THE AFC WEST

January 10, 1994

A Raider Revival

One by one, the 60 or so policemen assigned to guard the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum playing field began to turn away from the stands and steal glances at the action behind them. The cops are under orders to keep their eyes peeled for trouble and to keep their backs to the game. But even the most dedicated were unable to resist a peek as two old AFL rivals, the Raiders and the Denver Broncos, stood toe-to-toe for three hours and 36 minutes on Sunday and took turns hitting each other over the head with a mallet.

The Raiders were the last ones standing, 33-30 winners over Denver in overtime. Not only was it the best game of the NFL season, as Los Angeles overcame a 30-13 third-quarter deficit, but it was also a win that propelled the 10-6 Raiders into the playoffs. And this Sunday they will again play the Broncos (who finished 9-7) at the Coliseum, in a wild-card game. "I don't even want to think about it," said the Raiders' Greg Townsend. Many players in both locker rooms undoubtedly agreed with him.

After Jeff Jaeger's 47-yard field goal midway through the overtime period won the game for the Raiders, L.A. guard Steve Wisniewski walked toward the locker room, staring into space with blood running straight down his nose. Bronco owner Pat Bowlen wandered across the field, his normally tan face white. Bronco safety Dennis Smith walked up the tunnel to the locker room, past the Raider cheerleaders who were crying and hugging, and said, "——." Smith went a few more feet and, to no one in particular, repeated himself.

How good a game was it? Both quarterbacks were almost flawless. The Broncos' John Elway completed 25 of 36 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Raiders' Jeff Hostetler was 25 of 41 for 310 yards with three TDs, and he also had no interceptions. This was not a day when either team played it safe, either. There were 24 plays that gained 15 or more yards, not to mention numerous near misses on long throws downfield. The Raiders tied the game on a Hostetler touchdown pass to Alexander Wright on the last play of the fourth quarter, and they won it soon after Bronco kicker Jason Elam missed a 40-yard field goal by one foot, 3:27 into overtime. It was Al Davis stretch-the-field football at its finest, a no-holds-barred, empty-your-barrels fight to the finish. As Townsend put it, "You are at the point where everything is on the line and opportunity is one big rainbow. You just keep chasing it, keep going, trying to find its end."

For one afternoon it was a return to glory for one of the great franchises in professional sports. The Raiders of old lived up to their team's pirate image. They were a bunch of outcasts who often over-achieved their way to victory after victory. John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado and Matt Millen were rabid, nutso guys who would say, and often do, anything. Former Raider coach Tom Flores was once asked how he prepared his team, and he joked, "The first thing I do is open the door and throw in some raw meat and then close the door real quick." Flores knew, however, that his players could be counted on to do whatever it took to win.

The Raiders of today aren't like that. Parity has settled into the National Football League, and the Raiders are not the intimidators that they once were. Instead, they are basically a bunch of nice guys who are glad that they have jobs.

Earlier in the season the Raiders suffered the indignity of being the first team to be beaten by the then 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals, and just two weeks ago they suffered a 28-0 humiliation at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. This season's Raiders couldn't hold a lead and couldn't run the ball. Yet each week the COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE banners would go up in the Coliseum—with little proof on the field that the team had any understanding of the concept. "I think this team underachieves too much," said Los Angeles receiver Tim Brown last week. "This team needs to be tougher because tough teams come up and play well every week." At halftime on Sunday, with the Broncos leading 27-13, it looked as if the Raiders would soon have a long off-season to think about how they might acquire more toughness.

And then out of the blue came this. With eight seconds left to play in regulation, the Raiders were down by a touchdown. Sixty-eight thousand fans were screaming their lungs out. Hostetler had time for one, maybe two passes into the end zone to tie the game. Dropping back, he looked to his left and set his sights on Brown, who would finish the day with 11 catches for 173 yards, but he was covered like a blanket. Hostetler thought about trying to hit Brown anyway, then turned to his right and saw that Bronco cornerback Charles Dimry had fallen down at the two-yard line. All alone in the right front corner of the end zone was Wright. Hostetler zinged it, Wright caught it, and an extra point later, the Raiders were chasing their rainbow into overtime. "Highlight of my life," a thrilled Wright said after the game.

The guys in black were back, having toughed it out. Even the cops were cheering for them.

The Optimists' Club

Call it a dubious honor, but the 8-8 Chargers and the 6-10 Seahawks are the best fourth-and fifth-place teams in the NFL. And there's plenty of reason to believe both teams will improve next season. "I really wish we had some more games so we could continue to gel," says Seahawk Pro Bowl safety Eugene Robinson.

