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December 26, 1964: Bills win first AFL Championsip

Today is the 50th anniversary of the "Hit Heard 'Round The World" and the Bills first AFL Championship.

1964 AFL Championship banner hanging in the Buffalo Bills practice facility
1964 AFL Championship banner hanging in the Buffalo Bills practice facility
Matt Warren

Fifty years ago, on December 26, 1964, the Buffalo Bills won their first league championship in team history, securing the AFL Championship over the San Diego Chargers in Buffalo, 20-7.

The 1964 Bills were led by former Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp and bruising runner Cookie Gilchrist. The team won their first nine games of the year, but had to win in their final regular season game to clinch the AFL East division title. The offense was a juggernaut, leading the league in points, yards, and yards per play, as Gilchrist pounded the defense while Kemp and receiver Elbert Dubenion lit up opposing secondaries. The defense was also stout, pacing the league in points and yards allowed, as well as rushing defense.

The Chargers ran away with the AFL West division title with just an 8-5-1 record, clinching the spot in the title game with two full weeks left in the year. Lance Alworth was the Chargers' primary threat, gaining over 1,200 receiving yards during the season. Two passers, Tobin Rote and John Hadl, combined for over 3,300 passing yards and threw 27 touchdown passes during the regular season.

When these two teams got together, people were expecting an exciting game. The Chargers raced out to an early 7-0 lead thanks to a Rote scoring pass following a 38-yard run from Keith Lincoln. Just over two minutes into the championship game, Buffalo was already in a hole.

On San Diego's next possession, however, the Bills' defense changed the complexion of the game. When his downfield receivers were covered, Rote looked to the left flat to find Lincoln to get rid of the ball. As the ball arrived, Bills linebacker Mike Stratton hit Lincoln so hard, it knocked the fullback from the game and came to be known as the "hit heard 'round the world." Lincoln's hands were up to catch the pass, and Stratton's shoulder landed directly in his rib cage.

San Diego's offense never recovered after the hit, and it sent a jolt of electricity through the Bills' bench and the Rockpile. With Alworth already unable to suit up for the game, the Chargers wouldn't score another point with Lincoln out.

Buffalo netted a pair of Pete Gogolak field goals sandwiched around a Wray Carlton scoring un. Kemp added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Buffalo won 20-7. Fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts before the final gun had even sounded.

The Bills and Chargers met the following year for the AFL Championship, too, though this time the Bills beat the Chargers in San Diego. They stand as the only two major pro sports championships in the history of the city of Buffalo.