The plot thickened Saturday night, just as it had the previous Saturday and the one before that.
On a night when the Raiders produced one field goal in three possessions under starting quarterback Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins hopped off the bench in the third quarter and did what seems to come so naturally to him.
He dropped back in the pocket from the Arizona 45, waited for Doug Gabriel to race downfield and let the ball fly. The pass hit Gabriel in the end zone, a laser that brought the Raiders to within three points of the Cardinals.
The defense forced a turnover on Arizona's next series, and Collins led the Raiders to the end zone again. This time Justin Fargas capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge.
That touchdown -- which gave the Raiders a 17-16 exhibition victory -- was the fourth Oakland has scored under Collins in eight possessions. Gannon has led the Raiders to three field goals and a touchdown in eight series.
``Preseason is so difficult, and I think Rich is having a heck of a camp,'' said Collins, who has thrown all three of his touchdown passes to Gabriel. ``He's playing well in the games. It just seems like I have been able to have more big plays. But that's just more luck than anything.
``Rich is certainly capable of making all the throws. Certainly, I don't want to discount the fact that big plays are good and operating well is good. But at the same time I don't think you can fairly compare the two of us right now.''
Gannon said his night was difficult to assess because the offense ran only 19 plays in the first half. Arizona had something to do with, controlling the ball for 19:07 of the 30 minutes of play before halftime.
``I think you're making a little too much out of it,'' Gannon said of the starting unit's struggles to produce touchdowns. ``We've moved the ball every drive we've had coming out of the gate the first two games. This time we didn't do that. But we only had 19 plays in the first half. That's the only thing I can tell you. We did a lot of watching and not a lot of playing.''
In fairness to Gannon, Collins has played primarily against second-team players, although Coach Norv Turner noted that the defensive back Gabriel beat for his touchdown was a starter.
``It doesn't matter if it's fair or not,'' Turner said of the comparisons between Gannon and Collins. ``People are going to do that. Different plays come at different times in games. We had a couple of shots up the field early, and Rich got pressure. One time they had a max blitz against him.
``It's hard to judge circumstances. The thing that I'm going to continue to say is I like the way both guys are playing.''
Collins finished 3 of 7 passing for 79 yards with the touchdown. Gannon was 8 of 12 for 89 yards.
Collins' fireworks on a 100-degree night in the desert overshadowed what had been a tough night for the Raiders' starting defense. In the first half Saturday, the Cardinals drove up and down the field, converting 6 of 9 third-down plays.
That wasn't the worst part of it for the Raiders.
Arizona had three offensive starters on the sideline because of injuries, all receivers. Yet quarterback Josh McCown generated one big play after another against a defense that was overhauled after finishing 30th overall and last against the run in 2003.
``They told us all week long that this guy would scramble,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``But for some reason we couldn't contain him. We got to address it, and it's got to be addressed quick.''
The only thing McCown didn't do was light up the scoreboard. The Cardinals settled for two field goals before halftime. But that was three more points than the Raiders produced.
``I think every time you go out and play a game like this, whether it's the third preseason game or the 13th regular-season game, you need to have a sense of urgency,'' Turner said. ``You have a plan you put to use, and you have to execute that plan. That's the point we are going to drive home this week.''