On October 19, 1997, RB Napoleon Kaufman broke the Raiders single-game rushing record with 227 yards against the Denver Broncos.
The skies were overcast as nearly 60,000 fans streamed into the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on this mid-October afternoon in 1997. The Oakland Raiders were 2-4 going into this game against the undefeated Denver Broncos.
The Raiders first two losses had come on the final play of each game and three of their defeats had been by a total of just five points. It was time to take a stand against the top team in the National Football League. Both teams were reasonably healthy, having come off their bye week.
"The time helped me," said Raider quarterback Jeff George, the AFC's top-rated passer. "I didn't throw any balls at all while we were off. My arm was a little sore, so the bye week couldn't have come at a better time for me."
As it turned out passing would be a secondary weapon in the Raiders offensive arsenal this Sunday. Right from the go, the ground attack would be the key to any success the Raiders would have against the Broncos in this 74th league battle between these two AFL originals. The Raiders dominated the series with a 48-23-2 record since the rivalry began in 1960. But Denver had won the last four games against the Silver and Black, though three were decided by only five points or less.
With four first-year Raiders in the starting lineup - rookie defensive lineman Darrell Russell, safety Eric Turner, guard Lester Holmes and quarterback Jeff George - and three players in their first season as full-time starters - linebacker Mike Morton, safety James Trapp and running back Napoleon Kaufman - this was certainly not the same team Denver had downed in '95 and '96.
The Raiders opened the action in high gear as another newcomer - Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard returned the kickoff to the Oakland 29-yard line. On the very first play from scrimmage, Napoleon Kaufman took a delayed hand-off from Jeff George, followed guard Steve Wisniewski and fullback Derrick Fenner up the middle, burst free, broke to the right sideline and went 57 yards before being pushed out of bounds. Then, on 3rd and 10 form the Denver 14, Jeff George dropped straight back and hit receiver James Jett for the game's first score.
"It was a post pattern," recalled Jett. "The defender had pretty good coverage, but Jeff made a perfect throw and I had the right angle to make the catch."
The extra point was good and the Raiders led 7-0. A sack of Denver QB John Elway by DT Chester McGlockton short-circuited one Denver possession but late in the first quarter the Broncos drove 71 yards in eight plays to even the score 7-7.
Oakland began the second quarter as they had the first, driving 78 yards for a score, Jeff George passed for 45 of those yards, completing the march by drilling TE Rickey Dudley for five yards and a touchdown to put the hometown Raiders ahead.
After his touchdown toss, George jumped into the end zone stands, joining the jubilant fans. "It's nice to have fans like that, " the Raider quarterback commented. "In my eight-year career, I've never had fans like that. I ran over and let them know I appreciated them. You see guys painted up, you just want to be with them."
In the final moments of the half, Elway led his team downfield in a battle against the clock - and the Raiders. The defense stiffened, and Denver was forced to settle for a field goal to leave Oakland ahead at halftime, 14-10.
In the opening 30 minutes, the battle between running backs Napoleon Kaufman and Terrell Davis of the Broncos had Kaufman ahead in rushing yards, 117 to 42. Jeff George had thrown only nine passes versus 18 tosses by Elway, but two of George's aerials had been for touchdowns.
The Broncos came out firing in the third quarter and drove 80 yards to go ahead 17-14, with the score coming on a three-yard run by Terrell Davis.
Denver took over again with 6:11 left to play in the third quarter. Seven plays later, the Broncos faced a third-and-nine at the Oakland 33. Elway set to pass, was pressured, scrambled inside right with DE Lance Johnstone in close pursuit. "At first I thought I was going to sack him, but he got away," said Johnstone. "So I stuck a hand out, grabbed his arm and he coughed it up." The ball bounced off Elway's leg. As the QB tried to recover, he was grabbed by Chester McGlockton, who also batted the ball away. At that point safety Eric Turner scooped up the ball on the Oakland 35 and sped down the left sideline, roaring by the Raider bench. With a burst of speed that displayed his Olympic gold medal form, safety James Trapp got in front of Turner and sealed off the final Denver defender as Turner completed his 65-yard fumble return for a score to put the Raiders back on top, 21-17.
"That play was huge because we had them out," Elway said after the game. "We were really moving the ball. It was a killer. Everybody in the stadium was quiet, and it just woke everyone up."
A four-point lead with more than 17 minutes left to play was not enough to feel safe in an AFC Western Division game. Especially against John Elway, who had engineered so many late comeback victories in his 15 seasons as field leader of the Broncos. But when the Raiders next got the ball, an early fourth-quarter fumble gave the Broncos possession on the Oakland 36. After an offsides penalty took it to the 31, the Silver and Black's defense rose to the challenge, limiting Denver to just six yards on three plays. A missed 43-yard field goal left the Raiders in front, 21-17.
A 51-yard Denver punt pinned the Raiders on their own eight. Kaufman earned some room on a nine-yard blast off left tackle out to the Oakland 17. Then, on a third-and-long situation, Kaufman burst over right tackle and raced 83 yards for the score, putting his Raiders on top 28-17. The Raiders had two fullbacks in on the short yardage down - Derrick Fenner and rookie Chad Levitt. Both led Kaufman to the right as tackle Lincoln Kennedy and guard Lester Holmes blew open the hole at the line of scrimmage. Kaufman was hit early, kept his balance, broke free and took off untouched the rest of the way.
"Napoleon makes these ordinary runs look spectacular," commented perennial Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski. "It looks like up the middle and a cloud of dust, but he breaks them. It looks like two, three or four yards, and he's hitting it for 40 or 50 yards. He reminds me very much of blocking for Bo Jackson."
Napoleon Kaufman's performance this day reminded the record keepers of Bo Jackson also. Kaufman's rushing total of 227 yards broke the previous Raiders record of 221 yards rushing set by Bo Jackson on November 30, 1987 in Seattle in a 37-14 Monday night win over the Seahawks. "I've been praying about getting 200 yards," noted Kaufman, an ordained minister. "And, I tell you, the Lord is an answerer."
The Broncos would not make this one easy for the Raiders. With just 2:15 left to play, Denver scored and got the two-point conversion to close the gap to only three points, 28-25.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Raiders started from their own 12-yard line, with 2:05 remaining. Two runs gained nothing, and Oakland was faced with a 3rd and 10 on their own 12 with 47 seconds left to play. Failure to get the first down here could give Elway the field position to start a final drive for the field goal to tie or a touchdown to win.
Jeff George play-faked to Kaufman and completed a 15-yard strike down the middle to a diving WR Tim Brown for the game-clinching first down.
"It was obvious who I was going to," said George later. "There's no doubt in my mind. If Timmy had two or three guys on him, I was going to Timmy the whole way. That's just one of those situations, third and long, where you know where your money man is."
The Raiders defense had held AFC leading rusher Terrell Davis to 3.7 yards per carry and a total of 85 yards rushing. John Elway had been sacked three times. P Leo Araguz had averaged 46.4 yards per punt for the Raiders. The two teams had combined for 765 yards total offense. Jeff George had thrown only 12 times, completing nine.
Asked when was the last game in which he had thrown just a dozen passes, George replied, "in second grade!"
But this win over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos was not a second-grade performance for these Oakland Raiders. No, indeed. This was a major-league triumph.