EL SEGUNDO, CALIF., JAN. 9 -- It often is heard when Art Shell is asked about Jay Schroeder, the slight "I-told-you-so" snicker that precedes Shell's familiar replies about his quarterback.

The proclamations of unwavering confidence in Schroeder have been numerous. It's a subject Shell has addressed more times than he cares to remember. "Controversy is in the mind of the people who make it," said Shell, the second-year coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. "After we left training camp, we said Jay Schroeder is our quarterback. He is our guy."

Playing with security provided by Shell from preseason on, Schroeder emerged from a two-year slump to lead the Raiders to 12 victories and their first AFC West title in a half-decade. For the first time since the mid-1980s, Super Bowl talk has permeated Los Angeles' out-of-the-way training complex.

"It's good to know you're not going to get pulled after one bad series," said Schroeder, who leads the Raiders against the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday's divisional playoff at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. "You're not looking over your shoulder."

There is no Doug Williams in waiting here. If the Raiders make it to the Super Bowl, Shell's reclamation project will be running, not charting, the offense on Jan. 27 in Tampa.

His renaissance was made possible largely because of an arduous training camp and the lessons imparted by Los Angeles quarterback coach Mike White, who taught Schroeder to play within a scheme that emphasizes the run and short, touch passes.

"I think Art and {offensive coordinator} Terry Robiskie wanted to make sure the system was one that wouldn't depend totally on the quarterback," White said. "The key is for the quarterback to utilize the system. He doesn't have to make all the big plays by himself."

Schroeder has patiently asserted himself, guiding the Raiders through a month of near-perfect football. He is the team's undisputed leader, Shell said, and justified the description by bringing his team within two victories of the game he watched as Williams's Washington backup from the sideline in 1988.

In what surely is his best season since a 4,000-yard campaign with the Redskins in 1986, Schroeder threw for 2,845 yards and 19 touchdowns -- with only nine interceptions. In leading the Raiders to 12 victories, he became the AFC's fourth-rated passer.

"He has had to really work at throwing passes he's not natural at," White said. "Being a quarterback in L.A. isn't easy. When you lose, it's your fault. When you win, it's everybody else."

The pressure on Schroeder was mounting in November, during a 1-3 slide, but he righted himself to the point that he reclaimed many of the Coliseum fans who started to boo him as they did the previous two seasons.

His hot streak started modestly in Denver, where Schroeder's 16-for-23 performance didn't include a touchdown, but set up two Bo Jackson scoring runs in a 23-20 victory over the Broncos. Then came his three-touchdown blowout in the Silverdome, as Schroeder outgunned Detroit's run-and-shoot in Los Angeles' 38-31 triumph.

Schroeder was even better the next two weeks. In a 24-7 home rout of Cincinnati that clinched the Raiders' first playoff spot since 1985, he had three scoring passes. Six days later, Schroeder needed only 15 attempts to throw for a career-high four touchdowns in a 28-24 victory at Minnesota.

When he hit Steve Smith with a late touchdown pass that rallied Los Angeles to a 17-12 victory over San Diego on Dec. 30 in the regular season finale, Schroeder secured the Raiders' 5-0 record in December -- a perfect, and necessary, ending to the five-game "miniseason" Shell outlined after a 27-24 loss to Kansas City on Nov. 25.

The Raiders were the NFL's only team to go unbeaten in December. In four of the five victories, Schroeder threw 11 touchdown passes. Without the fourth-quarter comeback against the Chargers, Los Angeles would have been a wild-card team and traveled to Miami last week instead of resting at home.

"It wasn't just me," Schroeder said. "It had a whole lot more to do with than just me. We took the challenge."

"He's a smarter player," Shell said. "So is everybody in this organization. We're all smarter than we were last year."

Schroeder's only slump occurred in November, when he failed to throw a touchdown in 20 consecutive quarters. That was the stretch when the Raiders, after a 6-1 start, lost three of four games.

"Jay is a relatively inexperienced quarterback," White said. "What maybe happened during the middle of the year was that some of the inexperience showed."

That was then, this is now.

Said Schroeder: "You dream about playing in the Super Bowl. I was fortunate enough to get to the Super Bowl with another team. I want to get back there with this team."