Sunday, January 19, 2003

Raiders feeling pressure to win now



By KIT STIER
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

OAKLAND, Calif. - No wonder the Oakland Raiders and their fans are anxious. For all the talk about "Team of the Decade," "Pride and Poise," "Just Win Baby" and the Raiders mystique, the team hasn't appeared in the Super Bowl since Jan. 22, 1984.

Division rival Denver has played in five Super Bowls since the Raiders beat Washington in Tampa in Super Bowl XVIII. San Francisco has won four Super Bowls and Buffalo has lost four since then. The Giants, Patriots and Dallas have appeared in three each and Green Bay, Washington and the Rams two each.

So it's easy to understand why there has been much talk about closing windows of opportunity as the Raiders readied to host Tennessee in the AFC Championship game at the Network Associates Coliseum Sunday.

The Raiders are the top seed in this year's AFC tournament, they are a team with a number of graybeards and they face a problem next year because they'll be in the neighborhood of $60 million over the salary cap. Things are bound to change after this season.

They are also the favorite to advance to their fifth Super Bowl, because they have NFL MVP Rich Gannon at quarterback. He is protected by a massive offensive line and throws darts with accurate precision to future Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, to young deep threat Jerry Porter, tight end Doug Jolley and running back Charlie Garner. They also boast the No. 3 run defense in the NFL and the 11th best defense overall.

Tennessee, meanwhile, will be trying to win its second trip to the Super Bowl. They lost a tense, close game 23-16 to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV on Jan, 30, 2000. The Titans are led by quarterback Steve McNair, a known scrambler with a big arm, and a defensive front line that has the intent to cause Gannon fits.

"It's a team that's on a mission right now and the mission is incomplete," first-year Raiders coach BIll Callahan said.

Oakland's focus since Day 1 of this season has been absolute. The Raiders have taken a "Super Bowl or Bust" mentality. The mindset remains absolute.

Brown, a veteran with no Super Bowls on his resume, instructed his wife to hang up on anyone who called their home and mentioned the words super and bowl in the same breath.

"You're too far ahead, you are way too far ahead," Raiders offensive right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said when approached with a Super Bowl question. "I have other things on my mind right now."

The Raiders haven't forgotten the bitter disappointment of a disputed call they feel cost them a victory against the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in the snow during a divisional game in New England last year. They haven't forgotten that Gannon was injured in a 16-3 loss to eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore in the AFC title game here two years ago.

And whether they want to admit it or not, the Raiders know the sand in their hourglass of opportunity is flowing rapidly.

"You can't live for next year, or any time after that," Kennedy said. "You have to take the approach for here and now and take advantage of it."

Raiders management had that idea in mind when they brought in established veteran players like linebacker Bill Romanowski, starting defensive tackles Sam Adams and John Parrella and starting free saftey Rod Woodson after last season.

"This a new year, a new situation," the high-strung Romanowski said. "This is a new situation. Where they were last year, where they were two years ago, who was on the team. ...There are different facts. It's a different team right now. There are some of the same players, but it's a different team."

The Raider won their first four games, drifted with four losses in their next five games and then slipped only once in their last eight games with a 23-17 loss at Miami on Dec. 15. They beat the New York Jets, 30-10 in the divisional playoff last week.

The Raiders like their experience and say the claim that they're old goats means nothing.

The Titans are hoping to become the fifth visiting team in the last six years to win the AFC Championship game. They know how it's done because they upended Jacksonville in Florida in 1999.

Tennessee, like the Raiders, comes in hot, having won 11 of its last 12 games including a playoff game in overtime against Pittsburgh last week.

"Tennessee is close, Tennessee is real close," said Porter, a young Raider echoing the sentiments of teammates young and old. " I'm not even looking at the Super Bowl. My rookie year I could taste the Super Bowl. I was already making reservations in Tampa Bay and everything. Then, all of a sudden, I was watching the Super Bowl at home."

AFC quick hits

Line: Raiders by 8.

Record vs. common opponents: Raiders 2-0 (beat Pittsburgh 30-17, beat New England 27-20); Titans 2-0 (beat Pittsburgh 31-23, beat New England 24-7).

Last time they met: The Raiders beat the Titans 52-25 Sept. 29.

Game-time forecast: Partly cloudy, high 61, low 46.




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