The venerable Curt Gowdy, NBC Sports top play-by-play telecaster for many years, called the 1974 AFC Playoff Game between the Oakland Raiders and the Miami Dolphins "the greatest game I have ever seen." Gowdy's long-time television partner, Al De Rogatis, agreed completely. The 52,817 present at the pre-Christmas Sunday in the Oakland Coliseum knew they had witnessed an extraordinary event. Forty million television viewers shared their opinion.
Under head coach Don Shula, the Miami Dolphins had been to the last three Super Bowls - an NFL record at that time. They had won the last two Super Bowls. In 1974 the Dolphins had won the AFC East title with an 11-3 record. The Raiders captured the AFC West crown with a league-best 12-2 record. In the eight games played against the Miami team since the series began in 1966, the Raiders were presently 6-1-1. John Madden was 1-1 as head coach for the Raiders in league and postseason games against the Miami Dolphins under Don Shula.
Don Shula and John Madden would become the only NFL head coaches to win 100 league games in their first ten years on the job. But in this AFC Playoff Game only one of these outstanding coaches could emerge victorious.
The radio station carrying the Raider games in the Bay Area had promoted the game as one for which fans should wear black, carry black and wave black. The Coliseum was an ocean of black.
"I have never heard any louder cheering in the Coliseum than when we came out to be introduced," said long time Raider executive Al LoCasale. "The stadium left the ground." But the full Coliseum went silent in an instant. Miami wide receiver Nat Moore took the short opening kickoff at his own 11-yard line, started up field, broke to his left and went unstopped and untouched to the end zone.
Fifteen seconds off the clock, 89 yards and Miami led 7-0.
The score stayed that way until the Raiders got the ball for the second time in the second quarter. Quarterback Ken Stabler opened with a nine-yard toss to wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Marv Hubbard, out of the fullback spot, slammed inside for five. Next, Stabler passed over the middle to Hubbard for nine more. Then halfback Clarence Davis went over left tackle for 10. The big powerful, machine-like Raider offensive line of Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto - a trio of future Pro Football Hall of Famers - plus George Buehler and John Vella, was taking it to the Dolphins. Three plays later halfback Charlie Smith pulled clear of the man-to-man coverage, reached up and pulled in a perfect pass from Stabler to complete a 31-yard touchdown play. Raiders 7 - Miami 7.
Raiders QB Ken Stabler (12) looks for a receiver during a 1974 playoff game against the Miami Dolphins.
Staying primarily on the ground with Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Benny Malone alternating as ball carriers, Miami came right back to put three points on the board on a 33-yard field goal by Garo Ypremian with 1:01 remaining in the half. Miami left the field leading 10-7 at the game's midpoint.
Oakland began another march with 11:43 to go in the third quarter with Stabler to Biletnikoff for the first 20 yards. On the next play, the "Snake" went long to Biletnikoff from 40 yards out. A marvelous leaping catch along the right sideline at the goal line, but the official on the scene signaled, "out of bounds". The Raiders then moved in closer. From the 13, Stabler again went wide right to Biletnikoff along the sidelines, just inside the end zone. Dolphins' corner Tim Foley was draped all over Biletnikoff, but Fred reached up with one hand, fought off Foley, pulled the ball in and barely stayed in bounds to record a brilliant touchdown for Oakland. Raiders 14 - Dolphins 10.
A 29-yard interference call on the third-and-seven aided Miami when their superb wide receiver Paul Warfield beat the coverage, going into the left corner for 16 yards and a touchdown. But big defensive end Bubba Smith got a hand into the path of Ypremian's point-after attempt to keep the score Dolphins 16 - Raiders 14.
At the start of the fourth quarter Miami again moved into Oakland territory. The Dolphins had to settle for a 46-yard field goal, upping their lead to five, 19-14.
With 4:54 left in the game, the Raiders took possession on their own 17-yard line. First Stabler went right side to Biletnikoff for 11 yards. Then came the big strike - a trademark of the feared Raiders vertical passing game. Stabler passed to Cliff Branch on the left side on the Miami 27. Branch went to the ground to make the catch, but being untouched by Dolphin defenders, Branch popped upright and ran away from the surprised defensive backs to complete a 72-yard scoring play. George Blanda was true on the extra point. Raiders 21 - Dolphins 19, with 4:37 to go. The Raiders had gone 83 yards in just 17 seconds.
RB Clarence Davis (28) makes one of the greatest catches in NFL history as he hauled in the go-ahead scoring pass from QB Ken Stabler in a "Sea of Hands."
Quarterback Bob Griese brought Miami back immediately, as the fans went bananas in the Oakland Coliseum. With 2:08 remaining to play, Benny Malone swept right end, got free outside, ducked under a couple of tackle attempts along the sideline and bounced 23 yards to give Miami the lead again 26-21.
Ron Smith brought the kickoff back 20 yards to the Oakland 32. Stabler went to the Raider sideline during the mandatory two-minute warning time out to review strategy and options with Head Coach John Madden. The Raiders, trailing by five, needed a touchdown. They had 68 yards to travel, two minutes on the clock to make the trip and all three time outs left. On first down Stabler went to tight end Bob Moore for six. Plenty of time left - no reason to force the ball deep as of yet. After a short run, the Raiders went back to Biletnikoff on two consecutive plays for 18 yards along the right sideline and 20 yards breaking across the middle from right to left. With just one minute to play, Stabler hit Branch on a quick out to the right for four yards. Then reserve wide receiver Frank Pitts picked up a first over the middle, bobbling the ball up in the air, but regaining possession before being downed on the Miami 14. Clarence Davis ripped over left guard for six yards. The Raiders then used their final time out.
On first-and-goal from the eight, Stabler dropped back looking for Biletnikoff who was covered. The Miami rush was closing in. Finally, with defensive end Vern Den Herder clinging to his legs, pulling him down, Stabler looped the ball toward the left side of the front of the end zone where running back Clarence Davis was working his way back to give his quarterback a target. In a "sea of hands," Davis outfought a crowd of white jerseys to come down with the ball and go to the turf clutching the football to his chest in clear, sole possession. The crowd went wild, completely raving wild. It was a scene out of a movie script that would probably be rejected as "too far-fetched." But this was reality. This was pro football at its best. This was Raiders football - great players, great coaches, great plays and great games.
Hall of Fame Head Coach John Madden, flanked by DB Ron Smith (27) and DT Otis Sistrunk, is all smiles as he clutches the ball RB Clarence Davis caught for the winning touchdown.
The Raiders were now ahead 28-26 with only 24 seconds left. On Miami's second play after the subsequent kickoff, linebacker Phil Villapiano intercepted a last-gasp Bob Griese pass at the Oakland 45. Marv Hubbard used up the clock on two runs to the left.
Final score: Oakland Raiders 28 - Miami Dolphins 26.
The Raiders had scored twice in the final 4:37 to defeat the Dolphins and move forward to the AFC Championship Game.