With their helmets tucked under their arms and their uniforms smelling clean from the laundry, the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills were standing under the south goalposts at Balboa Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, waiting to be introduced to the nation on television. Several of the Bills kept edging up to one Charger—a very tall man with a head the size of a bucket and a body that a grizzly bear could be proud of—and grinning and shaking his hand as if it was certainly terrific to see him again, grand person that he was. The Buffalo quarterback. Jack Kemp, was laughing about it later though somewhat cautiously, since his ribs still ached from being fallen on by that same Charger. " 'Our offensive linemen always give Ernie Ladd the big hello and try to be friendly with him," Kemp said. "They don't want him mad at them. But I don't think it fools Ernie a bit."
Ladd, who is 6 feet 9 and weighs 300 pounds, is the key to a defensive line that will help the Chargers win their second American Football League championship when they play the Bills again for the title the day after Christmas. The best chance for the Bills to beat the Chargers on a dry field is to control the ball, and that is the chance San Diego's front four will take away. Lacking receivers since Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass were injured early in the season, Buffalo must drive the ball on the ground for long periods not only to score but to keep San Diego's blitzkrieg offense off the field. Ladd, Earl Faison, George Gross and Bob Petrich, with the assistance of the linebackers, should be able to stop Buffalo's running and put on enough of a pass rush to prevent Kemp from having one of his occasional hot afternoons. There is a story among the players that Ladd and Faison get a touch meaner when they are going after Kemp, whose conservative politics irritates them. Whether that is true or not, the Charger rush forces Kemp to roll out of the blocking pocket, and in the Thanksgiving Day game he took punishment that no man could forget.
Buffalo Center Dave Behrman and Guard Billy Shaw, the team captain, double block on Ladd. Lou Saban, the Bills' coach, installed the 260-pound Behrman at center specifically for that job because, as Saban says, "Ladd can beat on him all day and he won't cave in." That leaves Buffalo Guard Al Bemiller opposing Gross, who is 25 pounds heavier. Stew Barber, Buffalo's left tackle, is one of the finest in the business but has difficulty with the improving Pet-rich. Right Tackle Dick Hudson, a former Charger, has even more trouble with Faison. If Buffalo is able to run against San Diego it will be on traps or at Pet-rich. The Bill backs do not have the speed to go outside.
When Kemp has to throw against the Chargers there is no joy in Buffalo. His most dangerous receiver, Charley Ferguson, is bothered by a pulled hamstring and, while he can make outstanding catches, he can also drop easy ones. Bo Roberson, obtained in a trade from Oakland, could be an annoyance as a deep threat. More probably Kemp will work toward the strong side—where San Diego has two rookies to play the linebacker position—and will throw to his tight end, 250-pound rookie Paul Costa, who made an excellent catch of a desperation pass to help the Bills get a 20-20 tie on Thanksgiving. Kemp has a strong arm and is at his best against a zone defense, but the Charger defensive backs are very quick. In the last two games against them Kemp passed for just 48 and 201 yards.
Compared to those figures the statistics for San Diego Quarterback John Hadl are All-Pro. Hadl hit for 314 and 312 yards against the Bills this year, and both those games were played in the mud. To beat Hadl the Bills must put pressure on him, and that will have to come from rushing the linebackers. Buffalo is not known as a blitzing team, but the Bills may well try the blitz on Hadl in the championship game now that Linebacker Mike Stratton—whose smashing tackle knocked Charger Fullback Keith Lincoln out of last year's championship with two broken ribs—has recovered from a bout with the flu. Hadl has a reputation for being either super or sandlot. Nobody can predict which he will be on December 26, but the Bills will have more hope of him being sandlot if they can rap him a few times with linebackers early in the game. The flaw in that idea is that Hadl has become smart at reading defenses. He also likes to throw into the areas covered by Buffalo's linebackers, a simpler task if they are not there.
