I had to dig into the archives pretty deep on this one but I discovered after hours of painstaking research that what happened on Sunday was what the experts refer to as a "Raider Win". It is a rare occurrence in modern day but it did indeed occur. There is no mistaking, the Raiders beat one of the best teams in football in the Cincinnatti Bengals.
The game started out like any other for the Raiders. The Bengals dominated time of possession 12 minutes to 3 in the first quarter with the Raiders only getting one first down. The Bengals shot out of the gates as expected; going ahead 14-0. But after that, everything changed. The Bengals would score just a field goal in the final three quarters and the Raiders would miraculously score two touchdowns and two field goals to take the victory in unlikely fashion.
Both teams missed a field goal and both teams saw drives get stalled by mistakes and miscues. The main difference ended up being turnovers. The Raiders forced one more turnover than the Bengals so like the Chiefs game, the team with the fewest mistakes pulled out the win.
But there was a good amount of nice performances that came from this game. Nice enough performances to overcome those whose mistakes threatened to undermine.
I am running out of superlatives to describe how fine a safety Branch is. And yet every week, he seems to give me even more to rave about. He led the team in tackles again in this game. He had 11 solo tackles and an assist which was 5 more tackles than the next guy. He also had one of the biggest plays of the game in which he came shooting in on a safety blitz to sack Carson Palmer and knock the ball out for a fumble that the Raiders would recover. That alone was enough to make him a Baller. But his overall body of work is what has him topping the list. While leading the team in tackles is great, the real importance is where and how those tackles were made. And lately Branch has been making his hay stuffing the run. He had 5 run stuffs on the day, 3 of which were tackles for loss. Add his sack and you will notice that most of his tackles were at or behind the line of scrimmage. In the passing game he had a coverage incompletion in which he blanketed the tightend so completely that he couldn't even finish his route. He also had a pass defended in the end zone on a drive that ended a few plays later with a sack and a missed field goal. I think it is time to start talking about Branch as a Pro Bowl safety. Especially with the injuries to Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu. At this moment, Ed Reed is the only other safety in the AFC that is more deserving. But getting there will take quite a campaign.
I have been saying all season long that all the Raiders have really needed is a quarterback that gives them a chance to win. Gradkowski did that an more on Sunday. He gave the Raiders a chance to win through most of the game and at the end, he led them to victory. Yes "led" them. That is not a word that the Raiders have been able to use much this season. And not at all in reference to the quarterback position. JaMarcus Russell has rather been dragging the Raiders to defeat-- kicking and screaming. All the team wanted from Gradkowski was for him to manage the game. In the process he had two touchdown passes to just one interception. Even the interception was not his fault as his arm was hit by an oncoming rusher causing it to be a wobbly duck. He did have a bobbled snap but that is bound to happen with a quarterback getting his first start. He was 17-34 on the day and of his 17 incompletions, only three were due to inaccuracy. Two of them probably should have been caught anyway. Many of his incompletions were balls that he smartly threw away, something Russell couldn't seem to grasp with any regularity. Zach Miller was back to his dominance thanks to having a quarterback who put the ball where it was supposed to be and the running backs had no trouble at all catching his dump-offs and screens, which was quite refreshing to see. Gradkowski's best throw was one in which he split defenders to hit Chaz Schilens perfectly. Chaz was running a slant and there was a defender behind him and in front of him. The defender in front of him had his back to the quarterback and the ball went right over his shoulder and into Schilens' hands. It was the best pass by any QB for the Raiders all season. Gradkowski's biggest throw was his 17th and final throw of the game. It was a strike to Louis Murphy at the goal line in which Murphy bulled into the end zone to tie the game at 17. So for one week, the nickname we hear is Bruce Almighty instead of JaMumbles, JaFatass, JaWalrus, etc. Oh, and one just one more thing... As I said, Gradkowski had 2 touchdown passes in this game; JaMarcus Russell had 2 touchdown passes through 10 games this season. So much for Russell's theory about him not being the problem.
