Raiders win AFC West in style

So much for finesse football. The Raiders, who have built their reputation this season on the strength of a wide-open passing game and a bend-not-break defense, changed strategies and decided to get a little physical with the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

Like a school-yard bully terrorizing the neighborhood, Oakland thumped the Broncos in the mouth, drilled them in the stomach and kicked them when they were down, leaving a trail of Denver players lying prone on the turf in the wake.

            Denver quarterback Brian Griese? Gone before halftime, thanks to a jaw-rattling hit from Oakland linebacker and one-time Bronco Bill Romanowski.

            Tight end Shannon Sharpe? A casualty in the second quarter after taking a helmet-to-the-chin shot from Raiders rookie Napoleon Harris.

            Wide receiver Ed McCaffrey? Sidelined in the second half after getting hammered by Oakland safety Derrick Gibson.

            And on, and on and on it went.

            By the time the Raiders had wrapped up their third consecutive AFC West division title with a 28-16 win over Denver, the Broncos could barely stagger off the field let alone put up a fight.

            ''We kicked their ass,'' said an obviously elated Romanowski, who spear-headed Oakland's defensive effort with nine tackles and a sack, one of a season-high six recorded by the Raiders on Sunday. ''We killed them, we swept them and it ain't over yet. It's just begun.''

            By defeating the Broncos and ending a seven-year reign of terror by Denver head coach Mike Shanahan, the Raiders (10-5) not only won the AFC West but put themselves in prime position to snag home-field advantage throughout the postseason. A win next week against Kansas City will secure a first-round bye and guarantee that Oakland won't have to leave the state of California throughout the playoffs.

            That includes the Super Bowl, which will be played this season in San Diego, a mere 500 miles down the road from Oakland on Interstate 5. That might be a premature thought at this point, of course, but one that has to be considered seriously after the way the Raiders thoroughly and completely took apart the Broncos.

            The stage was set for Oakland earlier in the weekend through a series of twists and turns in the topsy-turvy landscape of the AFC. Miami, which appeared to put a serious crimp in the Raiders' playoff plans a week earlier by beating the Raiders, got stunned by Minnesota on Saturday. Then on Sunday, just prior to kickoff against Denver, Oakland got a big lift when Indianapolis lost to the New York Giants and San Diego got tripped up by Kansas City.

            Buoyed by the turn of events and spurred on by a raucous sellout crowd of 62,592 roaring fans at Networks Associates Coliseum, the Raiders wasted no time in laying waste to the Broncos, who prior to this year had dominated the series by winning 12 of the last 14 games between the two teams.

            Denver, though, has been no match for Oakland this season. The Broncos were picked apart by Rich Gannon and company on the 500th broadcast of Monday Night Football in November, losing 34-10 in a game that wasn't even that close.

            Sunday's game in Oakland was a little closer as far as the final scoreboard tally was concerned, but in terms of pure domination, this one wasn't even fair.

            From their opening drive, when they marched 54 yards right through the heart of Denver's defense and into the end zone on a one-yard touchdown plunge by Zack Crockett, all the way until Eric Barton's game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter, this game was all Oakland.

            ''I thought our guys really worked hard for this, as they understood what was on the line,'' said Bill Callahan, who became only the second head coach in franchise history to win a division title in his first season. ''They answered the bell when it came to this situation.''

            And how.

            Oakland's offense got the ball rolling with a 54-yard scoring drive on its opening possession, Zack Crockett scoring the first of his two touchdowns to give the Raiders an early 7-0 lead.

            After Trace Armstrong's interception off a deflected pass gave Oakland the ball right back at the Broncos' 38-yard line, the Raiders again marched quickly and efficiently toward the end zone. Gannon, who only passed for 201 yards, came up with one of the game's biggest plays when, on third-and-goal from the Denver 3, he rolled to his left, cut back right to avoid a diving arm-tackle attempt by Broncos linebacker John Mobley, then dove into the end zone from a yard out for a touchdown that helped make it 14-0.

            Denver, on the other hand, couldn't get out of its own way. The Broncos' first five possessions resulted in a punt, interception, punt, interception and a turnover on downs. That second interception by Griese, which landed in the hands of Oakland safety Rod Woodson, set the table for a Gannon-to-Charlie Garner touchdown pass to push the lead to 21-0 less than three minutes into the second quarter.

            And that was before the Broncos started falling like flies.

            ''It was war out there,'' said Romanowski. ''We took the field and said, 'This is going to be a 60-minute war.' We said that the team that wins in the trenches will win the game, and we won the battle in the trenches. You could see that by the number of bodies out there.''

            Defensive end Regan Upshaw was even more succinct: ''I looked around and said, 'Man, this is like Gladiator,' '' said Upshaw, referring to the Russell Crowe movie. ''Guys were dropping everywhere.''

            Denver was able to collect itself enough to make it a little interesting in the second half. Back-up quarterback Steve Beuerlein came off the bench to lead a pair of scoring drives which, coupled with some sputtering by Oakland's offense, made things tighter than they should have been.

            But even after Clinton Portis' 2-yard touchdown run helped pull the Broncos within 21-16, the Raiders never flinched. Oakland gathered its bearings and put the game away for good on a short Crockett touchdown run with 6:58 left to play.

            Crockett's score capped a 57-yard drive in which the Raiders, who own the league's No.1-ranked passing offense, didn't put the ball in the air once. Instead, Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley took the lead from their defensive teammates and shoved the ball down Denver's throat.

            ''It feels good,'' said Gannon of winning the AFC West. ''But then at the same time, we have the Kansas City Chiefs coming up next week. We did not have our best game against them (earlier this season). I feel like there is some unfinished business there. We want to finish strong. That's our goal and we talked about it all season, finishing strong when it comes to December.''


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