For protection Hadl has an offensive line that rates with Buffalo's at the top of the league. Since Buffalo's defensive line is almost as good as San Diego's, there will be some interesting individual battles up front. San Diego Left Guard Ernie Park had success in the last meeting, blocking on Buffalo Tackle Tom Sestak (SI, Oct. 25), who is one of the game's best but has played the entire season with a bad knee that has cut down his mobility. The Chargers' left tackle, Ernie Wright, is a superb pass blocker and faces the man San Diego Coach Sid Gillman fears most among the Bills' rushers—Right End Tom Day. Charger Right Guard Walt Sweeney is fast and strong at 260 pounds and is perhaps the team's best offensive lineman this year. He opposes 280-pound Jim Dunaway, who has become one of the AFL's most powerful tackles. Ron Mix, San Diego right tackle and an All-League selection for five years, usually is tough on Buffalo Left End Roland McDole. One thing the Chargers seldom execute effectively against Buffalo is the trap block. "They're hard to trap because they read what you're doing and then pursue laterally, while other teams come across the line before they pursue," says a Charger lineman.
If Hadl has time to throw he has some exceptional targets to aim at. Foremost is Flanker Lance Alworth (SI, Dec. 13), who is continually open on quick out patterns against the Buffalo cornerbacks. "The whole thing is making your turn at the right instant against Alworth," says Corner Back Booker Edgerson. "He'll try to run you off and then make his cut. You've got to be able to turn as he does, or you're lost." San Diego Split End Don Norton has slowed somewhat but is a tricky receiver and does well against Corner Back Butch Byrd, who has problems with the Chargers' run-pass options. At tight end Jacque MacKinnon has moved ahead of Dave Kocourek. An indication of the Chargers' strength at that position is that Kocourek is an All-AFL candidate and is one of the men the Bills respect the most.
In the unlikely event that no regular receiver can find receiving room among Buffalo's defensive backs Hadl can always throw to Lincoln or Halfback Paul Lowe. In those two the Chargers have backs that other teams genuinely envy. Lincoln has amazing balance and toughness, and the speed to score on any play. He had a pulled hamstring much of this season and when he got well was benched for a while in favor of rookie Gene Foster. "Keith's trouble was blocking on the ends," explains a teammate. "But that was only because he hadn't played enough to get used to being hit." Lincoln returned against Buffalo on Thanksgiving, made a 66-yard run with a swing pass and now is in raging good health. "He kicks 'em aside," says Gillman. Lowe, a 210-pounder with the speed of a sprinter, has avoided injury and leads the league in rushing. With the fast turf he should have in San Diego, Lowe can run away from the Bills on sweeps. Speed could be a factor in kick returns also. Little Leslie Duncan of the Chargers has a 15.5-yard average on punt returns and escaped on a couple of beautiful runs in the first game against Buffalo.
It is fortunate for the Chargers that they have an advantage in running the ball back, because they clearly do not in kicking it. Hadl does most of San Diego's punting and seems to kick better if he is throwing accurately. But the Bills have an excellent pressure punter in Paul Maguire, who was traded to them by San Diego. The Charger field-goal kicker is Herb Travenio, who has a full-time job as a postman and kicks like one. Pete Gogolak, the Bills' side-foot kicker, is accurate from short ranges and should be in a happier mood now—he has decided to sign a new contract after threatening for three-quarters of the season to play out his option. If the championship game should turn into a kicking contest—due to mud or important injuries or aroused defenses—the Bills have superiority.
Buffalo goes into the championship with the best record in the league. The Bills cinched their Eastern Division title with three games left. The Chargers, meanwhile, have been up and down and were beaten 31-7 by Kansas City in mid November. But in the stretch, with both Oakland and Kansas City in contention with them, the Chargers got together and pulled away for their fifth Western Division championship.
Last year San Diego had the better team but lost to Buffalo in the championship game 20-7. Alworth missed that day because of a knee injury, and Lincoln played little. This year it is Buffalo that is damaged by injuries to its receivers. The Bills believe they can win if they get an early lead. Ladd and the Charger defense should deny them that. The San Diego offense is good for three touchdowns or more, which ought to be enough for them to win by two.