December 18, 2011
The AFC Divisional playoff game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 18, 1976 featured a team that had regularly contended but not yet reached the top against a club that had risen from 3-11 to 11-3 in one year.
The Raiders, coached by John Madden, were the regular contenders. They won the AFC West for the fifth straight time and sixth in seven years since the NFL/AFL merger with a league-best 13-1 record. However, for all of their success, they had consistently come up short in the postseason. QB Ken “The Snake” Stabler had an outstanding season in ’76 and had excellent wide receivers in Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff (pictured above), as well as talented TE Dave Casper. Running behind a superb offensive line, FB Mark van Eeghen rushed for 1012 yards. The defense had been switched to a 3-4 alignment with good results.
New England was the 11-3 Cinderella team, having posted their first winning record since they were still the Boston Patriots of the AFL in 1966. Coached by Chuck Fairbanks for the fourth year, they had benefited from the fine play of QB Steve Grogan in his first full season as the starter, a good group of running backs led by FB Sam “Bam” Cunningham, and the performance of second-year TE Russ Francis. The opportunistic defense that featured the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, CB Mike Haynes, and another first-year star in FS Tim Fox led the league in takeaways with 50. Moreover, the Patriots had inflicted the only defeat on Oakland during the regular season – a 48-17 thrashing in Week 4 – on the way to a second place finish in the AFC East and wild card spot in the playoffs.
New England started off the scoring with an 87-yard drive highlighted by a spectacular one-handed catch by Francis for a 48-yard gain on a third-and-seven play from the Patriots’ 33 yard line. Grogan threw to WR Darryl Stingley for 24 yards on a third-down play to the Oakland one and HB Andy Johnson capped the series with a one-yard scoring run at 3:41 into the first quarter.
The Raiders responded with a scoring drive of their own as Stabler completed his first two passes of the day, of 22 yards to Biletnikoff and 18 to Branch, to set up a 40-yard field goal by Errol Mann just before the end of the opening period.
There were no more points during the first half until just before halftime when CB Skip Thomas intercepted a pass to give the Raiders the ball on their 24. Oakland moved into New England territory and Stabler threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Biletnikoff. So while the Patriots had dominated the first thirty minutes of play, holding the ball for 42 plays to 25 by Oakland, the Raiders led by 10-7.
New England, playing ball-control football, scored twice in the third quarter to nearly take control of the game. The first score came on a drive helped along by a questionable holding call on the Raiders on the punt return that opened the series. New England went 80 yards and QB Steve Grogan finished it off with a 26-yard TD pass to Francis.
Five minutes later, the Patriots punted but retained possession following another penalty on Oakland (an offside call on LB Ted Hendricks). Keeping the ball on the ground, New England drove 55 yards with ex-Raider FB Jess Phillips running in for the touchdown from three yards out. At the end of three quarters, the Patriots held a 21-10 lead and it seemed as though the Raiders might once again fall short of reaching the Super Bowl.
Oakland came right back, however, as Stabler (pictured at left), who had been having problems with his passing, hit on five straight throws in a 70-yard possession into the fourth quarter that ended with van Eeghen running in over left tackle for a TD. With just over 11 minutes to play, New England’s margin was narrowed to 21-17.
The Raiders were stopped the next time they had the ball and then a potential New England scoring drive faltered due to a penalty. Grogan appeared to have successfully sneaked for a crucial first down at the Oakland 28, but the play was nullified by an offside call and Cunningham was then stopped on a draw play. Forced to try for a long field goal, John Smith was short on a 50-yard attempt. With 4:12 left on the clock, the Raiders took over at their 32.
Stabler threw to Biletnikoff for 12 yards and 21 yards to Casper, but “The Snake” was then sacked by DE Mel Lunsford. With the ball at the New England 28, Stabler threw two incompletions, but on the second NT Ray Hamilton was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Raiders a first down at the 13 with 57 seconds remaining.
Stabler threw to Casper for five yards, and the tight end got out of bounds to stop the clock. HB Clarence Davis ran for four yards on a draw play. The Patriots were penalized for a personal foul on SS Prentice McCray, who kept moving the ball back after it had been spotted.
With a first down and over a yard to go, Coach Madden called for Stabler to run a bootleg option. He chose to send RB Pete Banaszak into the line with 37 seconds left, and the Patriots stopped him short. Stabler, not known for his running ability, went with the rollout on the next play. Scrambling to his left and following G Gene Upshaw, he dove into the end zone with 10 seconds left for the winning touchdown as the Raiders advanced by a final score of 24-21.
New England outgained the Raiders (331 yards to 282) and had more first downs (23 to 20). The Patriots were more effective on the ground, outgaining Oakland by 164 yards to 81, and sacked Stabler four times while Grogan was not sacked at all. However, they turned the ball over three times, to one by the Raiders.
Ken Stabler had problems with his passing accuracy during the first three quarters, not helped by the New England secondary’s success at shutting down the speedy Cliff Branch (3 catches for 32 yards), although it opened up opportunities to throw to Fred Biletnikoff. The result was that Biletnikoff had a big day, pulling in 9 passes for 137 yards and a TD. Stabler was successful on 19 of 32 throws for 233 yards with a touchdown and none intercepted. Mark van Eeghen led Oakland in rushing with 39 yards on 11 carries that included a touchdown.
For the Patriots, Steve Grogan completed 12 of 23 passes for 167 yards with a TD and one picked off. Russ Francis (pictured at right) caught 4 of those throws for 96 yards and a score. Sam Cunningham gained 68 yards on 20 rushing attempts.
Penalties had played a big role throughout the game, especially in some key situations. The Raiders were flagged 11 times at a cost of 93 yards while the Patriots were penalized 10 times for 83 yards. While it seemed that both teams had benefited from the calls, New England’s players and coaches were more vociferous as they complained about the officiating – not to mention alleged dirty play by the Raiders – throughout the contest, and there was plenty of bitterness expressed afterward.
“That was one of the worst-called games I have ever seen in my life,” said an angry Patriots DE Julius Adams.
Chuck Fairbanks kept quiet regarding the officiating in general, but with regard to the controversial call on Ray Hamilton said, “I just hope they were right. It looked to me like Ray Hamilton hit the ball first. If he did deflect the ball, it was an incorrect call.”
More composed later, Fairbanks added, “I’m proud of my team and the way we played today. We’re going home knowing we played our hearts out.”
“That's what YOU say,” said Coach John Madden when the Pats' complaints were brought to his attention by a writer. “If you could sit there for 60 minutes and say the officials turned that game around with penalties at the end, you were wasting your time. You were eating a hot dog somewhere instead of watching what was going on. There was some great football out there.”
For the Raiders, the close call against New England proved to be the biggest scare they suffered on the way to a championship. They defeated the Steelers more easily in the AFC Championship game and dominated the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. As for the Patriots, they started slowly in 1977 and, while posting a respectable 9-5 record, missed the playoffs in what was ultimately a disappointing campaign.