Regardless of what happens next Sunday afternoon in Boston, when for the second straight year the Patriots and the Buffalo Bills play a game to decide the American Football League's Eastern Division winner, the ultimate championship—if it is fought for in respectable weather—should again belong to the San Diego Chargers. Handicapped early in the season by a series of injuries that made their training room look like an out-patient clinic, the Chargers have finally begun to play with the poise and power of which they are capable. And, oddly enough, one of those injuries turned the Chargers into an even better football team than they might otherwise have become. The injury was a pulled thigh muscle, and what it did was teach the young athlete at the left to act.
Until this season, Lance Alworth, the San Diego flanker, was strictly a burner, a speed-jump receiver who could run away from most defensive backs. He relied on his speed and the softness of his hands, which can somehow hold onto a football when Alworth himself is tumbling on his head, to become the finest deep receiver in the AFL. But for the first half a dozen games this season—his second full year in the league—the pulled thigh muscle took much of Alworth's speed away from him. The former Arkansas All-America had to learn to use finesse, to fake and feint. When he could run again with his old flash and fury, Alworth mixed guile with go. The worst news for defensive backs is that he is still learning and in time will have a pro receiver's complete bag of tricks.
The Chargers throw to Alworth mostly on quick slants, down and out patterns, curl-ins and simple fast breaks in which the essence is still speed and quickness rather than deception, but Alworth runs them with a new slickness and style. As a result, the Chargers have the most dangerous offense the AFL has ever seen.
The things the Chargers can do on offense are remarkably varied. When Backs Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe are well—both have been injured at least part of the year—San Diego can run inside or outside with smashing effectiveness. Split End Don Norton, the league's most underrated receiver, is a master of deceptive moves and makes it difficult for defenses to double up on Alworth. Tight End Dave Kocourek, 245 pounds, is a good blocker and good receiver. And John Hadl has at last come on to take the quarterback job from veteran Tobin Rote, who has been in pain the last two years from bone chips in his right elbow. Hadl occasionally confounds his own coach, Sid Gillman, as much as he does the opposition. He has been known, for example, to run a bootleg from the San Diego one-yard line and be tackled for a safety. But he is a cunning young man who does not make the common mistake of sliding into a pattern of offensive plays that defenses can easily solve, and he has thrown few interceptions. Hadl also is a running threat on rollouts. He is bright enough to use all the weapons the Chargers have, including Alworth on that ancient but exciting maneuver, the reverse. Running it, Alworth has averaged 20 yards a carry.
Defensively, San Diego has rookies at left corner back and left linebacker and frequently at left safety when Strongside Safety Ken Graham flip-flops. But the rookies have done very well on pass coverage and are helped tremendously against the run by the presence of Left End Earl Faison. Most teams choose the other side of the San Diego defense to run against. The Chargers depend heavily on their big front four—the 262-pound Faison, 270-pound George Gross, 295-pound Ernie Ladd and 257-pound Bob Petrich—for a pass rush that lessens coverage problems for the secondary. Because of their range, strength and size, the defensive linemen deflect four to six passes per game and force opposing quarterbacks, when they do get the ball away cleanly, to throw over a forest of arms.
The Buffalo Bills, who seemed to have the Eastern championship settled until they began to skid late in the season, are the equal of San Diego in size and probably have a better overall offensive line. But the Bills' offense is limited. They have no outside speed when rookie Bobby Smith is not in the game, which is often, and so must concentrate on the battering of Fullback Cookie Gilchrist (SI, Dec. 14). Any one-man show can be stopped. The deep receiver, Elbert Dubenion, is as fast as Alworth but does not catch the ball as well, particularly when he is jostled by defensive backs. Alworth has intense concentration, often takes off-target passes away from defensive backs and grabs a number of deflected passes. Dubenion does not. Buffalo's Glenn Bass is a receiver much like Norton.
Bills' Coach Lou Saban has been starting Jack Kemp at quarterback and then switching to Daryle Lamonica as the game progresses. Kemp has a strong arm and is capable of some very hot days, but he is not a disciplined quarterback. He abandons the game plan. Lamonica, in his second season, changes the entire personality of the Buffalo offense. A rollout, possession type of quarterback, Lamonica stresses running more than Kemp does. When he is in the game, the Buffalo offense tends to become more stereotyped and transparent, but he is a good passer and has inspired the Bills to several important wins.
Defensively, Buffalo has a big, mobile, aggressive line and some good linebackers. But the Bills can be run on outside and their pass coverage is the weakest of any of the three teams that are still in the argument over the AFL championship.
The third contender, Boston, has the league's best quarterback, Babe Parilli. A campaigner of 11 seasons in the NFL and AFL, Parilli is outstanding at recognizing and picking apart defenses and is a genuine leader. On third-down plays, nearly always the most critical situations in professional football, Parilli is superior to Hadl, Kemp or Lamonica. Parilli's arm is no longer what it was in years past and he does not have the running game to remove the pressure from him, but he has produced for Boston this season. When they do try to run the ball, the Patriots block straight ahead and let Larry Garron find his own spaces to wriggle through. Ron Burton has been injured throughout his career and is an up-and-down performer. Garron, who is also a fine receiver, has to carry a preponderant share of the running responsibility, and the Patriots are not even close to being in the same class as San Diego on the ground.
But in the air it is a different and altogether amazing matter, and one of the main reasons is Gino Cappelletti. At the University of Minnesota he was called "Gino the Snail." He is small and slow. But Cappelletti lulls defenses into a doze and then pops up so far open that it looks as if he had sneaked out of the bleachers. Defensive backs tend to think of him primarily as a field-goal kicker (with 25 goals and seven touchdowns, he has already broken his own scoring record) and they relax on him. When they do, and when Parilli can get the ball to him, Cappelletti uses a few of his shrewd fakes and is gone. To complement Cappelletti the Patriots have quick little Jim Colclough. Both run excellent patterns, short curls and slants, and get the defenses to thinking of them catching short passes. Then they break. In one recent game Cappelletti ran a succession of square-outs, then ran another square-out, took two more steps, whirled and went deep and was open by 20 yards for a touchdown. In their double-wing formation with Tony Romeo and the excellent Art Graham at tight ends and with Cappelletti and Colclough spread wide, the Patriots are deceitfully dangerous.
Boston has perhaps the best defense in the league. The Patriots have played together for at least three years and react well to each other. They are aggressive, smoothly coordinated and use the blitz with shattering impact. Most AFL fans can name few individual stars on the Boston defense, but as a unit they are solid and tough.
The equalizer in the championship game—scheduled for December 26 in either Buffalo or Boston—could be the weather. On a fast, dry field—even if the temperature is low—the Chargers, despite having lost twice to Buffalo and once to Boston this year, are the better team. But in snow and ice it would be anybody's game.
Spearhead of the Chargers is Flanker Lance Alworth, a speed merchant with new finesse.