Sunday dawned sad and grew even more sorrowful as morning wore into afternoon and evening and the body count rose to 33 at the “Ghost Ship,” the name of the artists’ collective in the city’s Fruitvale neighborhood where a warehouse fire two nights earlier burned the life out of humanity’s highest impulse.
Football seemed unimportant in the face of the inferno at the artists’ live-and-work-and-party space, but it was probably the right thing to do, to go ahead with Sunday’s game at the Coliseum, even if it took place just one BART stop from Fruitvale. The people need distractions from disasters such as the one on 31st Avenue, and the Raiders gave them a good one under the cloud-and-tear-streaked blue skies of the East Bay.
The Raiders, like the A’s, put up $30,000 to try to alleviate the city’s considerable pain. Nobody talked about canceling the game, though – that is a measure of solemnity they didn’t even roll out for a presidential assassination, although the NFL did cancel games the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
No matter if it felt right or not to be playing games in a city where so many died horrifically less than 48 hours earlier, the Raiders showed up at their usual full house in the Coliseum and did their part to provide entertainment to the masses that could use some.
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The Buffalo Bills flummoxed the Raiders for awhile, but everything wound up OK – in Raiderville, anyway, if not the rest of a suffering city. Twenty-nine straight second-half points and a whole lot of Khalil Mack and the Bills were done, 38-24.
It was a win that kept the Raiders even with the New England Patriots for having the best record in the AFC at 10-2, even if the celebrations in the stands and in the parking lot seemed untimely when measured against the loss of so many ives just a few miles away.
“I’m sure we all saw what happened,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said afterward. “I did not address it with the team. Obviously, our prayers go out to the families involved, and the friends and families involved. It’s a tragedy.”
Although death hung heavy in the Oakland air, and the team did ask for and receive a moment of silence before the playing of the national anthem, the football party picked up again as the Raiders plowed forward through their fabulous season.
For 36 minutes, the Bills confused the Raiders with a surprisingly effective air game. They came into the Coliseum with the fewest passing yards per game of all 32 NFL teams. To compound their passing problems, they had to play on Sunday with the top two receivers in this low-achieving unit out because of injury. So naturally, the Bills came out throwing.
Their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, completed seven of his first eight passes, to a squadron of B-listers who hadn’t seen many balls thrown in their direction all year. They were guys like Sammy Watkins, who only had nine catches coming into the game, Justin Hunter and Brandon Tate, who only had seven each, and tight end Gerald Christian, who was just called up from the practice squad. He didn’t have any.
You knew eventually that Taylor would complete more handoffs to his terrific running back, LeSean McCoy, than he would passes to the firm of Watkins, Tate, Hunter and Christian. McCoy, who reminds Del Rio of Barry Sanders, carried 17 times on Sunday for 130 yards, including a 54-yard run that set up a Buffalo touchdown on the Bills’ first possession of the third quarter. His running and Taylor’s passing put the Bills in position for another touchdown on their second, and the score was 24-9.
It was then that the Raiders got serious – real serious.
Michael Crabtree finished off a 75-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown catch, to turn into an afterthought an odd sequence of events late in the first half with Crabtree at their center. First, he dropped a pass in the end zone, delivered on a dart from his quarterback, Derek Carr. Two plays later, the referees called Crabtree for a 15-yard taunting penalty, on an incomplete pass. Taunting penalties, usually, are reserved for those plays where you make the other guy look like a goat, not for when you’re the one wearing the horns.
Once Crabtree righted himself and his team with the touchdown catch, the Raiders special teams created two short fields for their teammates’ next two possessions, both of which resulted in touchdowns, not to mention the lead. Oakland rode home from there on a turnover forced by yet another spectacular play by the incredible Mad Mack, to score another touchdown and win it going away.
This time, the Raiders pass-rushing genius deflected a pass coming out of the throwing hand of Taylor. The jingling air ball wound up in the possession of Raiders defensive back Nate Allen at the Bills’ 16-yard-line. Three plays later, Latavius Murray ran it in for Oakland.
To prevent any sort of Buffalo revival, Mack, on the Bills’ last-gasp possession, zeroed in again on Taylor for a strip-sack/fumble recovery. It’s the first time Mack has come up with one of those to close out a win since he did it last week. The victim then was quarterback Cam Newton and the defending Super Bowl champion Carolina Panthers, so Taylor shouldn’t get all in his head about it. He’s in good company.
It was a nice win on a horrible day for Oakland.
“Obviously, we’re very proud of this area and people in this area,” Del Rio said. “Several people had their lives taken away, and that’s really, really sad, really unfortunate.”