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Raiders could meet Patriots in playoffs

With the New England Patriots’ defeat of the 49ers pretty much a foregone conclusion before the game even began, Sunday’s exercise devolved into a scouting opportunity for Northern California fans who follow the other professional football team in the region.

From Mexico City, the Raiders might have been watching, too.

Many things can happen over the next seven football weeks, but you’d have to be nuts if you don’t think the Raiders are going to break their 14 years in the wilderness as an NFL playoff castoff. The Raiders, who play the Texans on Monday night in the traditional battleground of Estadio Azteca, probably won’t recognize many of the teams that have been half-gallivanting in the postseason for the past decade and a half. When you haven’t been somewhere for that long, your memory starts to fog.

If there is one team they ought to recognize, and one that figures to get in their way sometime in the early weeks of 2017, it would be the club from New England.

Whoever wants to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, they’re probably going to have to go through the Patriots. You just don’t want to have to go through them in the snows of New England.

America couldn’t really get a full reading of the Patriots off Sunday’s 30-17 victory over the 49ers. First of all, they were playing the 49ers – arguably the worst team in the NFL. Then they had to play it without one of their most powerful forces, tight end Rob Gronkowski. He took a shot in the chest last week from the shoulder of Seattle’s Earl Thomas, and it did enough damage to him to keep him off the field Sunday.

Gronkowski didn’t even make the flight to the Bay Area for the game. Early reports had him suffering from a punctured lung. Patriots officials have refused to confirm the nature of Gronkowski’s injury, but the fact that he couldn’t get on an airplane to play in California suggests a lung problem.

Maybe it was the lack of Gronk that forced the Patriots to work into the fourth quarter before they could separate themselves from the 49ers on Sunday. Without him, four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady looked at times like a man without an outlet as he slogged through soggy Levi’s Stadium. Finding better footing late in the third quarter, he set fire to the San Francisco secondary on a rainy day. Thousands of New England fans in the stands loved it. Many of them chanted “Brady! Brady!” as the San Mateo native’s hot finish made for an overall enjoyable day for him and the Patriots.

Brady finished the game with 24 completions in 40 attempts for 280 yards and four touchdowns. Absent for the first four games of the season thanks to his conviction by Commissioner Roger Goodell in the Deflategate scandal, Brady is back now and rated as the league’s No. 1 quarterback.

Memo to the Raiders: Brady may be 39 years old, but he is still very good, even on an off track.

“It was tough conditions,” he said of the game that featured a second-quarter rainstorm but finished with a rainbow that lit up the east side of the stadium. “I would prefer 72 and sunny. That’s what you expect when you come to the Bay Area.”

The Raiders would sure like that, too, if they get a shot at the Patriots in January. Even 52 in an Oakland downpour would be nice, compared to wintering in New England.

Just when you thought Brady’s back might be stiffening Sunday late in the third quarter, he turned a close game into one that New England won while easing up.

His team led only 13-10 when Brady faced a third-and-9 from his 21. Then – boom! – he fired a 21-yard strike to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Then he ducked in and out and found one of his running backs, James White, for 14. He floated a 14-yarder out to Gronk’s replacement at tight end, Martellus Bennett, and he whipped a fastball to Mitchell for eight more yards, before beating the rush with a toss to Julian Edelman that went to the 9. The score came on the first play of the fourth quarter, on a 5-yarder to Danny Amendola, on another play in which Brady stood up to a pummeling rush just before releasing the ball.

Five minutes later, Brady bought some more time with his aging legs, stepping around the rush and heading upfield before he spotted Mitchell again, this time running up the numbers on the right side. Brady dropped the ball in between the defenders, and Mitchell did the rest on his way to a 56-yard scoring play.

Sunday’s win improved the Patriots to 8-2. The Raiders can match the record with a win Monday night on their home-away-from-home field in Mexico City. The NFL forced the Raiders to surrender their home-field advantage against the Texans, but it will figure to come in handy in the playoffs – and how weird it feels, taking it for granted, almost, that the Raiders will even be in them.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo