Raiders stumble in loss to Jets

<P>Jon Gruden has been called a magician for taking a team that was 4-12 in 1997 and turning them into a squad that has won the AFC West division title two years running. But if he is to keep the Raiders from making a hasty exit from the playoffs, Gruden is going to have to come up with one of his best tricks yet. </P>

Even then it might not be enough. After all, Oakland has found new and creative ways to lose almost every week since the middle of December and Sunday against the New York Jets was no different. This time it was newly signed kicker Brad Daluiso missing an extra point attempt and a chipshot field goal. It was Shane Lechler getting a punt blocked for only the second time in his lifetime and seeing it returned for a touchdown. It was quarterback Rich Gannon badly overthrowing a wide open Roland Williams late in the fourth quarter when the Raiders had a chance to seal a win and a first-round bye.

Instead it added up to a 24-22 win for the Jets, who got a late 53-yard field goal from John Hall to claw not only claw their way into the playoffs but also send Oakland stumbling to its third straight loss. And if things don't turn around quickly, the Raiders -- who were the first NFL team to clinch a playoff spot this season -- could be the first team knocked from the Super Bowl chase next week.

''We'll see what we're made of and what we can do next week,'' said Gruden, whose team lost for the fourth time in the last six weeks. ''Three weeks in a row we get beat on virtually the last play of the game. It's hard to breathe. It's hard to see straight. Hard, hard hard.''

 At 10-6 the Raiders still own the No. 3 seed in the AFC, but unlike the two teams ahead of them -- Pittsburgh and New England -- Oakland is hardly entering the playoffs with a head of steam. In their previous two losses, to Tennessee and Denver, the Raiders could pinpoint their problems. Against the Titans, it was the kicking game. Against the Broncos it was a combination of penalties and turnovers. Against the Jets, the mistakes came from everywhere.

It came from a defense that played solid for the most part but gave up a 40-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen and a 46-yard touchdown run to a rookie running back. It came from an offense that managed just two field goals in the second half. And it came from a special teams unit that had its worst game of the season.

 ''Things are happening for a reason and hopefully we can figure out why,'' said wide receiver Tim Brown, who had a quiet day with six catches for 57 yards. ''I don't really think it's execution. Everybody's where they're supposed to be. We just have to make a play.''

The Jets, needing a win to nab the final playoff spot in the AFC, didn't make many plays but the ones they did counted big. Take their opening drive for example. Starting its opening drive at the 46-yard line, New York needed just two plays to get into the end zone. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde hit Wayne Chrbet for a 14-yard completion, then connected with Laveranues Coles on a short wide receiver screen pass which the speedy Coles quickly turned into a 40-yard touchdown by getting around the tackle attempts of linebacker Elijah Alexander and cornerback Eric Allen. That quickly -- 57 seconds to be exact -- the Raiders found themselves staring at a seven-point deficit. Oakland's defense, though, rebounded nicely and forced the New York to punt on its next four possessions.

That allowed the Raiders offense to get its wheels in motion. Brad Daluiso's 23-yard field goal made it 7-3 before Tyrone Wheatley's three-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter gave Oakland its first lead of the game. Wheatley's touchdown was noteworthy not only because it was his first since Dec. 9 but more for the way it was set up.

The Raiders have become primarily a passing team this season and Gannon has already set team records this season for most attempts, completions and his 3,828 yards on the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. But in the first half against the Jets Oakland tried to pound the ball more than it has in recent weeks.

Charlie Garner carried the ball on six of the 10 plays during the Raiders first scoring drive before Wheatley powered his way into the end zone from three yards out. Daluiso missed the extra point attempt, however, keeping the lead at 9-7.

With their offense going nowhere in the first half the Jets needed a big play elsewhere and got it from their special teams unit. Chris Hayes went around long-snapper Aaron Graham to block Shane Lechler's punt and New York teammate Jason Glenn scooped the loose ball up at the Raiders' four-yard line and returned it for a touchdown.

Oakland caught a break of its own late in the first half when Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde missed badly on a pass to wide receiver Kevin Swayne and watched as the ball floated into the hands of nickel back Tory James, whose 34-yard return set the Raiders up at the New York 19. Two plays later Gannon found Roland Williams wide open near the goal line and lofted a perfect pass to the tight end for an 18-yard touchdown to give Oakland a 16-14 lead it would take into halftime.

The Raiders opened the second half with another Daluiso field goal, this one a nice shot from 44 yards out, extending Oakland's lead to 19-14. But Daluiso's kickoffs -- troublesome all afternoon -- kept giving the Jets great field position and eventually New York made it pay off with another huge gash against the Raiders defense. This time it was rookie running back LaMont Jordan who came up big for the Jets, taking a handoff from Testaverde and bursting through the line and into the clear, racing 46 yards for the first touchdown of his young NFL career.

The Raiders tried answering back but Daluiso shanked a 28-yard field goal attempt wide left after Oakland had driven down to the Jets 4-yard line. Another missed opportunity but certainly not the last. New York turned the ball over on its next two possesions but the Raiders could only manage a 38-yard field goal from Daluiso. That left Oakland with a 22-21 lead with 6:05 left to play, and when the Raiders sacked Testaverde on back-to-back plays and forced the Jets to punt, all they needed to do was run out the final 3:12 on the clock.

The chance to ice the game came on a third-down play when Gannon, needing just two yards for a first down, lofted a pass for Williams that sailed over the big tight end's head and fell incomplete. That gave New York one last shot and the Jets cashed in with when Hall's 53-yard field goal -- a season high -- soared through the uprights with 59 seconds remaining. And while the Jets celebrated wildly on the field, the Raiders -- after gaining no yardage on four straight downs -- were left to ponder yet another ugly loss.

''We gave up some big plays today and there's no excuse for that,'' lamented Gruden. ''Right now I've got to stick my head in an ice bucket.''


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