Never mind that the Denver Broncos had won the AFC West title in '84, beating the Los Angeles Raiders twice en route. Forget that Seattle had busted Raider chops in the first round of the playoffs last season and again at the Kingdome earlier this season. Just when you think they've disappeared over the horizon into the Pacific, back the Raiders come, as they did Sunday with a 31-28 sudden-death victory over the Broncos to pull into a tie with Denver for the division lead.
These were not the Raider badmen of legend; the Broncos were more finessed than flattened. Still, the Raiders were their old bully-boy selves at times—and the roughneck image was always there in the minds of the Broncos. Tight end Clarence Kay, for one, was as much concerned with not being intimidated in the rain before the 63,161 witnesses in the Coliseum as with the game plan. "Kay came out talking trash," said Rod Martin, the Raiders' All-Pro linebacker. "We told him to shut up and play ball and he'd get respect."
So Kay played ball and in the first period caught an 11-yard pass from quarterback John Elway. Five plays later Elway completed another to Vance Johnson for 14 yards and the Broncos shortly scored on a 16-yarder from Elway to Steve Watson. Denver 7, L.A. 0.
Kay was still having his say when Denver got the ball back. Uh-oh. A few plays later, a pile unstacked and there lay Kay, his solar plexus having met the helmet of 243-pound linebacker Matt Millen. "He didn't talk too much after that," said Martin.
"If you mess with a Raider, you're still gonna get smacked," said Millen, wagging a finger.
The tone for the game had been set three days before in Denver, where Bronco cornerback Louis Wright said, "The Raiders are basic. They say, 'We don't wanna fool you, we wanna beat you.' We say, 'We don't wanna beat you, we wanna fool you.' "
The Broncos did fool the Raiders for a while, particularly with a moving pocket that gave Elway some breathing room. He fired three touchdown passes in the first half. Though the Raiders had only 14 points at halftime, they didn't make it easy on themselves. On the second play of the game, quarterback Marc Wilson had badly underthrown Marcus Allen, who was streaking down the left sideline. Bye bye, TD. But it was Allen who bolted 61 yards a few minutes later to tie the game at 7-7.
In the second quarter Wilson overthrew receiver Dokie Williams and tight end Todd Christensen on potential touchdown passes, and rookie Jessie Hester dropped a bomb. Let's face it, Denver's troubles would have been a mile high if Wilson, whose 48.6 completion percentage is lowest among starting NFL quarterbacks, had been throwing bull's-eyes. Against Denver he completed only 16 of 34, but he did connect on two TD passes, to Christensen in the second quarter and Trey Junkin in the third. He also served up three richly deserved interceptions. "Marc had trouble hitting his targets early," said Denver linebacker Tom Jackson. "But, he looked good in the end." Wilson himself scored on a one-yard bootleg to give the Raiders a 28-21 lead late in the third period.
Denver scored again in the fourth quarter on a three-yard run by Steve Sewell to make it 28-28. L.A.'s Chris Bahr missed a 40-yard field-goal try at the end of regulation, and the game went into overtime.
So who wins the toss? The guys wearing black-and-silver, natch. It was all over in less than three minutes. Allen rushed for 15 yards on two carries and Wilson threw a dart to Williams, who took it 42 yards to Denver's 23. Three plays later, the Raiders tried a field goal from the 14. This time Bahr didn't miss.
The Raiders have been divided on Wilson's merits, but they had to go with him on Sunday. Jim Plunkett, who went out in the third game with a dislocated left shoulder, is throwing again in practice but he still has some work to do before he plays a game. "There was a time we were pointing fingers," cornerback Mike Haynes said of the criticism of Wilson. "But we weren't going anywhere like that. We decided, 'This is what we've got—we'd better get used to it. Marc's our guy.' "
Said Wilson, "I try."
The Raiders and Broncos, now both 8-4, will meet once more during the regular season, on Dec. 8 at Denver's Mile High Stadium. Chances are, finesse will take a holiday.