“The Dolphins are still the Unconquered. But they looked awfully vulnerable at times Sunday.”

That was the succinct summary from the Miami Herald of the Miami Dolphins’ first-round playoff win on Christmas Eve, 1972. Miami entered the game as a two-touchdown favorite but wound up fighting for their playoff lives against the Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins spent most of that game flirting with disaster, narrowly avoiding it with a 20-14 victory.

Miami, obviously the hottest team in the league at 14-0 in the regular season, came into this game as a two-touchdown favorite. The Browns, however, were the second-hottest team in the NFL, winning eight of their last nine games to bounce back from a 2-3 start to capture the wild card slot (only one of those back in the day). Cleveland’s head coach Nick Skorich, also brought in the proverbial chip on his shoulder, steamed that none of his Browns were deemed worthy of a spot in the Pro Bowl (nine Dolphins were selected).

Conventional wisdom about this matchup was that Cleveland would have to play a mistake-free game to have a chance to win. That was turned on its head very quickly when Browns quarterback Mike Phipps, starting his first playoff game, threw an interception on his team’s first play from scrimmage. Dolphins safety Dick Anderson, as he so often did, found the ball, tipping it and giving linebacker Doug Swift a chance for the interception at the Browns’ 40-yard line. Dolphins radio field reporter Henry Barrow reported, “This unemotional ballclub was jumping up and down after that interception, including their head coach.”

As would be the trend in this game, though, Miami did not convert the Cleveland mistake into points. The Browns’ defense held the Dolphins to a three-and-out, then Garo Yepremian missed a 46-yard field goal. Miami’s defense returned the favor, and rookie Charlie Babb led a charge of four Dolphins through the line to block Don Cockroft’s punt. Babb recovered it as the Cleveland five-yard line and was escorted into the end zone for the first score of the game.

Miami picked up their initial first down of the game on the next possession on a 21-yard reverse to Paul Warfield. The drive stalled, but Yepremian converted a 40-yard field goal to put the Dolphins ahead 10-0 late in the first quarter. All seemed right in Miami, but the Browns would actually outplay the Dolphins for most of the next three quarters.

Cleveland finally picked up a first down on their next possession as running back Bo Scott found a lane running up the middle for good yardage. The Browns moved down to Miami’s 25-yard line but Phipps suffered his second interception of the game. He overthrew wide receiver Fair Hooker and hit Miami defensive back Curtis Johnson between the four and five on his jersey. Just the play before Cleveland wide receiver Frank Pitts had broken open but dropped a sure touchdown pass. Again, the Dolphins failed to convert the Browns’ mistake into points when Yepremian missed a 53-yard field goal.

You may be getting the idea that this was not a pretty game. You would be correct. The teams combined for seven turnovers, and neither one broke the 300-yard mark.

Late in the second quarter, Cleveland had another foible on a punt when their center airmailed the snap to Cockroft. The veteran kicker made a nice play jumping to tip the ball and keep it from flying over his head, but by the time he had collected it, Miami’s Jim Mandich was on him and brought him down before he could get a kickoff.

Given another break with the ball at the Browns’ 39-yard line, the Dolphins’ offense began to march…backwards. A holding penalty, sack, and nine-yard loss by Mercury Morris pushed Miami back to their own 29-yard line, where they faced fourth-and-forty-two. As I said, not pretty.

Phipps’ third interception of the half gave the Dolphins a chance to extend their lead. Another successful reverse to Warfield and strong running by Morris got Miami deep into Cleveland territory. A strong Cleveland pass rush disrupted the Dolphin offense so much that, with no timeouts left, they had to rush the field goal team out just before the gun. Yepremian’s 17-yard field goal was good, but Miami was penalized because they were not properly set, wiping the points off the scoreboard and leaving the score 10-0 Dolphins at halftime.

Miami quarterback Earl Morrall completed only three of nine passes in the first half for just 12 yards, with three sacks, and Coach Don Shula admitted later that he considered inserting Bob Griese in place of Morrall to start the second half. He did not make the move, and this time the results would validate his decision, unlike in Super Bowl III when he left Morrall in until the fourth quarter in his Colts’ loss to the Jets.

After the teams traded punts to start the second half, a 38-yard punt return by Browns rookie Thom Darden put Cleveland at the Miami 44-yard line. Phipps quickly connected with tight end Milt Morin for a 21-yard gain and the Browns’ second first-down of the game. Four plays later, Phipps took matters into his own hands and legs with a five-yard scramble for a touchdown.

