'Twas the day before Christmas, and for 58 minutes the Oakland Raiders and the Baltimore Colts had been frolicking around Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in the opening game of the AFC playoffs. Seven times the lead had changed hands. Twice the score had been tied. And now with exactly two minutes to play, the Colts were leading the Super Bowl champions 31-28, and Raider Quarterback Ken Stabler was scratching his beard back there on his own 44-yard line.
On the sidelines Oakland Coach John Madden grabbed Running Back Mark van Eeghen and gave him a bit of inside information. "Look for Ghost to the post," said Madden, the bard of the Bay. Translation: Madden had just sent in a play that called for a pass from Stabler to Tight End Dave (Ghost) Casper, who would set up on the right side of the line and then head downfield in the direction of the left goal post or upright. Ghost to the post, get it?
Stabler dropped back, but the 6'4", 230-pound Casper, who had already scored two touchdowns, had difficulty breaking away from Baltimore Linebacker Tom MacLeod. While waiting for Casper to get untracked, Stabler noticed that the Colts had switched into a coverage designed to prevent the Ghost from going to the post. So Stabler wisely lofted the ball not at the left post but rather in the direction of the right corner of the end zone.
"I picked up the ball visually when it was halfway to me," Casper said. "When I looked up I realized the ball was going to the corner, not the post, so I just ducked the old head, turned and ran. When I looked up again, it was there."
January 2, 1978
Still, Casper had to twist around and make a rather stupendous catch of Stabler's 42-yard pass—all of which he did, giving Oakland a first down at the Baltimore 14. Three line smashes by Pete Banaszak failed to produce another first down, so on fourth down, with 0:29 showing on the clock, Errol Mann kicked a 22-yard field goal to tie the score at 31 and force the game into overtime.
Inevitably, perhaps, Stabler and Casper also collaborated on the stunning 10-yard touchdown play early in the sixth quarter that gave Oakland a 37-31 victory and ended the third longest game in NFL history after 15 minutes and 43 seconds of sudden death. What was so stunning about it was that Stabler, who was playing on an ailing left knee that had sidelined him for 1¾ games, would risk throwing a pass of any kind when he had moved the Raiders within easy field-goal range for the dependable Mann.
"When my knee's really bothering me, it takes something off my ball," said Stabler, who completed 21 of 40 passes for 324 yards. "I can't get the velocity because I can't plant. But I've had this before and it's no big deal."
Casper said, "Stabler can't throw the ball as hard as Bert Jones, but he gets it there quickly and the ball doesn't spin so fast that it rips through your hands. And the ball is always spiraled, so it's easy to catch. If the ball is drilled to a receiver—or not spiraled—you have to catch it in your chest. People who catch balls in their chest drop them now and then, because your chest doesn't have very good fingers."
Casper caught the winning touchdown pass with his fingers, not his chest. Breaking to his left at the snap, Casper got behind Cornerback Nelson Munsey, streaked for the corner and cradled in Stabler's lob a stride or two before he went out of bounds. For the Raiders, it was the first AFC playoff game they had ever won on the road. For the Colts, it was the third straight year they had lost the opening round playoff game.
"I never thought we'd lose," said Oakland Guard Gene Upshaw, "but I never thought it would be that tough to win. Man, those guys played tough. Every time we went out and did something, they went out and did something, too. But whenever they got a score, we'd say, 'Well, let's get another one.' And it's nice to know that you got the weapons to do it."
The Oakland-Baltimore confrontation had been billed as an aerial shootout between Stabler and Jones, but the quarterbacks didn't get their acts together until the second half. Even then it was mostly an all-Stabler show, particularly in the overtime. Jones, harassed constantly by the Raiders' 3-4 defense, was sacked six times, and completed just 12 of his 26 pass attempts for a net of only 114 yards. And no touchdowns. And in the overtime, he was unable to move the Colts to a first down on their three possessions.
Neither team looked very impressive at the beginning of the long afternoon. Oakland's Clarence Davis opened the scoring near the end of the first quarter when he bolted through a handful of Colts on a 30-yard romp to the end zone, but he later hurt the Raiders by twice fumbling the ball to the Colts. Baltimore Safety Bruce Laird, who was penalized for a face-mask violation as he attempted to stop Davis' TD run, tied the score when he intercepted a Stabler pass and ran it back 61 yards for a touchdown. When Toni Linhart kicked a 36-yard field goal, Baltimore had a 10-7 lead at half-time.
Once the third quarter began, it became obvious that Madden and Baltimore Coach Ted Marchibroda had not used clichès such as "Let's play it close to the vest and wait for the breaks, boys" in their halftime harangues. Suddenly it was blitzkrieg time.
Helped by Clifford Branch's superb catch of a 41-yard pass from Stabler, Oakland took a 14-10 lead—and held it for a full 16 seconds—as Stabler hit Casper over the middle with an eight-yard touchdown strike. The Colts immediately stormed back into the lead at 17-14 when Marshall Johnson picked up Ray Guy's following kickoff at his own 13, slanted left, avoided a bunch of tacklers and out-raced Guy to the end zone.
Three and one-half minutes later Oakland was back on top at 21-17. David Lee, the Baltimore punter, often looks as if he's walking halfway to Washington, D.C. when he strides into the ball. So Oakland's Ted Hendricks, who played with Lee in Baltimore for five seasons, roared in and blocked Lee's kick; rookie Jeff Barnes scooped up the loose ball and ran it to the Baltimore 16-yard line. Three plays later Stabler, who had time to spare in the pocket on most occasions, hit the Ghost across the middle from 10 yards out for the touchdown.
The fourth quarter was even more furious. Jones briskly moved the Colts 80 yards to the goal line, but the Oakland defense stopped Colt rushers on three straight runs into the middle. On fourth down, Ron Lee vaulted over left guard for the touchdown—by, oh, two inches. Baltimore now led 24-21.
Exactly 76 seconds later Oakland was back in the lead at 28-24. Stabler passed to van Eeghen for a 23-yard gain, Munsey was called for pass interference on Branch in the end zone and Oakland had a first and goal at the one. Banaszak slashed across for the score.
That lead lasted all of 78 seconds. Taking charge at the Baltimore 27, Jones moved the Colts back into the lead at 31-28 in just four plays. He hit Raymond Chester for 30 yards, passed to Lee for 16 and Lee covered the last 27 in two rushes.
Maybe Jones did all that too quickly. Whatever, Stabler got the ball again with 2:55 to play, and suddenly there was Casper making his catch on the broken "Ghost to the post" play to set up the game-tying field goal, the overtime, and his game-winning touchdown catch.
For a Christmas ghost, the Baltimore Colts no doubt would have preferred Jacob Marley.