Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Raiders ready this time

The Associated Press

ALAMEDA, Calif. - The Oakland Raiders heard the same question from every direction and in a variety of forms. They were in the exact same spot two years ago and blew it. So, what's to say the same thing won't happen in the AFC championship game this time around?

Oakland had the title game at home coming off an impressive 27-0 victory over Miami. The Raiders were the NFL's top rushing team and the favorite, but wound up getting dominated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, 16-3.

Quarterback Rich Gannon was flattened in the second quarter by nearly 400-pound defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. Gannon returned in the second half and was ineffective.

The Raiders insist this season is different - with their upgraded personnel, a new head coach and an increased sense of purpose.

Because, this is a veteran team, with six players 35 or older who truly believe this could be their final shot at a ring. The Raiders haven't reached the Super Bowl in 19 years.

"I think they're on a mission, and the mission is incomplete right now," coach Bill Callahan said Monday. "To complete it, we've got to play a great game this weekend. And the thing that 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 that we're having.

"We feel that we have as good a chance as anyone in this final four right now."

Sam Adams and Rod Woodson played for that Ravens team. Now they're Raiders.

"They didn't have Charlie (Garner), they didn't have Jerry (Rice)," Woodson said. "Hopefully Rich can stay healthy, because he got hurt in that game. Jerry Porter didn't step up the way he has this year. (Tyrone) Wheatley's running well, the offensive line is playing extremely well. You've got some key additions on defense. Overall, it's a better football team."

Adams didn't provide examples of the differences he sees in this Raiders team, but he acknowledged this season is a special one.

"I'm on the team now (so I can't compare)," said Adams, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman who signed as a free agent in August. "That was two years ago. We are going to play to win. We want a world championship. Until we get a world championship we're not going to rest."

Baltimore limited Wheatley, the team's leading rusher, to seven yards on 12 carries back then.

"I don't think it caught us by surprise two years ago," Wheatley said. "We expected to be there. It was one of those games where I can't say we really did anything wrong. This is a different team, a different game, a different scenario."

The Raiders (12-5) defeated Tennessee 52-25 in Week 4 this season in their first game following the bye week, but they know it won't be as easy this time.

Callahan told his players during the team's first mandatory minicamp last summer that getting into the AFC championship game was a realistic, achievable objective.

"We knew we could be a good team," he said. "We knew that if we took care of our business, and that if we worked and we improved, that we'd have an opportunity to get here. So, that was a goal that was set. That was something that we had our eye on from the very beginning."

Many of the Raiders are still haunted - and rather ticked off - by the memory of their controversial overtime playoff loss to New England in the snow last January. But a trip to the Super Bowl might just take care of that.

"It's one of those things we've got to take advantage of," left guard Frank Middleton said. "This team probably won't be together for much longer."

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