The first time the Broncos and Raiders Met, in a Monday-nighter in November, the teams were headed in opposite directions. Things looked very bright for the hometown Broncos, who were cruising along at 6-2. The Raiders, after sprinting out of the blocks at 4-0, had nosedived, losing four straight. Rich Gannon and the Gnat Attack were getting outscored by tougher offenses that went straight at the Oakland defense. Plus, the Raiders were in Denver, where they hadn't won in seven years.
Well, Oakland did just fine that night, jumping to an early lead and never looking back. The final was 34-10, and the game turned the season around for both teams. The Raiders got their swagger back and ran off four more wins. The Broncos went into a spin and dropped three of their next four. Two of Denver's defensive starters, tackle Lional Dalton and left corner Deltha O'Neal, were benched for Sunday's game against the Chiefs, and last week Mike Shanahan ripped one of his biggest defensive stars, left end Trevor Pryce, for his lack of production.
Then Denver went out and beat Kansas City, not with any memorable performance but by outlasting a shorthanded team that made a late run even without two wide receivers, the starting fullback and the NFL's best runner, Priest Holmes. Now, a Raiders-Broncos game that once was shaping up as an afterthought takes on tremendous meaning because Oakland couldn't get by Miami on Sunday, when a win would have given the Raiders the AFC West title. Denver, meanwhile, could steal the division with victories over the Raiders and then the Cardinals.
On Sunday the Dolphins mixed some zone into their lock-on man coverage. Sometimes they'd go with six defensive backs in their ever-shifting scheme, and they kept Gannon on the move with an active rush. All this held down the Oakland offense, but what won the game for Miami was that it was able to attack a defense that was missing two starting corners. A bolder Jay Fiedler used the deep strike to set up Ricky Williams, who ran for 101 yards. That isn't Miami's style, but it worked against those jayvee corners.
So who do I like in Denver- Oakland, which will be played in the Black Hole? Whether those corners are healthy or not, I think Shanahan's attack will eat up the Raiders' defense and turn the game into a shootout. After all, the Broncos didn't show me anything on Sunday to convince me that they can shut down Oakland. Denver wins in an upset.
Just once, I'd like to know which team that's out of it is prepared to play the game of its life and hang one of those shocking upsets on a contender. Minnesota against Miami? No. I'll go with the Dolphins. Dallas at home against Philly? Not hardly. The Eagles are zeroing in on home field for the NFC playoff run. Detroit at Atlanta, Cincinnati at home against New Orleans? No and no, and I'm ashamed for even including those games here. How about the Giants at Indianapolis? Hmmm, that's interesting. Maybe I'd pick a New York win at the Meadowlands, but I can't see the Giants beating the Colts on the road. What about Buffalo, one of those AFC desperadoes, against Green Bay, which clinched back in May sometime? I'd like to give you an upset here, but I just can't see the Bills beating the Packers at Lambeau. Can't go for K.C. at home against San Diego until I get final word on Holmes's hip. If he's ready, I'll ride with the Chiefs. O.K., I've found my second big upset. The Steelers win the Monday-nighter in Tampa; the Bucs will be deep into their playoff-clinching celebration.
Finally, the Titans beat the Jaguars to get into the postseason—maybe.