Whether at Fenway or in Foxborough, whether in Oakland, Los Angeles, Oakland again, or Las Vegas, the Patriots and Raiders are playing more than just a football game. This weekend, they are in Mexico City, and I am fully expecting something unforgettable to happen.
It is hard to call what the New England and (for now) Oakland Raiders have a rivalry. Rivalries go back and forth. For the first forty years since the Foolish Club challenged professional football’s establishment by starting the underdog American Football League, the Raiders mostly owned the Pats. Then the Snow Bowl of 2002–the last game played in the old Foxborough Stadium–changed the trajectory of the NFL.
The Patriots were still a nothing franchise in the eyes of many football fans (including many of their own) in the 2001 season, even though they had two trips to the Super Bowl in their past. Second year head coach Bill Belichick made the at-the-time polarizing decision to stick with second year quarterback Tom Brady even after Drew Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and the Patriots went 11-5 and earned a first round bye. The Raiders went into that game with a great team and Super Bowl aspirations from the beginning of the season, and it may have been an unforgettable game even without all that snow.
We all know what happened. Tom Brady’s fellow former Michigan Wolverine and fellow future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Charles Woodson knocked the ball out of Brady’s hand for what appeared to be a fumble. But upon video review, which was still a relatively new addition to game operations in the NFL, an arcane and obscure rule determined that it was an incomplete pass and the Patriots maintained possession. Adam Vinatieri made a couple of incredible field goals and the Patriots pulled out a cold, ugly win out of their collective butts. Though it was not clear right away, the balanced had shifted in the rivalry.
The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI a couple weeks later, and the Raiders traded head coach Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason. In 2002, the Raiders were good again, and even reached the Super Bowl, but were trounced by Gruden’s Bucs when they got there. While the Patriots remained consistently competitive in the years that followed–reaching an unprecedented seven Super Bowls and winning five since Belichick picked Brady over Bledsoe–the Raider struggled. The last years of Al Davis’ life were defined by the Raiders’ constant carousel of coaches and quarterbacks. During that time, they traded Randy Moss to the Patriots for a 4th round draft pick, and a new level of Brady’s greatness was realized. Once they finally had a franchise QB in Derek Carr, he got hurt before their first trip to the playoffs in over a decade, and Mark Davis announced plans to move the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas. In all the ways things have gone right for the Pats this century, they have gone wrong for the Raiders.
Today, the Patriots are in Mexico with the NFL’s second best record at 7-2, finding ways to win with a highly flawed roster. They are the Patriots. That is what they do. The Raiders went into the season with high expectations, but have not lived up to them, and are currently 4-5. When the schedule first came out, I was much more worried about this game than I am currently. That said, the Patriots are playing the Raiders in high elevation and in a foreign land. Anything can happen.