Raiders win in the Arizona

They're still too vulnerable in a few key spots to be considered the AFC's best team at this point of the season, but the Raiders' 41-20 convincing win over hapless Arizona on Sunday did cement Oakland's position as the NFL's best offense.

Quarterback Rich Gannon passed for 340 yards and three touchdowns, running back Charlie Garner chipped in with 182 yards in total offense, and the Raiders' double-Jerry-dip -- Rice and Porter -- combined for 177 yards and three touchdowns as Oakland throttled the sinking Cardinals and inched its way one more rung up the NFL's food chain.

            Arizona, which upset the Raiders in overtime last year, was never a serious threat this time around, though Oakland did its best to keep the Cardinals from getting blown out.

            There were the 13 penalties for 105 yards, two of which negated touchdowns, a third which sustained an Arizona scoring drive and a fourth which cost the Raiders a potential scoring opportunity at the end of the first half.

            There was the run defense, which was gouged by little-known Marcel Shipp for 122 yards in the first half before the Raiders tightened the screws thanks, in no small part, to the offense which helped Oakland maintain no worse than 14-point lead the entire second half.

            The bad-and-getting-worse saga of the Raiders' special teams also continued, which can't make Bob Casullo, the man calling the shots for said unit, feel much better about his job security.

            Nevertheless, with an offense that is putting up 412.6 yards and piling up an average of 29.8 points per game, such blips on the radar screen are a little easier to swallow.

            Gannon, who now needs just one more 300-yard game to tie the NFL record for most in a single season, carved the Cardinals up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Gannon completed 27 of 45 attempts while guiding Oakland's top-ranked offense to a season-high 520 yards and would have had a fourth touchdown pass were it not for an offsides call against Porter.

            ''We're really clicking and on the same page right now,'' said Raiders center Barret Robbins. ''You have to understand, when you have an offense that's as wide open as this one is, what we have to do is protect the quarterback because they're sending everybody to blitz sometimes. But we know what to do and where to go.''

            Gannon obviously wasn't alone in Sunday's heroics. Garner, who would easily be the team's MVP were it not for his quarterback, rushed for 100 yards, the first time he's hit the century-yard mark since tallying 127 in a season-opening win over Seattle.

            Oakland, which has been criticized for its ability to run the ball with any consistency this season, also got 82 yards on the ground from Tyrone Wheatley as the Raiders piled up 187 rushing yards total against Arizona.

            Like Garner and the running game, Porter was simply too much for the Cardinals to handle. Porter, who is showing every sign that he's ready to take over as the Raiders' No. 1 receiver as soon as Rice and Tim Brown finally decide to retire, had a field day against Arizona's overmatched secondary, pulling in five passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns.

            Rice, though, shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. He, too, devoured the Cardinals' cornerbacks, catching seven passes for 110 yards and scored on a beautiful 37-yard touchdown pass from Gannon in the third quarter.

            All of it good signs indeed, particularly for an Oakland team that was coming off emotional back-to-back wins over Denver and New England. Facing an Arizona team that had lost four straight heading into Sunday's game, the Raiders had been cautious of getting caught looking ahead like they were a year ago when the Cardinals rolled into Oakland in December and pulled off a 34-31 overtime victory.

            There was no such upset this year. The Raiders shook off whatever the Cardinals threw at them and put the game out of reach with a third-quarter blowout when they outscored Arizona 17-0.

            The win enabled Oakland to keep pace in the AFC West. At 6-4 the Raiders remained one game behind Denver and are tied with San Diego for second place, a nice spot to be heading into the home stretch of the season. Three of Oakland's next five games are against teams from the AFC West and the Raiders get perhaps the NFL's hottest team in the New York Jets next Monday night.

            Thus beating the Cardinals, and doing it convincingly, was an important achievement for the Silver and Black.

            ''This is a tough division,'' said Oakland head coach Bill Callahan. ''It's nip and tuck right now and every game counts. I'm really proud of our guys for keeping their focus because of the significance of this game. It's easy to let down in a game like this ... but guys prepared hard and focused tremendously hard.''

            In almost every way, shape and form, this was a tale of two teams heading in opposite directions. The Raiders, having survived a four-game losing streak earlier in the year, are priming themselves for a playoff run while the Cardinals, fighting for first place in the NFC West just a month ago, are struggling to keep imploding.

            And it was Arizona's mistakes in the first quarter that helped Oakland get off to a big start.

            The Raiders didn't score on their opening possession but got a big break when Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer fumbled on the first play of the Cardinals' second drive. Plummer and Shipp went in opposite directions on a running play, leaving Plummer stumbling around in the backfield as Oakland's Trace Armstrong closed in and knocked the ball free. Shipp tried to scoop the ball up but was hit by linebacker Eric Barton, allowing Raiders defensive end DeLawrence Grant to fall on it for the recovery at Arizona's 13-yard line.

            Oakland had a chance to immediately cash in but a holding penalty on Jerry Rice negated Charlie Garner's 13-yard touchdown run. No problem. Five plays later, Gannon found Jerry Porter on a quick, inside slant route that went for seven yards and a touchdown.

            Plummer, who engineered last year's 34-31 overtime upset of the Raiders, gave Oakland another gift later in the first quarter when he underthrew a pass that landed square in the hands of linebacker Eric Barton, whose short return set the Raiders up at the Cardinals' 33.

            An end-around by Tim Brown netted three yards before Garner took over. He took a handoff from Gannon on Oakland's next play and burst 21 yards up the middle, then scampered around the left side of the line behind blocks from Roland Williams and Jon Ritchie for another nine yards and a touchdown.

            With Plummer showing no signs of coming out of his slump, the Cardinals shifted gears in the second quarter and started to go to Shipp. With Thomas Jones out for the season after breaking his hand earlier in the week, Shipp is the only true threat Arizona has on the ground and he made believers out of the Raiders.

            Shipp had runs of 17 and 26 yards then, following a 31-yard pass from Plummer to Frank Sanders, burst untouched into the end zone from three yards out to put the Cardinals on the board.

            But the Raiders kept countering Arizona's use of Shipp with a steady dose of Porter. The third-year receiver opened and closed Oakland's next drive, beginning it with a 26-yard catch-and-run then ending it with a diving 14-yard touchdown reception to help push the lead to 21-7.

            The Cardinals, though, continued to ride Shipp. Arizona had been forced to punt on its next drive but the Raiders were called for too many men on the field, keeping the Cardinals' offense -- and more importantly, Shipp -- on the field.

            Shipp made Oakland pay for its mistake with a 39-yard burst right through the heart of the Raiders' defense. Only a Rod Woodson tackle at the 10-yard line saved a touchdown but it was only temporary. Plummer later hit fullback Joel Makovicka for a one-yard touchdown to pull Arizona within 21-14 with 1:08 remaining in the first half.

            That would be as close as the Cardinals would get, however. The Raiders put the game away for all intents and purposes with a lengthy touchdown drive to start the third quarter, the second straight week in which Oakland has drove a team into the ground coming out of halftime.

            Wheatley's two-yard touchdown run capped an 11-play, 62-yard drive that took 4:59 off the clock as the Raiders extended their lead to 28-14. Oakland took a risk on the series, going for it on fourth-and-short, but Gannon hit Brown with a 12-yard completion to keep the drive going.

            Gannon would later find Rice for the 37-yard touchdown while Sebastian Janikowski made field goals from 37 and 51 yards out to round out the scoring.

            ''The old cliché is that the worst animal is a wounded animal,'' said Wheatley of the Cardinals. ''The coaches put out a great format and we just did what we're supposed to do.''

 


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