Al Davis stood under low clouds near the 50-yard line of the Los Angeles Coliseum. His Raiders were healthy and just a few minutes away from teeing it up for the money Sunday before 88,936 fans stocked like goldfish in the vast Coliseum bowl. Davis had just thrown his best fist al his men as they jogged off the field and into the home locker room for unneeded final instructions for this AFC semifinal game. Just win, baby. Davis stayed at the 50. Alone. Shifting his weight back and forth, he watched as the New England Patriots continued their warmups. Davis knows great athletes when he sees them. He chewed his lip and tugged at his chin. Davis seemed to sense that on this day "Commitment to Excellence" and "Pride and Poise" might not be enough.
Sure enough, the Raiders lost to the Patriots 27-20, and deserved to lose by more. The Raiders were beaten every misstep of the way. They committed six turnovers, four of which led to 20 points, and allowed an 80-yard drive for the other touchdown. The Patriots won with basic football—they blocked and tackled and followed the bouncing ball. No trick defenses, no Frank Merriwells and no slogans. They simply knocked the Raiders down. And the Raiders, immobilized by quarterback Marc Wilson's unseemly lapses, could not rally.
A postgame run-in between the Patriots' general manager, 5'10", 175-pound Patrick Sullivan, and the Raiders' 6'5", 270-pound Howie Long and 6'2", 250-pound Matt Millen served only to diminish New England's accomplishment. Nobody, not even general managers, should bait and harry pros after they have already lost once in a day. But the Sullivan family, which owns the Pats, had waited for what seemed like half a lifetime for one such big-game win against Al Davis. The players had done it; Patrick only rubbed it in a little. "I guess I said things," Sullivan said, feeling the cut eyebrow Millen gave him during the confrontation. "But we're a better team, and it feels good to say that. You bet, baby."
The turnovers that destroyed the Raiders included three interceptions of Wilson passes and a punt return in the first quarter messed up by Fulton Walker. The last led to New England's first touchdown—what's this, a pass?—13 yards from Tony Eason to tight end Lin Dawson. The killer was a kickoff return butchered by L.A.'s Sam Seale near the end of the third quarter.
January 13, 1986
It often seemed that all the Patriots needed to do was fall on fumbles or intercept passes one might expect from the Salvation Army, not the L.A. Raiders. Seale's fumble came after a 32-yard field goal by Tony Franklin had tied the game at 20. When Seale finally picked the ball up, he carried it as if he didn't recognize it. The ball was knocked away, and Cedric Jones shoved it into the end zone, where safety Jim Bowman fell on it for the touchdown that sent the Patriots into the AFC title game against Miami.
Seale agonized during the final three futile Raider possessions. Later, he sat alone in the locker room while coach Tom Flores was dodging questions about other matters. "I'm not going to talk about the quarterback situation now," Flores said. But the grumblings over Wilson will echo. "It's a team game," said Wilson, "but I'll take responsibility." He finished 11 of 27 for 135 yards.
You knew the Patriots had gotten the Raiders' number from the way they drove the ball; Eason completed only one pass to a wide receiver and seven overall. "You don't dominate the Raiders," said tackle Brian Holloway. "They have so much talent on defense. You try to control them. They're like sharks. They're in a frenzy this time of year."
After New England's first touchdown, the Raiders struck back with a 29-yard Chris Bahr field goal with 4:47 left in the first period. That came after a Patriot punt was blocked by defensive end Greg Townsend. On the Raiders' next possession, Wilson launched the kind of pass that got him his $800,000-a-year contract—a hot, straight, 16-yard bullet to Jessie Hester, who escaped Raymond Clayborn to make it 10-7. Then it was Marcus Allen's turn. On third-and-four from the New England 11, the great back flowed to the right and vaulted over safety Fred Marion for a 17-7 lead.
Now it was the Patriots' game that came into focus: 80 brutal yards marked by skill, character, and one crucial—and questionable—offside penalty against Long at the Raider nine, all of which brought New England away from that 17-7 brink. "We came to run," said Holloway. And that they did. Craig James was the key man in the drive. This season no runner the Raiders had faced—not Eric Dickerson, Roger Craig, Gerald Riggs, Freeman McNeil, Curt Warner, Kevin Mack or Earnest Byner—had gained 100 yards against them. James got 104 on 23 carries, 27 in four on this drive, which he began with a blast off right tackle for 16 yards and closed out on third-and-goal from the two. His touchdown came off the shotgun. After an inside handoff, James looped to the left behind a devastating block on safety Stacey Toran by John Hannah.
Another inside handoff resulted in a crucial first down in the fourth quarter. After a Wilson lollipop intended for Allen was intercepted by Marion, the Patriots took over at their 45 with 7:20 left. On third-and-12 from the Raider 46, the Patriots sent James right on the inside handoff from the shotgun. He reeled off 15 yards and enabled the Patriots to eat up two more minutes. The Raiders, who had wasted two timeouts, finally got the ball back at their own 20 with 1:44 left. From the 26, Wilson completed a fourth-down pass to Allen, who carried to mid-field. But guard Mickey Marvin was called for grabbing a face mask, and the Raiders headed backward.
Long had told Sullivan, "I'll see you after the game," after Sullivan had kept yelling things like "Where are you, Howie? We're coming to get you!" Hannah had told Long to "just ignore" Sullivan and play.
Said Sullivan: "I went up to him after the game to tell him I didn't appreciate some things he'd said about our organization. We have pride, too."
Said Long: "I didn't know him. He said, 'Let me tell you who I am. I said, 'Wait a sec, big guy. You might have 30 million in the bank, but you ain't telling me nothing.' I faked like I was going to hit him, just to see him jump. I'm not going to let a classless, silver-spooned, nonworking s.o.b. like that tell me anything. For me, it's God, Al Davis and my wife, not necessarily in that order. [Sullivan] doesn't sign my checks. He's the jellyfish of Foxboro. Anytime he wants to lock it up in a closet and waive all legal rules, he can give me a ring. I'm listed."
Billy Sullivan, Patrick's father, the team's president, gleefully got into the act with "In Oakland, [Al Davis] had the greatest franchise in the history of sports. Greater than the Montreal Canadiens. Greater even than the Boston Celtics. Guys like [Davis], I don't want any part of them. I like the term 'fighting Irish.' If you fight one of us, you fight us all.
Now the road leads to Miami and Dan Marino. The Pats haven't won there in half a lifetime, either. Nineteen years, is it? "We put silver-and-black gift-wrapping on the Patriots for Don Shula," moaned Raider cornerback Lester Hayes. "Miami has the greatest home-field advantage in the NFL. I give the Patriots two chances. Slim and none."
Fighting words. The Sullivans are ready. So are the Patriots.