This week, 55.9 percent of the 12,852 fans who voted on a DenverBroncos.com poll said that the team’s biggest division rival was the San Diego Chargers.
Even with the recent rise of the Chargers and the Raiders’ struggles in the four-plus seasons since qualifying for Super Bowl XXXVII, I was still a tad stunned by the results — particularly that less than a third of those who voted chose the Raiders.
Granted, these Internet polls aren’t exactly Zogby or Gallup; there’s no attempt to get a representative sample of fans.
Nevertheless, as a lifelong NFL observer, I’ve long believed Broncos-Raiders to be a rivalry that is in the Bears-Packers and Redskins-Cowboys class, one that transcends the teams’ records or place in the division table.
Contests in the series often made it to national television even when one team was lousy because such a storied rivalry can create storylines that overcome an apparent mismatch based upon records; one need look no further than last year, when NBC selected the teams’ October meeting in Denver for Sunday Night Football. (Of course, the network would have been better off picking the November meeting in Oakland that wasn’t decided until the final moments.)
The litmus test of a rivalry is whether it remains compelling in moments when one or both teams are down. North Carolina-Duke, for instance, witnessed not only one of the best games in the series, but one of the finest college basketball games ever played, when the Blue Devils were spiraling towards a last-place finish and their only losing season since 1983. Redskins-Cowboys saw one of its most memorable chapters come in the midst of Dallas’ 1-15 1989 season, when the Cowboys logged their solitary win in front of a packed but shocked house at RFK Stadium.
There’s plenty of evidence for the rivalry’s vitality in recent years, as well as its ability to yield unexpected results:
2006: Denver was 6-2; Oakland 2-6. But the Raiders led most of the way before finally succumbing late, 17-13.
2005: Oakland was 3-5 en route to 4-12; Denver was 6-2 and headed to 13-3. The Broncos won 31-17, but it’s easy to forget that the Raiders had a budding comeback in the fourth quarter, momentum on their side and could have pulled within one score early in the final period if Kirk Morrison held on to an errant Jake Plummer pass that was squarely in his grasp.
2004: Oakland was doomed for a 5-11 finish, but still beat the playoff-bound Broncos by rallying in the fourth quarter for a 25-24 win.
2001: Denver had been eliminated from the playoff picture when it hosted division-winning Oakland in the next-to-last game of the season, but the Broncos nevertheless prevailed, 23-17.
1999: The Broncos were winless; the Raiders 2-2. Denver won that tussle at Oakland, 16-13.
1997: Denver was 6-0 and en route to a world title. Oakland was 2-4 and headed for 4-12. The Raiders won in their home confines, 28-25.
And “Raider Hater” remains a common phrase in the Broncos fan lexicon, does it not? They certainly despise all things Bronco on their end. From going to McAfee Coliseum a few times and making a few anonymous, early pre-game strolls through the Black Hole, I know their fans’ blood hits 212 degrees with the sight of white horse logos on blue helmets.
I don’t know … perhaps I’m guilty of not changing with the times, but “Raiders Week” remains special to me. It conjures up memories of fiercely fought frays — both recent and in the distant past. It’s what made the NFL so compelling to me as a child … and what keeps it at the front of my sporting passions today.
It’s still the Broncos’ biggest rivalry to me. It’s not — and will never be — “just another game.”
What do you think? Am I just so hopelessly old-school that I’m clinging to a past paradigm that no longer exists? Feel free to reply below, and until next time, vaya con Dios.
Tags: Oakland Raiders