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

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 kids. But when he
got home, Woodson found that almost every one of his five
children, from 12year-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 21for47, 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

The Jets couldn't mount a comeback, not with Oakland's vaunted
secondary back from sick bay. 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

While Woodson vacuumed last Friday night, Gannon and his wife had
their weekly "date." Dinner, back home by 8:30, in bed by 10. "If
I did it any other way, it'd kill me," Gannon said with a big
smile on Sunday night. "I'm an old man."

On this team, that's not so bad.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN [COVER] SUPER BOWL COUNTDOWN Crunch Time Can Anybody Beat The Raiders? NFL PLAYOFFSDr. Z's Picks Quarterback Rich Gannon grounds the Jets

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (GANNON) PITCH MAN Two touchdown passes in the second half by the well-prepared Gannon finished off New York on Sunday.