The Los Angeles Raiders beat the cold and the Colorado snow and the avalanche of sound from 75,042 pairs of feet banging on the metal of Denver's Mile High Stadium, a crescendo of noise that sounded like thunder rolling in from the Rockies. This team that had started the season 1-2 took first place in the AFC West from Denver by beating the Broncos 17-14 in overtime Sunday, and it wasn't supposed to happen the way it did.
The Raiders, now 10-4, won with defense and Marcus Allen's running. It was a Howie Long sack on the last scrimmage play in overtime that led to a John Elway fumble on the Denver eight and a 26-yard chip-shot field goal by Chris Bahr. Then it was goodby to the snowflakes and please get us on the plane to L.A. before the world turns white.
A lost coin flip set it up. Don't laugh. It was that kind of day. The Raiders' Rod Martin called heads at the start of OT It came up tails. The Broncos' game captain, defensive end Barney Chavous, celebrating his 180th game for Denver, a team record, chose to take the ball. The Broncos had planned to take the wind, which was gusting up to 20 miles per hour, whipping snowflakes in the faces of those unfortunate enough to face it.
"I take the blame for that," said Bronco coach Dan Reeves. "There was a breakdown in communications."
Two series on both sides produced zip, but the Raiders were getting their zips near midfield while the Broncos couldn't dig out of their own end, and when the ball was knocked loose from Elway at the start of Denver series No. 3, the hunt was over. It was that kind of day.
Defense. On one play in the third quarter Long and noseguard Bill Pickel crashed into Elway, producing an interception and one of the game's nine turnovers (five by the Raiders, four by the Broncos). Elway tottered to the Denver bench. Ditto Long, who'd been knocked groggy by the impact and had gotten poked in the eye.
"You O.K.?" linebacker Matt Millen asked him.
"I can rush the passer," Long said, "with one eye tied behind my back."
The Raiders went after Elway and sacked him three times. L.A.'s Marc Wilson wasn't toppled, but he threw four interceptions. One time Elway scrambled toward the Raider sidelines and Martin nailed him as he was going out of bounds (and drew a penalty) and rolled him under the bench, scattering Raiders en route.
"They helped me up," Elway said. "Then some of our guys ran over, bodies started flying, and that was when the action started."
A minijam. One of four or five. Raider-Bronco games are always nasty, but this one followed a different script in the strategy department. The book on the Raiders used to be that if you shut down their wideouts and got their quarterback to put the ball up, they'd had it. The Raiders have two wideouts, Dokie Williams and rookie Jessie Hester. Only two. The rest are just names filling out a roster. On long-yardage situations, NFL teams go to three and four wideouts. The Raiders stay with two. It's kind of quaint, but the stats say that in 14 games only seven passes have been caught by wide receivers other than Williams or Hester.
On Sunday the Broncos took both wideouts away. Wilson aimed nine passes their way. One was caught (by Hester for 14 yards), one was intercepted. Wilson misfired on his last five passes in the game. For the afternoon, his passes produced only 93 yards out of 13 completions. At the end the Raiders gave up passing and just ran the ball and played for field position. But don't forget this is a team that traditionally lives on the deep thrust, and they were trying to climb back from a 14-0 halftime deficit.
So how did they do it? Well, defense of course. They kept the Broncos on their own side of the 50 on seven of eight series after halftime, and on the eighth, Sean Jones sacked Elway and took Denver out of field-goal range. Denver gained only 54 yards, total, in the second half and the overtime.
And then there was Marcus Allen. He's having his finest year. He has changed the complexion of the L.A. offense, which, through necessity, is now geared to the run. In four of their last five games the Raiders have run the ball more times than they've passed, and Allen has averaged better than 27 carries in each of those five. This is the guy who once went up to Al Davis and told him he wanted to run more. To which Davis replied, "You want to run more? Take a few laps after practice."
Allen is making up for lost time this season. In three previous years he had never carried more than 26 times in a game, but in '85 he has had days of 31, 30 and 29 carries, plus a trio of 28s and Sunday's 25. The result is seven straight games of 100-plus yards, including 135 Sunday, and a season's total of 1,527, putting him 21 yards behind the NFL leader, Gerald Riggs of Atlanta. In their 25-year history the Raiders have never had a back lead the league in rushing.
The Broncos were waiting for Allen. Two weeks earlier he had hit them for 173 yards, and this was not going to happen again. Or so the Broncos thought. They installed a special four-man line, with three of their bigger linebackers behind it, as a mixer, to go with their base 3-4. In practice they stressed backside containment and disciplined control of the rush lanes (Allen had broken a 61-yarder against the grain in the first contest). It would cut down on their pass rush, but so what? Wilson wasn't going to beat them. Allen could.
