Raiders head to San Diego behind veteran play

From 'Black Hole' to the Super Bowl

Posted: Monday, January 20, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Tinged with a touch of gray, the Silver and Black are back in the Super Bowl.

The Oakland Raiders passed and brawled their way to a 41-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game on Sunday, getting three touchdown throws from 37-year-old Rich Gannon.

The thirtysomething group of Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson and -- finally -- Tim Brown, sent the Raiders and their maverick owner, Al Davis, to the NFL title game for the first time in 19 years.

They'll go for their fourth Super Bowl title next Sunday in San Diego, taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in the NFC championship game earlier in the day. The Raiders opened as 3 1/2-point favorites.

Oakland's oft-touted ''Commitment to Excellence'' will be tested by a coach who knows it well -- Jon Gruden, who left the Raiders after last season for the Bucs.

On a clear, perfect day at a stadium known as the Black Hole, the Raiders looked as much like the old brawling group of renegades they used to be as the new pass-happy team they have become.

The old: 14 penalties for 127 yards, a handful of cheap shots and a bevy of vicious hits on Steve McNair, who paid a huge price for his 190 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns.

The new: Unbelievably, Oak-land called exactly one running play over the first three quarters, leaving the work to Gannon, the league MVP who threw 41 times for 286 yards and also scrambled for 42 more, including a fourth-quarter touchdown.

But this was more than just a highlight show for the Oakland offense.

The Raiders took the lead for good late in the second quarter, when Eric Barton stripped Tennessee's Robert Holcombe, giving Oakland the ball at the Tennessee 16. Two plays later, Gannon hit tight end Doug Jolly for a score and a 21-17 lead.

On the next play, special teams got into the act, forcing a fumble by John Simon and setting up a field goal for a seven-point lead at the half.

Oakland tackled punter Craig Hentrich to set up a field goal for a 10-point lead in the third.

McNair was then at his gutty, gritty best, leading the Titans on a 67-yard touchdown drive to make it 27-24.

Tennessee appeared to be stopped on that drive, but Terrance Shaw got called for a personal foul, Oakland's fourth of the game. On the next play, McNair ran in from 13 yards for his second score.

But the Raiders kept picking on Tennessee's pass defense, rated 25th in the regular season. Gannon led Oakland on a 66-yard drive and ran in himself for a 34-24 lead.

That drive, like this game, was nothing pretty, but then again, Davis has never demanded perfection.

The owner's unspoken message in ''Just win, baby'' has always been his desire to field a team that could pull out even the ugly games.

In that vein, he signed a group of veterans who had endured a lot in this league. Mere penalties and a hot quarterback weren't going to be enough to halt this Super Bowl run.

The Titans lost for just the second time since Oct. 6, when a loss to Washington dropped them to 1-4.

In Tennessee, and maybe only in Tennessee, the Titans were given a chance. It was based largely on their hot streak and the fact they had done this before -- a 33-14 victory in Jacksonville three years ago when most people counted them out.

But Eddie George, still possibly overcoming a concussion from last week, never got going. He finished with 67 yards.

The defense and special teams were too suspect. And while this was nowhere near the 52-25 beating Tennessee took here in September, 41 points were way too many for McNair to match by himself.

For the Raiders, this trip is especially sweet considering their recent playoff past.

Last year, their trip was derailed in the snow in New England, a spirit-sapping loss that came after an apparent fumble the Raiders recovered late in the game was ruled an incomplete pass.

Two seasons ago, they had home-field advantage in the title game, but the Baltimore Ravens brought one of the NFL's best-ever defenses to town, knocked Gannon out of the game and left the Raiders empty.

This time, there was no denying the team Davis built to win -- and win now.

Brown will go to the Super Bowl for the first time in his sterling 15-year career. He led the Raiders with nine catches for 73 yards. Rice will go for his fourth title. He made five catches, including two that gave the Raiders first downs inside the 10, en route to touchdowns.

Davis will get a long-awaited trip to the game he, in part, created. He helped engineer the AFL-NFL merger, and then became the thorn in the league's side, moving his team twice and suing the NFL while he was at it.

For all the trouble he's caused, many in football think the NFL is a better place when the Raiders are doing well. If that's the case, then the league is enjoying a mighty fine year.



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