NFL: Last-second touchdown gives Raiders comeback win over Steelers

PITTSBURGH — Oakland Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had two forgettable games against the Pittsburgh Steelers during his first three NFL seasons. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh native turned in a game he and the Raiders won’t forget for a long while.

Gradkowski passed for 308 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns in erasing three fourth-quarter deficits and leading the Raiders to a 27-24 upset victory at Heinz Field.

“That’s pretty cool now,” Raiders coach Tom Cable said. “You kidding me? You come home, his folks are in the stands, guys hung in there until the end and made big plays, big throws. Just a great job by him.”

Great job might be an understatement. The 21 points scored by the Raiders in the final 8 minutes, 21 seconds are more than they scored in any of their first 11 games.

Also, Gradkowski became the first Raiders quarterback since Kenny Stabler on Dec. 3, 1979, to throw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

Those kinds of heroics came to be expected of Stabler. For these Raiders, it’s something they envisioned when they selected JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the 2007 NFL draft but never received in his 25 starts.

Gradkowski’s three touchdowns Sunday eclipsed the two Russell recorded in his nine starts before Cable benched him in favor of Gradkowski.

“Guys need a leader out there,” Gradkowski said, “and, offensively, I am going to be the leader, until coach says otherwise.”

That’s for the rest of this season, at least. A performance such as the one Gradkowski put forth Sunday likely will go a long way toward determining whether the Raiders stick with him next season or go back to Russell.

That’s for another day. For now, Gradkowski, Cable and the Raiders (4-8) are content basking in the glow of a victory against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers (6-6), and on the heels of a 24-7 pounding by the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

“We’re just a confident football team,” middle linebacker Kirk Morrison said. “Now that the bad has happened to us over the last couple weeks, we found ways to overcome that and play above that (Sunday).

“It was a shootout in the fourth quarter. They hit us, we hit them again, they hit us back, at the end we hit them with that one last blow to win the game. Nobody panicked.”

Certainly not Gradkowski, who had upward of 100 friends, family and former teammates and coaches in the stands. In fact, he was intent upon making sure his teammates were focused.

Left offensive tackle Mario Henderson was peering at the stadium monitor at one point, when Gradkowski asserted his leadership.

“Bruce was like, ‘Stop (expletive) looking at the thing and get your mind right,’ “ Henderson said. “I looked at him at first like, ‘You talking to me?’ Then I was like, ‘You know what, I like that (stuff). I like that, man. He demands attention. That’s what you need as a quarterback in the league.”

Henderson said he saw in Gradkowski a player fighting for his job, trying to shake his journeyman label, wanting to validate Cable’s faith in him by being the kind of leader and player Russell hasn’t been so far.

At no time was that more evident than in the fourth quarter. He directed scoring drives of 57 yards, 84 and 88 yards, despite center Samson Satele and left guard Robert Gallery being out with injuries, and with the Steelers throwing an assortment of blitzes and formations his way.

“This is the top game,” Gradkowski said. “My past four years, some ups and some downs, and this is the most exciting game I have been a part of. It was just very exciting it came down to the end, and it was good because it was a team win.”

Several players said Gradkowski was so confident that he was calling his own plays the final drive. Twice, the Steelers had a chance to intercept a pass but failed to make the play.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the Raiders’ ability to pass for so many yards. “I’m not going to make any excuses for it. We didn’t make a play to win that game defensively.”

In the end, the Raiders made more timely plays than the Steelers and reaped the rewards.

The next trick for the Raiders is seeing if they can build off this victory and make strides toward getting out of their seven-year skid.

“We’re closing ground,” defensive tackle Gerard Warren said. “The offense grew by leaps and bounds (Sunday). The offense took a big step today. The team took a big step forward.

“We’re looking at 8-8 and let’s see what happens. Anything can happen. We’re believing that we can get to where we want to be, because now we know that we can put it all together.”

Cable isn’t quite ready to pronounce the Raiders over the proverbial hump. However, he is certain his players are making giant strides.

“We’re trying to get better and finish strong and get this thing turned around,” Cable said. “No one has lost faith in anyone. We know we’re capable of more than what we’ve been. But we have to prove that.”