Amazing even themselves by the ease with which it was accomplished, the Kansas City Chiefs last week removed the San Diego Chargers from the struggle for the Western Division championship of the American Football League, winning 40-3. Now it is probable that there will be a playoff game in Oakland on Dec. 22 between the Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders, a confrontation players on both clubs look forward to about as much as catching the Hong Kong flu.
The team that has the best chance of preventing such a playoff is, curiously, San Diego itself. The Chargers are matched against Oakland on this last weekend of the regular season, while the Chiefs meet Denver. And if San Diego wins (as they did in their earlier game against a far less efficient Oakland), Kansas City can move into the AFL championship contest against New York merely by beating Denver, a team the Raiders scrambled past 33-27 last week.
But to beat Oakland, the Chargers will need to be an entirely different sort of club than the one that went out on a glorious Southern California afternoon against Kansas City. "You never really know how a team is going to be," said Kansas City Quarterback Len Dawson. "I know our thoughts all week long were concentrated on this game, but I'm sure the Chargers felt the same way."
The Chiefs had planned a rather simple and straightforward assault on the Chargers—by aiming a running game directly into the middle of the line—and it worked nicely. "We hadn't run up the middle much this year," Dawson explained later, peeling the tape off a deeply bruised right thigh that has bothered him for several weeks. "The Chargers play their defensive tackles pretty wide, trying to fill the off-tackle hole, and their middle linebacker is farther back than most. That left a natural hole up the middle. If we could hit quick, our guards ramming straight at the San Diego tackles, we figured we'd make at least five yards a shot. It worked."
December 16, 1968
Despite all the talk of running up the middle, the play that put the game away for Kansas City was a 68-yard touchdown pass from Dawson to Split End Frank Pitts in the second quarter. Pitts was flanked to the left against Cornerback Jim Tolbert, who seems to prefer bashing into a receiver at the line of scrimmage, knocking him off-stride and then physically intimidating him. "Frank told me in the huddle he could beat Tolbert," said Dawson, who waited for a third-and-five situation and threw a long pass on which Pitts made a full-stride, over-the-shoulder catch. "So Frank got by him. It's the same way if Lance Alworth gets by you. He's gone if he can reach the ball."
That pass put Kansas City in front 21-3, with more than five minutes remaining in the first half. Like three other Kansas City scores, it came after an interception of a pass from San Diego Quarterback John Hadl, who had six passes caught by people in white Kansas City jerseys.
For those interceptions—which raised Hadl's season total to 30—the Chiefs owed a token debt to the Jets. Three weeks ago New York intercepted four of Hadl's passes while beating San Diego in a most important game that was shown on NBC-TV. Kansas City Coach Hank Stram and his staff had, of course, already puzzled out a smart way to oppose Hadl, but television, as well as game films, helped to impress the players. "The first time we played San Diego [when the Chiefs won 27-20] we were mostly using a key defense, where you pick up tips and tendencies," said Goldie Sellers, the Kansas City cornerback who intercepted two Hadl passes. "This time we played mostly zone. Alworth is a fine receiver, and we would roll to his side in what amounts to double coverage on him now and then, but we were getting a good rush up front, and that made it wonderful."
"We're a zone defense team anyway, to a great extent," said Stram. "We concealed our roll fairly well and mixed things up so they could never be sure what we were doing. Hadl throws to a spot and his primary concern is his No. 1 receiver. If you do that and you are precisely right, you're fine. If you're not, you throw into a lot of people and there are a number of ricochet passes [the Chiefs intercepted five tipped passes from Hadl in two games this year]. What we were concerned with was a good rush and the range of our people up front. If we could force Hadl to throw prematurely we knew we would be all right."
The Kansas City rush was fierce. Left End Jerry Mays, Left Tackle Ed Lothamer or his alternate, Ernie Ladd, Right Tackle Buck Buchanan and Right End Aaron Brown destroyed a fine San Diego offensive line that had allowed Hadl to be thrown for losses only rarely all season. The Chiefs reached Hadl—or his fourth quarter replacement, Jon Brittenum—six times in the second half. San Diego offensive Right Tackle Ron Mix was close to being the first person into the Kansas City locker room when the game was over. "Ron is a gentleman," said Mays, his main opponent of the afternoon. "He came in to tell us we'd played a good game." Mix said, "It's an ugly feeling when you know the game is lost and you're only trying to save face. This was our worst game of the year—and what a time to have it." Said Hadl, "Kansas City has the best team in the league. If they don't win, it's their own fault."