Raiders let their guard down

They have probably lost their two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for a year to suspension and they may lose their head coach to Notre Dame. But of all the things that went wrong during the three-ring circus at Network Associates Coliseum on Sunday, the Raiders overtime loss to the Cardinals obviously stung the most.

The ramifications from the loss to Arizona might not be fully known for a while, but at the very least the Raiders have lost their grip on homefield advantage in the playoffs. They have lost their 10-game winning streak at home. And they have lost the look of a Super Bowl contender.

All that on a day in which Oakland looked to have an easy afternoon only to be shown the door by the suddenly upstart Cardinals, a team that went into the game as 13-point underdogs but walked away with their third consecutive win on Bill Gramatica's 36-yard field goal in overtime.

''It was just not a very good day for the Raiders overall,'' said quarterback Rich Gannon, who threw three touchdown passes but also threw two critical interceptions near the Arizona end zone. ''We did some things that are very uncharacteristic of us, but you're going to have one or two of those during the course of the season. We hadn't had ours but we did today.''

In a big way. Oakland committed three turnovers, had a field goal attempt blocked, muffed a punt in overtime and played the type of defense that is usually reserved for the NFL's bottom-feeding teams. And if they're not careful, that's where the Raiders could wind up before it's all said and done.

Oakland saw its lead in the AFC West fall to two games over the Seattle Seahawks, while the Raiders dropped from an even tie with Pittsburgh for the conference's best record all the way down to third in potential playoff seedings. At 9-2 the Steelers currently have the nod for homefield advantage in the playoffs, as do the Miami Dolphins, who at 8-3 are tied with Oakland. But by virtue of the Dolpins 18-15 win over the Raiders earlier this season, they would get the No. 2 seed and first-round bye were the playoffs to start today.

All of this could change several times over, given the parity in the NFL. But unless Oakland finds a cure for its ailing defense, the changes might not be the ones the Raiders would prefer.

''It's a situation where our run defense has been sporadic and it's been the whole defense, not just the defensive line and linebackers,'' said cornerback Eric Allen after watching the Cardinals pile up 145 yards on the ground. ''I don't think it's time to panic but it's definitely time to get in and find out what's going on.''

That might be easier said than done. Since being slammed by Seattle's Shaun Alexander for 266 yards, the Raiders defense has struggled almost from top to bottom. That was the case against Arizona, which got 249 yards and four touchdowns from quarterback Jake Plummer to go along with the success of the ground game.

Ironically, the game started off with a big play from Oakland's defense. Greg Biekert's fumble recovery on the Cardinals' second offensive play of the game set the Raiders up at the Arizona 23-yard line. It took Oakland all of five plays to crack the end zone, Gannon hitting a wide open Tim Brown for a five-yard touchdown. Brown had been open two plays earlier but Gannon had opted to throw to Garner for a six-yard gain. Given the opportunity to connect with Brown again Gannon didn't hesitate and fired his 19th touchdown pass of the season.

But this being the Raiders and their run defense being what it is, Arizona kept it close by sticking to the ground game. Cardinals running back Michael Pittman got things started with a 42-yard run, dipping inside Oakland linebacker William Thomas and safety Marquez Pope before being pushed out of bounds at the Raiders' eight-yard line. Thomas Jones then carried twice for Arizona, his second run getting him into the end zone from five yards out to help tie the score at 7.

Oakland has struggled defending the run all year long, but normally the Raiders got enough from their offense to overlook such deficiencies. But in the first half against Arizona, the offense had its share of problems. Oakland failed to get a single first down and managed just 12 yards overall in the second quarter after getting six first downs and 102 yards in the first quarter.

Gannon was intercepted for only the third time this season but it came at the Cardinals' 9. Gannon was trying to get the ball to tight, who was covered by two Arizona players. The ball sailed over Williams' head and into the hands of safety Kwamie Lassiter. The Cardinals couldn't do anything with the turnover and punted, but the Raiders continued to misfire. Sebastian Janikowski, who had missed just once in 19 previous field goal attempts, had a 41-yarder blocked by Arizona's Fred Wakefield.

