Craig Morton came out of the hospital Thursday and today the Bronco quarterback led the dethronement of the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders as Denver beat Oakland, 20-17, for the American Football Conference title.
Morton's triumph over adversity, including the five-week-old injury that had sent him to the hospital twice last week to have blood and other fluid drained, vaulted the Broncos into Super Bowl 12 Sunday, Jan. 15.
Morton tossed touchdown passes of 74 and 12 yards to Haven Moses and an official's highly controversial call set up a third Denver touchdown. It came in the third quarter after a dropped ball by Denver running back Rob Lytle was ruled no fumble at the Oakland two-yard line. The quick whistle by head linesman Ed Marion nullified the Raider recovery and the Broncos went in for the score.
Morton's performance partly fulfilled a forecast he made while he was with the Cowboys in 1971: "I have one prediction that will shock some," he said. "Craig Morton will be the best quarterback in football."
He may not be the best yet, but today he came out ahead of the one who is regarded as that by many. Ken Stabler put on quite a finish, throwing two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to tight end Dave Casper.
After Stabler threw his second touchdown pass of the final period and Errol Mann kicked the extra point to cut Denver's lead to 20-17 with 3 minutes 8 seconds remaining, the Broncos brought up two rows of four players each in anticipation of an onside kick by Ray Guy.
But Guy Boomed the ball high. Lytle returned the kick 14 yards to the Denver 17-yard line, from where Morton ran out the clock after running back Lonnie Perrin punched out a first down on two rushes.
Asked why the Raiders did not try to recover an outside kick, team owner Al Davis said; "We figured to hold them there around the 17-yard line, force them to punt and have good field position. Stabler is good at scoring in that situation."
Earlier, in the press box, Davis had screamed epithets at the officials.
The Raiders had opportunities they wasted.
"Yes, we felt we had a fumble recovery," said coach John Madden. "Our man (Mike McCoy) came running off the field with the ball. There weren't two footballs out there, so we felt it was ours.
"But this is a 60-minute proposition; it doesn't boil down to one play or one person . . . We were just three points short. Give Denver credit. The Broncos have a fine defense and their offense does just enough, getting a touchdown here and there."
The Raiders started out with a conservative running game. Morton, on the other hand, topped a 20-yard field goal by Errol of the Raiders in the first quarter by zipping a second-and-15 pass to wide receiver Moses, who got a three-yard lead on strong safety Skip Thomas at the Denver 31, then shrugged off Thomas's arm tackle and went the rest of 74 yards for a touchdown.
Defensive and Lyle Alzado told of the impact of that on the underdog Broncos: "The first touchdown had a tremendous effect on the entire team. We've been an opportunistic team all year, and that's what we were today.
"Craig Morton was magnificient. On Friday, coach (Red) Miller told us Craig might not play because he had a bad hip and was in the hospital most of the week (which raises a question for the National Football League about that being unannounced and possibly some bettors knowing about it while others did not). "Craig was absolutely courageous."
"It's probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Morton said. "I just want to praise the Lord. He brought us together as a team. I have to thank Him.
"The first touchdown pass was on a zig-out pattern and Haven ran it perfectly. He was the MVP today. The last touchdown pass was set for (tightend) Riley Odone but he slipped, then was double-teamed. Haven ran his own pattern, so when he went to the left I fired and he made a great catch."
Stabler had good protection the first half, but the Broncos mounted fierce pressure on him in the second half.
After Raider running back Clarence Davis fumbled in the third quarter at the Oakland 17-yard line and fullback Jon Keyworth scored from the one, the Broncos had a 14-3 lead and Stabier had to pass.
At the outset of the fourth quarter. Stabler threw to Casper on third and seven at the Denver seven and Casper held into the ball and managed to score, even though linebacker Joe Rizzo was charged with holding. The penalty, of course, was declined and the Bronco lead was cut to 14-10.
Morton was intercepted by line-backer Rice, who ran to the Oakland 22-yard line. But then defensive end Barney Chaveus led a rush at Stabler, who threw hurriedly and was intercepted by linebacker Bob Swenson. He ran 14 yards to the Oakland 17.
It was there that Morton won the game with his pass to Moses, which the wide receiver caught just off the artificial turf.
Jim Turner's extra point kick was botched by a low center snap on a day when he missed 44, 40 and 20-yard field goals. The Raider's Mann had a 20-yard field-goal attempt hit the right urpright and bounced back onto the playing field.
Oakland got a tough break when wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff suffered a shoulder separation in the second quarter, but the Raiders also failed to score after Carl Garrett ran the opening kickoff of the third quarter 62 yards to the Denver 33.
Stabler gave it a last-ditch try when he passed to Casper, who knocked linebacker Tom Jackson into the goal post making the 17-yard scoring catch.
But the clock was no longer Stabler's friend as it was in the playoff victory over Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.'s Perrin nailed down the victory with a first down.
It left "basket ease" Morton hoping to prove in a Super Bowl game against Dallas that he was better than Roger Stauback all along.
Of course, he would have settled for a human-interest matchup against Bob Lee of the Vikings, who hoping to prove he could do what Fran Tarkanton did in three Super Bowl appearances - win one of them.