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Why Raiders are struggling to make playoffs; erratic Chargers

The Los Angeles Raiders are considered masters by members of the media for disclosing everything except what reporters really want to know! Statistics? Those the club will gladly share in triplicate. But if a key player is due to miss a game with an injury, the Raiders never admit it. If there is a trade in the works or a feud between the linebackers and the team's defensive coordinator, word of these developments hardly ever leaks out.

This is the unbridled influence of Managing General Partner Al Davis, whose title translates into part owner and full-time dictator. Davis, whose 24 years in the pros started as an assistant coach with the Chargers, has always operated in the eye of the hurricane. But if there is a better organizer in the National Football League, or someone with the ability to know instinctively who can play this game, he has yet to be discovered.

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So how come a club that handled the Washington Redskins (38-9) so easily in the 1984 Super Bowl, and has been the winningest team in the NFL for the past 21 years, is currently struggling for a wild- card berth in the playoffs? Well, first there was the early season injury to quarterback Jim Plunkett, which has sidelined him for most of the year. And lately there has been the bruised thumb on the throwing hand of replacement quarterback Marc Wilson.

With that information having become common knowledge, Raider opponents have been able to gear up against the run without having to worry too much about Wilson burning them with any deep passes. And against the league's top teams, you need both the run and pass. But even before the Raiders got out of training camp, there were rumblings that too many of their veterans were more interested in having their contracts upgraded than getting into shape. How much the club misses retired linebacker Ted Hendricks can't be measured on a scale either, but insiders claim the kind of expertise Hendricks provided in clutch situations hasn't been replaced.

Some judgment mistakes may have been made, too, on how much champion-ship mileage was left in many of the team's veteran players. While Davis has some great young talent in the wings, blending it often takes a year or two.

Veteran Raider watchers think the key to this team's future may come Sunday, when L.A. (9-4) is in Miami to play the once-beaten Dolphins, who already have clinched their division title. Although Wilson isn't expected to be 100 percent physically, he'll be close enough so that the Raiders should have a chance if they can keep their turnovers to an absolute minimum. And they certainly have plenty of incentive in a game that may well determine their playoff chances.

With a one-game lead over New England for the last AFC wild card berth, the Raiders can clinch the spot by winning their three remaining games (at Miami, at Detroit, and at home against Pittsburgh). But if they should lose any of the three while the Patriots win all of theirs, the teams will end up with identical records. Then it would depend on which team L.A. lost to: if it were Miami or Pittsburgh, the Patriots would get the berth on the basis of a better conference record; if it were Detroit, the tiebreaker would be the net points scored by each team in conference play - a statistic in which New England currently leads the Raiders 56-51.

San Diego needs recharge

San Diego has provided the latest example that pro football is as much mental as it is physical. Only a week after knocking the Miami Dolphins out of the unbeaten ranks, the Chargers were blitzed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 52-31. While Pittsburgh's 7-6 record has little dazzle in it, the Steelers showed plenty of offense in this game and also came up with the big defensive plays - including four interceptions - when needed. One of the few bright spots for San Diego was wide receiver Charlie Joiner, who set an all-time NFL mark for career passes caught, his six grabs during the afternoon giving him 651, two more than previous record-holder Charley Taylor.

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Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears ended 21 years of frustration Sunday by clinching first place in the NFC Central with a 34-3 rout of the Minnesota Vikings. For the Bears it was their first title of any kind since winning the NFL champhionship in 1963. Although Chicago made the playoffs as a wild-card team in 1977 and 1979, both times the Bears were eliminated in the first round. Chicago's Walter Payton, who rushed for 117 yards on 23 carries against the Vikings, has continually praised the team's defense, a unit which has allowed the fewest points in the league after San Francisco.

Snake lover; Seahawk defense

* Don't mention snakes to 6 ft. 5 in., 270 lb. tackle Bill Elko of the San Diego Chargers unless you can handle at least a 10-minute talk on the subject. Elko, who has 10 snakes living with him and his wife at their California home, numbers among his favorites a couple of really friendly boa constrictors, one of which he took to training camp. But Bill's showpiece is a Burmese python that is 11 feet long. Elko's uncle is Frank Kush, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, who had a chance to get Bill in the NFL college player draft and passed him up.

* One of the keys to the Seattle Seahawks' success this season has been cornerback Dave Brown, who has seven of his team's league-leading 32 interceptions. ''A good pass defense results from a strong pass rush, plus maximum lateral coverage,'' Brown explained. ''Whenever we're able to pressure the opposing quarterback, it means that our defensive backs don't have to hold their coverage as long.'' Brown, who is in his 10th NFL season, is the senior member of a secondary that includes Kenny Easley, John Harris, and Keith Simpson.

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