When the Oakland Raiders last beat the New England Patriots, Rich Gannon was throwing passes to Tim Brown and Jerry Rice while the franchise’s home stadium was known as Network Associates Coliseum.
The Raiders’ Week 11 matchup at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City comes 15 years and two days after that last win over the Pats. Derek Carr, the Raiders’ ever-steady leader, was 11.
“It’s not a scary thing to play them,” Carr said with a chuckle during his midweek news conference. “They’re the next team on the schedule, so let’s not make it something it’s not, but let’s also respect that they’re very smart. They’re very wise in how they game plan things and they have great players that can do it.”
None is greater than Tom Brady. Carr insisted that he doesn’t get extra amped facing Brady, joking that, fortunately, he’s not the one who has to play defense.
Still, the reverence for the five-time Super Bowl champion is strong.
“He’s done a lot of great things in his career,” Carr said. “He’s a hall of famer — a walking hall of famer. I’ve got nothing but respect for him. Love his game.”
The difference between Brady — the quarterbacking gold standard — and Carr, an emerging star who’s on one week but off the next, can be summarized in a single stat: touchdown/interception ratio.
Brady has slung 19 touchdowns to a pair of picks. Carr has 13 TDs and seven interceptions.
That ratio goes a long way in explaining why one of the QB-driven but defensively suspect teams is 7-2 and the other is 4-5.
While Carr admits that he’d like a couple of those picks back, he’s not fixated on his elevated interception total.
He’s not one to obsess over the numbers.
“I don’t get caught up in stats because stats lie, a lot of the time,” Carr said. “I just try and play efficiently each play and the more that I can do that, the more hopefully I don’t throw any interceptions or anything like that and the more that we have a chance to have the ball in our hands and the more chance we have to win.”
Carr’s boss, head coach Jack Del Rio, sees a reflection of his team in the reigning champs — at least, on one side of the ball.
“Defensively, [the Patriots have] been playing better. So, they got off to a slow start — much like I guess we have,” Del Rio said. “We don’t rank real well defensively — nor do they, but they’ve been effective in helping them win, so that’s what it’s all about.”
The rise of the Pats defense is real.
After surrendering 30-plus points in three of the first four games, the Patriots have allowed 17 points or less in each of the past five games.
That stat calls into question Del Rio’s comparison as the Raiders have held an opponent to just 17 points in only one of the past five games.
Even with that defensive turnaround in New England, opportunity exists through the air. The Patriots rank last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. The Raiders aren’t much better, checking in at No. 22 in that department.
That means openings will be plentiful for Brady, who, at 40, has authored five 300-yard games. It’s an unenviable matchup for the Raiders defense, which, infamously has yet to record an interception through nine games — the longest such streak to open an NFL season.
One of the leading questions for Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. is determining who will step up to co-star alongside the silver and black’s resident game-wrecker, Khalil Mack.
“Everybody,” Del Rio answered. “It’s a game of football. It’s a team game. Khalil’s a special player. He needs to continue to bring great energy, which he does.”
With 4.5 sacks through nine games, Mack has yet to reprise his Defensive-Player-of-the-Year form from a season ago, although it’s difficult to tell how much of that is on the edge-rusher and how much owes to a lack of talented colleagues surrounding him.
The Mexico City meeting with New England would mark an opportune moment for Mack to produce his first turnover of 2017.
The reality for Mack and the Raiders is that even as the club sits at 4-5 — and dates with the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles still await — the matchup with the Patriots doesn’t represent a must-win situation.
That’s because the AFC has been putrid at large. All four divisions have negative point differentials and only five of 16 teams are in the positive.
Carr knows the Raiders are still afloat amid a sea of mediocrity.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Carr said. “And that’s why we don’t freak out. That’s why we don’t ever get too high or get too low. Because as soon as you get too high, then your bubble’s popped real quick. As soon as you get too low, it’s over.
“Just stay in the middle and keep competing your tail off.”