs without fumbling once, and he continued that sort of reliability for the Bills, running for 766 yards to finish fourth in the league. Although Burnett and Carlton are dependable, the Kansas City runners are more explosive. Rookie Mike Garrett has rushed for 801 yards, second in the league behind Boston's Jim Nance—and equal to the total for Oakland's Clem Daniels. Garrett's alternate, tall Bert Coan, picked up 521 yards and seven touchdowns. Fullback Curtis McClinton, used mostly as a blocker, gained 540 yards for an offense that Stram tries to keep as balanced as possible.
The Chiefs have a wider advantage in receivers. Last year the Bills lost both their best receivers—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass—with injuries early in the season, but won without them. Gallant as that was, it confirmed what had been suspected—that Dubenion and Bass were simply not so special anyhow. Dubenion, who is called Golden Wheels, has the speed you would expect from that nickname, but he is not particularly a clutch receiver. The tight end, 240-pound Paul Costa, was expected to be one of the best in the league but is still far from proving it.
Kansas City, however, has one of the finest deep receivers to come into professional football in several years—a man who would not have to give away much, if anything, to stars like Bob Hayes or Lance Alworth. His name is Otis Taylor. He is big, a vicious blocker, a whirlaway runner and has 9.6 speed. His per-catch average this season, his first as a starter, was 22.4 yards, better than either Hayes or Alworth. The presence of Taylor at flanker has helped veteran Split End Chris Burford avoid double coverage and produce 58 catches. The tight end, Fred Arbanas, though blind in one eye, is the best in the league.