During overtime in the Raiders' 1977 playoff game against the Colts, it had dawned on quarterback Ken Stabler that he was playing in a game that would go down as an all-time classic.
Having already been part of several classic games earlier in the decade, Stabler had a feeling this game would join the "Immaculate Reception" and the "Sea of Hands" as games that would live on in NFL lore. Stabler, with his team about to head to a second overtime, shared his revelation with Raiders coach John Madden during a timeout.
"I told John, 'These people are getting their money's worth today,'" Stabler recalled years later during a feature with NFL Films. "He kind of looked at me like I was crazy."
The Snake was definitely different (he was named the 21st greatest character in NFL history in 2019), but he was right in his assessment of the moment. In a game that included 68 points, nine lead changes and took 76 minutes to settle, the defending champion Raiders got all they could handle from a Colts team that was eager to take the next step after falling to the Steelers in the previous two postseasons. And while they were often considered a level below the Raiders and Steelers, the Colts did manage to win 25 of 29 games during a three-year span that allowed them to win three straight AFC East titles.
"It was the first time we had played them since I was in Baltimore where we really had a chance to match up with them," said Colts tight end Raymond Chester, who started his career in Oakland before being traded to Baltimore three years earlier. "I thought we had every opportunity to beat them. I actually thought we had a better team."
No. 28: Raiders vs. Colts AFC Divisional Playoff (Dec. 24, 1977) #NFL100 @Raiders— NFL (@NFL) October 5, 2019
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While the Colts' offense was stagnant, a 61-yard interception by cornerback Bruce Laird gave the home team a 10-7 halftime lead. But after a mostly conservative first half, Stabler started the first half with a 41-yard bomb to receiver Cliff Branch that set up his eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dave Casper. And even after Marshall Johnson took the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for a score, Stabler's second touchdown pass to Casper gave Oakland a 21-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"We left [the first half] knowing that we had a lot of time to play," recalled Raiders Hall of Fame offensive lineman Gene Upshaw. "We could still score. We had Stabler back there that could find people and get things done."
With their running game struggling, the Colts started using play-action with quarterback Bert Jones. The play-action set up key completions to Chester and Lydell Mitchell, which in turn started to open things up for Colts fullback Ron Lee, whose size and surprisingly nimble feet allowed him to have more success against Oakland than Baltimore's running backs. Lee's one-yard touchdown run gave the Colts a 24-21 lead and, after the Raiders quickly re-gained the lead on Pete Banaszak's one-yard touchdown run, Lee scored again on a 13-yard run.
After both teams traded punts, the Raiders got the ball back with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. With 2:11 left and Oakland still trying to get into field goal range, the Raiders' future two-time Super Bowl-winning coach had a play suggestion for Madden.
"Tom Flores, who was an assistant at that time, noticed when we would throw the in, that the safety was sneaking up on the in and getting awfully close," Madden recalled. "So that would tell us, If the safety was coming up to take the in, that we could get by him on the post. So when [Flores] said, 'On 91 In, take a peek at Ghost to the Post.' And Dave's nickname was Ghost."
Assuming that Baltimore's secondary would be focused stopping Branch and fellow receiver Fred Biletnikoff (who were running inside routes), Stabler threw deep to Casper, who had to adjust to the pass before catching the ball over his shoulder. Casper's remarkable catch allowed the Raiders to kick a game-tying field goal as time expired.
"I played a lot of outfield as a kid," Casper said of his ability to track down Stabler's pass. "I put my head down and ran to a spot. And when I looked up, thank God, the ball was coming into my hands. If I looked up a second later, I wouldn't have seen it."
How great the play was is apparently up for interpretation.
"He was able to make an incredible adjustment on the ball," Chester said, "that there's only a handful of guys in the league could make it when it counted, when you needed to make it."
"It was a terribly thrown ball," added Laird. "It was a terrible route. It was just one of those things where we weren't in position to make a play."
Despite Casper's big play, the Colts had a chance to immediately end overtime after winning the coin toss. On the first possession of overtime, Jones, feeling the Raiders' pass rush, barely overthrew Chester, who had beaten his defender downfield. Instead of being in position to kick the game-winning field goal, Baltimore was forced to punt. Jones feels that, had he held onto the ball a little longer, he would have hit his tight end in stride.
"I think I'll go to my grave saying, 'Why didn't I wait one more second and hit him?'" Jones said years later.
While the Colts missed their chance to win the game, the Raiders took advantage of theirs. Facing a third-and-19, Stabler stood tall and hit a diving Branch for the first down. After already witnessing Casper's catch and Jones' overthrow, the Colts and their fans seemingly resigned themselves to defeat after watching Branch make his improbable catch.
"That," recalled Colts running back Don McCauley, "was the real back-breaker."
The second overtime session began with Oakland with the ball on Baltimore's 13-yard-line. It ended moments later, when Stabler lofted a perfectly-thrown 10-yard pass to Casper for his third score of the game. The Raiders had to work for it, but they kept their title defense alive for another week after outlasting the Colts, 37-31.
"You realized you just played in a special football game, an exciting football game," Stabler said. "A game that was fun to play in."
The Colts have come to appreciate their efforts in that game, even if it the loss continues to be a tough pill to swallow. The team would begin unraveling after that game, and would not post another winning season until 1987, three years after moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
"It took a long time for me after that game to look at that football game and not believe that we should have won that game," Laird said. "It took actually years until I sat back and looked at the talent they had on that football team and looked at the players and where they've gone and what the Oakland Raiders were all about to kind of say, 'You know, we played one tremendous football game. Yeah, we didn't win it, but we've got to be pretty proud of ourselves."
While neither team would hoist the Lombardi Trophy that season, their Christmas Eve playoff duel remains one of the greatest games in NFL history, even if it isn't the most remembered.
"That game was a great game," Madden said. "One of the all-time great games in the history of the NFL, and I think it's forgotten."