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On This Date in Sports January 14, 1973: Perfect Ending (50 Years of Perfection Super Bowl VII)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Dolphins, in collaboration with Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Miami Dolphins become the first team in NFL history to complete a perfect season, beating the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. After a 14-0 regular season, the Dolphins advance to the Super Bowl with wins over the Browns and Steelers. The Super Bowl was a defensive struggle, with the only Dolphins flaw a botched field goal by Garo Yepremian.

The story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins began one year earlier when they were dominated by the Dallas Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl VI. Not wanting to feel that sting again, the Dolphins looked to make the next step in their third season under coach Don Shula. The Dolphins started the 1972 season in Kansas City, jumped out to a 20-0 lead, and held on to win 20-10 over the Chiefs in the 1st ever game at Arrowhead Stadium. In the home opener, the Dolphins again jumped to a big lead early and cruised to a 34-13 win over the Houston Oilers. Week 3 saw an early test as the Dolphins were trailing 14-6 in the 4th quarter at Minnesota. However, the Dolphins would score ten unanswered points to beat the Vikings 16-14.  The Dolphins would improve to 4-0 a week later with a 27-17 win over the New York Jets at Shea Stadium. In Week 5, the Dolphins returned home and saw their road to the Super Bowl hit a road bump when quarterback Bob Griese broke his leg against the San Diego Chargers. Before the season, the Dolphins picked Earl Morrall off waivers, and Morrall filled in perfectly, helping the Dolphins improve to 5-0 with a 24-10 win. Morrall would start the rest of the regular season, helping Miami rally to beat the Buffalo Bills 24-23 in Week 6. The Dolphins would get to 7-0 quickly with a 23-0 whitewashing of the Colts in Baltimore. Week 8 saw a rematch with the Bills in Buffalo, and the Dolphins found it much easier pulling away late to a 30-16 win. In Week 9, the Dolphins made a statement by slaughtering the New England Patriots 52-0 at the Orange Bowl. Week 10 saw another test for the Dolphins, who battled the Jets back and forth at the Orange Bowl before pulling out a 28-24 win.  The Dolphins would improve to 11-0 with another home win against the St. Louis Cardinals 31-10. The Dolphins moved into December still undefeated after another shellacking of the Patriots 37-21 in Foxboro. In Week 13 at Yankee Stadium, the Dolphins pulled away from the Giants with two field goals in the fourth quarter from Garo Yepremian to win 23-13. With 13 games down, the Dolphins had just one more game to win to finish the regular season undefeated. True to form, the Dolphins won the game 16-0 over the Colts at the Orange Bowl.

In the playoffs, the Dolphins faced the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional round. The Dolphins would jump to a quick 10-0 lead, but the Browns' defense would clamp down and hold Miami off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. After a Garo Yepremian Field Goal made it 13-7, the Dolphins were stunned as the Browns went down the field to take a 14-13 lead in the 4th quarter. With time winding down, Jim Kiick would score a touchdown from eight yards to give the Dolphins a 21-14 win. With the win, the Dolphins moved on to the AFC Championship game. At the time, home field was not decided by the best record, instead was rotated among the three divisions. This meant the Dolphins had to go through Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh to reach Super Bowl VII. The Dolphins appeared out of sync early as the Steelers recovered a fumble in the end zone to take an early 7-0 lead. The Dolphins would rally to tie it at halftime, but after the Steelers took a 10-7 Don Shula felt it was time for a change and sent Bob Griese back in at quarterback to replace Earl Morrall. The Dolphins' offense was still sputtering as they were forced to punt. Looking for a spark, Shula decided it was time for some trickery as punter Larry Seiple ran the ball 17 yards to get a game-changing first down and. Two Jim Kiick TDs gave the Dolphins the lead for good as they won the game 21-17 to become the first AFC team to make it to two straight Super Bowls.

Hoping to play spoilers for the Dolphins' perfect season were the Washington Redskins. Three decades earlier, when they won their last championship in 1942, they beat the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship Game following an unbeaten season. The Redskins were coached by George Allen and posted an 11-3 record in the regular season. The Redskins were a veteran team, affectionately nicknamed the “Over the Hill Gang.” In the playoffs, won a pair of home games at RFK Stadium, beating the Green Bay Packers 16-3 in the Divisional Playoffs and the archrival Dallas Cowboys 26-3 in the NFC Championship Game.

