Throughout the 1970s, the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers were the two premier teams in the AFL/AFC.
During that decade, the two franchises combined to represent the conference in seven of 10 Super Bowls, winning six. The teams met twice in the playoffs during the 1970s, but on this day 50 years ago, the teams had a memorable regular-season contest.
The Steelers raced to an early 18-point lead, but Bob Griese and Paul Warfield wouldn’t go quietly. Griese had actually been hospitalized the night before with a stomach flu and joined the team just hours before kickoff, but showed no signs of illness from the second quarter on. He and Warfield connected for three touchdowns as Miami rallied for a 24-21 victory.
Setting the Stage
The Dolphins were off to a 6-1-1 start as they arrived at the Orange Bowl on Nov. 14, 1971. In their second season under Don Shula, the Dolphins were coming off their first playoff appearance in 1970 and looking to make more noise.
Under third-year head coach Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh arrived with a 4-4 record. Early on however, it appeared as though the Steelers were well on their way to getting over .500.
Early in the second quarter, everything seemed to be going right for Pittsburgh. Terry Bradshaw had thrown two touchdowns to Dave Smith and one to Ron Shanklin to give the Steelers a commanding 21-3 lead.
Before the first half was over, the Dolphins had drawn to within four. Down 18, the Dolphins capped an 80-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown toss from Griese to Warfield.
That made the score 21-10, but the two were just getting started.
Later in the half, Griese was flushed and forced to scramble. Rather than sticking with Warfield, Steelers’ defensive back Mel Blount pursued Griese.
That left Warfield wide open and Griese didn’t miss him. Griese was able to hit the talented receiver in stride. With only Astroturf in front of him, Warfield went 86 yards for his second touchdown of the day.
At the half, Miami trailed 21-17. Neither team scored in the third quarter, but an interception of Bradshaw by Jake Scott late in the period gave Miami an important shot of momentum.
The fourth quarter was one play old when Griese and Warfield put the Dolphins ahead for good — again at Blount’s expense. Blount briefly fell for the play-action fake, but he couldn’t recover against Warfield, who hauled in a perfect throw from Griese for a 60-yard touchdown.
For the first time since Garo Yepremian’s early 43-yard field goal, Miami led. With time ticking away and the Dolphins backed up in their own territory, it appeared that Pittsburgh would have one last shot for victory as Larry Seiple lined up to punt.
As Pittsburgh’s Jon Staggers tried to field the punt however, he slipped, muffing the football. The Dolphins recovered.
Pittsburgh would get one last chance and actually reached field goal range. On the game’s final snap however, Roy Gerela’s 52-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
Miami managed just 11 first downs, but finished with 309 yards of offense to 288 for the Steelers. Griese passed for 232 yards while Bradshaw threw for 253.
Each team committed four turnovers. Scott had two interceptions for the Miami defense and Tim Foley added another. Warfield managed just three catches, but all went for touchdowns as he finished with 158 yards receiving.
Miami would go on to finish 10-3-1 and reach the Super Bowl for the first time. Pittsburgh finished just 6-8 in 1971.
The victory over the Steelers however, served as the biggest comeback in franchise history at the time. It came on this day a half-century ago.