Friday, December 24, 2010
The AFC Divisional playoff game on December 24, 1977 featured the Oakland Raiders, defending NFL champions, against the Baltimore Colts, three-time AFC East title-winners who had not been able to make it past the first round in the previous two postseasons.
The Raiders, coached by John Madden, finished second in the AFC West with an 11-3 record that, while it put them behind the upstart Denver Broncos, still qualified for the playoffs as a wild card entry. While there was a gnawing feeling that Oakland was beginning to slip, the club was still formidable. The offense was more run-oriented, and FB Mark van Eeghen placed at the top of the AFC with 1273 yards while the team as a whole also led the conference in ground-gaining. With QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler (pictured above), wide receivers Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff, and TE Dave Casper, the Raiders could still pass effectively.
Baltimore, under Head Coach Ted Marchibroda, had won nine of the first ten games before a late three-game losing streak nearly cost the club the division title. But the Colts finished 10-4 (beating out Miami, also 10-4 and out of the playoffs, due to a better record in the conference) and featured an explosive offense directed by QB Bert Jones, who ranked second in the NFL with 2686 passing yards, and all-purpose HB Lydell Mitchell, who ran for 1159 yards and caught a league-leading 71 passes. The defense featured a good line that recorded 47 sacks and included DT Mike Barnes and DE John Dutton.
There was a sellout crowd of 59,925 fans at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for the Christmas Eve contest. Both teams played cautiously in the first half. Oakland HB Clarence Davis ran for a 30-yard touchdown in the first quarter on the team’s fourth possession. Colts SS Bruce Laird tied the game in the second quarter with a 61-yard interception return. Just prior to the end of the half and following a Jones pass to WR Freddie Scott for 27 yards, Toni Linhart kicked a 36-yard field goal to give Baltimore a 10-7 advantage at the intermission.
The Raiders regained the lead on their first possession of the third quarter as Stabler, following a 40-yard pass play to Branch, followed up with an eight-yard touchdown throw to Casper to cap a five-play, 70-yard drive. But the Colts came right back as WR Marshall Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for a TD and 17-14 lead for the home team.
Laird intercepted Stabler for the second time, but the Colts couldn’t mount anything and were forced to punt. Raiders LB Ted Hendricks blocked David Lee’s kick, which was recovered by LB Jeff Barnes, and Oakland turned it to immediate advantage as Stabler again threw to Casper for a touchdown, this time covering 10 yards. The score was 21-17 in favor of the Raiders after three quarters.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Colts drove 79 yards to the Oakland one, helped along by Jones passes of 20 yards to WR Glenn Doughty and 21 yards to Mitchell, plus a pass interference call on rookie CB Lester Hayes in the end zone. The Raiders defense stiffened and stopped three straight running attempts, but on fourth down RB Ron Lee finally plunged in for a touchdown (the first of the game by the Colts offense; pictured at left) and, with the successful PAT, Baltimore was back in front at 24-21.
Oakland came back again, starting with HB Carl Garrett’s 44-yard kickoff return to midfield. Stabler threw to van Eeghen for 23 yards and then a pass interference call in the end zone moved the ball to the one yard line. From there, RB Pete Banaszak plunged over for the TD. But less than two minutes later, the Colts again took the lead in the back-and-forth game as Jones threw passes of 16 yards to Lee and 30 to ex-Raiders TE Raymond Chester. Lee, following a 14-yard carry, ran 13 yards for his second touchdown of the game and a 31-28 score.
Coming down to the last two minutes in regulation, Stabler threw a pass that Casper had to adjust his route to get to and, making an outstanding basket catch, gained 42 yards to the Baltimore 14. Three running plays failed to net a first down, and with 29 seconds remaining Errol Mann booted a 22-yard field goal to tie the score at 31-31.
The game went into overtime, and neither team was able to score in the first OT period, although Mann attempted a 48-yard field goal that was blocked. Oakland’s defense reasserted itself and, in three possessions in overtime, the Colts never advanced beyond their own 40.
Finally, the Raiders put together a 58-yard drive in which they converted two third downs along the way. One of them came on a diving catch by Branch in a third-and-19 situation following a sack as Stabler completed five of six throws. Stabler, facing a second-and-seven situation, connected with Casper for the third time with a game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass at 43 seconds into the second period of sudden death. Oakland came out the winner by a score of 37-31. It was the third-longest game in NFL history up to that time.
The Raiders outgained the Colts, 491 yards to 301, but also turned the ball over four times, to none suffered by Baltimore. But while the Colts rushed for 187 yards (to 167 for Oakland), the Raiders defense held Baltimore’s potent passing attack to just 114 yards, sacking Bert Jones six times.
Ken Stabler completed 21 of 40 passes for 345 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions (both by Bruce Laird). The 34-year-old veteran Fred Biletnikoff led the Raiders with 7 catches for 88 yards while Cliff Branch gained 113 yards on his 6 receptions. Of course, all four of Dave Casper’s catches were big ones, with the three TDs and the long reception that set up the game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter; he gained 70 yards (Casper pictured at right). Mark van Eeghen paced the running attack with 76 yards on 19 attempts.
Bert Jones (pictured at bottom) had a rough day against the rugged Raider defense as he completed just 12 of 26 passes for 164 yards with no touchdowns, although he also had none intercepted. Lydell Mitchell led the Colts with 67 rushing yards on 23 carries and also caught three passes for 39 yards. Freddie Scott gained 45 yards on his two receptions.
“My line gave me plenty of time," Jones said afterward. "But so often there was nobody to get the ball to. They covered us perfectly.”
“I don't know if it was the toughest game I've ever been in but it was a frustrating one,” Dave Casper summed up. “We'd go ahead and then they'd go ahead. It seemed like it would go on that way forever.”
As for playing for the touchdown in overtime rather than a field goal, John Madden said, “It was second down and I figured we'd go for the touchdown. If that failed, I was going to put Pete Banaszak in for the third down, and if we didn't score or get the first down on that, we'd kick a field goal.”
Oakland went on to lose the AFC Championship game to Denver by a 20-17 score. With significant injuries striking down Bert Jones, who had played so well during the three-year stretch from 1975-77, the Colts collapsed in 1978. The loss to the Raiders proved to be the franchise’s last postseason appearance in Baltimore – by the time the Colts next appeared in a playoff game ten years later, following the 1987 season, they were located in Indianapolis.