ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Jerry Rice decided to prolong his career across the San Francisco Bay because he thought the Oakland Raiders had enough talent and experience to go deep into the playoffs.
But even Rice might not have imagined what an important role he would play in the Raiders' revitalization after a late-season slump that nearly ruined a promising year.
After reversing a two-month slide with an impressive 38-24 wild-card victory over the New York Jets, the Raiders on Sunday began preparations for Saturday's visit to New England.
The biggest obstacle to Oakland's success this season has been the team's mental state, and a win over the Jets seems to have righted many problems in that area. With Rice leading the way, Oakland transformed from an aging team in turmoil to a cagey veteran club that just might be hitting its stride.
"When I came over here, I wanted to be a big part of this team," Rice said. "I felt that I had a very productive season, but now it's crunch time."
Rice had nine catches for 183 yards and a key touchdown, helping to carry the Raiders to a victory that rendered irrelevant much of the arguing and slumping play that forced Oakland into a first-round game in the first place.
The Raiders were the first team to clinch a playoff berth, but they lost four of their last six regular-season games. During the skid, Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon criticized his teammates, while linebacker Greg Biekert criticized Gannon during a heated exchange late in Oakland's loss to the Jets a week earlier.
"We've seen coaches and players yelling and screaming at each other, but deep down in my heart, I know we've got a lot of veterans on this team, and they're passionate about football," coach Jon Gruden said Sunday.
"Their emotions are going to spill outward. I admire that quality immensely. I try to surround myself with as many passionate guys as possible, and I think we used that as a little bit of motivation to prove that our best football is ahead of us."
The atmosphere was noticeably lighter in the Raiders' locker room Sunday after their victory - and no player missed a chance to praise Rice.
Rice missed much of the turmoil surrounding the Raiders before their first meeting with the Jets because he was in Mississippi, tending to his ill father. A week later, his quiet confidence in playoff preparation rubbed off on his teammates.
"He's a guy that everyone was counting out last season," Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Yet he's the guy who shredded a defense and looked like the Jerry Rice of 1990. He was the player of the game."
After seeing the way New York's cornerbacks played Rice in the teams' first meeting, Gruden designed large parts of the game plan to go to Rice. The 38-year-old coach relied on the 39-year-old receiver - and both were rewarded.
"Rice made a lot of plays last night, and sometimes you've got to dial up a lot of those plays where he's heavily involved when you get a guy in a groove like that," Gruden said.
Of course, Rice's big game meant Tim Brown was mostly a decoy. Brown had three catches for just 13 yards and a touchdown - but he wasn't complaining.
"I was patting him on the helmet all night," Brown said of Rice.
The Raiders already were getting excited about a trip to Foxboro to face the Patriots (11-5), who sneaked in front of Oakland for a first-round bye. Gruden looked forward to matching wits with New England coach Bill Belichick, a good friend who got tickets to a Bon Jovi concert for Gruden a few years back.
Belichick's clever defensive schemes provide a challenge for Gruden's praised offensive coaching skills, but the Raiders simply are happy to be working for another week.
"Now that we've got everything back together, I don't think there's any telling how far we can go," Woodson said. "We've only got one goal in mind - the Super Bowl - but we've got to go through New England to get to it."