Gruden bowl: Bucs, Raiders

Oakland passes Titans by, 41-24

Gannon-led veterans show savvy, set up reunion with former 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 captured the AFC championship on the ingenuity and durability of one of its own.

Relying on the precision passing and timely scrambling of quarterback Rich Gannon, the Oakland Raiders outlasted the Tennessee Titans, 41-24, last night at the Network Associates Coliseum.

One of the league's storied franchises, the Raiders advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 19 seasons and will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The AFC champions 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 would not be taking place if not for Gannon outdueling Titans quarterback Steve McNair. The 36-year-old Raiders quarterback finished as the team's leading passer and rusher, throwing for 286 yards and three touchdowns as well as running for 41 yards and another score.

The Raiders became the first AFC to win a championship game at home in four years because they showed their age. With eight starters 30 years or older, Oakland kept its composure while Tennessee made three costly mistakes midway through the game.

"I've been looking at this game for 14 years and watching other people go." 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 allowed the Raiders to turn a three-point deficit (17-14) into a 10-point lead (27-17) in a matter of 12 minutes.

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.

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. The veteran 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 Raiders safety Rod 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 touchdown pass as the Raiders went back ahead.

The Raiders' air attack was grounded for most of the second quarter, allowing the Titans to climb back into the game.

Joe Nedney's 29-yard field goal closed the gap to 14-10 as Oakland fumbled and went three-and-out on its next two possessions.

McNair again paved the way to another touchdown, coming up big twice when Tennessee needed him the most. He converted a third-and-eight with a 12-yard scramble and then dove headfirst for a 9-yard touchdown to give the Titans a 17-14 lead late in the second quarter.

But Tennessee helped Oakland back into the game by fumbling twice deep in its own territory in the final 1 1/2 minutes of the first half.

Titans backup running back Robert Holcombe was stripped by former University of Maryland standout Eric Barton at the Tennessee 16-yard line. Oakland wasted no time in regaining the lead, hitting 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.

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 tackled at his own 18. That led to a Janikowski 32-yard field goal with 4:29 left in the third quarter.

Tennessee then rebounded on a Raiders" error. After a third- down incompletion, Oakland cornerback Terrance Shaw pushed McNair and was flagged for roughing the passer. A play later, McNair dashed 13 yards with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter to whittle the deficit to 27-24.

Gannon, though, matched McNair on cue, running into the end zone untouched from 2 yards out to push the margin back to 10 points (34-24) with 11:27 left in the fourth quarter.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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