The operator answers the phone by saying, "World Champion Oakland Raiders," but for two weeks the greeting had had a hollow ring to it. After all, the Raiders were not even in first place in their division. On Oct. 16 the upstart Denver Broncos, led by their "Orange Crush" defense, had made last season's Super Bowl winners look like the San Pedro Beach Bums while shellacking them 30-7. In the process, the Broncos had taken over Oakland's accustomed spot atop the AFC West. But last Sunday in Denver the Raiders rang true. Playing flawlessly and looking very much like world champions, Oakland throttled Denver 24-14. It wasn't that close. Early in the fourth quarter the score was 24-0.
In many ways the game was a mirror image of the one two weeks earlier. That day the home team, Oakland, turned the ball over eight times and repeatedly gave the visitors good field position. This time around it was Denver that gave its faithful—all 75,007 of them—little to cheer about. The Broncos coughed the ball up just three times, but spent most of the afternoon about eight miles from the Oakland goal line because of the Raiders' incomparable kicker, Ray Guy, who was virtually a one-man defense. When the Raiders drafted Guy in the first round in 1973, the choice was greeted with skepticism, because nobody had ever spent their No. 1 pick on a punter. Last Sunday he looked like one of the best first-round selections in NFL history.
In the first half Guy kicked off three times and punted four, and only two of the boots were returnable. Denver's Rick Upchurch fumbled the first one, and the Broncos ran the second all the way back to their seven-yard line. Denver's best starting field position in the opening two quarters was its own 22. That was with five seconds left in the half when Guy miscalculated his angle and punted a ball into the sideline stands. The Broncos' longest first-half drive covered 43 yards—which didn't even get them into field-goal range. For their part, the Raiders had to march just 55 yards for their first touchdown and 15, after a Denver fumble, for their second. In between, Errol Mann kicked a 42-yard field goal as Oakland built a 17-0 halftime lead.
Oakland Quarterback Kenny Stabler had berated himself for going to the air too quickly on Oct. 16. "We let the Broncos off the hook," he said before Sunday's game. "We have big men. We should use them to keep pounding away, wearing the Denver defense down. The Broncos play aggressively, and you beat them aggressively. You don't fool them. You go in and bat 'em around."
That's exactly what the Raiders did this time. Oakland stayed on the ground, running the ball on 57 plays, almost twice as many times as it had in the first Denver game. Clarence Davis rushed for 105 yards, most of it behind the Raiders' massive left side of Tackle Art Shell and Guard Gene Upshaw. The AFC's leading rusher, Mark van Eeghen, added 82 more.
And when the Broncos tried to get aggressive on defense, the Raiders stunned them. Denver had blitzed Stabler dizzy in the first game, forcing him into seven interceptions. Midway through the first quarter Sunday, the Raiders moved the ball to the Bronco 21, where they faced a third-and-six. Denver tried a safety blitz. Stabler saw it coming and passed to a wide-open Cliff Branch at the six for Oakland's first score. Crash went the Orange Crush.
The Broncos did stage a fourth-quarter rally, Quarterback Craig Morton taking them on 80-and 70-yard scoring drives to cut into the Raiders' lead. Though it had no impact on this game, that effort was not for naught. Oakland and Denver are now tied for first place in the AFC West with 6-1 records. The Broncos have the tougher schedule ahead, with games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Dallas, but if Oakland and Denver should go undefeated the rest of the way, the division winner would be decided on the basis of the composite score of their two games. By pushing across those two late touchdowns, the Broncos clinched the season's series 44-31.
Still, the defeat was a rude comedown for the Broncos after a week of Rocky Mountain high. The Raiders' game was the Broncos' 53rd consecutive sellout. They sell more season tickets—73,089—than any other NFL club, but until recently Denver fans spent most of their time sitting on their hands. This season's 6-0 start changed all that.
Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm declared last Sunday Orange Crush Day in a proclamation full of "Whereas" clauses. You know, "Whereas, Mr. Stabler spent much of the previous contest puzzled about the whereabouts of his offensive line (but constantly aware of the whereabouts of the Denver Bronco defensive line); and Whereas, Mr. Stabler therefore was guided by circumstance to throw numerous passes expeditiously and with considerable talent directly to a Mr. Joe Rizzo, Mr. Louis Wright, Mr. Randy Gradishar, Mr. Paul Smith, and Mr. Billy Thompson; and Whereas, those participants are not on Mr. Stabler's team and...." And so on and so on.
A local radio station distributed 75,000 orange cards at the stadium. They said GO BRONCOS on one side and had an ad on the other. When they were held aloft before the opening kickoff, they turned Mile High Stadium into a veritable orange bowl. Unfortunately, by the middle of the fourth quarter, the dispirited gathering had turned the cards into just so many paper airplanes.