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The Los Angeles Raiders were officially welcomed back to the ranks of the living Sunday. With the specter of no postseason football staring them in the face, they pulled themselves together and beat the Miami Dolphins 45-34 in the Orange Bowl, a place where it's practically impossible to win, unless you've got a Flipper lookalike on your helmet.
The Raiders stand at 10-4, and one win in their final two games will give them a wild-card berth in the playoffs, where they'll meet either Seattle or Denver, with the winner to face the Dolphins in Miami. Does L.A. welcome another shot at Dan Marino and his boys? "Ask me when my legs come back," said cornerback Mike Haynes, one of the focal figures in a game that lasted 17 minutes short of four hours.
When this season opened, the Raiders were practically handed a ticket to the Super Bowl. They had the best corner-backs in football, Haynes and Lester Hayes, the whole way, which would make their defense even better; their offensive line had more depth than at any time in their history; and all the other parts of a team that was coming off the biggest Super Bowl win in history were in place, too.
The only team to beat Los Angeles in the first eight games was the Broncos, in Denver, but what of it? The Raiders usually blow one of their early-season road games. When the Broncos beat them again in the ninth game, in L.A., and then, when Chicago and Seattle made it three losses in a row, the dark clouds gathered. The champs were hanging on the ropes. One more big right-hand would do it.
Los Angeles's main trouble was the one that haunts every NFL team—injuries. Pulls mostly, groin pulls—wideout Cliff Branch, linebackers Matt Millen and Rod Martin and noseguard Reggie Kinlaw all went down with groin pulls. "It was like trying to play football on Manhattan Beach," Millen said.
The offensive line lost Don Mosebar (back surgery) and Shelby Jordan (knee) for the season. The quarterback position also became vacant. Jim Plunkett tore a stomach muscle. Marc Wilson got his thumb badly sprained against the Bears, and then his backup, David Humm, went down for the season with yet another knee injury.
Wilson was forced to play with a hand that could barely grip the ball. Gradually it improved—from worse to merely bad. The Raiders struggled along with him. He could dump the ball off, but this team traditionally lives by the long pass, and even when Wilson got so he could heave the ball, he couldn't direct it. The week before the game against the Dolphins, the word was put out that Wilson was "fully recovered." Privately, he put it a little differently. "When I grab the ball like this," he said, closing his fingers tightly, "there's a sharp pain. I don't feel like I have a real hold on the ball. It makes you tentative. Sometimes I feel that it's going to fall out of my hand—and then it does, and that makes you even more tentative."
The wounded gathered themselves together for the battle with Miami, knowing it was a back-to-the-wall affair in a stadium where the Dolphins had lost only one regular-season game in three years. The game was a must, but so had been the previous two—against Kansas City (a 17-7 L.A. win) and Indianapolis (a 21-7 victory). "Now every one's a big one for us," said tight end Todd Christensen. "The aura of invincibility is gone."
Miami, with its own list of defensive unit injuries, was vulnerable to a pressure offense, but the Dolphins had a point machine at quarterback who had already tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (36). You had to score an awful lot of points to beat them.
"The answer is to attack on defense," Millen said. "We're going to throw everything we have at them—blitzes from the strong safety and nickel back, two-linebacker blitzes, combination blitzes. Marino will get the whole package, which will tend to leave our cornerbacks in single, bump-and-run coverage. I don't think anyone has ever taken it to Marino like that before. It'll be interesting to see how he handles it."