1973 Oakland Raiders: An AFC Championship Game Journey

The Raiders’ 1972 season had ended with one of the most gut-wrenching and controversial postseason losses of all-time. The 1973 Oakland Raiders started to atone for that. Even though they didn’t win it all, John Madden’s team began an impressive streak of playoff advancement and got some sweet revenge along the way.

A quarterback controversy was brewing in Oakland when the season began. Daryle Lamonica was the veteran starter, but 28-year-old Ken Stabler was nipping at his heels. Lamonica kept his job to open the season, but it didn’t take long for Madden to switch to the young lefthander. Stabler would start the final 11 games of what was then a 14-game schedule.

Stabler’s final numbers vindicated Madden’s decision. “The Snake” had a completion percentage of 63%, which was the best in the NFL. His 7.7 yards-per-attempt ranked fourth. And while a 14-10 TD/INT ratio looks bad by today’s standards, in the world of 1973, Stabler’s interception percentage of 3.8 still ranked him eighth among starting quarterbacks.

Balance was the hallmark of Oakland’s skill position talent. The receivers were balanced, with Pro Bowler Fred Biletnikoff working underneath, Mike Siani stretching the field and Bob Moore a consistent tight end. The running game was balanced. Pro Bowl fullback Marv Hubbard led the way with over 900 yards, but Charlie Smith and Clarence Davis each added over 600 yards apiece. The offensive line had a Hall of Fame left side, in tackle Art Shell and guard Gene Upshaw.

Oakland’s offense as a whole wasn’t as explosive as in recent years, but they still ranked 10th in the 26-team NFL for points scored. That was enough because a defense that had often been mediocre stepped up and became an elite unit.

The secondary was the key. All-Pro corner Willie Brown continued to be the anchor and 25-year-old free safety Jack Tatum emerged as a Pro Bowl player. So did linebacker Phil Villapiano. Defensive tackle Otis Sistrunk recorded 13 sacks. The Raider defense ranked third in the league for points allowed.

Oakland opened the season in Minnesota. The Vikings, while coming off a down year in ’72, were still a consistent winner who would also be one of this decade’s iconic teams. Lamonica got the start, and while he made big plays, he was also erratic—13/30 for 183 yards. Losing the turnover battle 4-2 was another reason the Raiders saw a 16-10 lead turn into a 24-16 loss.

The schedule didn’t exactly get easier in Week 2. While Oakland returned home, the opponent was the Miami Dolphins—not just the defending Super Bowl champions, but coming off an undefeated season. The Dolphins played stifling defense, but on this day, the Raiders matched them. In a grinding game, Oakland was able to run the ball. Hubbard ran for 88 yards, while Smith put up 80. The Raiders never found the end zone, but they booted four field goals and that was enough to secure a big 12-7 win.

A difficult road test was next against perennial AFC West rival Kansas City. The Raiders played poorly. They didn’t run the ball and they turned it over four times. After a 16-3 loss, Madden the decision—he was going with Stabler.

Stabler played well on the road against a bad St. Louis Cardinals team, going 19/31 for 207 yards. The Raiders won 17-10. They went on to visit the lowly San Diego Chargers and trailed 17-13 in the third quarter. But a 180-96 edge in rush yardage, combined with recovering three fumbles, keyed the surge to a 27-17 win.

A fourth straight road game awaited at Denver on Monday Night Football. The Broncos would emerge as a contender in the AFC West this season, joining the Raiders and Chiefs in the fight for the division title. The prime-time affair didn’t start well—an Oakland drive was truncated and reversed when Denver ran a fumble back 80 yards for a touchdown. Stabler countered by hitting Siani on a 80-yard TD strike. The Snake had a big night for the national audience, going 16/24 for 313 yards and no interceptions. But the game was back-and-forth. In this era before overtime, it ended after regulation in a 23-23 tie.

Stabler continued to sizzle in a road trip against a poor Baltimore Colts squad. He went 25/29 for 304 yards and no mistakes. A 26-yard TD pass to Sinai was the key to an early 13-0 lead, and Oakland went on to win 34-21. An early schedule that had seen six of the first seven games on the road was complete, and the Raiders were still standing at 4-2-1.

A return home to face another bad opponent, the New York Giants, went easily. Oakland ran for 211 yards, shut down the New York running attack, while Stabler went 16/21 for 212 yards. The result was a 42-7 rout.

It was time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to come to town. This was the opponent that had ripped out Oakland’s heart in the ’72 playoffs. From the perspective of history, we know that these were the early days of the rivalry that would define the decade for the entire league.

