The Raiders were 11 minutes 20 seconds from explaining a loss to a former University of Idaho quarterback named John Friesz and booking wild-card passage to Miami. Then they reached down deep and pulled out the AFC West title, rallying to defeat the San Diego Chargers, 17-12, before 62,593 at the Coliseum Sunday.
The Kansas City Chiefs, who needed a San Diego victory to win the division, looked on from home in glee, then horror, as the rookie quarterback Friesz guided the Chargers to the brink of victory. Friesz only acted his age when it mattered.
As if waiting to be scared stiff before reacting, the Raiders ordered up an 80-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter, capped by a 17-yard pass from quarterback Jay Schroeder to fullback Steve Smith with 3:53 to play.
It was as easy as that. Some Raiders didn’t wish to face the consequences of a loss to Charger players who will pick up their paychecks Tuesday and call it a forgettable season.
So the Raiders survived a scare, won their division, received a first-round bye and now prepare for an unknown opponent. That won’t be determined until first-round games are completed next weekend.
A Raider loss would have set up a wild-card game next weekend in Miami against the Dolphins.
“It entered my mind,” defensive end Greg Townsend said. “But I didn’t think about it.”
The Chargers were accused by some of football heresy for throwing the upstart Friesz into real, live NFL action, but the Raiders certainly didn’t make San Diego pay for it.
Imagine the locker-room scene at halftime, when the Raiders pulled in trailing, 9-7.
“I’ll tell you what, it was real quiet,” Schroeder said. “What could you say?”
With no one suggesting setting their watches ahead three hours to Miami time, the Raiders opted to make enough big plays in the second half to win the game. Four seemed to be about right.
Big Play No. 1: Special teams man and backup safety Dan Land got it started on the kickoff following Jeff Jaeger’s 45-yard field goal that gave the Raiders a 10-9 lead with 13:33 left in the third quarter.
Donnie Elder took the ensuing kickoff and went 90 yards down the left sideline. Land never conceded the touchdown and tripped Elder up at the seven-yard line.
“That was the biggest play,” Townsend said. “If they score, who knows what happens?”
The Chargers settled for a 21-yard John Carney field goal with 11:36 remaining. San Diego regained the lead, 12-10, but the Raiders took a measure of pride in holding the Chargers to three points.
Land didn’t only see Elder running away from him. He saw the Raiders’ season running away with him.
“I’ve got to catch him,” he said he told himself.
Trailing again, the Raiders took over at their own 20 and wouldn’t give the ball up until after Smith scored the game-winner and 3:53 remained.
Schroeder, who struggled most of the game, was five for five on the drive for 70 yards.
Big Play No. 2. On third and six at the Raider 24, Schroeder found Tim Brown open over the middle for a 22-yard gain to the San Diego 46. After a two-yard run by Bo Jackson, Schroeder passed 18 yards to Jackson.
Big Play No. 3. On third and three at the San Diego 27, Schroeder rolled left and scrambled four yards for the first down, lowering his shoulder into two Chargers defenders to make the necessary yardage.
Schroeder’s thoughts: If not him, who? If not then, when?
“I knew I had to get it,” he said. “I saw the down marker on the sideline.”
Schroeder’s first down set up a scoring pass to Smith that fooled everyone in the stadium, including the Chargers. Smith is best known as a blocker for Heisman Trophy winners Jackson and Marcus Allen. Once a season, around the holidays, Smith becomes a secret weapon. This was the time, and Smith won the division. He slithered out of the backfield into the left flat, accepted the perfect pass from Schroeder and raced into the end zone untouched.
Most figured that was the game. Friesz, remembering all those comebacks he led in Division I-AA at Idaho, gave it one last fling. He threw 16 yards to Anthony Miller on third and 15 to give the Chargers a first down at the Raider 46.
But on second and 10, defensive end, Scott Davis, who earlier had blocked an extra point, came up with Big Play No. 4 when he sacked Friesz for a seven-yard loss. Friesz threw six yards to tight end Arthur Cox on third down, but his fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 51 seconds left, preserving the Raiders’ first division title since 1985.
While it wasn’t a championship effort by the Raiders, they came up with enough moments.
“We did what we had to do,” Allen said. “Guys like Dan Land, who ran down that guy on the kick return. Jay Schroeder lowering his shoulder on that big third down play. Steve Smith making the catch and taking it in for the touchdown. Scott Davis making the big sack. I like to think that’s a sign of a champion.”
Raider defensive end Howie Long said it’s the little things that separate champions from Chargers.
“San Diego pushes a lot of teams to the envelope and finds a way to lose,” he said. “The Raiders push teams to the envelope and find ways to win. San Diego is a minute away from being 10-6.”
The Raiders are two victories from the Super Bowl, although you wouldn’t know it by Sunday’s post-game celebration. There was none. No champagne, no balloons, no party favors.
“We just won the AFC West,” Long said. “See me after the Super Bowl, then I’ll tell you we’re there.”
Still, five years is a long time between playoff games.
“We got knocked off the mound,” Townsend said, “and it was a long, hard climb back up.”
Who’s back yet?
Raider owner Al Davis, measuring his elation, roamed the locker-room floor and dreamed of bigger games to come.
“Start worrying about the next one,” he yelled to Long.
In his first NFL appearance, quarterback John Friesz completed 11 of 22 passes for 98 yards and one touchdown, a seven-yard pass to Craig McEwen in the second quarter. Freisz: “I did some good things and I did some bad things.” That seemed the consensus. “Friesz had an up-and-down day,” Chargers Coach Dan Henning said. . . . Quarterback Jay Schroeder also completed 11 of 22 passes for one touchdown, although he totaled 162 yards. Bo Jackson, who gained only 28 yards in 11 carries, refused to speak with the media afterward.
San Diego tailback Rod Bernstine led all rushers with 114 yards in 27 carries, punishing Raiders along the way. “Bernstine must have a new contract to do this year,” defensive end Greg Townsend said. “He deserves whatever he gets.” . . . Cornerback Lionel Washington missed the game with his sore hamstring pull. He said the decision not to play was made 20 minutes before the game after owner Al Davis asked about his condition. “I said I was 90%,” Washington said. If he had to do it over? “I’d have said I was 100%.” Washington expects to start in the playoffs. . . . With one catch for 30 yards, Willie Gault fell 15 yards short of surpassing 1,000 receiving yards for the season. . . . Jackson won the team rushing championship with 698 yards to Marcus Allen’s 682. . . . San Diego linebacker Junior Seau, the first-round pick and former USC star, recorded his first sack of the season in the first half. . . . Schroeder finished the season with 19 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.