FOXBORO, Mass. — There was one very specific thing the Raiders needed from this visit, and it wasn't a stirring near-comeback, or a chance to debut their new superstar, or overdue good tidings from the Kid QB front.
What they needed was a victory, which eluded them.
If Sunday's game was memorable, and hard-fought, and perhaps marked the day this team began to care again, all it is in the standings is a loss, the Raiders' fourth in a row, cementing them in fourth place in the AFC West.
What do you get when you rally from 23-6 in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and watch Dame Fortune jerk her cord around Tony Franklin's Adam's apple as he knocks a 34-yard game-winning field goal off target?
Nothing but a longer ride home. Raider corner Lionel Washington was detected offside on the play. Franklin, the league's highest-paid kicker, who'd made his last six tries before this miss, was allowed to line up another one from 29 yards away with :05 left, which he hit. The New England Patriots won, 26-23, and Raider spirits dove so low, you couldn't find them without scuba equipment.
Tom Flores, normally protective of his players at all costs, called the offsides "a killer." If so, what had died, all but officially, was his team's season.
"There's nothing really to explain about it," said a somber Washington.
"I was just trying to anticipate the snap. I'd pretty much been timing him out all day. I guess they just changed the snap count a little and I got caught."
If you wonder if all this burden should be carried by one Raider, don't be silly.
The offense didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, when the Patriots led, 23-6.
The defense showed none of its Horatio at the Bridge bravado of two seasons ago, when it scored three touchdowns by itself in the game here to turn the season around. Sunday, it gave up 282 yards passing to 34-year-old Steve Grogan in a relief appearance, and 100-yard games to both his wide receivers, Stanley Morgan and Irving Fryar, and another 110 yards to the feeble Patriot ground game.
And when the Raider offense rallied behind Rusty Hilger to tie the game with :46 left? The Pats just went 68 yards in the other direction--the big play Grogan's 40-yard completion to Morgan who beat Mike Haynes--to set up Franklin's eventual game-winner.
Said Haynes: "We can't point fingers any more at the offense."
Let's pick this up at the Raider low point: They were down 23-6, when Hilger took them 48 yards to their first touchdown--on an eight-yard pass to Todd Christensen after running for his own life in the backfield--against a Patriot defense that looked like it was stifling yawns.
The next time out, the Patriots left an earlier wake-up, but Hilger marched the Raiders 61 yards to score. The key play was a 32-yard pass to rookie fullback Steve Smith that was supposed to be a screen to Marcus Allen. Allen was knocked down and Hilger just winged it, gunning the ball down the other sideline . . . while Raider officials in the press box shrieked, 'No! No!" and the pass just got over the fingertips of Patriot linebacker Don Blackmon . . . to Smith, who carried to the New England four. Two plays later, Allen scored and it was about to be 23-20.
And the next time out, Hilger marched them down again, into field goal position, starting with a 34-yard completion to James Lofton. When the drive died at the 21, Chris Bahr knocked home a 39-yard field goal, trying the game, 23-23, with :46 left.
The Patriots got a last shot. There didn't appear to be enough time for a drive, until Grogan exploded a 40-yard bomb to Morgan, over Haynes, on the first play.
Haynes, the ex-Patriot, used to work against Morgan every day in practice, and probably knows him better than any receiver in the league.
"I think I do," said Haynes, managing a little joke at his own expense. "Steve did a great job throwing the football. Stanley did a great job to catch the football. I just didn't do my job and cover him.
"I really think I made a mistake covering him. I don't think I was very smart, the way I played it. I had all kinds of help inside but I let Stanley get outside. I should have been shading him that way."
Morgan was dragged down from behind at the Raider 40. On fourth-and-five, Grogan hit tight end Greg Baty for 11 yards to the 24. On first down, Grogan caught the Raiders with their middle uncovered and broke a quarterback sneak seven yards to the 17. On came Franklin for the series of events that would culminate in the Patriot victory.
Whatever has happened to the proud Raider defense?
"It's tough to say," said Howie Long, who used to say, notwithstanding. "I think I'll let somebody in a position of authority comment on that. I'm just a player. I just look to do my job within the team concept."
Did the strike take a toll?
"I think so," Haynes said. "But this week, guys started talking to each other again. After the Seattle game, we realized how much we needed unity. Guys started talking to guys, making amends, acting like professionals."