CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- The kids don't know: The Broncos-Raiders rivalry used to be a thing. It was Avalanche-Red Wings. North Carolina-Duke. It stemmed from Raiders owner Al Davis.
He reveled in the outlaw image. He was a villain straight out of central casting. He slicked his hair back, wore silver and black sweats and cursed a blue streak in the Mile High Stadium press box (I know from sitting next to him several times). Davis functioned as Jack Sparrow. No one antagonized better than Davis. However, when Davis passed away in 2011, it seemed like he took the Broncos-Raiders venom to his grave.
The rivalry fizzled. It's hard to work up a lather for a team that offers little resistance. The Broncos turned the Raiders into a homecoming opponent in 1995 when Mike Shanahan, a known enemy of Davis over a salary dispute, took over. He won 21 of 28 games against Oakland. As Shanahan's quarterback, John Elway never lost at home against the Raiders. And it didn't help after their Super Bowl berth in 2002 that the Raiders turned into a dumpster fire of canned coaches and rotating quarterbacks.
Now everything feels different. Or perhaps the same as it used to be.
The Raiders sit tied atop the AFC West with the Broncos at 6-2. Oakland has a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr, who is arguably the leading candidate for the NFL Most Valuable Player award at the halfway point. The Broncos own the gnarliest secondary in the business. This is old school bad blood, conjuring images of Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson yelling at Oakland coach John Madden.
"I don't like the Raiders. I grew up a 49ers fan," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. "This is big. It's a playoff-type game with meaning down the road."
Named a midseason captain for the defense, Ward raised eyebrows Wednesday when asked about the challenges of facing Raiders receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. They have been created a compelling argument as the best duo in football.
"I feel they have two good receivers. They don't have two elite receivers," said Ward, indicating it's harder to prepare when one receiver is elite.
Consider Ward's words sprinkles of kerosene on a camp fire. This game means something beyond the standings again. Compare that to two years ago when Raiders Pro Bowler Charles Woodson said it was no longer a rivalry because it was "too lopsided."
Broncos v. Raiders, circa 2016, moves the needle. And it's perfect timing for the NFL, which has seen its ratings nosedive for numerous reasons: lacking star power with Tom Brady out four games and Peyton Manning retired; player protests and endless penalties. With the World Series over, this figures to be a prime time cagematch that will draw a huge number.
This bubbling blood harkens to the past. Before Madden video games, there was Madden vs. Jackson. Lyle Alzado vs. Kenny "The Snake" Stabler. According to the records, this rivalry began in 1960. But let's be honest, it didn't start in Denver until 1977. The undefeated Broncos defeated the Raiders in the regular season, featuring Jackson yelling, "It's all over fat man" to Madden. The Orange Crush took root, and the Broncos became relevant after they dispatched the Raiders three months later on their way to their first Super Bowl.
For decades, Raiders week inspired verbal hostility. Shanahan's arrival raised the stakes. In 1989, Davis fired Shanahan, the youngest coach in Raiders history, four games into the 1989 season. Shanahan insisted Davis owed him $200,000 as part of his dismissal. As offense coordinator of the 49ers in 1994, the personal feud intensified. According to "Coaching Confidential," Shanahan instructed one of his quarterbacks to fire a football at Davis, who had drifted to San Francisco's side of the field during wamups. The ball struck Davis in the leg. He flipped off Shanahan.
So, yeah, the Broncos-Raiders became nasty in Denver when Shanahan took over. It feels a bit chippy again with both teams succeeding.
"Historical references, I don't know. But I remember being up in the stands watching (Broncos) Floyd Little run," said Oakland coach Jack Del Rio, who had a clumsy exit from Denver as its defensive coordinator following the 2014 season after the Broncos lost to the Colts in the playoffs. "I know this rivalry goes back quite a while."
It laid dormant for years. As Ward stood in front of his locker explaining his dislike for Oakland, it was clear this game means something again.
"You know there's some people you just don't like and you don't have a reason," Ward said. "That's how I feel about the Raiders."