Get a load of the New England Patriots. They knocked the Los Angeles Raiders right off their Harley-Davidsons in the playoffs Sunday and said they knew it would happen all along.
They are heading to Miami to play for the conference title now, Minutemen on the move. When they talked about how they revived from a 10-point deficit in the first half to beat Los Angeles, 27-20, in an American Football Conference semifinal game Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, they said their list of heroes stretched as long as a scroll.
There was country-shy rookie Jim Bowman, the reserve safety from Central Michigan, who recovered two fumbles, one in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Patriots receiver Cedric Jones gave chase with Bowman after return man Sam Seale fumbled a kickoff at the Los Angeles 12 in the third quarter, with the score tied at 20.
Bowman said, "It was just a matter of getting to it. I said, 'No, Cedric! I got it!' "
The Patriots talked about how their Pro Bowl guard John Hannah, the guy they call Hog, sent Raiders safety Stacey Toran into orbit to spring Craig James on his two-yard scoring run that brought the Patriots within 17-14 late in the first half.
Hannah said there had been some grumbling in the huddle when quarterback Tony Eason announced the play call. Hannah said, "I heard Tony tell some guys, 'Shut up. This is a great play. It will work.' "
And James talked about how on Saturday night, before he produced his 160 total yards against the Raiders (104 rushing, 48 receiving, eight passing), he phoned his old college buddy, Rams running back Eric Dickerson, and left a message on his answering machine that sounded like this: "Congratulations. Great game. Hopefully we'll hold up our end and meet you in a few weeks at the Super Bowl."
Now the Patriots (13-5) will play at Miami (13-4) for the AFC title at 4 p.m. EST Sunday. The game between Eastern Division dynamos will be played in the Orange Bowl, where the Patriots have lost 18 straight games. The winner of that game will play in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 26.
The last time two teams from the same division played for a conference title was when the Raiders defeated Seattle, 30-14, for the AFC championship in the 1983 postseason. The Patriots are trying to become only the second wild-card team to win the Super Bowl (the Raiders did so in the 1980 season).
The teams split games this season. The Patriots rallied behind quarterback Steve Grogan for a 17-14 victory in Foxboro, Mass., on Nov. 3, and the Dolphins held on for the division title when Fuad Reveiz kicked a 47-yard field goal in the rain with less than five minutes to play to produce a 30-27 Miami victory in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 16.
History matters little to Steve Nelson, the Patriots linebacker who is 0-12 at the Orange Bowl. He said, "I'm glad we're going there. No, I've never won there, but I had never beaten the Raiders in the playoffs before, either."
About the first thing Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes said after the loss was, "The Dolphins will beat these guys in Miami."
The Patriots have heard all of this before. They keep pointing to their coach, Raymond Berry, saying he is the ballast to their ship. Berry said, "Our football team has tremendous character and staying power. They just never quit. They've been doing it all year, so in some respects it was a routine game for us."
Sunday's game had some of the ugly markings of past Raiders defeats. In each of their four previous losses this season, the Raiders had committed between three and five turnovers. They committed six on Sunday.
"Marcus (Allen, Raiders running back) fumbles in the third quarter, but what do you do? Give him the ball 400 times this year and he's done great things for us," Raiders tight end Todd Christensen said. "Fulton (Walker, kick returner) fumbles and he's been awesome this year. This game is made up of human errors, and we made too many."
The home town fans booed Marc Wilson, the Raiders' starting quarterback from the game's first play.
Nelson said the Patriots were able to effectively seal off the middle in the second half. Defensive end Garin Veris admitted that the pass rush, which had only two sacks of Wilson for 11 yards, must improve against Dan Marino.
The Patriots ran so effectively (49 times for 156 yards) that Eason had to throw only 14 passes. He completed half of them for 117 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lin Dawson for the first points.
Most important, the Patriots were able to run the ball effectively late in the game, stealing the seconds the Raiders needed so desperately.
Brian Holloway, the Patriots' Pro Bowl tackle from Churchill High in Potomac, Md., said, "We've got this energy. It's hot, furious and powerful. We're a much different team now than when we played the Raiders 15 weeks ago."