By Jason Keidel
Every year we look down with cynical eyes upon New England. We address the twin realities of time and talent. We all get old. We all lose our fastball.
So we wonder when Tom Brady will lose his fastball, and when the New England Patriots will follow him into athletic mortality. And yet every agonizing year it never happens. To the world west of Boston, we wait… and wait.
And then something happens. On a random autumn Sunday, Brady looks brutal. Or the Pats get vaporized by the Kansas City Chiefs on opening night. We watch Kareem Hunt rumble through the secondary with impunity. We watch Alex Smith look like Brady and Brady look like Alex Smith. Travis Kelce morphs into Gronk. We see Andy Reid look like Bill Belichick, and the reverse.
And thus those of us who loathe, but have a grudging respect for, the Patriots, begin to pounce on their imminent demise. Between age and wage and decay, it’s time for the Patriots to join the humans, the regulars, the plebeians, the blue-collar folk who just pray for a Lombardi Trophy once a decade. We don’t expect, like Pats fans do, to be in the Super Bowl every year.
But alas, here the Pats are, 7-2, a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC’s best record. Brady is 40, yet not playing like it. Since his 39th birthday, he has tossed 47 touchdowns and four interceptions. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not logical. But it’s real. Oddly enough, the Pats and Raiders — with a robust gridiron history — have only played each other three times over the last 10 years (the last time in 2014). The Patriots won them all, naturally, by a combined score of 96-54.
Arguably the most important NFL game over the last 20 years was played between these two clubs, of course. It was the famous (or infamous) “Tuck Rule” game, which launched Brady’s playoff legend and the Patriots’ dynasty. Frankly, it was a horrible call, disputed only by the most jaded Pats’ apologists. But it’s equally absurd to assert that the Patriots would not have won several Super Bowls had they lost that game to the Raiders. As the cliche goes, the better you get, the luckier you get.
The Raiders were legit Super Bowl contenders last year, before QB Derek Carr broke his leg at the end of the regular season. Which is why we always circle back to the NFL’s haunting other acronym, Not For Long. With Carr back and healthy in 2017, we assumed Oakland would be right back where they were in 2016.
But it doesn’t work that way. Between the blasphemy, idiocy, nagging politics of their planned move to Las Vegas and the invariable injury bugs that bite every team, the Raiders are now 4-5. They’re a team struggling for an identity. We all drooled at the notion of a healthy nuclear offense, which now included local icon Marshawn Lynch, an Oakland native who was as fresh and rested as you can get after taking 2016 off from football.
It hasn’t worked out, at least not so far. Lynch has been good enough, but the chemistry and symmetry just isn’t at 2016 levels. Oakland’s offense is ranked a paltry 22nd in the NFL. They are a surprising 15th in passing, despite all their weapons, and a shocking 27th in rushing, despite the addition of Beast Mode. If you don’t plan to play solid defense — and the Raiders don’t, ranking 26th — then you’d better put up a lot of points.
Amazingly, seven AFC teams have scored more points than the Raiders (196) so far, including (cough! cough!) the New York Jets. In total, 18 NFL clubs have posted more total points in 2017 than the Oakland Raiders.
But with the AFC clearly the softer conference this year, the Raiders are not out of the playoffs, at all. Only six AFC teams have a better record than the Raiders. So while they don’t qualify for the playoffs today, they have ample room and time to elbow their way back into January.
It almost feels superfluous to parse the Pats. While they are a gridiron paradox — first in offense yet dead last (32nd) in defense — they always find a way to win 12 games. If not more. Every September we write premature postmortems and in December we watch them bag home-field advantage all through the AFC playoffs. And then we all but wonder whom they will play in February.
And while the Raiders are the home team on paper, they’re playing pretty far from Oakland, or California, and galaxies from Foxborough The NFL is spearing its flag into Mexican soil, with this particular contest in Estadio Azteca, Mexico City.
I have no idea if Derek Carr speaks Spanish, or what language Tom Brady studied at Michigan. One thing I know is Brady and Belichick are fluent in football, in winning, with little regard for where or when the game is played, or whom it’s against. If Oakland can sneak out of Ciudad de Mexico with a win, they will be 5-5 and firmly back in the playoff hunt. Should the Patriots win, it will cement their spot at the top rung of the AFC, behind only Pittsburgh (based on tiebreakers).
Oakland clearly needs this game more. New England clearly doesn’t care. One day Tom Brady will start acting his age. Unfortunately for the Raiders, and for the rest of the NFL, that day won’t likely be this Sunday, or this year.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.