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Chargers field best team since '63 champions

I can still picture the break-open play the last time the San Diego Chargers met the Patriots in a postseason game, the 1963 AFL championship in crumbling old Balboa Stadium.

On the second play from scrimmage, running back Keith Lincoln ran 56 yards up the middle to set up San Diego's first touchdown. For Lincoln and the Chargers, it was just the beginning. The next time Lincoln touched the ball he ran 67 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots interrupted with their only touchdown of the day but Lincoln's sensational running-back partner, Paul Lowe, scored San Diego's third touchdown of the first quarter on a 58-yard run.

By the time he was through, Lincoln carried the ball just 13 times for 206 yards, caught seven passes, including a third touchdown, for 123 yards and completed his only pass for 20 additional yards. In winning, 51-10, the Chargers rolled up 610 yards in demolishing a defense that had choked off the Bills in their 26-8 playoff victory for the Eastern championship in Buffalo eight days earlier.

Until today, that may have been the greatest San Diego team of all time. Early in the '70s, after the merger of the AFL and the NFL, the editor of the Super Bowl program, impressed by a popular debate feature on 60 Minutes called "Point-Counterpoint," wanted to stage a similar debate in the program's pages. He hired two sportswriters to debate whether any AFL champion could have defeated the NFL champ before Super Bowls were invented.

The selection of the pro-NFL debater was obvious. Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated, who was partially responsible for the mushrooming popularity of pro football, had been an unabashed NFL homer since the AFL was formed. In 1964 he concocted a phony playoff between the Bills, the AFL champ, and the NFL's Cleveland Browns in the pages of his magazine. Tex had the Browns winning by seven touchdowns, with Daryle Lamonica scoring the only Buffalo points in garbage time.

His debate opponent was me.

The debate was played out in the program's centerfold with a photo of Tex and me -- our sleeves rolled up, our fists cocked, ready to duke it out -- above it.

My argument centered on the 1963 season, with the Chicago Bears, a team almost the direct opposite of the Chargers, the NFL champion. The Bears, in fact, were similar to the current Chicago team, brutally effective on defense and full of holes on offense. Their defense, coached by future Hall of Famer George Allen, had three future Hall of Fame players in its lineup -- middle linebacker Bill George, end Doug Atkins and tackle Stan Jones.

The Bears lost only one game, although they were tied twice late in their 14-game schedule. They allowed foes an average of just 10.3 points and then smothered the New York Giants, 14-10, in the NFL championship game, intercepting quarterback Y.A. Tittle five times. The Bears had to play great defense because nine of the league's 14 teams scored more points during the season. With journeyman Bill Wade their starting quarterback, they finished with fewer passing yards than 10 other teams. So the "paper game" hinged on whether the Chicago defense could completely stop an offense devised by Hall of Fame head coach Sid Gillman, father of the modern passing game, with two other future Hall of Famers, wide receiver Lance Alworth and tackle Ron Mix, along with Lincoln and Lowe and a stellar offensive line.

My argument was that speed would give the day to San Diego. Alworth was the fastest receiver in football. Lincoln and Lowe were deadly, particularly running outside on quick tosses behind two great tackles, Mix and Ernie Wright. Al Davis had left Gillman's staff to build the Raiders' dynasty that season. The Raiders owner, Wayne Valley, asked him "why can't we run those quick tosses like San Diego?" Davis' answer was "because we don't have tackles like Mix and Wright."

The Chargers defense? It contained stars like end Earl Faison and 6-foot-9, 320-pound Ernie Ladd, the biggest man in football at the time. It was also coordinated by a coach whose future would be brighter than that of George Allen's -- Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls as the Steelers' coach.

No winner was declared. That conclusion was left to the readers. Today's game will be far different, too, than the Chargers-Patriots title match of 43 seasons ago: Back then the Pats didn't have a Tom Brady playing quarterback.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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