One of the NFL's most storied rivalries has been reborn, as the long-suffering Raiders and Chiefs, led by a wave of young players, duke it out for a division title
Shortly after he was drafted fifth overall by the Chiefs last April, safety Eric Berry sat down at a computer and typed Emmitt Thomas into a search field. Berry wanted to learn everything he could about his new secondary coach, and within a blink of an eye he had 481,000 results.
As he studied Thomas's background, Berry was struck not only by the man's accomplishments—Kansas City cornerback, 1966 to '78; franchise-record 58 interceptions; Super Bowl winner and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee; 29-year NFL assistant coach—but also by the repeated references to the Chiefs' bitter rivalry with the Raiders. "Stuff just kept popping up about how the teams really didn't like each other," says Berry, a Georgia native who was born in 1988, 28 years after the Chiefs and the Raiders first met as charter members of the American Football League. (The Chiefs played three seasons as the Dallas Texans before moving to Kansas City in '63.) "There were a bunch of fights and stuff," Berry continues. "It was crazy."
Crazy. That's a perfect way to describe what took place on Sunday at Oakland--Alameda County Coliseum, and what's happening at the top of the AFC West standings. On an afternoon that began with rain and ended in sunshine, the Raiders, who lost at least 11 games in each of the past seven seasons and were competing without their best player, injured All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and their leading receiver, tight end Zach Miller, overcame three turnovers, a failed fake punt, 15 penalties for 140 yards and only three third-down conversions to beat the Chiefs in overtime 23--20.
It was the first time since 2000 that the Chiefs (5--3) and the Raiders (5--4) had met in November with one team leading the division and the other in second place. And the truly crazy part is that there's a strong chance their Jan. 2 regular-season finale will determine the AFC West title. One of the league's great rivalries means something once more.
"The Raiders are back!" Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly bellowed after Sunday's thriller. "This was a big game at home for us, and we came through. So we're back, baby."
How far they're back is a matter of debate, but Sunday was a big step forward. After the Raiders outscored Denver and Seattle by a combined 92--17 in their previous two games, anticipation in Oakland was unusually high; it was the first home sellout in 12 games. But by halftime Oakland, trailing 10--0, looked ready for a pratfall. A nervous energy pervaded the crowd.
These Raiders, however, showed a resilience that had been missing in recent years. In the locker room, the coaches and players reflected on the first-half numbers—two first downs, 49 yards of total offense, eight penalties—and figured they'd taken the Chiefs' best shots and were still on their feet. It was time to go to work. "In the past we would have lost that [expletive]," Kelly said. "But we've been doing a good job of staying calm and not losing our composure."
No one was cooler than rookie receiver Jacoby Ford, who returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and later set up Sebastian Janikowski's game-tying field goal at the end of regulation by leaping and stealing the ball from the hands of cornerback Brandon Flowers for a 29-yard gain with 24 seconds left. Then, less than two minutes into overtime, Ford got behind Flowers, one of the best young corners in the league, for a 47-yard catch that led to Janikowski's decisive 33-yard field goal.
In many respects it was fitting that Ford, a fourth-round pick last April, stole the spotlight. The rise of both the Raiders and the Chiefs in 2010 is due in large part to the contributions of rookies. In Oakland, middle linebacker Rolando McClain (first round, eighth overall), defensive end Lamarr Houston (second, 44th) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (third, 69th) are starters, and seventh-round defensive backs Jeremy Ware and Stevie Brown have been solid role players. "I think it would be ludicrous to [expect to see] this many rookies have this amount of impact," says Raiders coach Tom Cable, who took over from Lane Kiffin four games into the 2008 season. "All rookies touch the team in some regard, and some play more and some don't. But typically from about round 4 down they're pretty limited. This group overall has been very involved and very productive from top to bottom."
The story is the same in Kansas City, where Berry has interceptions in two of the last three games; Dexter McCluster (second round, 36th) is a threat as a runner, receiver and returner; cornerback Javier Arenas (second, 50th) is one of the game's more dangerous returners and a contributor at nickelback; tight end Tony Moeaki (third, 93rd) leads the team with 30 receptions; and safety Kendrick Lewis (fifth, 136th) has started five games.
"We don't even call them rookies anymore," says Flowers. "They're playing like vets. They played big-time college football, and they're not trying to wait a year or two to make their names on the field. They're key pieces to the puzzle for us."
Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley placed an emphasis on drafting skilled players who came from elite conferences, were captains of their teams and displayed a passion for the game. The Raiders followed a similar blueprint. They got away from focusing almost exclusively on speed—long the quality that owner Al Davis cherished in a young player—and instead looked for impact. McClain has provided a presence up the middle, playing physically against the run while still holding up in coverage. And Houston has been disruptive at times off the edge, with two sacks and 13 tackles.
With so many talented young players stockpiled, the Chiefs and the Raiders could well turn back the clock to the 1960s and '70s, when their battles for the division title and a shot at playoff supremacy were legendary—and incendiary.
"It all goes back to the AFL," says Tom Flores, who quarterbacked both teams during the '60s and later coached the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories. "Because there were only eight [AFL] teams in the beginning, we'd sometimes play each three and four times in a year, including the preseason. The league was so small that it became like a family. And [the Chiefs and the Raiders] were the Hatfields and the McCoys without the guns."
From 1966 to '72, bridging the AFL-NFL merger, the two teams finished one-two in the West for seven straight years, and after that, one or the other won the division from '73 to '76. In three of the first four Super Bowls the AFL's representative came from Kansas City or Oakland. "There appeared to be some underlying animosity between [Chiefs coach] Hank Stram and Al Davis," says Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who played for the Chiefs from '67 to '77. "That was due to a desire to outperform the other and do better in the draft. You had to have the better team, the better personnel. There was a story that Davis drafted [guard] Gene Upshaw to have the larger size and ability and height to offset [defensive tackle] Buck Buchanan. The competitive zeal between the franchises was always there."
