The New England Patriots had warned all week that if you were going to write them off, make sure you didn't use indelible ink.
Late today, a whole lot of people were reaching for their erasers. The Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Raiders, 27-20, in an American Football Conference semifinal before 88,936 at Los Angeles Coliseum.
Not a Patriot soul seems to mind that the team now must travel to Miami to play the Dolphins for the AFC title at 4 p.m. EST next Sunday. The winner will go to the Super Bowl on Jan. 26 in New Orleans.
The Patriots (13-5) have lost 18 consecutive games in the Orange Bowl, dating back to 1966, but that didn't stop their all-pro tackle, Brian Holloway, from saying, "Tell everybody we're going for the money and we're going for the throat."
New England beat the Raiders (12-5) by shutting them out in the second half and by forcing six turnovers. This included three interceptions of quarterback Marc Wilson, who played as if blindfolded.
The Patriots' recovery of two fumbles by Raiders kick returners led to 14 points. The first came when Fulton Walker mishandled a first-quarter punt and the Patriots got it at the Raiders 21, then turned it into a 7-0 lead two plays later.
The second recovery became the game's breakaway play. It occurred late in the third quarter when, with the score tied at 20, the Raiders' Sam Seale fumbled a kickoff at the Los Angeles 12 when rammed by the Patriots' Mosi Tatupu.
Two other Patriots gave chase to the ball, and in perfect harmony, receiver Cedric Jones pushed the ball into the end zone, where teammate Jim Bowman recovered for a touchdown and the 27-20 lead with 57 seconds left in the quarter. The score came 14 seconds after Tony Franklin's 32-yard field goal had tied it.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots had scored 10 points in fewer than 20 third-quarter seconds. That's how they made the New York Jets go kerplunk, 26-14, last week, and that's how the Raiders went face down today.
These Patriots seem to be feeding on their role as the underdog. They have won 10 of 12, warming hearts from Cape Cod to Faneuil Hall. They hadn't won in the postseason for 22 years. Now, they've nailed down two wins in eight days.
"The Rocky Factor," Steve Nelson, the Patriots' 12th-year linebacker, calls it. "(Today's victory) means I'm paid in full and more for all the years of frustration."
"Those guys flew in from so far away -- almost another country -- and they played in front of almost 90,000 people and they dominated us," said Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes. "Fascinating. No, it's not. It's a joke. Our home-court advantage must be fiction. We gave the Dolphins a silver-and-black gift-wrapped package. They must be so happy now."
Of course, the Raiders, who had won six straight, never go quietly. After the game, a scuffle broke out near one end zone between Pat Sullivan, the 33-year-old Patriots general manager and son of the team owner, and the Raiders' Howie Long and Matt Millen.
Sullivan and Long engaged in a shouting match and, according to Sullivan, linebacker Millen intervened, grabbed Sullivan's hair and then hit him in the side of his head with a helmet.
Sullivan required no stitches but wore a small bandage over his eye. Though Millen wasn't available to comment, Long wore a mean look on his face when he said, "I answer to only three people: Al Davis, my wife and God, not necessarily in that order. (Sullivan) is off my Christmas list for sure."
In truth, the Raiders tied the knot on their own noose. Their quarterback, Wilson, seemed the portrait of futility. It took him 18 minutes to complete his first pass. He missed on all four first-quarter attempts. One was intercepted.
Wilson completed 11 of 27 in the game, threw three interceptions and called two timeouts on the first series of the third quarter because of confusion in the huddle.
When the Raiders needed the timeouts, as they tried to mount a comeback drive in the fourth quarter, they didn't have them. The Patriots swallowed 5:30 off the clock until Rich Camarillo was forced to punt. His kick resulted in a touchback, putting the Raiders at their 20 with 1:44 and no timeouts remaining.
A Wilson pass on fourth down was completed to running back Marcus Allen for a 24-yard gain and an apparent first down at midfield with 1:09 left. But guard Mickey Marvin was called for a face mask penalty. Back to the 13. Wilson then threw incomplete, and the Raiders were history, with 56 seconds left for the Patriots to high-five away.
What happened to the timeouts in the third quarter? Wilson said he signaled for the first timeout because the 30-second clock was about to expire, and the second because the team was in the wrong formation. Coach Tom Flores said it was the other way around: the wrong formation occurred on the first timeout.
"I can't recall how many were in the wrong formation," Wilson said.
By game's end, a question mark as ominous as the offseason seemed to rise over the Raiders: Why wasn't Jim Plunkett activated? The 38-year-old veteran, who has won two Super Bowls, injured his shoulder more than three months ago. Several weeks ago, Plunkett said he was healthy enough to return.
When Flores was asked why Plunkett was left to stand in street clothes on the Raiders' sideline, he said, "I'm not going to talk about the quarterback situation now. I think Marc deserves credit for the success we've had."
Plunkett was gone from the locker room by the time reporters arrived. Tight end Todd Christensen said, "Jim has won two Super Bowls. I would have liked to have had him here at least for insurance. But it's like Bum Phillips used to say, 'You dance with who brung ya.' It was Marc's game to win or lose."
Wilson's performance was not an aberration. He had completed half of his passes in only five of 13 starts before today. Yet the Raiders maintained that their record was 11-2 with Wilson as starter.
Wilson received good pass protection today and was sacked only twice. He was asked if he felt responsible for the loss. He said, "It's a team game. Everybody has a job to do. But I'll take the responsibility."
The Raiders' indomitable Allen rushed for 121 yards on 22 carries, his league-record 10th consecutive game with at least 100 yards. Yet Allen also lost a fumble at the New England 32 when the Raiders were trying to expand their 20-17 halftime edge early in the third quarter.
The Raiders outgained New England, 287 yards to 254, but were unable to slow Patriots running back Craig James, who rushed for 104 yards on 23 carries. James also made a key 15-yard run on third and 12 from the Raiders' 46 to extend that crucial fourth-quarter drive that took big bites from the clock.
No other player had rushed for 100 yards in a game against the Raiders this year. Eight 1,000-yard rushers had tried the Raiders -- Riggs, Byner, Craig, Warner and Dickerson included -- and none accomplished what James did today with straight-ahead running.
It's a long way from playing for the former Washington Federals of the U.S. Football League, eh, Craig? Said he, "Yeah, that was a long time ago. Now it's playing in front of 90,000 versus 15."