Fifty years ago, the Chiefs played the longest NFL game ever—and then collapsed

Pro football marks its years with memorable games and records that withstand the test of time. The epic playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs at the old Municipal Stadium on Christmas Day, 1971, certainly ranks as memorable. Fifty years later, it is still remembered and celebrated—and still holds the record for the longest game ever played.

The game featured practically every instance of drama and excitement that a pro football fan could imagine. It featured a breakout game by a barely known running back named Ed Podolak, who would become a legend within the space of several hours. It featured a young underdog team from Miami trying to make a name for themselves against a favored team that had won the Super Bowl two years before and was full of veterans looking for that one last taste of glory. It featured a sensational placekicker in Jan Stenerud of the Chiefs, a man who would have to deal with the sting of failure when success was just one kick away. And it featured a record of eighty-two minutes and forty seconds of elapsed playing time between the opening kickoff and the end of the sudden death overtime. Neither team established control in the contest, as unexpected mistakes and turnovers helped to keep Miami close. Just as Podolak was accumulating yardage and the Chiefs were taking the lead, the Dolphins mounted several comebacks to tie the game at 10-10 at halftime, 17-17 at the end of the third quarter, and 24-24 at the end of regulation. Right before the end of the fourth quarter, Stenerud missed what was considered a very makeable twenty-two-yard field goal, which would have given Kansas City the victory. The game entered sudden death overtime, where the winner would be decided by whichever team scored next. A full fifth quarter of action was played without either team scoring. Finally, after seven minutes and forty seconds of the sixth period, Miami placekicker Garo Yepremian won the game for the Dolphins with a midrange field goal.

“It was just a very unique day and one that I will always have a great place in my memory for it,” admitted Kansas City Hall of Fame middle linebacker Willie Lanier many years later. “That was the first true time that I can remember that you played every play as if it were the last play because it was.”

The game’s aftermath lasted even longer. By winning, the Dolphins practically punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. The next season, they created a new standard for greatness, one that has yet to be duplicated—a perfect, undefeated season in 1972. For the Chiefs, it was the last playoff game until 1985, a full twenty-five years later. Kicker Stenerud still regrets his moment of failure to this very day—even as, in 1991, he became one of only two pure kickers enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, fourteen future Hall of Famers would play in that Christmas Day playoff game in 1971. Ed Podolak’s total yardage record of three hundred and fifty all-purpose yards still stands as the playoff record, even in today’s era of spectacular offenses.”

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