A year ago the Buffalo Bills found themselves in somewhat the same position they are in this week. It was being suggested around the country that the American Football League championship game would be as thrilling as an evening with Lawrence Welk, and the fault was Buffalo's. The Bills were defending champions—a freak event in itself, many said—but they had too many injuries and not enough offense to be able to repeat.
Their opponents were the San Diego Chargers, one of the best teams ever assembled in the AFL. Paul Lowe was leading the league in rushing, Lance Alworth was having a brilliant season catching passes and the San Diego defense still had Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison as its terrorists. In 1964 the Bills had beaten the Chargers for the championship. But that was the year Alworth was hurt and Keith Lincoln was knocked out of the game early. It was difficult to believe that the Bills might do it again. "If we don't beat them by at least three touchdowns, I'm going to quit and become a plumber," said one of the Chargers.
The man who said that is still playing. But the Bills, who worked themselves into a state of righteous fury reading about their inadequacies, are still champions. They humiliated the Chargers 23-0 last year in the playoff game. It was a day that San Diego Coach Sid Gillman will forget about as soon as he forgets how to lace his shoes.
Change the name of Buffalo's opponent, and next Sunday's game begins to sound familiar. The new opponent is Kansas City, perhaps the finest team in AFL history. The Chiefs are big, fast and loaded with ability. They have good passing, good running, good blocking, good kicking and a solid defense. Seven Chiefs were elected to the AFL All-Star team, and there might have been more if the size of the Kansas City group had not become embarrassing. The Chiefs wrapped up the West with two games left to play. Buffalo would not have made it into the championship game at all had Boston not blown a game to the Jets in the final week.
So Kansas City should win the AFL championship. That's obvious. Right? Well, right. You would have to think so. But the Bills are nowhere near as underdoggish as they were last year, when they won easily. The reasons are: 1) the fact that the game will be played in Buffalo, which could give the Bills an emotional edge; 2) the possibility of deep snow, which could turn the game into a sloppy, skidding affair that anybody could win; and 3) Buffalo's esprit de corps, which may well be superior to that of the Chiefs.
Man for man, beginning with the quarterback, the Chiefs are superior. It is not that Len Dawson of Kansas City is better than a healthy Jack Kemp. The thing is that Kemp is not healthy. In training camp he had a tennis elbow. His throwing arm has hurt him all year. A strong passer and tricky outside scrambler, Kemp finished the season with a completion average of .427, a figure that most teams could not win with. If his arm is too painful in the championship game he will be replaced by Daryle Lamonica, who, with time and experience, should become a first-rate quarterback.
Dawson also has had arm trouble, but not this year. He exercised steadily throughout the spring and showed immediate improvement in the fall. He has the power now to drill a pass between fast-closing defensive backs, and he can throw deep. His coach, Hank Stram, says Dawson is the most accurate passer in the AFL. This year Dawson hit for 26 touchdowns and threw only 10 interceptions while building up a .560 completion percentage. Oddly enough, if he has to be replaced in the championship game a number of Kansas City fans will be cheered. Dawson is leading the league, but the Chiefs' No. 2 quarterback, Pete Beathard, has attracted an enthusiastic following. "We could win with Pete right now if we had to," says Stram. Of course, he would rather not have to.
In running backs, the Chiefs have a slight advantage. With Kemp not hitting his passes consistently this year, the Bills had to get steady contributions from their runners, and they did. Fullback Wray Carlton, a veteran who can be depended upon for the tough short yardage, had his best season with 696 yards and a 4.5 average. One factor that helped Carlton raise his total was the appearance of rookie Halfback Bobby Burnett of Arkansas. Burnett carried the ball 232 times for the 1965 Razor-backs without fumbling once, and he continued that sort of reliability for the Bills, running for 766 yards to finish fourth in the league. Although Burnett and Carlton are dependable, the Kansas City runners are more explosive. Rookie Mike Garrett has rushed for 801 yards, second in the league behind Boston's Jim Nance—and equal to the total for Oakland's Clem Daniels. Garrett's alternate, tall Bert Coan, picked up 521 yards and seven touchdowns. Fullback Curtis McClinton, used mostly as a blocker, gained 540 yards for an offense that Stram tries to keep as balanced as possible.
