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MIKE DOWNEY

Frustration Is a Team Effort

January 16, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — When one football team meets another and the final score is 51-3, nobody goes home distraught that the better team lost. When one football team meets another and the final score is 29-23, everybody on the losing side goes home wondering why it couldn't have been the other way around, or, worse yet, wondering which game-costing play was his own damn fault.

The feeling, then, was more one of exasperation than humiliation for the Raiders when their season ended here Saturday, because this was a defeat that felt far worse than the last time the Buffalo Bills made them suffer. That playoff game of three years ago was over before it was over. But this was a game that was the Raiders' to win, and one that will be theirs to replay and replay inside their heads, again and again.

"I'd say we killed our selves ," frustrated quarterback Jeff Hostetler contended, and the man was right, what with inadequate pass-defenders, snap-happy linemen and an infuriating inability on third and one to gain one lousy yard. But there is no sense singling out which Raiders should remain blameless and which ones should remain nameless. They all worked hard, but they all took it harder.

With every visible breath you took, you wanted to shout that the Raiders had this game in the fridge. It was something you sensed when they were 11 points ahead and when Napoleon McCallum was doing a greater job of crossing Buffalo's frozen tundra than Napoleon Bonaparte ever did crossing Russia's. It was something you were tempted to believe after Tim Brown traversed 86 yards with a pass to chop away at Buffalo's home-ice advantage.

The players themselves, though, they knew better. So did their coach, Art Shell, standing there with frost in his mustache. Each and every one of them was justifiably proud of how hard the Raiders were struggling to win this teeth-chatterer of an AFC playoff game, yet each and every one was also painfully aware that the Buffalo Bills, drat their Super Bowl-losing hides, simply will not go away.

Thurman Thomas staggers off groggy from a concussion, but they will not go away. Pete Metzelaars puts flesh through bone in a hand he uses to catch passes, but they will not go away. Steve Christie kicks footballs everywhere but where he is aiming, but they will not go away. No matter which valuable Buffalo player vanishes, another one materializes--a Bill Brooks, a Keith McKeller, a Kenneth Davis--to make life miserable for visitors in ways that have nothing to do with the weather.

In no way were the Raiders afraid of them. They went to great lengths to demonstrate how relaxed they felt, as when Hostetler took off scrambling in the first minute, tiptoed his way to the Buffalo bench and plopped down onto a seat beside an amused Steve Tasker, who slapped the Raider quarterback on the back and did everything but pass him some Gatorade.

It would have been easy for the Raiders to come in cold and stiff. Not only did they travel more than 2,500 miles for the game, but they arose at 5 a.m., Pacific time, to shower, shave, tape and insulate themselves for the game. It was only 9:30 back in California when the opening kickoff was telecast by NBC, the network that was kind enough to assign to its coverage O.J. Simpson and Paul McGuire, both of whom played for the Bills, as well as an ebullient Cris Collinsworth, who broke an AFC playoff record afterward for exclaiming "Huge afternoon!" to three consecutive players from the winning team.

The Raiders had more important things to worry about. One was the footing, which became a factor as soon as Jeff Jaeger attempted his first field goal. His left foot planted awkwardly, Jaeger was unable to do anything more than direct a kick that fluttered and wobbled like a shuttlecock.

Hostetler got a feel for the game, little by little, throwing his first five completions to his backs and tight ends before seeing how ably his wide receivers could run. He also had to contend with Buffalo line-monster Bruce Smith, with whom he had words after one particularly nasty hit, and with blitzes, as when safety Matt Darby of UCLA fame hurtled himself at Hostetler like a wrestler off the top rope.

It was Tasker who proved that the footing was sure. Stabbing a short kickoff, he easily sidestepped Raider tacklers Rickey Dixon and Patrick Bates, outran a puffing Aaron Wallace and avoided the kicker, Jaeger, who was supposed to impede the runner until a more qualified tackler could arrive. By the time Willie Gault caught up to him, Tasker was a yard away from the game's first touchdown.

After that, the Raiders opened up. Hostetler took off on a quarterback draw. This was not a day for conventional weapons, not in this weather. The Raiders were determined to practice ball control. McCallum twice crashed over from a yard out, and L.A.'s committee of obscure running backs completely dominated the first half.

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