And then there was the weather. Allen's a sunshine kid, born and raised in San Diego. Then everything in L.A.—college at Southern Cal and pro ball with the Raiders. Going into Sunday's game, he had seen snow only once ("on a ski trip a few years ago," he said) and had never played in it. O.K., Marcus, if our defense doesn't get you, Jack Frost will.
But here's the thing about Allen. Off the field he's an L.A. superstar, 25 years old and single, fancy Ferrari, stylish apartment, a healthy renegotiated contract ($3.5 million for four years). On the field, though, he picks up a new dimension—toughness.
"He and Walter Payton are the toughest backs in the game," Long says. "Marcus takes it to 'em and gets their best shots, and then he bounces up and takes it to 'em again. There have been times this year when he's had to drag himself to practice, but if he's banged up he doesn't want anybody to know it. In four years he's never missed a game."
The Raider offense calls for Allen to block for fullback Frank Hawkins. No sweat. He broke in at USC as the up-back in the I formation, blocking for Charles White. He's called upon as a pass receiver, and has caught 58 of them.
L.A. is a funny town, though. Last year the Rams' Eric Dickerson commanded the headlines with his record-breaking 2,105-yard rushing performance. Allen was an "Oh yeah, him, too."
"People said I was jealous of Eric, that I was sulking because of his success," Allen says. "I can honestly tell you I wasn't jealous at all. But after the season I sat down and reflected on my three years in the league and reevaluated what I wanted to achieve personally, and some things just weren't as important. I said to myself, 'Listen, I don't have to lead the league in rushing—and receiving and blocking, too. If the yards come, fine.'
"I considered our philosophy. Pass first, then run. It isn't geared to rushing titles. Now it's changed, through necessity. Jim Plunkett's out, Marc Wilson's been beat up every week. The load just fell to me.
"I feel I'm running differently now. Last year [1,168 yards] I was pressing. I was impatient. I wasn't allowing the offense to develop in front of me. I was leaving the blockers and free-lancing. People would tell me I was doing well, but actually I was just coming close and not really getting there. This year I'm more controlled, and I'm not fumbling. I'm proud of that fact."
Against the Broncos he started off modestly, with 34 yards rushing in the first half.
Meanwhile, Denver had jumped to a 14-0 lead on a five-yard touchdown pass from Elway to Jim Wright in the first period and a one-yard Sammy Winder run, capping a 71-yard drive, with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Broncos had an opportunity to put the game away seven seconds later when Wilson fumbled and Rulon Jones recovered on the L.A. 13. But an offensive interference penalty cost the Broncos, and Rich Karlis missed a 35-yard field-goal try on the last play of the half. A big miss, as it turned out.
And then the weather turned nasty. The windchill dropped to 9°. An eerie darkness had settled on Mile High Stadium by 3:30 p.m. Weather reports signaled an advancing storm—snow in Boulder, snow in Golden, in Lakewood, and, in the third quarter, in Mile High Stadium.
The Raiders put together two scoring drives in that quarter, each of them keyed by Allen. The first drive ended with a three-yard TD pass to tight end Todd Christensen. Allen had set it up with a five-yard run. He slipped, fell, got up and dived for the last three. The second score came on a 15-yard trap play by Allen over the right side. In the second half, with the snow falling, he rushed 17 times for 101 yards. Again, no fumbles. It's been a light year for Marcus in that department—twice in the 14 games.
On the Raiders' second series in overtime, Allen carried three straight times, down to the Broncos' 35. Fourth and two. Raider coach Tom Flores wouldn't risk the 52-yard field goal. The 30-yard line was his cutoff point. Ray Guy's punt hit the end zone and the Broncos got the ball on their 20. Elway dropped back to pass—the Broncos' running game was history at this point—and as Long sacked him, defensive end Greg Townsend, taking a wide, looping rush from the outside, hooked his arm. The ball popped loose and Townsend recovered the fumble.
Thus ended the saga of snowy Mile High. The Raiders need one win in their last two games—Seattle at home and then the Rams in the Coliseum—to win the division. Two victories would give them home-field advantage the whole way in the playoffs. They can take great pride in their win at Denver—the Broncos hadn't lost a December game at home in three years—but the Raiders are cast in a strange role now. Their game is defense and Marcus Allen, with Christensen as their possession receiver. Plunkett, his dislocated shoulder mended, is ready to come back onto the roster, but he doesn't seem to be in the Raiders' plans.
They have rolled the clock back and reverted to old-style football, and as long as Allen keeps cranking out those 100-yard games and the defense comes on strong, the formula can work. Maybe.