Pivotal Pro Football Moments
pivotal NFL postseason moment: A decision by a coach or an action by a player that changes the momentum of a playoff game.
1961 Questionable Call, Late INT Kill Charger Comeback
1961 AFL Championship Game: Houston Oilers @ San Diego Chargers
The second title game of the American Football League involved the same two teams as the first title game. However, one of the two teams had changed cities, and the other had a new coach.
The Los Angeles Chargers moved to San Diego, and the Houston Oilers defended their East Division crown, although not without turmoil. When the club started 1-3-1, owner Bud Adams fired head coach Lou Rymkus and replaced him with Wally Lemm. Lemm had been an assistant on the '60 Oilers staff but had resigned after the season to work in the sporting goods industry.
Lemm was a breath of fresh air for the players after the gruff Rymkus, who worked his players to exhaustion at times. Wally explained his philosophy like this. "Pro football play­ers, like anybody else, do their jobs better when they like their work." Benching QB Jacky Lee in favor of George Blanda, who had led the Oilers to the 1960 AFL title, the new coach proceeded to lead Houston to nine straight victories and earn AFL Coach of the Year Honors. Included in the streak was a 33-13 pasting of the Chargers in Houston.

L-R: Wally Lemm, George Blanda, Sid Gillman
Behind Blanda and HB Billy Cannon ("the fastest guard who ever played in the back­field" according to Bud Shrake of the Dallas Morning News), the Oilers led the league with 513 points, 100 more than the next team, the Patriots. Their passing total of 4,392y was over 1,500y more than second-place San Diego. Houston wasn't shabby on the ground either, finishing second in the league to the Dallas Texans.
GM/Head coach Sid Gillman's Chargers amassed the best record in the league, 12-2, in their new home at Balboa Stadium. They won their first eleven games to clinch the Western Division before losing two of the last three. Like Houston, San Diego returned the core of their 1960 team led by QB Jack Kemp (2,686y passing), HB Paul Lowe (767 rushing yards), and FL Dave Kocourek (55 receptions for 1,055y). SE Don Norton snagged 47 balls for another 816y.

L-R: Paul Lowe, Dave Kocourek, Don Norton, Bud Whitehead
Although Gillman was known for his innovative passing game, his defense was the stin­giest in the AFL. Opponents scored just 219 points against the Chargers, an average of only 15.6 per game in an offensive-minded league. Pro Bowlers Earl Faison and Bill Hud­son anchored the Front Four that enabled the secondary to grab 49 interceptions, 16 more than second-place Houston in that department. The 49 interceptions and nine returns for touchdowns set pro football records that stood for decades.
Chargers defense L-R: Ron Nery, Chuck Allen, Ernie Ladd, Bill Hudson, Bob Zeman, Earl Faison
The scoreless first quarter saw both teams muff scoring chances. San Diego CB Bud Whitehead picked off a Blanda pass and returned it 41y to the Chargers 48. On the first snap, Kemp found E Dave Kocourek on a reverse-screen pattern, and the tall wingman sped between a couple of defenders to the 14. A play later, however, Fred Glick pirated Kemp's jump pass intended for Luther Hayes in the end zone.
Houston's defensive strategy was to blitz Kemp with their linebackers as well as their ends and tackles so that he would keep both backs in to block. They varied their tactics but kept Kemp running for his life. Quite often, he had to eat the ball or get rid of it before he could get set and spot an open receiver. Coach Lemm copied the successful strategy his friend Mike Holovak, coach of the Patriots, employed the previous week in the 41-0 rout of the Chargers.
The Oilers got a break when Doug Cline recovered Kemp's fumble on the SD 24. After three plays netted just 4y, the Oilers lined up for a field goal attempt. However, holder Groman muffed the snap, resulting in a 27y loss. Given good field position on the Oilers' end of the gridiron, the Chargers couldn't get close enough for a field goal attempt.

Claude Gibson comes up to tackle Billy Cannon as Rich Michael tries to block.
San Diego repelled another thrust when S Charlie McNeil intercepted a Blanda pass in the end zone. The Chargers' chances of victory took a hit when star HB Paul Lowe was hurt during the first half and never returned to the field.
A shanked punt by Paul Maguire that traveled only 9y gave Houston the ball on the Chargers 39. Paul made a leaping catch of the pass from center and rushed his boot. The Oilers went nowhere, but Blanda toed a 46y field goal to break the scoring ice.
Halftime score: Houston 3 San Diego 0
Oilers WR Charlie Hennigan, who caught 10 passes for 214y and three touchdowns in the matchup in Houston, went out with an injury during the period. "Their secondary was playing us a lot looser this time. It might have been different if Bill (Groman) and I hadn't both gotten hurt. I got knocked out in the second quarter, and I didn't come to until half­time. I was in the dressing room and didn't know how I'd gotten there."
Starting from their 20, the Oilers took nine plays to score what turned out to be the game's only touchdown. A 15y penalty greatly aided the advance. Finally, from the SD 35, Blanda skipped to his right and threw back to his left to Cannon, who gathered in the ball coming across the middle on the 17. Aided by a timely block on the only nearby defender, the Heisman Trophy winner trotted the remaining yards into the end zone to make it Oilers 10 Chargers 0. Lamm explained, "We were lucky to score our touchdown. Blanda was supposed to throw to another receiver, but he was rushed so hard, he threw to Cannon."
The Chargers finally scored following McNeil's second interception on the SD 31, his 16y return, and a 15y penalty on Houston put the ball on the Oiler 38. Soon San Diego had a first down on the 10. Bo Robertson, who replaced Lowe at halfback, cut the dis­tance to the goal in half on the next snap. But Kemp overthrew Bo on 3rd down.
After the teams changed ends, George Blair booted a 12y field goal. Houston 10 San Diego 3
Back judge Johnny Morrow infuriated the Chargers when DB Bob Zeman intercepted a Blanda pass while falling into the end zone, and the ball was placed on the one instead of the 20. "My momentum carried me into the end zone," said Zeman, hotly. "It was a ridicu­lous call."

Kemp passes from his end zone as Don Floyd closes in.
Exactly two minutes later, the Chargers took over on their 37 with one last chance to tie the game. Kemp, scrambling, found Charlie Flowers for 8y. Robertson helped with a 5y advance. Then San Diego profited from an interference ruling on Kocourek on the Hous­ton 37 with 1:37 on the clock. Kemp's next aerial sailed true to Kocourek on the 30, but he bobbled it just enough for the smallest player on the field, 158-lb Julian Spence, to rush in and pick it off for the interception that iced the game.
FINAL SCORE: HOUSTON 10 SAN DIEGO 3
The Chargers incurred 106y in penalties. "The worst officiating I've seen all season, no doubt about it," said Gillman bitterly. DB Charlie McNeil: "That one fellow (Morrow) was responsible for 90 percent of the bad calls. He was terrible."