What fueled the rivalry at its peak was the sheer talent on both teams. The 1969 AFL championship game, in which the Chiefs upset the Raiders 17--7, featured 12 future Hall of Famers on the field—Buchanan, Lanier, Thomas, linebacker Bobby Bell, quarterback Len Dawson and placekicker Jan Stenerud for the Chiefs; Upshaw, receiver Fred Biletnikoff, kicker and quarterback George Blanda, cornerback Willie Brown, center Jim Otto and tackle Art Shell for the Raiders. Both head coaches, Stram and John Madden, and owners Lamar Hunt and Davis were also Canton-bound.
But the luster began to fade in the mid-1970s, when one or both teams struggled. The Chiefs had only one winning season from 1974 to '85, and the Raiders had just four from 1986 to '99. K.C. and Oakland shared winning seasons only four times in the '70s, never in the '80s and four times in the '90s. They have not both finished above .500 in the same season since 1994. "The rivalry is special, but it's been dormant for a while," says Dawson, who quarterbacked the Chiefs from 1962 to '75 and directed them to their Super Bowl IV win over the Vikings. "That's why it's good to see both teams playing in a game that carried some significance."
Both the Chiefs and the Raiders are built in their images from the glory days, with strong running games, solid defenses and a refusal to blink. They rank one-two in rushing, with Kansas City averaging 179.6 yards per game behind Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones and Oakland averaging 162.2 thanks to 2008 first-round pick Darren McFadden, whose 757 yards rank fourth in the league (and nearly match the total output of his first two seasons). Defensively the Chiefs have held three opponents to one touchdown and four others to two; Oakland, meanwhile, has limited five opponents to two touchdowns or fewer. In the last three games the Raiders' defense has surrendered a total of four TDs.
Sunday's matchup was far from a classic, as the teams combined for five turnovers and 27 penalties for 240 yards. They were also unsuccessful on two fake punts and converted just 6 of 27 third downs. But Chiefs-Raiders has never been about style—unless that style is one of hard hits, high intensity and high stakes.
After the game, as Berry reflected on his first taste of the 50-year rivalry, he seemed conflicted. The rookie paused before putting on his headphones and rolling his travel bag down the long, narrow hallway to the team bus that would take the Chiefs to the airport on their way back to Kansas City. "Man, I hate losing," Berry said before smiling and adding, "but you know what? It was fun out there. Those are the types of games you love to be a part of. It was everything I'd heard about."
Welcome back, Chiefs-Raiders. You've been missed.
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"THE AFL WAS SO SMALL THAT IT BECAME LIKE A FAMILY," FLORES SAYS. "AND WE WERE THE HATFIELDS AND THE MCCOYS."
THE RED AND THE BLACK
Five of the most memorable matchups in a half century of Chiefs versus Raiders
JAN. 4, 1970, AT OAKLAND Chiefs 17, Raiders 7
Matched against the 13-1-1 Raiders, who'd beaten them twice in the regular season, the Chiefs scored the final 17 points to advance to Super Bowl IV, where they upset the Vikings 23--7. Side note: K.C.'s defense, which intercepted Oakland four times, was motivated by the previous year's playoffs, in which it yielded 41 points in a lopsided loss to the Raiders.
NOV. 1, 1970, AT KANSAS CITY Chiefs 17, Raiders 17
You know a game is memorable when it produces a rules change. The Chiefs led 17--14 with 1:08 to play when quarterback Len Dawson ran a naked bootleg 19 yards on third-and-11. However, defensive end Ben Davidson set off a sidelines-clearing scrum when he speared Dawson from behind after he was down. The penalties on both teams nullified the play and led to a Chiefs punt. Oakland marched downfield and kicked the tying 48-yard field goal with eight seconds left. The league subsequently changed the rule so that personal fouls committed after a play would not nullify the result of the play. The tie proved costly for K.C., which lost the division by half a game—to the Raiders.
SEPT. 8, 1997, AT OAKLAND Chiefs 28, Raiders 27
Before a Monday-night audience the Chiefs, who'd scored only a field goal in a season-opening loss to Denver, drove 80 yards in the final 58 seconds for the victory. Elvis Grbac found Andre Rison in the back of the end zone for the 32-yard game-winner.
JAN. 2, 2000, AT KANSAS CITY Raiders 41, Chiefs 38 (OT)
This season-ending win was gratifying for the Raiders for two reasons: It kept the Chiefs out of the playoffs and jump-started Oakland—which had gone five years without a winning record—to three consecutive division titles. Kansas City had a chance to win on the final play of regulation, but Pete Stoyanovich missed a 44-yard field goal. Jon Baker sent the overtime kickoff out-of-bounds, and the Raiders never relinquished the ball as Rich Gannon drove them to the winning field goal.
NOV. 6, 2005, AT OAKLAND Chiefs 27, Raiders 23
With his Chiefs trailing by three points with five seconds to play and the ball inside the Oakland one, Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil surprised almost everyone by going for the win instead of playing for overtime. Running back Larry Johnson rewarded his coach's boldness by following right guard Will Shields into the end zone. K.C. finished 10--6 but missed the playoffs, and Vermeil retired after the season.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
SILVER AND BACK McFadden (right, with ball) has been playing up to his first-round status, giving Janikowski (left, 11) and their teammates ample reason to celebrate.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
LIKE THIS, KID Michael Huff (24) and Rock Cartwright (25) gave K.C. rookie Arenas (21) a taste of the rivalry's intensity.
WILLIAM P. SIRAETER/AP
LOCKED OUT The controversial November '70 tie ultimately cost Dawson's Chiefs a playoff berth that season.