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Thursday, December 4, 2003
Updated: May 15, 11:21 AM ET
One of the greatest

By Dan Weinberg
Special to ESPN.com

Many consider it the greatest game in National Football League history. At the time, it set playoff records for most points (79) and most total yards (1,036). In Miami it was called "The Miracle That Died." The Pro Football Hall of Fame named it the "NFL's Game of the '80s."

Kellen Winslow
After 13 catches and numerous cramps, Winslow couldn't walk off the field.
The AFC divisional playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins on Jan. 2, 1982 at the Orange Bowl, played in the oven-like heat of the south Florida night, was a see-saw affair that lasted 13:52 into overtime. When it was over, one player said, "I've never felt so close to death." And he was on the winning team.

In the end, the Chargers prevailed, 41-38, with the game concluding with one of the lasting images in NFL history.

San Diego jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter behind quarterback Dan Fouts. The Dolphins' "Killer B's" defense (nicknamed for the plethora of starters whose last name began with the letter "B") that had been Miami's strength all year wilted in the wake of the Chargers' "Air Coryell" aerial attack.

Miami's offense also was a bust - until coach Don Shula replaced starter David Woodley with backup quarterback Don Strock. In a furious rally, the Dolphins got to within a touchdown of the lead at the end of the first half, a 17-point run punctuated by the famous "hook and ladder" play: Strock to Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan for the score on the last play of the first half.

The third quarter ended tied at 31. After Miami took the lead in the fourth quarter at 38-31, Fouts marched the Chargers 82 yards on 10 plays, culminating with a nine-yard touchdown strike to James Brooks in the corner of the end zone with 58 seconds remaining. The Dolphins had a chance to win the game with four seconds left, but San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow blocked Uwe von Schamann's 43-yard field goal attempt, forcing overtime.

The game was a showcase for Winslow, who in his third Charger season had already twice led the league in receptions. He finished the contest with 13 catches (a divisional playoff record) for 166 yards and a touchdown plus the critical blocked field goal, all the while battling debilitating fatigue and muscle cramps.

The first chance for the game to be decided in overtime came when San Diego kicker Rolf Bernischke lined up for a 27-yard field goal. It was a seminal moment for Bernischke, who just two years earlier had been fighting for his life in a battle against Krohn's disease - a digestive condition that debilitated his bowels, led to a perforated colon and reduced his weight to 123 pounds after emergency surgery. After a slow recovery, Bernischke had returned to San Diego that season.

But what seemed like an automatic, game-winning chip shot sailed wide left.

Next it was the Dolphins who had the chance to win. After recovering a Chuck Muncie fumble, they moved into position for von Schamann to try a 34-yard field goal. Again, the Chargers blocked the kick. This time defensive end Leroy Jones got his hand in the way.

Fouts moved the Chargers downfield, hitting Wes Chandler for 20 yards and Charlie Joiner for 29. With the ball on the Miami 12, Bernischke had a chance for redemption. This time his 29-yard field goal was true, giving the Chargers the victory.

Fouts completed 33-of-53 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns. Strock was 29-of-43 for 403 yards and four scores. It was the first time in NFL history that two quarterbacks passed for more than 400 yards in a game. Five players had more than 100 yards in receptions. The Chargers broke 15 divisional playoff team records and tied two others.

But the enduring image of the game was Winslow being carried from the field on the arms of his teammates. To this day it still prompts anger from the losing side. "There was no way that Kellen Winslow was so winded that he had to be continually helped off the football field," said Dolphins wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo. "I just don't buy it. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it today."

Miami linebacker Kim Bokamper said, "Every time I see it you wonder whether he should have gotten an Academy Award for the performance. It gnaws at some people, and it certainly gnaws at me."

Regardless of the feeling about Winslow, both sides reflect on the game with a reverential tone. Dolphins coach Don Shula said, "We knew afterwards that it had certainly one of the greatest games that's ever been played." And Jerry Magee, who covered the game for the San Diego Union-Tribune, said. "The great football games are like pieces of theater. It had a beginning, an expository period, and then it had that marvelous overtime finish. I will always think of that game as the greatest game ever in the NFL."