Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

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2 thoughts on “Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

  1. About 70 heart attacks per 100,000 in six hours of exposure at 90 degrees below freezing is my main takeaway.

    Also, to the author, I’m busy and lazy to look up, but I didn’t think Jefferson and Chandler ever played together. IIRC, Jefferson and Dean held out in ’81, and Autry got steamed, thought he was burying them with the two deals, when he did anything but. Jefferson could have played to 1,000 catches, but he liked the nightlife, as being so electric in the afternoon simply wasn’t enough. Chandler came over in a deal with 1-15 Saints, unhappy with pass offense. He got happy, I’d say.

    But as a DC area guy, I knew Fouts would lose this game. First of all, and I’ll never forgive my folks for going on 37 years now, but they made me go someplace in the middle of the comeback. Dinner or some such. We came home at 38-38. I couldn’t let it go. Got sent to my room for being too mouthy. I’ve seen it since, but grrrr…..
    I loved the Chargers as a hipster AFC choice, as all the Yinzers were still pretty freshly ingrained Stillers fans. So the 1982 divisional round made me quiet happy.

    But as a secondary admirer, I always knew after ’81 Fouts would never win a big game. He was the heroic loser, pre-Marino who then showed us what 2.0 looked like. Funny that Shula, a coach, who both lost to Fouts in the epic, and crushed him the following year with David Woodley if memory serves, would pursue team-building in that very mold. And hey, who can argue with the aesthetics of it? Air Coryell was beautiful. It made Al Davis, a man who liked the deep passing game, green with envy. Meanwhile West Coast offenses and turnover control slowly passed it up in the night as the measured response to mad bombing and quick scores by combing short passing, clock control, and better utilizing all areas of the field.

    The major difference between Fouts and Marino though, besides about 1,000 yards when each set the passing mark, was that Marino didn’t put many deep balls up for grabs. Fouts had some hellacious 5 INT games. Just games where he couldn’t waste time on anything underneath. Had to get it all right now, and then get it all BACK right now. Marino was far less careless.

    Also making Fouts lesser than, were the fact his RBs in the 79-84 seasons with Muncie, Brooks, Bauer, McGee were all better than Tony Nathan or Andra Franklin. And the fact that with Kellen Winslow, he had the penultimate pass catching TE that set the modern standard and Marino had Joe Rose and Dan something.

    Fouts receivers never took a back seat to the Marks brothers as a top tandem, whether it were Chandler or John Jeff. But Marino also revitalized Nat Moore’s corpse and made Jim Jensen look Welkeresque. Didn’t matter what toys you gave Marino, he could points up. He just put them up too quickly for his undersized, smallish up front D to get any rest against good rushing attacks. Sometimes he’d score fast enough to win, and other games they’d score 34 and lose.

    The only real advantage Marino enjoyed was a much better D for that 83-88 era over the Chargers 79-84 defenses. So when Marino started falling flat in ’85, I sounded the alarm about balance. We shoulda had a MNF Bears-Dolphins, if not for John Hannah, Craig James, Tony Collins just dominating the Dolphins front 7 in the AFC title game, like 60 rushes for like 250 yards and 40 minutes of TOP…kept Marino on the bench. It was the only gameplan the Patriots could have executed at that time, and the Dolphins had nothing for them, which just shows the power of one Mosi Tatupu.. If only we could all have one in our backfield.

    Dan had his cracks at scoring too. 20-48 passing in 20 minutes, with just the two picks (not Fouts 9 or whatever in 79-80 fouts elimination games). Now i”m sure that no QB is going to look uber-heroic in elimination efforts. But if one should have it was Dan. No, it was just him sitting on the sideline meekly, while his D got toyed with by a superior offensive line. It was a formula. Tony Eason had to throw just 12 passes in that title game ;with all little flares to the side due in scoring area after he’d send a fullback up the middle on play action. Miami backers bit on every one. Imagine that in this day and age: Complete domination on the ground to set up the short red zone passing game. They had 0 rushing TDs, but 3 of Eason’s 10 completions were TD throws under 10 yards.

    So now I’ve come to the testing grounds for my comparison, which has been based largely on surprisingly disappointing playoff results with offenses rigged similarly during overlapping eras, Shula-Coryell was epic in itself IHOOK AND LADDER!) Remember when Air got Shula in ’84 with that Buford McGee scamper in OT to ruin Miami’s aura of invincibility? Fouts was on the decline, the Chargers would be on the short end of the toughest division top to bottom (argument for NFC East also accepted) in the mid-80s. It was all Fouts could do to keep up with the last of the Raider dynasty, a competently run Seahawks team, a frisky (see what I did there?) John Elway, and that daggone Chiefs secondary (ooh so deep…I know about Lloyd Burruss, do you? I’d ask some kid as we’d trade Feber Castell NFL logo pencils).

    So for the lab today, I’ve taken Fouts ’79-’85 and Marino ’84-’92 (bigger range because roughly same age, remember Fouts sat behind a crippled Johnny U, and only started going after Coryell arrived. I allow Marino til ’92 because that allows us to add another title game.

    I’m looking for trends, but first we go with the tale of the tape, we’ll start with Marino and his eliminations in descending order:

    1992: L Buffalo AFC champ 29-10, 22-45, TD, 2INT, 268 yds, 4 sacks.

    1990: L Buffalo, AFC div 44-34, 23-49, 3 TD, 2 INT, 323 yds, 0 sacks.

    1985: L Patriots 31-14 AFC champ, 20-48, 2 TD, 2 INT, 248 yds, 1 huge sack for the quickest trigger in the league. These two championship games are almost identical, and soon you’ll see for more reasons than one. He also had a fumble, not lost.

    1984: L 49ers, SB, 38-16, 25-50, 1 TD, 2 INT, 318 yds, 4 more sacks. Fumble, not lost.

    Age range for Marino: 23.1 to 31.1 years of age.
    Accuary: 90-192 , yes that’s less than half! I know, that’s what I said!!
    Just 7 TD in 4 games, with 8 picks, at least 2 in every game, so he wasn’t quite the custodian I recollect. Some fumbles in there, but don’t have confidence in that stat.
    Sacks taken: 9, for the quickest release in the game. Sounds like he refused to checkdown just like Fouts.

    Now on to Dan Fouts, also 4 elimination games again descending:

    1982: L Dolphins 2nd round, 34-13, 15-34, 1 TD, 5 INT, 191 yards, 3 sacks taken.

    1981: L Bengals AFC Title, 27-7, 15-28, 1 TD, 2 INT, 185 yards, 2 sacks taken.

    1980: L Raiders, AFC Title, 34-27, 22-45, 2 TD , 2 INT, 336 yards, 0 sacks teken

    1979: L Oilers, AFC Div 17-14, 25-47, 0 TD, 5 INT (4 by one dude alone! This must a record, someone named Vernon Parry) 333 yards, 2 sttacks.

    Age range for Fouts: 28.2 to 32.2 years of age
    Accuracy for Fouts: 77 for 154, or exactly 50%
    Just 4 TD v 14 INT….ooof..postseason career book-ended by 5 pick games.
    9 sacks taken for another quick trigger.

    Next I will take a look at each team’s rushing stats for these 4 losses. You can already guess where this is headedl.

    Beginning with the Dolphins, this time in ASCending order:

    1984: 40-211, 2 TD from San Fran ….9-25 Miami, O TD.
    TOP: rounding 37-23 Niners

    1985: 59-255, 0 TD from NE (but 3 TD scored inside 10) …13-68 Miami, 0 TD
    TOP rounding 40-20 Pats

    1990: 37-154, 2 TD from Buffalo….27-107 Miami, 1 TD (Marino)
    TOP: rounding 32-28 Dolphins…came from 27-10 down to 30-27, then wheels off.

    1992: 48-182, 1 TD from Buffalo….11-33 Miami, 0 TD (another Marino fumble, he fumbled in 3 of 4 games)
    TOP: Unlisted. But look at rush attempts and draw your conclusions.

    Opponents: 184 rushes for 802 yards, 5 TDs.
    Dolphins: 60 rushes for 233 yards, 1 TD (again by Marino)

    This is over 3 to 1 in favor of opponents. It’s a formula for sure: Get Dan to throw about 50 times, and commit to the run, it will pay off.. Dan will feel like he has to do it all, and make mistakes he’d never ordinarily make.

    Let’s see if things are pronounced on the Chargers side:

    1979: 40-148, 1 TD by Oilers…19-63, SD , 2 short TD runs.
    1980: 42-138, 2 TD by Raiders… 23-83, SD, 1 TD to be honest, I’m kind of surprised at SD commitment to run.
    1981: 36-143, 1 TD by Cincinnati….31-128, SD, 0 TD
    1982: 56-214, 2 TD by Miami…17-79, SD, 1 TD

    Opponents: 164 rushes for 643 yards 6 TD
    Chargers: 90 rushes for 353 yards, 4 TD

    To Chargers credit, they aren’t getting outrushed by a 3 to 1 ratio. This isn’t even a 2:1 ratio. Call me when they get the box full of belts and flags out of storage for Sunday games.

    Definitely a pattern for both, in the two 5 INT games, Fouts got 3 rush TDs from his team. So HE was the problem, playcalling. Secondaries would bait him and he’d be a hair off some days. Some days he was implacable.

    In this tale of two Dans, one Dan is more Dannier than the other, and thats Fouts as I previewed above. But he is more Dannier because he actually had a run/pass balance gameplan for each of these games, and lost 2 of them at home. If only they could have earned a home championship game during strike-shortened ’82. But they had to face a rookie Marcus Allen twice. in nine games, unlucky. While Marcus Allen GOT to face their D twice. LA finished 8-1, SD 6-3. Had they split with the Raiders, then it would have been a 3 way tie with with Miami for top seed in the AFC in the RD of 16. If SD hadn’t suffered both losses, maybe Riggo is running all over SD in the SB instead.

    In retrospect regarding 1981, the historical context of Walsh birthing his West Coast in Cincy and using it to beat them and his ace pupil Anderson in the SB is a good story, if the less sexy matchup. Everyone loves to make out how Gruden lucked into his Super Bowl win by virtue of having coached his opponent for several years prior, but Walsh only won by 5, not by 27.

    ‘Natti was tough. And it might not have made a bit of difference, the temperature, location, anything. The Bengals whupped SD in SD 40-17 during the regular season, so they may have just been impervious to those Chargers. But Cincy finished 12-4, and SD 11-5 due to that one game. They’d like a do-over I imagine.

    Well, I’ve exhausted this topic. Hope you enjoyed my stat comparison lab today. Cool site.

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  2. As a Dolphins fan, I was rooting for the Chargers to win it all after they beat us. I remember watching this game and then going out to get a pickup game going with my friends!

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