The Super Bowls That Never Were
Last in a three-part series
By Glenn Guzzo
The National Football League and American Football League split their four Super Bowls following the 1966-69 seasons. However, the AFL debuted in 1960 and Strat-O-Matic offers four seasons from the pre-Super Bowl AFL, 1962 through 1965.
So I decided to play “What-if?” and find out whether the older AFL teams could also be competitive with their contemporary NFL champions.
After setting the stage in Part One of this series, in Part Two the leagues split the first two Super Bowls that never were. 1962 Green Bay drove against the clock for the touchdown that beat the Dallas Texans, 27-26. And 1963 San Diego beat the Chicago Bears, 27-24 on a last-minute field goal.
Next up: The 1964 and 1965 Super Bowls.
1964: Cleveland Browns vs. Buffalo Bills
How they got there: The 10-3-1 Browns were barely better than the 9-3-2 St. Louis Cardinals in the NFL East, overcoming a shaky defense (10 foes scored 20 or more) with an explosive offense that scored 30-plus seven times. Still, they were solid underdogs in the NFL championship against Johnny Unitas’ 12-2 Baltimore Colts when the Browns shocked all with a 27-0 trouncing of the Colts in Baltimore. The lasting memory is of 6-foot-4 Browns flanker Gary Collins beating 5-foot-10 All-Pro CB Bobby Boyd three times for long touchdown passes from Frank Ryan … Though 12-2 Buffalo also scored 30+ seven times while outscoring foes 400-242, the Bills were the class of the AFL via defense that stifled explosive San Diego, 20-7, in the AFL title game. Getting there wasn’t assured. First, Buffalo had to win the final game of the season on a snowy field in Boston, 24-14, to keep the 10-3-1 Patriots from winning the AFL East.
Key players: Cleveland’s Jimmy Brown ran for 1,446 yards and seven touchdowns. Ryan threw an NFL-best 25 TD passes, mostly to big-play WRs Paul Warfield and Collins. Buffalo also had a dominant fullback, big Cookie Gilchrist (AFL-high 230 carries and 981 yards) and big-play WRs in Elbert Dubenion (27 yards/catch, 10 TDs) and Mike Bass (21 yards/catch). But QB Jack Kemp was more leader than passer. A bomb thrower off play action fakes to Gilchrist, he threw twice as many interceptions (26) as touchdowns. Other than Gilchrist, the real stars of this team were on defense, especially the aforementioned linemen McDole, Dunaway, Keating and Sestak, plus FS Saimes. NFL draftee Hagood Clarke and LB Paul Maguire (the future announcer) also were prominent.
Forecast: After obliterating Baltimore, Cleveland surely would have been favored. Odds-makers still were favoring the NFL/NFC even by 1972, when the AFC had undefeated Miami to offer against the Washington Redskins. But Strat-O-Matic thought so little of this NFL champion that the Cleveland team it included in its original six-team old-timer set was the 1965 Browns, when Jim Brown and the still-shaky defense were better, despite no championship. If Kemp can avoid multiple interceptions, Buffalo should win this one.
How it turned out: Buffalo completely dominated first-half time of possession, managing sustained, long drives and also taking advantage of a short punt and MLB Mike Stratton’s interception. All produce Pete Gogolak field goals (of 11, 9, 11 and 31 yards), but only field goals – Buffalo’s half-time lead is 12-0. In the second half, Cleveland answers with a pair of Lou Groza field goals. The first follows Bills RB Joe Auer’s fumble at the Buffalo 23 and the second follows a 40-yard punt return by Walter “The Flea” Roberts. But Groza’s 23- and 31-yard kicks are answered by Kemp’s 11-yard TD pass to TE Ernie Warlick that capped a 62-yard drive and Gogolak’s fourth field goal, from 37 yards. So it’s 22-6 Buffalo deep into the fourth quarter.
Finally, Cleveland gets into the game with a touchdown, as Ryan passes to TE Johnny Brewer for the final 10 yards of a 51-yard drive. Still, it’s 22-13 with 3:15 to play. But wait, Cleveland recovers an onside kick, quickly moves into scoring position and Groza’s 37-yard field goal is true, making it 22-16 with 1:00 still to play. But lightning does not strike twice as this time Buffalo recovers the next onside kick and runs out the clock.
The AFL has won its second straight Super Bowl. The Bills out-gained the Browns, 396-241 as Buffalo’s defense corralled Brown (51 yards in 17 carries), sacked Ryan twice and intercepted him once. Ryan completed a mere 13 of 31 throws. Kemp completed only 15 of 27, but the key stat was his zero interceptions while completing a couple deep balls to Dubenion, who gained 41 and 25 yards on receiver-card catches. Gilchrist out-ran the entire Cleveland attack (90 yards to 84).
[Would the ’64 Colts have done better? I played that one, too. Baltimore shut down Gilchrist (55 yards and a lost fumble on 16 carries), intercepted Kemp five times and won 34-27 on Johnny Unitas’ third TD pass, to John Mackey with 30 seconds to play. Baltimore CB Lenny Lyles’ 62-yard interception return for the TD that put Baltimore ahead, 27-14, was huge. The Bills stayed close, and rallied to tie with 4:45 to play, because Kemp connected on a half-dozen bombs, and also threw for three touchdowns. Bass had 167 receiving yards and Dubenion 150. Baltimore’s Raymond Berry had nine catches for 110 yards and two scores … But when I played Cleveland-Baltimore to find out if the Colts DESERVED to be in the championship, the Browns won, 38-23, despite Unitas’ 412 passing yards – 215 to Berry. Jim Brown gained 115 of Cleveland’s 214 yards rushing.]
