For a complete list and recaps of all the
played between the two leagues from 1967-1969,
The benchmark game in the history of
the NFL-AFL rivalry, the game in which the American Football League
gained parity is always regarded as Super Bowl III. The New York Jets
defeated the Baltimore Colts 16-7 on January 12, 1969. But, to
true fans of the AFL, the parity game occurred two years earlier, on a
hot summer night in Denver, CO. It was on that night that the lowly
Denver Broncos defeated the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Not only was it the
first win for the AFL, but it happened in the first exhibition game
between the two leagues. It evened the AFL’s record against the NFL.
Green Bay had won Super Bowl I seven months earlier.
In the summer of 1967, the NFL-AFL merger was now a done deal. The two
leagues would combine play in 1970. Before then, the leagues would meet
in the Super Bowl and in a series of summer exhibition games. The first
games were played in the summer of 1967. The 1967 preseason was called
the "Summer of the Little Super Bowls". And, to kick the
exhibition season off that summer, the Denver Broncos met the Detroit
Lions on August 5, 1967. Unlike preseason games of most seasons before
and since, these games were very serious matters. The teams of both
leagues took them very seriously. It was not only regarded as a real
game, but it was vitally important to win. Larry Felser of The Sporting
“Exhibition” is hardly the word. From the talk around both leagues,
at least some of those games if not all of them, will take on the
characteristics of a vendetta."
Said Lance Alworth of San Diego and the AFL, “I’ve been dying to play
the NFL since my rookie season.“ Dick Schafrath of the Cleveland Browns
said, “Our pride is at stake. No NFL team wants to be the first to lose
to the AFL.” Defensive tackle Alex Karras said he would walk home to
Detroit if his Lions lost to the Broncos.
The Detroit Lions of 1967 were expecting big things. They had a new head
coach, former Lions’ great Joe Schmidt. The team was blessed with two
great quarterbacks in Karl Sweetan and Milt Plum. They also had the
newly arrived talents of rookie Mel Farr from UCLA, who would lead the
team for years to come. But, they were suffering from preseason injuries
to Wally Hilgenberg, Nick Eddy, Roger Brown and Gail Cogdill. The
Broncos were one of the worst teams in the history of the AFL coming
into the 1967 season, having compiled a total record of 26-69-3 in 7
years and winning only 4 games in 1966. They had a new coach in Lou
Saban, who had built championship teams at Buffalo in 1964 and ‘65, but
none of his assistants had any experience at the professional level. The
Broncos did have an outstanding draft, acquiring halfback Floyd Little
of Syracuse and Notre Dame lineman Pete Duranko. Another key move was
the acquisition of bruising runner, Cookie Gilchrist, who had played for
Saban in his Buffalo days. Coming into the Detroit game, Denver had
already lost its first preseason game, 19-2 to Miami.
The two teams met at the University of Denver Stadium before 21,288
delirious fans. The Broncos’ defense, playing smash-mouth football,
completely mesmerized the Lions. In the second quarter, Lonnie Wright of
the Broncos ruined a possible Lions’ scoring pass when he came out of
nowhere to pick off a Sweetan pass intended for Bill Malinchak at his
own 20. Later in the quarter, Wright batted down another pass in the end
zone stalling a Lions' drive. The Lions got no farther than the Bronco
36 yard line in the first half. There was no scoring in the first half.
the third quarter, Denver quarterback Scotty Glacken hit Al Denson with
a 56 yard pass. That set up a 35 yard field goal from rookie place
kicker Errol Mann and the Broncos led 3-0. Later in the quarter, with
the ball on the Detroit 44, Bob Scarpitto dropped back to punt on 4th
and 11. Instead of punting, Scarpitto took off on the right side and
scrambled 28 yards to the Lions 16. Six plays later, Gilchrist crashed
over from the one. The score was 10-0. The Lions continued to struggle
on offense. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Lions drove to
midfield only to see Milt Plum intercepted by Gene Sykes. It was the
farthest penetration by the Lions in the quarter. In the last period,
Detroit was finally able to score with 10:40 remaining in the game on a
15 yard pass from Plum to Malinchak in the endzone. But, Mann added
another field goal from 32 yards out late in the game and the final was
a stunning 13-7. The Broncos, who had averaged 83 yards per game rushing
in the 1966 AFL season, gained 227 yards on the ground with Gilchrist
accounting for 89. And, Gilchrist sat out all but the game clinching
series in the second half.
On the bus following the game, Roger Brown, the Lions’ defensive tackle
moaned, “The Denver Broncos….It didn’t happen!“ Following his first game
as head coach, Schmidt said, “But, I want to pay tribute to the Denver
team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be
many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.” It
would not be the last of Denver’s amazing accomplishments that summer as
they pulled off an equally shocking victory thirteen days later with a
13-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. In that game, the Broncos held
the Viking to three Fred Cox field goals. The AFL would actually
only win three games against the NFL that summer while posting 13 losses
(the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs downed the Chicago Bears on August
23). But the first bite was the best for the aspiring league thanks to
the lowly Broncos. In the words of Bills quarterback Jack Kemp,
"The AFL is going to surprise a lot of people. In fact, since
Denver beat the Lions and Vikings, I guess it already has."
DENVER (AP)- The Denver Broncos of
the American Football League, sparked by Bob Scarpitto's surprise
28-yard run from punt formation, stunned the Detroit Lions 13-7 in an
exhibition game Saturday night for the first victory ever by an AFL team
over a National League team.
The game, the first of 16 preseason contests between the two leagues,
was the first interleague clash since NFL Green Bay whipped Kansas City
35-10 in the inaugural Super Bowl last January.
That was the only AFL-NFL game prior to the Broncos' upset which is all
the more surprising since Denver had dropped its first exhibition game
last week to Miami 19-2.
But the Lions , playing their first game under coach Joe Schmidt, didn't
score against a stingy Bronco defense until 10:40 remained in the game.
That touchdown came on a 15-yard pass from Milt Plum
to Bill Malinchak.
That, however , wasn't enough to wipe out the Bronco's second-quarter
touchdown that followed Scarpitto's dash. The Denver punter, back to
kick on a fourth-and-11 situation at the Detroit 44, hesitated a second,
then broke for the right sideline.
Scarpitto reached the 16- yard line far a 28-yard gain and a vital first
down. From there it took the Broncos six plays and two penalties against
the Lions but they got the touchdown on Cookie Gilchrist's one yard
smash through the left side. Errol Mann converted and Denver led 10-0.
The Broncos scored earlier in the quarter on Mann's 35-yard field goal.
Scolty Glacken, who engineered the victory, set up the three-pointer
with a 50-yard pass to Al Denson.
Mann added another field goal, this one a 32-yarder, late in the fourth