More importantly, the Raiders halted their free-fall that had threatened to knock them out of the playoff hunt even before the calendar reached December. In hammering the Broncos, 34-10, Oakland ended its four-game losing streak and won in Denver for the first time since 1994.
The Raiders desperately needed the win against the Broncos. The four-game losing streak had Oakland backed into a corner playing for its playoff lives. A loss to Denver wouldn't necessarily have doomed the Raiders but it would have made life tough in the coming weeks. With defending Super Bowl champion New England coming for a game next Sunday night, Oakland's margin for error has been thinned out.
The victory in Denver gives the Raiders a bit of breathing room and more significantly it keeps Oakland in contention in the AFC West. The Broncos fell to 6-3 and are tied with San Diego atop the division. The Raiders, who would have been all but eliminated from the playoff hunt with a loss, suddenly sits one game out of first place at 5-4.
''The NFL is fickle,'' said Oakland safety Rod Woodson, whose 98-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter gave the Raiders a much-needed spark. ''We were the worst team since sliced bread. 'They were over the hill, they're out of it.' Now we're back in it.''
Rice scored career touchdowns 200 and 201, ongoing NFL records, and Armstrong picked up his first sack as a Raider and the 100th of his career. But the night belonged to Gannon, who passed for more than 300 yards for the seventh time in nine games.
Gannon finished the game having completed 34 of 38 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 21 straight passes in the second half, bettering the NFL's single-game record held by former Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson.
''After the way we played the last month, we needed a game like this to get us going,'' said Gannon, who accounted for 364 of the Raiders 374 total yards of offense. ''It wasn't like we were throwing it 50 times but our aggressiveness was there. We had answers tonight and that was the big thing.''
The Raiders got things started off on the right foot when they took the opening drive and scored on Sebastian Janikowski's 47-yard field goal. It was the first time since Sept. 29 that Oakland scored on its first drive. In the five games between then, the Raiders had two missed field goals, a blocked field goal and two punts.
Scoring on the opening drive was a staple of Oakland's during its 4-0 start and getting the quick three against the Broncos was a promising sign for the Raiders' offense, which was averaging only 16 points in the last four weeks after boasting an average of 40.5 through the first four weeks of the regular season.
With a respectable offense of their own, the Broncos tried to answer back and looked in prime shape when they drove from their own 38 to Oakland's four-yard line. But on second-and-goal, Denver quarterback Brian Griese threw a short pass over the middle that was intended for running back Clinton Portis but instead landed in the arms of Raiders safety Rod Woodson.
Woodson, who already owns the NFL record for most interception returns for touchdowns, snagged the ball at his own two-yard line and raced up the right sidelines, needing only to beat Denver tackle Matt Lepsis. Woodson did that easily then survived a late scare from Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith to get into the end zone with a 98-yard interception return that gave Oakland a surprising 10-0 lead.
The Raiders tacked on another three points to their early lead when Janikowski, who has been as erratic as anyone over the past four weeks, nailed a 32-yard field goal with 12:09 left in the first half.
Denver, which entered the game with a 6-2 record and leading the AFC West, finally broke onto the scoreboard late in the second quarter. Using a nice blend of the running game and getting just enough from Griese, the Broncos used a 13-play drive to march 68 yards right through the heart of Oakland's defense. The Raiders helped out with two penalties on the drive and would have gotten a third for 12 men on the field on Portis' one-yard touchdown plunge that closed the gap to 13-7.
But Oakland's offense kept on coming. With Gannon nearly flawless, the Raiders took advantage of the Broncos' defensive strategy, which saw Denver lining up with four defensive linemen but dropping eight and often nine players into coverage. That allowed Gannon plenty of time to find open receivers, which he did frequently.
Passing on every play, Gannon marched the Raiders efficiently downfield. Gannon completed eight straight passes to five different receivers, finding Rice in the left corner of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown pass that capped an 80-yard drive. It was the 200th career touchdown for Rice, an ongoing NFL record that won't be challenged anytime soon.
More importantly for Oakland, it increased the lead to 21-7 after Gannon's two-point conversion pass to Jerry Porter. The 21 points were more than Oakland had in the first half in any of its four previous games. In fact, the Raiders had scored 21 points total just once since putting up 49 against Buffalo on Oct. 6.
''No one thought we could come here to Denver and win,'' said Rice, who finished the game with nine receptions, 103 yards and two touchdowns. ''We proved everybody wrong.''
Gannon kept up his torrid pace in the second half, bringing up memories of his 64-attempt game against Pittsburgh in Week 2. Though he didn't throw the ball 64 times against the Broncos, Gannon was nevertheless just as effective, if not more so.
Six weeks shy of his 37th birthday, Gannon smoked Denver and put the game away with two masterful drives. He completed 11 consecutive passes while driving the Raiders 96 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, finding Jerry Porter with a picture-perfect 22-yard scoring strike.
After the Broncos mysteriously settled for a 27-yard field goal from Jason Elam despite trailing by 20 points at the time, Gannon and the Raiders went back to work. Gannon completed his next two passes, giving him 21 straight completions. Only Joe Montana, who had 22 consecutive completions, has a longer streak in the NFL, but Montana's came over a two-game stretch.
Gannon's streak ended when he skipped a pass to a wide open Rice, but by then the game's outcome was a moot point. Gannon had another incompletion three plays later but rebounded with one of his best passes of the season, a 34-yard strike that went just beyond the reach of Denver cornerback Tyrone Poole and into the waiting hands of Rice.
''The most significant aspect of (Gannon's) game was his ability to make big plays,'' said Raiders head coach Bill Callahan. ''That was where he elevated. We needed to throw. We respected Denver and (its) ability to stop the run. We wanted to get in some runs but we just took what we wanted to take throwing the ball.''
As the Raiders celebrated their 34-10 lead, most of the 75,822 in attendance began bolting for the exits, a sweet sight for Oakland, which had not won a game in Denver since 1994, when the organization was still based in Los Angeles.