Pivotal Pro Football Moments
pivotal NFL postseason moment: A decision by a coach or an action by a player that establishes or changes the momentum of a playoff game.
1968: Namath Engineers Upset of Century
Super Bowl III: New York Jets vs Baltimore Colts
Sometimes pivotal moments for a football game come long before the kickoff. No game illustrates this better than Super Bowl III.
The Baltimore Colts were 17-point favorites over the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. That was a bigger spread than Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers were granted in either of the first two Super Bowls. Jets QB Joe Namath couldn't believe the odds. From his film study, he felt the Colts were overrated. "If we were allowed to bet, I'd bet $100,000 on this one. I might sound like I'm boasting and bragging, and I am. Ask anybody who's played against us in our league. The Colts are good, but we're good too."
The Colts were not impressed with the Jets defense. Colts Coach Don Shula recalled: "They looked vulnerable on defense on film. They were not overly impressive from what we could see. We really felt we could run and pass freely." Colts DT Billy Ray Smith bragged that Namath "can throw a football into a teacup at 50 yards. But he hasn't seen defenses like ours in his league. Our defenses are as complex as some team's offenses. We have 20 variations of blitzes and five or six variations of fronts. That lets us do a lot of things."
Colts defensive coaches Bill Arnsparger and Chuck Noll felt confident that their shift­ing zone defense could stop Namath & Company. They stood ready to unleash the eight-man maximum blitz that had confounded NFL opponents.

L-R: Don Shula, Bill Arnsparger, Chuck Noll
Ewbank Adopts Allen's Offensive Game Plan
Jets coach Weeb Ewbank learned from the game plan that Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen had employed a year earlier to upset the 11-0-2 Colts and knock them out of the playoffs in the final game of the season. "Their front four and three linebackers could kill you," Allen said afterward. "We had to be ready to pick up the blitz." So he told his QB Roman Gabriel to read the defense and audible plays at the line. The result was a 34-10 victory.
Ewbank also made an adjustment in his offensive line. The Colt Ewbank feared most was DE Bubba Smith. He decided that RT Sam Walton could not handle the man consid­ered the best defensive end in either league. So he moved All-league RG Dave Herman to Walton's spot. Randy Rasmussen took over the guard position Herman vacated.
Watching the Colts on film, Ewbank realized they were still running some of the zone defenses he had installed in his time as Baltimore head coach. Gaining confidence as game day approached, he told his assistant Clive Rush, "They're slow. If we can't pass on these guys, we ought to get out of the business." In particular, Weeb noticed that Baltimore always rotated its zone toward CB Bobby Boyd. "I think they're trying to protect him," said the Jet coach. "I think he's slow."
Ewbank simplified his offensive plan to emphasize basic running plays (off-tackle slants and draws) and simple pass patterns (hooks, flares, screens). He wanted to avoid the loss of poise that both Kansas City and Oakland had experienced when the Packers forced them into crucial errors in the first two Super Bowls.

L-R: Weeb Ewbank, Dave Herman, Randy Rasmussen
Namath Guarantees Victory
Broadway Joe made national headlines with a pronouncement he made at the Thursday night banquet for the two teams. After receiving the Professional Football Player of the Year award, Joe started his acceptance speech with the usual thank yous to family and friends for their support. From the back of the room came a shout. "Sit down!"
Laughing, Namath asked, "Who's that? Lou Michaels?" referring to the Colts' defensive end.
The voice yelled back, "Hey, Namath, we're gonna kick your ..."
Joe responded, "Listen. You don't know what you're talkin' about. We're going to win Sunday. I guarantee it."

