1974 Oakland Raiders: Historic and Heartbreaking All At Once

The 1974 Oakland Raiders had a big year—even a historic one. Their emerging quarterback, Ken Stabler, won the MVP award and the Raiders won one of the NFL’s most memorable playoff games. But the season ended with a fourth-quarter collapse and a second straight loss in the AFC Championship Game that would leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

Stabler had become the starting quarterback early in 1973. In this ’74 season, his 57 percent completion rate and 8.0 yards-per-attempt both ranked in the top five in the league. His 3.9 interception rate ranked 10th among the league’s 26 starting QBs. What really set Stabler apart from his peers was a league-leading 26 touchdown passes, and the fact Oakland’s offense scored more points than anyone in the NFL.

Cliff Branch was Stabler’s big-play threat. The All-Pro wide receiver caught 60 passes at better than 18 yards a pop. Fred Biletnikoff caught 42 balls and averaged 14.1 per catch. Tight end Bob Moore was a reliable third target.

The running game’s focal point was fullback Marv Hubbard, who ran for 865 yards. He was supported by Clarence Davis who added over 500 more. But the real leaders of the running game were up front—the great Hall of Fame tandem of left tackle Art Shell and left guard Gene Upshaw were both All-Pro in their best year together to date.

Oakland’s defense wasn’t spectacular, but they were solid. The Raider D had a Pro Bowler at each level—Otis Sistrunk in the trenches, Phil Villapiano at the Pro Bowl, and hard-hitting Jack Tatum at free safety. Oakland’s defense ranked ninth in the league for points allowed.

The Raiders opened the season in Buffalo on Monday Night Football. The Bills had a running back named O.J. Simpson who was coming off an MVP year, and the team would make the postseason in 1974. Oakland took a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter when defensive tackle Art Thomas returned a fumble for a touchdown. But the Bills launched a touchdown drive and sent the Raiders to a 21-20 loss.

Oakland came home to face Kansas City. The Chiefs had been the Raiders’ historic rival, going well back into the 1960s when they were in the AFL together. But Kansas City had faded at the end of 1973, and they fell hard this season. Stabler threw touchdown passes to tight end Dave Casper and wide receiver Mike Sinai to build an early 14-0 lead. The defense intercepted five passes, two by corner Skip Thomas, and the result was an easy 27-7 win.

It was on to Pittsburgh for a late Sunday afternoon showdown. The rivalry between these two teams was gaining steam. Oakland lost an epic playoff game at this venue in 1972 but taken revenge in the ’73 divisional playoffs. On this September day, the Raiders got physical. Hubbard pounded out 96 yards on the ground, the defense was dominant, and Oakland won 17-0.

The Raiders stayed in the Rustbelt and went on to face lowly Cleveland. After spotting the Browns a 10-0 lead, Stabler opened up and went 19/33 for 237 yards. Davis rolled up 116 yards on the ground. Oakland had moved ahead 23-17 by halftime and pulled away to win 40-24.

On a road game against a subpar San Diego Chargers team, the Raiders struggled to put points on the board. But the running game kept pounding, to the tune of over 200 yards. Stabler tossed a short touchdown pass to Moore in the fourth quarter to pull out a 14-10 win.

A home game with Cincinnati was a matchup of 4-1 teams. But these were 4-1 teams that would go in opposite directions and that basically started around the second quarter. The Bengals jumped out to a 14-3 lead. But Stabler would make big plays—his 19/41 passing line produced 252 yards. A back-and-forth battle ended up as a 30-27 win for Oakland. Cincinnati ended the season as a .500 team.

The Raiders traveled across the Bay to play San Francisco. The 49ers had been one of the league’s better teams in the early years of this decade but were starting to fade. Oakland trailed 24-14 in the third quarter. But they won turnover margin 5-1. Hubbard powered for 117 yards. Stabler attempted just 11 passes and only completed six—but they went for 140 yards. The Raiders closed with a rush and won 35-24.

In this era, the NFL didn’t go out of its way to avoid lengthy road trips, so Oakland went to Denver to play their fifth road game in six weeks. The Broncos were coming into this game at 3-3-1, and were the Raiders’ top competition in what was proving to be a weak AFC West. Oakland had a chance to put this division race to bed early, and they did. Stabler went 12/19 for 217 yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. The final was 28-17.

1974 was the final year that the NFL used a rotation system, rather than merit, to determine homefield advantage in the playoffs. In practical terms, that meant the final six weeks of what was then a 14-game schedule were mostly meaningless for the Raiders, now that the division title was close to being formally wrapped up. The good news for Oakland fans is that the rotation fell in their favor—they would get their two playoff games at home.