The Seattle offense is still far from picture perfect, but at least it is no longer a liability. The Seahawks have the AFC's third-leading rusher in Chris Warren (1,072 yards), and Brian Blades was tied for fourth in receptions, with 80. Quarterback Rick Mirer is the no-brainer for the AFC Rookie of the Year award. Mirer has been particularly adept at learning Seattle's offensive schemes and reading coverages—for instance, he completed 50% of his passes out of the shotgun after the Seahawks added that formation six weeks ago. "With almost an identical schedule and if the defense can keep pace with the offense, I would like to see us at 10-6 next season," says Robinson. That's not so farfetched. Seattle is under the projected salary cap and will have the funds to find an able companion for Cortez Kennedy on the defensive line.

The Chargers would have finished at 10-6 if not for two losses to AFC West champion Kansas City by a total of seven points. "We've been able to compete with a lot of adversity," said San Diego coach Bobby Ross last week. "[Due to injuries] we had to rebuild the offensive line, had to jump in and out with quarterbacks, had to replace three key defensive starters, and despite those things we hung in there and had a chance to win every game but one."

The injuries gave the Chargers a chance to look at their top three '93 draft picks, all of whom played very well. Darrien Gordon could become one of the premier cornerbacks and punt returners in the league, 245-pound running back Natrone Means gained 648 yards, and Joe Cocozzo is San Diego's right guard of the future. Any team with defensive end Leslie O'Neal and linebacker Junior Seau on defense is better off than most, and quarterback Stan Humphries, with his throwing shoulder healed from a preseason hit, came back and led the Chargers to four victories in their last six games. On Sunday a healthy and accurate Humphries was 18 for 30 for 272 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, in San Diego's 32-17 win over Tampa Bay. The Chargers' fourth-place finish gets them an easy schedule next season, and the team will be back in the AFC West title hunt.

Stats of the Year

•After San Diego was eliminated from playoff contention with a 28-24 loss to Kansas City on Dec. 19, coach Bobby Ross asked NFL director of officiating Jerry Seeman to review a number of questionable calls by the officials. Seeman subsequently confirmed to Ross that eight of those calls were incorrect, including two that had led to Kansas City touchdowns.

•In 1991, Christian Okoye had 1,031 yards rushing for the Chiefs, while teammates Barry Word and Harvey Williams had 684 and 447, respectively. In '93 a knee injury kept Okoye out of football, Word rushed for 458 yards with the Minnesota Vikings, and Williams ran for 149 yards for Kansas City.

•Seattle rookie Michael Bates, who won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash in the Barcelona Olympics, consistently beat double and triple teams to rack up a team-record 22 tackles on special teams. Bates was voted the special teams' alternate to the Pro Bowl, behind Buffalo's Steve Tasker, who had 10 tackles.

•In the first 10 years of his career, Denver's John Elway averaged 30.1 pass attempts per game while allegedly being kept under wraps by conservative coach Dan Reeves. Liberated under the Broncos' first-year coach, Wade Phillips, Elway averaged 34.4 attempts this season.

•Despite being criticized for not throwing upfield enough, Jeff Hostetler is the first Raider to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season since Ken Stabler had 3,615 in 1979.

Game of Next Season
If you could have tickets to any game involving an AFC West team next fall, which one would be your preference? The date isn't set, but we'll take the 49ers' tussle with Joe Montana and the Chiefs in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. There aren't many great quarterbacks gracing NFL fields these days, and this matchup will feature the greatest of all time versus his worthy successor as 49er QB, Steve Young.

The End Zone
Last week linebacker Steve Hendrickson of the Chargers began to get ready for the off-season by starting to clean out his locker. No other player in the NFL can boast of such a mess (nor would anyone want to). The four-foot-high pile of refuse filled up three trash bags. There was one for the shoes, one for shorts and one for underwear. In the past, some of his teammates deposited food in Hendrickson's locker just to see when, or if, he would find it. "Once, I found a moldy sandwich in there, and I had to clean out the entire locker because it smelled so bad," said Hendrickson. "But since then I've picked stuff out from the bottom every once in a while just to check it out."

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThe Broncos got their hands on Hostetler but couldn't stop him from throwing for 310 yards. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONBrown, who caught 11 passes for 173 yards, stayed a step ahead of Denver's defenders all day. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERWith 1,072 yards rushing, Warren gave the Seahawk 0 some go.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)