This time Dad didn’t open the champagne too early.
Four seasons earlier he had uncorked a bottle of bubbly shortly after Ken Stabler’s 30-yard touchdown scamper put the Raiders in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 7-6, with 77 seconds left in the ’72 playoffs.
One thing I never did quite understand is why my father would have chosen that particular moment to celebrate. Not because there was still so much time left, but because it was only a divisional playoff game. Did he think we’d have no shot against the undefeated Miami Dolphins?
Regardless, there would be no joy in the Marquez household that day, not after this happened, which kick-started a dynasty in Pittsburgh, and remains one of the darkest moments in Oakland Raider history. (Some 29 years later, at Dad’s 75th birthday party, premature jubilation again turned to shock and despair, when a fumble recovery in the snow turned out not to be so).
But enough about other team’s highlights.
It was on this day, 33 years ago, the Raiders achieved their crowning glory. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, the Silver & Black had lost six consecutive AFL-AFC Championship games in an eight-year span- all to the eventual Super Bowl winner.
But 1976 would be different, and John Madden's club christened its season with a remarkable comeback over Pittsburgh, the two-time defending champions. Down 28-14, the Raiders scored 17 points in the last 2:56 to stun the Steelers.
A quick glance at Oakland's record that season (16-1), speaks of complete dominance, but the Raiders had their share of close calls. Narrow victories the next two weeks over Kansas City (24-21) and Houston (14-13), both 5-9 in 1976, was cause for concern, but that paled in comparison to the 48-17 pounding the Patriots put on them.
Oakland sped past San Diego in Week 5, 27-17, as Cliff Branch hauled in touchdown passes of 41 and 75 yards. Two third-quarter touchdowns in Denver were enough to beat the Broncos 17-10.
After five straight games on the road, the Raiders went one touchdown better in the third quarter against Green Bay, as Stabler threw scoring strikes to a trio of receivers, Dave Casper, Branch (88 yards), and Fred Biletnikoff. Thanks to an injury to Oakland's only placekicker (at the time), punter Ray Guy attempted- and missed- all three PAT's; thus the strange 18-14 final score.
The Raiders continued to live dangerously as they allowed the Chicago Bears to storm back from a 21-7 deficit to take a 27-21 lead in the fourth quarter (one of the extra points was missed). But Stabler, who already hooked up with Branch for a 75-yard touchdown earlier in the game, connected with his speedy receiver once more, this time for 41 yards, and the lead. A wide field goal attempt as time expired gave Oakland a Windy City win.
After several near-misses, the Raiders finally enjoyed a few laughers- against KC (21-10), Philadelphia (26-7), and Tampa Bay (49-16). Having locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, some outsiders felt the Raiders might take it easy against Cincinnati at the Coliseum. After all, a losing performance against the Bengals would knock their nemesis- the champion Steelers- out of the post-season. That suggestion didn't sit very well with the Raiders, who proceeded to smother Cincinnati 35-20, raising more than just a few eyebrows around the league.
A 24-0 shutout of San Diego concluded the regular season, in which the Raiders finished 13-1. The only team to beat them in 1976- New England- happened to be Oakland's first playoff opponent, and the confident Patriots jumped out to a 21-10 lead after three quarters. But the Silver and Black rallied back, and Stabler's one-yard dive into the end zone with ten seconds left gave the Raiders a thrilling 24-21 victory.
At the Marquez house, we cheered wildly, but there was no champagne sipped or sprayed.
The Raiders' reward for squeaking by New England was a date with the Steelers, who had denied them a trip to the Super Bowl the previous two seasons. Forced to play without their starting backfield- Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier- the champions had no chance of a three-peat. Then again, maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Maybe it was the Raiders' turn after a decade of close calls (and bad calls). Or maybe Oakland was just that much better anyway, and it showed in a 24-7 romp. Finally, the Raiders had won a Big One.
And 33 years ago today, they won the Biggest One.
After playing to a scoreless first-quarter tie with the Minnesota Vikings (Oakland's Errol Mann missed a field-goal try early), the Raiders' normally reliable special teams failed them once more. Ray Guy had a punt blocked for the first time in his pro career, pitting the Vikings at the two-yard line. Two plays later, Phil Villapiano caused a fumble, and Willie Hall recovered.
Clarence Davis' 35-yard run down the left sideline not only pulled the Raiders out of unfavorable field position, it set the tone for the remainder of the game, in which the running back rushed for 137 yards.
Ken Stabler's one-yard touchdown lob to Dave Casper gave Oakland a 10-0 lead, and Pete Banaszak bullied his way in from a yard out to make it 16-0 at the half. Mann, who would miss on two extra points in addition to the first-quarter field goal attempt, was good from 40 yards out, as the Raiders went in front 19-0.
Minnesota finally got on the board, but the Raiders put the game away with another Banaszak score midway through the fourth quarter to extend their lead to 26-7.
I was still three months short of my tenth birthday, but I still remember seeing Willie Brown sprinting 75 yards with an interception to put the finishing touches on a Super season. And I can still hear the familiar sound of a cork popping.
This time Dad didn't open the champagne too early.