Pivotal Pro Football Moments
pivotal NFL postseason moment: A decision by a coach or an action by a player that establishes or changes the momentum of a playoff game.
1974: "Sea of Hands" Game
AFC Division Playoff: Miami Dolphins @ Oakland Raiders
After enjoying the #1 seed in the playoffs for two years and the home-field advantage that went with it, the 11-3 Dolphins were edged by the 12-2 Raiders for the top spot in 1974. So Don Shula's two-time defending NFL champions traveled across the continent to Oakland for their first-round playoff match with the John Madden's Raiders.
The consensus of experts was that the winner of this game wwould represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Raiders were 2½-point favorites.
Since Miami's 27-10 thumping of Oakland in the 1973 playoffs, the Raiders became a quick-striking unit once again with WR Cliff Branch leading the league in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Dolphins coach Mike Shula said, "The biggest improvement in the Raiders is that (QB Ken) Stabler is in his second year as a starter and has taken complete control of the offense. And Branch really opens up the offense. They were good on offense before, but he really gives them another dimension."
Raiders coach John Madden on Miami: "They can still run the ball well. (FB Larry) Csonka is so big and strong, like a bull. And Benny Malone has played well replacing (HB Mercury) Morris. They use him in the same way."
Morris had a running feud with Shula because he was unhappy sharing time with Csonka. Mercury had been battling a knee injury. The team doctor said he was ready to play, but Mor­ris insisted he wasn't ready. Before the playoff game, Morris went to a "Haitian root man" in Miami and asked him to put a voodoo curse on Shula. "I don't want him hurt, but I want him off me."

Larry Csonka carries in early action.
The Miami fans waved white handkerchiefs during Dolphins home game. So the Raider fans waved black hankies to mimic them. Several Raiders remarked afterwards that they had never heard the home crowd so loud.
Those who packed the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and millions watching on TV were treated to an action-packed back-and-forth game that wasn't decided until the last minute. The lead changed hands six times.
Dolphins Score Fast
The game couldn't have started any better for Miami. Rookie WR Nat Moore, not the least nervous on the big stage of the playoffs, silenced the crowd by taking the opening kickoff and darting 89y to pay dirt. Garo Yepremian, the former Cypriot tie salesman, kicked the PAT. Dolphins 7 Raiders 0 (14:45)
The Oakland offense started slowly, failing to penetrate Miami territory on their first three possessions. DB Dick Anderson intercepted QB Ken Stabler's first pass. However, the Dol­phins' other safety, Jake Scott, was hurt on the play and missed the rest of the game.
Branch dropped Stabler's second pass after getting behind DB Curtis Johnson at the Dol­phin 25.
"I really felt bad about that," Branch said afterward. "It was a big play. I had a chance to get us back into the game, and it was a pass I should have caught. I just didn't."
Branch Calms Down
After his shaky start, Branch walked over to Oakland's veteran WR Fred Biletnikoff. "He has done a lot of things to help make me what I am today. Like earlier in the game, I went to him and told him I was very nervous. (I think that contributed to my bad play earlier in the game.) But Fred and Frank Pitts told me to just keep cool and relax, and things would work out okay."

Ken Stabler looks for a receiver.
Raiders Tie Score
The score remained 7-0 Dolphins halfway into the second quarter. Charlie Smith, the Raiders' counterpart to Moore, entered the game for a third down play on the Miami 31. Smith took off down the middle of the Dolphins' zone defense, hauled in Griese's pass and darted into the end zone, evading the tackle of MLB Nick Buoniconti, who lunged and missed him at the one. Dolphins 7 Raiders 7 (7:39)
Dolphins Reclaim Lead
The Dolphins retook the lead late in the second quarter when they drove 63y in 11 plays to set up Garo Yepremian's 33y field goal with just 1:01 left in the half. Dolphins 10 Raiders 7
Third Quarter
The seesaw game continued. The Raiders went back in front on Stabler's 13y pass to Bi­letnikoff who caught it one-handed while lunging forward with CB Tim Foley draped over him from behind. under heavy coverage. Somehow Freddie got both feet inbounds just before he and Foley fell out of bounds after he caught the ball. Raiders 14 Dolphins 10 (8:05 left in the quarter)
Stabler recalled Biletnikoff's catch: "It was without a doubt the greatest catch I've ever seen. CB Tim Foley, who just as well could have been called for pass interference, was draped all over Freddie and had one of his arms pinned behind him. Yet Freddie still managed to go up and catch the ball one-handed and come down with his feet inbounds for the score." Watch a video of the catch ...
