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Four days before the Oakland Raiders' AFC wild-card playoff, Charlie Garner limped into his house in Alameda, Calif., and found something daunting in the doorway: his three-year-old daughter, Nari. The Raiders' running back dotes on his little girl, and her sparkling eyes and outstretched arms warm his heart like nothing else. Today was different, though. Garner's bruised right foot was swollen and throbbing after New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis had fallen on top of it in Oakland's 24-22 loss in the regular-season finale two days earlier, and Garner's status for last Saturday's rematch was very much in doubt. He had hobbled around the team's training facility, and now he couldn't give his daughter the attention she coveted.
"Is Daddy sore?" Nari inquired as Garner made his way through the house.
"Yes," he replied.
"Can we go to Chuck E. Cheese's?"
Garner grinned but told her that he couldn't play with her. "She gets all my time when we're out of season," Garner says, "but right now, I'm all business."
That evening Garner performed what would become a daily ritual until game day. He stretched across his living room sofa, elevated his right foot before falling asleep and prayed that Nari wouldn't treat him like her personal jungle gym the next morning. As it turned out, Garner, who missed two practices in a short week, needed every last bit of rest to help the Raiders play with an energy they had sorely lacked over the last six weeks of the season, when they had gone 2-4.
Led by Garner's 158 rushing yards (the first 100-yard game by an Oakland back this season) and a banner day for 39-year-old wide receiver Jerry Rice (nine receptions, 183 yards), the Raiders beat the Jets 38-24 at Network Associates Coliseum and regained their Super Bowl-contender status. Against New York, an Oakland offense that had become predictable and sloppy piled up 502 yards and four touchdowns, and committed no turnovers. "We have to score touchdowns if we're going to go far in the playoffs," Pro Bowl right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said after the game. "We'd been kicking too many field goals lately."
The Raiders dictated the tempo from the start. They ran a hurry-up offense on the opening drive, with Garner touching the ball five times (three on runs, two on receptions), and concluded the possession with a 21-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. That early commitment to the running game afforded Rice more opportunities against single coverage, which he had rarely seen in the loss to New York the previous week. As a result he made five catches of 20 yards or longer, including a 21-yard touchdown reception that gave Oakland a 31-17 lead with 5:53 left. After the Jets had closed to within seven points on a four-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde to Wayne Chrebet, Garner supplied the clincher.
The Raiders faced third-and-11 at their 20-yard line with 1:40 remaining when coach Jon Gruden called 98 Bunch Crunch, a power sweep to the right. Following the blocks of Kennedy and tight end Roland Williams, Garner found an alley, raced to the sideline and sped untouched to the end zone. "They knew we'd be blitzing to stop the clock, and Garner caught a seam," said Jets cornerback Ray Mickens. "They said his foot was bothering him, but it didn't look as if he was having any problems today."
This game showed why Oakland signed Garner to a four-year, $10 million free-agent contract during the off-season. The eight-year veteran is a slashing runner with excellent hands and route-running ability. Gruden loved those skills when Garner was with the Philadelphia Eagles and Gruden was the team's offensive coordinator, from 1995 to '97, but they weren't fully appreciated elsewhere until he generated 2,371 rushing yards, 124 receptions and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Along the way Garner erased doubts about his durability that had been elicited by his relatively small size (5'9", 190 pounds). With the Raiders emphasizing the passing game this season, Garner suffered a drop-off in rushing production (839 yards and a 4.0 average per carry, compared with 1,142 and 4.4 in 2000), but he was most valuable in the way that Gruden said he would be: His 72 catches were a career high.