INSIDE SLANT

Their season opener at New England is an example of why the Oakland Raiders believe in those ghostly conspiracy theories.

Coach Norv Turner got the question asked in a rather non-conspiratorial way Monday and he gave a rather non-conspiratorial answer.

The question: could the coach think of a better test to open a season than this one?

The answer: "You know it's quite a challenge. They have won a lot of games there in a row (20) and they play awfully well there. They play awfully well in the fourth quarter. We are going to have to put four quarters together. But I keep saying it ... we knew when the schedule came out. You are going to play the best team in football in their stadium on the opening night of the season ...

"So come to your own conclusions."

Owner Al Davis did just that -- talking about this very game when the schedule came out.

"Payback," he said. "That's all. They have us playing the model franchise in pro football on a Thursday night. It's payback. But it's fine."

"Fine" might be a bit of an exaggeration. A heck of a test? More like that. But there is also the issue of the next two games on the Oakland schedule: Kansas City at home in Week 2, Philadelphia on the road in Week 3.

An 0-3 start would definitely not be "fine," but it is something of a real possibility.

Just why would the league pit a 5-11 team against a 14-2 team that just won the Super Bowl and place that game in the better team's stadium as a prime-time appetizer on opening week if it weren't sadistic or vengeful?

Davis is the only one with carte blanche to speak his mind. Turner is careful enough to play it straight.

"You know you're going to play them and you've got to be ready to play them when the schedule comes out, whenever it is," the coach said. "When we finished last year and the schedule came out, they had the equation. You're on the plane after the game or wherever we were, the schedule comes out and they tell you who you are playing.

"We knew we were playing New England on the road. You know you're going to play the team that won the Super Bowl, on the road, and that it's going to be a challenge. Every week is a challenge. It's a great opportunity for our guys."

But why a last place team vs. a champion on national TV for starters?

"I think the Raiders is a big part of it," Turner said, playing the globality of the Raiders card. "I think people looked at us and felt we were an exciting football team the second half of the year last year and were a much improved team.

"Obviously signing Randy Moss, LaMont Jordan certainly has an appeal. I think there was also a big game played back there in the snow a few years ago that brought some memories. There are a lot of things.

"It was surprising because what they've done in the past is stick teams that played each other in the playoffs or teams that won their division. There were some people who thought it was going to be San Diego and New England in that game (which will be played Oct. 2). But it was us."

Turner cited a fast start as one of the keys to any team's fortunes -- that and the schedule and injuries. The Raiders have been preparing for this little tester since July knowing what it could mean.

"It's going to be a tough challenge for us going to New England and playing the defending Super Bowl champions," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "At the same time, it's a little too early to me. Hopefully you're hitting on all cylinders when you get there.

"Sure, we'd like to have a fast start. We'd LIKE to be 16-0. But it's a long season. You don't want to get into a situation where you're not playing your best from the beginning. But hopefully, we get better as it goes along."

All the Raiders can do is conspire to greatness and leave the payback to others.

SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. As original members of the American Football League, the Raiders and Patriots have met 27 previous times in the regular season with Oakland leading 14-12-1. All six of the games played over the last two decades have been decided by a touchdown or less including the storied "tuck game" in Foxboro on Jan. 19, 2002 -- a game that helped boost the Patriots to the first of their three Super Bowl championships. The Patriots have their own unpleasant playoff memories of the Raiders. In 1976, they lost 24-21 in Oakland after a controversial roughing penalty on Ken Stabler. Earlier that season, in Foxboro, the Pats dealt the Raiders the only loss of their 16-1 Super Bowl winning season, 48-17.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Raider defensive tackle Warren Sapp likes the fact the Raiders are opening with a tough cookie.

"How many chances do you get to see the two-time defending champions in their home where they haven't lost a game in (20) shots to start off your season," he said.

"If you don't relish that, then you're dead." --Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and New England quarterback Tom Brady played together at Michigan for three years, making their co-involvement in the Tuck Game in January of 2002 somewhat unique.

They have met since then, including a game in Oakland seven months later in which Oakland prevailed 27-20.

"I remember I was warming up ... they kicked the crap out of us ... and he came up and kicked me from behind and we kind of got a chuckle out of it," Brady said.

"I think I was on some great fortune that night. I'm glad the refs got the call right."

--The Raiders for years coveted the rugged play of current New England safety Rodney Harrison and in 2003 he came close to signing with Oakland as a free agent.

Instead, he chose the Patriots and has picked up two Super Bowl rings in the interim. Meanwhile, Oakland has gone 9-23.

"That was one of the biggest decisions I ever made in my career," Harrison said. "Through a lot of prayer and meditation, God really blessed me. He gave me the opportunity to kind of start my career over.

