Chargers get sneaky to beat Raiders

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Who knew a Chargers-Raiders game would come down to a cat-and-mouse game with less than 30 seconds to go?

The Chargers may have beaten the Raiders for the 12th straight time, but this one was far from easy.

“Yeah, just because we’ve beaten them a lot lately people think it would be easy,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “It wasn’t easy.”

No, San Diego needed some final-second gamesmanship to pull off its 24-20 season-opening victory over the suddenly stout and game Oakland Raiders.

The final drama in this brilliant game was created by Oakland’s husky coach, Tom Cable. With the Chargers lined up with four receivers, Cable rumbled onto the field to call a timeout with 21 seconds to go.

The timeout gave the Chargers a chance to adjust.

They were indeed going to throw the ball on second-and-goal from the 5-yard line, trailing 20-17. But Cable made San Diego coach Norv Turner go to the playbook again.

Turner introduced a new play the Chargers just started to practice late last week.

“I really liked it [in practice],” Rivers said late Monday night.

Now, Rivers loves it.

The play was a draw-type handoff to shifty tailback Darren Sproles. Sproles skirted right up the middle and into the end zone for an easy score with 18 seconds to go.

Maybe that timeout shouldn’t have been called, after all.

“That timeout helped,” Rivers said.

Oakland star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said the Raiders were expecting San Diego to pass both before the timeout (right call) and after the timeout (wrong call).

“Norv is good at those little details things,” Asomugha said. “It was an incredible finish.”

San Diego gained 166 of its 317 total offensive yards on its final two drives, and the Chargers did it without starting offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Louis Vasquez.

Here are some observations:

The Raiders are better: The mere fact that San Diego had to fight back with touchdowns in its final two drives shows that the Raiders are improved.

The entire San Diego locker room was praising Oakland for becoming a better team. Oakland set an NFL record for six straight seasons with 11 losses or more from 2003-08. That streak may be in jeopardy if the Raiders play as balanced as they did Monday night.

“That team is much improved,” San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman said. “They’ve been adding top draft picks the past several years and it’s really paying off.”

Added Rivers: “They look like they are much better.”

Despite the pain of the loss, Cable was happy with the progress and you get the feeling that the Raiders, who play at Kansas City on Sunday, feel like they are onto something.

“We’re going to be OK,” Asomugha said.

The Chargers gutted out this win: When Hardwick and Vasquez went out in the third quarter, the Chargers looked lost.

“It wasn’t going well,” Rivers said.

But with the young Scott Mruczkowski and Brandyn Dombrowski playing, the Chargers got better in the fourth quarter. San Diego erupted in the fourth quarter with 166 yards.

“We just stuck with it and it came together,” Rivers said.

Added Dombrowski: "We just gave everything we had to get this win."

The Chargers are hopeful both the injuries to Hardwick, the anchor of the unit, and Vasquez won't be long-term issues.

The call: Raiders fans are going to be upset for a long time as a result of the call that took a touchdown away from rookie receiver Louis Murphy late in the first half. The Raiders had to settle for a field goal.

So, they lost four points on the call. And they lost the game by four points. Here is the official explanation from Carl Cheffers:

“Let me just grab the [rule] book here, and I’m going to read you what the book says. We had a situation where the receiver caught the pass in the air and as he is coming down to the ground, he is actually going to the ground. That’s a defined term in our rule book, a player, a receiver who is going to the ground. The rule book says, if a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, with or without contact by opponent -- so that can be on his own. In this case, he got hit by an opponent -- he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or in the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete. That wasn’t the case. What we ruled, what we saw in replay, was that he was going to the ground, as he came down the ball came loose, he lost control of the ball, the ball skidded along the ground, he eventually completely lost control of the ball. So, by rule, by what we saw in review, it’s an incomplete pass.”

Seymour is going to help the Raiders: New Oakland defensive end Richard Seymour played very well in his Raiders debut. He helped the entire defense against the run and the pass. San Diego had only 77 yards rushing. Oakland was 31st in the NFL against the run last year.

Seymour had six tackles and two sacks.

“He gives them a spark,” Rivers said.

Russell, Murphy could be a nice team: The Raiders thought they won the game on a 57-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Louis Murphy on fourth-and-14 with 2:34 to go.

Murphy looks great. In fact, the fourth-round pick from Florida looks much better than first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, who had no catches and two drops.

Russell is still a work in progress. He completed just 12 of 30 passes.

One game at a time: Winning in the final seconds is much better than losing in the final seconds. San Diego opened the 2008 season by losing at home to Carolina. It started a 4-8 skid for the Chargers.

This training camp, San Diego vowed to take it one game at a time.

“That’s what we did tonight,” Merriman said. “We just hung in there and worried about this game.”

Even though it took all game, the Chargers' patience paid off.