In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
With the CFP national championship finally decided, the football-watching world can safely turned its attention toward the NFL — although most of it was apparently already there. And fortunately for fans, there will be plenty going on over the next few weeks to hold their interest.
One compelling storyline involves the presence of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs as unexpected contenders for the AFC crown. Earlier this season, the Chiefs were left for dead after a 1-5 start, but they’ll ride an 11-game win streak into Saturday’s game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough.
The Steelers, meanwhile, had to rely on a New York Jets loss in Week 17 to get into the playoffs at all and then only advanced to face the Denver Broncos this Sunday thanks to an inexcusable fumble by Bengals running back Jeremy Hill and a pair of insensate personal fouls by Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones.
The chances that either team advances to the AFC Championship are low, and both are nearly touchdown ‘dogs in Vegas. But should both somehow move on — an especially tall task for the Steelers, who will likely be playing with a hurt Ben Roethlisberger and could be without star WR Antonio Brown — one of them would become the most improbable Super Bowl team in recent memory.
However, if that fantasy scenario played out, neither the Chiefs nor Steelers would have anything on the aforementioned Jets, who became the most unlikely Super Bowl champions 47 years ago Tuesday.
Led by future Hall of Famer Joe Namath, the Jets were undoubtedly the best team in the AFL’s watered-down East division in 1968, but even after beating the Oakland Raiders for the AFL Championship in a rematch of the infamous "Heidi" game, New York wasn’t thought to be much of a threat to the NFL champion Baltimore Colts ahead of Super Bowl III.
Rather, the 12-3 Jets were something of an afterthought against the 15-1 Colts, who had soundly beaten the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship two weeks prior. The AFL, at that point still not merged with the NFL, was thought to be something of a minor-league operation, and the Colts, led by league MVP Earl Morrall, arguably had the most dangerous offense in football.
The result was an 18-point spread favoring the Colts, one of the two biggest in the history of the game. While the rest of the world anticipated a Baltimore blowout, the Jets, under the direction of ex-Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, remained confident that they could hang — no one more so than the brash Namath, who unforgettably guaranteed a New York win the Thursday before the game.
Word of Namath’s promise — not to mention his personal slight of Morrall earlier in the week — infuriated the Baltimore players, but when it came time to actually play the game, Namath’s predictions began to appear prescient.
New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath hugs his father after a 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969.
After a scoreless first quarter saw Colts kicker Lou Michaels miss a 27-yard field goal, Baltimore appeared to finally be in position to put points on the board early in the second, when a George Sauer fumble gave the Colts the ball at the Jets 12. Unfortunately, that drive stalled as Morrall’s third-down pass bounced off tight end Tom Mitchell’s shoulder pads and was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Randy Beverly.
Twelve plays later, New York opened the scoring with a four-yard touchdown run from Matt Snell, who carried the ball who carried the ball six times for 35 yards and also caught a pass for 12 yards on the drive. The teams then traded missed field goals before Morrall closed the first half with two more interceptions — one in the red zone and the other on a flea flicker, where Morrall opted to throw to a covered Jerry Hill over a wide-open Jimmy Orr just before the half.
"I was the primary receiver," Orr would later say. "Earl said he just didn’t see me. I was open from here to Tampa."
The second half didn’t start much better than the first ended, as Colts running back Tom Matte lost a fumble on the first play of the third quarter. That led to a Jets field goal, and after a Baltimore three-and-out and another New York field goal gave the AFL champs a 13-0 lead, Colts coach Don Shula replaced Morrall with Johnny Unitas, who had missed most of the regular season due to injury.
Unitas’ first drive ended like Morrall’s last, though, and on the third play of the fourth quarter, Jets kicker Jim Turner made his third consecutive field goal — this one from nine yards out, an impossibility in today’s NFL — to put New York up 16-0.
Once again, the Colts responded by getting deep into Jets territory with just over 11 minutes to play, a trend throughout the game. But this time it was Unitas who threw a pick — Beverly, once again, came up with the ball in the end zone — all but gashing the favorites’ hopes at a victory once thought to be a foregone conclusion.
A Turner miss from 42 yards out breathed temporary life into the Colts late, and Hill finally got Baltimore in the scoring column on a touchdown run with just over 3 minutes left to play. Snell was able to bleed the clock from there — Namath didn’t throw a single pass in the entire fourth quarter — and the Jets escaped the Orange Bowl with a victory.
"Today we won," Namath told reporters after the game, his trademark confidence only further buoyed by the historic win. "We’d win tomorrow or any other time."
Nearly a half-century later, the Jets have yet to reach another Super Bowl, much less win one. Even so, the MVP Namath’s raised No. 1 as he jogged off the field on Jan. 12, 1969 remains as a lasting image from the most unfathomable playoff upset of all time — one unlikely to be duplicated in this or any NFL postseason.