OAKLAND, Calif. -- For the New England Patriots, seeing the Oakland Raiders is a bit like seeing an old flame. Charter members of the American Football League, the two teams routinely played twice per season before the merger. Ever since, they've maintained a shaky long-distance relationship thanks to Jack Tatum's hitting, Ray Hamilton's roughing and Tom Brady's tucking.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick had his own late-'90s flirtations with the silver and black, while, more recently, the teams created some sparks with high-profile trades that sent Randy Moss and Richard Seymour to opposite coasts.
Now, despite playing only five times since 1989, the two teams rekindle that rivalry Sunday at O.co Stadium in a battle of 2-1 squads. New England boasts a slim 16-15-1 lifetime advantage in the series, but is just 2-6 in Oakland.
One of those wins was a 49-26 thrashing here during the 2008 season.
But after enduring some struggles in recent years, the Raiders look like a team heading in the right direction again and have not shied from the idea that this is a chance to prove they are once again among the AFC's elite.
"The Raiders have been great, just like the Patriots have done it,"
Oakland's first-year coach Hue Jackson said, noting the Patriots'
success the past decade. "The Raiders, at times, were that team, too
-- year in and year out, in the playoffs, challenging for the Super Bowl. It's all about making our players understand the rich tradition and history that has been here. It's time to get that back. It's time to work back into that mode. That's what this is truly all about -- it's about winning."
After throwing away a three-touchdown lead in Buffalo last weekend, winning is of chief importance to the Patriots as well. But it won't be easy. New England's defense has offered little resistance through the first three weeks of the season and injuries could exacerbate matters on Sunday.
Four defensive backs are listed as questionable, including three of the team's top four cornerbacks in Ras-I Dowling (hip), Leigh Bodden (groin) and Kyle Arrington (chest). Safety Patrick Chung (hand) missed last week's game in Buffalo and was limited in practice all this week.
That's not encouraging news for a team that's given up a league-worst
377 yards per game through the air. What's more, the defensive line is dinged up as well -- Myron Pryor went on injured reserve last week, while Mike Wright (out) is still working his way back from another concussion and Albert Haynesworth (questionable) has a balky back.
That's reason for concern going up against prolific running back Darren McFadden and the league's top rushing offense.
Amid those challenges, the Patriots' defense is trying to assert that it's not as bad as the numbers suggest.
"You feel it in the locker room, just that sense of urgency to get better now," said captain Jerod Mayo. "I wouldn't say pressure -- it's just, now is the time. We have to take it one game at a time and it starts this week."
Added defensive end Andre Carter: "There's always a sense of urgency, but the most important thing is being consistent. Unfortunately, we haven't been. We show signs of, 'This is our identity,' but then there will be a series or a play where it's, 'OK, we took a step back.' Every week we have to play at a consistent level."
Offensively, the Patriots have put together 11 consecutive regular-season games in which they've scored 30 points or more -- creeping up on the NFL record set by the Greatest Show on Turf (and another former L.A. resident) St. Louis Rams . And while Brady has been superhuman in passing for 1,327 yards and 11 touchdowns over the first three weeks of the season, he proved mortal in throwing four interceptions last week in Buffalo -- matching his season total of a year ago -- and the Patriots couldn't overcome it.
With a new close-cropped haircut, Brady put the Bills game behind him quickly.
"It's really a fresh week for us," said Brady. "Like I said, there's nothing that we can do about what's happened. We are trying to bring a fresh new plan, new energy, [and] we're trying to put it together against a damn good football team. We're going to learn more about our team going on the road and playing a tough opponent than anything more than that. We're trying to go out there and get a win."
Unsurprisingly, the main storyline this week reverts back to that relationship between the Patriots and Raiders. Sunday's game will mark the first time Seymour has played against his old team since being unceremoniously dealt away before the start of the 2009 season.
He's unsuccessfully tried to downplay the moment. But, if nothing else, he's not getting nostalgic about renewing acquaintances with teammates he won three Super Bowls with in New England.
"That was three years ago," said Seymour. "All my attention is focused on getting my team out here a lot better. Like I said, that chapter is closed and over and done with. You kind of reflect when your career is over. I definitely understand I'm on the back nine right now, but I'm looking to finish strong."
Maybe Seymour will help pen the long-awaited next chapter in this long-distance rivalry.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.