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'72 Dolphins had right coach, schedule and mind-set for perfection

Larry Seiple was one of the Dolphins' best weapons. Besides punting, Seiple was adept at faking punts. In the 1972 AFC Championship Game, he made a crucial play to key the Dolphins' perfect season. Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

As I sat in the auxiliary press box at Three Rivers Stadium on New Year's Eve 1972, it was easy to see the sun shined on the Miami Dolphins, who were rolling through a perfect season.

Home-field advantage for the playoffs was determined on a rotating basis back then, so the Steelers, by virtue of their division-winning season, had home field for the AFC Championship Game. For years to come, opponents shivered at the thought of playing in a frozen Three Rivers, but not on this day.

It was 63 degrees and felt like spring. The elements favored the Dolphins and so did the circumstances. The Steelers were coming off their Immaculate Reception victory over the Raiders. But the undefeated Dolphins beat the Steelers with the Immaculate Deception.

With Earl Morrall at quarterback, the Dolphins were struggling against the Steel Curtain defense (which earned that moniker later). Punter Larry Seiple kick-started the Dolphins by running one of the most perfectly executed fake punts ever seen.

Seiple took the fourth-down snap, paused for a second and ran with no one near him directly toward the auxiliary press box end zone, the same end zone where Franco Harris scored his Immaculate Reception touchdown. The Dolphins caught the Steelers so far off guard that Steelers players were running with Seiple as if they were his guardians.

The 37-yard run set up a 9-yard touchdown pass from Morrall to Larry Csonka to tie the score, 7-7. Morrall, however, could do little else against the Steelers' defense, so, in the second half, Don Shula went to Bob Griese, who had missed 11 weeks with a broken right leg. Griese directed two touchdown drives and the Dolphins won, 21-17.

The Dolphins were blessed, but two things stuck out about that season and that team.

First, the Dolphins taught the world that schedule strength means everything. The Dolphins played the third-easiest schedule in the modern era. Their opponents were 70-122, a .367 percentage that was topped only by the 1975 Minnesota Vikings and the 1999 St. Louis Rams. As it turned out, the Dolphins didn't play a team with a winning record during the regular season.

Easy schedules are gifts, but good teams and good coaches take advantage of them. The Dolphins were coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys. Ask six of the past seven Super Bowl losers about the difficulty of coming off a Super Bowl loss. Shula maintained the team's focus and pounded out 14 regular-season wins without letting his team lose intensity.

Second, Morrall showed the value of a great backup quarterback. The most dominating team -- except for maybe this year's Patriots, some of the Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers teams and the 1985 Chicago Bears -- was the 1976 Steelers. The Steel Curtain was in its prime and it defied opponents to beat it for even a first down.

Like the Dolphins of 1972, the 1976 Steelers didn't have their star quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, to close the regular season. That team rallied around Mike Kruczek like the Dolphins did around Morrall. They dominated teams during a six-game winning streak. Bradshaw came back for the playoffs, but in blowing out the Baltimore Colts, the Steelers lost Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier to injuries. The Raiders beat them in the AFC Championship Game.

That 1972 Dolphins team had the right coach, the right schedule and the right mind-set to overcome the loss of a starting quarterback to go 17-0, including the playoffs and Super Bowl. Alumni of that team deserve their champagne toasts once the last unbeaten team falls.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. As a young reporter, Clayton covered the 1972 Dolphins-Steelers AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh for the St. Mary's (Pa.) Daily Press.