The corporate slogan of the Oakland Raiders is "Pride and Poise," but now they may have to change it to "Agony and Frustration." Last Sunday night in Oakland, the Denver Broncos—who have not been all that proud or poised themselves—drubbed the Raiders 21-6 in their showdown for first place in the AFC West. The defeat probably knocked Oakland out of the playoffs—for the first time in seven years. Denver now has beaten Oakland in four of their last five meetings, and in sweeping this season's two games Denver's dominance was so complete that the Oakland offense—Kenny Stabler and friends—never even scored a touchdown.
If the Raiders do spend Christmas at home, they need not worry about putting any presents under the tree for their friends the Broncos because they played Santa Claus to perfection Sunday night. The Raiders controlled the first 21 minutes of the game by tearing through Denver's Orange Crush defense from every direction, and that should have broken the Broncos then and there. Oakland ran off 38 plays and pounded away for 168 yards on its first three possessions. Meanwhile, Denver had the ball for just eight plays and gained a measly nine yards.
But this season Stabler has turned from a home-run slugger into a .183 singles hitter, and all Oakland had to show for its prowess was a 6-0 lead—on 27- and 37-yard field goals by Errol Mann. Oakland's other drive became a wipeout when the scraggly-bearded Stabler—an enigma all season, even to the Raiders—tried to force the ball to Fred Biletnikoff at the goal line and had it picked off by Denver Safety Bernard Jackson. For Stabler, it was his 24th interception of the season; he made it a career-high 25 later in the game when he killed another Oakland drive by throwing a pass into the arms of Safety Bill Thompson.
Oakland really began to show the true holiday spirit midway through the second quarter. Denver drove 69 yards for a Rob Lytle touchdown and a 7-6 lead, and more than half of the yardage on that march—35 yards, to be exact—was picked up on penalties called on the Raiders. Denver's best weapon, in fact, turned out to be Oakland Defensive End John Matuszak, whose two personal fouls conferred 30 yards on the Broncos and kept their offense alive. If the Broncos get to the Super Bowl again, they ought to vote Matuszak a share.
The Broncos really did not need any more points, but the Raiders had more largesse for their guests. On the opening series of the second half, the Broncos were stopped short of midfield, but on fourth down, before Bucky Dilts could even get his foot into a punt, Raider rookie Joe Stewart was called for an illegal block on Chris Pane. The penalty gave Denver an automatic first down, and the Broncos took a 14-6 lead nine plays later on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Craig Morton to Haven Moses.
Trailing by eight points, Stabler was forced to go to the air more than he would have liked. He moved the Raiders to the Denver 20 on their next possession, but a holding penalty on Guard Gene Upshaw stopped their momentum and Mann missed a 42-yard field goal. With Oakland's running attack of no concern, the Broncos declared open season on Stabler. He was sacked on each of Oakland's next three possessions. Lyle Alzado got him, then Rubin Carter racked him up. The third sack, by rookie Nose Guard Don Latimer, left Stabler in a dazed state, and he retired for the evening.
Oakland's biggest gift came early in the fourth quarter. Fullback Mark van Eeghen fumbled a hand-off from Stabler's replacement, David Humm, and Denver Linebacker Randy Gradishar scooped up the ball, bumped smack into a surprised Humm—who neglected to tackle him—and then raced 30 yards for a touchdown and the 21-6 final score. Afterward, Morton, one of Denver's captains, awarded game balls to all 45 Broncos. He could have saved the Denver owners a little money—footballs cost $23 apiece—by giving them to a few of the Raiders instead. Certainly they were more deserving.
Mathematically, the Raiders are not officially out of the playoffs. With an 8-6 record, they trail the 9-5 Broncos by just a game. But they also trail Denver in the NFL's arcane tie-breaking procedures, so the only way they could win the division title would be to win both their remaining games (against Miami and Minnesota) and hope that 1) the Broncos lose theirs (to Kansas City and Pittsburgh) and 2) Seattle—which also is 8-6, but has beaten Oakland twice—loses to either San Diego or Kansas City. Oakland's chances for a wild-card slot aren't much brighter, although the possibilities are so numerous that even the Montreal Alouettes might qualify. For now, the Raiders trail the second-place teams in the AFC's other two divisions, Miami and Houston, by a game, as well as Seattle.
