The NFL playoffs following the 1971 NFL season led up to Super Bowl VI. Like the previous NFL seasons, the home teams in the playoffs were decided based on a yearly divisional rotation, excluding the wild card teams who would always play on the road. It was the first time that the NFL scheduled games on Christmas Day, a decision that drew considerable criticism.
Note: Prior to the 1975 season, the home teams in the playoffs were decided based on a yearly rotation of division winners. Had the playoffs been seeded, the divisional round matchups would have been Cleveland at Miami and Baltimore at Kansas City in the AFC; Washington at Minnesota and San Francisco at Dallas in the NFC.
MIA – Fleming 5 pass from Griese (Yepremian kick) 24–24
MIA – field goal Yepremian 37 MIA 27–24
In the longest NFL game played to date at 82 minutes, 40 seconds (and the Chiefs' last-ever game at Municipal Stadium), Miami kicker Garo Yepremian kicked the winning 37-yard field goal after 7:40 of double-overtime.
The Chiefs opened up the scoring with Jan Stenerud's 24-yard field goal. Then Chiefs defensive back Willie Lanier intercepted a pass from Bob Griese and returned it 17 yards to set up Len Dawson's 7-yard touchdown pass to Ed Podolak, increasing the lead to 10–0. However, Griese rallied the Dolphins back on their next drive, completing a 23-yard pass to Paul Warfield and a 16-yarder to tight end Marv Fleming on the way to Larry Csonka's 1-yard touchdown run. Shortly before halftime, the Dolphins defense recovered a fumble from Podolak deep in Chiefs territory, enabling Garo Yepremian to kick a 14-yard field goal to tie the game.
Kansas City retook the lead in the third quarter, on a 15-play, 75-yard drive that took 10 minutes off the clock and ended with Jim Otis' 1-yard score. Miami responded quickly though, storming right back to tie the game with a 1-yard touchdown run from Jim Kiick.
In the fourth quarter, Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti recovered a fumble to give his team a big scoring opportunity. But Kansas City took the ball right back when safety Jim Lynch intercepted Griese's pass on the Chiefs 9-yard line. Kansas City then stormed 91 yards, including a 63-yard completion from Dawson to rookie receiver Elmo Wright to retake the lead, 24–17, with Podolak's 3-yard touchdown run. Miami struck right back as Griese completed passes to Warfield for gains of 17 and 26 yards before finishing the 71-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Flemming, tying the game at 24 with 1:25 left in regulation. Podolak returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Dolphins 22-yard line before being shoved out of bounds by Miami's Curtis Johnson, giving Stenerud a chance to win the game for the Chiefs in the final minute of regulation. But he missed the field goal attempt from 31 yards and the game went into overtime.
Kansas City took the opening kickoff of the first overtime period, and Podolak returned it to the 46-yard line. Kansas City then drove into scoring range, but Stenerud 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Yepremian also attempted a 52-yard field goal later in the period, but missed. Csonka's 29-yard run in the second overtime period set up Yepremian's game-winning score.
Podolak's 350 all-purpose yards (8 receptions for 110 yards, 17 carries for 85 yards, 3 kickoff returns for 154 yards, two punt returns for two yards) in this game remain an NFL playoff record, and is still the fourth highest total in NFL history. "I don't think any one player in a big game, a monumental game like that, had a day like Eddie Podolak had," said Chiefs coach Hank Stram after the game. Chiefs running back Wendell Hayes added 100 rushing yards, while Wright caught 3 passes for 104 yards. Dolphins receiver Paul Warfield finished with 7 receptions for a career postseason high 140 yards, while Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti racked up 20 tackles.
DAL – Hayes 9 pass from Staubach (Clark kick) DAL 20–3
MIN – Safety, Page tackled Staubach in end zone DAL 20–5
MIN – Voigt 6 pass from Cuozzo (Cox kick) DAL 20–12
Although the Vikings outgained the Cowboys 311–183, Dallas converted turnovers into 13 points en route to a 20–12 win. The Cowboys jumped to a 6–3 halftime lead after converting a fumble recovery and an interception into field goals. Then, Cliff Harris' 30-yard interception return on the second play of the third quarter set up Duane Thomas' 13-yard touchdown run to give Dallas a 13–3 lead. Quarterback Roger Staubach then extended the lead with his 9-yard touchdown pass to Bob Hayes. The Vikings scored 9 unanswered points in the fourth quarter but it was not enough to make up for the deficit.
Don Nottingham scored two touchdowns as the Colts limited the Browns to only 3 points. Nottingham's first score, a 1-yard touchdown run, was set up after Bubba Smith blocked Cleveland kicker Don Cockroft's 4-yard field goal attempt. Then in the second quarter, safety Rick Volk's 37-yard interception return set up Nottingham's 7-yard touchdown run. Colts kicker Jim O'Brien also contributed with 2 field goals.
WAS – Smith 5 pass from Kilmer (Knight kick) WAS 7–0
SF – field goal Gossett 23 WAS 7–3
WAS – field goal Knight 40 WAS 10–3
SF – Washington 78 pass from Brodie (Gossett kick) 10–10
SF – Windsor 2 pass from Brodie (Gossett kick) SF 17–10
WAS – field goal Knight 35 SF 17–13
SF – Hoskins recovered fumble in end zone SF 24–13
WAS – Brown 16 pass from Kilmer (Knight kick) SF 24–20
The 49ers defense made key plays to lead San Francisco to a 24–20 victory over the Redskins. Washington scored first after Jon Jaqua blocked a punt to set up quarterback Billy Kilmer's 5-yard pass. Then after the teams exchanged field goals, the Redskins took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove to the San Francisco 11-yard line. But on fourth down and inches to go, Frank Nunley tackled Larry Brown for a 2-yard loss. Three plays later, 49ers quarterback John Brodie threw a 78-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Gene Washington to tie the game. Then, Roosevelt Taylor's interception set up Bob Windsor's 2-yard touchdown reception to give San Francisco a 17–10 lead. The 49ers later put the game away in the fourth quarter after defensive tackle Bob Hoskins recovered a bad snap on a Washington punt attempt in the end zone.
MIA – Warfield 75 pass from Griese (Yepremian kick) MIA 7–0
MIA – Anderson 62 interception return (Yepremian kick) MIA 14–0
MIA – Csonka 5 run (Yepremian kick) MIA 21–0
Although Miami quarterback Bob Griese completed only 4 passes, the Dolphins defense shut out the Colts. Defensive back Dick Anderson intercepted 3 passes, returning one of them 62 yards for a touchdown. Paul Warfield recorded a 75-yard touchdown reception midway through the first quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Griese's 50-yard pass to Warfield set up Larry Csonka's 5-yard touchdown run.
NFC Championship: Dallas Cowboys 14, San Francisco 49ers 3
In the first playoff game at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys defense dominated the 49ers offense by only allowing 61 rushing yards, 9 first downs, and forcing 3 interceptions. In the second quarter, Dallas defensive end George Andrie intercepted a screen pass at the San Francisco 8-yard line to set up Calvin Hill's 1-yard touchdown run. Then in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys marched 80 yards in 14 plays to score on Duane Thomas' 2-yard touchdown run.