OAKLAND — The prospects of frigid weather next Saturday night suddenly isn’t such a bad thing.
The Oakland Raiders were red hot Saturday night at home, bludgeoning a tired and dispirited New York Jet defense for 22 fourth quarter points. Jerry Rice made nine catches for 183 yards. Charlie Garner ran for 158 yards, 80 of them coming on a third and eleven play inside of two minutes when the Jets needed a defensive stop to keep them in the game. Rich Gannon was near perfect, hitting on 23 of 29 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns.
All this added up to a 38-24 win for the Silver and Black. The Black Hole erupted in celebration as the Raiders broke out of their three-game losing streak, and avoided being the first team in NFL history to lose consecutive home games to the same team. Patriot Nation erupted in seeing the Jets knocked out of the playoffs, and knowing exactly who Bill Belichick will begin game-planning for.
And next Saturday, Black meets Blue. The Patriots and the Raiders. Two teams with a rich playoff history will tee it up once again in the playoffs.
But this match will not be in the state of California. It will be in the state of freezing cold. Massachusetts. We meant Massachusetts.
If you were frightened at how efficient the Raider offense was tonight, pay it no heed. Well, pay it a little bit, as Rice showed off his Canton stuff tonight with a near record-breaking performance. But what you saw Saturday night at Oakland will in all likelihood bear no resemblance to what you’ll see next week at Foxborough Stadium.
The fact that New England was able to secure the bye was huge. If the Raiders had won last week against the Jets, and if the Patriots had won this week versus having the bye, the Patriots would be making the westward trek to play the Raiders. After seeing how the Raiders dismantled the Jets tonight, the thought of the Patriots having to play here next week might cause the enthusiasm level to take a bit of a hit.
But that won’t happen. Oakland has to come to Foxborough. If home field means anything, it will mean everything next week.
And kudos for Bob Kraft (it was he that got the prime time gig, we learned) for getting the game in the evening. Playing at home was good enough for the Patriots. But playing in the evening against a non-cold weather team (Oakland isn’t exactly the tropics, but let’s just say that the Bay Area isn’t exactly Siberia) that relies on pinpoint passing and speed at the wide receiver position bodes very well for the Patriots.
The Raiders will have to try and beat the Patriots via the smashmouth route. Think that that will bum the Patriots out? Not on your Bryan Cox hits on Jerome Pathon.
The Raiders will have much more than the cold weather to worry about. Despite ringing up 38 points on an exhausted Jet defense that had no pass rush thanks to losing John Abraham to the flu, the Raiders never fully put the clamps on the Jet offense. The Raiders scored 22 fourth quarter points, but they gave up 14 (and it would have been 21 had time not run out). Vinny Testaverde threw three touchdown passes, and Curtis Martin carved out 106 yards rushing. Jet punter Tom Tupa had only one punt on the entire evening.
This porous Raider defense also gives the Patriots reason to be excited next week. In what is expected to be very cold weather, look for the Patriots to pound Antowain Smith up the middle, especially without Darrell Russell in there to help shut the running game down. With both Charles Woodson and Eric Allen nursing minor injuries, David Patten and Troy Brown might also find some zone seams and make some hay.
If Sebastian Janikowski can stay healthy, the kicking game for the Raiders ought not to suffer unless the cold weather bothers the Raider kicker. Janikowski was back on beam tonight, nailing field goals from 21, 41 and 45 yards with no misses. His field goals boomed off his left leg, and looked no worse for the wear from his cellulitis problem.
The one man the Patriots will need to concern themselves with is Rice. The tired Jet secondary, which was plagued all evening long with blown coverages and lack of speed to keep up with Rice and Tim Brown (mostly Rice, as Brown had only three grabs for 13 yards), had absolutely no answer for Rice. At the tail end of the third quarter, Rice took a little toss over the middle and turned it into a 47-yard gain down to the Jet four-yard line. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, Rice caught passes for 20, 20 and 21 yards, the latter for a touchdown as Damien Robinson failed to pick Rice up after Aaron Glenn let him slip away down the left sideline.
Ty Law and Otis Smith figure to have their hands full with Rice and Brown. Given the Patriots’ penchant for giving up lots of yards but few points, these two gents might put up some dandy numbers. But if the Patriots can put pressure on Gannon, and if the cold weather can slow down the receivers or impair Gannon’s ability to grip the ball well, the Raider passing game might be neutralized. Or if not, at least it can be slowed down greatly.
Containing Garner and Tyrone Wheatley will pose another challenge for the Patriots. Richard Seymour, Tedi Bruschi and Ted Johnson must have big games, especially if the Raiders rely on these guys in cold weather. This may turn out to be the key matchup in the game if Gannon cannot establish a good passing rhythm.
Considering the fact that this now might be the final game in Foxborough Stadium history, and given the playoff legacy between the two teams, the home crowd will be a huge factor in this game. Considered one of the loudest venues in the league, Patriot fans will make lots of trouble for the hated Raiders unless the visitors somehow strike early and take the crowd out of the game. If enough fans in the stands remember Patrick Sullivan’s bloody face or Ben Dreith’s horrid call, expect a huge anti-Raider throng in attendance next weekend.
It is the matchup the Patriots wanted. The Jets are gonzo. The Raiders come in, in an environment that goes counter to their success. Patriot Nation will celebrate the evening, and possibly lift the home town team to their first playoff win since 1997. And if Pittsburgh gets knocked off in their divisional game, the Patriots get to host the AFC title game if they beat Oakland.
The great vibes continue. The Jets won’t be the ones to burst the Patriot playoff bubble, or ruin the closure of the stadium. The Raiders got back on the beam tonight, but now have to deal with New England on the road, looking across the line of scrimmage at a team that they had every reason to believe that they’d be hosting, not visiting.
And the Patriots can now begin full preparations to play Da Raidahs. Raymond Berry found the right formula in 1985. Chuck Fairbanks covered every base in 1976 except how to properly deal with Dreith. It’s a good bet that Belichick will figure out a way to come out on top, if his players are up to the task.
Up to the task? Dare you ask?
Home field. Freezing cold. Prime time. Da Raidahs in their crib. Black meets Blue. Players become black and blue.
Bring it on.