As for the Broncos, they finally had luck back on their side Sunday. In four of their five defeats, the Broncos have been beaten by the margin of a field goal or less. Last season opponents missed the first eight field goals they attempted against Denver; this season they made the first 10, including four in a row by Minnesota's Rick Danmeier in the Vikings' 12-9 overtime win. That game was forced into sudden death because the Vikes blocked a Jim Turner extra point. In other losses, the Baltimore Colts blocked Turner's last-second chip shot from the 27-yard line to preserve a 7-6 win, and the New York Jets escaped with a 31-28 decision when Turner missed from 42 yards on the game's last play.
Injuries have riddled the Broncos all year. Last year Denver started the same lineup in 13 of its 14 games. This season Denver has yet to start the same 22 players two weeks in a row. In their loss to the Jets, the Broncos were without their starting quarterback, both guards, their center and kick returner Rick Upchurch. On Sunday, they had to start Glenn Hyde at guard in place of Tom Glassic, who was sidelined by a virus. When the Broncos opened the season by defeating Oakland 14-6, Hyde was an ex-football player, having been waived by the Broncos and claimed by no other NFL team. He sat in Section 102 of Mile High Stadium that day and watched the Oakland game like any other Denver fan.
The turmoil in the Broncos' offensive line has caused problems for Morton, who has never handled pass-rush pressure well. To compensate for the weakened line, Coach Red Miller has developed a pounding running attack built around relays of fresh backs. He uses six regularly—Lonnie Perrin, Jon Keyworth, Otis Armstrong, Larry Canada, Dave Preston and Lytle—and each has rushed for at least 245 yards. Keyworth was Denver's leading ballcarrier against Oakland with just 23 yards, while Lytle finished sixth among the Bronco backs with 17 yards. Of the six, only Armstrong is averaging less than 4.1 yards a carry.
Morton, the AFC's Offensive Player of the Year in 1977, was demoted to third string in October. He threw just eight interceptions in 1977, but when he threw five in Denver's first four games this season—and invited sacks by holding on to the ball interminably—Miller began to spell him with Norris Weese, a running-style quarterback. In the Broncos' 23-0 loss to San Diego, Morton was yanked by Miller after missing on his first seven passes, throwing an interception and also fumbling the ball away while running with it in the open field. When Weese replaced Morton in that game, many Broncomaniacs felt that he had just become Denver's permanent No. 1 quarterback. But Weese dislocated his kneecap that same day.
Still, Miller confirmed that Morton was in the doghouse when he started Craig Penrose against Chicago the next week. Penrose promptly bruised his shoulder, and Morton regained his job by default. He responded well, leading Denver to a 16-7 win over the Bears. Except for the Jet loss, which he missed completely because of a bruised groin muscle—Penrose and Weese both played—Morton has been the Bronco quarterback ever since. And he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 144 passes.
Morton's rival on Sunday, Stabler, has also taken heavy heat this season. The 23 interceptions he threw in Oakland's first 10 games are the most-quoted horror statistic of 1978. Before meeting Denver, however, Stabler had gone three games and 79 passes without an interception—a streak that Jackson ended.
Second horror stat: Oakland's decline in touchdown passes. Leading a team that had always been noted for its deep-passing game, Stabler has thrown just three scoring passes to his wide receivers all year. Age has put Fred Biletnikoff on the bench in favor of Morris Bradshaw, but while Bradshaw may have blinding speed, he lacks Biletnikoff's guile—as well as his stick-um. This has allowed opponents to concentrate more on speedster Cliff Branch, giving him double coverage on many plays. Stabler has also had less protection than in the past, a problem apparent on Sunday when he was sacked four times for 50 yards in losses. Part of the trouble has been the season-long absence of Tackle John Vella, an excellent pass blocker who went down with a chest injury in training camp.
But the Raiders place much of the blame for their decline on Stabler's own shoulders. When Davis was asked last week about his team's woes, he replied, "In this game, when you have great players, they have to play great. Our top guy hasn't. Stabler's like a 23-4 pitcher who's having a 17-7 season."
The rumors around Oakland are that Stabler's sybaritic off-field life-style has caught up with him, that he isn't in shape to play football. Coach John Madden, however, scoffs at that suggestion. As for Stabler, he isn't saying anything. Normally an engaging, articulate speaker, he stopped talking to the press early this season. "The local writers just got too negative," he says. "They were writing us off before the season was half over."
After Sunday's shellacking, most everyone is writing the Raiders off.