Miami Comes Right Back
The lead didn't last long. The Dolphins marched 65y in five plays, aided by a pass interfe­rence penalty on LB Phil Villapiano against RB Jim Kiick on third down that gave Miami a first down at Oakland 16. On the next play, DB Nemiah Wilson tripped at the one, and War­field glided into the end zone after receiving the pass from Griese. Ron Smith blocked Ye­premian's PAT try. Dolphins 16 Raiders 14 (6:38)
The Dolphins made quick work of the Raiders' offensive possession. Then they embarked on time-consuming drive that didn't result in points but took more than five minutes off the clock.

L-R: Bob Griese, Cliff Branch, Paul Warfield
Miami added to its lead when Yepremian booted a 46y field goal to culminate an 81y, eight play drive that straddled the third and fourth quarters. Dolphins 19 Raiders 14 (11:50)
With 4:49 left in the game and the ball on the Oakland 29, Stabler noticed that DB Henry Stuckey, who grew up in Oakland, was isolated one-on-one with Branch. It was one of the few times the Dolphins put just one man to cover Branch, who could run the hundred in 9.2.
Branch Makes Circus Catch
Stabler lofted the ball long and high as Branch streaked downfield. Trying to keep up with Branch, Stuckey turned his back to the ball as he ran. But when the ball began to fall short, Branch came back and made a spectacular diving catch before Stuckey could stop and turn around. Since no one had touched him, Branch jumped back up, faked Stuckey once, and darted down the sideline into the end zone. Raiders 21 Dolphins 19 (4:37)
"That was something that I always work on in practice," said Branch about his quick get up and run. "In practice, whenever I go down by my own power, I try to get back up and run a few yards. I guess it just paid off."
Stuckey: "He made the play, and I didn't. It was one helluva catch. I give him credit."
But the Dolphins immediately counterpunched. They took just four plays, including Griese's 23y pass to Moore, to drive 69y to move ahead again when rookie Benny Malone took Grie­se's handoff and dodged through and under four tacklers on a 23y run to the end zone. Dolphins 26 Raiders 21 (2:08)
It looked like the cool Dolphins were on their way to their fourth straight Super Bowl. After the kickoff, the Raiders were 68y from the Miami goal line with less than two minutes to play. However, Stabler had all three timeouts to work with as he prepared to engineer one of the great winning drives of all time.
Dolphins Secondary Shorthanded
The Dolphins were missing two of their starting defensive backs. Charlie Babb eplaced Jake Scott who left the game in the first quarter with a sprained knee. Curtis Johnson was in a temporary cast around his knee on the sideline.
"Snake" began with a 6y completion to TE Bob Moore. After a short run, he threw to Bi­letnikoff two plays in a row for gains of 18 and 20y. After a 4y reception by Branch, TE Frank Pitts made a bobbling first down catch at the 14. Clarence Davis then ran 6y to the eight, where Stabler called his last timeout.
Stabler went to the sideline to discuss the upcoming play with Madden. He looked up into the stands for a moment and said, "These fans sure are getting their money's worth today."
Raiders G Gene Upshaw kept saying, "We can do it," in the huddles during the winning drive. "I looked at the scoreboard and saw eight yards and 35 seconds left. That was our whole season right there."
