Pre-Super Bowl IV

1963 sports illustrated

Much has been said (especially since my recent photo postings) about Super Bowls I-IV.  They are fantastic subjects for debate, individually or collectively.  Great players, hall of fame coaches, big plays and ultimately, a 2-2 record between the leagues.

Not nearly as much is said about the world championship games that would have been played if the two leagues had arranged postseason contests beginning in 1960.  1960 Oilers vs. Eagles?  1963 Chargers vs. Bears?  Which AFL team would have been the first to knock off an NFL champion?  Or was the AFL simply not up to the NFL standard early on, as so many NFL enthusiasts like to shout from the rooftops?

Over the next several days we will run through the AFL-NFL Championships that never were, or as I am calling them, the Pre-Super Bowls.  I will post the vital stats, and you all provide the commentary.  Let’s see who most people think would be the first AFL team to be crowned, “World Champions.”

1963 Chicago Bears – (11-1-2)

The Monsters of the Midway were a defensive-minded team in 1963 that allowed opponents just 144 points during the regular season (10.3/game).  They had three hall of famers amongst the line and linebackers (Stan Jones, Doug Atkins & Bill George), and played a smash-mouth style of defense, the likes of which the AFL probably hadn’t seen to this point.  They ranked first in the NFL in points allowed, turnover differential and total defense.  The Bears were much less dominant on the other side of the ball.  Led by quarterback Billy Wade, the Bears offense ranked 10th in the NFL in points-scored (301, 21.5/game) and yards (4172, 298/game).  No Bears running back hit the 500-yard mark for the season, and their leading receiver, TE Mike Ditka, had 794 yards for the year.

1963 San Diego Chargers – (11-3-0)

The ’63 Chargers were the crown jewel in Sid Gillman’s crown.  He brought in veteran leadership at the quarterback position with the addition of Tobin Rote.  Rote was the final piece for the Chargers offensive puzzle.  The Chargers had 1963 AFL MVP Lance Alworth, Don Norton and Dave Kocourek running pass routes, Lincoln & Lowe in the backfield, and Tobin Rote being protected by a strong offensive line.  Add in Gillman’s futuristic offense, and it is difficult to understand how San Diego lost three games.  They were no slouches on defense, either.  The line featured Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison, with Hank Schmidt, Bob Petrich, George Gross and Fred Moore in the rotation.  The linebackers were strong, and the defensive backfield was just two years removed from setting a record with 49 interceptions in a season.

Many people consider the 1963 Chargers to be the first AFL champion that could reasonably defeat their NFL counterpart.  While this exercise has shown that they might not have been the first, I believe that they were the surest bet.  While Chicago had a smothering defense, the Chargers offense was equally impressive.  Conversely, the Bears had a rather anemic offense that the Chargers should have handled easily.  I think the Chargers would have taken this one.

Todd Tobias (790 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.

12 Responses to Pre-Super Bowl IV

  1. 1967 says:

    Dream matchup 1963: Chargers vs Bears, a classic battle of good (AFL/Chargers) vs evil (NFL/Bears).

    General terms, great offense vs defense… a bit like last night’s DEN vs KC game. But, my opine the lone Hall of Famer last night’s gridiron was Manning, so perhaps a better comparison might be the ’85 Bears their 46 D vs the 1999 Rams ‘Greatest Show on Turf’.

    Both sides were loaded with HOF types, both clearly the best their respective leagues; oddly both never again reached such heights, my opine. I think there is a reason most people point to this game as the definitive one determine if / when the AFL caught up with the NFL.

    The ’63 Bears averaged 21.5 points per game while allowing only 10.3, an 11.3 differential – ‘that’ was their nature – San Diego a 28.5 ppg clip on offense and 18.2 defense, a 10.3 differential.

    Hence, the Bears were/would have been the victor a one point better, right?

    Who can say; I’ll leave that debate to Chargers fans & Bears same if be any theirs here.

    Suffice to say, offense sells tickets and defense wins games, or so they say. For me, the determining factor would be this: how would the Bears offense do vs the Chargers defense/ (moreso than the obvious Charger O vs Bears D.) I’d suspect that while the latter two units were bust pummeling one another that the forgotten deux CHIC O and SD D would be the difference in the game.

    This game that never was, my pick is Chargers 24 Bears 23…yup, that close, a game that could have gone either way. I ponder how quickly the Bears descended thereafter from 1964 on and how the Chargers were seemingly just hitting their stride. Except that the Chargers in fact never did reach the pinnacle, despite immense talent.

    Will add in closing that, to the Chargers credit, they put their manhood were their mouths were, challenging the Bears to a winner take all game… and the NFL/Bears declined.

    Gee, I wonder why?


  2. David says:

    Per –
    Bears as the Home team, Chargers are the visitors. I use LA Mem. Coliseum with 40 degrees and light wind.

    ’63 Chargers: 20, ’63 Bears: 7. Keith Lincoln had a monster day.

