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How a botched play ended a Chiefs dynasty

Remembering one of the greatest Chiefs squads in history — and how great acting might have ended its chance to appear in a third Super Bowl.

Lennie Dawson and Jan Stenerud

Editor’s note: It’s “Best Teams to Never Win a Championship Week” on SB Nation. And though this week is much more fun this time around (given the Chiefs have just won the Super Bowl), there are still plenty of teams and players from over the years we wish could have experienced it.

The Kansas City Chiefs won their second AFL championship against the Buffalo Bills 31-7 on New Year’s Day in 1967. Two weeks later, they lost to the Green Bay Packers in the first AFL-NFL Championship — which would later be dubbed Super Bowl I.

The team won the very last AFL Championship — its third — on January 4, 1970, defeating the Oakland Raiders 17-7 on the way to its victory against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

But despite those two Super Bowl appearances, another Chiefs squad might have been the best of that era. It just never got that far.

Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson has always maintained that the 1971 team was the best the Chiefs ever assembled. Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt agreed. “I always thought that was the peak of our best team, our ‘71 squad,” he later recalled.

But that 1971 team never got close to Super Bowl VI, where it could have cemented the Chiefs as a dynasty of the newly-merged NFL.

Head coach Hank Stram was still prowling the sideline — and the team still had most of their 1969 championship players. Len Dawson, Otis Taylor, Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and Buck Buchanan were just some of the 11 Pro Bowl players (and eight future Hall of Fame members) who remained from that roster.

They had cruised to the AFC West title with a 10-3-1 record. But then on Christmas Day 1971, the team had to face the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Divisional Round playoff at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium.

The double-overtime loss to Miami — still the longest game in NFL history and the last game ever played at the old ball yard at 22nd and Brooklyn — is usually blamed on normally-reliable Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud, who missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with just 35 seconds left in the game, forcing the game into overtime.

The game ended only when Miami kicker Garo Yepremian made a 37-yard field goal with 7:20 remaining in the second overtime period, giving the Dolphins a 27-24 win.

But the game had actually turned on another missed Stenerud field goal in the second quarter — one that would have put the Chiefs ahead 13-0 and probably kept the game from going into overtime.

Except... even that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Stram had noticed a vulnerability in the way the Dolphins were defending field goal attempts — and he decided to pull an ace from the pocket of his custom-tailored suit. Stenerud wasn’t just a good kicker. He was fast, too — capable of running a 40-yard dash in just 4.6 seconds. So the Chiefs would snap the ball directly to Stenerud, who would run around right end behind two pulling guards for the first down — if not a touchdown.

“I told Jan, ‘You’ve got to be a good actor and look like you’re going to kick,’” Stram was quoted as saying in a 2016 Miami Herald article. “Anyway, we’re on the right hash mark. Everyone on the sideline is psyched. We know we’re going to score a touchdown. Bobby Bell, our center, looks through his legs and sees Jan looking down at his spot like he normally would, which is exactly what we told him to do. But it’s so convincing, Bell thinks Jan missed the call. He’s afraid to snap the ball to him, so he snaps it to the holder, Lenny Dawson.

“Lenny is surprised. Jan is surprised. Lenny puts it down and Jan takes a swipe at it and just misses to the right of the post. Meanwhile, both our guards are all alone on the right. I mean, there wasn’t a soul out there with them. It would have been a certain score.”

Dawson later said he was dumbfounded.

“I asked Bell why he snapped it to me, and he said, ‘Because it didn’t look like Jan was ready to catch it.’ I said, ‘Did you expect him to put out his arms?’”

The Chiefs failed on three field goal attempts that day. The botched fake and a 42-yarder the Dolphins blocked — along with Stenerud’s fourth-quarter miss — added up to one of the worst days of the future Hall of Fame kicker’s career.

“My history and legacy were defined by that one kick,” Stenerud told the New York Times in 2012. Sometimes when journalists called to ask him about it, he would just slam down the phone.

But other Chiefs who played that day had a different view.

“I think that game had a lot of effect on our legacy,” Chiefs running back Ed Podolak told the Times. “The ’71 team was better than the one that won the Super Bowl two years earlier. If we had beaten Miami, I think we would have won the Super Bowl, and then we’d be mentioned with the great teams of all time.”

Instead, the team wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl for another 48 long years. But it wasn’t because Stenerud missed a fourth-quarter field goal. It was because on a second-quarter fake, he did what he was supposed to do: put on an acting performance worthy of an Oscar nod.

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