One down, two to go

The New York Jets might have been the hottest team in the NFL heading into Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game in Oakland but they left as just another bug on the silver and black windshield. And now, for the second time in three years the Raiders find themselves just one step away from the promised land.

This one stretched far beyond the 30-10 final tally on the scoreboard that blazed brightly in the Northern California night as 62,207 fans celebrated wildly in the stands. After a week of listening to the Jets pound their chests while the national media proclaimed them the best thing since sliced bread, the Raiders went out and showed the rest of the country they deserve a little chest-pounding of their own.

            In a game that featured a near brawl between the two teams during pre-game introductions, Oakland simply stood up and made the rest of the country take notice with a thorough and convincing win that ended New York's season and pushed the Raiders within arm's length of football supremacy.

            They did it on a day when their two Hall of Fame-bound receivers barely made a ripple in the big scheme of things. They did it on a day when their most acclaimed pass rusher watched the entire afternoon from the sidelines wearing a sweat suit while their top two cornerbacks pranced around the field with newly inserted metal plates in their legs.

            They did it on a day in which, after two straight years of playoff disappointment, they would not be denied.

            ''This team is on a mission,'' said wide receiver Jerry Rice, whose nine-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter broke the game open. ''All year long we went through some adversity and we kept fighting. We stayed together. In this profession all you ask for is an opportunity. We have an opportunity now.''

            By beating the Jets for the second time this season, Oakland gained the rights to play host to the Tennessee Titans in next week's AFC Championship game. The two teams met earlier this season in Week Three, a 52-25 Raiders win that established Oakland as the early conference favorite.

            Though they stumbled near midseason, the Raiders regained that status with an impressive 7-1 record in the second half of the regular season which earned them homefield advantage and a first-round bye.

            That week off was critical because it allowed Oakland's injury-plagued defensive secondary to heal and it also allowed head coach Bill Callahan and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman extra time to prepare for the Jets.

            Noting that New York would try to take away the short underneath passing game that has been so successful for the Raiders this season, Callahan and Trestman decided to open things up against the Jets and their three-deep zone coverage Sunday.

            Quarterback Rich Gannon passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns but none were bigger than two of his throws to third-year wide receiver Jerry Porter. The duo connected for a picture perfect 29-yard strike in the third quarter that produced Porter's first postseason touchdown of his career, then hooked up again a few minutes later on a 50-yard bomb that set up Gannon's touchdown throw to Rice.

            Both of the passes to Porter came on what were essentially fly patterns where Porter streaked past a Jets cornerback and was well into the New York secondary when Gannon found him.

            ''That's something that we wanted to do and establish in this game, unlike other games we've played in,'' said Callahan. ''There were several coverages we wanted to exploit and we got into a formation that allowed the defensive coverage to be exploited.''

            The Raiders exploited New York in several ways, to the tune of 399 yards despite the Jets controlling the ball for all but three minutes in the second quarter. The NFL's top-ranked offense shook off a sluggish start and pounded the Jets into submission by scoring 20 points over a 20-minute span in the second half.

            Conversely, New York and their wonderboy quarterback -- Chad Pennington -- started out well enough but went into the tank. Pennington, dubbed the second coming of Joe Namath by several New York writers, led the entire NFL in quarterback rating during the regular season but was reduced to mediocrity against the Raiders.

            In what was his worst performance in more than two months, Pennington frequently overthrew open receivers and never had a smooth touch on his throws. He was just 7-of-26 for 85 yards in the second half, threw two interceptions and fumbled once deep inside Jets territory to set up one of Oakland's three touchdowns.

            The Raiders sacked Pennington four times, knocked him to the ground eight other times and forced him into an additional eight hurried throws.

            ''I thought (defensive coordinator) Chuck Bresnahan had an excellent game plan,'' said Callahan. ''We mixed up the coverages, we mixed up the pressures, the dogs and the blitzes and we tried to feature our pressure from various alignments. We really tried to mix it up and give them different looks they haven't seen before.''

            Pennington, razor sharp a week earlier when the Jets drubbed the Indianapolis Colts, didn't have that same rhythm against the Raiders. His passes were soft rather than crisp, even though Oakland wasn't getting much pressure up front.

            When the Raiders did get to Pennington, though, they made him pay. Linebacker Travian Smith, a back-up all season, blitzed on third down and got to the New York quarterback quickly, knocking the ball loose with a big swipe of his right hand. The ball bounced around on the turf and Smith pushed Pennington out of the way in the ensuing chase while several other players also tried to pounce on the ball. As a mass of flesh swooped down, Smith dove back into the fray and finally emerged with the turnover.

            It was also an ominous sign of things to come for New York. For the Raiders, it was just one more step up the staircase to respect, a journey that could end in San Diego where the NFL's ultimate symbol of respect will be up for grabs.

            ''Nobody wants to go home this time of year,'' said cornerback Charles Woodson. ''It's about who has the stronger will this time of year, who wants it more. I know that we want it. (The Titans) are going to come in here and be fired up but we've got to come out and play our best ball and make sure we take advantage of our chance to go to the Super Bowl.''


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