The bickering, the sputtering offense and the general uneasiness that has plagued the Baltimore Colts foremost of the last month seem to have vanished, on the surface at least.
"We have had some problems, but all of that is behind us now," said Colt tight end Raymond Chester. "We're ready to play and if we play well we can beat any team in football. There's no secret about this game. It's just how you play on a given day that tells the story."
The Colts' given day is Saturday and their opponent in the first round of the AFC playoffs is the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders.
The 12:30 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium will be blacked out in the Baltimore-Washington area because it was not sold out 72 hours before game time. A capacity crowd of about 53,000 is expected, however.
The Raiders don't fall easily. They are good, cocky and 3 1/2 point favorites.
"I think we may have a little advantage, even though we are playing on the road," Oakland coach John Madden said today. "The field is in pretty good shape. There aren't many signs of grass on it, but it'll be fast.
"I think our attitude is a little different from a team like Baltimoe that hasn't won it all lately. It is still an unknown thing to them. We know what the prize is and we know what it's like to win it and we sure as hell want to do it again."
After going 9-1, the Colts seemed like a shoe-in for the playoffs. But they lost three games in a row, scoring only 29 points, and the bickering and second-guessing started. Then, in a must-win situation, the Colts fell behind New England, 21-3, before rallying to a 30-24 victory and the AFC East title with a 10-4 record.
The Raiders, who have suffered from injury problems much of the season, come into the playoffs as the AFC's wild card team with an 11-3 record.
"Everyone expected Oakland to get this far," Chester, a former Raider, said. "But it was touch and go if we were going to get here. We were just in a slump those three weeks. Balls were overthrown, we got some bad calls and things just didn't go right. We normally don't make mistakes, but we hit a period when we made a lot of them and it hurt us three games in a row. Then last week, we got behind against a real good team, but we fought and scratched and came back.
"We can't get behind like that against Oakland, though. To even think about beating the Raiders you have to play sound fundamental football. They will get their points against anybody, so we will probably have to score a lot ourselves. We have to score everytime we get into good field position.
Chester, who has had problems holding onto the football at times this season, could be a key man Saturday. He caught a 78-yard touchdown pass from Bert Jones last week. Jones likes to throw to Chester deep often and with Oakland's regular strong safety George Atkinson sidelined with a broken ankle, the Raider secondary isn't as strong as it once was.
Neal Colzie has stepped in for Atkinson the last three weeks and played well.
The Raiders also lost linebacker Phil Villapiano and defensive end Charles Philyaw to surgery early in the season and quarterback Ken Stabler has been limping around on a bad knee most of the year. He did not play in Oakland's 21-20 victory over Kansas City last week and Madden said rest was all Stabler needed.
"He's as close to being 100 per cent healthy as he'll probably ever be," the coach said.
The Colts, meanwhile, "are in excellent shape healthwise," according to coach Ted Marchibroda.
Jones bruised his knee against New England, but is fine now. Lydell Mitchell, who missed two days of practice with a bad cold, worked out today.
This is the third straight year the Colts have made it to the playoffs, but they lost each time previously in the first round to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"The experience of going through the two other playoff games the last two years has made us more ready this time," Marchibroda said.