Raiders defense takes down Chargers

Bill Romanowski owns four Super Bowl championship rings so the veteran linebacker obviously knows a thing or two about winning. And for all the numbers that Oakland's record-breaking offense has put up this season, Romanowski understands fully that the Raiders will only go as far as their defense takes them.



                       ''If we're going to be the team we want to be,'' said Romanowski, ''the defense has to play well at this time of year.''

            An obvious statement, to be sure, but a point that should not be overlooked, especially after the way the Raiders dismantled San Diego on Sunday. Without its best player and facing the second-most prolific back in the NFL, Oakland's defense forced three turnovers and held the Chargers to 67 yards rushing while paving the way for a 27-7 victory that gave the Raiders the upper hand in the chase for homefield advantage in the playoffs.

            San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, who burned Oakland for 153 yards and a game-winning 19-yard touchdown in overtime when the two teams played in October, might as well have been wearing a bullseye on Sunday. Wherever he turned, multiple masses of defenders came swarming his way.

            Tomlinson, second in the AFC in total rushing and coming off a team-record 220-yard performance a week earlier against Denver, had just 57 yards on 18 carries against the Raiders in the rematch and was effectively taken out of the game by a defense that was criticized heavily earlier in the season.

            Back then, the popular thinking was that Oakland was winning in spite of its defense. Though the team had shut down the likes of Shaun Alexander, Jerome Bettis and Eddie George in its first four games, the Raiders were still looked at as a team with holes on defense. When they dropped into a four-game losing streak, those holes started to look like canyons.

            That all changed when Oakland went into Denver and thumped the Broncos around rather handily. Since then, the Raiders and their defense have been on a roll.

            At 9-4, Oakland not only moves into sole possession of first place in the AFC West but the Raiders also gained a little breathing room in the race for homefield advantage. San Diego and Indianapolis had both been tied with Oakland for the best record in the AFC but both lost on Sunday, the Colts falling to Tennessee.

            The Raiders have now, in succession, defeated Denver, New England, Arizona, the Jets and San Diego. With the exception of the Cardinals, who are simply a waste of a franchise, each of those teams could easily land in the playoffs.

            But no team in the NFL is playing as well right now as the Raiders, who won their fifth straight game by beating San Diego.

            That they did it with defense was not only encouraging but critical since the Raiders weren't their normal selves on offense. Though Rich Gannon set an NFL record with his 10th 300-yard passing game of the season, Oakland didn't take control of game until the second half when the defense rose up and took a stand.

            First, they dropped Tomlinson for a three-yard loss on a fourth-and-one run, stalling the Chargers on their opening drive of the third quarter. Tory James then intercepted a Drew Brees pass at Oakland's 13-yard line to shut down another San Diego drive.

            Then, after Zack Crockett and Tyrone Wheatley both scored on short touchdown runs to push Oakland's lead to 27-7, the Raiders stopped the Chargers cold in the fourth quarter. Twice San Diego moved inside of the five-yard line but came away empty-handed both times.

            ''No matter what they did out there in the passing game and no matter what they did in the running game, we always felt we were in control,'' said Romanowski. ''The first time we played them it was (lack of) discipline. Today we had guys who were very detailed in their preparation and it showed.''

            It wasn't just Tomlinson who felt Oakland's wrath. Brees, the Chargers' quarterback prodigy, passed for just 239 yards and was intercepted three times, a huge accomplishment for the Raiders considering four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson was inactive for the game with an ankle injury. In fact, all four starters in Oakland's secondary had to miss practice this week for one reason or another yet the Raiders came up with easily their best all-around defensive effort of the year.

            ''I thought was our defense did was very dominant,'' said Oakland head coach Bill Callahan. ''Our guys came out and they were fresh, they were physical and they put a lot of hits on (Tomlinson). That was one of the deciding factors in the game. That's strong and you need that type of play out of your defense this team of year.''

            Oakland also got a nice effort from its special teams, which have been a season-long pain. But on the game's first play, Marcus Knight fielded the opening kickoff one yard deep in the end zone and returned it 65 yards to the San Diego 36-yard line. It was the longest such return by the Raiders since they lost return specialist Terry Kirby to a broken leg on Oct. 20, coincidentally against the Chargers.

            That gave quarterback Gannon all the room he needed to work and the Raiders wasted little time finding the end zone. Gannon completed three straight passes then handed the ball off to Charlie Garner three times, the last a four-yard burst through the middle of San Diego's defense for a touchdown to give Oakland the early lead.

            After a San Diego punt, Gannon went back to work. He hit tight end Roland Williams for a six-yard gain then found rookie Doug Jolley for a 33-yard completion down to the Chargers' 35. Three plays later Sebastian Janikowski boomed a 51-yard field goal to stretch Oakland's lead to 10-0 with five minutes remaining in the first quarter.

            The Chargers, who piled up 333 yards of offense against the Raiders when the two teams played in October, didn't get anything going until late in the second quarter after some questionable play-calling by Oakland. The Raiders were backed up at their own 11 but called three straight pass plays, all of them for Jerry Rice and all of them falling incomplete. That forced Oakland to punt but Shane Lechler's kick went just 34 yards, giving San Diego prime field position.

            Getting some help from the Raiders, who were called for two penalties including a pass interference call in the end zone, the Chargers marched 45 yards in seven plays, finally breaking onto the scoreboard when Tomlinson leaped over from a yard out with 5:04 left in the first half.

            Janikowski missed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide left but redeemed himself with a 20-yarder just before halftime, allowing Oakland to head into the break with a 13-7 lead. The score was set up by Rod Woodson's sixth interception of the season off a pass deflected into the air by  James.

            In the second half San Diego continued to try to run the ball and the Raiders continued to deny. There was no bigger play than when Anthony Dorsett, starting at strong safety due to an injury to Derrick Gibson, dropped Tomlinson for a three-yard loss when the Chargers tried to go for it on fourth-down. The play by Dorsett was key, as it prevented San Diego from even getting a shot at a field goal. It was also the best scoring chance the Chargers had in the second half up until the game's final moments.

            ''That's championship football right there,'' said Oakland wide receiver Tim Brown, lauding his defensive teammates. ''For them to shut that guy down ... our defense came out and did a heck of a job.''

            If they can continue, the Raiders might just make another trip to San Diego. That would be in January of course, when the Super Bowl comes to Southern California.



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