A tad of bizarre and a touch of clutch later, the New York Jets defeated the Los Angeles Raiders, 17-14, today in a second-round Super Bowl tournament game before 90,037 in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Victory was made possible for New York (8-3) by Scott Dierking's one-yard touchdown run with 3:45 left in the game. This touchdown, which ended a 67-yard maximum-efficiency drive, nullified a comeback in which the renegade Raiders had scored 14 points in the third quarter to overcome a 10-0 halftime deficit.
Furthermore, this touchdown became the game-winner because New York linebacker Lance Mehl ended the Raiders' final two drives for victory by intercepting Jim Plunkett. Mehl's second interception came on the New York 26 with 1:38 to play with the Raiders driving for a possible-game tying field goal.
"I'm not sure who he (Plunkett) was going to. . . He must have thought I couldn't get there," Mehl said.
So now, as the Jets prepare for next week's American Football Conference title game against the winner of Sunday's San Diego-Miami game, New York defensive end/war dancer Mark Gastineau kept telling anyone who cared to listen, "You can look forward to seeing a lot of the New York Jets this year."
And Los Angeles Coach Tom Flores, his team 9-2 and out of the playoffs, said in a tone that matched his black sweater, "Sometimes, this business can drive you crazy."
The most basic facts of a game that matched sheer bizarre with the memorable best of Raiders-Jets history:
The Jets led 10-0 at halftime. Richard Todd threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Wesley Walker 11 minutes into the first quarter (7-0), Pat Leahy kicked a 30-yarder three minutes before the half (10-0) and Freeman McNeil, New York's second-year running back, gained 75 of his 105 yards in the half.
Meanwhile, the Raiders offense was ever under siege from the gregarious Gastineau and his Sack Exchange mates. Early in the first quarter, the Raiders had driven to the Jets' eight. But Chris Bahr missed a 34-yard field goal attempt and a chance to give Los Angeles a 3-0 lead. Bahr's his kick banked off the right upright.
It was a half full of midfield ultimatums. Personal fouls seemingly came on every other play. Of course, these were the Raiders and the Jets.
"And we just don't like each other," said Howie Long, Raiders' defensive end.
"We were too worried about the cheap shots. We spent the whole first half talking, not playing," said Marcus Allen, the Raider rookie running back who gained just eight yards on five carries in the first half, just 36 yards on 15 carries for the game.
In the third quarter, though, momentum wore silver and black. The Raiders opened the quarter with a 14-play, 77-yard drive that seemingly took longer to reach its desired destination than the court case that put them in this Coliseum.
This drive consumed 7:04 and ended with Allen's four-yard touchdown run. This closed the Raiders within 10-7 with 7:56 left in the third quarter.
The Raiders defense, which sacked Todd four times, then sacked Todd twice on the next series. After the Jets punted, the Raiders took three plays to take the lead.
On that third play, Plunkett hit wide receiver Malcolm Barnwell over the middle at the Los Angeles 40, where Barnwell dodged cornerback Bobby Jackson, then sped down the left sideline for a 57-yard touchdown.
Suddenly and strangely, the Raiders led, 14-10, with 1:14 left in the third quarter. In the third quarter, the Raiders outgained the Jets, 157 yards to 17.
After Lester Hayes intercepted Todd on the New York 42 with 43 seconds left in the third quarter, the Raiders charged to the New York 19-yard line.
A touchdown would have given Los Angeles a 21-10 lead. It likely would have made New York fans stop comparing these Jets to their storied predecessors of 1969. It likely would have meant the AFC title game would be in this same Coliseum next weekend.
But Allen fumbled after being belted by cornerback Jerry Holmes and New York's Joe Klecko recovered on the New York 14. There was 12:19 left in the game. The Raiders still led 14-10.
With 6:59 left in the game, the Jets took possession on the New York 33. The most eminent play of the drive and the game became a 45-yard completion from Todd to Walker, who had beaten cornerback Ted Watts down the left side, bringing the ball from the Raider 46 to the Raider one.
On the next play, Dierking scored the game winner with 3:45 remaining to be played.
Walker caught seven passes for 169 yards, including the first-quarter touchdown. This catch, however, was his most crucial one. "It was a straight fly pattern. They (Raiders) were in a one-on-one coverage and I had my burners on," Walker said.
"Wesley just blew by him," said Todd, who completed 15 of 24 for 277 yards.
"Let's just say I wish some more teams would cover him (Walker) one on one," said Michaels.
But these are the Raiders, a resourceful lot. Sixteen of their 24 starters today started in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
On the next series, though, Plunkett stood on his 12, looking over the middle for Branch and for a miracle. Instead, he found linebacker Mehl, who intercepted the pass on the Los Angeles 35 with 2:49 left.
The Jets only had to run out the clock.
With 2:26 to play, the Jets were on the Raider 23. Then, McNeil ran right, was plastered, and fumbled. He was hit by Lyle Alzado, the 12-year defensive end. Ted Hendricks, the 14-year linebacker, recovered on the Raiders 33. Still remaining was 2:26.
"We had the chance," said Alzado.
"I shellacked somebody on that play," said Long, the defensive end.
"We should have won," said linebacker Matt Millen.
In three plays, Plunkett drove the Raiders 25 yards, to the New York 42.
"I thought we could go down and at least get a field goal," said Flores.
Then Plunkett, who completed 21 of 33 for 266 yards today, threw towards Branch, who stood at the New York 26, near the left sideline.
"I didn't think I was open," said Branch.
Again, Mehl stepped in front of Branch and intercepted, returning the ball to the New York 38. Maybe this is 1969, after all.
"Thank God for Lance Mehl," said Walker.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," said Flores.