The conference championships are upon us, which has this writer looking back at the Oakland Raiders' participation in the NFL's version of the Final Four.
|Raiders in AFL/AFC Championship Games|
|December 31 1967||vs. Houston||W 40-7|
|December 29 1968||at Jets||L 27-23|
|January 4 1970||vs. KC||L 17-7|
|January 3 1971||at Baltimore||L 27-17|
|December 30 1973||at Miami||L 27-10|
|December 29 1974||vs. Pittsburgh||L 24-13|
|January 4 1976||at Pittsburgh||L 16-10|
|December 26 1976||vs. Pittsburgh||W 24-7|
|January 1 1978||at Denver||L 20-17|
|January 11 1981||at San Diego||W 34-27|
|January 8 1984||vs. Seattle||W 30-14|
|January 20 1991||at Buffalo||L 51-3|
|January 14 2001||vs. Baltimore||L 16-3|
|January 19 2003||vs. Tennessee||W 41-24|
One might say that the origins of the "conference" title games dates back to the 1970 season when the American Football League and National Football League merged, and that person would be correct. But let's look at it in terms of "playing for the right to advance to the Super Bowl", and as such, those games first took place following the 1966 season, or shall I say, seasons.
This weekend marks the forty-third time that four teams will suit up in hopes of representing their league in the season's last Sunday. In all those years only the Dallas Cowboys have stood on the steps of the Super Bowl more times (16) than our Raiders (14, tied with Pittsburgh). Only the Raiders and Minnesota Vikings have appeared in these games at least once in every decade since the 1960's. Alas, no team has lost more conference championship showdowns (9) than the one currently run by Al Davis.
The Raiders are 5-9 in AFL/AFC title games. They have played an equal amount of games at home as on the road (seven), posting a 4-3 record in front of friendly faces, and a 1-6 mark on enemy grounds.
My ticket stubs from the last two conference title games played in Oakland.
Oakland was home to the AFL championship on December 31, 1967 (the year yours truly was born), and the Raiders put an exclamation point on a 13-1 regular season with a 40-7 manhandling of the Houston Oilers. After losing to Vince Lombardi's Packers in Super Bowl II, Oakland spent the better part of the next decade falling "just short", which ultimately earned them the dubious distinction as the team that couldn't win the "Big One".
In the eight seasons that followed the Raiders reached the conference championship game six times. Six times in eight seasons they had a second Super Bowl appearance within their grasp. Six times in eight seasons they were struck down, each time by the eventual World Champions. It didn't even matter where the game was played.
The Jets did them in first, on December 29, 1968, just one month after the Raiders had beaten New York in the infamous "Heidi Game". This time the game would be played on the East Coast (Oakland had the better record- 12-2 to 11-3, but the leagues didn't yet awarded home-field to the top-ranked teams). Momentum appeared to be on the Raiders' side; they crushed Kansas City 41-6 in a division-clinching playoff the week before. The game with the Jets was a brutal see-saw battle. Trailing 20-13 entering the fourth quarter, the Silver & Black struck for a field goal and a touchdown for their first lead of the game. Euphoria was short-lived as the Jets roared back on a Joe Namath-to-Don Maynard scoring pass midway through the fourth. Daryle Lamonica twice tried to rally the Raiders back, but twice he was thwarted, the second time on a game-sealing fumble recovery by Ralph Baker.
Newspaper account of AFL title game between the Raiders and Jets (source: www.remembertheafl.com)
One year later Oakland hosted the hated Chiefs. In the divisional playoffs, the Raiders looked invincible as they ran out to a 28-0 first-quarter lead en route to a 56-7 thrashing of Houston. Meanwhile Kansas City gutted out a road win against the defending champion Jets. Charlie Smith's first-quarter touchdown run put the Raiders in front, 7-0. They would score no more. The Chiefs put up a touchdown each in the second and third quarters, and added a field-goal in the fourth for a 17-7 win. The Raiders, who from 1967-69 posted an incredible mark of 37-4-1, had only a disappointing Super Bowl effort and two bitter AFL title game defeats to show for it.
But they were right back at it the following year after winning the new AFC West with an 8-4-2 record, and a 21-14 victory over Miami in the divisional round. Up next for John Madden's squad: the Colts in Baltimore. The Raiders were within three points in the fourth quarter when Johnny Unitas found Ray Perkins for a 68-yard touchdown and a 27-17 lead that proved to be the final score. George Blanda tried valiantly to bring Oakland back (as he had done all season) after replacing the injured Lamonica, but two interceptions sealed the Raiders' fate.
Ray Perkins eludes defender for the winning score (source: www.mmbolding.com)
The Raiders missed out on the playoffs in 1971 and were beaten on the Immaculate Reception in '72. They found themselves familiar surroundings in '73 after they pounded Pittsburgh 33-14 (sweet revenge!) to earn the right to play the defending champion Dolphins for the AFC title. It was Oakland that had beaten Don Shula's bunch in September, Miami's first loss since the 1971 season. But this day belonged to the Larry Csonka (three rushing touchdowns) and the Dolphins, who trounced Oakland 27-10. The teams met again in the 1974 playoffs, considered by some to be the greatest football game ever played. The Sea of Hands thriller gave the Raiders yet another shot at barging through the door to the Super Bowl. This time at home. This time against Pittsburgh. A Ken Stabler 38-Yrd touchdown pass gave Oakland a 10-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Fifteen minutes to go. Fifteen minutes in which the Steelers smashed the Silver & Black's Super Bowl dreams. Pittsburgh outscored Oakland 21-3 in the fourth quarter, two Franco Harris touchdown runs sandwiching a Lynn Swann scoring reception.
