The Raiders had originally planned for Sunday to be their bye week, and for three quarters of their game against Dallas, it sure seemed as if they were taking it easy. Three touchdowns on its first three drives and a Cowboys team that was spinning its wheels put Oakland on easy street. Almost too easy, as it turned out. The Raiders built a 21-point lead against Dallas then had to hang on for dear life as the Cowboys closed to within one touchdown in the game's final two minutes before finally succumbing to Oakland, 28-21.
Coupled with San Diego's surprising loss to Cleveland and Denver's win over Kansas City, the Raiders (3-1) moved into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West with the Chargers and Broncos.
‘'I realize it wasn't always pretty but our club is 3-1,'' said Oakland head coach Jon Gruden, whose team had split a pair of preseason games against the Cowboys. ‘'I don't care how we got to be 3-1, we're 3-1. It was a gut check for the Raiders today. We are happy with the win but we realize we have plenty of areas to improve on.''
Primarily those areas seem to be on special teams and with consistency from the offense. The Raiders rolled through the Cowboys like Roseanne Barr at an all-you-can eat buffet table in the game's first 40 minutes but could not land the knockout blow against Dallas, a team in so much trouble that Oakland was an unheard of 18-point favorite heading into the game. However, given that the Cowboys starting quarterback, Quincy Carter, didn't even last 12 minutes before leaving with an injury, the betting line seemed fair. With quarterback Rich Gannon throwing a five-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice and running backs Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett each scoring on touchdown runs in the first half, the game looked to be a blowout before halftime.
Whatever drama was left after halftime was nearly erased when the Raiders came out and opened the third quarter with an 18-play, 72-yard drive that took almost a full 10 minutes off the clock. Oakland never gained more than 10 yards on a single play during the drive, getting a vintage effort from Gannon who completed nine of 10 passes for 58 yards. He also kept the Cowboys guessing by effectively mixing in the running of Garner and Wheatley, whose 1-yard touchdown run gave the Raiders a comfortable 28-7 lead.
‘'That was probably our best drive of the year,'' said Gannon, who was 21-for-28 for 209 yards against Dallas. ‘'Really, in my opinion, I thought that's where we took control of the game. It was unfortunate to see them get back in it. It seemed like every time we got momentum (the Cowboys) snatched some of it back.''
By then no one in the crowd of 61,535 at Networks Associates Coliseum doubted the game's outcome. Or so it seemed. Dallas kept things interesting by getting a little tricky with their field goal unit. Place-kicker Tim Seder, who had his first two field goal attempts blocked, lined up to attempt a 27-yard kick but instead wound up scoring on an 8-yard run after holder Micah Knorr took the snap from center and flipped the ball up to Seder. The Raiders were caught totally by surprise and never had a chance to get to Seder, who scampered untouched into the end zone. That seemed to spark a little life into the Cowboys, who have been otherwise dreadful this season.
Dallas' defense forced the Raiders into a three-and-out on their next possession, then Reggie Swinton took a low punt from Oakland's Shane Lechler and turned it into a 49-yard return to set the Cowboys up at the Raiders' 21-yard line. ‘'We about gave the game away,'' said Randy Jordan, one of Oakland's top special teams players. ‘'I'm just sick to my stomach.''
But Dallas couldn't turn their good fortune into points. After Swinton's return the Cowboys failed to get a first down and wound up turning the ball over after Oakland's defense stuffed Wright on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one. The Cowboys threw everything they could against the Raiders. They tried running the option. They lined up in a Power-I formation. They even used the wishbone backfield. It was enough to make a defensive coordinator's head spin.
‘'We practiced against all of that but the problem with that is that they have no real big tendencies,'' said middle linebacker Greg Biekert. ‘'(The Cowboys) do things that most teams don't.'' Even after stopping Wright on fourth down the Raiders weren't able to put the game away. Oakland's offense, which had been unstoppable in the first three quarters, had trouble managing even a first down in the fourth quarter let alone trying to score. As a result, Dallas didn't fade away as most had hoped they would. Instead, the Cowboys took advantage of several breakdowns by Oakland's special teams to stick close.
They got big kick returns from Swinton, then turned a Charlie Garner fumble into seven points when Darrin Chiaverini hauled in a three-yard scoring pass from Wright with just over two minutes remaining. It wasn't until Eric Johnson recovered Seder's onside kick attempt with 1:21 left to play that Oakland was able to secure the win. ‘'When you have a three-touchdown lead and you allow them to get back in it, that's not good,'' lamented Gannon afterward.
‘'We had our opportunities. It's something we have to look at and address.'' The Raiders can thank their defense for this win. For most of the fourth quarter Dallas' offense operated deep inside Oakland's half of the field but could only manage the late touchdown by Chiaverini. Part of that was due to a run defense that corralled the Cowboys at every turn and forced Wright to pass on almost every snap in the game's final eight minutes. The Raiders twice stopped Dallas on fourth down with the Cowboys inside Oakland's own 15-yard line. ‘
'Our defense definitely got put in some tough situations,'' said Biekert. ‘'It just shows you that even when you play well, there's always room for improvement.''