By Eric Gilmore
OAKLAND, Calif. ??? When the Raiders and Broncos met in a Monday night season-opener, Tim Tebow was on Denver's bench, and Carson Palmer was at home on the couch, refusing to play unless the Cincinnati Bengals traded him.
Eight weeks later, the two teams met again Sunday at the Coliseum, and this time Tebow and Palmer, making his Raiders starting debut, were in the middle of an improbable shootout, with Denver coming from behind for a 38-24 win.
Who saw this coming?
The game was tied 24-24 entering the final quarter, and it remained that way until Denver wide receiver Eddie Royal, filling in for an injured Quan Cosby, fielded his first punt of the year and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown with 5:53 left.
Denver running back Willis McGahee's 24-yard touchdown run put the Broncos ahead 38-24 with 1:53 left.
Tebow, coming off a disastrous game against Detroit, passed for 124 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 117 yards on 12 carries, most of those yards coming on read-option plays that you expect to see in college football games, not the NFL. Tebow completed just 10 of 21 passes but had a passer rating of 98.1.
McGahee, returning to action just 12 days after undergoing surgery on a broken right hand, rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, including a 60-yard touchdown, and the Broncos rolled up 298 total yards on the ground. It was his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
"It's a tribute to our coaches, not just the quarterback," Denver coach John Fox said of the option running scheme. "All our players, we've definitely made adjustments. We're in the process of adjusting for the last three weeks. It's a different style but it can be effective."
Palmer, acquired in a trade for a first-round draft pick and a conditional second-rounder, threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, completing 19 of 35 passes, but he was intercepted three times, twice by cornerback Champ Bailey. He made major strides since coming off the bench two weeks ago in a 28-0 loss to Kansas City when he knew just a handful of plays.
"There's still some things I'm a little bit off on, I'm a little bit rusty on," Palmer said. "Still some things I'm not just quite comfortable with. But that's what I expected. I mean, I didn't expect to come in this week and just go 100 percent, ready to rock ???n' roll with everything. It's kind of par for the course with where I am with in this offense and in this system."
With both Kansas City and San Diego losing Sunday, the Raiders had a chance to grab sole possession of first place in the AFC West. Instead, they'll settle for a three-way tie for first with the Chiefs and Chargers at 4-4 with an upcoming Thursday night game at San Diego.
"It would have felt good, been good, going into San Diego being up," said Raiders running back Michael Bush, who started for the injured Darren McFadden and rushed for 96 yards. "But at the same time, each week, from here on out, it's going to be a battle for who's going to be the leader of the division. We just can't hang our heads low right now. We got to keep going."
Not that long ago, Denver's playoff hopes seemed all but dead. Now the Broncos are just a game out of first in the West at 3-5.
"It can turn us around," McGahee said of the win.
The Raiders appeared to have shored up their leaky run defense the previous three weeks, but they reverted to their past form Sunday, especially in the second half when Denver rushed for 230 yards.
"They have been running the same thing since they put (Tebow) in there," Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "They're running that college stuff, that zone stuff. Read it, quarterback's gonna hold it. Man, we practiced that stuff all week. Not like they came out there with some new package or scheme. First half we got off the field. Second half we spit the bit."
The Raiders built a 17-7 halftime lead on the strength of two Palmer touchdown passes, but the Broncos quickly made it clear they weren't going away. Tebow marched Denver 89 yards on the opening drive for a score, hitting Royal with a 26-yard touchdown pass.
Royal was wide open over the middle, and Tebow took advantage of the Raiders' blown coverage, cutting Oakland's lead to 17-14.
"I'm just trying to get a little bit better every day at a lot of different things, but mainly just managing the offense, being patient, taking what they give me," Tebow said. "I think we did a good job today of taking some underneath stuff and hitting some quick passes, especially early in the third quarter to get us going and then consistently sticking with the running game."
Palmer responded with his third touchdown pass of the day, an 18-yard toss to wide receiver Jacoby Ford, capping an 80-yard scoring drive that put the Raiders up 24-14.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said of the loss. "Disappointment's probably an understatement for the way I feel. To be up 17-7 at halftime and not get them stopped on defense and not score enough points on offense and turn the ball over and all the penalties, it's disappointing. Again, we've got a short week, can't wallow about it. Everybody else in the division lost other than Denver, they beat us. It's a jam-packed division. We head to San Diego. It's going to be a big game."
Denver cut Oakland's lead to 24-17 on Matt Prater's 43-yard field goal with 2:52 left in the third. Then the Broncos got the ball back when cornerback Chris Harris intercepted a Palmer pass that deflected off the outstretched hand of a leaping Denarius Moore.
Harris' 15-yard return gave Denver a first down at its 40. Then on the final play of the first half, McGahee burst through a huge hole over left guard and raced 60 yards for a touchdown, knotting the game 24-24.
McGahee didn't sound sold on the reach-option approach in the NFL, but he said he's willing to do anything that helps Denver win.
"Listen, as long as it worked, that's all I care about," McGahee said. "(Tebow) did a great job as far as reading the ends on what he had to do as far as keeping it or giving it. When I got the ball it was my job just to get some yards. At the beginning I was getting like three yards here, two yards. I saw a couple times when I was getting tackled the hole was opening up slowly, so I just had to change up a couple of things and just be more patient."
The Raiders struck first Sunday, taking a 3-0 lead on Sebastian Janikowski's 48-yard field goal with 7:35 left in the first quarter.
Denver answered late in the first quarter when Tebow fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Decker, putting the Broncos up 7-3. Decker beat Raiders safety Michael Huff, who moves to corner in the nickel, on a post pattern, and Tebow threw a dart.
Oakland owned the second quarter, scoring 14 unanswered points to take a 17-7 halftime lead. The Raiders capitalized on a Broncos special teams gaffe to score their second TD of the day.
On fourth-and-12 from the Denver 15, Broncos punter Britton Colquitt dropped the snap then threw a desperation pass that fell incomplete. Three plays later, Palmer threw his first touchdown pass as a Raider, hitting Bush in the right flat for an 11-yard score.
Bush's touchdown put the Raiders up 10-7 with 10:42 left in the half.
The Raiders scored again late in first half, this time on Palmer's 40-yard touchdown pass to fullback Marcel Reece, jumping their lead to 17-7.
Reece, who had missed the previous four games with an ankle injury, split wide left and beat Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams deep down the middle, showing the receiving skills he honed as a college wide-out for Washington.
Denver had a chance to cut into that lead before halftime when Prater drilled a 48-yard field goal with 17 seconds left, but Fox accepted a roughing-the-kicker penalty on Oakland's Taiwan Jones. The Broncos had a first down at the Oakland 15, but they backtracked, and Prater missed a 43-yard attempt.
Game notes: Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil recorded his 1 ?? sacks of the season. Dumervil led the NFL in sacks with 17 in 2009 but missed the 2010 season with a torn chest muscle. ... WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who signed with the Oakland earlier in the week, made his Raiders debut and caught a 28-yard pass from Palmer, his former Bengals teammate, in the third quarter. He was targeted four times.
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