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Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell (2) throws a pass during the fourth quarter as Denver Broncos' Robert Ayers, left, applies pressure during an NFL football game in Denver on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider)

DENVER

If you have even a passing interest in the Raiders and saw even part of their game Sunday, only one question can be on your mind today. We're here to tell you it's the wrong question.

Forget who their presumptive starting quarterback might be. These days what matters is who finishes. Sunday, for the second time in two games, their closer was none other than JaMarcus Russell.

If you were startled by that development, there was no preparing you for what came next: Russell, everybody's favorite 260-pound piñata, engineered a 10-play, 62-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds to play in the game.

The Raiders' 20-19 win over the Denver Broncos was too textured and complex to be reduced to the story of one man, even a man who has endured the hailstorm of hard knocks that Russell has this season. In truth, the game was a cornucopia of surprises.

Running back Michael Bush, paroled from a three-game exile, ran for 133 yards and a touchdown. Darren McFadden carried the ball 12 times, his biggest workload since September, gaining 74 yards. Tight end Tony Stewart, filling in for the injured Zach Miller, caught all three balls thrown his way. The defense held the Broncos to 2.9 yards per carry.


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"That's about as much of a team effort and a team victory as we've had since I've been here," coach Tom Cable said. "To have all those guys go in and all those bad things happen to us and find a way (to win) talks about how tough we are, our ability to hang together and our trust in each other, and that's a big deal."

But Russell's contribution couldn't be missed, though he was just one of three Raiders quarterbacks to take a snap. Charlie Frye started, seeing his first game action in 14 months. He acquitted himself as well as could be expected — up to the point when Denver linebacker Andra Davis knocked him loopy early in the fourth quarter.

Russell took over, and as happened when he replaced an injured Bruce Gradkowski eight days ago, the Raiders' offense went into instant hibernation. They had two men in motion on Russell's first play, drawing a penalty. Russell had to call timeout before the second amid confusion over who was supposed to line up where. When the play was finally run, he bounced a pass to Louis Murphy.

The next drive was equally uninspiring. And the climactic third drive, which started with 3:29 to play, began with Russell getting sacked and fumbling for a 13-yard loss. Just before the two-minute warning, he took a shot to the ribs and had to sit out a play.

That gave a snap to J.P. Losman, who began the week at home on his sofa. After an incomplete pass, Russell returned and the game-winning drive lurched and snorted fitfully to its remarkable conclusion.

From a human standpoint, it was quite a series of events.

"I'm very happy for him," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said, referring to Russell. "It's good to have nights when you can sleep well, and this is definitely going to be one of those for him."

Asked his feelings at the end of a long, eventful afternoon, Russell let out a loud sigh. "There's always going to be tough times," he said. "It's how you come up from behind and fight those tough times off."

It's debatable, however, how much things changed from a football standpoint. Cable, to answer your unspoken question, said Frye will start next week at Cleveland, assuming he recovers sufficiently from his concussion. So while Russell helped win a game, he didn't change many minds. Frankly, he still looked like a guy learning to play quarterback in the NFL.

"He missed a couple throws that would have changed (the game) earlier," Cable said, "but what he did was he stayed in there and got it, and I think that's the part we should all be excited about."

It goes beyond that. The Raiders are still nobody's idea of a playoff contender. But it says something that they're still scrapping at this point in the season, and that they've defeated one team that has clinched a postseason spot, two teams that could, and the defending Super Bowl champions on the road.

As for what it means for the man who was expected to lead the about-face that could be germinating now, well, let's take it one question at a time.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.