On This Day

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Joe Namath triumphantly exits the field after the Jets’ 16-7 win over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

On This Day: Jets Upset Colts in Super Bowl III

January 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 12, 1969, quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a 16–7 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the first game officially known as the “Super Bowl.”

AFL’s Jets Beat NFL’s Colts

The Colts, who had finished the National Football League season 13-1, were 17.5-to-20-point favorites against the Jets, champions of the upstart American Football League. Despite the apparent mismatch, the Jets were confident, none more so their brash, 25-year-old quarterback “Broadway Joe” Namath.

On the Thursday before the game, while accepting an award from the Miami Touchdown Club, Namath responded to a heckler who said the Colts would win easily. “We're going to win,” he said. “I guarantee it.”

Namath’s guarantee brought much-needed attention to the game. “Those who regarded him as an arrogant loudmouth—and many people did—had more reason than ever to root against him,” writes the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Namath's supporters happily applauded his bravado. One thing was certain: Come Sunday, they all would be watching.”

The Jets-Colts game was the third annual championship game between the NFL and AFL and the first to be called the “Super Bowl.” The first two games, known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, ended in routs for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and damaged the credibility of the AFL.

On Jan. 12, the two teams took the field before 75,377 fans in Miami’s Orange Bowl. The Colts controlled the game early, but squandered two chances to score, missing a field goal and throwing an interception in the endzone.

The Jets responded with an 80-yard drive behind strong running by fullback Matt Snell, who finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run. The Colts had a chance to tie the game in the final minute of the half: Colts receiver Jimmy Orr was wide open in the end zone on a trick play, but quarterback Earl Morrall didn’t see him and threw an interception over the middle.

In the second half, the Jets’ defense dominated, while their ball-control offense added three field goals to make the score 16-0. The Colts, looking for a spark, replaced Morrall with the legendary Johnny Unitas, who had missed the entire season with an injury. A rusty Unitas led one late touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, but that was all the Colts’ offense could muster.
Namath, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards, was named the game’s most outstanding player. He ran triumphantly off the field while waving his index finger, having made good on his guarantee.

The New York Jets exposed the myth of National Football League superiority over the ‘little league’ as a colossal fraud today,” declared the Washington Post, adding, “Matt Snell of the Jets made a mockery of a defense Baltimore Coach Don Shula called the ‘best I ever saw’ and Broadway Joe Namath wheeled and dealed with near perfection.”

The game is credited with making the Super Bowl a national spectacle. “The Game did not become The Event until Namath led the New York Jets to a 16-7 upset,” writes the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Millions flocked to their television sets to watch. Thirty years later, they still are watching.”

The Colts’ and Jets’ Paths to the Game

Baltimore Colts
The Colts were one of the NFL’s top teams in the 1950s and 1960s. Led by coach Weeb Ewbank and quarterback Johnny Unitas, they won the NFL championship in 1958 (known at the “Greatest Game Ever Played”) and 1959.

The Colts had a series of disappointing ends to the season in the 1960s, but the 1968 team was one of the greatest NFL teams ever, winning a then-record 15 games. Led by the best defense in the league, the Colts were able to overcome the loss of three-time MVP Unitas due to injury and cruise through the regular season with a 13-1 record.

In the NFL championship game, the Colts demolished the Cleveland Browns, the only team to beat them during the regular season, 34-0. “This is the hungriest team I ever saw. And we're still hungry. Real hungry,” tight end John Mackey said after the game. “Undoubtedly, the Jets are also hungry,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule. “But, as was the case with the midget at the boardinghouse table, their hunger may well exceed their reach.”

New York Jets
The Jets began as the New York Titans, a charter member of the AFL in 1960. After three unsuccessful seasons, they were sold to a new ownership group who renamed the team the Jets and moved them to Shea Stadium. Most importantly, the owners hired Ewbank from the Colts.

Ewbank slowly transformed the team into winners with help from quarterback Joe Namath. A star in college at Alabama, Namath accepted a “then-astronomical $427,000” to sign with the Jets instead of a more established NFL team. The Jets grew into one of AFL’s most popular teams as their record improved each year.

In 1968, they finished 11-3 and earned a place in the AFL championship game against the Raiders, their biggest rival who had beaten them in a wild regular season game known as the “Heidi Game.” Late in the championship game, the Jets clung to a 27-23 lead; the Raiders were driving for a potential game-winning score, but they fumbled a pitch and the Jets recovered to clinch the game.

Background: The AFL-NFL merger

The brainchild of Dallas businessman Lamar Hunt, the AFL began play in 1960 as an eight-team league. It featured a number of rules intended to differentiate the league from the NFL—such as the two-point conversion—and featured more passing and higher scoring games.

The AFL competed with the NFL for talent, offering large salaries to NFL and college stars to lure them away from the NFL. By the mid-60s, the AFL had established itself as a viable rival to the NFL, and the two leagues agreed in 1966 to merge. Under the agreement, the champions of each league would play each other in a championship game.

Though the first two AFL-NFL games were relative duds, the Jets-Colts game—dubbed the “Super Bowl” by Hunt—established the AFL as a worthy competitor. The merger was completed after the following year, and the AFL was absorbed into the NFL; the AFL had the final laugh on the field, however, as the AFL's Chiefs won the final AFL-NFL Super Bowl.

Related Topic: Orange Bowl

Super Bowl III was played at Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami, Fla. The historic venue hosted the annual Orange Bowl game and five Super Bowls, and was the home to the Miami Dolphins and University of Miami Hurricanes. It was demolished in the spring of 2008 to make room for the Florida Marlins’ new ballpark.

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