The last time they faced each other, 11 weeks ago in Foxboro, New England ravaged Oakland 48-17—the only loss the Raiders suffered all season—and blocked Coach John Madden's defensive line into a state of shock, not to mention the state of Rhode Island. Patriot fans, however, are advised not to wager their bean pots that Saturday's playoff rematch will be a similar rout—or even a victory. Oakland has the home-field advantage, Ken Stabler's magical left arm and the sticky mitts of Receivers Dave Casper, Fred Biletnikoff and Clifford Branch. Be it ever so humble, the Oakland Coliseum is where the Raiders have won no less than 85.7% of their regular-season games and seven of nine playoff contests over the last decade. What's humbling for Oakland opponents is Stabler's aerial show. He threw nine touchdown passes this season to both Casper and Branch, and seven to Biletnikoff.
Of course, there are ifs. If the youthful and inexperienced Patriots score first, control the ball on the ground and avoid turnovers—which they did in their 48-17 triumph—they could win again. Also, the young New England secondary, featuring rookies Mike Haynes and Tim Fox, has shown little or no respect for passers with Stabler's reputation; in fact, the Patriots have 11 interceptions in their last four games, and Haynes has eight for the season. Finally, for Stabler to excel, Mark van Eeghen must provide tough inside running to keep the Patriots honest.
Van Eeghen is a New England man for Oakland's New England job. Raised in Cranston, R.I., where he still resides, van Eeghen attended Colgate and now, in his third NFL season, has replaced another Colgate man, the injured Marv Hubbard, as the Raider fullback. "Mark's an emotional, high-strung person," Madden says, "and he used to get a little too tense and then try too hard. But in our last six or seven games he's finally learned to lose some of his tightness." The 6'2", 225-pound van Eeghen rushed for 1,012 yards this season and also provided Stabler with solid pass blocking.
"We pass so much on first and second down," van Eeghen says, "that it helps the run a lot. But if we can run on first down to get second and three or something like that, that gives Stabler quite an arsenal to work with. We can do just about anything then." Van Eeghen says his favorite play is "anything that is blocked well," but that his specialty is the "68 or 69 Boom Man," in which the halfback goes after the outside linebacker, the line fires ahead in basic man-to-man blocking and van Eeghen takes off. "I get the ball and have a chance to cut it anywhere from over the guard to around the end," he says. "For a long time I was guilty of premeditating where I should go on the play, but as I've gotten used to my position, I've run it better. You can get big gainers if you can bend the play back around the middle and get all the flow going the other way."
December 20, 1976
While van Eeghen is the main man in Oakland's ground game. New England has at least three quality runners. Sam (Bam) Cunningham, healthy again after shoulder troubles, and Don Calhoun provided the Patriots with 1,545 yards from one rushing position, and Quarterback Steve Grogan set an NFL record by running for 12 touchdowns. Tight End Russ Francis, who has been bothered by a pulled hamstring for several weeks. Guard John Hannah and Center Bill Lenkaitis head the blocking brigade that devastated Oakland's "Orange" defense—the same 3-4 alignment that New England uses—in October.
"If the Patriots are coming in here expecting to see the same team they beat in New England, they're going to be highly disappointed," says Raider Safety George Atkinson. Madden has changed some bodies since Foxboro. The most significant alteration is at left end, where John Matuszak, a 6'8". 280-pound bust in Houston, Kansas City and Washington, has replaced rookie Charles Philyaw and provided the Raiders with an instant pass rush. Dave Rowe, rejected by the Patriots and three other clubs, and Otis Sistrunk work with Matuszak up front. Journeyman Willie Hall has been a big surprise at inside linebacker, playing so well that Madden has never considered reverting to the standard 4-3 setup. And the Mad Stork, 6'7" Ted Hendricks, has settled down at outside right linebacker after a shaky start.
Grogan, though, can unsettle even the most settled defenses because of his knack—and penchant—for running with the ball. To contain Grogan, the Raiders must close off the ends and force him into the middle, where there are more large bodies to impede his progress.
Playing Oakland in Oakland is a tough assignment for a team making its first postseason appearance since 1963, and New England's task will be even tougher with Madden reminding his Raiders that the Patriots cost them a perfect season and considerable dignity. Madden will probably do his best Lombardi imitation before the game because some of the Raiders may be overlooking the Patriots and dreaming about an AFC championship game at home the following weekend against their buddies from Pittsburgh. Atkinson, for one, seems to be dismissing the Patriots entirely. "It will be good to dethrone the Steelers as world champs," he says. Still, the Patriots come first. If van Eeghen runs well—and opens the passing lanes for Stabler and his trio of receivers—the Patriots will probably be run out of town.