To some, it seems inevitable that the Los Angeles Raiders and Miami Dolphins will meet in the American Conference title game. A quick Raiders do-si-do here Sunday and see you next week, same time, same stadium, a few more marbles at stake.
They think of the New England Patriots -- who will play the Raiders Sunday in an AFC semifinal at the Coliseum at 4 p.m. EST, with the winner to play Miami in the AFC title game next Sunday -- and they recall what happened on Sept. 29.
Raiders 35, Patriots 20 at Foxboro, Mass. On that day, the Raiders scored three touchdowns on defense alone. Cornerbacks Lester Hayes and Sam Seale intercepted passes by Tony Eason and made touchdown returns. Another time, running back Craig James was hammered in the end zone and the Raiders recovered a fumble for another touchdown.
They think of the Raiders (12-4) and they think of running back Marcus Allen, recently voted the league's most valuable player, and his current streak of nine consecutive 100-yard games. Don't forget his 67 catches, either, they say.
They also think of the bravado of Raiders defensive end Howie Long, who praised the Patriots (12-5) in a press conference this week, then added, "But it's not like we have to fly to Russia and fight Ivan Drago. It's just the Patriots."
Just the Patriots. Just the cuddly team that won its first postseason game in 22 years last week, 26-14 over the New York Jets. Just the defense that snaps running backs in half and makes bells ring in quarterbacks' heads. Just the team that is a 5 1/2-point underdog Sunday according to oddsmakers, which is about the same status the Patriots held before jumping the Jets.
"I have believed for a very long time that this team is capable of winning the world championship," Patriots Coach Raymond Berry said.
The Patriots, who will play at Miami for the AFC title if they win Sunday, acted prudently this week in doing what the Raiders did not -- activating their veteran quarterback from the injured list. New England brought back Steve Grogan (knee injury), although Berry said that if Eason got hurt, young Tom Ramsey would enter first.
"Right now, (Grogan) is not ready, but he's getting closer every day," Berry said.
The Raiders, who will host Miami in the conference title game if they win Sunday, chose not to activate Jim Plunkett, the 38-year-old who merely has won two Super Bowls. Plunkett has been practicing for several weeks and says he is recovered from an injury to his left (nonthrowing) shoulder suffered in the third game of this season.
The Raiders' starter is Marc Wilson, who had the lowest completion rate (48 percent) among NFL starters. He has completed at least 50 percent of his passes in only five of 13 starts.
The Raiders' backup is rookie Rusty Hilger of Oklahoma State. Apparently, the Raiders have decided that if Wilson gets hurt Sunday, they would prefer Hilger to Plunkett.
Hilger replaced an injured Wilson late in the game against the Patriots and completed one of seven passes -- a two-yard scoring pass to tight end Todd Christensen to increase the lead to 28-20 midway through the fourth quarter.
The Raiders reason that they are 11-2 with Wilson as a starter. Perhaps they reason, too, that they'll win Sunday and activate Plunkett for the AFC title game.
Plunkett told one reporter, "I'm disappointed and a little surprised. I don't know what their thinking is."
There are obvious similarities between these teams: Both defenses excel at repelling the run and both offenses find themselves in dire straits if the running game goes silent.
Eason has shown over the past two weeks that he can throw deep with accuracy. He burned the Jets with a 39-yard completion to Irving Fryar and with a 36-yard scoring pass to Stanley Morgan, two of his fastest, most capable receivers.
Of course, it's been what the Raiders' Hayes likes to call a "Silver-and-Blackism" that quarterbacks can't throw deep on cornerbacks Mike Haynes or Hayes, who dare you to test them in their bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage. The Raiders' pass rush makes things doubly difficult.
Eason proved last week that he can operate the passing game when the running game is revved up, too. But what if the Patriots' running game isn't revved up?
There exists an ugly precedent for New England from its previous meeting with the Raiders. The Patriots averaged just three yards per carry against the Raiders (97 yards rushing in all) and, consequently, Eason was pressured. He completed only 13 of 36 passes, with three interceptions.
"Tony has gotten more confidence in himself recently. You can just see it in the huddle," said Brian Holloway, New England's all-pro tackle. "We got hurt (with deep throws) against Miami a couple times. The way you get out of that is to keep throwing the deep ball. You saw what happened (against the Jets)."
The last nine weeks have included a career's worth of highlight film footage for Allen. He has run, caught, thrown and blocked with a devastating effectiveness.
The Brothers Hannah will meet in this game -- all-pro guard John for New England and Raiders' guard Charley.
But if you're expecting a charming, affectionate affair, New England kicker Tony Franklin warned, "It's not going to be a little kid's birthday party."