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Raiders of old reunite, exult over Oakland's recent success

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Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann co-host a cooking show. Billy Joel covers Megadeath. Hell freezes over. The Oakland Raiders are a winning football team. And from coast to coast, Raider Nation, emerging from hibernation, exchanges fist bumps (with spiked gloves).

Bad is Back, thanks be to the Antichrist, as safety George Atkinson once described the dominant, ragged, revolutionary badasses of old. And like his the rest of his woolly ancestral teammates, today the Hit Man couldn't be happier: "It's good for football, it's good for the uniform, and it's good for Mr. Davis. This team knows how to win."

True, these Raiders are only 5-4, and face a rough schedule to the finish line; the age-old hated Steelers loom next, on the road. Realistically, their chances of making the playoffs remain questionable. So how come the national press is chattering about the resurgence of the Silver and Black as if they were 9-0? Why are sports radio lines from Virginia to Visalia buzzing with Raider talk?

Because an NFL without a real Raiders franchise was like a Star Wars franchise without the Darth. Because after a seven-year black hole in Oakland -- with the Raiders serving as a late-night-punchline, the owner serving as punching bag -- the Raiders are not only finally competitive again, they're a giddily exciting watch (115 points in three consecutive wins; 27 sacks thus far). Most compellingly, they're a shout-out to the old renegade mold, manned by the perfect historic franchise balance of savvy draft pick-ups, castoffs, and under-the-radar unknowns.

"The whole country feels the rumbling again, and they're liking it, because everyone loves to see the Raiders being the Raiders," the old madman linebacker Phil "Foo" Villapiano told me other day, after returning to New Jersey from one of the more memorable weekends in Raider history, after the Raiders derailed the Chiefs. "We're lovin' it.

"The NFL needs the Raiders. They need to hate somebody. Baseball needs the Yankees. Football needs the Raiders. Oakland needs the Raiders. And a lot of Raider fans who weren't showing their colors in the last few years are coming back."

PHOTO GALLERY: Classic Shots of the Raiders

It wasn't a great weekend in the East Bay just because the Raiders beat decades-old nemesis Kansas City, with memories of the blood-spouting, fist-flying rivalry of the Seventies echoing around the (finally) sold-out old concrete stadium. Or because rookie fourth-round pick Jacoby Ford amassed an astounding 306 yards in receptions and returns ("I can't remember the last time I saw a kid stepping up like a real football player," Foo told me. "Not like a prima donna, like a real Raider. I can't tell you the last time I saw someone play like that in a Raider uniform.")

No, that weekend was memorable for the most poignant of reasons: Al Davis flew more than 100 old Raiders (and Bears, and Oilers) out to Oakland the day before the Chiefs game for an in-house tribute to the late, grizzled George Blanda -- the second Raider icon, after Jack Tatum, to die within two months. And so, on that Saturday night, veterans of the glory years -- Snake, Stork, the Hit Man, Pinky (that would be John Madden) -- ate, drank and made merry to a backdrop of films of Blanda's myriad historic miracles.

And then, the next day, crowded into Davis' box, they watched their guys win a crucial game in true Blanda fashion: an overtime field goal, against a division rival, bestowing a fifth victory in Week 9 for a team that hasn't won more than five games in an entire season since 2002.

"It was absolutely fantastic," Foo said. "We're a long ways from everybody not holding their breath that things might break. We're not out of the woods yet. But we're getting there."

A lot of NFL teams get support from their distinguished alumni -- when they're winning. The Raiders, winning or embarrassing, play year-in and year-out knowing that the old guys regularly still flock to the East Bay to live and bleed for the colors (or, technically, absence of them). The old adage "Once a Raider, always a Raider" still rings true. And the guys from the glory age of the Seventies -- the decade when the violent, hirsute, wildman Raiders won more games than any other team, and then stomped the Vikings in the 1976 Super Bowl the way a cat cuffs a mouse before tearing out its jugular -- have bestowed the ultimate compliment on the 2010 team: the new guys have earned the title of Raiders.

Of course, the old Raiders, who weekly clotheslined and mugged opponents into such submission that, on the road, fans of opposing teams would ask them, as they stepped off the bus, to try and not hurt the home team -- wouldn't have lasted two weeks in Roger Goodell's NFL; Tatum, Atkinson and Villapiano would have had to declare bankruptcy after the fourth week, just to pay the fines.

But that's not to say that this new breed doesn't carry the old pedigree: high-round picks, low-round picks and no-round picks who feel the magical vibe that the black jersey bestows. "It's a mixture of solid veterans and players from big programs who are used to pressure situations, who've played in bowls," Atkinson says. "These kids are attacking the football, attacking the opponent. They focus. They know exactly what it takes to win.

"And it's especially nice to see that Mr. Davis can silence these critics who said he'd lost it. Mr. Davis has done an incredible job putting it together."

But why, I asked George, has it taken so long? "Hey man," the Hit Man laughed. "Rome wasn't put together in a day, either."

Make no mistake: if the pundits had convinced themselves (until, say, last week) that Davis has become an anachronistic relic, the Raiders of old still worship the guy who has always treated every Raider like a brother -- and are delighted, and hardly surprised, that when the rest of us were convinced he'd lost the Midas Touch, Davis' recent drafts have laid a more-than-promising groundwork.

It's not just Darren McFadden, the first-round pick out of Arkansas three years ago, averaging more than 100 yards per game this season. Or Nnamdi Asomuga, the Pro Bowl cornerback cut in the Willie Brown mold. Or this year's first-round-pick, linebacker Rolando McClain, already a force.

It's safety Mike Mitchell out of Ohio University of the Mid-America Conference, not even invited to the 2009 combine, with his five interceptions this year. It's fourth-year tight end Zach Miller out of Arizona State, leading the team in receptions. It's undrafted Dolphin reject fullback Marcel Reece, paving the way for McFadden. It's a rejuvinated Richard Seymour finding a new life as the anchor of the defensive line. It's Jason Campbell, steady enough in the shadow of Bruce Gradkowski, to stabilize the team -- and even help the much maligned Darrius Heyward-Bey blossom into an actual receiver.

Next up: the equally hated Steelers on Sunday. The current Raiders are steeling for the chance to prove their mettle. The old Raiders, still haunted by the Immaculate Deception? Obsessed.

"Going to Pittsburgh, and kicking their ass?" says Foo. "It would be a beautiful world. Then the whole world will go crazy."