- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. The Oakland Raiders' top-ranked offense, veteran leadership and notorious crowd gave them a sizable advantage in yesterday's AFC Championship game. Three costly blunders by the Tennessee Titans did the rest.
Two fumbles in the final 1:26 of the second quarter and a botched punt in the third set up 13 points for Oakland as it pulled away from the embattled and overmatched Titans. The Raiders' 41-24 victory before 62,544 at Network Associates Coliseum sent them to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, where they will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Quarterback Rich Gannon threw for three touchdowns and rushed for another to lead an Oakland offense that scarcely bothered to run the ball. Aging stars like Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski and Rod Woodson all came to play, and Raider Nation did its deafening best to boost a talent-laden roster built to win it all before the salary cap hits.
The Raiders' loss in this game, in this setting, two years ago to Baltimore and stunning Snow Bowl defeat at New England last year made them anything but surprised to win yesterday. They exited the stadium last night with a sense of "unfinished business," as Gannon put it.
"We're excited that we won, but I think a lot of the guys are already looking ahead," Gannon said. "They're excited about coming in and getting to work for next week."
The Raiders (13-5) advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1983 season, when they beat the Redskins for the championship.
This time Oakland will face its old coach, Jon Gruden, who has taken Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl in his first season after being obtained for four draft picks and $8 million last winter. But Gruden-Raiders will be a reluctant story line this week.
"I'm not going to play into the 'Gruden-vs.-the Raiders' questions," tackle Lincoln Kennedy said, "because to me this game means so much more than that."
Tennessee (12-6) led late in the first half and trailed by only three points early in the fourth quarter. But the Titans' aforementioned gaffes undermined them in the former instance and the Raiders' offense kept coming relentlessly in the latter. Adding to Tennessee's difficulties were more of the injuries that have plagued them this season.
A gritty effort by quarterback Steve McNair (194 yards passing, 53 rushing) allowed the Titans to take a 17-14 lead late in the first half. But the team's two fumbles set up a touchdown and a field goal as Oakland surged to a 24-17 halftime lead.
"We had some momentum [prior to the fumbles]," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "You can't turn the ball over against a team like this."
Gannon was superb in the half, hitting his first 12 passes and throwing for 178 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with 286 yards passing and a team-high 41 yards rushing.
McNair was just as good, though. He recovered from a first-quarter slip in the backfield to throw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Drew Bennett, and he made three astonishing scrambles converting a third down on a drive for a field goal, and converting a third-and-9 and scoring on a 9-yard run on a touchdown drive.
The thumb McNair sprained in the divisional round against Pittsburgh "didn't affect him," Fisher said. "He didn't practice much this week, but you saw what he's capable of doing."
Indeed, that effort looked like it would give Tennessee the halftime edge. But running back Robert Holcombe fumbled on second-and-5 with 1:26 left, getting stripped by linebacker Eric Barton on an inside run, and kickoff returner John Simon lost the ball 39 seconds later when he was tackled by linebacker Tim Johnson.
Gannon needed just two plays to score after Holcombe's fumble, hitting tight end Doug Jolley for a 1-yard touchdown. The Raiders stalled after Simon's fumble but still got a 43-yard field goal as the first half ended.
The Titans were in field-goal range on the opening drive of the second half, but a scramble attempt by McNair ended abruptly when he was sacked from behind by defensive tackle John Parrella. It was the first sack of the game by either club after McNair and Gannon each rushed for 40 yards in the first half.
Another botch on special teams set up three more points by Oakland late in the third quarter. After Titans receiver Eddie Berlin dropped a deep third-down pass, Craig Hentrich couldn't get off his punt and was tackled deep in Tennessee territory. The Raiders barely moved the ball but Sebastian Janikowski booted a 32-yard field goal for a 27-17 lead.
"Whatever team has the least turnovers and manages the game has the best chance to win," Gannon said. "That's the same every week. There's no secret about that."
The Raiders' second roughing call on McNair this one rather dubious set up his 13-yard scoring scramble with 31 seconds left in the period. Hentrich filling in for injured Joe Nedney kicked the extra point and Tennessee drew within 27-24.
Oakland quickly answered, though. Gannon guided a 66-yard drive and closed it with a 2-yard scoring scramble on third-and-goal, extending the Raiders' lead to 34-24 with 11:27 to play. A 69-yard drive followed a bit later in the quarter, and Zack Crockett's 7-yard run made it 41-24, finishing things off at the 3:25 mark and sending Oakland's veterans to the sport's coveted final stage.
"It's a pretty overwhelming feeling to know that we're going to the Super Bowl," said Brown, a 15th-year veteran headed for his first Super Bowl.


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