L-R: Lou Michaels, Tom Matte, John Mackey
Colts Exude Overconfidence
One head coach was worried that his team was overconfident while the opposing coach feared that his brash quarterback's remarks had fired up the opponents.
Shula unwittingly added to the pressure on his team by telling them before they left Baltimore, "Just remember that everything we've accomplished all season is riding on the outcome of this game."
Curt Gowdy, the play-by-play announcer for NBC's TV coverage of the game, visited the Colts practice during the week. Gowdy recalled: "I got on the bus and rode over with 'em. They were singing and laughing. I was sitting next to Shula, and he said, 'Geez, listen to these guys. I'm really worried about this game. Football is all mental. Any time one team's more ready to play than the other, they can beat you.' ... I saw Tom Matte. We got to talk­ing, and I said, "What are you going to do after the season?" He said, 'Well, we get $15,000 for winning. I'm going to build a playroom on my home." He called over Dick Vogel, a great lineman. ... I asked him what he was going to do. He said, 'We get $15,000 for winning. I'm going on an African safari.' I talked to four or five of them. They already had their money spent."
Shula could not have been pleased that the Colts owner hired workers to start preparing his Miami beachfront home Saturday morning for a victory party. Rosenbloom bragged at the NFL party several nights earlier that he had bet a quarter of a million dollars on his team.
Baltimore TE John Mackey recalled: "We had the wrong attitude. We started to believe we were 19-point favorites. We announced our victory party the Wednesday before the game and cut up the shares at the pregame meeting. Can you believe that?"
Ewbank supported his quarterback to reporters who asked about Namath's provocative comments. "That's the way he feels about it, and I'm for him. I wouldn't give a darn for him if he didn't think we could win."
But privately Weeb hated what Joe did. "What have you done, Joe? How could you do this? That team was so overconfident! Now you've given them something to get fired up about!"
Namath replied, "If the Colts need newspaper clippings to get up for a game, then they're in a helluva lot of trouble."
Michaels Misses Field Goal
The Jets received the kickoff and made one first down before having to punt. The Colts then launched a methodical drive that began with moving the chains on the first two plays, a 19y pass from Earl Morrall to TE John Mackey and a 10y run by Tom Matte. Three runs later gained another first down on the NY 31. On third-and-13, Morrall connected with TE Tom Mitchell at the 19.
At that point, CB Johnny Sample, the Jets' defensive captain who had played for the Colts in the 1958 and '59 NFL championship games, yelled at his teammates in the huddle. "If we don't start doing something, we might as well walk out of here right now." DE Gerry Philbin was even more animated. "Hit somebody, damn it! We're getting embarrassed out here." He then proceeded to lead by example.

L: Earl Morrall pitches out to Tom Matte. R: Johnny Sample
Next came a play that started a deceleration of the Colts' momentum. Philbin flushed Morrall out of the pocket, forcing him to throw on the run toward FL Willie Richardson running down the sideline. The ball sailed behind the receiver, who could get only one hand on it. Then LB Larry Grantham's red-dog caused a hurried throw that fell short of a diving Mitchell.
On 3rd down, in Morrall's words, "the Jets came up with a perfect defensive call. Every receiver was covered. Matte was out in the flat, and he had a linebacker with him. I thought I might be able to get the ball to Tom. But before I could unload, I was smother­ed." Philbin and DE Verlon Biggs did the smothering. Morrall squirmed away to get to the 18 and avoid a long loss. So the field goal unit came in, but Lou Michaels, so intent on beating Namath, missed from the 27 with the wind pushing the ball wide right.
The Jet defense left the field with renewed confidence and resolve. Grantham recalled that the botched field goal "pepped us up good." Jets FB Matt Snell sensed some steam going out of the Colts, and Morrall had the same feeling. He wrote in his autobiography: "Looking back, I realize that our failure to score on this drive was very significant. It gave the Jets an emotional lift. It bolstered their confidence."

L: Namath hands to Snell the first of 30 times. R: Larry Grantham
Namath Forces Colts to Change Their Defense
The Jets quickly faced 3rd and eight from their 22. With LB Dennis Gaubatz blitzing up the middle, Namath hit HB Bill Mathis at the 35 to move the chains. During the week, Ewbank said, "We want them to blitz. Joe reads the blitz real well." Shula years later: "We blitzed a lot. The blitz had been successful against everybody. Nobody had figured it out. Namath was the only guy to be able to beat our blitz that year."
Jets FL Don Maynard had suffered a pulled hamstring in early December and slept Saturday night with a heat pad on his leg. On the next snap, Maynard took off down the right sideline and got a step on SS Jerry Logan. But with both backs in to give Namath the extra time he needed, his pass flew a few inches beyond Don's outstretched hands - a big opportunity missed by the Jets. The ball traveled 55y in the air. On the sideline, Ew­bank thought, "Damn, if his leg's right, that's a touchdown."
While watching film of the Colts, Namath had spotted a weakness in their secondary. They didn't help one another on deep passing patterns. So he and Don figured they could get the ball deep. The Colts didn't know that Maynard was not at full speed, but the near miss on the long pass caused them to rotate their zone to Don's side the rest of the game. That left RCB Lenny Lyles all alone on the other wide receiver, George Sauer. Sauer: "Some writer later said that was the most important incomplete pass in Super Bowl history, which it was." In preparation for the game, Ewbank told Sauer: "Find the dead spots in the zone, hook up, and Joe will hit you." Namath agreed: "That play was important. May­nard was open. He got behind their bomb-proof secondary. He put the fear of God in them the rest of the game."
After the Jets punted to the Baltimore 42, Morrall called a play meant to take advan­tage of the fact that the Jet linebackers liked to help out in the secondary. He sent WR Jimmy Orr and Richardson fairly deep and held Mackey back, as if he were going to block. MLB Al Atkinson took the bait and dropped back. So John broke into the vacated space. Earl threw to the reliable tight end, but he dropped the ball with no Jet within 5y of him. That led to David Lee's great punt that was downed on the Jets three.

