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San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Brown (86) appears to catch a third-quarter pass in the end zone against Oakland Raiders' Lito Sheppard (21) in an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, in San Diego. After review, the play was ruled an incomplete pass. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

SAN DIEGO -- Renowned for its softness and willingness to give, the Raiders defense rose up Thursday night to earn one thing it needs, while regaining another it surely wants.

In the wake of the debacle against Denver last Sunday in Oakland, the defensive unit earned a measure of redemption.

And it regained some vanity, an important component for any team to have a legitimate chance of playing well into January.

Asked to protect a seven-point lead with 64 seconds remaining, Oakland's embattled defenders summoned the backbone so often lacking in crucial situations and finished off a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers.

It should have been easier, given Oakland's first-half domination and the closing ability shown toward the end.

But that's not how these Raiders have played it this season. And it's not how they would play it before a bipartisan crowd of 68,109 at Qualcomm Stadium.

After owning the first half, taking a 17-3 lead -- and the competition wasn't that close -- they started giving it back after halftime. It's as if they went into the locker room to sing camp songs and eat ice cream.

After walloping the Chargers for a full 30 minutes, the Oakland "D" came out full and fat, allowing one of the least impressive San Diego teams in years to climb off the deck and make a game of it.

"We have a problem coming out of the locker room," defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "I don't know what it is, but we still better figure it out."


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When the Chargers scored on the opening drive of the second half, cutting it to 17-10, you and I and everyone who has seen these Raiders got that familiar feeling. If you're for them, it's sickening. If you're against them, it's invigorating.

But Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer struck back with a 26-yard touchdown to wide receiver Denarius Moore, providing yet another two-touchdown cushion. Palmer, by the way, is improving by the minute, making throws not seen in Oakland since the days of Kenny Stabler.

More important, the defense, after allowing one more Chargers touchdown, wouldn't quit. If they didn't understand what was at stake in recent weeks, maybe they do now.

"I'm just glad it came down to us at the end," Kelly said. "We know if we do what we're supposed to, we're hard to beat."

Facing the prospect of a three-game losing streak, which would have punched a hole through their psyches, if not their postseason hopes, the Raiders came out with a different vibe than displayed during their previous two games, particularly on defense.

They fought and scrapped and kicked. In holding the Chargers to 65 total yards and three first downs in the first half, Oakland seemed determined to purge itself of that unforgivably weak defensive performance last Sunday.

There was middle linebacker Rolando McClain, tipping passes and smacking runners. There was safety Mike Mitchell, leaping off the milk carton and breaking up passes.

Then there was linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, at last looking like the playmaker Al Davis visualized when the late owner handed him a megabucks deal in the offseason.

Once Chargers starting left tackle Marcus McNeill left the game in the first quarter with a stinger, Wimbley feasted. He was credited with three sacks before halftime and finished with four.

"I told him 'Welcome back,' because we've been missing that," defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. "I mean, he's so explosive off the edge."

The Raiders for most of the night looked as if they're finding something they can ride for a while. With no clearly superior team in the AFC West, the division title will go to the team that takes it. These Chargers are not ready to make their usual furious finish, leaving the division for somebody else to win.

The Raiders are first in line. Still, though, they have to ask themselves some salient questions about the defense.

Even if the offense gets rolling, and there is every reason to believe it will improve, can the defense become that bully desired by coach Hue Jackson?

"First place right now doesn't mean much, not to me," Seymour said. "There's a lot of football to play. The horse that takes the lead doesn't always win."

Reputations don't die easily in the NFL. They take years to develop and sometimes a few more years to fade away. The knock on the Raiders in recent years is if you hit them hard enough and long enough, they eventually will collapse -- as seen last Sunday.

"We finished this time," said Mark Davis, son of Al and now the managing partner. "We finished. Last week was a tough one. This took some of the sting out of it."

The Raiders didn't kill their reputation. That will take awhile. They have to start somewhere, though. And there is no better place than in San Diego.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.