Bruce Gradkowski took his hometown team apart. Now he's the hero of his new hometown.
Gradkowski, of a certain football-crazed city in western Pennsylvania, threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter last Sunday to spark the Oakland Raiders to a 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now he'll be trying to engineer another upset, this one in Oakland, when the Redskins (3-9) play the underdog (by one point) Raiders (4-8) at the Oakland Coliseum.
Gradkowski replaced the ineffective JaMarcus Russell, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft, as the Raiders starting quarterback and led the club to wins in two of its last three games. It's just another odd turn in the Raiders' odd world.
A sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006, he started 11 games as a rookie and then fell off the depth chart, starting four in 2007. The Bucs released him, he got a look from the St. Louis Rams during camp in '08 and then signed with the Cleveland Browns. The Raiders claimed him on waivers in February.
When veteran Jeff Garcia talked his way off Oakland's roster, Gradkowski became the backup. When Russell failed to develop, the Raiders stuck him in the lineup and began to prosper.
"I believe I'm a starting quarterback in the NFL," Gradkowski says. "You have to have that confidence."
He kept bringing the Raiders from behind against the Steelers, throwing the winning touchdown pass on the last play of the game. His grit and ability to slide around in the pocket won him instant accolades.
"He understands what we're trying to do," coach Tom Cable says. "He's got a good command of the system."
Perhaps he will lend the Raiders some stability at a position that has seen an endless parade of the recycled (Aaron Brooks, Daunte Culpepper), the unreliable (Andrew Walter) and the unteachable (Russell) during the past several years.
Gradkowski's three touchdown passes in one quarter surpassed Russell's output (two) over the entire season.
For this journeyman, the journey may only be beginning.
BERTHS OF A NATION: Playoff berths and postseason positioning are on the line in Week 14.
The team with the most to game is the Indianapolis Colts (12-0). A victory against the Denver Broncos will allow them to clinch overall home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The Colts already have secured the AFC South title, courtesy of their record-tying run of 21 consecutive regular-season victories.
The Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) can clinch the AFC North title with a win against the Minnesota Vikings or with losses by both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals are enjoying only their second winning season in the last 19 years.
On the NFC side, the New Orleans Saints (12-0), already NFC South winners, nail down a first-round bye with a victory against the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings (10-2) claim a playoff berth with a victory against Cincy. The Arizona Cardinals (8-4) clinch the NFC West if they beat the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
If the Cardinals win, they'll make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1974-75.
QUOTABLE: "We never thought we were out of the race. We just stubbed our toe one too many times." – New York Jets WR Braylon Edwards. The Jets are 6-6 and have won their last two games after losing six of the previous seven. ... "We don't care about December talk." – Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, when asked about the club's annual late-season swoons. ... "It was devastating not getting drafted but a year later now, I'm actually not surprised how much success has come my way because I've worked hard my whole career to make it to this point." – Miami Dolphins WR Davone Bess, who caught 10 passes for 117 yards and a TD in the win over the New England Patriots. The undrafted free agent had 54 receptions last year and has already surpassed that with 59. ... "Six weeks ago is really when the rumblings started that 'they could do it' and suddenly we're 12-0. Let's finish this thing the way that we started." – New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees on trying to go 19-0 and win the Super Bowl. ... "Everybody knows the challenge we face this week. Nobody gives us a chance." – Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, on Sunday's meeting with the Saints. ... "It's a sick and gruesome reminder of how the violent the game can be." – Minnesota Vikings LB Ben Leber, after witnessing teammate E.J. Henderson getting his leg broken last Sunday night.
EXTRA POINTS: From the "obscure guys you never heard of department," we have this. Chicago Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly has played in 185 games with the club, fifth best all-time. With his next appearance he will tie LB Doug Buffone and OT Keith Van Horne for third place. Since joining the Bears in 1998, Mannelly has handled the long-snap duties for punts and kicks in all but three games. That's 1,747 of 1,767 possible long snaps during that span. ... The New York Giants swept the season series with the Dallas Cowboys for the first time since 2004. They scored more than 30 points in both games, a feat they last achieved against the Boys of Cow in 1963. ... Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Clifton Smith won't want to see the Carolina Panthers anytime soon. He suffered concussions in each of the games against the Panthers and has been placed on injured reserve. ... The Philadelphia Eagles have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 19 consecutive regular-season games. They signed their coach, Andy Reid, to a three-year contract extension this week that will keep him with the club through 2013. He has been on the job since 1999. ... Vernon Davis (Maryland) has 10 TD receptions, a 49ers club record for a TE. ... St. Louis Rams RB Steven Jackson has rushed for 100 yards seven times this season, a nearly-miraculous total considering the club is 1-11. ... New York Giants WR Steve Smith ranks fourth in the NFL with 78 catches. He needs five to break Amani Toomer's single-season team record of 82 set in 2002. The Giants are one of seven clubs never to have had a receiver with 100 receptions. ... San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates is six yards shy of his second career 1,000-yard season. He needs 296 yards over the final four games to break Kellen Winslow's club record for TEs of 1,290 set in 1980. ... Panthers QBs Jake Delhomme and Matt Moore have combined for a passer rating of 58.5. ... The Bengals' nine rushing TDs are split between two players – RB Cedric Benson has six, QB Carson Palmer the other three. ... The Houston Texans, a chic preseason pick for the playoffs, are 5-7 and losers of their last four. They've been held to 18 points or fewer in three of those. ... Punt returns continue to be an issue for the Redskins. They rank 30th in the NFL in average per return. Same holds for takeaways, where the Redskins' 14 tie them for last in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. ... The NFL's 32 teams are averaging 672.5 yards of total offense per game. If they maintain that pace, it will be highest average in NFL history, topping 1981 (669).
Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and Redskins.com to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. Go to Redskins.com for the Redskins Blitz column and NFL Blitz on Friday. Larry also appears on The Jim Zorn Show on WRC-TV on Saturday night, on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his blog at redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.