Stabler took the snap and faded way back. Feeling pressure from Den Herder coming off his right side, Stabler starting moving forward. Just as Den Herder lunged and wrapped both arms around the back of Stabler's legs and was bringing him down, Ken spotted Davis running across the end zone from right to left with two Dolphin linebackers right with him, Mike Kolen and Larry Ball. As he fell forward, Snake shot-putted a wobbly "dying duck" pass with nothing on it into a "sea of hands" around Davis, who had the worst pair of hands of any Oakland receiver.
The ball landed in Davis's hands just as Kolen got a piece of it and just before S Charlie Babb ran into Davis from the front. Somehow Davis wrestled the ball from three defenders as he fell to the ground to give Stabler his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon. Then he jumped up and held it triumphantly above his head as Raider Nation went wild. Raiders 28 Dolphins 26 (0:26)
Stabler: "I moved to the left to avoid pressure. Just as I felt someone hit me from behind at the ankles, I saw Clarence Davis run into the end zone. He wasn't exactly wide open. There were an awful lot of people around him. I neveer should have thrown the ball. It was a great catch, but a dumb play. If it would have been intercepted, I'd be kicking myself for not throwing it away."
Davis said, "I hardly know exactly what happened, except that I saw Stabler got hit as he threw the pass. I knew then that with two Dolphins right with me, it was going to be a wrest­ling match and that I just had to win."

Clarence Davis comes down with the winning touchdown pass in the end zone.
Davis needed a police escort to get back to the Raiders bench amid delirious Oakland fans who poured out of the stands in jubilation. Police also had to quell a brief fistfight between spectators and Miami players.
The Dolphins' slim hope of kicking a winning field goal evaporated when Villapiano inter­cepted Griese's pass. It was a heartbreaking way to end a string of three straight Super Bowl appearances.
Madden got a ride off the field on spectators' shoulders. He said, "None of the other wild ones meant as much as this one did." He added, "That last pass wasn't really what the hell I had in mind. When I saw Davis under that pile with the ball and the official's arms in the air, well, it was just a tremendous feeling."
Davis: "I just outwrestled two guys. I didn't know I was that strong." He did it "by a little luck and the grace of God"
Branch: "This was the biggest game I've ever played in, so I guess you'd have to say that was the biggest play." He acknowledged his bookend, Biletnikoff. "I think we complement each other very well. I know he has done a lot of things to help make me what I am today. Like earlier in the game, I went to him and told him that I was very nervous.
Coach Shula: "When you lose one like that, you know it wasn't meant to be. This has to be the toughest loss I've ever suffered. ... I'm just as proud of my football team today as I've ever been. We went down fighting. That's all you can ask." He added, "Stabler had it when it count­ed." On the winning touchdown: "Den Herder had him and was pulling him down. He shot puts the ball, it went end over end, and Clarence Davis made the catch. It was a great play on Stabler's part and on Davis's part."
Griese recalled the last Miami touchdown. "I just wish Benny had fallen down at about the 3-yard line. Benny made a beautiful run, but if he'd stopped just short of the goal, we could have eaten up another minute and probably scored with less than a minute to go."
Dolphins G Larry Little: "It's hard to believe it's over. I'm prepared to go back and practice Monday and get ready for next week."
Dolphins C Jim Langer: "We played our guts out. ... I don't think either team deserved to lose this one. It's too bad these two teams couldn't go on and play in the Super Bowl."
Miami managing general partner Joe Robbie: "Those were the two best teams in the Na­tional Footbal League out on that field today."
Raiders C Otto: "Stabler just lobbed it out there." The 15-year veteran admitted he was "scared to death" when he saw the wobbler leave the quarterback's left hand as his feet were tripped up from behind by Den Herder.
Stadium Stories: Oakland Raiders – Colorful Tales of the Silver and Black, Tom LaMarre (2003)
The Football Game I’ll Never Forget: 100 NFL Stars' Stories
, selected by Chris McDonell (2004)
"Run It! and Let’s Get the Hell Out of Here!" Jonathan Rand (2007)
Don Shula: A Biography of the Winningest Coach in NFL History, Carlo DeVito (2018)