Broncos Stronghold is Over

If Jon Gruden is the brain behind the Raiders surge to the top of the AFC West over the last two seasons then Rich Gannon must be the heart. That's why when Gannon went down after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Denver's Kenoy Kennedy late in the second quarter of Monday night's game in Oakland, the entire silver and black organization held its collective breath.

Not to worry, though. Gannon shook off the cobwebs and returned to throw for 242 yards and three touchdowns while leading Oakland to a convincing 38-28 win over the Broncos in a game that ended Denver's four-year stranglehold and firmly established the Raiders as the preeminent team in the AFC. The win was Oakland's first over Denver since 1997, the first in the Jon Gruden era and Gannon's first over the Broncos since he signed on with the Raiders prior to the start of the '99 season.

''What can I say about that guy, he is one tough, tough guy,'' said Gruden of his quarterback. ''He had that spirit tonight to never say die. I think he got hit in the head and got mad. Some guys are like that.'' Gannon may have been upset at the late hit by Kennedy but he seemed to be even more perturbed after the game about reports that he suffered a concussion on the play.

Addressing reporters, Gannon -- who completed 25 of 34 attempts -- answered only a few questions before getting up and leaving. ''I don't know where that came from, that I had a concussion,'' Gannon said. ''I didn't see the replay but I don't think the report came from our medical staff, or at least I hope it didn't. I didn't have a concussion.''

Some of his teammates weren't so sure, but given the ramifications of the game -- the Raiders pulled to a two-game lead in the AFC West and now own an AFC-best 6-1 record -- the issue of Gannon's health might be a moot point. After the hit by Kennedy, Gannon came back to lead Oakland on three scoring drives in the second half when the Raiders broke open a surprisingly close game in the fourth quarter. Gannon, who also had nine carries for 24 yards, threw a pair of touchdown passes to Tim Brown and one to fullback Jon Ritchie as the Raiders matched their season-high for points scored.

''Rich reminds me of Rocky Balboa with his toughness,'' said Oakland tight end Roland Williams, one of seven Raider players with at least one reception Monday. ''Obviously after the hit we were all looking into his eyes to see how he was but he came back normal. I think it ticked him off.'' Oakland's win snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Broncos and left Oakland comfortably alone in first place in the AFC West. Equally important, the Raiders came through perhaps their most rugged three-game stretch (at Indianapolis, at Philadelphia, home for Denver) unscathed and sitting pretty.

''We know what we can do and if people don't do things to stop us, we should do what we did tonight,'' said wide receiver Tim Brown, who led the Raiders with nine receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns. ''We know that we're a good football team offensively and defensively, too. If we just do what we can do, we'll put points on the board.'' The Raiders did that fairly easily against the Broncos on Monday, scoring on three of their first four drives and six times overall. The Raiders made it look almost too easy on their first drive of the game, with Gannon and Brown making a mockery of the Broncos secondary.

The duo connected four times for 44 yards as Oakland marched 75 yards in 4:31, Gannon hitting Brown in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown as the sold-out crowd decked out in its silver-and-black finest broke out into a celebratory frenzy. Brown burned Denver cornerback Deltha O'Neal for three of his receptions on the drive but torched the Broncos other corner, Denard Walker, with an outside-in fake that left Brown alone in the end zone for the score. The Broncos came back with a well-executed drive of their own but they were stopped short of the end zone and had to settle for a 39-yard field goal from Jason Elam.

Oakland came back looking ready to pour it on and had marched from its own 21 to Denver's 25 when running back Charlie Garner fumbled. A collective groan went up from the crowd and for obvious reasons. If there's been one downfall for the Raiders in their slide against the Broncos it's been turnovers and this time it was no different though Denver's offense again stalled out near the end zone and needed an Elam field goal to salvage the drive, cutting Oakland's lead to 7-6 early in the second quarter.

The Raiders were driving toward another score when Kennedy's hit on Gannon knocked Oakland's quarterback out of the game, albeit momentarily. Rodney Peete, who had not taken a snap in a regular-season game since 1999, came on for one play and handed the ball off to Zack Crockett, whose one-yard plunge into the end zone helped increase Oakland's lead to 14-6. Gannon returned on the Raiders next drive and connected on six straight pass attempts as Oakland marched 83 yards for another touchdown. This time Gannon found Jon Ritchie all alone in the right flat and floated a four-yard touchdown pass to his fullback, pushing the margin to 21-6.

''I think everybody needs a hit like that every now and then,'' said Oakland right guard Frank Middleton. ''I wish I would have got a hit like that early in the game so I could have woke up. The quarterback is your leader and you do as your quarterback does. If he's tough, you're going to be tough. If he lays down, you'll lay down.'' Denver tried to get a quick score in the final 1:10 of the first half but again could not get into the end zone and had to settle for an Elam field goal attempt. But Oakland safety Anthony Dorsett came around the left side of the Broncos line and got both hands in front of Elam's kick for the block, sending his teammates streaming onto the field with exuberant congratulations while the crowd roared its approval.

In all, the Raiders had the ball four times in the first half and scored three touchdowns while holding the Broncos to nothing but field goal attempts. Gannon's second touchdown pass to Brown late in the third quarter put Oakland ahead 28-12 but the Broncos came back on a Brian Griese 11-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Clark that helped pull the Broncos within eight points and kept things interesting. But the Raiders broke it open shortly thereafter. Sebastian Janikowski, who has emerged as one of the top kickers in the AFC, nailed a 31-yard field goal to make it 31-20. Linebacker William Thomas then stepped in front of a Griese pass intended for Rod Smith and returned it 33 yards down to the Denver 3. On the very next play Crockett followed with his second touchdown run of the night and the rout was on.

For good measure, Tory James intercepted a Griese desperation heave on fourth down with 5:02 left in the game to put the game on ice for Oakland. ‘'This wasn't our Super Bowl tonight,'' Gruden said. ‘'This was not do-or-die in terms of what we're about as a football team or what we have to do to get to the Super Bowl. (But) it feels good to beat a team that we have not had particularly good success against in the past.''

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