Freeman McNeil cut through all that trite nostalgia business. He steered clear of talking about returning home and about a possible one-on-one duel with Marcus Allen.
Instead, McNeil headed straight for the goal line of significance.
"The issue here," said McNeil, the New York Jets running back, formerly of UCLA, "is the Super Bowl. And right now, the Raiders are in the way."
Saturday at 4 p.m., the right of way will be determined. That is when the Jets (7-3) will play the Los Angeles Raiders (9-1) at the Los Angeles Coliseum (WRC-TV-4) in an American Football Conference second-round game in the Super Bowl Tournament. The Raiders are 3 1/2-point favorites to advance to the AFC title game Jan. 23.
History provides us so many tender moments between these teams. Remember back in 1967, when Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson, with nary a ginger intention, snapped off the helmet and broke the cheekbone of Jets quarterback Joe Namath?
Or in 1968, when the Jets won the American Football League title with a 27-23 victory over the Raiders that was hardly gentlemanly, barely cavalier?
That was the same season in which Namath took the Jets well beyond the lights of Broadway, all the way to a victory in Super Bowl III.
These days, however, the teams aren't so familiar with each other. They haven't met since 1979 "and things have changed since then," said Tom Flores, the Raiders coach.
"They are the mysterious team of the East to us," said Ted Hendricks, the Raiders' 14-year linebacker. "We just don't get to see them that much."
Coach Walt Michaels of the Jets, fired as the Raiders' defensive coach two decades ago by Al Davis, says he holds no malice toward those who have questioned his coaching over the years--a large group.
"I'm a coach and I understand what the job takes . . . A coach has no room for vindication," Michaels said.
Which brings us to Saturday. Most pertinently for New York, there is McNeil, who gained 786 yards this season, thereby becoming the first Jet to lead the National Football League in rushing. Further, McNeil put a coat of gloss on his season by gaining 202 yards in the 44-17 playoff victory at Cincinnati last week.
Ever modest, McNeil says his success hasn't exactly been a singular effort. "You show me a back who can run without an offensive line," he says, "and I'll show you a dead man."
Also camping out in glory behind the Jets' offensive line is Richard Todd, the quarterback who in the regular season completed 153 of 261 (58 percent) passes for 1,961 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. Against Cincinnati, Todd did his finest Namath impression, completing 20 of 28 for 269 yards and one touchdown.
The New York defensive line--the petulant Sack Exchange--has been bruised for most of the season. Last week, however, it was Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson who was bruised.
Anderson was sacked four times, threw three interceptions (one was returned 98 yards for a touchdown by Jets safety Darrol Ray), and made two trips to the sidelines during the game, trying to regain some form of health. He never did.
The Sack Exchange has played most of the season without Joe Klecko, the all-pro defensive end who ruptured a tendon in his right knee Sept. 19 against New England. In his first time back, Klecko played only four plays against Cincinnati. Kenny Neill, not exactly a mellow sort, made seven tackles in place of Klecko.
"He'll suit up and he'll play in spots Saturday," Michaels said of Klecko, adding, "He's looking better and better. Then again, he always did walk a little rolly."
"We've got to go to the quick plays--draws and screens," said Jim Plunkett, the Oakland quarterback. With a wry smile, Plunkett said, "We don't want the quarterback under pressure."
One thing that has kept Plunkett from pressure and the Raiders from failure this season has been Allen, the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Southern California who ran for 697 yards (third in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns (best in the league) in his rookie season. Allen also caught 38 passes for 401 yards.
"Marcus finds holes," Plunkett said, "where there aren't any."
In the Raiders' 27-10 playoff victory over Cleveland last week, Allen ran 17 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns, and caught six passes for 75 yards.
"When he was at USC, we saw he had a lot of abilities that hadn't been tapped yet," said Flores. "Namely, pass catching."
Like McNeil, Allen downplays the fact that Saturday will again feature McNeil-versus-Allen in the Los Angeles Coliseum. These two have met before in the Coliseum, when USC played UCLA.
"A lot of fond memories of the Coliseum," said McNeil, "but football is not an individual game."
"Never has there been one individual who has won a ball game," said Allen, whose performances this season might provide an argument for that statement. "It's always one common cause."
Someone asked McNeil, who grew up in Los Angeles, if his family still lived there. McNeil laughed, then said, "I hope so."
The Jets-Raiders game is the only one of the weekend's playoff games that is not a sellout. As of this morning, 13,200 seats were still available for the game, team officials said. As a result, the contest will not be televised in L.A.