Gruden bowl: Bucs, Raiders

Oakland passes Titans by, 41-24

Ignoring ground game, Gannon-led vets rejoin ex-boss in Super Bowl

Nfl Playoffs

January 20, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - The NFL's over-the-hill gang pushed the Oakland Raiders over a 19-year hump with an unorthodox formula and a classic attitude.

Committed to a pass-heavy attack and their traditional nasty demeanor, the Raiders roughed up the Tennessee Titans, 41-24, in the AFC championship game last night at the Network Associates Coliseum and punched their ticket to the Super Bowl to end a two-decade absence.

With eight starters 30 years or older, the Silver and Black graybeards head south to San Diego, where they will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although it will be the Raiders' first Super Bowl since 1984, they will confront a familiar face in Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who left the Raiders a year ago.

"How ya doing, Coach?" Raiders receiver Jerry Porter quipped in the locker room afterward. "I'll see ya later."

That reunion was set as old and new looks meshed before the always raucous Black Hole.

In with the new: an aerial assault that included just one running play over three quarters and relied on the precision arm of quarterback Rich Gannon. Picking on the league's 25th-ranked pass defense, the NFL Most Valuable Player threw 41 times for 286 yards and three touchdowns along with scrambling for 41 yards and a key fourth-quarter score.

Back with the old: a brawling style that produced 14 penalties for 127 yards, a handful of cheap shots and a series of devastating hits on Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who had to fight for every inch of his 247 personal yards of total offense and two rushing touchdowns.

"I think we have a special team here," said safety Rod Woodson, one of the Raiders' 30-something starters who won the Super Bowl with the Ravens two years ago. "The veterans understand the game on and off the field, which it takes to get a championship. I think veterans have a little more poise under pressure."

The Raiders became the first AFC team to win a championship game at home in four years because they showed their age. Oakland kept its composure while Tennessee - which had been the league's hottest team - made three costly mistakes midway through the game.

"I've been looking at this game for 14 years and watching other people go [to the Super Bowl]," Raiders receiver Tim Brown said. "Now, I'm finally on my way. It's a great feeling."

Two fumbles and a breakdown by the punt team over a 12-minute span allowed the Raiders to turn a three-point deficit (17-14) into a 10-point lead (27-17).

With 1 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Titans backup running back Robert Holcombe was stripped by Eric Barton at the Tennessee 16-yard line. Oakland wasted no time regaining the lead, hitting Jerry Rice on a 16-yard slant and using play-action to free up tight end Doug Jolley for a 1-yard touchdown catch.

On the ensuing kickoff, rookie John Simon coughed up the ball at the Titans' 39. After a 14-yard run by Gannon, Oakland stalled because of a couple of drops and a fumbled snap. But the Raiders still extended their advantage to 24-17 at the end of the first half when Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 43-yard field goal.

The Raiders continued to receive excellent field position into the third quarter because of Tennessee mistakes. Feeling two Raiders collapsing on him, Titans punter Craig Hentrich was forced to run and was tackled at his own 18. That led to a Janikowski 32-yard field goal with 4:29 left in the third quarter.

"We were making a lot of dumb mistakes out there," said Barton, a former University of Maryland standout. "Fortunately, we sucked it up and stopped it. That shows the character of this team."

The Titans still wouldn't fold as McNair, who carried them all season, pulled them back into the game. He capped a 67-yard drive with a 13-yard run, slicing the deficit to 27-24 with 31 seconds left in the third quarter.

But like he did all game, Gannon was the answer to McNair. Four minutes after McNair's run, Gannon scored a 2-yard touchdown to stake Oakland to a 34-24 lead.

Zack Crockett's 7-yard touchdown with 3:25 left iced the game and put the Raiders one win away from their fourth Super Bowl championship.

"He's the league MVP," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said of Gannon. "He does what he's supposed to do and makes the other team adjust. It's hard to stop a team like the Oakland Raiders when you give them the ball inside your own 40-yard line three different times."

In the first half, the Raiders jumped the Titans early with offense and blitzed them late by forcing turnovers.

The Raiders set the tone by relying on the hot hand of Gannon. He completed his first 12 passes as Oakland marched 69 and 85 yards for touchdowns on its first two drives.

Gannon began the game with a 29-yard pass to Rice and then methodically broke down Tennessee's secondary with short passes. Oakland's massive offensive line provided a safe pocket all day and gave Gannon six seconds to find a cutting Porter for a 3-yard touchdown, putting the Raiders up 7-0 just four minutes into the game.

The Titans answered with McNair, who connected on all five of his throws on Tennessee's first drive. His 33-yard pass to Drew Bennett - which came off a miscommunication between Woodson and cornerback Charles Woodson - tied the game at 7.

Oakland responded immediately as Gannon remained perfect. He accounted for all the production on the 85-yard drive - 78 yards passing and 7 yards rushing - and hit Charlie Garner for a 12-yard score as the Raiders went back ahead.

After delivering the timely punches in yesterday's brawl, the Raiders now move onto their chess match with Gruden.

"I know there's going to be a lot of focus on Jon," Gannon said of his former coach. "It's not about Jon or Bill [Callahan, the Raiders coach]. It's not about him vs. us. It's about the Oakland Raiders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

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