The 2002 Raiders went 11-5 and earned the top seed and home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the AFC title game.
Fifteen years ago today, the Oakland Raiders opponent in the 2002 AFC Championship Game on January 19, 2003, was the AFC South division champion Tennessee Titans. These teams had met before in league play early during the 2002 regular season—Sunday, September 29 in Oakland, with the Silver and Black winning decisively, 52-25. After that, however, the Titans had gone 9-2 in league play, before beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-31 in overtime, on Saturday, January 11, to win their way into the Championship Game.
The Titans came into the AFC title game as probably the hottest team in the league, besides the Raiders. Including the Divisional Playoff win over Pittsburgh, they had won their last six games and 11 of their last 12. And their single loss in that four-month period had been by just one point, on the road! In their final four league games, the Titans four victories came by margins of 10 points, 17 points, 18 points and 10 points. The Raiders had won seven out of their last eight after starting the season 4-4. The Raiders finished the season 11-5, and earned the AFC's top seed for the playoff tournament, and would enjoy homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Raiders had rolled past the New York Jets 30-10 in an AFC Divisional Playoff game the week before.
Raiders guard Frank Middleton was very emphatic heading into the game, "This is a Championship Game, that's your motivation right there. It's not about what happened the first time. It's about winning our game and getting to San Diego. I think Tennessee is probably one of the hottest teams in the League right now." Titans linebacker Keith Bullock had revenge for the September loss clearly in his focus. "We went there and get embarrassed—so this is a blessing in disguise."
Kickoff for the AFC Championship Game came at 3:47 pm before a complete sellout at then-Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland. Both championship contenders were veteran teams. Of the 44 starters, only four were rookies—defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and safety Tank Williams for the Titans; tight end Doug Jolley and middle linebacker Napoleon Harris for the Raiders.
The Raiders had the first possession and quarterback Rich Gannon, the NFL's Most Valuable Player for 2002, came out firing. On the game's first offensive play, Gannon passed to Jerry Rice for 29 yards. Gannon threw completions totaling 32 yards on the next three plays—two to wide receiver Tim Brown and one to running back Charlie Garner. Three plays later Gannon hit wide receiver Jerry Porter on a three-yard touchdown toss. With the extra point by Sebastian Janikowski, the Raiders led 7-0 just 4:01 into the game.
The visiting Titans quickly quieted the roaring crowd by driving 74 yards on nine plays to tie the score 7-7 at the 9:01 mark in the first quarter. Tennessee's touchdown came on a 33-yard pass from QB Steve McNair to wide receiver Drew Bennett.
A holding penalty on the subsequent kickoff return then started the Raider offense on their own 15-yard line. A lot of green grass and white stripes stood between the Oakland 11 and the Tennessee end zone. But it took the Silver and Black only seven plays and just over three minutes to cover those 85 yards. After a false start moved the Raiders back to their own 10, Gannon scrambled for four, then passed to RB Charlie Garner for 17 and to fullback Jon Ritchie for 14 more. Another Gannon run for 13 yards moved the ball into Tennessee territory. A deep pass to Jerry Porter, that withstood a challenge replay review, advanced the Raiders to the Titans 16. Two plays later Gannon found Charlie Garner open for the final 12 yards, giving the Raiders a 14-7 lead with 2:47 left in the first quarter.
Tennessee closed out the quarter on the march, featuring runs by McNair and Eddie George, working out of standard pro sets and the shotgun formation. A roughness penalty against the Raiders moved the Titans to the Oakland 20. Tough defense, highlighted by sure tackles by defensive backs Rod Woodson, Anthony Dorsett, Terrance Shaw, Derrick Gibson and interior lineman John Parrella, halted the Titans 11 yards short of the end zone. A 29-yard field goal left Tennessee trailing, 14-10, early in the second quarter.