  3. John Spoulos says:

    Since good defense usually dominates good offense, I would think most of the NFL teams would have beaten the earlier AFL teams which would not have been the case as we saw in Super Bowls 3 and 4. The Chargers were a fun team to watch with that wide open offense, but most times, they couldn’t stop too many teams.

  4. Mike Metzler says:

    I believe that had this game taken place, Chicago might have been mystified by the offense the Chargers put forth that they may have tried to get themselves into a shoot-out style of game to which they were unaccustomed just to prove they could do it. The result could have ended up reminiscent of the Bears’ surprising 73-0 defeat of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game. George Halas was stubborn; Sid Gilman was innovative.

    • Tom says:

      Contrary to the 1963 Bears being mystified by the Chargers offense the Bears D with former Gilman assistant George Allen, who in 1958 was hired by Halas because of his knowledge of Gilmans offense and both Bears QB’s Bill Wade and Rudy Bukich and running back Joe Marconi former Rams under Gilman, the Bears with an experienced D would have been more than prepared for anything the Chargers ran at them. This coupled by the fact that Halas would have had the added incentive of defending the league he found and was probably miffed over losing The Big Cat and Lincoln to the Chargers, both of who wasted draft picks on in 1962.

      If the Chargers played the way they did that Championship day, it may be safe to say, that on that day they were world beaters and would have beaten any team in either league that day.

  5. Charley Hall says:

    Assuming the game was played in a warm weather site such as LA or Miami, Chargers 49 Bears 31. Sid Gillman was so far ahead of the NFL in the passing game that the aging pre Dick Butkus Bears defense would have been swamped. It would have been interesting if NFL Films would have miked Gillman like they did Hank Stram in Super Bowl IV. Talk about a Chinese fire drill!!!

    • John says:

      Great debate. Since this is mostly a pro AFL website I am going to through my thoughts in. I’m a Bear fan first, but I loved the pre-merger AFL. Keith Lincoln was my favorite player of all time. The Chargers never faced a defense like the Bears. The closest that year was probably the Pats. They barely beat them. In a nutshell, the ’63 Bears had better depth, more experience and more cohesiveness especially on defense.

      The core of the Bears team had played together for years. For the most part, the Chargers did not have that luxury.

      The Chargers best players (Alworth, Faison, Ladd, Lincoln, Lowe, Rote, Mix) could play with the Bears top players (Ditka, George, Fortunato, Jones, Morris, Petitbon, Wade), but there was a noticeable separation after that.

      A lot would depend on where the game was played. If the game was played in Chicago with the same weather conditions, the Chargers would have almost no chance. Would have to be at a warm-weather site to be a competitive game. Bears would win 2 out of 3

      • Bill Denhart says:

        Keith Lincoln was a member of the 1961 College All Star team in 1961 which scrimmaged the Bears. Based on his first hand knowledge he always maintained the 63 Chargers would have beat the Bears. Noticeable separation after that? Koucerek, Wright, Shea, Deluca, Rogers, Norton, Rote on offense and Allen, Karas, Buncom, Westmoreland, Whitehead, Blair, Gross, Petrich, Harris on defense and man others were equal to the Bears if not better. Chargers 27- Bears 10.

  6. Howard says:

    I have no idea how this game would have turned out. I am utterly confident that the NFL champions from 1960-1962 would have defeated the AFL’s best. This game I am not sure of. For the following:

    1. The Bears offense relied on excellent field position derived from their defense creating numerous three and out’s. They did not have to score 80 yards per drive. But, they did score points. Against LA- 52, Detroit 37, mid twenties against Detroit and Green Bay. So, they could score if they had a short field. But, they had only one great weapon, Ditka. The offensive line was good, and the receivers and backs were average at best.

    2. The Bears defense did not allow more than 21 points in any game (Detroit). They had one shutout, two games allowing three points and five games with only seven points allowed. All these were wins.

    3. Clearly the Chargers offense was both talented and creative. They were a prototype of the Rams/Martz offense. Gillman is credited with most of the modern schemes used today. Big edge for San Diego.

    4. San Diego’s defense remains a question mark for me. I realize that they had several athletic players. They certainly performed very well against the Patriots in the AFL Championship game. However, they did not play very well the next two years against Buffalo. Not sure if that is relevant.

    5. Coaching is interesting. Sid Gillman did not parachute from another planet. He was a relatively successful coach for the Rams during the 1950’s. He did not invent his offensive from scratch in 1963. His was a continual process. So, I’m not sure if his schemes would have been alien to George Allen, who coached Chicago’s defense. I believe Allen would have limited the Charger’s to 21 points. But the question is whether the Bears could score 22 points. That really depends on how good the Charger’s defense was. And I just don’t know!

    • billd says:

      Not only was Walt Sweeney a terror on the Charger special tams (UT San Diego Columnist Nick Canepa says Walt was the best special team player he ever saw) but Walt was joined in 1963 by Henry Schmidt, who was voted by Sports Illustrated as the best wedge buster in NFL history. Throw in the punting of Paul Maguire and you have big edge to the Chargers on special teams.

  7. Charles Oakey says:

    This is the “Super Bowl” the AFL would have won.

    Oh, how I wish this game would have been played.

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