FOXBOROUGH - There will be better days for the Raiders. They’re out there somewhere, the blue skies of California, the sunshine of the Golden State, the warm evening breezes that sweep away pain.
But in the midst of a whiteout here last night, bucolic gave way to colic for the Raiders.
“I’m really proud of my football team,” said Oakland coach Jon Gruden, following his club’s bitter 16-13 playoff defeat at the hands of the Patriots. “I’m disappointed with the defeat, obviously, but I’m proud of my team.
“It will be tough to get over this, but we’ll get over it . . . we’ll show some resiliency, and we’ll get over it.”
With a 13-10 lead in hand in the closing moments of the fourth quarter, the Raiders saw a sight they patented - a black cloud - take an unfamiliar, menacing, almost diabolical turn and settle over their season. The princes of darkness felt firsthand the kind of agony they turned into a cottage industry for decades.
What looked like a Tom Brady fumble, and an Oakland recovery, turned into an official review and a Patriot repossession. Then came an Adam Vinatieri field goal for a 13-13 tie with 27 seconds remaining in regulation. Then a coin flip went wrong, leaving the Raiders to kick to the Patriots in overtime. Fifteen plays into OT, another Vinatieri field goal had the Raiders headed home with a loss.
Faster than an empty California freeway turns into a parking lot, the season closed in on Oakland and then closed down.
“I got a couple of different explanations,” said Gruden, mulling the controversial Brady bobble that initially was ruled a fumble. “But the conclusion was the quarterback started his throwing motion in a forward manner - and it was an incomplete pass.”
Gruden’s tight-lipped smile carried his own interpretation. The officials could call it what they wanted - and line judge Gary Arthur and referee Walt Coleman explained it firsthand to Gruden on the sideline - but that smile said he wasn’t buying it.
“He felt it was one continuous motion,” said Gruden, relaying Coleman’s call. “And his opinion is what matters . . . unfortunately for the Raiders.”
Oakland no longer is the NFL’s Team Mean. If it were, then the Raiders would have turned a snow-packed stadium into their personal battleground, taking advantage of the snow and ice to deliver pain and agony on the Patriots. When it was over, however, the weather almost didn’t factor in their thoughts.
“It was icy and slippery out there,” said guard Frank Middleton. “But we didn’t think about it very much. We were out there with short sleeves and everything, and kinda looked at it like playing in Denver. No big deal. And no one can say we didn’t play hard.”
The key to their undoing, suggested Middleton, was the late change in the New England game plan that had the Patriots favor the short and quick passes that showed so much promise on the night’s opening drive. As the game wore on, the Patriots switched more to the run, then reinstituted the Brady quick pops the Raiders couldn’t handle.
“We stopped the run inside,” said Middleton. “It was those dump passes that hurt us.”
Nothing had a hurt the equal of the video replay. When Brady’s fumble essentialy became a redo, the Raiders came undone.
“I figured it was over, man,” said Middleton, referring to what looked like the Raiders’ recovery of a loose ball. “That’s a bad call . . . the officials did us bad. But we can’t blame the officiating. Yeah, it’s a bad call for us, it’s a tough one and it’s sad, but we should have made plays that didn’t put us in that position.”
Brady pump-faked, said Middleton, and brought his arm down before he was clobbered by Woodson. Raider ball, he thought.
“Just a bad call to end our season like that.”
The wintry white, said tight end Roland Williams, wasn’t so bad. The Raiders weathered the weather, and “both teams were out there in the same conditions - I don’t think that was the determining factor.”
The questionable call had to be factored in, he said, and that will be left for summer discussion.
“I saw it happen, and I didn’t see that it would be up for debate,” he said. “But I guess they saw different.”
From another vantage point, Williams saw a New England team that won for a reason other than an official’s whistle or the whir of a video machine.
“They made more plays that we did,” he said. “And that’s what it was.”