LOS ANGELES, JAN. 13 -- The Los Angeles Raiders, who hope to return to the days of old when they were Super Bowl contenders with regularity, are one step away from another championship shot after their 20-10 AFC division playoff victory today over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals, battered and bruised from their first-round game with the Houston Oilers, put up a tough fight before 92,045 at Memorial Coliseum (a Raiders record and the largest NFL crowd this season), but in the end the Raiders' running game and quarterback Jay Schroeder proved too much for the Bengals. Schroeder completed 11 of 21 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
The 13-4 Raiders will play Sunday at 14-3 Buffalo for the AFC championship. (When the teams met Oct. 7 at Rich Stadium in the fifth game of the season, the Bills won, 38-24.) This will be the Raiders' first AFC title game since the 1983 season, which ended with their 38-9 trouncing of the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl in Tampa.
The Raiders were in Cincinnati territory on every possession. Behind the blocking of right guard Max Montoya and right tackle Steve Wright, the offense cranked out 235 yards rushing on 32 attempts, with Allen's 140 yards on 21 carries his most since he was Super Bowl MVP with a then-record 191 yards.
The Raiders played most of the second half without star running back Bo Jackson, who strained his left hip on a 34-yard gallop on the second play of the third quarter. He was helped off the field by Coach Art Shell after 77 yards on six carries. Jackson's injury isn't believed to be serious and he said he will be ready Sunday.
Allen had runs of 12, 16, 18, 19, and 20 yards. He also had a 24-yard catch.
"Marcus Allen responds to the challenge of a big game more so than maybe anybody in the league," said Raiders defensive end Howie Long.
Said Allen: "We're going to find a way to win in Buffalo. We've got that kind of character. We've got the players."
Amid all the rushing, it was a 41-yard pass play from former Redskin Schroeder to tight end Ethan Horton that put the Raiders ahead to stay, 17-10. He also passed 13 yards at Mach speed to wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez for a 7-3 first-quarter lead.
"The bottom line," said Schroeder, "is that we won."
He can thank his defense for the help. Los Angeles has allowed only four rushing touchdowns all season and held the Bengals to 124 rushing yards.
Time after time Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, who'd been bedridden until early this morning with a flu virus, was ducking, weaving and scrambling. He was sacked four times -- including twice in the Bengals' first possession.
Defensive end Greg Townsend had three of the sacks, his most crucial coming late in the game when, after reading an Esiason naked bootleg, he twisted him down for a 15-yard loss, ending the Bengals' comeback hopes.
The Bengals (10-8) were without two starting offensive linemen -- tackle Anthony Munoz (dislocated shoulder) and guard Bruce Reimers (dislocated ankle). Also, running back James Brooks's playing time was limited because of a heavily wrapped dislocated thumb.
Cincinnati's beat-up offensive line was taken advantage of early. On the first play, Esiason was sacked for a seven-yard loss by Townsend, who led the Raiders with 12 1/2 sacks in the regular season. It left the Bengals on their 13. Two plays later Long dropped Esiason, running right through a double-team of tackle Joe Walter and guard Paul Jetton.
Esiason had been on his back twice and three minutes had elapsed.
After the first two sacks Bengals Coach Sam Wyche went with more play-action fakes to slow the pass rush and used two tight ends. On Esiason's eight-yard touchdown pass to running back Stanford Jennings -- it tied the score at 10 with 11:49 left in the third quarter -- Wyche used three tight ends.
"They made some good adjustments," Townsend said. "But so did we. I'll say that offense sells tickets and defense wins games. We won the game."
The Raiders hoped to capitalize early on good field position as they started at the 45. On second down, Schroeder went deep to wide-open Fernandez, but overthrew.
Los Angeles plodded on, with Allen going three yards on fourth and one to the Bengals 33, then three consecutive plays to total nine yards, bringing up fourth and short. The Raiders threw, going to Horton. But he was covered well by safety Solomon Wilcots, who knocked the ball away.
Cincinnati got going too. Brooks came in and ran well despite his injury. He made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch of a perfectly placed Esiason throw for a 22-yard gain.
Esiason threw another perfect pass on the next play for 40 yards to tight end Rodney Holman, who was just a step ahead of linebacker Tom Benson. That put Cincinnati at the Raiders 30.
Running back Ickey Woods ran for 11 yards, followed by Brooks's two-yard run up the middle to the Raiders 17. Long hit Brooks a yard shy of first down on third and three. Cincinnati settled for a 27-yard Jim Breech field goal and 3-0 lead.
After that it was The Bo Show. Jackson ran on the first three plays of the Raiders' next series. He had two nine-yard runs and one of 18 that put Los Angeles at its 39. Allen followed with a 19-yard scamper.
When Fernandez broke open on a crossing pattern, Schroeder connected for an 11-yard gain. Three plays later Schroeder went to Fernandez again, throwing a bullet just as he ended his pattern beyond the goal line, for the touchdown. The Raiders led 7-3 with 7:29 left in the first half.
After Schroeder threw high to Fernandez early in the third period, Los Angeles went to the ground -- and Jackson. He responded with a 34-yard run down the right sideline, just a tackle away from breaking it. But that was the play he hurt his hip. Said Shell, "I'm not sure how bad Bo is hurt. . . . We'll know more later."
After a 49-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal that followed a drive of eight plays and 45 yards, the Raiders led 10-3 going into the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati followed with 71 yards in 13 plays. Runs of five and six yars by Woods put the ball on the 5. Esiason dropped back and got immediate pressure from Townsend, who flushed him out of the pocket. But Esiason juked Townsend, buying a few seconds, and launched a sidearm pass to Jennings for the touchdown. Esiason finished eight of 15 for 104 yards.
But the Raiders came right back, starting from their 20. After an incompletion and a sack by Carl Zander, Los Angeles faced third and 20 before Schroeder hit Tim Brown for a 26-yard gain. After two running plays, Schroeder went deep, hitting Horton for a 41 yards down the right sideline and the go-ahead score.
Jaeger later added a 25-yard field goal for the final 20-10 score.