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As Hot as Raiders Are, It's but Wild-Card Fire in AFC's Playoff Chase

November 22, 1986|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

The Raiders have won eight of nine games and five straight on the road. They have four games left, three at home, and figure to be favored in all four.

Where does this leave them?

Still only in the running for an AFC wild-card berth, and the second one at that, with an 8-4 record. The New England Patriots are still half a game ahead at 8-3 and heavily favored at home Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

Should the current pecking order hold up, the two wild-card teams will meet in the playoffs at Foxboro, Mass.

That wouldn't be the Raider choice of venues, but the opponent would hold their interest. The Patriots knocked them out of the playoffs last season at the Coliseum. And for angles that everyone involved could soft-pedal until the game was over, there would be the Patrick Sullivan-Howie Long-Matt Millen triangle.

Here's a look at the wild-card derby:

Patriots--Their running game retired with guard John Hannah, but Tony Eason, given up for dead after the Super Bowl, is having a terrific season. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only 4 interceptions and has the second-best rating in the NFL. The Patriots have the No. 7 defense, lead the league in scoring, haven't been held under 20 points all season and have won five straight.

New England's schedule: Buffalo, at New Orleans, Cincinnati, San Francisco, at Miami. They Patriots will probably be favored in all of them. The games at New Orleans and against the 49ers look tough, though.

Kansas City Chiefs--Bill Kenney is back at quarterback, and they're 7-4 going into their game at St. Louis, where they're favorites.

Improved or not--and they are--the big reason they're here is that they finished last in the AFC West last season and drew the easy schedule. They will play the Bills twice. Of the Chiefs' seven wins, only one was against a team that has a winning record, and that was the erratic Bengals.

Kansas City's schedule: at St. Louis, Buffalo, Denver, at Raiders, at Pittsburgh. They will probably be underdogs in two, against the Broncos and the Raiders.

The Dec. 14 game at the Coliseum, which once looked like just a grudge match before a little crowd of 50,000 hard-core Raider cultists, now is almost certain to determine something more substantive. The Raiders are still boiling about John Mackovic's cinematic protest and have served notice they won't participate in any undertaking with the Chiefs, public relations or otherwise. A Chief burial, though, they could get behind.

Cleveland Browns--Another 7-4 team going into this weekend's game at home against Pittsburgh, in which they're a solid favorite. The Browns don't dazzle--they have the 18th-best offense and the 18th-best defense--but Bernie Kosar is effective, and their special teams and Gerald (Ice Cube) McNeil have made a big difference.

Also, they have a much easier schedule than their division rivals, the Bengals. If Cleveland wins the AFC Central title, the Bengals will get thrown into the wild-card race.

Cleveland's schedule: Pittsburgh, Houston, at Buffalo, at Cincinnati, San Diego. The Browns will probably be favored in all but the Bengal game.

Cincinnati Bengals--Still another 7-4 team. They can score on anybody, but they can lose to anybody, and have. Quarterback Boomer Esiason is having a prolonged public quarrel with Coach Sam Wyche, but the Bengals are No. 2 in the NFL in offense.

Of course, they're No. 23 in defense and have lost games to the Chiefs, Steelers and Oilers. From now on, they're out of stiffs.

Cincinnati's schedule: Minnesota, at Denver, at New England, Cleveland, New York Jets. They will probably be underdogs in three games.

Do the Raiders have a shot at catching the Broncos?

Denver is 9-2 and will prevail in case of a tie, having swept the season series. But Denver's schedule is tougher: at New York Giants, Cincinnati, at Kansas City, Washington, at Seattle.

If, for the sake of argument, the Raiders were to win their last four, the Broncos would have to win three--say, their two home games and at least one on the road.

The Raiders are a distinct longshot but they'll be watching the Bronco game this weekend, and the one in Kansas City Dec. 7.

Raider Coach Tom Flores dislikes Thursday night games, but this week's wound up costing San Diego more--Charger quarterback Dan Fouts, whose right shoulder might have healed with six days off rather than the available three.

And having won the game, 37-31, in overtime, Flores can now take the extra three days and rest his ailing squad. He figures it needs it.

"I feel good," Flores said Friday. "We're in position to take a shot. I really feel good, after the way the season started (0-3). If we were healthy, I'd feel much, much better.

"Take a look at the guys who've missed games for us, that's three All-Pros: Mike Haynes is back, but he isn't 100%; Marcus Allen, Howie Long.

"Frank Hawkins is playing injured. We've got guys playing hurt, but they have to.

"As far as where we are, I feel good about it. I'm glad we've got three of four at home--on grass and in our surroundings. They have to come to us."

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