Prior to the franchise drafting future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, back-and-forth shootouts were relatively rare for the Miami Dolphins. That wasn’t the case on this day 45 years ago however, as the Dolphins outlasted the Buffalo Bills 35-28 in a key AFC East contest that saw the teams combine for 35 fourth-quarter points.
Both teams were 7-2 as the Bills traveled to the Orange Bowl on Nov. 17, 1974. Entering the contest, Miami had allowed just 17 total points in its previous four games and early on, it appeared as though that domination would continue in what would become a thriller.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Dolphins managed to take a 14-0 lead into the locker room. After a 105-yard interception return for a touchdown by Buffalo safety Tony Greene was nullified by a penalty, Larry Csonka got the scoring started with a 2-yard touchdown run. Miami would add a second touchdown on a 49-yard scoring strike from Bob Griese to Paul Warfield late in the half.
The Bills finally got on the board in the third quarter on a quarterback sneak for a touchdown by quarterback Joe Ferguson, but the Dolphins would answer. After a 54-yard strike from Griese to Warfield set Miami up with goal-to-go, Csonka found the end zone for a second time — from six yards out on this occasion.
Trailing 21-7 after three quarters, it was a pair of defensive plays that allowed Buffalo to get back into the game. With the Dolphins looking to put the game away, Mercury Morris botched a hand-off from Griese and Bills’ linebacker Dave Washington scooped up the fumble and scampered 42 yards for the touchdown.
Buffalo remained opportunistic after Greene forced a fumble on a throw over the middle to Nat Moore and Washington scooped it up. With Ferguson injured, the Bills would even the game when rookie quarterback Gary Marangi — playing in his first career game — found J.D. Hill for a diving 44-yard touchdown as the teams began to go back and forth.
On the ensuing drive, Miami would catch another break as an interference call negated Neil Craig’s interception of Griese on a deep throw downfield to Moore. With five minutes remaining, fullback Don Nottingham scored on an 11-yard touchdown run to put Miami back in front, 28-21.
Marangi used his arm and his legs to methodically march the Bills down the field. With less than a minute to play, he found Don Chandler for a 5-yard touchdown to knot the game.
With Csonka injured, less than a minute to play and the ball at their own 19, the Dolphins looked inevitably bound for overtime, but for head coach Don Shula and company, that wasn’t good enough. Unwilling to be conservative, Griese and Warfield hooked up the first play of the drive for a 31-yard connection to midfield.
Running back Jim Kiick would convert first downs on each of the next two plays — one receiving and one rushing — to move Miami inside the Buffalo 25-yard-line. That’s when the contest would be decided by a fairly unlikely hero.
With less than 25 seconds to play and Miami in field goal range, Griese handed the ball to Nottingham on a fullback blast that went untouched for a 23-yard touchdown and the game-winning score. Nottingham’s 41 yards on six carries led a Miami team that churned out 160 yards on the ground.
Through the air, Griese finished 11-for-18 passing with 237 yards and the scoring strike to Warfield, who caught four passes for a game-high 139 yards receiving. Marangi finished 6-for-9 passing for 98 yards and two touchdowns to go with an interception that was plucked out of the air by Miami linebacker Nick Buoniconti. O.J. Simpson led the Bills with 60 yards rushing and 95 yards from scrimmage.
The contest would prove to be a decisive one as Miami completed the season sweep of the Bills and would finish 11-3 to take the AFC East title for the fourth straight season. Buffalo finished 9-5 with the two losses to the Dolphins ultimately deciding the division crown. The final of those two losses for the Bills came on this day 45 years ago.
Mike Ferguson is a contributor for The Grueling Truth, covering Florida sports and sports history. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. To keep up with all of his work, like his Facebook page.