The Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs meet this Sunday night in Kansas City in a rematch of Super Bowl I. The first Super Bowl was a very different game than the annual extravaganza we see each year these days. Yet, Super Bowl I made history in so many ways and set the stage for the modern NFL as we know it.
The game between the Packers and the Chiefs was the first meeting between the established NFL, which started play in 1920, and the upstart AFL which started play in 1960. The war between the two leagues had been costly with teams competing for draft choices and salaries going through the roof.
Eventually, a truce was called, and the NFL and AFL agreed to a merger. The first tangible evidence of the new agreement was this game between the champions of the two leagues which would take place on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 34-27 to win the NFL title while the Chiefs crushed the Buffalo Bills 31-7 to win the AFL crown.
The two leagues had never met face-to-face on the football field before and nobody knew exactly what to expect. The leagues had slightly different rules (the AFL had the two-point conversion, for example, while the NFL did not) and even used differently shaped footballs, but the details were worked out and the game was set to take place. It wasn’t even officially called the Super Bowl right away, although the media mostly referred to it that way. The actual name of the game was the “First NFL-AFL World Championship Game.”
The stakes were very high. The winning players would each take home $15,000 while the losing team members would each earn $7,500. The game was also the only Super Bowl televised by two American networks. CBS, who back then broadcast the NFL and NBC, which carried the AFL, both aired the game with their own team of announcers. A then record 65 million people tuned in to see the game on the two networks.
The game was also the only Super Bowl in history not to sell out. Because it was scheduled only six weeks in advance and fans thought the tickets were too expensive at $15.00 each, the stadium was only about 2/3 full. Official attendance was just 63,036.
There was a lot of pressure on the Packers to represent the NFL. Head coach Vince Lombardi received telegrams from Bears owner George Halas and other NFL big wigs reminding him how important the game was to the league and its reputation.
Broadcaster Frank Gifford, who had played for Lombardi with the New York Giants, recalled that when he interviewed the legendary Packers coach “he was shaking like a leaf.”
The game would feature 10 future Hall of Fame Packers (Paul Hornung was on the Green Bay roster but didn’t see action due to a neck injury) and four future Hall of Famers for Kansas City. Both Lombardi and Chiefs head coach Hank Stram are also inducted in Canton.
The first half was a close battle. The Packers held a surprisingly slim 14-10 lead on touchdowns by Max McGee and Jim Taylor. McGee was in the game because of an injury to starter Boyd Dowler and played the game after being out all night on a date the night before. McGee finished the game with seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, three more catches than he had all season.
But each time the Packers scored in the first half the Chiefs answered. The Chiefs moving pocket and unique blocking and spacing kept the Green Bay defense off balance. “We were so surprised, it caught us a little flatfooted in the first half,” Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood admitted in the 1967 Packers Yearbook. “We had to do a lot of regrouping between halves. These things happen sometimes, and you need a little coaching to get it back.”
The Packers got it back in a hurry in the second half and Wood made the key play that turned the tide. Lombardi called for a rare blitz on a third and long and Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson got off a wobbly pass the Wood intercepted and returned 50 yards to the Kansas City 5. One play later, halfback Elijah Pitts scored the first of his two touchdowns and the Pack had a 21-10 lead en route to a 35-10 victory.
Bart Starr finished the game 16-of-23 for 250 yards and two touchdowns and was named the MVP. Taylor led all rushers with 53 yards in 16 carries. In the second half, it was all Green Bay.
“In the second half, we were slashing, cutting loose, playing the type of defense the Green Bay Packers are noted for,” Wood recalled. The Chiefs failed to score at all for the rest of the game.
The biggest difference between the teams was on third down. The Packers converted 11-of-15 third down attempts while the Chiefs were only 3-of-14. The Packers managed to sack Dawson six times and pressured him throughout the second half when they knew the Chiefs had to pass to try to get back in the game.
The Packers proved the NFL was the better league and after the game, reporters asked Lombardi just how good his opponents were.
“I think Dallas was a better team,” Lombardi said after the game. “Kansas City is a real tough football team, but I don’t think it rates with the top teams in the National Football League.”
The Packers would repeat as NFL champions in 1967 and defeat the Raiders in Super Bowl II. But then the Jets stunned the football world and won Super Bowl III while the Chiefs upset the Vikings a year later to even the battle between the AFL and NFL at two wins apiece.
By 1970, the merger was complete. The AFL had become the AFC (with the Steelers, Browns and Colts switching from the NFL to the AFC) and the Super Bowl had become America’s unofficial national holiday. These days, there is less violent crime on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. The thought of the game not selling out now is beyond anybody’s imagination.
Super Bowl I between the Packers and Chiefs changed pro football and ushered in the NFL’s modern era. The next chapter in that non-traditional rivalry comes Sunday as the NFL continues to celebrate its 100th season.
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