With the Raiders defense showing no resistance to the Cardinals efforts, Arizona moved easily downfield and into the end zone on a one-yard plunge by Pittman. That left Oakland trailing 14-7, brought rains down onto the sparse crowd of 46,601 and gave indication this would not be the cakewalk some had predicted.

As if that wasn't proof enough, though, the Cardinals offered up another example when Arnold Jackson fielded a Shane Lechler punt at his own six-yard line and scampered through the Raiders coverage squad down to the Oakland 39. That helped set up Gramatica's 23-yard field goal that extended Arizona's surprising lead to 17-7.

But the Cardinals didn't stop there. They held the Raiders to a three-and-out and got the ball back with 2:40 minutes left in the first half. This time Arizona relied on the arm of quarterback Jake Plummer, who completed six straight passes to push the ball to Oakland's nine-yard line. A 26-yard Gramatica field goal then made it 20-7 and brought down boos from the Raider crowd.

''We get it done sometimes and sometimes we don't,'' said linebacker William Thomas. ''If we don't start playing better on defense, it's going to be hard. We can't just sit there and win shootouts.'' Faced with a 13-point halftime deficit -- the largest Oakland has faced this season -- it looked as if the Raiders would have to shelve their struggling running game altogether. But if anything, the first-half miserableness made the Raiders even more determined to get things done on the ground.

Oakland came out in the third quarter and went right at the Cardinals, with Garner and Zack Crockett leading the charge. Garner carried the load early then the Raiders leaned on Crockett, their short-yardage and goal-line back. Crockett carried four times for 16 yards, none more important than his seven-yard gain on fourth-and-one deep inside Arizona territory.

The play came after Oakland challenged a call when Jerry Porter hit the ground and the ball popped out. Officials originally ruled the play a fumble but reversed the call after watching the replay. Given new life the Raiders kept moving downfield with their running game. Crockett's one-yard touchdown plunge helped pull Oakland within 20-14, and when Arizona failed to get a first down on its next possession, the Raiders were back in business. Or so it seemed.

Oakland drove down to the Cardinals six-yard line and had a second-and-goal when Gannon fired a pass for tight end Roland Williams, only to see the ball bounce off Williams' hands and into the arms of Arizona's Tom Knight at the goal line. Knight returned the interception 43 yards. That opened the door for a third Gramatica field goal, this one from 33 yards away, giving Arizona a nine-point lead at 23-14 with 13:40 remaining in the game.

''We moved the ball at times but we didn't finish the way we're capable of,'' said Gruden. ''Things like that hurt you. You give up big plays, you get what you deserve and if you don't believe it, believe it. Take a look at what happened today.''

What happened in the game's final 12 minutes is almost beyond explanation. The Raiders scored again on a Gannon 22-yard touchdown pass to Brown, who made a brilliant one-handed grab with his left hand for the score. Oakland then went ahead, 24-23, on a 24-yard field goal from Janikowski with 1:47 left to play. Arizona needed just 24 seconds to move 70 yards and regain the lead, Plummer hitting David Boston for a 50-yard touchdown after Boston slipped inside of Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson then avoided a poor tackling attempt by safety Anthony Dorsett.

Plummer then added the two-point conversion to make it 31-24. With just 70 seconds remaining the Raiders looked in dire straits but quickly rolled downfield, getting a 36-yard completion from Gannon to Rice to spark things before the duo connected on a two-yard score with just 15 seconds left to tie the game at 31.

In overtime the Raiders had first shot but punted after just five plays. Oakland's defense held tough for one of the few times in the game and forced the Cardinals to punt, but David Dunn fumbled on the return after initially calling for a fair catch to set Arizona up for Gramatica's game-winning field goal.

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