OAKLAND, Calif. - If this is Jerry Rice's last trip to the NFL playoffs, he wants to make it something to remember.
The game's most prolific receiver returns to the postseason for the first time since 1998 tonight (8 p.m., ABC-6) when his Oakland Raiders play host to the New York Jets in a wild-card matchup.
After 23 postseason appearances with the San Francisco 49ers in which he earned three Super Bowl rings and the MVP award from the 1989 game, Rice is especially excited by the prospect of his next playoff adventure.
"Now it's time for me to basically take my game to the next level," said Rice, who has had seven 100-yard receiving games in the postseason. "This time of the year, you're always excited, because it is do-or-die."
In today's other wild-card game, Tampa Bay is in Philadelphia to play the Eagles, who have become all too familiar with each other. They played a meaningless game last weekend in preparation for today's game (4:30 p.m., ABC-6).
This is a rematch of last year's playoff game that Philadelphia won 21-3. The Eagles' backups and third-stringers came back to beat the Bucs 17-13 in Tampa last week to finish 11-5 for the second straight season.
The most discussed topic this week was the weather because Tampa has never won a game when it's been 40 degrees or colder at kickoff. The Bucs are 0-20 in such conditions, including an overtime loss to Green Bay on the final day of the regular season last year, when it was 15 degrees.
The temperature is expected to be close to 40 degrees today. However, it reached 50 for the second straight day on Friday.
The Raiders have slipped a little bit in each of the past three weeks, however. Three straight losses cost Oakland a first-round bye and pushed the AFC West champions into an unwanted wild-card game against the Jets, who have both momentum and recent history on their side.
New York beat Oakland 24-22 six days ago at the Coliseum on John Hall's 53-yard field goal in the final minute. The Jets clinched a playoff victory with the win, while the Raiders gave away the bye they seemed almost certain to earn.
Four losses in the Raiders' last six games seemed to indicate Oakland's roster of old-timers finally was showing its age. The Raiders have the oldest team in the NFL - a team built to challenge for the Super Bowl this season with little regard for the long-term future.
Until the Raiders' slide began, nobody questioned that philosophy. Now, Oakland must make an abrupt about-face to avoid entering an unpleasant off-season filled with questions.
"I don't know what to expect when you play the same team twice in six days," Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie said. "It's an advantage that we're at home again and they have to travel in a short week, but they came out here and beat us last week. I'm sure they feel they have the same chance again."
The Jets have had their share of controversy this season, but they rebounded from an embarrassing loss to Buffalo with a playoff-clinching win at Oakland, where they hadn't won since 1962. They hope to ride that energy boost to another unlikely win at the Coliseum that would make them an unlikely Super Bowl contender.
"We're in the playoffs, and all you ask for is an opportunity," Rice said. "It's a whole new game. We're very positive because we believe in ourselves. Somehow, we'll pull it together."
A first-round loss likely would mean an overhaul of the Raiders - and it might include Rice's departure. Though Rice said throughout last summer that this wouldn't be his last season, he's keeping every option open after spending part of last week in Mississippi with his ailing father.
"It was tough going home under those types of conditions," Rice said. "I had to put everything on the backburner and deal with it. I was happy to be there with him, and I'm happy to say he's doing a lot better and feeling better.
"I'll deal with (the future) when the season is over. The focus is on the playoffs."
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