With their lead down to three points, the Dolphins’ offense looked to answer, but running back Jim Kiick fumbled on third-and-one. The Browns recovered to end the threat. Miami picked up where they left off on their next possession, with their offensive line beginning to control the line of scrimmage. Morris was stopped on third-and-two, however, and Yepremian converted a 46-yard field goal to put the Dolphins ahead 13-7 early in the fourth quarter.

Cleveland answered with a drive of their own, mixing runs by Scott with passes. Then came the strange play that swung the game in Cleveland’s direction. Phipps overthrew Morin and Anderson came up with Miami’s fourth interception, then he was hit and fumbled. Browns receiver Fair Hooker recovered at the Miami 30 and scored the go-ahead touchdown two plays later on a 27-yard pass from Phipps.

Cleveland now led 14-13 with eight minutes remaining, and the pressure was squarely on the Dolphins’ offense. It was time for great players to make great plays. It was Paul Warfield’s time.

Warfield had received an unusual amount of attention leading up to this game and even lost sleep as the week progressed. He had become a star for the Cleveland Browns after they selected him out of Ohio State in the first round of the 1964 draft. He was a native Ohioan and had dreamed of playing his entire career in Cleveland (players thought that kind of thing back then).

Then, the unthinkable happened. The Browns were desperate for a quarterback to replace veteran Bill Nelsen, who was breaking down physically. They traded Warfield to Miami for the third overall pick in the 1970 draft, where they selected Mike Phipps out of Purdue.

Warfield was devastated, but soon thereafter, Don Shula showed up in Miami and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of that history would be written on this day, starting in the Dolphins’ huddle when they got the ball after falling behind for the first time in the game.

Warfield spoke up, something his teammates had never heard him do. “If we’re going to do something, now’s the time,” he said. “This is it; we’ve got to score.” Morrall wisely looked for him on the first play, connecting with a 15-yard pass over the middle. After two runs by Morris produced another first down, Morrall returned to Warfield, who had broken free of defensive back Ben Davis (the brother of activist/militant Angela Davis). The pass was a bit high, but Warfield leaped and corralled it for a 35-yard gain.

Two plays later, Warfield was (wisely) interfered with by Cleveland linebacker Billy Andrews, who somehow got isolated on Warfield and could not stay with him. Kiick redeemed himself and scored from eight yards out on the next play to give Miami a 20-14 lead.

There was still work to be done to secure the victory. An exchange of punts gave the Browns the ball at their own 49-yard line with 1:40 left in the game. After moving to the Miami 34, Phipps threw to Hooker, who had four Dolphins around him. Doug Swift cut in front to make the game-clinching interception, Phipps’ fifth of the game. Swift’s two interceptions earned the game ball.

Despite converting only one of 13 third downs and Larry Csonka, who had fought stomach issues during the week, being held to 32 yards on 12 carries, the Dolphins had survived and advanced. This had been an extremely physical game, on a par with the Dolphins’ September game in Minnesota and their second game with the Jets. Csonka, though, was not pleased with his team’s effort, “We’ve got to get 100 percent dedication. We’ve had it in the past, of course, but not recently. We haven’t really had that intense desire and total dedication necessary.”

A relieved Don Shula afterward gave his defense credit for “saving us the ball game. Our defense came up with the big plays.” Browns coach Nick Skorich was proud of his team in defeat, saying “Next year, our horizons are unlimited. We’re on the verge of being a top football team.” Actually, they were on the verge of missing the playoffs for the next seven seasons. He also referred to the Warfield trade for the opportunity to draft Phipps as “one of the greatest trades the Browns have ever made.” Actually, 1972 would be Phipps’ best season. His play dropped off sharply after 1973, Warfield made the Hall of Fame, and the trade lives in infamy in Cleveland Browns’ history. I’m surprised Skorich’s analysis didn’t land him a TV job.

After surviving the threat from Cleveland, Miami would head to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh were basking in the glow of their first playoff win in franchise history the day before on what was being called a “freak” play but would later be immortalized as “The Immaculate Reception.” A new challenge awaited a Miami team that had met everyone presented to them so far.

Coming next: Part 23-Dolphins Delay Steelers Dynasty

The Pittsburgh Steelers would dominate much of the 1970s, but on New Year’s Eve, 1972, it was the Dolphins that played like champions and earned their shot at redemption in Super Bowl VII.

You can follow me on Twitter @jimjfootball.