The beauty of the way the Raiders have operated lo these many years is that when they win a game in a hilariously stupid way like Monday’s, it makes their fans feel like they just won the AFC title game. They’ve lost so many games in ways as comedic as the way they beat Baltimore that this feels to their self-styled nation like beating Bill Belichick in January. Or at least Brian Billick.
After all, being a Raider fan is finding a way to live with Stockholm syndrome. Every play brings out that twitch under your left eye, and every game makes you reinvent Aristotelian fatalism. Tie a lost game three times in the last nine minutes? They’re just setting you up for the gut shot. Force a fumble and get into scoring range in overtime? I wonder how they’ll vomit this away. Score the winning touchdown on a clever pass-and-run? Nahhh, too easy. Have their touchdown nullified by a re-spot of the ball at the one? Typical. Get the ball moved back to the six on a false start? Raiders be Raiderin’. Throw an interception through your guy’s hands and off a defender’s helmet into the hands of another? Failure with oak leaf clusters, but still well within Raider behavioral norms. Force a fumble a few plays later to get the ball back in Raven territory? Those teasing skanks. Send out the field goal unit too late to get the ball snapped? So very Jon, so perfectly Gruden.
But this time, all the false positives and typical negatives cancel each other out, and Derek Carr and his creepy stare find Zay Jones scandalously open for a 31-yard score and the 33-27 victory that Raider fans are conditioned never to believe can be theirs. It’s like not only cheating gravity but stealing its wallet en route.
It’s been a lousy four decades for Raider fans, give or take the odd Rich Gannon. Team left, came back, and left again. The joy of watching Al Davis screw the system and then watching it slowly screw him back just by watching him age out. Mark Davis (he was the guy in the haircut worked around a fez and the David Byrne–sized ice cream suit last night) got rogered out of a share of the Los Angeles territory only to find people who could help him trick the state of Nevada into taking his company to its well-moneyed bosom, with all the caveats and scary side-door deals that make Vegas Vegas. If bad news can happen the Raiders are there.
So their first game in front of live wallets had all the earmarks of a defeat, and as the night advanced the possibility of a hideous defeat kept rearing its well-recognized head. Surely by the time Derek Carr’s intercepted throw in overtime had dropped into the hands of a deeply shocked Anthony Everett, the lesson every Raider fan since 1983 has had to learn nose-first was about to be delivered again.
And yet, this one time anyway, the Raiders pay off the house. They cheat their usual destiny and send everyone home happy and entertained. Not happily ever after—not by a long shot. Their four-decade history of lousy Decembers make no fan comfortable, not even the ones who still think every day is Halloween. This one was just a gift from a capricious God who knows that to believe in the Raiders is to approve of the benefits of self-immolation. This game is not to be trusted.
But it’s good enough for now. No fan base in American sport has been more ill-treated by its heroes in the last four decades than this one, and the second place finisher (the Sacramento Kings) isn’t remotely close. The Raiders may not have necessarily deserved to win, but they showed they would fight like hell not to lose, which is more gumption than is traditional. And maybe this is the first weird harbinger of a team that no longer turns over every stone to find the venomous scorpion beneath. Maybe against the run of history they might be a team worth more than a nation’s uproarious scorn.
Still, I’d give that one a while to simmer. One ridiculously improbable win does not a cure for the 18 previous seasons make, but Raider fans are used to knowing that. They’re still in the stolen-moments-will-do-just-fine stage of their fandom. In that respect, they earned a night off from the usual.