The Raiders hosted mediocre Detroit and ran over the Lions to the tune of a 284-63 edge in rush yardage. Stabler was lights-out, going 20/24, for 248 yards and no mistakes. The result was a 35-13 rout. The following week against San Diego, Branch had his second straight 100-yard receiving game. That overcame the lack of a ground attack, and the Raiders won another tough game with the Chargers, 17-10. When the Broncos lost on Monday Night Football, the AFC West title was officially in the bag.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, perhaps the combination of clinching the division and having too much turkey left the Raiders a little soft. Denver came into Oakland and rolled up nearly 300 yards rushing, handing Oakland a 20-17 loss.

The offense got back on track the next week at home against New England. Stabler threw a 67-yard TD strike to Branch to get a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. With a 20-19 lead in the third quarter, Stabler and Branch connected again, this time from 13 yards. Branch finished with 138 receiving yards. Stabler went 16/21 for 251 yards. The Raiders won 41-26.

John Madden’s defense still needed to tighten up in these final two weeks. A windy and wet late afternoon game in Kansas City served that purpose. Stabler sat out what was a sloppy game both ways, but Oakland pulled out a 7-6 win.

The NFL had good intentions in scheduling Oakland to host Dallas for the final Monday Night game of the season on December 14. But the Cowboys, at 8-5, had been knocked out of the playoffs for the only time in this decade, and the Raiders were just doing their final playoff tune-up. Stabler went 11/17 for 131 yards and two touchdowns, to build a 17-9 halftime lead. The Snake then took a breather, while veteran backups Daryle Lamonica and George Blanda played. Oakland won 27-23.

With a 12-2 record, the Raiders would have still enjoyed homefield advantage under the rules of today. But the rotation system was sending the AFC’s #2 team to Oakland for the divisional playoff. And that team was none other than the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.

On a late Saturday afternoon, the Raiders and Dolphins staged an all-time classic. Oakland allowed the opening kickoff to be run back for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Stabler got the Raiders on the board with a 31-yard touchdown pass to running back Charlie Smith, but they still trailed 10-7 at the half.

Stabler threw a 13-yard TD pass to Biletnikoff in the third quarter to get the lead. Miami countered with a touchdown of their own. Even though the Dolphins missed the extra point, they later added a field goal to put the Raiders in a 19-14 hole.

Miami was controlling the running game, so it was in Stabler’s hands in the fourth quarter. He hit Branch on a 72-yard touchdown pass to get a 21-19 lead. Miami answered to move ahead 26-21. With two minutes to play, the Raiders had the ball on their own 32-yard line.

Biletnikoff was having a big day and would catch eight passes for 122 yards against one of the league’s premier defenses. He and Stabler connected on some big plays, as Oakland marched down the field. They reached the eight-yard line as the clock ticked under 30 seconds. The Raiders were out of timeouts.

Stabler rolled to his left. As a lefthander, it was fortunate he was rolling to his open side, because Miami defensive lineman Vern Den Herder was in pursuit and got his arms around the Snake. Falling to the ground, Stabler was able to lob a pass to the end zone. Among three Dolphin defenders, Clarence Davis went up and got the ball. It’s known as The Sea of Hands catch. And it gave Oakland a dramatic 28-26 win.

The Raiders-Dolphins game was seen as the de facto Super Bowl. In retrospect, it sounds foolish to have so casually dismissed the Steelers, who were on their way to Oakland for the AFC Championship Game. But when you consider that Pittsburgh had yet to win a Super Bowl, that their 10-3-1 record had been compiled without beating a good team, that they had lost their last two meetings with the Raiders by a combined 50-14, and that the one win in 1972 had taken one of the NFL’s all-time fluke plays—well, when you consider all that, it’s easy to see why public perception was what it was.

But public perception was going to change, and that change came in the fourth quarter of this 1974 AFC Championship Game. Oakland led 10-3, but they were being hammered up front. They only ran for 29 yards, while the Steelers rolled up 210 yards on the ground. Stabler threw three interceptions. While the Steelers also turned it over three times, the advantage Oakland had enjoyed in this area in previous victories was gone. And Pittsburgh just muscled their way to a 24-13 win.

Sports can be cruel. By any reasonable measurement, this 1974 Oakland Raiders season was a  resounding success. But the Raiders were at a point in their historical arc, where reasonable measurements were out, and “Super Bowl or bust” was in. Stabler would later tell a biographer that he got mad throughout the offseason thinking of the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game.  

The good news is that Oakland would keep contending in 1975. The bad news is that they would lose another AFC Championship Game to Pittsburgh. But let’s get back to good news—in 1976, they got a third crack at the Steelers for the AFC title. This time, they won it. And they finished the job with a Super Bowl title.