New York Jet quarterback Chad Pennington isn't the next Montana. Not to the Oakland Raiders. To them, he's just another average Joe.
"We had the MVP in our locker room," Raider safety Rod Woodson said, referring to quarterback Rich Gannon. "But no one wanted to talk about him."
Sunday, the quarterback disparity was clear. While Pennington struggled to find the mark, Gannon directed four second-half scoring drives to turn a tight game into a 30-10 blowout at Network Associates Coliseum. As a result, the Raiders are headed for the AFC championship game for the second time in three seasons.
They will play host to Tennessee on Sunday -- a team they crushed earlier this season, 52-25 -- and are four quarters away from their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1983 season. The Raiders played host to the conference title game two years ago and suffered a 16-3 loss to Baltimore, the eventual Super Bowl champion.
"We're a different team than two years ago," tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. "I think we were pleased to be in that position. But at the same time, I don't think we took it seriously and stayed focused. We got a little ahead of ourselves."
It was the Jets who struggled to maintain their focus Sunday against a backdrop of thousands of silver-and-black clad fans and a Raider team that had won seven of eight. Twice in the first half, the Jets drew delay-of-game penalties. They had gone more than two months without being flagged for that.
And Pennington, who had gone six games without a turnover, fumbled once and had two of his passes intercepted.
Meanwhile, Gannon completed 20 of 30 passes for 283 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and he was happy to quietly slip into the background amid all the Pennington hoopla.
"I was thrilled," he said.
"I'd rather have it all be on somebody else. There's too much for me to think about and deal with. I'll let him get all the attention. It's not fair to him, I'm sure he didn't ask for it, but I think the way he handled it was very classy."
The same could not be said of the Jets and Raiders who gathered at midfield and nearly brawled before the game.
If blame must be assigned, the Jets got things rolling when they emerged from the locker room waving their arms, swinging towels and taunting the already raucous crowd of 62,207.
"Those guys were very unprofessional," Woodson said. "They were coming in our pregame line trying to intimidate us. That's childish. I don't even understand why they would do something that stupid."
The Jets provided the Raiders with bulletin-board material throughout the week. The most egregious sin, as the Raiders saw it, was when New York players said they would have won at Oakland earlier this season had the clock not expired on them. The Raiders won that game, 26-20, but the Jets were driving in the waning moments.
Regardless, the Raiders were able to harness what they perceived as a lack of respect and use it as fuel in the rematch. They broke open a 10-10 game by going on a 20-0 scoring binge in the second half against a New York defense that shut out Indianapolis a week earlier.
Gannon threw a pinpoint pass to Jerry Porter for a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter, then widened the margin to 24-10 early in the fourth with a nine-yard touchdown toss to Jerry Rice.
All the while, Pennington struggled. He might have had the league-leading passer rating this season and a growing legion of fans, but he looked awfully mortal in the second half when his passes were floating well over the reach of his receivers. His confidence never wavered, though. At one point, after Raider linebacker Bill Romanowski smacked him in the mouth, Pennington was overheard saying: "Keep coming! Keep coming! I'm a football player too!"
Romanowski was unmoved and largely unimpressed by the third-year quarterback.
"I just told [my teammates] all week, 'We're going to get him. We're going to put the hats on him. We'll see if this guy's the next Joe Montana,' " Romanowski said. "And I think that we saw tonight that he's not."
Making the Raiders' performance on defense even more impressive is the fact they were without end Trace Armstrong, who sat out the game because of a groin pull, and are playing with battered cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Tory James, both of whom are recovering from broken legs. Oakland Coach Bill Callahan referred to Woodson and James as "our plate men," because both have metal plates in their legs.
Charles Woodson had six tackles and knocked down three passes, and James batted away a sure touchdown pass and made a beautiful interception in the third quarter that set up Oakland's go-ahead touchdown.
When asked if the Jets set out to test the on-the-mend corners, James said: "I'm sure they were. Wouldn't you test us too?"
After the way he and the rest of the Raiders played Sunday?
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Jerry Rice needed 39 yards to pass former Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas for most combined playoff yards in history (yards on rushing; receiving; interception, punt, kickoff and fumble returns) and finished with 47. The top five:
*--* PLAYER TEAMS YARDS Jerry Rice S.F.-Oakland 2,133 Thurman Thomas Buffalo 2,124 Franco Harris Pittsburgh 2,060 Emmitt Smith Dallas 1,928 Marcus Allen Oakland-K.C 1,877
Rice tied Thurman Thomas and Emmitt Smith for the most postseason touchdowns. The top five:
*--* PLAYER TEAMS TD Thurman Thomas Buffalo 21 Emmitt Smith Dallas 21 Jerry Rice S.F.-Oakland 21 Franco Harris Pittsburgh 17 Marcus Allen Oakland-K.C 13