OAKLAND The last time this place felt like this? Too long to remember. Recent seasons have not been kind to the Raiders. But Sunday afternoon, in what rookie coach Dennis Allen hopes is a warm-and-fuzzy beginning, they enjoyed a rare, memorable, near-perfect finale.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was talking and moving his extremities. That made it all work. That's the only reason Sunday's 34-31 victory over Pittsburgh can be characterized as remarkable and not an unspeakable tragedy.
The veteran receiver was knocked unconscious after a brutal, helmet-to-helmet collision in the end zone with Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who was not penalized. DHB lay on the field for approximately 10 minutes. Medical personnel swarmed around. Players and coaches hovered. A stretcher appeared, preparing him for transport to an ambulance and a hospital.
But there was this, too: Heyward-Bey extending his right arm and thrusting a fist to the crowd as the stretcher was taken, and later an encouraging update from a team official: Heyward-Bey was in stable condition and hospitalized overnight for observation; it could have been so much worse.
"It was hard, a challenge," Allen said afterward, his voice rising with each word. "When one of your guys goes down, especially in a situation like that, it's hard to keep your focus. I thought our guys did an outstanding job, coming back and winning the game in the fourth quarter."
The NFL will take a long, hard look at the replays at Mundy's helmet striking Heyward-Bey's face mask and a hefty fine undoubtedly awaits. Regular officials or replacements, the flag will be thrown.
But now that the Raiders can catch their breath, their first win of the season won't soon be forgotten. Entertaining. Improbable. Impressive.
There was theater throughout, starting with a pregame ceremony featuring Marcus Allen. The former Raiders great who feuded famously with the late Al Davis lit the symbolic flame at O.co Coliseum, intent on repairing relationships and snuffing out the decades-long tiff.
Moments later, Darren McFadden blew through a huge hole for 64 yards and a tying touchdown. And there was more. Linebacker Philip Wheeler and safety Pat Lee forced fumbles. McFadden rushed for 113 yards. Carson Palmer threw for three touchdowns. The injury-riddled secondary absorbed four Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes, yet helped pressure him on his final throw, forcing a fourth-down incompletion with just under two minutes left.
"It was a struggle to get pressure on the quarterback," Allen said. "We were thinking, 'Somebody make a play. Somebody has to raise up.' "
With the sellout crowd on its feet for the final Raiders possession, Palmer resumed his second-half brilliance. He found tight end Brandon Myers for a critical third-down conversion, connected with Derek Hagan and Marcel Reece for short gains, found Hagan again for a 17-yarder that put the ball on the rim of the grass.
Then it was up to Sebastian Janikowski. He loses hair but not games.
The veteran kicker, who had tied the score with a 32-yard field goal shortly after Heyward-Bey left on a stretcher, monitored the final plays from the sideline. Peeking around his larger, wider teammates, he followed his usual routine as he launched a series of practice kicks. He wiped his bald head with a towel, wiped the inside of his helmet, wiped the football. He took one last practice swing before running onto the field and making his 12th game winner, a 43-yarder.
Not bad for a team that started 0-2, was missing its starting cornerbacks, was lacking a running game, and Sunday trailed 31-21 after an onside kick backfired, followed by the horrifying image of Heyward-Bey getting hit straight-on.
"I knew it was going to be a collision, a tough play," Palmer said, "but the word out of the hospital is he's doing well."