Through the first month of the season the Raiders offense garnered most of the headlines and highlights while the defense remained mired in obscurity. But after the performance against Philadelphia on Sunday, it's sufficient to say Oakland's defense isn't playing second fiddle to anyone anymore.
The Raiders controlled the line of scrimmage and kept Philadelphia's fleet-footed quarterback, Donovan McNabb, under wraps all afternoon, paving the way for an easier-than-expected 20-10 win over the Eagles at Veterans Stadium. The Eagles managed just 176 yards of total offense and did not convert a third-down opportunity until the game's waning moments.
McNabb, who had thrown 10 touchdowns and was the NFC's fourth-rated passer entering the game, was shut out of the end zone and was held to 133 yards on 12-of-27 passing in what was one of his worst afternoon's as a pro.
''That was a real good sign of discipline by our defense,'' said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. ''The defensive line really limited (McNabb's) scrambling opportunities where he's dangerous and our guys really covered well on the outside. Our ability to keep Philly in third-and-long situations maybe minimized what they wanted to do tonight.''
For Oakland the game was supposed to be a measuring stick of sorts. Though they had just one loss beforehand, the Raiders had yet to beat a team with a winning record. The upstart Eagles were leading the NFC East at 3-2 and could have positioned themselves nicely by beating Oakland. Instead, the Raiders controlled the game from the onset and were never really threatened. Given the parity that has settled into the rest of the NFL, the Raiders have to be feeling pretty good about things.
At 5-1 they've now won four games in a row, sit alone atop the AFC West and have the best record in the conference heading into next week's crucial divisional clash with Denver. They'll do so with a team confidence that is at an all-time high this season following the win over Philadelphia. The Eagles entered the game with the league's stingiest pass defense and a blitz-heavy scheme that had accounted for 17 sacks, third-most in the NFL.
But the Raiders moved the ball almost at will against Philadelphia in the first half and kept quarterback Rich Gannon out of harm's way. That was critical, as Gannon was able to spread the ball around to keep the Eagles guessing by spreading the ball around to his receivers. Gannon completed seven of his first 10 passes to six different receivers, finishing the game 17-for-26 for 158 yards. More importantly, Gannon was sacked just once while the Raiders dropped McNabb four times.
''We controlled the ball and made plays when we needed to,'' said Oakland wide receiver Jerry Rice. ''Once we got up on them, they had to press the situation just a little bit. So we did what it took to win this game. But there's a lot of room for improvement and that's really scary.'' It was behind Gannon that Oakland scored its first touchdown and set the tone for the rest of the game.
Beginning at his own 20-yard line, Gannon completed six straight passes, including a key third-down reception by Jerry Porter that set the Raiders up with a first-and-goal at the Eagles' 7. Two plays later, running back Charlie Garner bulled his way into the end zone from two yards out for the touchdown. The Raiders had a golden opportunity on their next drive but couldn't cash in after taking possession at the Eagles' 49.
Oakland drove down to the Philadelphia 15 before back-to-back penalties on the offensive line pushed the Raiders out of field goal position and forced them to punt. With the Eagles' own offense struggling -- just 38 yards in the first half -- the Raiders were able to control the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Even when he was on the field, McNabb couldn't find his groove and repeatedly misfired passes to his receivers. Sebastian Janikowski's 42-yard field goal late in the second quarter extended Oakland's lead to 10-0, a comfortable margin at the time. But just when the Raiders thought they could relax, McNabb warmed up enough to lead a late Eagles' scoring drive. He needed just two completions to push Philadelphia into scoring range, getting a great catch-and-run by Duce Staley, who turned a short completion into a 29-yard gain after missed tackles by Oakland's Anthony Dorsett and Darrell Russell.
''Duce Staley has done that in the past,'' said Gruden. ''We've just got to make a better play there.'' The Raiders defense held solid, though, forcing the Eagles to settle for a 34-yard field goal from David Akers to make it 10-3 at the half. Oakland continued to pound the ball straight at the heart of Philadelphia's defense in the second half while the Eagles offense was hard-pressed just to make a first down. That proved to be a nice combination for the Raiders, who all but iced the game in the third quarter on a touchdown run by Zack Crockett and a 34-yard field goal from Janikowski.
''We wanted to come in and control the tempo of the game,'' said Garner, who led the Raiders with a season-high 77 yards on 21 carries. ''We knew they would be blitzing and there would be a potential for big plays downfield.'' Oakland got its fair share of big plays against the Eagles' top-ranked defense, but perhaps none was more critical than Garner's 22-yard run in the third quarter. The Raiders had moved from their own 37 down to Philadelphia's 27 when Gannon noticed a crease in the Eagles' defense and changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Garner, taking the lion's share of carries in the absence of Tyrone Wheatley, took the handoff from Gannon and tore into the Eagles' defense, rumbling down to the Philadelphia 5-yard line before being hauled down. That set up Crockett's touchdown plunge and from that point on the game was never in doubt.
The ever-fickle Philadelphia fans began streaming out of the Vet shortly thereafter, leaving the Raiders to celebrate the win. ''This was a great win for our team,'' said Gruden, whose teams are now 4-0 in game's following a bye. ''Rich Gannon stepped up, made some good audibles early and made some real dynamic plays with his feet. This was a tough place to play. What can you say?''