Raiders win, ready to face Bucs

Tim Brown held his daughter Timona and cried, confetti pouring down around the two of them. Bill Romanowski sprinted toward the Black Hole and slapped hands with anyone close. A few yards away Lincoln Kennedy held his massive arms skyward, the Lamar Hunt trophy firmly in his grasp and a mile-wide grin covering his face.

After 22 weeks of trying to contain themselves, the Raiders could hold back no longer. And with 62,544 supporters screaming for more, the boys in black obliged. They danced, they hugged, they laughed and then they danced some more.

            Sunday's 41-24 win over Tennessee in the AFC Championship game might not have been the prettiest of displays but for a team that last played in the Super Bowl when Ronald Reagan was still in his first term of presidency, it didn't matter much.

            With memories of two straight playoff disappointments still fresh in mind, Oakland didn't need style points. What the Raiders needed -- and what they got -- was enough of their weapons firing on time and on the mark.

            There was quarterback Rich Gannon, playing up to his MVP standards by picking apart Tennessee's secondary with ease and throwing for three touchdowns while adding a fourth score on a short scramble. This even though everyone in the house, save for maybe the Titans, knew Oakland had no intentions of running the ball.

            There was the Raiders defense, rising up to finally put a halt to Steve McNair's scrambling and throwing in the second half after McNair had repeatedly burned them in the first 30 minutes of the game.

            There was the special teams, a much-maligned ugly step-sister in Oakland's troika of talent, coming up with its biggest game in almost four months.

            In short, the Raiders did what they have done all season long: Just Win, Baby.

            ''Words can't even describe how we feel about what we have just accomplished,'' said Bill Callahan, who became the first rookie head coach since 1989 to lead his team to the Super Bowl. ''To pull together and play a team like Tennessee, who we felt was one of the top defensive teams, and put an effort like this out together, it's unbelievable.''

            It's believable, all right. Believable and, some might say, a bit incredible.

            After all, it was only a short time ago that many critics pegged Oakland for trouble. The Raiders had lost their head coach in a trade with Tampa Bay in March then suffered through a four-game losing streak near mid-season. In both cases, the Raiders didn't flinch and instead rolled their sleeves up and went to work.

            It was the same thing against Tennessee.

            The Titans entered the game riding a streak in which they had won 11 of their previous 12 games. They had a quarterback, Steve McNair, who should have been hospitalized any number of times this season considering the number of injuries he's had. Yet McNair looked just fine for most of the game until Oakland's defense finally rose up and put the clamps on him.

            ''That's a country strong boy right there,'' said Raiders safety Anthony Dorsett. ''That was the main thing we knew coming in, that he was strong and athletic and he could do so many different things. We never thought Eddie George could come in and run on us. Our focus was on McNair.''

            In many ways the game was a duel between the quarterbacks, McNair and his fleet feet taking on the league's reigning MVP who did some pretty nifty running himself. Gannon, 29 of 41 for 286 yards, led Oakland with 41 yards rushing.

            Not that it was much of a task. The Raiders eschewed the running game almost completely in the first half, calling just one designed running play through the first three quarters.

            ''We really felt that we wanted to utilize Rich's ability to throw,'' said Callahan. ''We had a lot of weapons at our disposal so we wanted to feature and put some perimeter pressure on the Titans. and try to create some match-ups ... and get guys in positions to make plays.''

            Oakland's offense set the tone early and quickly, marching 75 yards straight through the Titans' defense. Tennessee's pass defense is one of the weakest in the league and it showed, as  Gannon smoothly pushed the ball downfield. Gannon completed five straight throws, beginning with a 30-yarder to Jerry Rice and ending it on a three-yard touchdown strike to Jerry Porter.

            Porter made a great spin move on the play, running a 360-degree loop around Titans safety Tank Williams before Gannon's short pass found its mark.

            Tennessee, winners of 11 of its past 12 games heading into Sunday's title tilt, wouldn't go quietly. Eddie George, still smarting from a concussion suffered a week earlier in the win over Pittsburgh, got the Titans going on the ground while  McNair matched Gannon's perfection on the first drive with four straight completions.

            The fourth of McNair's throws found wide receiver Drew Bennett for a 33-yard touchdown. Bennett used an out-and-up move on cornerback Charles Woodson, who bit and on the out and left Bennett alone streaking down the sidelines where he easily hauled in the pass from McNair to tie the game at 7.

            Gannon, who earlier this season set an NFL single-game record with 21 straight completions, kept his perfection streak going on Oakland's next drive. Again, he connected on all five of his throws, including a 31-yard strike to Porter who had to make a diving catch to haul the pass in. Two plays later Gannon dumped a short pass over the middle to running back Charlie Garner, who turned upfield and didn't stop until he reached the end zone.

            Tennessee picked up a 29-yard field goal from Joe Nedney to cut the Oakland lead to 14-10 early in the second quarter then went ahead when McNair, whom the Raiders could find no answer for in the first half, scored on a nine-yard scramble.

            With momentum suddenly on their side, the Titans defense shut Oakland down on three straight plays and forced the Raiders to punt with just over 2:30 minutes remaining in the first half. But the opportunity to pile it on would be a short-lived one for Tennessee, which held the ball for just  one play before running back Robert Holcombe -- in the game because George was sidelined with an injury -- fumbled inside the Titans' own 20-yard line.

            Oakland safety Anthony Dorsett pounced on the loose ball, setting the Raiders up at the 16. Gannon hit Jerry Rice for a 15-yard gain down to the Titans' 1 then found tight end Doug Jolley for a short score off. The touchdown was set up by a perfect play-action fake to running back Zack Crockett. Tennessee's defense bit, leaving Jolley alone in the back of the end zone.

            It got worse for the Titans on the ensuing kickoff when return man John Simon fumbled after being hit by Oakland's Tim Johnson. A wild scurry followed before Alvis Whitted finally recovered for the Raiders at the Tennessee 39.

            This time it was Oakland's turn to waste a scoring opportunity. Gannon scrambled for a 14-yard gain on first down but then saw his next two passes slip through receiver's hands. The most critical was a 25-yard pass to Porter, who had easily distanced himself from the nearest defender but allowed the ball to slip through his hands as he went into the end zone. On the next play Gannon fumbled the snap exchange from center Barret Robbins, forcing the Raiders to settle for a 43-yard field goal from Sebastian Janikowski.

            Janikowski added another field goal, this one was 32 yards out, as Oakland increased its lead to 27-17 in the third quarter. But the pesky Titans kept coming, pulling within a field goal when McNair scored on a 13-yard jaunt through the Raiders' defense.

            Just when things got tight, however, Oakland pulled away. Finally turning to the run for some relief, the Raiders moved efficiently from their own 34 down to the Titans' 2-yard line. Gannon took over from there, dropping back to pass on third-and-goal. He looked twice to his left before taking off to the right and racing into the end zone for a touchdown that sealed Tennessee's fate.

            For good measure Zack Crockett added a seven-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, sending the standing-room-only crowd into a frenzy while the Raiders coaches and players started making plans for San Diego where they will meet their former head coach Jon Gruden, now the top guy in Tampa Bay.

            ''It's going to be hard for them to stop us,'' said Oakland guard Frank Middleton. ''We're hungry.''


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