Super Bowl VII was the second to be played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was home to the first Super Bowl six years earlier. In just that short period, the game went from a glorified exhibition game to the biggest game on the planet. Despite the Dolphins' 16-0 record, the Redskins were a one-and-a-half point favorite, as some viewed coach Don Shula as being bad in the big game after losing two previous Super Bowls.

A children’s church choir from Chicago performed the national anthem, as the game time temperature was 84 degrees, setting a record for the warmest Super Bowl ever. Both defenses dominated the first quarter, as the two teams struggled to move the ball. Late in the first quarter, Miami made the first sustainable as Bob Griese got the ball over midfield with an 18-yard pass to Paul Warfield. A few plays later, Griese got the Dolphins in the end zone with a 28-yard pass to Howard Twilley with one second left in the first quarter. The second quarter continued the defensive battle as the Redskins finally made it over midfield, only to see Billy Kilmer get intercepted by Nick Buoniconti, who returned it 32 yards to the Washington 27-yard line. The Dolphins would cash the opportunity on a one-yard run by Jim Kiick with 18 seconds left in the half. After Andy Williams performed at halftime, the third quarter saw no change in the score, though both teams had long drives. 

In the fourth quarter, the Redskins drove deep into Miami territory again, only to see Kilmer’s pass to a wide-open Jerry Smith hit the goal post, which was still in the front of the end zone. The Redskins worked the ball down to the Miami 17-yard line. Manny Fernandez would sack Billy Kilmer for an eight-yard loss on third down. The Redskins would come away with nothing as Curt Knight missed a 32-yard field goal. The Dolphins later drove down to the Washington five, powered by a 49-yard run from Larry Csonka. Brig Own jumped in front of Marv Fleming to pick off Bob Griese in the end zone. Jake Scott intercepted Billy Kilmer on the next play and returned it out of the end zone to the Washington 48-yard line.

 The Dolphins looking to seal the win, sent Garo Yepremian out to try a 42-yard field goal. A field goal would have been the perfect capper to the perfect season 17-0 season 17-0 Super Bowl win. However, Yepremian’s kick was blocked by Bill Brundige. The Dolphins kicker then picked up the ball and tried to throw it, only to have it slip out of his hands and get batted up to Mike Bass, who returned it for the first defensive score in Super Bowl history to give the Redskins new life with 2:07 left and the score 14-7. Instead of going for an on-side kick, the Redskins kicked the ball deep. Miami could not run out the clock, as the Redskins attempted to block Larry Seiple’s punt but came up just short. Starting their last drive to tie the game with 1:14 left on their own 36, the Redskins could not move the ball, as Vern Den Herder sacked Kilmer on fourth down to end the game, completing the Dolphins' perfect season with a 14-7 win.

The offensive numbers were not pretty on either side when the game was over, as the Dolphins remain the only Super Bowl champion to be held scoreless in the second half. Bob Griese completed 8-of-11 passes for 88 yards and one touchdown, while Billy Kilmer completed 14 of 28 for 104 yards, with three costly interceptions. Larry Csonka was the game’s leading rusher with 112 yards on 15 carries, while Larry Brown rushed for 72 yards on 22 carries. Safety Jake Scott would get the Super Bowl MVP with his two interceptions.

Teams finishing undefeated was not new in the NFL. Before 1933, the 1920 Akron Pros went 8-0-3, the Canton Bulldogs finished 10-0-1 in 1922 and went 11-0-1 a year later, while the Green Bay Packers posted a 12-0-1 record in 1929. In those days, teams set their own schedule, and there was no championship game. Each team also had at least one tie. The NFL began making a common schedule and playing a championship in 1933. The Chicago Bears had unbeaten regular seasons in 1934 and 1942, only to lose the NFL Championship Game each year. After the Dolphins, the next team to have an unbeaten regular season was the 2007 New England Patriots, who went 16-0 but were upset by the New York Giants, who also beat the Bears in 1934. Over the years, the members of that Dolphins team have been said to open a bottle of champagne each season when the last unbeaten team falls.

The Miami Dolphins would repeat as champions a year later, posting a 12-2 regular season as they beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl VIII, with a team that some considered better than the one that went unbeaten.