Raiders win shootout in Buffalo

After three blowout victories to start the season, Raiders head coach Bill Callahan had quietly talked about the need for his team to play a close game. And through three quarters in Buffalo on Sunday, Oakland got all they could handle and then some against Drew Bledsoe and the Bills.

Buffalo's quarterback, who has been reborn since being traded to the Bills in the offseason, gave the Raiders fits as he sliced and diced his way to a 400-yard day. But when push came to shove, Oakland's secondary got the last laugh as Tory James intercepted Bledsoe twice while rookie Phillip Buchanon's 81-yard interception return for a touchdown provided the spark the Raiders needed en route to a 49-31 victory.

 

The win, coupled with San Diego's loss to Denver, leaves Oakland as the lone remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. At 4-0, the Raiders have matched their best start since 1990 when they eventually played in the AFC Championship. The opponent in that game? These same Buffalo Bills, who handed the Raiders a 51-3 thumping that afternoon, a dismaying defeat that sent the Silver and Black franchise into a decade-long slide.

 

Most of the key components from that game are long gone so to call this sweet revenge might be a stretch. Instead just call it another in a line of impressive performances by the undefeated Raiders, who are just one win shy of setting the franchise record for most consecutive victories to start a season.

 

''Wins are hard to come by in this league and I don't think anybody on this team envisioned coming out 4-0,'' said Callahan, the first-ever Raiders rookie head coach to start his career with four straight wins. ''We take one game at a time and the focus is there to do this, so it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. But to come away early in the year with two wins on the East Coast is huge.''

 

Oakland has now knocked off Seattle, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Buffalo. Hardly the crop of the NFL the way things are turning out this season, but four wins in four weeks adds up nicely no matter the opposition.

 

 Unlike the Seahawks, Steelers or Titans, all three of which fell behind Oakland early and were forced to play catch-up, the Bills (2-3) made the Raiders sweat a little for their latest win.

 

Bledsoe, who entered the game leading the NFL in passing yards while also carrying the league's No. 2 quarterback rating, could seemingly do no wrong against Oakland, as he matched Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon step for step through much of the game.

 

The former New England Patriot, reborn in Buffalo following a somewhat surprising offseason trade to the Bills, was having a field day against Oakland's defensive backs, particularly Buchanon who was making his second straight start in place of injured Charles Woodson.

 

Bledsoe made sure he knew where Buchanon was on every play and made it a point to go at the young rookie early and often. Buchanon struggled matching up against Peerless Price and Eric Moulds, who combined caught 15 passes for 238 yards against the Raiders. On more than one occasion the Bills wideouts left Buchanon looking like a lost tourist without a map, so easily were they able to distance themselves from him.

 

But in the fourth quarter, with the Bills trailing 35-31 in a game that featured four lead changes, Bledsoe would go to the well one time too many. Having already led Buffalo on three 80-yard scoring drives as well as one that went 98 yards, Bledsoe moved his offense from its own 20 down to Raiders 27 when he got away with an errant pass that skipped off the fingertips of Buchanon and fell incomplete. On the next play Bledsoe again tried to go at Buchanon but underthrew a pass intended for Price. Buchanon intercepted the ball at Oakland's 19, broke one tackle then found a seam and raced down the sidelines for an 81-yard touchdown return.

 

That gave the Raiders some much-needed breathing room and allowed the defense, which had been struggling, to let loose on the Bledsoe and the Buffalo offense. Second-year defensive end DeLawrence Grant came through with a sack, as did linebacker Bill Romanowski, to pin the Bills deep near their own goal line. A Bledsoe heave on a desperation deep pass came up empty, forcing Buffalo to punt.

 

That's all that Gannon and Oakland's offense needed to put the game out of reach. First, Gannon hit Jerry Rice for 12 yards. One play later he connected with Jerry Porter down the middle of the field for a gain of 36. Then Gannon went back to Rice, who had been erratic for most of the game, and found him for a 20-yard touchdown that wound up being the final nail in Buffalo's coffin.

 

 ''I was very proud of how the club handled the adversity, not having been in this type of situation before,'' said Callahan. ''They stayed mentally strong, tough and they just hung in there. It was one of those games that was a sea-saw battle, very tight. It was fun.''

 

Both teams started the game slowly on offense, each punting on their first two possessions. The Raiders finally started to shake the sleep from their eyes midway through the first quarter and moved the ball effectively against the Bills primarily through the air. Oakland's biggest gain on the ground in the first half came on a 24-yard scramble by Gannon, who two plays later found Porter streaking toward the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown pass.

 

Porter finished with a team-high seven receptions for 117 yards, his first-ever 100-yard game in the NFL.

 

Buffalo followed suit and went right after Buchanon. For most of the game Buchanon found himself paired against  Price, who took the youngster to school during much of the afternoon. Running crisp, precision routes Price caught two wide open passes as Buffalo quickly moved from its own 20-yard line down to Oakland's two. From there, Price ran a short inside-out pattern to shake Buchanon and was all alone in the end zone when Drew Bledsoe's pass settled into his hands for the tying touchdown.

 

 Things were just starting to heat up at that point.

 

On the Raiders next drive Gannon connected on a deep pass with Rice, who had to make a nice play to get a ball that was severely under-thrown. The 33-yard reception set Oakland up at Buffalo's 37 and two plays later Charlie Garner found a hole off the left side and broke through for a 35-yard gain. Gannon's one-yard sprint around the left end capped the drive and put the Raiders back ahead, 14-7.

 

But Buffalo kept coming and again attacked Buchanon with Price. On first down, Price streaked down the right sidelines and beat the rookie, who could do nothing but grab at Price's left arm which resulted in a 41-yard pass interference call. Then the Bills got some help from the Raiders.

 

 First, cornerback Tory James fell while covering rookie Josh Reed, who hauled in a 38-yard completion from Bledsoe. On the next play Oakland linebacker Eric Barton tripped while trying to stay with tight end David Moore, who was then able to easily grab Bledsoe's two-yard scoring toss.

 

The Raiders answered back with another quick score, this time getting a 25-yard pass from Gannon to Porter that set up a picture-perfect 36-yard scoring run by Garner. On the touchdown by Garner, Gannon faked an inside handoff to fullback Jon Ritchie then flipped the ball to the right for Garner, who scampered around the right end, picked up a big block downfield from Rice then raced down the sidelines for the score.

 

Leading 21-14 the Raiders had a chance to add on but Rice dropped a long pass from Gannon on third down that would have set Oakland up deep in Buffalo territory. Instead, the Bills forced a punt and took over at their own two-yard line following a holding penalty on the punt return. No worries, though, as Bledsoe hit Price for 14 yards then connected with Price again on a 54-yard completion after James again tripped while in coverage. A 25-yard completion to fullback Larry Centers moved the ball to the Oakland five and from there Centers bulled his way into the end zone.

 

Five plays, 80 yards, 52 seconds. Just that quick, just that easy and the score was tied at halftime.

 

The offensive fireworks continued into the second half, with Buffalo easily marching to a 30-yard field goal to open the third quarter. That gave the Bills a 24-21 lead, only the second time this season that the Raiders have trailed.

 

A James interception off Bledsoe set Oakland up for its fourth touchdown, a one-yard plunge by Zack Crockett that made it 28-24 for the Raiders but Buffalo regained the lead with a two-yard touchdown run by Travis Henry four minutes later.

 

Oakland finally went ahead for good when Garner slid out of the backfield and caught a short pass from Gannon that he turned into a 69-yard touchdown, outracing Buffalo linebacker London Fletcher into the end zone.

           


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