The Chiefs have a wider advantage in receivers. Last year the Bills lost both their best receivers—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass—with injuries early in the season, but won without them. Gallant as that was, it confirmed what had been suspected—that Dubenion and Bass were simply not so special anyhow. Dubenion, who is called Golden Wheels, has the speed you would expect from that nickname, but he is not particularly a clutch receiver. The tight end, 240-pound Paul Costa, was expected to be one of the best in the league but is still far from proving it.
Kansas City, however, has one of the finest deep receivers to come into professional football in several years—a man who would not have to give away much, if anything, to stars like Bob Hayes or Lance Alworth. His name is Otis Taylor. He is big, a vicious blocker, a whirlaway runner and has 9.6 speed. His per-catch average this season, his first as a starter, was 22.4 yards, better than either Hayes or Alworth. The presence of Taylor at flanker has helped veteran Split End Chris Burford avoid double coverage and produce 58 catches. The tight end, Fred Arbanas, though blind in one eye, is the best in the league.
The Kansas City offensive line is probably superior to Buffalo's this year, since the Bills lost Dave Behrman with an injury before the season began. The Kansas City guards, Ed Budde and Curt Merz, have unusual size and strength. The leading citizen of the offensive line is 290-pound Tackle Jim Tyrer. The Bills have no one who can match Tyrer in size, but in Guard Billy Shaw and Tackle Stew Barber they do have two veterans of All-AFL quality.
Offensively, Kansas City is decidedly better than Buffalo. Defense is another matter. The Chiefs have an edge in speed, the Bills in strength, and in both cases the defensive lines and linebacking will be superior to the offensive lines they will face. The Bills claim that their tackles—Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway—are the top two in the league. The ends, Ron McDole and Tom Day, are expert pass rushers. Linebackers Mike Stratton, John Tracey and Harry Jacobs have played together for five years and react intuitively to each other. The Bills are very difficult to run against. Although they do not often blitz, their pass rush can be devastating. Given time to throw, almost any pro quarterback can beat almost any secondary, but it is doubtful that Dawson, who has a penchant for being dropped for losses, will get that much time.
In their defensive line the Chiefs have two of the best in either league—End Jerry Mays and Tackle Buck Buchanan. If there is a place to attack the line, it is at Tackle Andy Rice, who is filling in for the injured Ed Lothamer. The linebackers are every bit as good as Buffalo's and may be better. The outside men are E. J. Holub and Bobby Bell, both of whom are tall, fast and quick to react to the run. The middle linebacker, Sherrill Headrick, calls defensive signals and has a great knack for being where the ball is. If the ends can keep Kemp from scrambling and if Kemp is not unusually accurate passing, the Chiefs should be able to stop the running of Carlton and Burnett.
A pro football team has a style, much the same as an actor does. In the matter of style, the Chiefs and the Bills are very different. Their game, in fact, matches styles similar to those in the NFL championship game the same day. Buffalo, like Green Bay, is a team with few offensive plays, relying on execution and a grinding short-gain offense. Kansas City, like Dallas, has the striking ability to score on any play. The Chiefs can run four good plays and score four touchdowns. The Bills can run four good plays and make 20 yards.
If Buffalo is to win, it must be on defense. That was the situation last year, and the defense responded by shutting out the Chargers. After that game the Buffalo defense voted the game ball to young Defensive Coach Joe Collier. That vote helped Collier become the Bills' head coach, replacing Lou Saban. This week Collier took his Bills to the Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. to work out away from the frigid Buffalo weather, hoping Quarterback Kemp and Offensive Captain Shaw could recover from bouts with the flu, while the Buffalo defense was preparing for the Chiefs. For the third year in a row the Bills are reading that they are supposed to lose. They are paying just as much attention as ever.