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Now or Never
Peter King
January 20, 2003
The grizzled but savvy Raiders easily dispatched the Jets to move within one victory of their first Super Bowl since 1984
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January 20, 2003

Now Or Never

The grizzled but savvy Raiders easily dispatched the Jets to move within one victory of their first Super Bowl since 1984

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Life's a big party when you're a swashbuckling Oakland Raider, drinking till dawn, sleeping through the next morning's practice, just like in the days of Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak—right? Well, last Friday, two days before Oakland took on the New York Jets in an AFC divisional playoff at Network Associates Coliseum, All-Pro free safety Rod Woodson left practice looking forward to a big night out: a movie with his lads. But when he got home, Woodson found that almost every one of his five children, from 12-year-old Marikah to two-year-old Nemiah, had something better to do. So with his wife, Nikki, enjoying a movie out with her girlfriends, Woodson did what any self-respecting Raiders tough guy would do to get his mind right for the playoffs. He vacuumed. He tidied up. He babysat.

"There are probably 31 other NFL locker rooms more like the old Raiders' than ours," says Woodson, 37, one of nine thirtysomething starters on a team that last season was often the NFL's oldest lineup. "When I signed [with Oakland] last spring, I was expecting some crazy stuff in the locker room because of the history here. But the maturity of this team is fantastic. We've got a bunch of workers who get here early and stay late."

Suitably focused on Sunday, the Raiders broke a 10-10 halftime tie with two Rich Gannon touchdown passes in a six-minute span of the second half and played virtuoso football for most of their 30-10 win over the Jets. The AFC's top seed, Oakland hosts the second-seeded Tennessee Titans in the conference title game on Sunday, and a win would give the Raiders their first Super Bowl berth since January 1984.

Oakland took special pleasure in shutting up New York and its hot young quarterback, Chad Pennington. In his first year starting, Pennington was the NFL's top-rated passer, and in his last three starts he had thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. "We had planned to hit Pennington for 60 minutes and see if he was the next Joe Montana, like everyone said," Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski said after Pennington's 21-for-47, 183-yard clunker. "Obviously he's not." Pennington fumbled twice and threw two interceptions, his first turnovers in four games.

But that's what these veteran Oakland players can do to an opponent. Led by an unheralded front seven, they pound the other team's offense into submission. When the Raiders have the ball, they poke and prod until they find a weakness; then they exploit it. On Sunday it was the 4.45 speed of wideout Jerry Porter against the slower Jets secondary. Two plays after Pennington was intercepted by Tory James late in the third quarter, Gannon pretended to look off Porter, who was streaking down the left side. Then, like lightning, Gannon unleashed a perfect throw to Porter for a 29-yard touchdown that gave Oakland a 17-10 lead. On his next offensive series Gannon hit Porter again, with a 50-yard strike. Then, with New York concentrating on Porter, Gannon lasered a nine-yard touchdown throw to 40-year-old Jerry Rice.

The Jets couldn't mount a comeback, not with Oakland's vaunted secondary back from sickbay. Starting corners James and Charles Woodson, both playing with metal plates in their legs to protect healing broken bones, helped hold Pennington to his first sub-.500 passing day as a starter. In addition to his fifth interception of the season, James had three pass deflections. He turns 30 in May, which makes him a relative pup on this team, but the Raiders combine rookielike hunger with veteran intelligence.

For example, each week of the season the 37-year-old Gannon spends most of his off day, Tuesday, at the team's practice facility, getting a jump on the game plan that the rest of the team receives on Wednesday. As the week goes on, Gannon's wife, Shelley, quizzes him on the game plan at home. "We program him every week, and he just doesn't make mistakes," says coach Bill Callahan. "Look at our distribution in the passing game. [Four receivers caught between 51 and 92 balls this season.] Every week Rich can throw to someone different, and he does."

Also, the veteran chemistry among these Raiders is just right. In the past owner Al Davis often threw free agents into the locker room with scant regard for how they'd fit in. "When I got here in '99," Gannon said, "it wasn't like this, a mature team with everyone knowing how to prepare and play. A lot of guys had their own agenda, but they're not here anymore."

Now every one of the veteran imports (from Gannon and Rice on offense to Romanowski, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, Trace Armstrong and John Parrella on defense) can still play at a high level—and with a strong desire to do so. When they were on the market, none of those players drew many suitors, and that still burns Woodson, who in 1999 became the first player in league history to be named All-Pro at cornerback, kick returner and safety during his career. "In the NFL there's a knee-jerk reaction to everything," says Woodson. "The Patriots win the Super Bowl, and all of a sudden low-cost veterans, not too old, are the way to go. I can't call their win a fluke, but come on. That was a Cinderella story. Same thing with age. If a guy's 35 in the NFL, he can't play. Most teams don't look at film. They look at age. It's absurd. Don't tell me how old I am. Tell me if I can play. The world's different now. Guys take care of themselves so well."

Even so, most of the Oakland vets realize that this could be their last chance to win a Super Bowl. Age is one reason, the salary cap is another. The 43 players with contracts for 2003 have a combined cap value of $119.3 million; the cap is projected to be $73.9 million. And while some of the contracts can easily be jettisoned—$10 million can be whacked by cutting suspended defensive tackle Darrell Russell—nine starters each has a cap value of more than $4 million next year. "We all know this year's our best shot," says James, whose whopping $6.3 million cap number will have to be shaved for him to stay. "We have home field advantage and a great team. We have everything going for us."

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