It’s been 45 years since one of the best and most important wins of Raiders franchise history took place.
The year, 1974. The date, Dec. 21. The occasion, AFC Divisional Round playoff— with the winner advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
The Miami Dolphins had made a habit of being here, playing in the AFC Championship Game the prior three seasons in succession. It was just expected that they’d be there under Don Shula.
The Raiders, meanwhile, had plenty of success in that same time span under the legendary John Madden. But defeating the greatest team of the early ‘70s was quite a task.
Though the Raiders were hosting the game in Oakland, defeating the mighty Dolphins would still count as an upset. As such, team officials, and others in Oakland, had gotten the word out to fans who were attending the game to make it a “blackout”.
Not only did the fans show up and give AC/DC inspiration for a future song (no idea if that’s true or not), but they were loud. Some Raiders staffers and players said it was the loudest they had ever heard it in the stadium.
And that was during the pregame ceremonies.
Once the kickoff occurred, they were silenced for a bit. Nat Moore returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, forcing the fans to sit down and be quiet.
The Dolphins had done what every road team since the dawn of competition has aimed to do: take the crowd out of the game.
And it seemed that it was working awfully well for much of the first half. Though the Dolphins’ three-headed monster at running back was mostly unsuccessful, Shula’s defense stymied the Raiders’ deep passing attack, by getting pressure on Kenny Stabler and playing physical with Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch on the outside.
The score remained 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. As was the case with many of the classic Raiders games of this era, scoring and offensive momentum were hard to come by in the game’s opening stanza.
The Raiders’ physical and outstanding offensive line, though, began to impart their will on the game in the second quarter when fullback Marv Hubbard and halfback Clarence Davis alternated turns with the ball, moving it downfield, only for Charles Smith—he of the pass-catching running back variety—to knot up the score at seven on a deep pass that counted for 31 yards on the stat sheet.
But the Dolphins would answer back with a bevy of powerful runs by Larry Csonka and Co. to garner a field goal before the half’s gun blew.
10-7. Well within reach for a Raiders team trying to slay a Goliath.
In the second half, after making some halftime adjustments, the Raiders were able to get their vaunted passing game working. On their first possession of the third quarter, Stabler hit Biletnikoff for 20 yards. On the next play, they thought they had a 40-yard completion, and possible touchdown.
The officials, though, ruled Biletnikoff out of bounds. No catch.
Seemingly undeterred, the Raiders kept moving the ball within range. Stabler would again hit Biletnikoff, this time in the end zone, inbounds. The officials had no choice but to call it a touchdown. Though he was held and likely interfered with, Biletnikoff held on and got both feet in bounds before his right foot glazed the flag “pylon”.
No. 23: “The Sea of Hands” - 1974 Dolphins vs. Raiders AFC Divisional Playoff (Dec. 21, 1974) #NFL100 @Raiders— NFL (@NFL) October 5, 2019
: NFL 100 Greatest Games on @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/OoMJV38Wz9
Yet again the champions answered with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Bob Griese to Paul Warfield. Garo Ypremian’s extra point attempt, however, was blocked by the big paw of Bubba Smith.
The Dolphins had a two-point lead, which they would then extend to five just into the fourth quarter, as Ypremian hit from 46 yards out.
The defenses coincidentally settled down and got the stops they had in the first half. It was a tight contest, one the Raiders had battled hard in. Yet it looked as if it might not be enough. As well-coached as both teams were, the Dolphins had just out-executed them in the slightest.
When the Raiders got the ball back with 4:54 to go in the game, it was at their own 17-yard line. The situation the Raiders found themselves in was hardly one to be optimistic about. Having to go 83 yards against the two-time defending world champions with the Dolphins’ winning culture and mindset.
But instead of allowing themselves to feel defeated, the Raiders remembered what got them to this moment: the explosive passing game, particularly between Stabler and his two outside receivers.
A first down throw to Biletnikoff netted the Raiders 11 yards and a first down. Certainly, it picked the team’s emotions up. The next play, though, would get the crowd back into the game, in the same way they were prior to its commencement.
Stabler again threw deep to Cliff Branch. It wasn’t a perfect throw, which worked into Branch’s favor, as after sliding to the turf, he was untouched, but possessed the wherewithal to get up and roam from the Miami 27 to the goalline without being tackled. It was a 72-yard touchdown pass for Stabler.
‘72 was the year Miami was a perfect 17-0. They, of course, remain the only team in NFL history to go an entire regular season and postseason without a loss. Just two seasons later, the Raiders, in almost a blink of an eye, looked poise to knock them out of the postseason.
Not so fast. Benny Malone, one of the Dolphins’ trio of electric running backs, would elude a number of Raiders defenders on a 23-yard touchdown run with 2:08 left to play to again retake the lead.
Back-and-forth the teams went. The Dolphins showed the proverbial heart-of-a-champion moxie. The Raiders seemed unfazed, encouraged by fans who would only get louder and crazier as the years went along, but who earned their reputation on this day.
As the two-minute warning came and went, the Raiders again found themselves trailing by five points, 26-21. This time they had two minutes to work 68 yards.
It wasn’t likely to be as easy as their last 17-second drive. Stabler would again rely on Biletnikoff and Branch, though the passing game got some help from tight end Bob Moore, who caught a pass for six yards, and reserve receiver Frank Pitts, who reeled in a key first down at the Miami 14 with just under a minute to go.
From that point, the Raiders used their final timeout. They were in goal-to-go attitude. They essentially had four plays to score and win, or be denied and lose.
Though it was only first down, it looked as if the clock and yardage were going to become a key factor, when Stabler found himself under pressure and had to escape to his left.
Thankfully he was left-handed, and a good enough scrambler and improviser to be able to throw on the run. With Vern den Herder wrapped around his legs trying to secure a key sack, Stabler was able to release a strong throw to the aforementioned Clarence Davis, who had tried to get open out of the backfield.
He kind of did. The combination of a strong throw from Stabler and “a sea of hands” all narrowly missing knocking the football away allowed Davis to pull the football in, in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown for the Raiders.
The crowd erupted beyond what it had at any point on the day. And for good reason, the Raiders had come back twice in the final five minutes against the champs.
Griese’s last ditch effort to maintain an AFC Championship spot was intercepted by Raiders linebacker Philip Vilapiano.
The Raiders had done it. For the first time in four years, the Dolphins would not be playing in the AFC Championship Game. Unfortunately for the Raiders, things didn’t go as well the next week.
But John Madden and the Raiders had done what no team had done in quite some time. They had gone toe-to-toe with the champions, and won.