FOXBORO, Mass. — When the New England Patriots opened a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter here Sunday, no football fan in California, or in Massachusetts, either, thought it would end this way. But it did:
--Rusty Hilger, the controversial, tall, young quarterback, brought the Raiders all the way back to tie it, 23-23, with 46 seconds left and overtime in the offing.
--Then the Raider defense, once the finest in the National Football League, blew it, 26-23.
In those final seconds, as backup quarterback Steve Grogan drove the Patriots toward their winning field goal, the Raiders made two strikingly ineffective defensive plays.
First, when the Raider line couldn't get off the line of scrimmage, New England's 32-year-old wide receiver, Stanley Morgan, outran Los Angeles' 34-year-old cornerback, Mike Haynes, to catch Grogan's game-turning long pass for a 40-yard gain.
Twenty seconds later, as Grogan threw toward the sideline on fourth-and-five, Raider linebacker Jeff Barnes looked at Patriot tight end Greg Baty instead of the ball. So it was both a penalty on Barnes, which was declined, and an 11-yard completion, which set up the winning points.
"Jeff was only playing because Jerry Robinson hurt a knee and couldn't go," Raider defensive coach Charlie Sumner said afterward.
As a defensive machine, his club is a far cry from what it was in Sumner's last tour with the Raiders, when they won the 1984 Super Bowl.
"The big change is at cornerback," Patriot scout Dick Steinberg said. "Haynes is slower, and Lionel Washington is only adequate. Four years ago, Haynes and Lester Hayes made the Raider defense what it was. They were brilliant."
No one uses that adjective around this club these days.
"I usually had perfect protection," Grogan said. That's one way of saying that Howie Long and the others in the Raider line seldom saw him.
"Greg Baty was the intended receiver on the (40-yard) pass in the last minute," Grogan added. "I decided to look at Stanley first, and he'd already beaten Mike. So I stayed with Stanley."
The Raiders' biggest problem is their defense. Last week, the Seattle Seahawks made three long moves through them for a 21-0 lead in 20-some minutes.
There are only two things wrong.
"We aren't getting a rush. We aren't getting coverage," Sumner said. "I don't know why."
Patriot Coach Raymond Berry summed up the day with four words: "Grogan was the difference."
The Bo and Marcus show opened at last, and in Foxboro the offense was the better for that. Alternating at halfback, with rookie blocker Steve Smith at fullback, Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson previewed the Raider future.
Allen contributed, among other things, a clever 10-yard run with a short pass, an artistic 2-yard touchdown run, and a tough 23-yard catch in heavy traffic.
Jackson burst through the line for 14 yards on his first Raider carry, showing both acceleration and the power to drag two or three opponents 3 or 4 yards.
In a limited role, he netted 37 yards in 8 tries, averaging 4.6.
"No one has ever come into the league that big (6-1, 230), that fast, and that elusive," Steinberg said.
Jackson showed it all, briefly, but afterward he seemed more wrapped up in the game than himself. Asked to analyze his NFL debut, he said: "We didn't start playing until the fourth quarter."
By then it was too late for him. He sat down because at the moment, Allen is the better receiver, although, any day now, the Raiders can be expected to start throwing deep to Jackson.
He "catches easy," in a coaches' idiom, because that's what he does as an outfielder.
"My goal is to be successful in both sports," he said.
It's an unbelievable challenge. Many have tried. No one has ever starred in both pro football and baseball.
Among Jackson's other talents, according to former Auburn teammate Chris Woods, "He's an enjoyable person to be around."
That's more than the Patriots can say for Woods, who made a fast start as the Raiders' new punt runner, gaining 91 yards in 4 returns.
There are two theories about Rusty Hilger. Some say he isn't an instinctive quarterback. Others are saying that he had the ill luck to take over in the year of the simultaneous collapse of the Raiders' defense and offensive line.
There was ammunition here for both arguments. Hilger customarily overthrew and underthrew his long-play receivers, showing little or no touch for the Raiders' preferred way of playing football.
But when the offensive line protected him effectively, Hilger threw with great success at the middle ranges. And in the fourth quarter he completed the passes that carried the Rams 48 and 61 yards to touchdowns and 39 yards to the tying field goal.
There are some quarterbacks in this league--Phil Simms comes to mind--who can't carry an NFL club themselves but who are good enough to win if the athletes around them are good enough. Hilger could be one of those.
If so, he probably can't prove it this year. The blocking, the run defense, the pass rush, and the coverage all seem to be shot.