"We don't even call them rookies anymore," says Flowers. "They're playing like vets. They played big-time college football, and they're not trying to wait a year or two to make their names on the field. They're key pieces to the puzzle for us."
Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley placed an emphasis on drafting skilled players who came from elite conferences, were captains of their teams and displayed a passion for the game. The Raiders followed a similar blueprint. They got away from focusing almost exclusively on speed—long the quality that owner Al Davis cherished in a young player—and instead looked for impact. McClain has provided a presence up the middle, playing physically against the run while still holding up in coverage. And Houston has been disruptive at times off the edge, with two sacks and 13 tackles.
With so many talented young players stockpiled, the Chiefs and the Raiders could well turn back the clock to the 1960s and '70s, when their battles for the division title and a shot at playoff supremacy were legendary—and incendiary.
"It all goes back to the AFL," says Tom Flores, who quarterbacked both teams during the '60s and later coached the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories. "Because there were only eight [AFL] teams in the beginning, we'd sometimes play each three and four times in a year, including the preseason. The league was so small that it became like a family. And [the Chiefs and the Raiders] were the Hatfields and the McCoys without the guns."
From 1966 to '72, bridging the AFL-NFL merger, the two teams finished one-two in the West for seven straight years, and after that, one or the other won the division from '73 to '76. In three of the first four Super Bowls the AFL's representative came from Kansas City or Oakland. "There appeared to be some underlying animosity between [Chiefs coach] Hank Stram and Al Davis," says Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who played for the Chiefs from '67 to '77. "That was due to a desire to outperform the other and do better in the draft. You had to have the better team, the better personnel. There was a story that Davis drafted [guard] Gene Upshaw to have the larger size and ability and height to offset [defensive tackle] Buck Buchanan. The competitive zeal between the franchises was always there."
What fueled the rivalry at its peak was the sheer talent on both teams. The 1969 AFL championship game, in which the Chiefs upset the Raiders 17--7, featured 12 future Hall of Famers on the field—Buchanan, Lanier, Thomas, linebacker Bobby Bell, quarterback Len Dawson and placekicker Jan Stenerud for the Chiefs; Upshaw, receiver Fred Biletnikoff, kicker and quarterback George Blanda, cornerback Willie Brown, center Jim Otto and tackle Art Shell for the Raiders. Both head coaches, Stram and John Madden, and owners Lamar Hunt and Davis were also Canton-bound.
But the luster began to fade in the mid-1970s, when one or both teams struggled. The Chiefs had only one winning season from 1974 to '85, and the Raiders had just four from 1986 to '99. K.C. and Oakland shared winning seasons only four times in the '70s, never in the '80s and four times in the '90s. They have not both finished above .500 in the same season since 1994. "The rivalry is special, but it's been dormant for a while," says Dawson, who quarterbacked the Chiefs from 1962 to '75 and directed them to their Super Bowl IV win over the Vikings. "That's why it's good to see both teams playing in a game that carried some significance."
Both the Chiefs and the Raiders are built in their images from the glory days, with strong running games, solid defenses and a refusal to blink. They rank one-two in rushing, with Kansas City averaging 179.6 yards per game behind Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones and Oakland averaging 162.2 thanks to 2008 first-round pick Darren McFadden, whose 757 yards rank fourth in the league (and nearly match the total output of his first two seasons). Defensively the Chiefs have held three opponents to one touchdown and four others to two; Oakland, meanwhile, has limited five opponents to two touchdowns or fewer. In the last three games the Raiders' defense has surrendered a total of four TDs.
Sunday's matchup was far from a classic, as the teams combined for five turnovers and 27 penalties for 240 yards. They were also unsuccessful on two fake punts and converted just 6 of 27 third downs. But Chiefs-Raiders has never been about style—unless that style is one of hard hits, high intensity and high stakes.
After the game, as Berry reflected on his first taste of the 50-year rivalry, he seemed conflicted. The rookie paused before putting on his headphones and rolling his travel bag down the long, narrow hallway to the team bus that would take the Chiefs to the airport on their way back to Kansas City. "Man, I hate losing," Berry said before smiling and adding, "but you know what? It was fun out there. Those are the types of games you love to be a part of. It was everything I'd heard about."