The 1975 Raiders thought they had what it took to get that ever-growing monkey off their collective backs. And they were almost right. Once again, almost. Another showdown with the Steelers (this time in Pittsburgh), and as they did they year before, the defending champions saved their best for last. After three quarters Pittsburgh led 3-0. Then Franco Harris scored on a 25-yard run to make it 10-zip. The teams traded touchdown passes, with the Steelers missing their extra point to leave Oakland behind 16-7. Facing a third-and-two on Pittsburgh's 24-yard line with just eighteen seconds left, the Raiders sent in Blanda to kick a field-goal, shaving the score to 16-10. On the ensuing kickoff Oakland recovered an onside kick, but Cliff Branch failed to get out-of-bounds after hauling in a 37-yard pass to the 15-yard line, and once again time ran out on the Raiders.
Not time, not Pittsburgh, not anyone, not anything would stop the Oakland Raiders from climbing to the top of the mountain in 1976. A 13-1 season was saved by Ken Stabler in a thrilling playoff win over New England. Waiting in the wings were the two-time defending champion Steelers. The Raiders were more than happy to see them; they wanted Pittsburgh in the worst way. And on that day, December 26, 1976, nine years of frustration were laid to rest on the Coliseum turf. Oakland dominated from the start and rolled to a 24-7 victory. Two weeks later, in Super Bowl XI, the title that had eluded them for so many seasons was finally theirs in a 32-14 rout of Minnesota.
Sports Illustrated says it all: The Raiders (finally) win a "Big One".
And on New Year's Day 1978 they earned the right to defend their crown with a fifth consecutive visit to the AFC Championship round. Their opponent: the upstart Broncos in Denver. The game was closely contested with the champs trailing 7-3 in the third quarter. A fumble gave Denver the ball deep in Oakland territory, and the Broncos drove the ball to the two, when it happened again. "It" meaning, the Raiders got robbed (pun intended). Rob Lytle was hit by Jack Tatum and fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Oakland. Not so fast. The referees blew the play dead, saying Lytle was down when he fumbled. If this game had been played during the Instant-Replay era, there is little doubt that play would have been reversed. But since it happened in '77 it stood. On the next play, the Broncos scored a touchdown to go up 14-3, and they rode the ref-aided score to a 20-17 win.
Age finally caught up to the Raiders, who failed to make the playoffs in 1978 and 1979. The following season was supposed to have been their worse yet, with almost everyone- including Playboy- picking Oakland to place last. But behind a rejuvenated Jim Plunkett and an unstoppable Lester Hayes, the Raiders went 11-5 to clinch a most-improbable playoff berth. Two stunning victories later, the Silver & Black was in San Diego against the high-flying Chargers with a trip to Super Bowl XV at stake. Oakland shocked everyone but themselves by racing out to a 21-7 first quarter lead (it was 28-14 at the half). San Diego closed the gap to 31-24 heading into the final quarter, where the teams exchanged field goals. Ahead 34-27 with 6:43 left, their defense exhausted, the Raiders relied on their power running game to turn out the lights on the Chargers' season. Oakland's Cinderella story was made complete with a 27-10 win in Super Bowl XV.
Lester Hayes led the Raiders to two AFC titles in the 1980's (source: SI Vault).
The Raiders moved to Los Angeles after the 1981 season, but a change in venue did nothing to keep them from a third Super Bowl title in eight seasons. The 1983 season (has it really been 25 years?) saw the Silver & Black go 12-4, with two of those losses to Seattle, who just happened to be the Raiders' opponent in the AFC Championship Game. The result was slightly different than the previous two meetings as Tom Flores' crew- behind Marcus Allen's 154 rushing yards- stopped Seattle 30-14.
It would be seven seasons before the Raiders would get that close to the Super Bowl and the rustiness was apparent in a 51-3 meltdown at Buffalo. Back in Oakland where they belong, the Raiders- after a ten-year conference-title game drought- hosted Baltimore in January 2001 for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXV. But a stifling Ravens' defense smothered the Raiders, who fell short, 16-3.
The 2002 season brought about some changes. Out was Jon Gruden, a central figure in the Raiders' revival. In was Bill Callahan (though not for long). And still the Raiders rolled on, behind MVP Rich Gannon. And so it was on January 19, 2003- some thirty-five years after their first appearance in a conference championship- that the Raiders would play in their fourteenth such title game. At home against Tennessee, the Silver & Black turned the clock back to 1976 with a 41-24 thumping of the Titans. I was at that game. Hard to believe how quickly it went bad from there.
Rich Gannon guided the Raiders to their last conference championship.
|Most Appearances in Conference Championship Games|