Tomorrow, the New England Patriots will host the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL’s divisional playoff round. The two teams are no strangers to meeting with their seasons on the line: they also met in 2006 and 2007, both games won by the Patriots. Their playoff history, however, goes back farther than that. It goes back all the way to January 1964, in fact, when the two teams met to compete for the AFL title.
Despite finishing their inaugural season with a losing record, the new Patriots franchise was able to turn the corner quickly and become one of the American Football League’s best teams over the seasons that followed. After going 5-9 in 1960, the club was able to follow it up with two consecutive 9-4-1 seasons. However, neither campaign was enough to earn the franchise a trip to the championship game.
It all changed in 1963, when Boston had one of the league’s best defenses to go along with a similarly productive offense. The team featured a total of 11 AFL All-Stars and even though it failed to reach the win total from the past two seasons and finished 7-6-1, it was still able to tie the Buffalo Bills for the best record in the Eastern Division. As a result, the two teams had to face off in the AFL’s first ever playoff game.
The Patriots dominated the contest and their 26-8 victory earned them a berth in the AFL championship game. Boston’s opponent was the best team in the league at the time and thus was allowed to play the game at home. The then-San Diego Chargers won the Western Division with an 11-3 record behind the number one scoring offense and the number one scoring defense — and it showed in the title game.
The contest, which was played on January 5, 1964, saw the favored home team take a quick lead. San Diego drove down the field in only four plays to go up 7-0 and already displayed how they would attack Boston’s aggressive defense: by using motion and shifts to create mismatches in both the passing and running game. The plan worked perfectly in the first quarter and by their sixth play from scrimmage, the Chargers were already up 14-0.
At that point, the visiting Patriots finally started to show some life. Led by quarterback Babe Parilli, the team drove 67 yards in seven plays and cut the deficit to seven points on a 7-yard touchdown run by Larry Garron. However, the Chargers would fight right back as it again took them only four plays to score and go up 21-7 — at that point, the Boston had already given up a 67-yard touchdown run on its second series, and a 58-yarder on its third.
The Patriots had to answer with a punt, and then had to watch the Chargers add another field goal to increase their lead to 17 points. Boston, which lost Garron to a concussion on the ensuing kickoff, was able to score a field goal of its own — but it was the team’s final highlight of the game. San Diego scored yet another touchdown on its subsequent possession; a Patriots field goal attempt in the first half’s final seconds was blocked.
Head coach Mike Holovak’s squad was unable to get back into the game in the third quarter, despite holding the Chargers to “only” one touchdown. The offense continued to struggle moving the football into scoring range and San Diego was able to continue its domination on both sides of the football. As a result, the Western Division champions steadily widened the gap between themselves and their Eastern counterpart.
San Diego added two more touchdowns in the final period to bring the game to an end. The Patriots had lost their first ever title game appearance 51-10. The point differential between the two clubs shows just how dominant the Chargers were, and so does the stat sheet: San Diego outgained Boston 610 yards to 261, behind an inconsistent offense and a defense that struggled against both the pass and the run.
The prime example for the Patriots’ defensive issues is the game’s MVP, Keith Lincoln. San Diego’s halfback gained 206 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries, while also catching seven passes for a combined 123 yards and a score. Boston simply had no answer for Lincoln, who played an integral part in helping the Chargers franchise win its first and so far only pro football championship that day.
The Patriots, on the other hand, had to wait until the after the AFL merged with the NFL and the Super Bowl was established — 36 years, in fact — to finally call themselves world champions (something the Chargers did in 1963 after the NFL’s Chicago Bears declined to play them for the world championship). Tomorrow, we will find out which of the two organizations will get one step closer to adding another trophy to its collection.