If there was any question which team I is the California State Champion of the American Football League, the matter was settled last Sunday in San Diego. For most people it had been made monumentally clear earlier this season that Oakland was No. 1 when the Raiders of the North smashed the Chargers of the South, 51-10. But there were those who needed further convincing. The Chargers, for example, refused to admit—at least within anyone's hearing—that they had been dominated. They admit it now. After Oakland's 41-21 win on a fine, bright afternoon in San Diego's new stadium, even Charger Quarterback John Hadl, an intelligent and reasonable man, confessed his club had been beaten by superior forces. There was little talk of errors or of freak plays sent down by the heavens. "Oakland," Hadl said, being absolutely honest about it, "has by far the best team in this league. It's as simple as that."
The setting for the game was such, however, that the obvious was camouflaged by the wishful. It was the big game of the year so far in the AFL, the game that would, in all likelihood, decide the Western Conference Championship, and hence the championship of the whole league. Each team had lost only once—San Diego to Oakland and Oakland to New York—and the air was full of assurances that a virgin encounter was coming up.
"Listen," said Raider Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, "no team in pro football is 41 points better than any other team. And the team that has been trounced by that large a score, that's a team to look out for the next time."
The Chargers had played the previous two games in a manner that had threatened to turn their second Oakland meeting into merely another workday. They survived against Kansas City, a team stricken with injuries and bad luck—the Chiefs started four series of downs inside the Charger 10 and got three points, used 10 plays inside the San Diego eight without scoring and tried five plays from the Charger one with no score—when Field-goal Kicker Jan Stenerud missed a routine 24-yarder in the last few seconds. Before that play, Charger Corner Back Speedy Duncan knelt and prayed. "Oh, Lord," Duncan said, "all I ask is that the best team wins, because I know that's us."
Four days later, on Thanksgiving, San Diego trailed Denver 20-10 in the fourth quarter when Duncan ran 72 yards for a touchdown after an attempted field goal was blocked. Shortly afterward Denver fumbled, and the Chargers scored again to stay alive in the division race.
With those games as background and with so much depending on the outcome of the Oakland rematch, Charger Coach Sid Gillman committed a heresy. He moved his team from San Diego to a training ground in Palm Springs because, as he said, it was raining at home. In San Diego, where only four baseball games have been rained out in 14 years, and where the press box in the new stadium is open air, one does not mention the word rain, and any moisture that falls is, to hear the Chamber of Commerce tell it, a gentle spray from the Pacific. But move Gillman did and forthwith began issuing statements, the psychological intent of which was somewhat less than subtle.
"This is a wonderful team," Gillman would say to the gathering herd of writers. "These kids don't know how terrific they are. I am sure they are going to play a wonderful game." About the 51-10 game he said: "That's forgotten. There are no feelings of inferiority. If anything, it makes us mad."
The Raiders, on the other hand, stuck with their usual approach, which is to make the opposing team sound fiercer than the Mongol hordes. In 10 games the Oakland defense had thrown antagonist quarterbacks for losses no fewer than 60 times. That was partly because of the tough rush from Oakland's front four, and partly because Oakland's defensive backs are so good that the rushing linemen get an extra second or so while the quarterback is searching for a free receiver. But the word from Oakland continued to be that all those quarterbacks had merely stumbled and fallen and, furthermore, that Hadl had been thrown for measurable losses only six times all season.
Slowly San Diego fans began to believe that their team did indeed have better than a prayer. The stadium was sold out for the first time in its history. Lines formed outside the Charger office at 2 a.m. on Thursday for general admission and standing-room tickets that went on sale at 9. On Sunday afternoon, 52,661 people squeezed into the stadium and, for the first time at any AFL game, another 2,018 went into an auditorium to watch the Chargers and Raiders on closed-circuit TV.
For a town that has seen AFL Championship games played before empty seats, the timing was sensational. San Diego representatives were in Mexico City attempting to convince the National baseball league to expand into their city, and at last they could point to a crowd of people who were all in one arena rather than driving along the freeways. The stadium was strung with banners that said REVENGE! and ALWORTH-ROMNEY IN '68. Flanker Lance Al-worth was bothered by a pulled calf muscle, but he had suited up and was saying he was ready, and the Chargers intended to work on the Oakland linebackers by throwing passes to fast little Halfback Dick Post, an excellent receiver and a dangerous runner on sweeps against every team but Oakland. Defensively, the Chargers determined to plunge into a headlong blitz.
To Lamonica, who has matured and improved tremendously in his first opportunity as a starting quarterback after four years as a backup man in Buffalo, San Diego's blitzes and odd defenses, overshifted toward the wide side of the field, were as welcome as an abalone dinner. He hit Fred Biletnikoff on an 18-yard touchdown pass early in the game. After Hadl tied the score on a quarterback sneak following a 60-yard pass to Gary Garrison, Oakland got a field goal and, then, with third down and less than a foot to go, Lamonica lobbed a pass to Billy Cannon, who was utterly neglected by the San Diego defense. Cannon ambled 64 yards for a touchdown.
Hadl came back with a 57-yard touchdown pass to the remarkable Alworth, who had reinjured his left leg and had retired to the locker room for a deadening shot into the muscle. It was the 100th touchdown pass of Hadl's career, but soon thereafter Alworth was useless as a deep receiver because he had lost his special acceleration. And Post, the receiver counted on in the game plan, had hurt his knee. Lamonica threw a touchdown pass to Bill Miller and foiled a San Diego blitz by dumping a pass that Fullback Hewritt Dixon carried 48 yards to set up another score. Hadl threw a touchdown pass to Garrison, who made a superb catch, and Oakland led at the half, 31-21.
In the first half Oakland had 308 yards on offense and San Diego had 269. Hadl passed for 200 yards and Lamonica for 232. In the second half the Chargers abandoned their blitz, which had cost them two touchdowns, and Oakland began to play the sort of defense it is noted for. The Chargers never scored again and, while their defense was improved, Lamonica did get another touchdown on a pass to Cannon—Lamonica's 26th touchdown pass of the year. Oakland completed the scoring on George Blanda's second field goal.
The temper of the afternoon was such that Oakland Coach John Rauch, ordinarily a quiet American, got two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties for yelling at officials, and Gillman got one. Later, Rauch was his usual restrained self, although he could not help exulting a bit about his Raiders, who rate with last year's Kansas City club as the two best teams the AFL has ever produced. "We're the best team in the league," Rauch said, smiling.
Hadl agreed, although he was not conceding the championship just yet. "They execute well and don't make mistakes," he said, "and that's how you win. After the effort today, they could let down, but the trouble is that Oakland is so good it can win anyhow. We still have a mathematical chance in the Western Division. If we win our last three games, we'll be 11-2-1, and that's not bad, is it?"
No, but with a game-and-a-half lead, the Raiders seem to have the Western Conference Championship and a Super Bowl date assured. That is bad if you are a Charger.