Raiders return to Mexico City to take on Patriots
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — From the thin air and the long climb from the field to the locker room to the party atmosphere in the stands that included a distracting laser pointed at the quarterback’s eyes, the Oakland Raiders’ first trip to Mexico City offered a unique scene.
With the Raiders (4-5) set to make their return to Azteca Stadium on Sunday to take on the New England Patriots (7-2), the hope is that going through the experience a year ago will be beneficial this season.
“It’s always an advantage to know where you’re playing and what to expect,” fullback Jamize Olawale said. “I just remember the atmosphere and excitement was electric out there. It was awesome to see. It was like a true home game.”
The Raiders will have some elements of home at the game, including the torch to honor late owner Al Davis. But as the experience showed last year when Oakland beat Houston 27-20, it is a completely different feel than a game in the U.S.
There was the homophobic cheer on kickoffs, the lasers fans used to try to distract Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, and more constant noise than in a typical game.
“It’s loud,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “There’s a hum, there’s a buzz throughout the game for offense or defense. Especially when we’re on defense, it gets really loud. They want us to win. You can tell by looking in the stands how many Raider fans there were there that it’s definitely a home game for us.”
The Patriots have a big following in Mexico as well, and figure to get good support, too. They are excited to see what the new experience is like.
“It’s always cool to change up the atmosphere,” tight end Rob Gronkoswki said. “It always gets you excited heading into a new atmosphere not knowing what to expect exactly, so it’s going to be something different. It’s going to be something fun.”
Here are some other things to watch:
ACCLIMATING TO ALTITUDE: While the Raiders will follow the same plan they used last year and arrive the day before the game to limit their exposure to the thin air at 7,200-feet elevation, the Patriots spent the week getting used to it . After winning in Denver on Sunday night, the Patriots took a bus ride to Colorado Springs, where the spent the week practicing at the Air Force Academy, which is 6,621 feet above sea level.
“We’re both facing that challenge,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “It’ll be interesting, really, to look back and take some after-action review from the two experiences that we’ve had.”
COOK’S CATCHES: Raiders tight end Jared Cook has been a major part of the offense the past few weeks. He leads the team with 39 catches for 499 yards, with 18 catches for 290 yards the past three games. The Raiders hope Cook’s production will give more opportunities on the outside for Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to make plays.
“I would think so,” Cooper said. “He’s been killing it out there. Usually when a guy does that, teams tend to focus on him. That should free us up.”
GRONK STOPPER: The Raiders used a second-round pick this year on safety Obi Melifonwu with the hopes that his size and athleticism would make him the perfect player to match up with opposing tight ends. Melifonwu missed the first eight games with a leg injury and played only seven snaps on defense in his debut at Miami two weeks ago. He will be counted on this week to match up with Gronkowski, who ranks second among tight ends with 583 yards receiving this season.
“I feel like a lot of people try to outphysical him,” Melifonwu said. “Just play to your strengths. He’s a big, physical guy with strong hands. It definitely will be tough, but it’s a matchup that will be fun.”
IMPROVING D: Despite allowing a league-worst 6.45 yards per play, the Patriots have been showing signs of improvement on defense of late. New England has allowed 17 points or fewer in the past five games, after allowing 32 per game the first four weeks.
“This is a process,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “We go through a process every year of trying to develop and get better each week, and that’s really our main goal.”
SHORT KICKS: New England K Stephen Gostkowski has the leg to kick the ball through the end zone, especially in the thin air of Mexico City, But he often has been kicking short and letting the coverage team take over from there instead of giving the opponent the ball at the 25. New England opponents start their average drive after a kickoff at the 22 for the second-worst mark in the league. Gostkowski’s touchback percentage of 35.7 percent is lowest among any kicker with at least 25 kickoffs and is about half the rate he had before touchbacks were moved from the 20 to the 25 last season. Oakland’s Cordarrelle Patterson leads the league with 30.8 yards per return.
“If you kick it to me, I’m going to bring it out,” Patterson said. “It’s as simple as that. They’ve been having a great year pinning people down. It will be a great challenge for our team.”