He had one play the entire game. It just happened to be the biggest play of game that gave the Raiders the win. After the touchdown to tie the game, the Raiders kicked off to the Bengals. On the ensuing return, Myers punched the ball out and recovered his own forced fumble. The Raiders would start that drive already in field goal range. And after essentially three kneel downs, Janikowski lined up and nailed the field goal to take the lead and the game.
Speaking of guys that had one play on the day; how about Louis Murphy. He had one catch on the day and it was the one that tied the game. He ran a great route that faked out the defender. Then he sealed off the pass and caught in right in front of the defender. He was hit immediately upon catching the ball at the 3 yard line but he wouldn't be denied. He pushed past his defender and when he turned toward the goal line, he reached the ball out and stuck it in for a touchdown. The fumble on the return may have won the game but without that catch, the Raiders would have had almost no shot to win. Murphy now has caught half the Raider touchdown passes on the season. And that doesn't include that TD that he was robbed of in week one.
Well, what do you know, get some accuracy from the quarterback and Zach's back! He led the team in receptions (5) and receiving yards (65) and he also had the first touchdown of the day on a 10 yard strike from Gradkowski. His longest catch was a short check down in which he broke a tackle and took it for 19 yards just before halftime to give Janikowski a shot at putting the Raiders within 4 points going into the locker room. Seabass missed the 57 yarder but the confidence that last minute drive gave his team was extremely important. The Raiders would come out of halftime and drive right back down the field again and this time Janikowski didn't miss. Nearly every yard on that drive was through the run thanks to the threat of the pass that was established on the Raiders previous drive.
Sure he had some miscues but the biggest catch his man had on the day, he was in tight coverage and all the credit goes to the receiver for pulling it down. In fact CJ made big plays all over the field. His first nice play, he will get no credit for in the stats but he was instrumental in it's success. It was the play in which Tyvon Branch hit Carson Palmer and knocked the ball out of his hand. The ball was up for grabs and a Bengal player dove to get it but Chris Johnson was right there to hit the player as he dove to keep him from getting it. It allowed Greg Ellis to come in right behind him and recover the football for the Raiders. It was an extremely heady, selfless play by CJ and he deserves a lot of credit for it. His next play also won't show up in the stats. It was a sweep to the right in which he came shooting in from his corner spot. He dove at the feet of the runner and the back had to leap in the air and was consequently nailed by Trevor Scott and Tyvon Branch for a loss on third down. It was a three and out just before halftime that set the Raiders up with good field position and allowed the field goal try. His next good play was a corner blitz in which he ran all the way from the opposite side of the field to tackle the Bengals runner for a loss. A few plays later he sniffed out a screen and stopped it for a short gain. On the Bengals' next possession, he had a nice pass defended. The drive would end with a three and out and a Bengal punt out of the back of their own end zone. He gave maximum effort in this game and it paid off big time.
He only gave up one catch in the game for 12 yards. And he had a roughing the passer penalty in which Carson Palmer did his best Tom Brady impression and flopped to get the call. But Routt was a Baller for two other much more important plays. Three plays after his roughing penalty, he came in unimpeded on a corner blitz to sack Carson Palmer. Palmer thought he could avoid the rush of Routt at first and then he thought he could at very least escape his grasp and either scramble or throw the ball away. But Routt chased him backward, grabbing Palmer's throwing arm to ensure he couldn't release the ball and then pulled him to the ground. The sack was on third down and with the loss of yards, Shane Graham would miss the ensuing field goal to keep the score at 14-10. The next Bengals possession started at the Raider 13 yard line after a Michael Bush fumble. But they would get no closer thanks in large part to Routt's beautiful pass defended on third down to force another field goal try and keep it a one score game. A score the Raiders would later deliver on.
His fellow bookend, Richard Seymour, went out after the first drive with an injury but Ellis held down the other side in his absence. He had a run stuff on the first play of the game. A few plays later on the drive, he pressured the QB into an incompletion. He also recovered the Tyvon Branch fumble for the first turnover of the game. His final big play came in the fourth quarter when he rushed in, grabbed Carson Palmer and literally threw him to the ground to sack him for a 6 yard loss. The Bengals faced fourth down at the 2 yard line and had to punt out of the back of their own end zone to set the Raiders up with great field position.
