You wouldn’t know it, but the Raiders wanted to be here. They worked all season for the privilege. Bring on Buffalo, they said. Next stop, Tampa.
But all those super dreams fell 49 points short because of an offense that didn’t work, theirs; an offense that couldn’t be stopped with a court order, Buffalo’s; an assumption that the Raiders ever stood a chance, and Jay Schroeder, who would at once uncoil and leave scattered a season’s worth of expensive Mike White quarterback lessons.
The Bills’ 51-3 victory over the Raiders in Sunday’s AFC championship game before 80,324 at Rich Stadium left a considerable gap in Raider lore. Raiders make history, not fools of themselves. Yet, there was owner Al Davis, the whole game slack-jawed, no doubt agonizing over how to repair the emotional damage.
Where do the Raiders go from here? The Denver Broncos went through this last year in Super Bowl XXIV after ending up on the short-end of a 55-10 score and sank to the AFC West basement.
Sunday’s loss ranks with some of the all-time great playoff blowouts, taking a seat next to Washington’s 73-0 drubbing of Chicago in 1940. The Raiders could only conclude the beating was thorough and inevitable.
“I don’t think anybody could have stopped them,” defensive end Howie Long said. “You could have brought back the (Pittsburgh) Steel Curtain and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Maybe not. Buffalo’s first offensive drive was one of the great opening acts ever. The Raiders, resigned to a helpless basketball strategy, were forced to call time out after consecutive Buffalo gains of 12, 14, 15, five and nine yards.
There was no other way to stop the momentum. The Bills rested two minutes, then continued their assault on the Raiders and the history books. After the respite, they needed three more plays to score, taking a 7-0 lead on a 13-yard pass from quarterback Jim Kelly to former Raider James Lofton, who would make Los Angeles pay for cutting him in 1989.
The Raiders’ response was brief and uncompelling. Schroeder found Mervyn Fernandez for 26 yards on first down and Willie Gault 26 more yards on second. But thoughts of an explosive offensive exchange between the teams ended quickly when the Raiders had to settle for a 41-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal.
If you missed it, you missed the Raider offensive attack.
The two other Raider highlights were a blocked extra point--hey, it could have been 52-3--and the third quarter, during which the Bills were held scoreless.
The rest of it was pure Buffalo artistry and sheer Raider misery. Lest the Raiders think they had made a game of it after cutting the lead to 7-3, the Bills scored again in four plays. Kelly’s no-huddle offense was almost flawless as he picked his feeble opponent apart. After a two-yard gain on first down, Kelly passed 41 yards to Lofton, scrambled for 11 yards and then handed off to Thurman Thomas, who ran 12 yards around right end for the touchdown.
The Bills made the score 21-3 with 3:09 left in the quarter when linebacker Darryl Talley intercepted a Schroeder pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.
Defensive end Bruce Smith pressured Schroeder heavily from the blind side as he threw.
“Obviously, the ball didn’t go where I wanted it to go,” Schroeder said.
Few did. Schroeder threw five interceptions after throwing nine in 16 regular season games. Someone asked whether he accepted blame for the loss.
“What kind of a question is that?” he said. “Everyone in this room has to take personal responsibility.”
There were plenty of takers. Cornerback Lionel Washington had a miserable time in an attempt to stay with former teammate Lofton, who finished with five catches for 113 yards. After Kenneth Davis’ touchdown runs of one and three yards in the second quarter put the Bills ahead by 34-3, Lofton capped off the half with an eight-yard scoring pass from Kelly. Again, Washington was on assignment.
“I couldn’t cover him,” Washington said, tears in his eyes. “I don’t blame myself, but I played a big part in the game. I couldn’t come up with the big plays to stop him. You’ve got to take it personally sometimes.”
The game was over at the half. In two quarters, the Bills had 387 yards. In two quarters, Thomas had rushed for 109 yards. Kelly had passed for 247. The Bills had set a playoff record for most points scored in a half.
Dating to the first meeting Oct. 7, Buffalo had scored 65 points against the Raiders in three quarters.
The Raiders thought they were ready.
“A game like today is an education,” tailback Marcus Allen said. “You can talk a hell of a lot about being ready and focused. It’s difficult to explain, but there are all these other intangibles. When the level rises, you’ve got to be ready for it.”
The final Raider statistics told a strange story. Was it an exhibition or championship game? Greg Bell, who hadn’t played since Oct. 14, worked mop-up duty in the fourth quarter and ended up the Raiders’ leading rusher with with 36 yards. Reserve quarterback Vince Evans finished a close second with with 33.
It was all the Raiders could do to keep from running into one another. Sometimes they couldn’t avoid that. In the third quarter, Schroeder and Allen collided on a routine handoff exchange inside the Buffalo 10.
“It was typical of our day,” Schroeder said. “We’ve run that play for six months and nothing like that happened.”
Instead of scoring, the drive ended when another Schroeder pass was intercepted in the end zone.
There was nothing left for the Raiders except gallows humor. When asked when he thought the game was out of reach, Allen said, “Ten minutes left. I thought we could score 48 points in the fourth quarter, but . . .”
There was no place to escape their humiliation, although nose tackle Bob Golic said losing the game was painful enough, no matter the score.
“It could have been 51-3 or 5-3,” he said. “When you get this close, the frustration is unbelievable.”
Kelly, who seems poised to lead the AFC back to the prominence land, completed 17 of 23 passes for 300 yards before leaving the game with 14:31 remaining. He followed Thomas, who left at 14:58. The final yardage count for Buffalo was 502.
“I think we surprised a lot of people,” Kelly said. “We knew we had it. And we just surprised Los Angeles a little bit.”
A little bit?
“We couldn’t keep up with them,” defensive end Greg Townsend said. “They’re rolling into the Super Bowl, just like you should.”
Said Long: “What you saw today was a team that was as hot as you can be.”
For the Raiders, it was a nice run. No one expected this much this soon. But how far might the Raiders carry this breakdown into the winter?
“Some teams never got to this point,” linebacker Jerry Robinson said. “The only team that feels good in the off-season is the Super Bowl champion. But the last game is the one you’re going to remember in the off-season.”
Simply don’t remind him.