K.C. claimed its first AFL title in '66, went on to Super Bowl I
In any of the American Football League's previous six seasons (1960-65), the league's championship game would have been important enough. But in 1966, it was for more than mere bragging rights amid the nine-team league. The winner of the '66 title game would go on to play the NFL champions in the first "Super Bowl" … though the AFL-NFL championship wasn't widely known by that famous moniker yet.
Lamar Hunt, the founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, both played an important role in the June 8, 1966 merger between the leagues. And though the AFL and NFL would retain separate schedules and standings until 1970, it was agreed that their respective champions would battle in the postseason starting in 1966.
|Buffalo's John Tracey chases Chiefs RB Curtis McClinton in the 1966 AFL Championship Game
This made the Bills' quest for a third consecutive AFL title even more critical (the team had beaten San Diego in consecutive title games in 1964 and '65). Behind quarterback Jack Kemp, acquired in a wavier mishap by San Diego in 1962, HB Bobby Burnett, WR Elbert Dubenion, and HOF lineman Billy Shaw, the Bills piled up 358 points and compiled a 9-4-1 record in coach Joe Collier's first season. It was the Bills' third straight Eastern Division title.
The Chiefs were a team on the rise, finishing with records of 5-7-2, 7-7 and 7-5-2 in three previous seasons in Kansas City (they won the AFL title as the Dallas Texans in 1962). In '66, coach Hank Stram put together a potent team led by HOF QB Len Dawson and defensive stars Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson (HOF LB Willie Lanier was drafted the following season). The Chiefs finished 11-2-1 and won the Western Division for the first time since the Dallas days, outscoring their opponents 448-276.
The teams split two regular-season meetings, with the Chiefs winning in Buffalo, 42-20, and the Bills prevailing in Kansas City, 29-14. The "rubber game" in the series took place on New Year's Day, 1967 for the AFL championship.
Kansas City caught an early break when the Bills' Dudley Meredith fumbled the opening kickoff and KC recovered at the Buffalo 31. Three plays later, Dawson found Fred Arbanas on a play-action pass from 29 yards out for a 7-0 lead; there was still 13:17 left in the opening quarter.
But Kemp had been here before. Avoiding a blitz on the next series, the future presidential candidate hit Dubenion for a 69-yard TD behind Williamson, who had slipped on the play. It was 7-7, but the Bills wouldn't score again. "We could have used a few more plays like that," Dubenion said afterwards. "We tried it once, only once."
The game turned with the Chiefs leading 14-7 in the second quarter. Kemp connected with Burnett on 18 and 33 yard completions to reach the Chiefs 11. But Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson intercepted a Kemp pass intended for Bobby Crockett at the goal line and ran it back 72 yards into Bills' territory. "He made a great individual play," Kemp said after the game. "It was as hard as I can throw." Mike Mercer then converted a 32-yard field goal three seconds before half for a 10-point lead, and the Chiefs never looked back.
Mike Garrett added a pair of TD runs in the second half -- including an amazing 18-yard gallop in which he reversed his field and retreated back to the Buffalo 35 -- to seal the 31-7 win for Kansas City, earning the city its first AFL title. Stram gave the credit to his QB: " … we didn't need anything more than Dawson's direction and leadership. There isn't a finer quarterback or more accurate passer in the game, and that includes Johnny Unitas."
But the AFL's focus was on the NFL-champion Packers.
"If you play the way you played today, you'll give them (Green Bay) all they can handle," Collier told Stram afterwards.
"The Packers have never defended against a receiver with the moves of Otis Taylor," Bills safety Tom Janik said. "He's past you before you know it." Teammate Hagood Clarke concurred: "The Chiefs have the best 1-2 receiving combination in pro football in Taylor and Chris Burford. The Packers won't stop them."
As it turned out, the Packers did stop them, winning Super Bowl I in Los Angeles, 35-10. But the AFL would show it belonged when the Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III just two years later.
As for 1966, the Bills' great AFL run was over. The following season's 3-10-1 record started a string of six losing years. The Chiefs were on the rise, however, and would go on to win Super Bowl IV against Minnesota, 23-7, in which '66 title game stars Garrett and Taylor both scored touchdowns.