One of the most anticipated games for the upcoming season is the second annual Mexico City game. This year’s contest will be nothing short of amazing, because it’s between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots. All sides have a vested interest, players and fans alike. For the Patriots, a chance to redeem themselves from one of the most controversial calls in football history. For the Raiders, a chance at renewed relevance and a place atop the leader-board for the first time in nearly two decades.
The Raiders have been the joke in the league for a long time; a punchline for all those who aren’t die hard fans. Even after they brought themselves from the basement in 2014 to tying for the third best record in the NFL in 2016, fans still joke about their poor history.
It took only two season for Oakland to improve from 3-13 to 12-4. They have a top 2 ranked offensive line, an MVP caliber quarterback, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. So what do the Raiders have to do to get some respect? The answer is simple. They have to regain their confidence and garner attention. The good kind of attention, not the clown masks that they’ve worn since 2003. They have to do something that makes the world sit up and take notice. They have to beat the Patriots.
So how are they going to do it? No one can beat the top dogs in the league, let alone a one-trick pony like the Raiders, right? Wrong.
The New England Patriots have ruled the league for as long as the Raiders have been in the dregs. The turning point that swapped these two in standings came down to one play: the infamous Tuck Rule.
The Tuck Rule was enacted in the league in 1999 and repealed in 2013. Throughout its short tenure in the rule book, the refs called on it four times, twice during Patriots games in the same season. The results were split, giving the Jets the call earlier in the season and resulting in a subsequent loss for the Pats. The game also saw the season-ending injury for then-starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe. It resulted in two major losses to the team, but began the dynasty that is today’s New England Patriots. Enter one Tom Brady.
Once Brady took the field, it was all over for the rest of the league. This did not bode well for the Raiders in the divisional game that year. In one of the most controversial plays in NFL history, Charles Woodson sacked Tom Brady, forcing a fumble recovered by Raiders’ middle linebacker Greg Biekert and clinching the AFC Championship. Or so they thought.
At the exact time he needed it, Bill Belichick brought up the rule used earlier in the season to defeat him. After a full 15 minutes of review and discussion, the call was reversed, citing the tuck rule and giving the Patriots the ball back. We all know how it ended.
Since that game, players and fans alike dread seeing the replay. You know the feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach when your heart drops into it like a rock? That’s the feeling.
The Tuck Rule would only be used twice more before its repeal, causing a collective sigh of relief. Players again knew exactly how that play would end, and referees would no longer receive hate mail. Not for that one, anyways.
Back to the present. Last week, NFL Network’s Nate Burleson made a bold prediction. Probably one of the boldest of this season and last. Burleson stated unequivocally that the Raiders started the Patriots’ dynasty, and they will end it. The comment sent shock waves across the league. How dare he! He dared, and he is not wrong.
Based on the current depth charts from ourlads.com, it’s clear that both teams have strong passing games. The Raiders have some polishing to do to get Amari Cooper to the level they’ve expected of him, and Michael Crabtree is healing from an ankle injury that plagued him late last season. A recent visit from retired all-star receiver Calvin Johnson suggests that they’re working hard to make those improvements.
The Patriots have an elite receiver in Julian Edelman, and picked up Brandin Cooks from the Saints to strengthen the aerial attack. Their superstar tight end, Rob Gronkowski, should be back after recovering from an injury of his own. Advantage goes to New England in the passing game. The running game, however, is a different story altogether.
During this offseason, Oakland native Marshawn Lynch realized a lifelong dream. He came out of retirement to sign a contract with his home team, the Raiders. In doing so, he added a depth of talent to the Raiders’ backfield that they haven’t seen since the Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson era in the 80s. If he delivers. Based on his performance so far in OTAs, that’s a reasonable expectation. He has impressed, to say the least. It’s too early to make that call, then again, it’s a little early to confidently call any of this. In contrast, the Patriots took a huge hit to their running game, losing LeGarrette Blount to Philadelphia. With a stellar kick returner rotating with two young spitfires behind a living legend, advantage Raiders.
The Patriots will also have to neutralize a new and improved tight end core that the Raiders are working hard to add this offseason. If they can improve that aspect of their offense and upgrade the right tackle position that was the biggest shortfall last year, the defense will be the equalizer.
Games are won in the trenches, as any football player will tell you. And this game may well be decided by which defense shows up on each sideline. The Patriots have a phenomenal line-up on their side, sporting the #1 scoring defense in 2016. The Raiders, however, had an abysmal showing last season, falling to the bottom five in most categories.
It’s true that Oakland’s secondary was nothing short of atrocious last season, but they drafted well and hope to fit a couple of new acquisitions into their starting lineup. New England has a fantastic cornerback duo, since they picked up Stephon Gilmore from division rival Buffalo. Until we see how he gels with Malcolm Butler, however, the secondary is still up for debate.
On paper, the Raiders should be able to keep pace. If their new additions can cover the run and partially neutralize the tight end attack, the Raiders might just surprise people. Certainly by week 11, questions about the defense will be answered.
The Raiders win the offensive line battle, but behind that line is where the game gets the most interesting. This contest will give us an unprecedented meeting of two of the best in the game. Tom Brady is already considered the greatest of all time, and he’ll be defending his title from a young talent that will challenge him for that crown. On the other side of the field is the best young quarterback in the NFL today.
Derek Carr knows what is on the line in this game and he will be fighting with everything he has to help regain the Raiders’ former glory. He will also take that opportunity to silence any doubters he still has. Maybe Carr can finally get the respect he’s due by saying a prayer and sacrificing a GOAT.
So in the QB race, who has the advantage, the greatest ever or the rising star? Logic dictates the former, but don’t put money on it just yet.
Oakland is the clear underdog in the game. Anyone will tell you that, even the Raiders. This isn’t an unfamiliar position for the team. But one thing it does give them is the will to win. Another factor will be the record that each team brings to Mexico City. The Patriots again have a middle-of the-road schedule, due in large part to their division. They will likely show up to Estadio Azteca with the better record.
One thing they can’t adjust for is the noise that the Mexican fans make for the team that they call their own. During Oakland’s game against the Houston Texans last year, the fans made it known that this is the Raiders’ home away from home. The Patriots certainly have to make adjustments if they hope to overcome the rowdy crowd.
The Raiders are mad. They’ve had 14 years to reflect on that play. There’s still one player remaining from that team in 2002, Sebastian Janikowski. And he’ll want redemption. As will the rest of the team, many of whom were only in grade school when it happened.
If the Raiders improve their defense enough to be effective, the Patriots are in trouble. Bruce Irvin is probably still holding a Super Bowl grudge, along with Beast Mode, who will be carrying more than the ball in this game. Lynch will be hefting a chip on his shoulder the size of Phoenix. He’ll want retribution for a 2nd-and-1 lay-up that he was never able to deliver.
Make no mistake. Attitude makes a difference. Going into this game with something to prove already gives the Raiders an intangible advantage. No nonsense this time. No cheating, no spying, no more Tuck Rule. Both squads will bring their A+ games so that there are no questions left when the clock runs out. And everyone watching will see a dogfight until the very end. As with the game that began the rivalry, this will be one for the ages. There’s no reason that the Raiders can’t bring this home.
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