Having already enriched our lives in 1975 with six overtime games, two new franchises, George Blanda's 2,002nd point and George Allen's first Christmas at home, the NFL may now be ready to deliver a delicious final stroke—the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl.
At the start of nearly every season since who remembers, the Raiders have been a more likely choice to make it to the Super than The Star-Spangled Banner. They did it once, in 1968, when they lost to Green Bay, but since then they have repeatedly stumbled on the threshold, and thus left to brood through the spring as The Team That Can't Win the Big One.
But going into the playoffs this year, the Raiders did not enjoy their usual esteem, despite an 11-3 record and their eighth division title in nine years. True, they had beaten the Miami Dolphins in their opening game, but they had too many squeakers, and their schedule was hardly the toughest in the league. Lately the word was that the Raiders might not even win the little ones. But, in any case, here they were in the playoffs again, and facing a familiar foe, the Cincinnati Bengals.
"The Bengals are riding high right now, and a lot of people don't give us much of a chance," said Pete Banaszak, the Oakland running back, before the game. "We're kind of sneaking into this thing with a low profile this year and that's good. In other years they all blew smoke at us and told us how great we were, and you remember what happened. This year nobody's talking about us. Maybe that's justifiable, but I know what we're capable of doing and so does everybody else on this team."
After Sunday's 31-28 conquest of the Bengals, a lot of people may be getting ready to blow smoke again, finally impressed by the team's ability to win despite adversities.
Quarterback Ken Stabler, for instance, has been hobbled by a knee strain throughout the season and he has been inhibited by the lack of a really capable replacement. The Raider offense's primary responsibility has been to keep Stabler protected at all costs, which is a tough way to score touchdowns.
On Sunday, the Bengals got to Stabler just once, while the Snake bit them with three touchdown passes—to Mike Siani, Bob Moore and Dave Casper. A six-yard scoring run by Banaszak and a Blanda field goal of 27 yards, made it 31-14 Oakland before Cincinnati mounted an impressive comeback in the last 10 minutes.
Defensively, Oakland had lost Tony Cline, its most versatile defensive lineman, because of a knee injury in the last regular-season game, which cut Coach John Madden's available defenders to the grand total of four. Back in August, however, Managing Partner Al Davis had signed Linebacker Ted Hendricks, saying, "He might help us win a game down the line that we normally might lose." Hendricks did exactly that on Sunday as he stalked Bengal Quarterback Ken Anderson all afternoon. When he was not sacking Anderson, which the Stork did four times, he was intimidating him with constant pressure.
Still, Anderson stood his ground in the pocket and connected on two fourthquarter touchdown passes, 25 yards to Charlie Joiner and 14 to Isaac Curtis. In all, he completed 17 of 27 for 201 yards and had no interceptions. Stabler completed 17 of 23 for 199 and had one picked off by Ken Riley, which set up Cincinnati's third touchdown.
While Oakland enjoyed a 100-yard edge in total offense and ran 75 plays to 57 for the Bengals, the Raiders may have been saved in the end when Cincinnati manhandled their punter, Ray Guy, who was obliged to kick only twice all afternoon. Guy's critical punt, which came with 50 seconds to play, did not get into the final stats, even though it was a beauty that sailed 48 yards into the Cincinnati end zone. Shortly after the ball left Guy's foot he was inundated by a horde of Bengals gambling on a blocked kick. They drew a five-yard penalty instead, Oakland had a first down and ran out the clock as 53,039 waving black hankies signalled the end of Cincinnati's season.
"I was proud of my team," said Bengal Coach Paul Brown. "They never quit. We had an all-out rush on that last punt. It was the only shot we had at them."
"It seemed we had things pretty well under control until that Riley interception," Madden said, "and then things got a little tight. But after all, we weren't playing the Little Sisters of the Poor."
Nor will they be next Sunday, as they go to meet the Steelers in another big one.