Raiders slump continues

<P>It's too bad for the Raiders the NFL doesn't crown it's champion at mid-season. If that were the case, Oakland would be dusting off its trophy case and making room for another Lombardi Trophy. </P>

But that's just a fantasy, much like the image of the Raiders as one of the league's elite teams. After tearing through the first 10 weeks of the schedule and dominating opponents with relative ease, Oakland has quickly dissolved into an average team struggling to keep from completely dropping off the radar screen. Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Denver Broncos was just the latest example of how far the mighty have fallen.

Oakland, which easily handled the Broncos in the first meeting between the two teams this past November, had no such luck in the rematch. Instead, the Raiders killed themselves with penalties (eight) and turnovers (three) against a Denver team playing the role of spoiler.

The game against the Broncos was, as usual, a wild affair and one that went down to the wire. But essentially it came down to two plays. Two plays and two penalties that will undoubtedly keep head coach Jon Gruden up all night. In the second quarter cornerback Tory James intercepted Denver quarterback Brian Griese in the end zone, only to have the play negated by an offsides penalty by defensive tackle Darrell Russell. One play later Griese scored on a five-yard touchdown run.

Then with the Raiders trailing 20-17 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Rich Gannon looked like he had struck gold when he avoided an all-out Denver blitz and lofted a perfect strike to wide receiver Jerry Rice, who turned the completion into a 70-yard touchdown. Or so it seemed. Right guard Frank Middleton was hit with a controversial tripping penalty that erased Rice's touchdown and kept Oakland from regaining the lead.

''It's very agonizing because we had a chance to win the game,'' said Oakland linebacker William Thomas. ''Things just did go our way today. (Penalties) are costly and they cost us the game today.'' The Raiders are the fourth-most penalized team in the NFL, but none this season were bigger than the two against Russell and Middleton. The two penalties accounted for a 14-point swing, enough to make the difference in the end. Toss in the three turnovers by quarterback Rich Gannon, who had an otherwise brilliant afternoon, and the sum result was another disappointing afternoon for Oakland, which lost for the second straight week and for the third time in its last five games.

 That's not the way to prep for the postseason no matter how you dice it. With Pittsburgh losing to Cleveland, the Raiders had an opportunity to get back in the hunt for homefield advantage in the playoffs. They missed out on a chance to, if nothing else, virtually lock up no worse than the No. 2 seed and the all-important first-round bye. Instead Oakland now faces the distinct possibility of going into the playoffs as the AFC's third seed which would force them to play a wild-card team on the first weekend of the postseason.

''We've lost five games in the closing seconds this season,'' lamented Gruden after the loss to the Broncos. ''I don't know if when you look at the tape tomorrow you can say we played inept in any area. Yes, we have to play better. Hopefully we can get that done and get ready for the postseason.'' It might be a short stay in the playoffs if the Raiders don't get things turned around fast. In losing to the Broncos for the 12th time in the last 14 games between the two teams, Oakland wasted a solid afternoon from Gannon and an equally strong performance by the defense. Gannon, coming off his worst game statistically of the season in the loss to Tennessee, completed his first 16 passes of the game and finished 35-for-49 for 313 yards and two touchdowns.

The Raiders offense, which had struggled the last two weeks while scoring just two touchdowns and three field goals in splitting a pair of games against San Diego and Tennessee, came out moving the ball easily against Denver's defense. Gannon was particularly sharp, connecting on his first six pass attempts while driving Oakland 85 yards from its own six-yard line before Sebastian Janikowski came on to make a 28-yard field goal attempt.

The Broncos were unable to do anything with their first possession but caught a break after punting when linebacker Bill Romanowski blitzed on a third-and-five play and drilled Gannon, knocking the ball free. Denver's Bertrand Berry recovered, setting up a Jason Elam field goal that tied the score at 3-3.

While Denver's defense had its share of problems earlier in the season the Broncos have been playing well as of late, allowing an average of only 260 yards a game over the last four weeks. Romanowski's hit on Gannon was a perfect example of that, as he came untouched through the line to nail Oakland's quarterback. It would be the early theme for Denver, which took turns rushing just three defensive linemen and blitzing Gannon with a full complement of players.

The Broncos sacked Gannon three times and intercepted him twice. But it was hardly Denver's defense that won the game. Oakland aided the Broncos effort at almost every turn. After a sack by defensive end Keith Washington, the Raiders punted and gave the Broncos the ball near midfield. An encroachment penalty against the Raiders and two runs for 45 yards by Terrell Davis gave the Broncos the ball inside the 10-yard line, but Oakland's defense stiffened and forced Denver to settle for another Elam field goal.

Gannon's hot start was critical against Denver, which completely shut down Oakland's running game and forced the Raiders to pass. That didn't seem to be a problem, as Gannon dissected the Broncos with pinpoint accuracy. He connected on six straight passes to start a drive in the second half, one that culminated with a seven-yard touchdown toss to running back Charlie Garner. Denver, which hadn't been swept by the Raiders since 1994, came back to regain the lead with some help from Oakland's defense. Griese completed five of six attempts on the drive but Denver's but the Broncos biggest plays were a 15-yard facemask penalty against Rod Coleman and the offsides penalty against Russell that negated James' interception in the end zone. That kept the door open for Denver and Griese ran through it, scampering five yards for the touchdown one play after Russell's penalty.

The Raiders regained the lead in the third quarter when Gannon, after marching the offense from its own 21 down to Denver's 1, lofted a short touchdown toss to tight end Jeremy Brigham. That helped put Oakland ahead, 17-13, but it would be the last time the Raiders would score, at least on plays that stood. The Broncos used a methodical 76-yard scoring drive to go back ahead in the fourth quarter, getting 56 of them on the arm of Griese who was playing for the first time in three weeks. Griese's 12-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith with 9:59 left to play in the game put Denver up 20-17.

Gannon was intercepted on Oakland's next possession but came back later in the fourth quarter to hit Rice for what looked like a 70-yard touchdown play. As Rice danced into the end zone and the Raiders celebrated, a yellow flag near Middleton proved to be a cold slap in the face. Though television replays showed a Denver player falling over Middleton rather than being trippled, the penalty negated Rice's touchdown and eventually cost the the Raiders the game.

 ''I just know Rich got the ball off so quick it'd be hard to get a penalty,'' said Brigham. ''But that's why the refs get paid to do what they do.'' Gruden wasn't so diplomatic, though he refused to blame the loss on the penalty against Middleton. ''If that's tripping then I don't know,'' said Gruden. ''But I'm not going to sit here and cry about a call. You have to live with the circumstances.''

After Elam tacked on a 42-yard field goal to extend Denver's lead to 23-17, the Raiders had one final shot. Working with no timeouts and beginning at Oakland's own 25, Gannon quickly marched the team downfield by completing seven of his first eight passes on the drive. But the drive stalled out at the Broncos' 17-yard line and on fourth down Gannon's desperate heave into the end zone was picked off by Denver's Kenoy Kennedy.

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