It's last call for Raiders

Titans try to defy odds

Age and looming cap put Oakland in hurry-up mode

January 19, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - As the Tennessee Titans attempt to pull off the improbable, the Oakland Raiders will try to hold off the inevitable.

An aging roster and a pending salary cap purge have become sources of motivation - and perhaps desperation - for the favored Raiders heading into today's AFC championship game at Network Associates Coliseum.

Having the oldest team in the league as well as looking at a record $50 million over next season's cap, Oakland knows it will either make history or become history.

"We've got to take advantage of this opportunity," guard Frank Middleton said, "because this team probably won't be together that much longer."

Oakland will be fighting history as much as the future.

Two years ago, the Raiders were the favorite at home for the conference championship only to be hammered by the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. Last season, they cried foul when a questionable fourth-quarter no-fumble call cost them in a divisional playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

There will be no more reprieves for these silver and black graybeards.

"The future is now," Oakland coach Bill Callahan said. "We are on an immediate plan."

While the Raiders have a sense of urgency, the Titans have been quite relaxed as eight-point underdogs, even engaging in a snowball fight in the locker room last week.

"Nothing to lose, man, nothing to lose," Titans safety Lance Schulters said. "Nobody expects much from us. It's all on them. They have the No. 1 offense in the league. They have the MVP of the league [quarterback Rich Gannon] and the home-field advantage. They were cheated last year and kept from the Super Bowl. Maybe they get a little jumpy and a little anxious if things don't go right."

Another reason why Tennessee welcomes the trip into the inhospitable Black Hole is redemption.

The Titans' most embarrassing defeat during their 1-4 start occurred at Oakland. Although they have since won 11 of 12 to become the NFL's hottest team, they still haven't forgotten the 52-25 loss to the Raiders on Sept. 29.

"Our club is ready to play," said coach Jeff Fisher, who is 2-0 in road playoff games. "We're obviously very excited about the opportunity to come back here and have an opportunity to play the Raiders. We feel like this is going to be one of those games you're not going to want to miss."

One player who Tennessee can't afford to miss is quarterback Steve McNair. He did not practice last week because of a sore right thumb but did throw on the side.

Strange as it seems, that's actually a good sign. The Titans were 5-0 in December when he missed five straight weeks of practice.

"I threw very well [Friday]," said McNair, whose hand was wrapped in a bandage. "The wrap is just for the swelling I still have in it, but overall it's improving. This is something I think I can deal with. It's always going to be a factor, but mentally I'm ready."

For the Titans to pull off the upset, they need to protect McNair and attack Gannon.

In their last meeting, the Raiders went to a spread offense on 46 of 62 plays, including 18 times with an empty backfield. Tennessee managed two sacks as Gannon threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns.

"The motivation is that you want to be the team that finally stops their offense," said Titans cornerback Andre Dyson, who could be limited with a shoulder injury. "They have been putting up points and breaking records. They have everything. It's going to be a big challenge because we have to do what everybody says we can't do."

For the Raiders, a loss today means pulling the plug on their electric offense and ripping apart a recently rebuilt defense.

"I think they're on a mission and the mission is incomplete right now," Callahan said. "To complete it, we've got to play a great game. The thing I see that's different from two years ago is that this team is a little bit more focused. They're putting in more time. You can see the quality of practices we're having. We feel that we have as good a chance as anyone in the final four right now."

NFL playoffs

Today's games

NFC championship

Tampa Bay (13-4) at Philadelphia (13-4), 3 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Phila. by 4.

AFC championship

Tennessee (12-5) at Oakland (12-5), 6:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Oak. by 8.

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