L-R: Dennis Gaubatz, Don Maynard, George Sauer, Lenny Lyles
Atkinson Tips Sure TD Pass
On the second-to-last play of the scoreless first quarter, Sauer caught a short pass from Namath but fumbled when hit by Lyles, and Ron Porter recovered for Baltimore on the Jets 12.
Matte took a pitch around left end to the six. That set up the play that Morrall described as a turning point. "Shula sent in Tom Mitchell, our six-foot-two, 235-pound tight end. Often during the season we had used Mitchell in short yardage situations like this one. He's big and strong and able to shield away defenders with his body. We went into a double wing and put Mitchell wide to the left. Randy Beverly would be covering him. Tom Matte and Jerry Hill were to decoy. Matte, also set to the left, was to slant left, taking the safety with him. Hill was to draw off the right linebacker. Mitchell was to run a quick slant-in, the idea being to get inside Beverly. Then I was to throw low, to Mitchell's belly, so he could clutch the ball to his body and fall to the ground in the end zone. As I called out the signals, I could see that the Jet line had shifted to the right, and Al Atkinson, the middle linebacker, had moved a step or two to the left. I knew this meant he would be flying to the left, oppo­site to the direction Mitchell would be traveling. 'Beautiful,' I thought, 'just beautiful.' It went great. Matte cleared his man out. So did Hill. And Mitchell threw a perfect fake at Beverly and then slipped inside him. I threw - hard. Mitchell had his arms open and wait­ing. The throw was right on target. Then suddenly the ball veered off course. Atkinson had tipped it, bending its path upward slightly so that it struck Mitchell on the shoulder. And then it caromed high into the air, straight up, just like a foul tip. Ironically, Beverly, the man who had been so thoroughly feinted out of position, became the hero. He turned, went back a step or two, and was under the ball when it came down to make an end-zone inter­ception."
Earl added, "I couldn't believe our luck could be so bad. 'What's happening?' I thought to myself as I came off the field. 'What do we have to do?' And as I stood on the sidelines watching Namath call plays, I could see that the Jets were fired up. The crowd could, too, and their allegiance had shifted. ... I had hardly heard the fans before, but now the stands seemed to be in ceaseless tumult, one roar blending with the next, and you could feel the electricity, and I'm sure all this worked to exhilarate the Jets."

L-R: Tom Mitchell, Randy Beverly, Al Atkinson
Jets Take the Lead
Starting from the 20 and continuing to employ a disciplined, conservative, "NFL-style" game plan, the "undisciplined" Namath called four straight runs by Snell to the left behind G Bob Talamini, T Winston Hill, and HB Emerson Boozer. The result was the Jets' third first down of the afternoon. Then that same play resulted in a 13y gain to the 46.
The Jets had decided from their film study that the right side of the Baltimore defense was more vulnerable to the run. RDE Ordell Braase was 36, ROLB Don Shinnick, 33, and RCB Lenny Lyles, 32. Snell: "It was a hot, sunny day, and that made it easier for Win­ston (Hill, 35 lbs heavier than Ordell) to overpower Braase. Braase pretty much faded out. Once that worked, we could fake me running off-tackle and throw to Sauer. Hill would drive into Ordell, but sometimes he would let Braase determine the direction of the play. If the defensive end went inside, Hill would push him in that direction, relying on Snell to made the cut to the outside. And vice-versa, push Braase outside and let Matt run inside."
On most plays, Namath was calling audibles when he was under center after seeing the Colts' alignment. He also noticed that the secondary often telegraphed its coverages. But on the next snap, Joe threw into double coverage at the left sideline for Sauer and was fortunate that Shinnick, the NFL's all-time interception leader among linebackers, couldn't hold onto the ball. Then, with LLB Mike Curtis roaring in, Namath dumped to Mathis in the vacant right flat. Bill hot-footed it to the Colt 48. On 3rd-and-four, Sauer ran a button hook and caught Namath's bullet at the 34 for the first down. A quick out to Sauer put the pigskin on the 23. Following a crossbuck by Boozer to the strong side that gained two, Namath flipped a swing pass to Snell who reached the nine to make it 1st-and-goal. Matt again, this time at right tackle to the four. The Colts rushed in their goal-line defense that featured a tight, five-man front. In the huddle, Namath called for 19-Straight again and added, "We'll go on the first sound." With his team lined up, Joe paused behind C John Schmitt, then got into his slouched stance and yelled "Now!" Snell took the handoff, slid around left end, and just beat LB Dennis Gaubatz to the goal line to complete the 12-play 80y drive.
Never before had an AFL team led in a Super Bowl, and the Colts trailed in a game for the first time since November. Jets 7 Colts 0 (9:03)

