The San Diego Chargers appeared well on their way to another victory over the Raiders. The only question seemed to be the final score.
But something funny happened on the way to what would have been San Diego's 14th straight victory over Oakland. The Raiders responded with the kind of game-changing plays that have been lacking for the past seven seasons en route to a 35-27 victory Sunday at the Coliseum.
"If you've seen us play, it's pretty obvious," Raiders coach Tom Cable said. "We don't back down. And the process of becoming a better team and winning and doing all those things, they're all steps."
In beating a Chargers team that has captured the AFC West each of the past four seasons, the Raiders persevered by overcoming a nine-point deficit after they squandered a 12-0 lead.
They won despite allowing 506 yards of offense, committing 12 penalties and playing most of the game without starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and the entire game without first-string running back Darren McFadden.
"We did a good job as a team," said running back Michael Bush, who had 104 rushing yards and a touchdown. "Everybody was fighting. We never gave up, and that's something in the past I couldn't say. We hung in there. Hopefully, this is us getting over the hump and now we'll keep building."
The Raiders won on a day that the other three teams in the AFC West lost. They improved to 2-3, tied with the Chargers and Denver Broncos. The division-leading Kansas City Chiefs are 3-1.
Getting back into the division race required much more effort than the Raiders imagined after their fast start.
The Raiders led 12-0 at the end of the first quarter, courtesy of back-to-back blocked punts by Rock Cartwright and Brandon Myers that resulted in a safety and a touchdown.
After the safety gave the Raiders a two-point edge, Sebastian Janikowski drilled a 50-yard field goal to make it 5-0. Then Hiram Eugene returned the second blocked punt 5 yards for a touchdown, and the Raiders were ahead by 12 only 4:27 into the game.
But the Chargers righted themselves before the game got out of hand.
They did so on the strength of quarterback Philip Rivers' right arm. He shredded the Raiders' third-ranked pass defense -- the Raiders allowed an average of 143.8 yards in their first four games -- for 431 yards passing, including 290 by halftime.
In the end, Rivers pushed his luck once too often. With the Chargers trailing 28-27, he marched San Diego to the Raiders 33-yard line, putting the visitors within range of a Nate Kaeding field-goal attempt with under two minutes to go.
But as Rivers dropped back to pass for a 43rd time, free safety Michael Huff hit the quarterback's hand, knocking the ball loose. Strong safety Tyvon Branch scooped up the fumble and raced 64 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
"That's what we always say, 'We want the games in our hands, let us decide it,' " Branch said. "We got that opportunity and we came through."
The Raiders learned from a last-second loss to the Chargers in the regular-season opener last season, Branch said. In that game, the Chargers marched down the field with an array of screens and short passes against a Raiders defense that didn't put much pressure on the quarterback. This time, the Raiders blitzed Rivers on almost every down toward the end.
"We knew we had to get pressure on Philip because he's a great quarterback," Branch said. "Last year, we were in the same situation, and we played zone. They dinked and dunked and they killed us underneath. "... When you sit in zone coverage they pick it apart. Once we started getting pressure, things started going our way."
"Coach stressed it all week, just finish," defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "Finish everything. Finish the plays, finish the quarter, finish everything. There's a perception out there that we can't finish and sometimes you get tired of hearing that."
The Raiders rallied behind quarterback Jason Campbell, who was benched midway through the second game of the season in favor of Gradkowski.
On Sunday, Campbell replaced Gradkowski late in the first quarter after Gradkowski aggravated a right shoulder injury. Gradkowski returned for one series in the third quarter, then returned to the sidelines for the rest of the game.
Campbell then directed back-to-back scoring drives that resulted in touchdowns and turned a 24-15 deficit into a 28-27 lead late in the fourth quarter.
"You always have to stay positive," Campbell said. "It's easy to get into the tank and say, 'That's it.' Stay positive and keep grinding, keep the faith, and good things will happen. It will turn around for you."