At the 8:54 mark in the quarter, Tennessee took possession at their own 45-yard line. A time-consuming drive, mixing runs and passes, aided by a pair of penalties called against the Raiders, moved the Titans to the Oakland nine. From there, McNair broke free inside, fighting into the end zone for the score, pulling the Titans back on top, 17-14, with only 2:47 left in the half.
The Tennessee defense turned back the next Oakland possession, forcing a punt.
The Coliseum scoreboard clock showed 1:28 remaining in the half when penetration by defensive tackle Rod Coleman and a hit by linebacker Eric Barton forced a Titans fumble, which was recovered by Dorsett at the Tennessee 16-yard line. A Gannon to Rice pass to the post on first down took the ball to the one. From there Gannon faked inside and lofted a pass to tight end Doug Jolley who was open on the right side of the end zone. With the successful extra point, Oakland regained the lead, 21-17, with just one minute remaining in the half. The crowd erupted.
Sebastian Janikowski's bouncing kickoff was fielded on the Tennessee seven. A solid hit by linebacker Tim Johnson stripped the ball free. The Raiders bounced on the football. The Raiders had the ball on the Titans 39 with just 49 seconds left.
Gannon dropped back to pass, saw space inside of right tackle Lincoln Kennedy, burst up field, then broke right and ended up out of bounds at the Tennessee 25. Three downs later, with just four seconds to go, the half ended as Janikowski made a 43-yard field goal to put the Raiders up by seven, 24-17. The two turnovers had netted 10 points in 60 seconds for the alert Silver and Black.
The Titans came out strong to start the second half. They worked their way down to the Raiders 22. But on third-and-eight Steve McNair was sacked by defensive tackle John Parrella, forcing a punt.
On their next fourth down punt situation, a big rush inside by Eric Johnson forced Tennessee punter Craig Hentrich to pull the ball down and try to run. Tim Johnson and Clarence Love made the tackle for a six-yard loss and the Raiders took over on the Titans 19-yard line. Four plays later, Janikowski booted a 32-yard field goal and the scoreboard now read: RAIDERS 27—TITANS 17.
There was no quit in this Tennessee team. McNair, who had passed for 398 yards in the September meeting, completed four passes on their next series and finished the drive running for 13 yards and a touchdown. The Titans now trailed by only three, 27-24, with 31 seconds left in the third quarter.
Oakland began their next possession on their own 34 after a 30-yard kickoff return by second-year pro Marcus Knight. Aided by a personal foul call, the Raiders started the fourth quarter at the Tennessee 46-yard line. Garner then sprang free on a delayed run from a double-wing formation, bursting between Barry Sims and Mo Collins. Downfield blocks by Brown and Rice helped Garner gain 18 yards. Two downs later, Gannon to Rice gained 17 more yards. Finally, on third-and-goal from the two, Gannon set to throw, bounced outside a block by tight end Doug Jolley and made it to the right corner of the end zone for the touchdown. The PAT was good. The Raiders led 34-24 with 11:27 left in the AFC Championship game.
A quarterback sack curtailed the next Tennessee opportunity. After the Titans punt, it was the Raiders ball on their own 31. The Raiders were well aware of the clock. They were also well aware of Tennessee's offensive capabilities. After all, McNair had finished third in the NFL Most Valuable Player voting, behind only Rich Gannon of the Raiders and Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers.
The soon-to-be Super Bowl-bound Raiders then utilized a 10-play drive and 6:29 of the time remaining to travel 61 yards for the game's final points. Seven short passes and three runs later found the Raiders in the end zone again. The touchdown came on Crockett's seven-yard burst over right guard with clearing blocks by Lincoln Kennedy and Mo Collins.
The battle ended with a Rich Gannon kneel-down after a late Tennessee drive was stopped deep in Raider territory. Next stop for these valiant Raiders would be Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.
Five of the previous six AFC top seeds did not make it to the Super Bowl. The previous three AFC championships had been won by the road team. But that was not the case on this day. On Sunday, January 19, 2003, The Oakland Raiders became 2002 American Football Conference Champions.