After the Kansas City Chiefs finally punched out the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime, after Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre arched his javelin shot in the last minute to beat the Detroit Lions, and after the New York Giants left-hooked Jim McMahon and the Minnesota Vikings into next season, America turned its attention to the Los Angeles Raiders and the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon at the L.A. Coliseum. Three hours and 34 minutes later, the NFL's most exciting weekend in years ended with this line score in the AFC wild-card round: Los Angeles 42, Denver 24; On-Field Brawls, 5; Paragliders Hovering Above Stadium, 1; Raiders in Street Clothes Causing Mayhem, 1. "The game was a pretty good illustration of this rivalry," said Bronco safety Dennis Smith afterward. "We hate each other's guts, and it was kind of crazy out there."
Here's how crazy it was: L.A. quarterback Jeff Hostetler outdueled the reigning AFC superquarterback, John Elway, in the sort of nine-touchdown offensive explosion that fans in this point-starved league had been yearning for; there were more penalties (27) for more yards (227) than in any playoff game in the NFL's 74-year history; and there was a small earthquake in the third quarter, the epicenter of which was 10 miles west of the Coliseum. Oh, and Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe caught 13 passes to tie a postseason record. Did anyone notice?
It was easy to overlook Sharpe amid the chaos. With the score tied 14-14 midway through a seesaw first half, rookie Raider cornerback James Trapp, who was not activated for the game, stormed onto the field in a tan outfit during a brawl and slugged Bronco Frank Robinson. By then the game had already been delayed for two minutes in the first quarter when paraglider James Miller, the same fellow who had dropped into the ring during the Nov. 6 Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight in Las Vegas, dipped and looped around the Coliseum, waving merrily to the crowd. When he landed in a nearby park, he was arrested and charged with interfering with a sporting event, but he was lucky indeed to have touched down outside the arena, even if he fell directly into the hands of the law.
Raider home crowds are the toughest in the NFL. At times the Coliseum resembles nothing so much as a gigantic biker bar. When Los Angeles defensive end Howie Long left the field after the game, he was surrounded by nine cops—and, in the eyes of Coliseum denizens, Long is one of the good guys. "Remember the beating that guy got when he landed in Vegas?" Long said of Miller's previous stunt. "Magnify that beating tenfold. That's what he would have gotten here. If there's one stadium you don't want to dive into, this is it."
Of course, we won't have to concern ourselves with the Coliseum and its unruly masses for the rest of this postseason. The Raiders will now take to the road in pursuit of their first Super Bowl appearance since 1984, beginning with a stern test against the Buffalo Bills this Saturday at Rich Stadium. The path ahead is similar to the one L.A. faced in 1980. The Raiders finished second in the AFC West that season, too, and smashed a wild-card foe at home just as they dispatched Denver on Sunday. If they defeat Buffalo, they will have to play the AFC title game on the road, as they did in 1980 when they beat the San Diego Chargers.
L.A. may not reach Atlanta, site of Super Bowl XXVIII, but it's an explosive team. It has won at both Buffalo and Denver this season, and it has scored 75 points in the last two weeks. And in Hostetler it has the hottest quarterback in the NFL, a 32-year-old veteran who is at last getting his chance to show what a complete football player he is after nine years of laboring in Phil Simms's Giant shadow. "We've got things to do before we can be super," said an uncharacteristically cautious Raider boss Al Davis after Sunday's triumph, "but we can compete with everybody."
Give Hostetler much of the credit for that. For a decade Los Angeles has been furiously treading water in a sea of quarterbacks named Marc Wilson, Jay Schroeder, Steve Beuerlein and Todd Marinovich. During that time the Raiders all but conceded the quarterback matchup with the Elways, Jim Kellys and Warren Moons of the league. No more. In New York the label hung on Hostetler was that he was an intermediate passer, that his arm was too weak for him to throw deep. Maybe it's the California climate, but under Hostetler, the Raider vertical passing game is now as threatening as it was during the Jim Plunkett days in the early '80s. "I've been in the desert for years, waiting for a glass of water at quarterback," says Long, a Raider since 1981. "There have been a few mirages. Finally we've got a really good NFL quarterback."
How strange it seemed to watch Elway playing catch-up to Hostetler. He had burned the Raiders for 361 yards in L.A.'s 33-30 overtime win a week earlier in the Coliseum, and he was primed to play another superb game. Incentive No. 1: He wanted to serve some humble pie to Davis, who had told The San Francisco Examiner that the Broncos feared the Raiders after the regular-season finale. "Who listens to this guy anyway?" Elway muttered three days before the wild-card game. "He's said so many stupid things." Incentive No. 2: Elway wanted to show that Denver could win without the high-pressure approach of former coach Dan Reeves.
Elway took this showdown very seriously. When offensive coordinator Jim Fassel gave all three Bronco quarterbacks a surprise written quiz last Thursday—they had to know which players should be on the field for every play in the game plan—Elway went 70 for 70. Though Denver appeared ready to get the Raider monkey off its back (the Broncos had lost eight of their last nine meetings with L.A.), the one thing it couldn't shake was the discouraging memory of that most recent loss, in OT. "What worries me," Denver coach Wade Phillips said late last week, "is we gained 471 yards, we didn't turn the ball over, we did almost everything right, and we didn't win."
Phillips was in for a repeat performance. When Hostetler threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ethan Horton less than six minutes into Sunday's game, the race was on. Elway matched Hostetler with a 23-yard bullet to Sharpe to make the score 7-7. On the next series Tim Brown, Hostetler's favorite target, hauled in a strike on a crossing pattern and sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown. Then Elway rainbowed a 16-yarder to tight end Reggie Johnson to knot the score again, at 14. "I was starting to have the feeling that the team with the ball last would win," Hostetler said later.