OAKLAND, Calif. — It turned out to be more a celebration than a funeral.
Marshawn Lynch, Oakland’s favorite son, who might or might not have already played his final NFL game, lit the Al Davis Torch to wild applause.
Doug Martin, who was born in Oakland, scored untouched on a 24-yard run before throwing up an “O” with his outstretched hands to the hometown crowd.
And the Oakland Raiders, who might or might not have played their final game in the Oakland Coliseum, gave their fans a thrill to last — well, at least until a decision is made on where the Raiders will play home games in 2019 — in a 27-14 defeat of the rival Denver Broncos on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
“Having family and fans in Oakland was definitely important to me, and it was definitely important to the players,” said Martin, who rushed for a season-high 107 yards on 21 carries. “I wanted to give this win to them for a Christmas present, and merry Christmas to Oakland. I hope you enjoyed it. We love you.”
Indeed, love was in the air for the drenched and emotionally spent crowd of 53,850, along with question marks. But this much is known: The Raiders (4-11) will be in Las Vegas in 2020, and the NFL wants to know where they plan to play next year by early February, at the latest.
With so much uncertainty in the air — and rain showers before the game that turned the field into a muddy bog — it was a sublime Christmas Eve in the Coliseum, the Raiders’ home from 1966 through 1981 and again from 1995 through now, with a 13-season sojourn in Los Angeles in between.
The game began with a Christmas miracle of a play: Raiders punt returner Dwayne Harris got things going for Oakland when he picked up a ball the Broncos tried to down at the 1-yard line. Harris bobbed and weaved his way through Denver’s coverage team and went on to score on a 99-yard return, the second-longest punt return in NFL history, tied with Patrick Peterson‘s 99-yarder in 2011 and trailing only Robert Bailey’s 103-yarder in 1994.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Harris ran 157.5 yards on his TD return, the longest distance covered by any ball carrier in the past three seasons.
The win also featured another efficient game by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, whose understanding of Jon Gruden’s offense continues to grow. Carr completed 19 of 26 passes for 167 yards, and his streak of consecutive passes without an interception reached 325; he hasn’t been intercepted since Oct. 7.
Fans held up signs throughout the game, imploring the Raiders to stay for one last season.
But after the City of Oakland announced on Dec. 11 that it planned on filing a federal lawsuit against the Raiders and the NFL over the team’s move to Southern Nevada, the Raiders pulled their lease offer of $7.5 million to stay at the Coliseum off the table.
And while both sides have been at a stalemate since, the San Francisco Giants acknowledged last week that they were open to letting the Raiders play next season at their waterfront baseball stadium, AT&T Park.
San Diego has also been mentioned as a possible one-year home, as have Santa Clara, California; Reno, Nevada; and Glendale, Arizona.
Oakland city council member Rebecca Caplan posted on Twitter during Monday’s game that the Raiders “don’t need to make this [their] last game” at the Coliseum and that they have the option to play their final year in Oakland before moving to Vegas.
“Instead they are trying to play somewhere harder to access just to punish Oakland and their fans for challenging the NFL’s wrongful relocation bribe system,” Caplan tweeted.
Raiders owner Mark Davis has told ESPN that “all options are open” and has also said that he would not want to do business with an entity that is suing him.
On this night, though, it was about what happened on the field, at a stadium that remains the only one shared by an NFL team and an MLB team. The Coliseum has played host to some of the most memorable games in NFL history, from the “Heidi Game” to the “Sea of Hands.” It has seen unbelievable highs for the Raiders, from finally beating the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC title in 1976 and claiming another conference title by beating the Tennessee Titans in 2002, as well as some unbelievable lows, such as Carr breaking his leg two years ago to the day.
Gruden, who rushed to the Black Hole section of fans to celebrate after the game, said on Saturday he was holding out hope to return to the East Bay next year.
“If it is the last game, it will certainly be a sad day,” he said.
“It’s Christmas Eve and the end of the season, we have a lot to be thankful for. We haven’t won many games, but the people that know this football team know what is going on inside here and know that there has been some really cool foundation that has been laid. I think the fans appreciate the effort, and they know we appreciate them.”
Carr, meanwhile, made a Cal Ripken Jr.-like circle of the entire Coliseum to slap hands with fans, who did not rush the field en masse. Rather, at least half a dozen individuals making runs on the field were taken down by security as fans danced on the dugouts to the sounds of Oakland rappers Too Short and MC Hammer.
“I know it stings,” Carr said. “I know it hurts that we might not play here [next year], because I don’t know, but I was going to make sure that, if this was the last time, I wanted to say thank you in whatever way I could. So anyone that sees this, Raider Nation, thank you. I love you. My family loves you, and you guys are the most loyal fans in the world.
“I know it hurts that we might not be the Oakland Raiders forever, but we are still Raider Nation, and I know that they’ll always have our back.”
The Raiders’ 17-0 halftime advantage Monday marked their largest lead of the season. And in closing out the Broncos in victory formation, facing the Black Hole, the Raiders were able to savor the victory, rather than scramble to come back in the final minute.
“There’s not a better way to win a game than to take a knee three times in the [final] two minutes, to let it soak in,” said receiver Jordy Nelson, who had seven catches for 75 yards. “Especially with the environment tonight, and what this could possibly be.”
This, many longtime observers would tell you, was a different vibe than the last time the Raiders played in Oakland a “final” time — a dispiriting 23-6 loss to the Vince Evans-led Chicago Bears on Dec. 13, 1981.
Winning Monday night might have hurt the Raiders’ draft spot — they moved from the No. 2 pick to No. 4 with the victory — but that’s for a different day and conversation.
“What a great way to celebrate the holidays and put a great taste in everybody’s mouths here at the end of the season,” tight end Lee Smith said. “It’s awesome. It’s fun. It’s a night no one wearing a Raiders logo will ever forget.”