Raiders finally make it

Oakland's Jerry Rice fumbles the ball between Tennessee Titans' Tank Williams and Andre Dyson, during the second quarter of the AFC Championship in Oakland, Calif., Sunday. Rice recovered his own fumble.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 11:32 p.m.

OAKLAND, Calif. - Tinged with a touch of gray, the Silver and Black are back in the Super Bowl.

The Oakland Raiders passed and brawled their way to a 41-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game on Sunday, getting three touchdown throws from 37-year-old Rich Gannon.

Gannon's thirtysomething teammates - Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson and, finally, Tim Brown - sent the Raiders and their maverick owner, Al Davis, to the NFL title game for the first time in 19 years.

They'll go for their fourth Super Bowl title Sunday in San Diego, taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in the NFC championship game earlier in the day.

``I've been looking at this game for 14 years and watching other people go,'' Brown said. ``Now, I'm finally on my way. It's a great feeling.''

Oakland's oft-touted ``Commitment to Excellence'' will be tested by a coach who knows it well - Jon Gruden, who left the Raiders after last season for the Bucs.

``How ya doing, Coach?,'' Raiders receiver Jerry Porter quipped. ``I'll see ya later.''

On a clear, perfect day at a stadium known as the Black Hole, the Raiders looked as much like the old brawling group of renegades they used to be as the new pass-happy team they have become.

The old: 14 penalties for 127 yards, a handful of cheap shots and a bevy of vicious hits on Steve McNair, who paid a huge price for his 190 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns.

The new: Unbelievably, Oakland called exactly one running play over the first three quarters, leaving the work to Gannon, the league MVP who threw 41 times for 286 yards and also scrambled for 41 more, including a fourth-quarter touchdown.

But this was more than just a highlight show for the Oakland offense.

The Raiders took the lead for good late in the second quarter, when Eric Barton stripped Tennessee's Robert Holcombe, giving Oakland the ball at the Tennessee 16. Two plays later, Gannon hit tight end Doug Jolly for a score and a 21-17 lead.

On the next play, special teams got into the act, forcing a fumble by John Simon and setting up a field goal for a seven-point lead at the half.

Oakland tackled punter Craig Hentrich to set up a field goal for a 10-point lead in the third.

McNair was then at his gutty, gritty best, leading the Titans on a 67-yard touchdown drive to make it 27-24.

Tennessee appeared to be stopped on that drive, but Terrance Shaw got called for a personal foul, Oakland's fourth of the game. On the next play, McNair ran in from 13 yards for his second score.

``McNair played like a true warrior today,'' said Oakland's first-year coach, Bill Callahan. ``He had no quit in him, no die in him.''

But the Raiders kept picking on Tennessee's pass defense, rated 25th in the regular season. Gannon led Oakland on a 66-yard drive and ran in for a 34-24 lead.

That drive, like this game, was nothing pretty, but then again, Davis has never demanded perfection.

The owner's unspoken message in ``Just win, baby'' has always been his desire to field a team that could pull out even the ugly games.

In that vein, he signed a group of veterans who had endured a lot in this league. Mere penalties and a hot quarterback weren't going to be enough to halt this Super Bowl run.

``We fought all year long,'' Rice said. ``When we lost four straight games, this team stuck together and now we're going to the Super Bowl.''

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