Raiders keep pace in playoff race

It wasn't exactly the springboard the Raiders were looking for to jump off into the month of December and the heat of the playoff chase, but for a team that has had its fair share of problems in the final month of the year it was good enough.



                      Despite another plethora of penalty flags and a sluggish start by the offense, Oakland held off the New York Jets, 26-20, and continued its assault on the NFL's record books.

            On a night when Tim Brown caught the 1,000th pass of his career and Rich Gannon tied the league record for most 300-yard games in a single season, the Raiders became the first team in NFL history to win its first four games of the season, lose its next four and then win four more in a row.

            ''I just take my hat off to the resiliency of this team, to be able to bounce back from despair,'' said right tackle Lincoln Kennedy. ''We've got to find ways to win and sometimes you have to win ugly. We still have a long ways to go. We can't take our hats off or rest yet.''

            That's because at 8-4 Oakland finds itself tied with the San Diego Chargers for first place in the AFC West. The Raiders travel to San Diego to meet those same Chargers next week in a game that could decide the division title.

            Oakland also kept pace in the hunt for homefield advantage, sharing the AFC's best record with San Diego and Indianapolis.

            That the Raiders are still in such a position is remarkable enough considering the shape they were in just a short time ago. In fact, a game like the one they trotted out against the Jets likely would have ended in defeat a month ago.

            But in one of those strange, storybook-type seasons, Oakland overcame the miscues and held off a late Jets rally to send the 62,257 screaming fans at Networks Associates Coliseum home happy.

            ''This was a big game for us,'' said linebacker Bill Romanowski, a veteran of four Super Bowl victories. ''It's when great teams make a move. You have to start momentum in December. This to me was a playoff game with a playoff atmosphere.''

            In one aspect, it was a game of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force.

            The Jets came in riding a four-game winning streak and carrying a defense that had not allowed a 300-yard passer in 31 consecutive games. Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, on the other hand, had topped the mark eight times in Oakland's previous 11 games, one shy of the NFL record for a single season.

            Instead of being a classic showdown of the Raiders offense against the Jets defense, however, the first half wound up being a classic example of why Oakland still can't be considered the favorite in the AFC.

            Oakland's offense, No. 1 in the NFL for average yards and points per game entering the night, wasn't real impressive coming out of the gates. Though Gannon passed for 85 yards in the first quarter the Raiders had only three points to show for it. That's because the team's season-long Achilles heel -- penalties -- kept derailing whatever the offense had going. On their second drive alone the Raiders picked up three false starts and a holding call.      

            That kept Oakland's high-powered offense from taking flight and kept the Jets, who were having their own problems getting the offense going, within arm's reach. Sebastian Janikowski provided the only scoring of the game through the first 20 minutes, connecting on field goals from 23 and 48 yards out, as Oakland took a 6-0 lead midway through the second quarter.

            The Raiders dodged one bullet when Rod Woodson blocked John Hall's 35-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter but the good fortune evaporated quickly on New York's next drive.

            Jets' quarterback Chad Pennington, the NFL-leader in passing efficiency, hit Wayne Chrbet with a 37-yard completion and then found Lavernius Coles for 14 more on the next play. Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson followed with an 18-yard pass interference call that help set up Pennington's six-yard scoring toss to back-up fullback Jerald Sowell.

            The Raiders got the ball back with 1:52 left and, with all three timeouts to work with, appeared to be in good shape to try to escape with a little momentum on their side. But Oakland kept shooting itself in the foot, this time with a holding call on Jerry Rice and another on guard Frank Middleton. Both penalties erased plays that went for first downs and forced the Raiders to punt.

            A wobbly, line-drive kick by punter Shane Lechler landed in the hands of New York's Santana Moss at the Jets' 44-yard line and Moss, after picking up a block near midfield, cut to his right and raced down to Oakland's 28. New York, which didn't have any timeouts, tried three plays before settling for a 36-yard field goal from Hall, giving the Jets a 10-6 halftime lead.

            ''There were some instances in the first half where we stubbed our toe,'' said Raiders head coach Bill Callahan. ''We were our own worst enemy. We tried to pick up the tempo early in the game and I thought guys got a little jumpy. We need to correct it.''

            If the Raiders could take heart in anything it's that they've been one of the NFL's best teams when it comes to scoring on their opening possession of the second half. True to script, Oakland took its first drive in the third quarter and calmly marched 76 yards downfield for a touchdown.

            On the drive Gannon hit Brown for a six-yard completion that was Brown's fourth catch of the night and the 1,000th of his career. The game was stopped momentarily for a brief celebration as Brown's mother was brought onto the field to share in the moment with her son, but when play resumed it wasn't Brown whom Gannon went looking for.

            Instead, Gannon hit Jerry Rice in stride cutting across the field for a 26-yard touchdown, the 203rd such touchdown of Rice's career.

            Oakland added to its lead later in the same quarter when Zack Crockett bulled into the end zone from a yard out, capping a short scoring drive that was set up when Marcus Knight's hit on Chad Morton during a punt forced a fumble. Adam Treu recovered the loose ball for the Raiders at the Jets' 12-yard line and four plays later Crockett's scoring run made it 20-10.

            But Pennington and the Jets would not go quietly. First, they scored on a 45-yard field goal from John Hall to cut the deficit to 20-13. Then, after Janikowski converted on a 36-yard field goal, New York ripped off a 71-yard touchdown drive in less than two minutes. Throwing on every down, Pennington completed five of his six attempts, the last one finding Wayne Chrbet in the back of the end zone for the score that made it 23-20 with 5:28 remaining.

            The Raiders couldn't run the clock out but they did get another Janikowski field goal, then had to hold on and wait as Pennington tried to rally the Jets one last time. He got New York close, getting to Oakland's 35-yard line with 36 seconds left but a sack by Rod Coleman and an interception by Rod Woodson sealed the win for the Raiders.

            ''Now's the opportunity for us to take complete control of the AFC, homefield advantage and all of that,'' said Brown.''


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