A Raider Revival
One by one, the 60 or so policemen assigned to guard the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum playing field began to turn away from the stands and steal glances at the action behind them. The cops are under orders to keep their eyes peeled for trouble and to keep their backs to the game. But even the most dedicated were unable to resist a peek as two old AFL rivals, the Raiders and the Denver Broncos, stood toe-to-toe for three hours and 36 minutes on Sunday and took turns hitting each other over the head with a mallet.
The Raiders were the last ones standing, 33-30 winners over Denver in overtime. Not only was it the best game of the NFL season, as Los Angeles overcame a 30-13 third-quarter deficit, but it was also a win that propelled the 10-6 Raiders into the playoffs. And this Sunday they will again play the Broncos (who finished 9-7) at the Coliseum, in a wild-card game. "I don't even want to think about it," said the Raiders' Greg Townsend. Many players in both locker rooms undoubtedly agreed with him.
After Jeff Jaeger's 47-yard field goal midway through the overtime period won the game for the Raiders, L.A. guard Steve Wisniewski walked toward the locker room, staring into space with blood running straight down his nose. Bronco owner Pat Bowlen wandered across the field, his normally tan face white. Bronco safety Dennis Smith walked up the tunnel to the locker room, past the Raider cheerleaders who were crying and hugging, and said, "——." Smith went a few more feet and, to no one in particular, repeated himself.
How good a game was it? Both quarterbacks were almost flawless. The Broncos' John Elway completed 25 of 36 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Raiders' Jeff Hostetler was 25 of 41 for 310 yards with three TDs, and he also had no interceptions. This was not a day when either team played it safe, either. There were 24 plays that gained 15 or more yards, not to mention numerous near misses on long throws downfield. The Raiders tied the game on a Hostetler touchdown pass to Alexander Wright on the last play of the fourth quarter, and they won it soon after Bronco kicker Jason Elam missed a 40-yard field goal by one foot, 3:27 into overtime. It was Al Davis stretch-the-field football at its finest, a no-holds-barred, empty-your-barrels fight to the finish. As Townsend put it, "You are at the point where everything is on the line and opportunity is one big rainbow. You just keep chasing it, keep going, trying to find its end."
For one afternoon it was a return to glory for one of the great franchises in professional sports. The Raiders of old lived up to their team's pirate image. They were a bunch of outcasts who often over-achieved their way to victory after victory. John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado and Matt Millen were rabid, nutso guys who would say, and often do, anything. Former Raider coach Tom Flores was once asked how he prepared his team, and he joked, "The first thing I do is open the door and throw in some raw meat and then close the door real quick." Flores knew, however, that his players could be counted on to do whatever it took to win.
The Raiders of today aren't like that. Parity has settled into the National Football League, and the Raiders are not the intimidators that they once were. Instead, they are basically a bunch of nice guys who are glad that they have jobs.
Earlier in the season the Raiders suffered the indignity of being the first team to be beaten by the then 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals, and just two weeks ago they suffered a 28-0 humiliation at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. This season's Raiders couldn't hold a lead and couldn't run the ball. Yet each week the COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE banners would go up in the Coliseum—with little proof on the field that the team had any understanding of the concept. "I think this team underachieves too much," said Los Angeles receiver Tim Brown last week. "This team needs to be tougher because tough teams come up and play well every week." At halftime on Sunday, with the Broncos leading 27-13, it looked as if the Raiders would soon have a long off-season to think about how they might acquire more toughness.
And then out of the blue came this. With eight seconds left to play in regulation, the Raiders were down by a touchdown. Sixty-eight thousand fans were screaming their lungs out. Hostetler had time for one, maybe two passes into the end zone to tie the game. Dropping back, he looked to his left and set his sights on Brown, who would finish the day with 11 catches for 173 yards, but he was covered like a blanket. Hostetler thought about trying to hit Brown anyway, then turned to his right and saw that Bronco cornerback Charles Dimry had fallen down at the two-yard line. All alone in the right front corner of the end zone was Wright. Hostetler zinged it, Wright caught it, and an extra point later, the Raiders were chasing their rainbow into overtime. "Highlight of my life," a thrilled Wright said after the game.
The guys in black were back, having toughed it out. Even the cops were cheering for them.