50 years later, Jets' upset holds eternal truth: Win turnover battle

Among the pleasures of the prelude to next Sunday’s Super Bowl are 50-year anniversary flashbacks of Super Bowl III. Joe Namath and the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts 16-7 to change the flow of history.

You’ve probably heard that the Jets were 18-point underdogs in that one. Betting markets didn’t have much to go on when evaluating the NFL vs. the AFL at that point. The only relevant meetings were Super Bowls I and II. Green Bay was roughly a two-touchdown favorite in both. The Packers beat Kansas City 35-10, and Oakland 33-14. Nobody watching thought those were flukes.

A line of Colts -18 over the Jets represented the logical adjustment from earlier point spreads that had been too low. One reason the game was seen as a “historic” upset at that point was that many pundits believed Baltimore would win much more impressively than Green Bay had. The 15-1 Colts had just clobbered Cleveland 34-0 on the road as 9-point favorites (awarding home field to playoff teams was quirky back then). How could the Jets compete on a neutral field if Cleveland couldn’t on home turf?  

The Jets more than competed. They proved that the best of the AFL could beat the best of the NFL, a point hammered home further the following year when Kansas City ( 12) beat Minnesota 23-7.

How did the Jets do it? Let’s recap the Super Bowl III box score…

NY Jets (plus 18) 16, Baltimore 7

  • Total Yards: NYJ 337, Baltimore 324
  • Yards-per-Play: NYJ 4.7, Baltimore 5.1
  • Rushing Yards: NYJ 142, Baltimore 143
  • Rush Percentage: NYJ 60%, Baltimore 36%
  • Passing Stats: NYJ 17-29-0-206, Baltimore 17-41-4-181
  • Turnovers NYJ 1, Baltimore 5

The jaw dropper was the 5-1 win in the turnover category. Colts quarterback Earl Morrall threw three interceptions (on an erratic 6-17-3-71 passing line). Sore-armed sub (and legend) Johnny Unitas threw another pick in relief (11-24-1-110). Kicker Lou Michaels missed two field goal attempts, which were additional turnovers in their own way. 

Basically, New York battled to a draw in yards and yards-per-play, but won the game by safely getting a few more points on the board while grinding clock.

The play-by-play posted at sports-reference.com shows, in order: Baltimore missed a 27-yard field goal, threw an interception from the Jets’ 6-yard line, missed a 46-yard field goal, threw an interception from the Jets’ 15-yard line, threw an interception from the Jets’ 25-yard line, and lost the ball on downs at the Jets’ 19-yard line.  

You can imagine Colts bettors yelling at their TV sets all day.

Interesting how the fundamentals of winning big football games haven’t changed much in those 50 years. You have to move the ball while protecting it. Perceived goliaths can’t take anything for granted. Big underdogs improve their chances by shortening the game. (Kansas City would win the following year with a 5-1 turnover edge, rushing on 71% of its plays.)

We don’t have a big favorite or dog this season. The New England Patriots will likely be around a 3-point favorite over the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday. But the issues of risk and reward will likely be a big factor.

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