Oakland Raiders fans infiltrate the crowd at the Raiders-Arizona Cardinals game on November 18, 2018 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Art Foxall/UPI | License Photo
For a Raider Nation living mostly on stale memories, the team -- significantly still in Oakland at its old Coliseum -- offered a new one to cherish Sunday in what will probably be the final battle in the Bay Area against the historic rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
On this Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, the Raiders played as if haunted by the spirit of team ancestors who, long after Dec. 23, 1972, seethed with evil purpose to overcome the most controversial play in NFL history, dubbed "The Immaculate Reception" by league historians, but known forever in Oakland as "The Immaculate Deception."
With the Raiders due to move to Las Vegas by 2020, Sunday was the last chance at some emotional get-back within view, within full-throated screaming distance, of the Black Hole.
And in a performance almost as startling as that original "Immaculate" sin of a play itself, these Raiders -- these Oakland Raiders -- outplayed and outlasted the Steelers, 24-21, with the dilapidated, dank Coliseum itself complicit with a major contribution.
Hall of Fame head coach John Madden was not surprised. In fact, he called the play Sunday and named the victim and the perpetrator -- both of which are part of any game-deciding play.
"Yeah, I called it," he said. "I've seen it before." But more on that later.
It was all so appropriate it could become yet another eerie chapter in that vast volume of Oakland Raiders lore, and we do mean Oakland.
Lest we forget, this is the same, cold concrete edifice that helped divide iconic Raiders owner Al Davis and the National Football League as long ago as the 1970s as reason to move, with or without the league's blessing. It is the same scrabbled structure that Davis leveraged to create owner free agency -- a gift for which his peers never openly appreciated although totally utilized. Davis moved and then validated his action in court for the benefit of those owners.
And, after a layover in Los Angeles, it was much the same hometown crib to which the Raiders reluctantly returned in 1995. Even before arriving, the Raiders made it clear they wanted a new stadium in Oakland, and not even the addition of too many more seats -- aka Mt. Davis -- would suffice. After Davis died in October 2011, the desire to move intensified under the ownership of his son, Mark.
Following 10 years of controversy and failure to build a new home in Oakland, even NFL owners acquiesced last year and granted permission for the Raiders to move to Las Vegas by 2020.
Against all that history, these 2018 Raiders -- or the leftovers from a player purge -- seemed to appreciate the chance to play those Pittsburgh Steelers in a game almost brutal enough to be somewhat reminiscent of the 11 times these teams met in the '70s, usually in battles that somehow paved the way to a Super Bowl. The Raiders were 6-5 in the series, but won only one Super Bowl to the Steelers' three in that decade.
The Raiders hinted their intent from the start Sunday, driving 74 yards for a touchdown on their first possession, with running back Doug Martin scoring from the 1-yard line on third-and-goal. But despite their best overall game of the year -- on offense and defense -- the Raiders were trailing 21-17 after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, able to get back in the game because of a pain-killing shot, threw an awkward 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with only 2:55 left.
But the fun was just beginning.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr led the offense right back. On the first play after the two-minute warning he launched a perfect, 39-yard pass to Seth Roberts, inches past two defenders and right into the arms of Roberts, who needed only to hold out those arms. Then, on fourth-and-goal from the 6, Carr hit tight end Derek Carrier for a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining, putting the Raiders on top, 24-21.
Enough? Nope. Not until the Coliseum itself had a say.
After the kickoff, the Steelers had the ball on their 30-yard line with 15 seconds showing on the clock. Roethlisberger threw a short pass to receiver James Washington, who lateralled to Smith-Schuster, who raced the clock down the left sideline before being forced out on the Raiders' 22 with five seconds left.
The Steelers lined up for Pro Bowl kicker Chris Boswell -- fresh off signing a $20 million contract after making 35 of 38 field goals last year -- to try a 40-yard, game-tying three-pointer.
"I knew he wasn't ready for that, he wasn't ready for the field and I said that he would miss it," Madden said after the game. "The Coliseum is below sea level. It was terrible when we played there in the '70s and it's still that way."
Madden had his fun with the infamous Coliseum field in the '70s. Before one game against Kansas City, he stood next to Chiefs head coach Hank Stram to bemoan the fact that the groundkeepers left the water on for hours by accident. Stram, ever the conspiracy theorist, got upset.
"Hell, everybody accused us of watering the field and we never did," Madden said. "We had Cliff Branch. Why would we water the field? So I just thought I would get to Hank. And it did."
So here we are, some 40 years later and Madden is still counting on the field to help the Raiders.
"You could see all day it was slippery, but I didn't see anybody changing shoes or cleats," said Madden. In the '70s, some kickers used longer cleats on their plant foot. But Madden said nowadays players don't pay as much attention to those details.
Sure enough. Boswell stepped forward and his left foot slipped as he approached the ball. Then his right foot flailed aimlessly, and the kick was a line drive into a pile of players.
The victory went to the Raiders and, as Madden predicted, the Coliseum turf. Even better for Raider Nation, it was a final hometown victory over those historic rivals, the Steelers.
And as the story is told in the distant future, when the team is a Desert Dweller in another state, it should be remembered as one of those eerie Raiders tales.
In October of 2011, the day after Al Davis passed, the Raiders made a game-saving interception in Houston, with only 10 men on defense. Al did it to let us know he was there, as the story goes. And on December 9, 2018, Oakland won when the Pittsburgh kicker missed because he slipped. The Coliseum did it to let us know it is still a part of Oakland Raiders history.