L: Sauer catches buttonhook in front of Lyles. R: Snell scores first touchdown of game.
The Colts' defense was frustrated that such a simple game plan was working against them. Jets C John Schmitt: "I could hear them cursing themselves in their huddle. They were mad as hell that we were moving." One of the reasons for the Colts' frustration was that they knew from the Jets' formation which type of running play they would run depend­ing on where Snell and Boozer were lined up behind Namath. Yet they still couldn't stop them consistently.
Michaels Misses Another Field Goal
The Colts quickly moved into Jets territory when Morrall threw quickly with a rusher in his face to Matte in the left flat. Tom escaped a tackler and rambled 30y to the NY 42. But the next three plays gained only 3y. So Michaels came in from another field goal try, this one from the 46. The boot was long enough but off to the right. More frustration for the Colts' offense.
The Jets took the kickoff and moved close enough for Jim Turner to try a 41y field goal that was wide left.
Morrall Throws Two Picks
After Baltimore took over on the 20, Matte electrified the Colts fans by turning the corner around right end and sprinting all the way to the 16 where Bill Baird corralled him. Two snaps later, Morrall threw down the middle for Richardson, but Sample, playing the game of his life, cut inside of Willie to intercept as he fell to the turf at the two at the two-minute warning.
The Jets ran Snell three times to force the Colts to use two of their timeouts. So Curly Johnson punted to the NY 42 with 0:43 left. That was time enough for Morrall to suffer his biggest frustration of the game.
First, FB Jerry Hill took a pass in the flat but couldn't quite get out of bounds at the 41. So Shula used his final timeout. After talking to Don, Morrall called a play named "438 Flea Flicker" that should have produced the tying touchdown. He handed to Matte running right. Tom turned and threw back to Earl who grabbed the ball at waist level and, with Elliott charging at him, spotted Hill down the middle. Morrall: "He had plenty of room so I just sort of arched the ball instead of throwing hard. It floated - giving Jim Hudson, the Jets' safety, enough time to race over and make an interception." Hudson returned 7y to the 20. Morrall hadn't see Jimmy Orr, who, thanks to a blown coverage, was wide open down the left side.

L-R: Matte on the loose; Hudson intercepts in front of Hill; Jimmy Orr
Matte years later: "To me, the failed flea-flicker in the second quarter cost us the game. Jimmy Orr was in the end zone waving his arms, and Earl didn't see him. We had done that play a number of times during the season, and you threw the ball to the deepest guy. ... Orr supposedly blended in with the band." The Colts Marching Band was seated behind the end zone in their blue uniforms.
Jets DT Gerry Philbin agreed with Matte. "It certainly took a lot of wind out of their sails, that's for sure. You got a guy waving his arms in the end zone, and the quarterback doesn't see him. That has to be disappointing. Had Baltimore scored on that play, I believe they'd have been pumped up, and we'd have been deflated heading into the locker room. Then who knows? It could've been a totally different story in the second half."
Earl Morrall: "I heard Jimmy (Orr) screaming as we headed for the locker room. 'Didn't you see, Earl? Didn't you see me?' I told him, 'No, Jimmy, I didn't.' I had to turn to my right in order to take the pass from Matte and when I looked up, Jimmy wasn't in my line of vision. Jerry Hill was, so I went to him. ... I was beginning to think that the stars were against us or something."
Shula made a decision at halftime that he kept to himself. He would give Morrell one series in the second half to show he could move the team. If he failed, he would send in Unitas.
Jets Add to Their Lead
The second half couldn't have started any worse for Baltimore. After returning the kick­off to the 25, the fired-up Colts were more energetic coming out of the huddle for the first play. Matte burst through right tackle for 8y but fumbled when Verlon Biggs tore the ball loose from behind. Ralph Baker recovered for New York at the 38.
Runs by Boozer and Snell gained a first down at the 21. On 3rd-and-two, Snell moved the chains to the 11. But the defense finally struck when Rick Volk flew in from his safety position and strung out the sweep to Boozer for a loss of six. On the next snap, Bubba Smith burst through and sacked Namath at the 25. The sack was one of the few plays that Smith made all day. Don Maynard: "Looking back on it, that was probably one of the great adjustments ever made in football - when Coach Ewbank moved Herman from left guard to right tackle to block Bubba Smith."
On 3rd-and-24, Namath, perhaps still shaken by Smith's sack, threw to Lammons. Logan broke in front of him with nothing by green turf in front of him but dropped the ball. So Turner booted a 41y field goal. Jets 10 Colts 0 (10:08)

L-R: Namath throws over Smith; Rick Volk; Turner kicks Jets first field goal.
After the Colts went three-and-out on Morrall's last series of the game, the Jets drove to another field goal. The key plays were Namath passes to Sauer for 14, to Lammons for 11, and to Snell for 14. On second down from the 23, Namath threw incomplete to May­nard beyond the end zone. Joe hurried to the sideline with what appeared to be an injured passing hand. Babe Parilli replaced him under center and threw low to Sauer. So Turner connected on a 30y field goal. Jets 13 Colts 0 (3:58)
After the touchback, Johnny Unitas came in to a crescendo of applause to start the drive from the 20. Could the old pro turn around the offense? Just his stepping on the field energized the Colts and made the Jets nervous. But the 35-year-old veteran with a sore shoulder could do no better than a three-and-out.
When the period ended, the Jets were threatening again at the Colts three. Baltimore gained no first downs in the quarter as the Jets ran 24 plays to the Colts' seven.
As the teams changed sides, Namath stopped by the Jets bench and told Ewbank, "I'm not going to take any chances. I'm just going to get on the board. You agree with that?" Weeb told Namath, "Make sure we get points."
The Colts goal-line defense held the Jets to another Turner field goal. Jets 16 Colts 0 (13:26)
The Colts made their initial first down of the half on a Matte sweep to the 38. Two plays later, Tom gained 19 to put his offense in Jet territory for the first time in the half. But the promising drive ended three plays later when Unitas's pass to Orr ended up in the hands of Beverly.
Namath handed off seven straight times to gain two first downs. The Colts finally held when they stuffed Mathis for no gain on 3rd-and-one. Turner's 42y field goal missed.
Unitas salvaged some pride for the Colts by leading a touchdown drive that was aided by two personal foul penalties on the Jets. Johnny didn't start well with three incomple­tions, but a 17y fourth-down strike to Orr gained 17 to the 37. Then a third down throw to Mackey gained 11. Two plays later Richardson snagged a 21-yarder to the NY 15. Ano­ther 11-yarder to Orr followed by an offside penalty on the Jets put the ball on the one. Hill gained the final yard. Jets 16 Colts 7 (3:19)

L: Willie Richardson; R: Jerry Hill scores.
After the Colts recovered the onside kick, three straight completions moved the ball to the Jets 19. But several misfires brought up fourth down. What would Shula do on 4th-and-five? He'd need a field goal and a touchdown to overcome the nine-point deficit, but Michaels was not a sure thing. So he decided not to waste the field position. What a story if The Legend pulled this off. Unitas threw to Orr inside the five, but Grantham knocked it away with 2:21 on the clock.
Fans chanted "AFL, AFL, AFL" as the clock ticked down. Snell exceeded 100y by six on his 28th carry of the game. FINAL SCORE: JETS 16 COLTS 7
"We got all the breaks," Ewbanks told Shula when they shook hands at midfield. "Your team played well," countered Don. "Nice of you to say that," said Ewbank, putting his arm around one of his favorite players on the Colts.
Namath won the Sport magazine MVP award - a Dodge Charger. Later, Joe told Snell he thought the running back should have won the award.
Years later, Tom Matte recalled Super Bowl III this way: "Namath played O.K. He didn't set the world on fire, and as far as being the MVP, I thought Snell deserved it. But the guy who really deserved it was Weeb Ewbank. He outcoached Shula. That game made football what it is today. Everyone thought the NFL would dominate; this game proved we couldn't. It really helped football, and it gave everybody credibility in the AFL."