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The clock in Denver's Mile High Stadium showed 4:34 to play Sunday, and the Broncos, holding a 16-13 lead over the Los Angeles Raiders, had the ball on their own 15-yard line. Still, on the sideline the guys on the Raider offense were clapping their hands and shooting glances at the clock. Heck, 4:34 and all our timeouts left. No sweat. We're the miracle Raiders, right? Defending Super Bowl champs. The last four minutes belong to us, or two minutes, or whatever it takes.
That has been the Raider trademark this year—diddle around until the end and then salvage the game with a neatly conceived drive while the opposition pulls an el foldo. They did it to Kansas City and to San Diego while they were building a 4-0 record. Even Houston led L.A. at the half.
So in that final 4:34 Sunday, the Raiders would back the Broncos up, make them punt, put 'em away, get on the bus and drive to the airport. Raider football.
Uh, uh, not this time. Denver still had the ball when the final whistle sounded—and a 4-1 record in the AFC West, same as the Raiders. Ten plays were all it took, nine of them runs by the nifty little tailback, Gerald Willhite. The Broncos pounded away, rocking the Los Angeles defenders back on their heels and leaving them gasping for lungfuls of that thin Colorado air. It had gone pretty much that way all afternoon. It was shock therapy. That just isn't done against the Raiders. Denver ran for 233 yards, the most a Raider team has given up since 1979 and a total that will make future L.A. opponents blink when they see the game films.
First the Broncos did it with pitchouts to 5'11", 203-pound Sammy Winder, their tailback in the one-back set. When Winder went out with a sprained ankle in the second quarter, Denver came back with the 5'10", 200-pound Willhite, running him first on pitches, then on traps.
"Their ends were getting outside-conscious," said Bronco right guard Paul Howard, one of the key trappers, "so at halftime we had to change-up, and we started trapping them."
In the third quarter Willhite got dinged by free safety Vann McElroy, so Denver rolled out 5'11", 200-pound Rick Parros, who also got his yards. Would this parade of little tailbacks never cease? Then Winder, his ankle tightly taped, returned for one play, picked up 14 yards and retired for good. Then Willhite ("I had a pretty bad headache") came on again. The march continued.
The best Bronco drive came in the third quarter, when they trailed 10-9. It covered 82 yards on 11 plays and lasted almost five minutes. John Elway threw only two passes and completed both, a four-yarder to the second tight end, John Sawyer, and a 16-yarder to flanker Steve Watson. The rest was crunchball. John Madden would've loved it. Denver had only one third-down situation, near the goal line, and made it with plenty to spare. Willhite served up a four-yard touchdown burst, and the Broncos had all the points they'd need.
The Raiders got the ball back three more times. Their first possession produced a 50-yard field goal by Chris Bahr, thanks to L.A.'s biggest play of the second half, a 48-yard Jim Plunkett-to-Malcolm Barnwell bomb. The second Raider possession ended with cornerback Mike Harden intercepting another Plunkett rainbow in the end zone, and the third was three downs and out. The final effort of that series was a forced pass to Barnwell, who stuck up a hand like a first baseman reaching for a high, wide peg. The fourth possession the Raider offense expected never came: By then the L.A. defense was worn out.
And when it was over, when the full realization of what the Broncos had done to them had sunk in, Matt Millen, the L.A. linebacker whose specialty is stuffing the run, said, "It was the worst, absolutely the worst game I've ever played in my life. I couldn't do a thing right. Every decision I made was wrong. I wasn't bad, I was terrible. I'll do better. Hell, I've got to."