A halftime phone call made it odd. New York Jets' linebacker Lance Mehl made it final.
Mehl intercepted two passes in the final three minutes Saturday afternoon and the New York Jets defeated the Los Angeles Raiders, 17-14, before 90,037 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The consequences of the interceptions were both serene and severe, even though Mehl, 24, kept saying with the utmost in modesty, "It was just a simple coverage where we drop back into zones . . . The passes were coming over the middle . . . so I just curled in and the ball was there."
For the Jets (8-3), the interceptions brought a bit of serenity. New York will now play the Dolphins at 5 o'clock Sunday in Miami for the American Football Conference title and a spot in Super Bowl XVII. Determination now comes to these Jets from proving miracles really do happen every 14 years.
"We played," said Wesley Walker, Jets' wide receiver who caught seven passes for 169 yards, "just like we are capable of playing."
New York quarterback Richard Todd completed 15 of 24 for 277 yards, one touchdown and had two interceptions.
"It's really hard to talk about this game," Todd said. "Our defense really came through."
For the Raiders (9-2), the interceptions guaranteed a crude severity. They are out of the playoffs and will now bump and run their way back into the courtroom in May. The city of Oakland is trying to regain the team under the right of eminent domain.
"What happens if we go back to Oakland next year?" said Jim Plunkett, Raiders quarterback who threw the two passes Mehl intercepted. "Nothing. We'd still be the Raiders."
The Jets led, 10-0, at halftime, the Raiders' only scoreless first half of the season. The Raiders retaliated with 14 third-quarter points to take a 14-10 lead. The first Los Angeles touchdown came on Marcus Allen's four-yard run, the second on a 57-yard pass from Plunkett to Malcolm Barnwell.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Jets drove 67 yards in six plays, finishing with Scott Dierking's one-yard touchdown run that gave New York a 17-14 lead with 3:45 to play in the game.
Plunkett tried to retaliate again. But Mehl intervened.
Mehl intercepted a third-and-18 pass by Plunkett over the middle, intended for wide receiver Cliff Branch, at the Los Angeles 35 with just 2:49 left in the game.
The game seemed secure. But then New York's rookie running back Freeman McNeil was hit by free safety Burgess Owens and fumbled on the next series. The Raiders recovered on their own 33 with 2:26 remaining.
Mehl, a third-year linebacker from Penn State who had a game-high eight tackles Saturday, intervened again, making his second interception on the New York 26 with 1:38 left. This time, no fumble followed. Just victory.
"Lance Mehl was the guy," said Jets Coach Walt Michaels. "You want to talk about all-pro linebackers, we'll talk about Lance Mehl."
McNeil, who gained 105 yards on 23 carries, was disconsolate about his fumble. "I should have just covered up. Burgess Owens just came up and made a great hit. I'd been avoiding him all day . . . he forced the fumble and almost won the game for them," McNeil said.
Branch was similarly disconsolate. He is an 11-year veteran of the Raiders. He expected victory at the finish. "I had seen us in that position so many times and we came through," Branch said, his voice trailing off into the offseason.
Some folks will remember this game for a crank halftime phone call made to Michaels from a part owner of a bar in Queens, N.Y., who initially identified himself as Leon Hess, chairman of the board of the Jets. After the game, Michaels said that the call was a "sick, rotten" ploy by Al Davis, Raiders' managing general partner.
Davis then denied it, saying of Michaels, "He is insecure and they (Jets) are idiots." After the game, the bar owner called back to confess his identity and vindicate Davis.
More memorable things happened on the field.
"We had a lot of key plays from a lot of different guys," said Walker, adding, "Lance Mehl in particular."