The Miami Dolphins had put together a 14-0 regular season record and were starting off the postseason with an AFC Divisional playoff game against the Cleveland Browns on December 24, 1972. Coached by Don Shula, the Dolphins had an outstanding ball-control offense fueled by the running of FB Larry Csonka and halfbacks Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick (pictured above). When QB Bob Griese went down with a broken ankle, the team kept winning with 17-year veteran QB Earl Morrall at the helm, and if teams concentrated too heavily on stopping the ground attack, WR Paul Warfield provided a potent deep receiving threat. The defense was less-heralded but was tough and effective, giving up fewer points and yards than any other NFL team.
Cleveland placed second in the AFC Central with a 10-4 record to grab the conference’s Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Under the direction of Head Coach Nick Skorich for the second year, the Browns had a young quarterback in Mike Phipps, who replaced Bill Nelsen as the starter early in the year with some success. HB Leroy Kelly, fading at age 30, and FB Bo Scott were the leading ground gainers. The defense was suspect against the run, although better at rushing opposing passers.
There were over 80,000 fans in attendance at the Orange Bowl, vigorously waving handkerchiefs on a clear afternoon. The Dolphins had the game’s first possession, went three-and-out and punted, but immediately got the ball back when LB Doug Swift intercepted a deflected pass by Mike Phipps at the Cleveland 40. Miami still couldn’t move on offense, however, and Garo Yepremian was wide on a 46-yard field goal attempt.
The Browns were having no better luck on offense, also going three-and-out, but Don Cockroft’s punt was blocked by DB Charlie Babb, who recovered the ball at the five and ran in for a touchdown. Yepremian added the extra point and the Dolphins were ahead by 7-0.
Another short series for the Browns ended with a punt and Miami drove from its 16 to the Cleveland 33. Paul Warfield ran for 21 yards on a reverse and Earl Morrall completed a pass to WR Howard Twilley for 11 yards to highlight the possession that was capped by Yepremian kicking a 40-yard field goal to open up a ten-point lead.
In a series that extended into the second quarter, the Browns finally showed life on offense. Bo Scott (pictured at left) had runs of 17 and 15 yards and Phipps scrambled for 14 yards to the Miami 25. But a third down pass was intercepted by CB Curtis Johnson to snuff out the threat.
The Dolphins advanced just past midfield on their next series, with Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris running effectively, but a 53-yard field goal try by Yepremian was short and wide. The teams exchanged punts before the Browns, again forced to kick from their own territory, suffered another miscue. Cockroft couldn’t handle a high snap and fell on the ball to give Miami possession at the Cleveland 39. But a holding penalty moved the Dolphins back 15 yards, Morrall was sacked by DT Walter Johnson for the loss of another nine yards, Morris was tackled for the loss of another 12 yards, and they had to punt.
Phipps threw another interception, with FS Dick Anderson picking off the long throw at the Miami 29, and in the last two minutes the Dolphins again drove into Cleveland territory. Warfield gained 20 yards to midfield on another end-around, Morrall completed two short passes, and Morris had runs of 12 and 14 yards. But a 17-yard Yepremian field goal attempt with four seconds remaining in the first half was wiped out by an illegal procedure penalty and the teams went into the locker room at halftime with Miami holding a 10-0 lead. It could have been far worse for the Browns, who had given up three interceptions and two fumbles thus far.
The teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter before the Browns put together a five-play scoring drive, spurred by a 37-yard punt return to the Miami 44 by SS Thom Darden. Phipps completed passes to TE Milt Morin for 21 yards and WR Fair Hooker for six, Scott ran twice for 10 yards, and Phipps, rolling out to his right, kept the ball himself on a five-yard touchdown carry. Cockroft added the point after and the Miami lead was cut to 10-7.
Jim Kiick carried four times for 26 yards on the next Dolphins’ series, and Morrall threw to Twilley for a gain of 17 yards, but Kiick’s fifth rushing attempt resulted in a fumble and LB Charlie Hall recovered at the Cleveland 33. The Browns went three-and-out and punted, and the Dolphins went right back to Kiick, who carried for 12 yards on two attempts before, following an incomplete pass, Morris put together back-to-back 12-yard carries to finish out the period. Three plays into the fourth quarter, and after Morris was stopped for no gain in a third-and-one situation, Yepremian kicked a 46-yard field goal and Miami was up by six points at 13-7.
A clipping penalty on the ensuing kickoff had the Browns starting from their ten yard line. Phipps started the series off with a 14-yard scramble and a pass to Hooker (pictured at right) picked up 18 yards. After reaching the Miami 38, Anderson intercepted a pass but fumbled on the return and Hooker recovered for Cleveland at the 30. Two plays later, it was Hooker catching a Phipps pass for a 27-yard touchdown and, with Cockroft adding the extra point, the Browns were in front by 14-13.
The Dolphins, with their perfect season suddenly in peril, responded with an 80-yard drive in six plays. Morrall completed passes to Warfield for 15 and 35 yards, interspersed with carries by Morris that picked up 12 yards. Another throw intended for Warfield resulted in a pass interference penalty on LB Bill Andrews, giving Miami first-and-goal at the Cleveland eight, and from there Kiick ran for a TD. Yepremian converted and the Dolphins were back in the lead by six points with 4:49 to play.
The Browns couldn’t get beyond their 39 on the next series and punted, and Miami punted in turn. Cleveland regained possession at its 49 and, with the clock now down to 1:40, Phipps ran for eight yards, passed to Scott for another eight, but following a short running play, a pass intended for Hooker was intercepted by Swift to seal the 20-14 win for the Dolphins.
Playing from behind most of the way, the Browns led in total yards (283 to 272) while Miami had a slight edge in first downs (17 to 15). Both teams accumulated most of their yardage on the ground, with the Dolphins gaining 198 yards to Cleveland’s 165. The Browns registered four sacks, to two by Miami. However, Cleveland turned the ball over five times, to two turnovers by the Dolphins.
Earl Morrall threw just 13 passes and completed 6 of them for 88 yards, with no touchdowns but also no interceptions. While Larry Csonka was held to 32 yards on 12 carries, Mercury Morris (pictured at left) gained 72 yards on 15 attempts and Jim Kiick contributed 50 yards on 14 carries that included a TD. Paul Warfield had two catches for 50 yards in addition to 41 yards on the two end-around plays and Howard Twilley caught three passes for 33 yards. On defense, Dick Anderson and Doug Swift each had two interceptions.
For the Browns, Mike Phipps was successful on just 9 of 23 throws for 131 yards and a TD, and was intercepted five times. He also ran for 47 yards on 8 carries that included a touchdown. Bo Scott had 94 yards on 16 rushing attempts and added 30 yards on a team-leading four pass receptions. Fair Hooker gained 53 yards on three catches and scored once.
“The best thing for us (the Dolphins) was to get behind,” said Larry Csonka. “It got very quiet and somebody said ‘If we’re gonna get anything done, now’s the time to do it’. It got done.”
The Dolphins kept getting things done with wins in the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl, completing an unblemished season from beginning to end. Cleveland, a perennial contender that had been in the postseason in six of the preceding eight years, dropped to 7-5-2 and third place in the AFC Central in 1973 and didn’t return to the playoffs until 1980.