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Rick Reilly
December 12, 1988
The Raiders edged the Broncos to create a logjam in the AFC's mild mild West
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December 12, 1988

A Trio At The Top

The Raiders edged the Broncos to create a logjam in the AFC's mild mild West

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The price of glory keeps getting marked down in the AFC West. Playoff spots are going cheap. Ten and six? Forget it. Nine and seven? Nah. Bring in your 8-8 record and make 'em an offer.

Two more teams in the mild mild West lost on Sunday to drop into the Misfortune .500 yet still hold on to shares of first place. The only other way you can lose this much and still feel this good is to join Weight Watchers.

On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks fell 13-7 to the New England Patriots, and the Denver Broncos were upended 21-20 by the Los Angeles Raiders. Denver, L.A. and Seattle are all 7-7, and we're down to a two-game season. Experts are almost certain now that somebody will win the division.

And don't look now, but the Raiders are beginning to live up to their W-2 forms. Led by their quarterback, Jay Schroeder, who made the most of a Mulligan, and their unstoppable scoring machine, defensive end Greg Townsend, the Raiders hopped right back into the race. What's more, the victory at the L.A. Coliseum was a salve for the Raiders' first-year coach, Mike Shanahan, a moral vindication for Townsend, a one-play nightmare for Denver quarterback John Elway and another step toward the gold watch for Tony Dorsett.

Looking out on the two teams before the game, one couldn't see all that. As Raiders linebacker Matt Millen put it, "We all stink. It's just who's going to stink less."

All of which leaves us with this: L. A. plays at Buffalo on Sunday then gets the Seahawks at home. Seattle takes on the Sierra Club—Denver, which has lost 11 straight games on fake grass and five straight under domes—at dome this Sunday and then goes to L.A. After the Broncos finish with the Seahawks, they get the New England Patriots at home. One of these three could be only the second NFL team in history to win its division with a .500 record. The champion, of course, earns the right to get folded up like an old wallet in the playoff.

Or maybe not, because the Broncos and the Raiders seem to play better (at least sometimes) against better teams. L.A. beat the formidable San Francisco 49ers but lost to the lousy Atlanta Falcons. Denver beat San Francisco and the mighty Cleveland Browns but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, both dogs. After the Broncos looked impeccable two weeks ago against the L.A. Rams, somebody asked Denver wide receiver Mark Jackson if the team had gotten over its schizophrenic act. Said Jackson, "Yes. No. Yes. No."

Nor is first place a particularly happy place for the Raiders and Broncos. The Raiders are especially rife with strife. For one thing, owner Al Davis, who hired the 36-year-old Shanahan away from Denver, where he had been the offensive coordinator, wants Shanahan to have his quarterbacks look deep first, short last. Shanahan wants the reverse. Davis wants the Raiders to play vintage Raider football: match strength against weakness and just burn 'em, baby. Shanahan wants to play scheme football: let the players fit the scheme, and let the scheme beat the other team. Davis wants to get the ball deep, especially to wide receiver Willie Gault. Shanahan won't start Gault.

Coming into Sunday's game, the rope between owner and coach was fraying fast. When the Raiders faced the Broncos on Sept. 26, they fell behind 24-0 before pulling out a 30-27 victory. In the first half of that game, Davis, who was sitting in the Mile High Stadium press box, hollered, "He doesn't know——about football!" A few weeks later the Los Angeles Times reported that Davis even called around the league to see what others thought of Shanahan's methods. You get the feeling the honeymoon was over just after they brushed off the rice.

Is Shanahan ready to wear Davis around like an overcoat? Maybe not. Word is that earlier this season Shanahan twice called his old employer, the University of Florida, to check the status of its wobbly coach, Galen Hall.

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