Time retreated in San Diego Stadium last Sunday. The Oakland Raiders tamed the Chargers' raging beast of an offense, the wildest and flashiest of the '80s, by outscoring it, not stopping it, and when the dust settled on Oakland's 34-27 triumph in the AFC championship game, traditionalists smiled and nodded, because in a world swept by change the Raiders had shown there's still room for the old-fashioned values.
"You see," they said, "the Raiders did it the right way, the way that made America great—ball control, no turnovers, gutting it out in the trenches. Light my cigar and hand me my Farmer's Almanac, Martha."
When historians examine this game, which propelled Oakland, a team picked to finish last in its division, into Super Bowl XV against Philadelphia, they won't see the verve and dash of a San Diego offense that put the ball in the air 46 times and picked up 351 yards passing, or the wild plays, the freakies—the Raiders' 79-yard touchdown on a deflection, the Chargers' tight-end option pass. They will see three long Oakland drives at the end, three excruciating drives that produced only six points but took more than 16 minutes off the clock. In that span we saw the character of the Raiders.
Oakland was very close to perfect during those 16 minutes. San Diego had already had its perfect game, against Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale—a game you frame and hang on the wall. This was one for the Raiders.
The clock showed 6:04 left in the third quarter, and Oakland had a 28-24 lead, but things looked very bad for the Raiders when they took over on their own 23. Their defense had been on the field too long. The Chargers, after some miscues and false starts, finally had gotten their offense together, and when the San Diego offense is working right, it's a scary thing. "Not scary, terrifying is a better word," said Oakland Linebacker Ted Hendricks. "I must admit there was some terror in my heart at that point. Just before our offense went on the field, I grabbed Gene Upshaw and said, 'Hey, make some first downs, will you? Give us some rest.' "
The previous 15 minutes had produced 35 plays for San Diego, six for Oakland—two series of three and out. The Chargers had outscored the Raiders 17-0 in that stretch. On the bench the Oakland defensive people were gulping air and trying to get a grip on things. The fans were screaming, and the P.A. was turned up full blast to the disco tune, San Diego Super Chargers, that had been bombarding the airwaves for the better part of the week. A very dark moment for Oakland.
"Actually, the music wasn't so bad," said Raider Wide Receiver Bobby Chandler. "A lot of our guys liked it. I kept tapping my feet to it. And I felt confident when I stepped into that huddle. I looked around at those faces and there were so many veterans, so many guys who had been through it before—Upshaw and Art Shell and Cliff Branch and Ray Chester and Dave Dalby."
The first play was a dive by Mark van Eeghen over left tackle. It picked up three yards. The fans howled. On the sideline San Diego's J.J. Jefferson was shaking his fist and yelling to the defense. Three and out, gang. Get us the ball again. We're ready. Van Eeghen for three—hey, this is 1981, you don't go to the Super Bowl on three-yard off-tackle plays. Van Eeghen, seven seasons a Raider, more carries and more yards than any Oakland player in history, but in all those carries, almost 1,500 of them in regular-season games, he'd never broken a run longer than 34 yards.
"Yeah, but I don't fumble, either," van Eeghen said afterward, his arms and neck caked with mud, a bit of stadium turf still sticking to his cheek. "I can count the fumbles on the fingers of two hands and the fumbles I lost on one hand."
Next play: Kenny King on a trap for eight. Then a safe pass, then another, then back to the ground. King for eight. Van Eeghen for three. Van Eeghen for three more. On and on. Field goal: 31-24 Oakland. San Diego—three plays and out; Oakland—a long drive, 10 plays in 5:14, for another field goal and a 34-24 lead. San Diego field goal: 34-27. And now it's the Raiders' ball on their 25 with 6:43 to go.