Now this is more like it.
The Silver and Black against the Orange Crush for the division lead. Well, at least the current Raiders and Broncos going head to head for first place in the AFC West.
One of pro sports’ most storied, intense (yeah, you can say dirty) rivalries resumes Sunday in Oakland. Both teams are 6-2, a half-game ahead of Kansas City in the division.
Even better, this spicy matchup takes place in prime time, and for once the Raiders , who have not made the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl in early 2003, seem ready.
“We put ourselves on display each week,” says coach Jack Del Rio, a front-runner for Coach of the Year honors halfway through the schedule.
“I get that it’ll be more hyped this week, but it won’t be any different in terms of preparing for it and then going out and playing good football. I think what we recognize as an organization is as you become relevant, as you play good football, you’re going to have more of these opportunities.
“This is the natural progression in building a good football team. We should expect to be in these games. We’re going to expect to win these games. Then we’re going to move forward and have more of these kinds of games.”
The Broncos know all about these kinds of games, making a habit of playing in them in the past five seasons. Led by Von Miller — like Del Rio, a leading candidate for an award (Defensive Player of the Year) or two (MVP?) — Denver’s defense has been dynamic once more. It has the league’s best pass defense, and isn’t exactly a sieve against the run.
Star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. loves the idea of a high-profile Broncos vs. Raiders game.
“The thing is with the Raiders, when we go to the ‘Black Hole’ it’s never blowouts,” Harris says. “We never go there and run up the score on them. It’s always tight games, so them being good now just raises the stakes another level of a championship game.”
The action began Thursday night, with Matt Ryan throwing for 344 yards and four touchdowns to help the Atlanta Falcons tighten their grip on first place in the NFC South with a 43-28 victory at Tampa Bay.
Julio Jones had eight receptions for 111 yards and a TD for the Falcons (6-3). Tampa Bay was lost two straight to drop to 3-5.
Off this week are Washington (4-3-1), Cincinnati (3-4-1), Houston (5-3), New England (7-1), Arizona (3-4-1) and Chicago (2-6).
Pittsburgh (4-3) at Baltimore (3-4)
Another terrific NFL rivalry, but one that has lost a bit of steam this season with both clubs struggling and banged-up. Even so, the winner here will be in first place.
The big question for Pittsburgh, which actually leads the AFC North despite its mediocre record, is whether Ben Roethlisberger has recovered sufficiently from his left knee surgery of two weeks ago to play. Another mystery in the Steel City is whether the defense, ranked a disturbing 27th, can get stingy again.
Baltimore comes off a bye after four straight defeats, but it generally has defended Antonio Brown well. Of course, the Ravens have a depleted secondary trying to deal with the 2015 All-Pro receiver.
Dallas (6-1) at Cleveland (0-8)
Although the Browns lead the all-time series 17-13, they haven’t beaten the Cowboys since 1994. Doing so Sunday is a long shot, although Cleveland manages to be competitive most every week while losing every week.
Dallas last won seven in a row in 2007. Rookie QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott have been the focal points, of course, but the defense is vastly improved.
Cleveland QBs Josh McCown and Cody Kessler were listed as co-starters on the depth chart. Kessler is coming off a concussion. Maybe if coach Hue Jackson combined their attributes …
Philadelphia (4-3) at New York Giants (4-3)
Victor Cruz missed a year and a half of his career after he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee at Philly in a 2014 game. The injury was so ugly that Cruz cried when it occurred.
He’s been New York’s third receiver this season, but just being back on the field again has been an achievement.
“It’s a different circumstance, a different year,” he says. “But definitely, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it is in my mind.”
Both teams have been challenged offensively, and the loser drops into the NFC East cellar.
Jacksonville (2-5) at Kansas City (5-2)
The Jaguars fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson this week, with quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett taking over and charged with straightening out QB Blake Bortles and top receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson.
KC was hit further by the injury bug in its win at Indianapolis, with star RB Jamaal Charles (knee) back on injured reserve and starting quarterback Alex Smith being held out with head issues. Nick Foles looked solid against the Colts in taking over for Smith.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has 177 wins, one behind Mike Shanahan for 12th in NFL history.
Detroit (4-4) at Minnesota (5-2)
One of the NFL’s more lopsided rivalries; the Vikings lead 71-36-2 and have won 16 of their past 18 at home against the Lions. None, of course, was in the new stadium.
Minnesota has issues, though. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned this week in the wake of two successive losses in which the offense disappeared. Most at fault are a running game ranked 31st and an offensive line that has been, uh, rank lately.
Detroit is like most of the league, very inconsistent. Matthew Stafford is having one of his best seasons: a 103.4 passer rating with 16 touchdowns and four picks.
Tennessee (4-4) at San Diego (3-5)
Big week on and off the field for the Chargers. This is their final game before Election Day, when San Diego voters will be asked to approve $1.15 billion in hotel occupancy taxes to help fund a $1.8 billion downtown stadium-convention center annex. The team still has the option to join the Rams in Los Angeles.
Tennessee had lost nine in a row to San Diego before winning the previous meeting in 2013. The Titans find themselves in contention for the mediocre AFC South crown midway through the schedule.
New York Jets (3-5) at Miami (3-4)
With each of these also-rans coming off consecutive victories, look for the ground game to be decisive. Miami’s Jay Ajayi has consecutive 200-yard rushing performances — no one has had three in a row. His chore is more difficult this time because New York is allowing 3.3 yards per carry, third best in the NFL.
If the Jets can protect the ball despite being tied for last in turnover differential at minus-8, they could get their fourth consecutive win over the Dolphins.
Indianapolis (3-5) at Green Bay (4-3)
What projected to be a cool showdown between Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers might have, well, cooled a bit. The Colts can’t protect Luck, who has been sacked a whopping 31 times and has felt the sting on every one of them. And the Packers might be bringing Jim Taylor out of retirement considering the depletion in the running back group.
But Rodgers loves playing AFC opponents at Lambeau Field. He’s averaging 312.4 yards per game with 15 TDs and no interceptions in the past five home games against the AFC.
Buffalo (4-4) at Seattle (4-2-1), Monday night
With both teams hurting in the running game — Buffalo might rank second, but if it doesn’t have star RB LeSean McCoy (hamstring) the ground attack is mediocre — this could come down to how effective QBs Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor can be. At least the Seahawks have seen Jimmy Graham emerging at tight end as he finally approaches full health.
The Bills, making their first trip to Seattle in 12 years, have beaten the other three NFC West teams so far. They face a Seahawks team that is going for an 11th straight win on Monday night. The Seahawks have the highest win percentage (.733) in the history of Monday night games.
Carolina (2-5) at Los Angeles (3-4)
For the defending NFC champion Panthers to scare anybody this season, they must go on a winning streak. Their victory over Arizona last Sunday was a solid start.
Protecting Cam Newton, who spoke with Commissioner Roger Goodell this week about big hits, is the main job for Carolina. Rams 2015 All-Pro DT Aaron Donald says they won’t change how they play after Newton’s concerns went public, noting, “you’ve got to bring your big boy pads if you’re going to tackle him.”
New Orleans (3-4) at San Francisco (1-6)
The Saints have turned around their season and could climb closer to playoff contention with an eighth win in the past 10 meetings with San Francisco, which has dropped six straight. Drew Brees is having yet another spectacular passing season and needs four TD passes to join Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the only players with 450 in NFL history.
San Francisco must keep the ball away from Brees, but it averages a league-low 4.9 yards per play. On the positive side — yes, there is one — the Niners have a league-low 31 penalties.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed.