Dolphins 23, Raiders 17

As he stood at his locker after today's 23-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Pro Player Stadium, Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon slipped his feet into his brown suede shoes and dropped his striped tie around the neck of his marine blue dress shirt. Requesting a packet of statistics, Gannon turned his back to the activity in the locker room and silently paged through the damage.

On a day the Raiders had a chance to become the first AFC team to clinch a playoff spot, Gannon was sacked five times for 42 yards. On a day Oakland (9-5) hoped to lift itself above the mess of teams colliding like bumper cars for postseason position, Gannon amassed just 204 passing yards, more than 100 yards below his league-leading average. And on a day the Raiders could have punctured the playoff ambitions of Miami (9-5), Gannon threw what amounted to a game-ending interception late in the fourth quarter, a rainbow of a pass to Jerry Rice that ended up in the hands -- just one hand, actually -- of leaping Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain.

After a minute or two, Gannon tossed the stat packet into the back of his locker as if eager to forget the day's debris, and wordlessly walked to the training room. Ten minutes later, he emerged with his hair combed and his tie tied. He pulled on his chocolate brown suit jacket and seemed to button himself up with composure and calm, which he exuded as he took questions about the game.

For a few minutes, anyway.

After one-too-many queries about the long ball he launched in Rice's direction from his 34-yard line with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining, Gannon's exasperation burst out of the blocks much like Miami defensive end Jason Taylor had throughout the afternoon. Gannon already had explained that the Raiders felt Rice could beat safety Brock Marion on the play. Even though the Raiders had not completed a pass of more than 25 yards against Miami's relentless man-to-man coverage all afternoon, even though Oakland had the little success it did with shorter tosses up the middle, he did not understand the fuss about one aired-out long ball.

"Help me out guys," he said, throwing up his hands. "What is a deep ball? I'm just confused. Is it anything over 12, 15, 18 yards? I don't understand why everyone's talking about the deep ball. . . . They've got two of the best corners in the league. I don't know if you guys have checked, but [Sam] Madison and Surtain are two of the best."

Gannon could be excused for letting a flicker of frustration replace the forced perspective that had preceded it. Surtain not only had made a marvelous interception to end Oakland's last threat, he also had, along with Madison, blanketed the Raiders' receivers all day -- something unfamiliar for a team averaging an NFL-best 411 offensive yards per game. The relentless pressure from Taylor, who earned three sacks to push his league-leading total to 17, added to aggravation. On top of that, the Raiders struggled with communication problems caused by malfunctions in new headsets.

"That's the toughest defense we have faced all year," Raiders Coach Bill Callahan said. "The pass rush was premier. The best in this division -- this conference, I should say. . . . We were trying everything against their secondary. Their defensive backfield is physical. They're aggressive. They maul you on the line of scrimmage."

Really, there had been only one good drive all day from the league's top passing offense. Gannon took the Raiders on a textbook, eight-play, 80-yard drive to pull within three points less than a minute into the fourth quarter. On the drive, Gannon completed 6 of 7 passes for 82 yards (penalties account for the yardage discrepancy). After connecting with Jerry Porter with a 20-yard touchdown pass, Gannon found him again in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion.

Other than that drive, it was a battle of field goals and the Dolphins' defense dictated the day. Miami's offense did just enough to get by. Miami running back Ricky Williams was not spectacular -- his streak of 200-yard games ended at two -- but he accumulated 101 yards on 27 carries and pounded away late in the game when it mattered most. Quarterback Jay Fiedler took advantage of the absence of Oakland's two starting cornerbacks and the Raiders' obsession with stopping Williams to complete 21 of 32 passes for 237 yards. Fiedler's favorite target was Chris Chambers, who accrued a career-best 138 yards on seven receptions.

Fiedler threw no interceptions and tossed a five-yard touchdown to Cris Carter, his first as a Dolphin.

"We knew they were banged up in the defensive backfield and we took advantage of it," Williams said. "We knew they were hoping for big things out of the passing game. We knew they were going to come in and they were going to try to stop our run."

The Raiders seemed to fritter away the few chances they had. The usually reliable Tim Brown dropped a couple of passes and fumbled a punt with just under five minutes remaining, giving Miami possession at the Oakland 39. Five plays later, Olindo Mare kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Miami the final margin.

"We could probably kick ourselves for 10, 12 or 15 plays today," Gannon said. "There's enough responsibility for all of us. . . . As difficult a day as it was going to be, we made it even more difficult."

Dolphins defenders put squeeze on Raiders' Rich Gannon (five sacks, 204 passing yards) in 2nd quarter.Cris Carter cradles first touchdown pass as a Dolphin, 130th of career, as Raiders' Derrick Gibson trails.