He didn't give up any back breaking plays, but he sure as hell gave up a lot of crucial ones. On the Bengals' first drive, after two false start penalties and then a tackle for loss, the Bengals set up at second and 22. Then Morrison couldn't get off of a block on a screen pass and the Bengals were able to pick up 23 yards and a first down. The drive ended up as their longest and most time consuming of the day after 14 plays and almost ten minutes off the clock. But most importantly, a touchdown at the end. On the next Bengals' possession, Morrison gave up an 8 yard catch. The very next play was the Tyvon Branch forced fumble. Morrison picked up the fumble, which was great. What was not great was that he started to run with the ball out in one hand where it was easily slapped out by a Bengal player who was in chase. The Raiders were lucky that Chris Johnson made a play on the ball and Greg Ellis was able to fall on it. Morrison was lucky he wasn't the goat but not so lucky to keep from being a Buster. The very next Bengals' possession, after the Gradkowski fumbled snap gave them a short field, the Bengals drove to the 20 yard line. Then Morrison missed a tackle on a 9 yard run and was blocked on a 6 yard run to set up first and goal. The Bengals would score two plays later to go up 14-0. The next drive he was out of position on an 8 yard run and was bailed out on the next play when Carson Palmer fumbled the snap from center. He also missed a tackle on a 9 yard first down to set the Bengals up at the Raider 14 yard line but he was bailed out again when the Bengals fumbled the ball. This is a classic example of the Raiders winning despite a poor performance from a key player.
Hey, what do you know, he caught a pass. Just after halftime he caught his only pass of the game for 7 yards. But he is a Buster for the 3 catches and 2 touchdowns he could have had but didn't get. The first time he saw the ball come his way, he pulled his usual right-through-his-arms flat out drop. It was on third down and would have resulted in a first down but instead the Raiders had to punt. Then a few plays after his bobbling 7 yard catch, Gradkowski threw to him in the end zone and it was almost picked off. Granted it was slightly under thrown and granted DHB turned defender and kept the corner from intercepting it but there is no reason why DHB shouldn't have caught that ball. The defender was leaping away from the ball and Darrius was jumping toward the pass. Any receiver worth his salt could have high pointed that ball and pulled it down for a TD. It was a basic jump ball situation for which Heyward-Bey had the physical and position advantage. Or you would think so anyway. Then with the game on the line on the Raiders' final drive, Gradkowski looked to have thrown an errant pass in which he led DHB too much on a crossing pattern. But upon further review, you notice that, for whatever reason, DHB quit on the route momentarily until he noticed the ball was in the air intended for him, at which point, he started running again. By then it was too late though. Gradkowski assumed, of course, that his receiver was going to keep running his route and put it where Heyward-Bey was supposed to be. The ball could have and should have been intercepted except that the defender did a DHB impression and dropped it. If the defender had held onto the easy interception, the game would have ended right there. Luckily he didn't and the Raiders dodged a bullet... named Darrius Heyward-Bey.
He seemed confused as to when the Raiders were playing zone or man coverage. The first instance of this was on the Bengals first drive. They were in third and 20 and Ochocinco ran a simple15 yards and in route. Nnamdi stayed with him until he cut inside, at which point, Nnamdi protected the outside and handed Ochocinco off to Huff to take him on the inside route. Unfortunately Huff didn't react fast enough almost as if he thought Nnamdi was playing man. Ochocinco caught the pass in front of Huff and took the pass for a 30 yard gain. Two plays later, he was among a few Raider defenders who were all caught saying "I thought you had him?" on an easy 21 yard catch and run. Then three plays later, with the ball at the 11 yard line, he gave up a 10 yard catch to the goal line. The 30 yarder was the biggest gain on the drive but overall he was at least partially responsible for 61 yards on the way to the Bengals scoring a touchdown on their opening possession. He seemed to tighten it up after that but when nearly the entire first drive goes through one guy, that one guy has a lot of making up to do. That means above and beyond. A level he didn't reach.