Today’s AFC championship game, tempered by current events, was supposed to keep a nation transfixed on Raiders, Buffalo Bills and the weather. But talk of freezing winds and possible snow flurries at Rich Stadium, complicating the Raiders’ chances of making a fifth Super Bowl appearance, have been overshadowed by war in the Persian Gulf.
The NFL has decided that the conference championship games should proceed as scheduled. So they proceed, but perhaps without all of the usual pomp.
Thursday, three days before the league’s second-grandest production of its season, Raider camp in El Segundo was strangely devoid of commotion. Television reporters, who might otherwise have flooded the site, were scarce. With war breaking out, many of their Wednesday reports never made it on the air. Few even bothered with Thursday. After practice, not one Raider player was interviewed. Three print journalists could be found on the grounds. One questioned an assistant coach briefly while two others watched.
So finally, a playoff game that might live up to its hype--a a title game with no bulletin-board bravado, no predictions; not even a Bo Jackson, who probably won’t step on a field again in 1991 until spring training.
No doubt the Raiders and Bills want desperately to win today and advance to Super Bowl XXV next Sunday in Tampa, but victory takes on a different context.
Raider guard Steve Wisniewski said his brother Vince, an Air Force major who might be piloting his F-16 aircraft in the Persian Gulf at kickoff, wouldn’t want the game postponed.
“They stay up till 1 in the morning to catch the Raider games on satellite,” Steve said. “And we send them all the tapes.”
The complexion of the game itself has changed since the matchup was envisioned two weeks ago. Then, it appeared the Bills might be without their star quarterback, Jim Kelly, and the Raiders would have the services of Jackson.
Kelly suffered an injured left knee late in the season against the New York Giants and seemed doubtful to return this soon. But last week against Miami, he showed no effects of ligament damage in Buffalo’s 44-34 victory. Not only did Kelly complete 19 of 29 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns in a snow storm, he also rushed five times for 37 yards.
Is there a knee problem here?
“He ran, he scrambled, he came back from the center quickly, he planted and threw the ball,” Buffalo Coach Marv Levy said. “We’re very pleased he could come back that quickly.”
The Raiders, of course, would rather have taken their chances with capable backup Frank Reich. As it is, they will attack the Bills without Jackson, their leading rusher.
That might pose a serious problem if the Raiders did not have such a glut of talented runners. Levy cannot be comforted that his opponent must now ask Marcus Allen to pick up the slack and lead the Raiders. Some would argue that Allen has been the Raiders’ best tailback all along.
“Marcus, I believe, is the heart of this team,” Raider nose tackle Bob Golic said. “You almost overlook his ability to play football because the first thing you see is his ability as a leader, his desire for the game.”
Allen sometimes leads with heart and head. Two seasons ago, he played with a broken wrist. In the 1990 opener, he asked that a gaping gash be closed over his right eye at halftime so that he might see where he was running in the third quarter.
Last week, when Jackson suffered a strained left hip after a 34-yard yard run, Allen carried the load, rushing 21 times for 140 yards.
The Raiders have also called off their injured-reserve list a familiar Buffalo face, tailback Greg Bell, who has roamed the sidelines most of the season, the victim of a minor ankle sprain and a crowded backfield.
It seems only fitting that Bell should make his first appearance since Oct. 14 in Buffalo, where he was a first-round draft choice and 1,000-yard rusher before leaving in anger for the Rams as part of the Eric Dickerson trade in 1987.
Bell lacks for carries this season, but not for confidence.
“I can compete in any league, any time of the day,” he said this week. “I’ve been practicing for nine weeks. It’s not like I got heavy or fat after nine weeks.”
Interestingly, Bell has proved to be a better back after long layoffs. He held out the entire summer of 1989 with the Rams before returning. He responded with 128 yards in the opener and a career-high 221 two weeks later before tailing off the rest of the season.
Levy sums up the situation this way:
“They may prove me wrong, but I think they’ll run their same offense whether Bo is there or not. In Marcus Allen, they have themselves one great halfback.”
The game probably will be determined at quarterback. The Raiders’ Jay Schroeder has answered every challenge thus far, yet most would consider him an unknown factor in a cold-weather game against Kelly. Yet Schroeder’s pinpoint passing last week led the Raiders past Cincinnati in Round 1. Schroeder, a former Washington Redskin, also is no stranger to inclement weather.
So what’s a little snow with wind gusts of 20 m.p.h.?
“This is the AFC championship game,” Golic said. “If you can’t overlook weather conditions and play through them, your head’s not screwed on right.”
If there is snow, traction will be crucial. “It takes away a lot,” Raider receiver Tim Brown said. “You just have to be careful. You can’t make quick cuts or breaks. You’ve got to take tiny steps.” . . . Quarterback Jim Kelly wasn’t saying whether the Bills would attack the Raiders with the no-huddle offense that worked wonders against Miami last week. He does prefer it. “I’m in total control of the offense at that point of the game,” he said.
Matchup of the game: Raider left tackle Rory Graves vs. Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith. Graves held Smith without a sack when the teams played Oct. 7. . . . The Bills are 9-0 at Rich Stadium this season. They also have not won a championship in 25 years. . . . Marv Levy on his team’s preparations: “No team I’ve ever been with in 40 years of coaching has ever been more focused in practice sessions than the team I’m with now.”