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Shortly after he was drafted fifth overall by the Chiefs last April, safety Eric Berry sat down at a computer and typed Emmitt Thomas into a search field. Berry wanted to learn everything he could about his new secondary coach, and within a blink of an eye he had 481,000 results.
As he studied Thomas's background, Berry was struck not only by the man's accomplishments—Kansas City cornerback, 1966 to '78; franchise-record 58 interceptions; Super Bowl winner and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee; 29-year NFL assistant coach—but also by the repeated references to the Chiefs' bitter rivalry with the Raiders. "Stuff just kept popping up about how the teams really didn't like each other," says Berry, a Georgia native who was born in 1988, 28 years after the Chiefs and the Raiders first met as charter members of the American Football League. (The Chiefs played three seasons as the Dallas Texans before moving to Kansas City in '63.) "There were a bunch of fights and stuff," Berry continues. "It was crazy."
Crazy. That's a perfect way to describe what took place on Sunday at Oakland--Alameda County Coliseum, and what's happening at the top of the AFC West standings. On an afternoon that began with rain and ended in sunshine, the Raiders, who lost at least 11 games in each of the past seven seasons and were competing without their best player, injured All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and their leading receiver, tight end Zach Miller, overcame three turnovers, a failed fake punt, 15 penalties for 140 yards and only three third-down conversions to beat the Chiefs in overtime 23--20.
It was the first time since 2000 that the Chiefs (5--3) and the Raiders (5--4) had met in November with one team leading the division and the other in second place. And the truly crazy part is that there's a strong chance their Jan. 2 regular-season finale will determine the AFC West title. One of the league's great rivalries means something once more.
"The Raiders are back!" Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly bellowed after Sunday's thriller. "This was a big game at home for us, and we came through. So we're back, baby."
How far they're back is a matter of debate, but Sunday was a big step forward. After the Raiders outscored Denver and Seattle by a combined 92--17 in their previous two games, anticipation in Oakland was unusually high; it was the first home sellout in 12 games. But by halftime Oakland, trailing 10--0, looked ready for a pratfall. A nervous energy pervaded the crowd.
These Raiders, however, showed a resilience that had been missing in recent years. In the locker room, the coaches and players reflected on the first-half numbers—two first downs, 49 yards of total offense, eight penalties—and figured they'd taken the Chiefs' best shots and were still on their feet. It was time to go to work. "In the past we would have lost that [expletive]," Kelly said. "But we've been doing a good job of staying calm and not losing our composure."
No one was cooler than rookie receiver Jacoby Ford, who returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and later set up Sebastian Janikowski's game-tying field goal at the end of regulation by leaping and stealing the ball from the hands of cornerback Brandon Flowers for a 29-yard gain with 24 seconds left. Then, less than two minutes into overtime, Ford got behind Flowers, one of the best young corners in the league, for a 47-yard catch that led to Janikowski's decisive 33-yard field goal.
In many respects it was fitting that Ford, a fourth-round pick last April, stole the spotlight. The rise of both the Raiders and the Chiefs in 2010 is due in large part to the contributions of rookies. In Oakland, middle linebacker Rolando McClain (first round, eighth overall), defensive end Lamarr Houston (second, 44th) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (third, 69th) are starters, and seventh-round defensive backs Jeremy Ware and Stevie Brown have been solid role players. "I think it would be ludicrous to [expect to see] this many rookies have this amount of impact," says Raiders coach Tom Cable, who took over from Lane Kiffin four games into the 2008 season. "All rookies touch the team in some regard, and some play more and some don't. But typically from about round 4 down they're pretty limited. This group overall has been very involved and very productive from top to bottom."
The story is the same in Kansas City, where Berry has interceptions in two of the last three games; Dexter McCluster (second round, 36th) is a threat as a runner, receiver and returner; cornerback Javier Arenas (second, 50th) is one of the game's more dangerous returners and a contributor at nickelback; tight end Tony Moeaki (third, 93rd) leads the team with 30 receptions; and safety Kendrick Lewis (fifth, 136th) has started five games.