The National Football League (NFL) had dominated professional football from its origins after World War I….as rival leagues had crumbled or merged with it….and when the American Football League (AFL) began to play in 1960….it was the fourth to hold that similar name to challenge the older NFL….however, unlike its earlier namesakes….this AFL was able to command sufficient financial resources to survive….as one factor in this was by them becoming the first league to sign a television contract….where previously, individual franchises had signed agreements with networks to televise games. The junior league proved successful enough, in fact, to make attractive offers to players….evidenced by the fact that after the 1964 season….there had been a well-publicized bidding war which culminated with the signing by the AFL’s New York Jets (formerly New York Titans) of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath for an unprecedented contract. Fearing that bidding wars over players would become the norm….which greatly increased labor costs….the NFL owners, ostensibly led by league Commissioner Pete Rozelle….obtained a merger agreement with the AFL….which provided for a single draft….interleague play in the pre-season…..a championship game to follow each season….and the integration of the two leagues into one in a way to be agreed at a future date. As the two leagues had an unequal number of teams…who under the new merger agreement….the NFL expanded by one team to 16….and the AFL by one to 10)….as realignment was advocated by some owners, but was opposed. Eventually, three NFL teams….the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Baltimore Colts agreed to move over to join the original AFL franchises of 1960 in what became the American Football Conference.
Despite the ongoing merger, it was a commonly held view that the NFL was a far superior league. This was seemingly confirmed by the results of the first two interleague championship games, in January 1967 and 1968….in which the NFL champion Green Bay Packers, coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi….easily defeated the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. Although publicized as the inter-league championship games, it wasn’t until later that the moniker for this championship contest between the now two conferences of the NFC and AFC began having the nickname of “Super Bowl” applied to it by the media and later began being counted by using Roman numerals….with the creation of the term being credited to the then-owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt.
The Baltimore Colts had won the 1958 and 1959 NFL championships under Coach Weeb Ewbank. In the following years, however, the Colts failed to make the playoffs, and the Colts dismissed Ewbank after a 7–7 record in 1962….when he was soon hired by New York’s new AFL franchise….which had just changed its name from the Titans to the Jets. In Ewbank’s place, Baltimore hired an untested young head coach, Don Shula….who would also go on to become one of the game’s greatest coaches. The Colts did well under Shula, despite losing to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship Game….and, in 1965, losing in overtime to the Green Bay Packers in a tie-breaking game to decide the NFL Western Division championship. The Colts finished a distant second in the West to the Packers in 1966….then in 1967, with the NFL divided into four divisions of four teams each….went undefeated with two ties through their first 13 games….but lost the game and the Coastal Division championship to the Los Angeles Rams on the final Sunday of the season….so, under the newly instituted tiebreakers procedures….the Rams. won the division championship as it had better net points in the two games the teams played with a Rams win and an earlier tie….as the Colts finished 11–1–2 and out of the playoffs. In 1968, Shula and the Colts were considered a favorite to win the NFL championship again….which carried with it an automatic berth what was now becoming popularly known as the “Super Bowl” against the champion of the younger AFL….as the NFL champion in both cases being the Green Bay Packers….who had easily won the first two Super Bowls (1967 and 1968) over the AFL winner….thus establishing for a while a superiority of the older NFL circuit.
Baltimore’s quest for a championship seemed doomed from the start when long-time starting quarterback Johnny Unitas suffered a pre-season injury to his throwing arm and was replaced by Earl Morrall….a veteran who had started inconsistently over the course of his 12 seasons with four different teams….but Morrall would go on to have the best year of his careerby leading the league in passer rating (93.2) during the regular season….as his performance was so impressive that Colts coach Don Shula decided to keep Morrall in the starting lineup after Unitas was healthy enough to play. The Colts had won ten games in a row, including four shutouts, and finished the season with an NFL-best 13–1 record….as in a 10 game stretch…. they had allowed only seven touchdowns…..then, the Colts avenged their sole regular-season loss against the Cleveland Browns by crushing them, 34–0, in the NFL Championship Game.
The Colts offense ranked second in the NFL in points scored (402)….as WR Jimmy Orr’s 29 receptions, 743 yards, 6 touchdowns and WR Willie Richardson with 37 receptions, 698 yards, 8 touchdowns provided Baltimore with two deep threats…in a season when Orr averaged 25.6 yards per catch and Richardson averaged 18.9….plus TE John Mackey also recorded 45 receptions for 644 yards and 5 touchdowns. Pro Bowl running back Tom Matte was the team’s top rusher with 662 yards and 9 touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 275 yards and another touchdown. Running backs Terry Cole and Jerry Hill combined for 778 rushing yards and 236 receiving yards.
The Colts defense led the NFL in fewest points allowed (144, tying the then all-time league record)….ranking third in total rushing yards allowed (1,339)….with Bubba Smith, a 6’7″ 295-pound defensive end considered the NFL’s best pass rusher anchored the line….while LB Mike Curtis was considered one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Baltimore’s secondary consisted of defensive backs Bobby Boyd with 8 interceptions…..Rick Volk with 6 interceptions….Lenny Lyles with 5 interceptions….and Jerry Logan with 3 interceptions. The Colts were the only NFL team to routinely play a zone defense….which gave them an advantage in the NFL because the other NFL teams were inexperienced against a zone defense….but this would not give them an advantage over the upstart New York Jets….cuz zone defenses were common in the AFL and the Jets knew how to attack them.)
The New York Jets were led by head coach Weeb Ewbank….who was the head coach of the Colts when they won the famous 1958 NFL Championship game….and later the ’59 title also….who finished the season with an 11–3 regular season record….in which Jets quarterback Joe Namath threw for 3,147 yards….but completed just 49.2 percent of his passes….and threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (15)….but still, he led the offense effectively enough for them to finish the regular season with more total points scored (419) than Baltimore. More importantly, Namath usually found ways to win….for example….late in the fourth quarter of the AFL championship game….Namath threw an interception that allowed the Raiders to take the lead….but he then made up for his mistake by completing 3 consecutive passes on the ensuing drive….while advancing the ball 68 yards in just 55 seconds to score a touchdown to regain the lead for New York. Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Don Maynard caught the game-winning pass in the end zone but strained his hamstring on the play.
The Jets had a number of offensive weapons that Namath used. Maynard had the best season of his career while catching 57 passes for 1,297 yards…for an average of 22.8 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns….as WR George Sauer, Jr. recorded 66 receptions for 1,141 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Jets rushing attack was also effective….with Fullback Matt Snell….a power runner who was the top rusher on the team with 747 yards and 6 touchdowns….while elusive HB Emerson Boozer contributed 441 yards and 5 touchdowns. Meanwhile, kicker Jim Turner made 34 field goals and 43 extra points for a combined total of 145 points.
The Jets defense led the AFL in total rushing yards allowed (1,195)….with DE Gerry Philbin, DT Paul Rochester, DT John Elliott and DE Verlon Biggs anchoring the defensive line. The Jets linebacking core was led by middle linebacker Al Atkinson….and the secondary was led by defensive backs Johnny Sample….a former Colt who played on their 1958 NFL Championship team….who recorded 7 interceptions….as Jim Hudson recorded 5.
Several of the Jets’ players had been cut by NFL teams….as Maynard had been cut by the New York Giants after they lost the 1958 NFL Championship Game to the Colts….causing him to say…”I kept a little bitterness in me,”….shile Sample had been cut by the Colts commented that “I was almost in a frenzy by the time the game arrived cuz I held a private grudge against the Colts and I was really ready for that game. All of us were.” Offensive tackle Winston Hill had been cut five years earlier by the Colts as a rookie in training camp said that “Ordell Braase kept making me look bad in practice,”….and Hill would be blocking Braase in Super Bowl III. At an all-night party to celebrate the Jets victory over the Raiders at Namath’s nightclub, Bachelors III….Namath poured champagne over Johnny Carson as the talk show host commented, “First time I ever knew you to waste the stuff.”
The Colts advanced to the Super Bowl with two dominating wins….where first, they jumped to a 21-0 fourth quarter lead against the Minnesota Vikings….and easily held off their meager comeback attempt in the final period for a 24-14 win….then they faced the Cleveland Browns….who had defeated them in week 5 of the regular season. But in this game, they proved to be no challenge as Baltimore held them to just 173 total yards and only allowed them to cross midfield twice in the entire game. Matte scored three of the Colts four rushing touchdowns as the team won easily 34-0.
Meanwhile, New York in the AFL championship game faced a red hot Oakland Raiders team….who had just defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 41-6 one week earlier….with quarterback Daryle Lamonica throwing 5 touchdown passes. The championship game was close and hard fought the whole way through….with both teams trading scores at a relatively even pace. The momentum seemed to swing in the Raiders’ favor when George Atkinson picked off a pass from Namath and returned it 32 yards to the Jets 5-yard line and setting up a touchdown that gave Oakland their first lead of the game at 23-20 with 8:18 left in regulation. But Namath quickly led the team back….completing a 10-yard pass to Sauer and a 52-yard pass to Maynard on the Raiders 6-yard line….when on the next play….his 6-yard touchdown pass to Maynard gave them a 27-23 lead they would never relinquish. Oakland’s final three possessions of the game would result in a turnover on downs, a lost fumble, and time expiring in the game….which all led to Super Bowl III between the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts….and one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history.