1965: Green Bay Packers vs. Buffalo Bills
How they got there: Lombardi’s 10-3-1 Packers won the NFL West by beating the 10-3-1 Colts twice, then out-fought 11-3 Cleveland (the only above-.500 team in the East), 23-12, in a muddy championship game … The defending-champ Bills slipped to 10-3-1, but had no challengers in the AFL East, so earned a championship-game rematch with 9-3-2 San Diego. Buffalo’s defense again shut down the AFL’s leading offense that featured Alworth, Hadl, Lincoln and Lowe as the Bills dominated, 23-0.
Key players: The casts are essentially the same from the 1962 Packers and 1964 Bills, except that Buffalo’s offense suffered without Gilchrist and Green Bay’s Starr and Taylor had far-more pedestrian statistics this year. The star of each team is its defense.
Forecast: Once Lombardi started winning championship games (1961), he did not lose, so Green Bay is favored. Starr was a better passer than Kemp in ’65. And the otherwise-mediocre Packer stats were compiled against a much-tougher schedule in the NFL West than Buffalo’s equally mediocre numbers were achieved in the woeful AFL East, where second-place New York was 5-8-1. Still, it’s not tough to see how Buffalo’s strong defense can shut down these Packers. And the Bills have an edge on special teams – Charley Warner, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
How it turned out: The offenses could not figure out these defenses in the first half. Kemp was 0-for-9 passing and was sacked three times. The Bills had only 35 net yards at halftime. Green Bay found running futile and a superb Buffalo run defense and had only 97 yards a half. But the Packers led 6-0 on a pair of Don Chandler field goals – the first after a punt gave them field position at the 50; the second after Billy Joe’s fumble gave Green Bay the ball at its own 44.
Halftime adjustments helped. Buffalo knew it had to run; Green Bay knew it had to pass. But the defenses still ruled until Starr hit flanker Carroll Dale on a 35-yard pass and followed it with a 7-yard TD strike to TE Marv Fleming with 2:45 to play in the third quarter. Green Bay had to score twice on that drive, after Paul Horning’s short touchdown run was wiped out by a penalty.
Green Bay’s 13-0 lead looked intimidating – for all of one play. Warner fielded the kickoff and raced 88 yards up the left sideline for a touchdown that revived the Bills. But the Packers were not shaken. They drove 73 yards after the next kickoff and went ahead 20-7 early in the fourth quarter on Hornung’s 2-yard run-to-daylight around right end with pulling guard Jerry Kramer delivering the key block.
The Bills said, “We can do that,” took the kickoff and drove 82 yards to score on Joe’s 3-yard burst through the middle with 7 minutes to play. The yards came mostly on runs, but a 15-yard personal foul on Green Bay was important and Kemp finally completed his first pass, a 12-yard gain that Joe accomplished on a receiver-card result in the flat. That was only Buffalo’s fifth first down of the game, but the subsequent TD narrowed the gap to 20-14. The Bills were still in the game.
By passing often, Starr (23-for-47, 290 yards) also accepted the risk. He had been intercepted by linebackers twice in the first three quarters. Now, looking for halfback Elijah Pitts, he was intercepted by a third Bills linebacker, Mike Stratton, who rumbled to the Green Bay 42. This was the break Buffalo needed and they made no mistake, though Green Bay made plenty – three penalties worth 25 yards. Ironically, Buffalo’s score came on a pass, Kemp’s second completion of the day, an 8-yarder to flanker Bo Roberson (another receiver-card grab). Suddenly, the Bills had their first lead, 21-20 and there was only 2:45 to go when the following touchback put Green Bay on its 20.
Did these Packers have a champion-worthy drive in them? Apparently not when Buffalo’s only sack of the game leaves Green Bay with 4th-and-18 at its 28 and 1:15 to play. Starr drops back once more, the line holds off the Bills rush and Starr goes deep – complete! – 33 yards to Bob Long. Timeout. Green Bay has the ball on the Buffalo 39 with one minute to play.
A field goal will win it. Right now, the Packers are in Chandler’s range (2-6), but Green Bay needs a mid-range completion for a 2-8 shot and longer for give Chandler a 2-10 chance. Starr fires a short pass for Boyd Dowler – incomplete. That left 45 seconds with one timeout. Starr back again, looking for flanker Dale against weaker CB Booker Edgerson. It’s a double move, Starr throwing deep – on Buffalo’s card – complete against Edgerson’s 4 rating for 31 yards to the Buffalo 8! The field goal unit is on, the clock runs down and Chandler’s kick is up – Good! – as time expires. Green Bay wins, 23-21, duplicating its dramatic victory in the 1962 Super Bowl.
Green Bay had outgained Buffalo, 339-118, but Warner’s kickoff-return TD and Starr’s final interception had given the Bills a chance to steal this game.
Now, after playing “What-if?” for four Super Bowls that never were, what’s the score?
– Just like the four real NFL-AFL Super Bowls that followed the 1966-69 seasons, these four games were divided, two for each league.
– Just like the four real NFL-AFL Super Bowls, the NFL won the two games that the Packers played, and lost they two they did not.
– Unlike the real Super Bowls, none of which were close, these were settled by 1, 2, 3 and 6 points with the winning scores coming in the final minute of three games.
– If these games had really happened, the American Football League would have been acknowledged as worthy of the National Football League much sooner – and perhaps the Super Bowl would never have gained its reputation for one-sided games.