Stabler was knocked out in the second quarter with a strained knee. Lamonica came on, but went through a nightmare performance. He threw four interceptions and was sacked five times. He was whistled for intentional grounding three times and his final passing numbers were 13/31. This was all tacked on to Smith turning the ball over inside his own ten-yard line. Lamonica still made big plays, and those 13 completions were good for 236 yards. But it wasn’t nearly enough in a 17-9 loss.

Cleveland came in the following week, and while Stabler was healthy again, the offense continued to struggle. There was no running game. He was sacked five times. There was no downfield passing game. And there were no touchdowns. The Raiders lost 7-3. Now, at 5-4-1, their promising season was in trouble.

Kansas City was leading the pack in the AFC West at 6-3-1 while Denver was in the mix at 5-3-2. Moreover, there was only one wild-card berth available prior to 1978 and the competition for that spot included the 6-4 Cincinnati Bengals and the 5-5 Buffalo Bills. There were four games left and Oakland had little, if any, margin for error.

In a home game against San Diego, the Raiders played with appropriate urgency. Defensive back George Atkinson got the party rolling by returning a fumble 53 yards for a touchdown. It was 24-3 by halftime and ended 31-3. In the meantime, Denver beat Kansas City. Now, the Broncos were in first place at 6-3-2, with the Raiders and Chiefs at 6-4-1.

Oakland was building to a final two weeks where they would play both rivals, but first they had to go to Houston. The Oilers were the league’s worst team and the Raiders were a (-19) favorite. Perhaps looking ahead, Oakland was sluggish and the game was tied 3-3 after three quarters. What Oakland was doing was running the ball, with Hubbard going for 124 yards. Stabler threw a TD pass to Biletnikoff to get the lead and the Raiders won 17-6.

The Chiefs and Broncos both lost. Oakland moved to the top of the division at 7-4-1. But it would all come down to these final two home games.

The first one was against Kansas City. The Chiefs were fading fast—in fact, this late fade would mark their drift from contention for over a decade. Oakland pounded away on the ground—a massive 259-24 edge in rush yardage, keyed by Hubbard’s 115. The Raiders collected four turnovers and committed none. It was a rout from start to finish, 37-7.

Oakland still wasn’t home free. Denver kept pace. With the Raiders at 8-4-1 and the Broncos at 7-4-2, this season finale was for the division. Moreover, with both the Steelers and Bengals at 9-4 in the AFC Central, there was no wild-card option. With a combination of winner-take-all and win-or-go-home, this Raider-Bronco game would surely get flexed to Sunday Night in our own day. In the television era of 1973, it was simply a really big game.

Touchdown runs from Smith and Davis in the first half gave Oakland early control at 14-0. Denver got a field goal just before the half, then closed to 14-10 in the third quarter. Stabler answered by going up top to Sinai from 31 yards. Bronco quarterback Charley Johnson was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter. While backup Steve Ramsey did lead one touchdown drive, the Raiders also picked him off twice. A 21-17 win, and an AFC West crown, was preserved.

Homefield advantage for the postseason was done on a rotation basis until 1975. This worked to Oakland’s advantage this year. Even though by merit they were the 3-seed, the rotation called for the AFC West champ to host a divisional round game. So, Pittsburgh came to Oakland. The Raiders had another chance at revenge.

Hubbard ran for an early touchdown, and Oakland added a field goal to lead 10-0. The Steelers cut it to 10-7 at the half. But the Raiders had the running game going and they had Stabler playing efficient football. The rush yard advantage would be a thunderous 232-65. Stabler would go 14/17 for 142 yards. Just as important, Stabler was mistake-free, while counterpart Terry Bradshaw threw three interceptions.

Oakland got a couple field goals to increase the lead. Then Brown put it away when he picked off Bradshaw and went 54 yards to the house. It was 23-7 and never got closer. The Raiders had avenged last year’s divisional playoff loss with a 33-14 rout.

It was on to Miami for the AFC Championship Game. But the Dolphins were rolling to a second straight Super Bowl title and were simply too good. They put Oakland in a 14-0 hole. The Raiders fought back, and a Stabler-to-Sinai TD pass in the third quarter closed the gap to 17-10. But this time, Oakland was losing the battle up front—a 266-107 rush yardage deficit couldn’t be overcome. Miami pulled back away and won 27-10.

The 1973 season was a continuation of Oakland’s success, but it was also a point where that success elevated to a new level. This marked the first of five straight years that the Raiders would make the AFC Championship Game. In 1976, they broke past this barrier and won the Super Bowl.