THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE
1965 AFL Championship Game: Bills 23, Chargers 0
Buffalo’s dominant defense stifled San Diego for the second year in a row to successfully defend its title
The 1965 AFL Championship Game was supposed to be different, so said the San Diego Chargers.
After getting physically shredded in the 1964 title game in cold and snowy Buffalo, the Chargers were primed to get revenge on the Bills in their home park — warm and cozy Balboa Stadium — in the championship game rematch the day after Christmas, one year to the day since Buffalo’s 20–7 victory.
That afternoon in Buffalo the Chargers had been without their two primary offensive weapons — wide receiver Lance Alworth who didn’t play due to an injury, and running back Keith Lincoln who was knocked out of the game early in the first quarter with broken ribs. Without them, the Chargers were no match for the Bills.
This time, it would be Buffalo without three of its main offensive weapons. Fullback Cookie Gilchrist had been traded to Denver before the 1965 season began, and wide receivers Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass had gone down early in the year with knee injuries.
However, what the Chargers failed to consider was that it hadn’t been the Buffalo offense that had carried the Bills to a 10–3–1 record and a five-game romp in the weak Eastern Division. It had been the league’s most stingy defense which allowed opponents to run for an average of just 79 yards per game.
With Tom Sestak, Mike Stratton, Ron McDole and company shutting down the Chargers ace duo of Lincoln and Paul Lowe, the Bills dominated the Chargers for the second year in a row and rolled to an easy 23–0 victory, successfully defending their title and dropping the hard-luck Chargers to 1–4 in AFL championship games.
“We lost to an excellent football team, that’s all,” said Chargers coach Sid Gillman after watching his high-powered offense stymied to the tune of 12 first downs and 223 total yards. “I have no alibis. There was no single factor, they just beat us. They are a beautiful team and beautifully coached. I don’t know why; it was just their day and they beat the hell out of us.”
The shutout was the first in AFL Championship Game history and it was the first time the Chargers had been blanked since a 41–0 loss to Boston on Dec. 17, 1961. San Diego never penetrated inside the Buffalo 24, and after ripping off a 47-yard run in the first quarter, Lowe gained 10 yards on 11 carries the rest of the day.
“When I got that long run, I felt like we were winning,” said Lowe. “But mistakes killed us. We just couldn’t get the ball rolling. I hate to say look to next year, but that’s what it is.”
After Lowe’s breakaway, San Diego reached the Bills 28, but Herb Travenio’s 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Jim Dunaway, and that was as close as the Chargers would come to scoring.
In the second quarter, the Bills drove 60 yards to Jack Kemp’s 18-yard TD laser to Ernie Warlick, starting the regular-season league MVP Kemp on his way to an MVP championship game day. He finished with 155 yards passing.
The Chargers failed to move on their next possession and Butch Byrd fielded John Hadl’s punt at his own 26, started up the right sideline and needed only Paul Maguire’s final clearing block at the Charger 20 before getting into the end zone for a 14–0 advantage with 2:29 left in the first half.
Each team missed a field goal before the half ended, and then in the second half, Pete Gogolak atoned for his failure threefold as he made kicks of 11, 39 and 32 yards to put the Chargers away.
The first field goal was set up by a 49-yard Kemp to Bo Roberson pass, the second came courtesy of a 24-yard Byrd interception return of a Hadl pass, the third after the defense stuffed Lowe on a fourth-down run at the San Diego 30.
“I’ve seen the Bills play some great games, but this one tops them all,” said Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
Lou Saban — who would surprisingly resign his position a week later to return to college coaching — was lauded by Kemp for the way he prepared the Bills, and for the way he compensated when All-Pro guard Billy Shaw was lost for the day on the opening kickoff due to an injury.
“Congratulations to Lou on a great job today,” Kemp said. “That was the greatest game plan we’ve ever had. Look at this (spotless) uniform. I can’t say enough about our line.”