The Super Bowl had never been won by a wild card team and the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles were expected to keep that record intact on Jan. 25, 1981, at the Louisiana Super Dome in New Orleans—40 years ago today.
After all, the Eagles had rolled to a 14-2 record, including a 31-16 victory over the Minnesota Vikings to open the playoffs and a 20-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC title game.
And the Eagles had beaten the Oakland Raiders, 10-7, in Philadelphia eight weeks earlier.
Simply reaching the Super Bowl was an accomplishment for the Raiders, who started the season with a 2-3 record and lost starting quarterback Dan Pastorini because of a broken leg, with Jim Plunkett being thrown into the lineup.
Not only that, Managing General Partner Al Davis was trying to move the Raiders to Los Angeles, but before the season started a court ordered the Silver and Black to play at least one more season in Oakland.
“The relocations and legal actions were never allowed to become major distractions to our players and coaches,” Raiders Coach Tom Flores said. “Al Davis would never let these things be distractions.
“The main purpose was for us to win. Anything else was secondary, and Al would take care of that in his own time. The team never talked about anything but football—winning football. This is a very courageous bunch of guys. They absolutely refused to believe anything but that they could win.”
Win the Raiders did, capturing 12 of their next 14 games, including three games in the playoffs—27-7 over the Houston Oilers in the wild card game, 14-12 over the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland Stadium on safety Mike Davis’ gave-saving end-zone interception in the final minute, and stunning 34-27 over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game.
To the surprise of many outside of Raider Nation, it was much the same in the Super Bowl, as Plunkett threw three touchdown passes and linebacker Rod Martin intercepted three passes as Oakland rolled to a 27-10 victory before 76,135 fans.
It started on the first series of the game when Martin picked off Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski’s first pass of the game and returned it 17 yards to the Philadelphia 30. Seven plays later, Plunkett threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Cliff Branch and the Raiders had a 7-0 lead with 8:46 left in the first quarter.
The Eagles would never catch up.
“The Eagles somehow felt they could exploit Rod Martin,” said Raiders linebacker Ted Hendricks, a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “They decided to attack the right side of our defense, away from me.
“They tested Rod the whole game, and all they got out of it was three interceptions.”
In the final minute of the first quarter, the Raiders scored again when Plunkett scrambled before hitting running back Kenny King 20 yards down the left sideline and King ran untouched for an 80-yard touchdown.
The handwriting was already on the wall.
“I was running a simple six-yard pattern when I saw Plunkett scramble,” said King, who caught the pass that defensive back Herm Edwards reached for and missed. “I took off up the field. The linebacker dropped me when he saw Plunkett scrambling, and Jim got me the ball.”
The Eagles managed a 30-yard field goal by Tony Franklin in the second quarter, but Hendricks blocked a 28-yard try by Franklin and it was 14-3 at halftime, but the Raiders broke it open in the third quarter.
Plunkett, who was sacked eight times by the Eagles in that previous meeting, hit King with a 13-yard pass, threw another to Bob Chandler for 32 yards, and then threw the ball 29 yards to the end zone, where Branch made a leaping catch over cornerback Roynell Young for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
Chris Bahr added a 46-yard field goal to make it 24-3 and it was all but over after three quarters.
“Al Davis didn’t say anything special to us that week about the game, other than the fact that he knew we could win it,” said Plunkett, who completed 13-of-21 passes for 261 yards including the three touchdowns and was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“It wasn’t our job to get caught up in the legalities. We just had to go out and play Raider football.”
Branch led the Raiders with five catches for 67 yards and two scores, while Chandler had four for 77, and fullback Mark van Eeghen rushed for 75 yards on 18 carries behind a line led by future Hall of Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.
The Raiders limited Jaworski to 291 yards as he completed only 18-of-38 passes while throwing the three picks to Martin, although the guy they called “Jaws” threw a meaningless eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Keith Krepele in the fourth quarter.
Oakland also limited running back Wilbert Montgomery to 44 yards on 16 carries.
“We won the game, we were the best team,” Flores told the Raiders after the game. “We deserve to be the World Champions, and I’m proud of you. I love it. This is the greatest moment of my life. I’m very proud of this bunch of guys."
Said Davis: “When you look back on the glory of the Oakland Raiders, this was our finest hour.”
Of course, Davis moved the Raiders in 1982 and they won Super Bowl XVIII as the Los Angeles Raiders, but he moved the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995.
Now, Raider Nation hopes a fourth Super Bowl title is in the cards in Las Vegas.
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