Gold Jacket Spotlight: Joe Namath's Biggest Game

Gold Jacket Spotlight: Joe Namath's Biggest Game

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“I guarantee it.”

Joe Namath proclaimed those words, preserved forever in professional football lore, about winning Super Bowl III at a banquet a few days before he and the underdog New York Jets of the American Football League would face the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Miami.

While Joe was accepting an award from the Miami Touchdown Club as pro football’s Player of the Year, a heckler let him know the Colts would make it three consecutive NFL routs in the game, which would conclude the 1968 season. Few disagreed with the guy. After all, Baltimore entered the matchup with a 15-1 record after smashing the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

His emotions rising, Joe responded: “I’ve got news for you. We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.”

And he backed up his bold words with a solid performance, completing 17 of his 28 passing attempts for 206 yards in the 16-7 upset. As important, he called many of the plays at the line of scrimmage, keeping the Colts’ top-ranked defense off balance all game.

Joe was named the game’s Most Valuable Player

And while his prediction and subsequent execution in Super Bowl III paved the way for his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, none of that would have been possible without a season-saving fourth-quarter comeback two weeks earlier.

This week, the Gold Jacket Spotlight revisits Joe’s heroics in the AFL Championship Game, played Dec. 29, 1968, in a blustery Shea Stadium against the Oakland Raiders.

“This is the money game,” a microphone captures Joe saying before the game.

The Raiders came into the game as defending AFL champions, sporting a 13-2 record. They had won nine consecutive games, including a 41-6 shellacking of their archrival, the Kansas City Chiefs, in a playoff game necessitated because of their matching regular-season records. During their winning streak, the Raiders also beat the Jets – 43-32 in Oakland, despite 381 passing yards from Joe, including 228 yards to fellow future Hall of Famer Don Maynard.

In the AFL title game, those two connected on the game’s first score – a 14-yard first quarter pass play. The Raiders took the lead for the first time with 8:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, turning an interception into the go-ahead points.

“What followed was the most important drive of Namath’s career,” said the narrator of an NFL Films look at the game.

One season earlier, Joe has become the first player in pro football to pass for more than 4,000 yards. He also led the league in passing yardage in 1966 with 3,379. He ranked first both years in completions but also in interceptions.

In his first three seasons, Joe had not led the Jets to the playoffs. Fans and even some teammates wondered if he would live up to the hype that surrounded him, and now he faced a 23-20 deficit against a defense ranked in the top 3 in several statistical categories.

Joe delivered on the most important drive of his career by completing a 6-yard TD pass to Maynard two plays after a 52-yard bomb to his favorite target put the team in scoring position.

New York sportswriter Dave Anderson estimated that Joe’s deep throw covered 75 yards in the air – traveling from the left hash to near the right sideline where Maynard caught it. “I’d never seen a ball thrown that far,” he said.

“I remember writing that that’s the play that will define this franchise,” Anderson told NFL Films. “And it did.”

Final score: Jets 27, Raiders 23.

Joe completed 19 passes in 49 attempts for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He played much of the game after dislocating a finger on this throwing hand.

“That was the toughest game I ever played in – physically the toughest game,” Joe said in a recent interview with NFL Films. “They were mean – and a little extra.”

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