Some have called it the greatest NFL postseason game ever. If it wasn’t the greatest, it might be the most entertaining ever. The San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins went at it on Jan. 2, 1982, in a divisional playoff matchup at the Orange Bowl in Miami. If nothing else, it certainly was the best performance of tight end Kellen Winslow’s storied career.
When it was all said and done, 79 points were scored, overtime was played, and bodies dropped all over the place from exhaustion in a wild game known as the “Epic in Miami.”
Kellen Winslow was the hero in the Epic in Miami
The playoff game between the visiting Chargers and the Dolphins after the 1981 season seemed like it would turn into anything but epic after one quarter of play. The visiting Chargers put up 24 first-quarter points while holding the Dolphins scoreless.
A three-time All-Pro, Winslow was the best receiving tight end in the game. For the second straight year, the 6-foot-5 target led the NFL in catches (88) in Don Coryell’s pass-happy offense. He finished the 1981 season with 1,075 receiving yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns.
Against the Dolphins in that famous ’82 playoff game, Chandler had a 58-yard punt return in the first quarter that put the Chargers up 10-0. He also hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dan Fouts in the third quarter that gave San Diego a 31-24 lead after the Dolphins rattled off 24 unanswered points to tie the game.
His biggest play came later.
Playing in 76-degree weather and 80-percent humidity, Winslow, like many others, cramped up throughout the game and battled dehydration. Not to mention, Winslow entered the contest with a bruised left shoulder, a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and a neck injury. Sports Ilustrated reported he needed help putting on his shoulder pads.
Winslow led the way in a game where nobody gave up.
Winslow’s biggest moment and the play that ‘pissed off Don Shula’
Tony Nathan gave the Dolphins a 38-31 lead in the fourth quarter with a 12-yard touchdown run, but the Chargers got the ball back with 4:39 remaining after a Miami turnover in Chargers territory. Fouts moved his team down the field with ease.
“It seemed so easy,” Fouts said, per Sports Illustrated. “There was just no pass rush from Miami. They were gassed.”
From the Miami 9, Fouts dropped back to pass. Looking for Chandler, the ball sailed past the tight end but fell into the arms of running back James Brooks along the baseline of the end zone. Chandler was too tired to jump, and Brooks was smart enough to run behind him.
“We ran that play a lot,” Fouts said, according to Chargers.com. “It’s designed to go to Kellen, which was a good idea. But, in the thousands of times we ran that play … never once did the running back figure in. James Brooks made the smartest football play I have ever been associated with. He ran the baseline of the end zone. My ball was intended for Kellen. Kellen was exhausted and really, out of nowhere flashes JB to make the catch for the score. To this day, it’s the most amazing play I’ve ever been associated with.
“It was one that really pissed off Don Shula. I saw Shula at the Pro Bowl that year and in the first team meeting, he (gestured to me,) ‘Come here, Fouts.’ He said, ‘You overthrew Winslow didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Coach, who caught the ball? That’s who I threw it to.’ I lied.”
The Dolphins had a chance at victory on the final play of regulation. Kicker Uwe von Schamann lined up for a 43-yard field goal for the win. Somehow, Winslow, who was on the “desperation” special teams unit, found enough energy to jump and block the kick — the first block of his career — for a game-saving play.
In sudden-death overtime, Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke missed a chip shot after a bad snap. The Chargers blocked another von Schamann kick, this time by Leroy Jones. Finally, Benirschke got redemption with a 27-yard field goal to win it 41-38.
“A kicker misses a field goal in overtime, you never get a second chance,” Benirschke recalled. “And here I get a second chance at that.”