"I had the opportunity to come to Oakland. Things didn't really get right. As a kid I always dreamed about being an Oakland Raider because I think what they stand for really fit with what I bring to the field. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be and I moved on."

--One of the surprises when the Raiders made their final cut to 53 was the fact former second-round draft pick Teyo Johnson was let go and undrafted second year player John Paul Foschi was retained.

At 270 pounds, Foschi looked the part of a tight end. But what escaped notice was that Foschi, though listed at tight end where he played at Georgia Tech, was actually going to play fullback.

That makes him one of the league's largest fullbacks. Foschi, though, at 6-4, doesn't look like he weighs that much.

"That's because it's all muscle," he said. "I have good hands but I wouldn't say I have great speed. Actually, I think the team is looking for me to be more of a blocker than anything."

--Defensive lineman Ed Jasper's decision to sign with Oakland came after pondering retirement following the disappointment of being cut in Atlanta.

"When (Jim Mora and) the new coaches came in, nobody's job was safe," Jasper recalled. "It was `I don't care how you play ... we know you are just coming off surgery but you haven't showed us.' It was one of those what-have-you-done-for-me lately deals.

"The Raiders kept calling. I looked on paper and saw these guys had a chance of winning. Everyone wants to be part of a championship team and if I was going to come back, it wasn't going to be just to come back. It was going to be with a winner.

"I heard that these guys got rushed (in 2004). Well, when I was in Atlanta, I WAS the rush (defense)."

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- The number of different coaches and different quarterbacks who have taken the Raiders to Super Bowls. Coaches were John Rauch, John Madden, Tom Flores (2) and Bill Callahan. The quarterbacks were Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett (2) and Rich Gannon.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They are not world beaters. They are the two-time defending champions, no doubt about it. They have (20) straight home wins and all that. If you break them off into individual pieces, they are not that impressive. But they play well together." -- DT Warren Sapp on the Patriots.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Coach Norv Turner probably has a pretty good idea, but he's not giving out his personal thoughts on who will start at right guard in New England. Brad Badger started two exhibition games, Ron Stone the other two.

Turner said a decision -- or at least an announcement -- wouldn't come until Tuesday ... or Wednesday. Since there is no media access the day before the game, the best bet would be the announcement would be made Wednesday -- in a hall closet.

"Both guys worked there today (Monday)," Turner said.

Will he rotate the guards?

"I think one of them will play most of the snaps," Turner said, then correcting himself, "...all the snaps."

The Raider depth chart lists Badger as the starter but Stone is more of a power player and if the Raiders intend to focus on the run, he might get the call.

There was also mystery involved in who would be the starting wide receiver opposite Randy Moss.

Jerry Porter was practicing three days in advance of the game and Turner said, "I am getting a better feel (for Porter's hamstring status). I believe Jerry will be ready to play. I don't know to what extent."

In all probability if Porter does not start, Ronald Curry will get the call, which would be the sixth start of his career. Johnnie Morant (15 catches, 315 yards in the preseason) will see plenty of duty regardless.

Rookie free-agent cornerback Chris Carr will handle both punt and kickoff return duties. He had a 100-yard touchdown on the game's opening kickoff called back due to a holding penalty on Zack Crockett. Carr did not return a punt in the exhibition finale against New Orleans (five fair catches) and only returned four of 13 in the entire preseason. However, he averaged 15 yards a punt return and had a 31-yard scamper in that mix.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Jerry Porter (hamstring) is practicing with the team again and running routes, but the team is still waiting to see how he emerges from the increased work. In past efforts to incorporate him into the team drills, he had adverse day-after complications resulting from trying to make cuts. He has not yet played this year in a game. He was listed as questionable officially, but Turner has his own category: don't know.

--WR Doug Gabriel (finger surgery) is progressing more quickly than anticipated when, on Aug. 22, it was declared that he would miss 4-to-6 weeks. There is now a chance he could be available Sept. 18 against Kansas City. If not, the Sept. 25 game at Philadelphia would be a target date.

--RB Justin Fargas (knee) has not been participating in drills, but he is listed as questionable in the team's official injury report -- which they insisted was not due to be in the league's hands until Wednesday. Figure on him being closer to doubtful.

--QB Marques Tuiasosopo is practicing fully in spite of a fracture of the right index finger after being kicked in the hand while holding for now waived kicker Gary Cook on Aug. 20.

--Backup SS Jarrod Cooper (groin) declared that the injury was having no effect on his play and has practiced fully since being hurt against New Orleans.

GAME PLAN: The Patriots don't let teams get behind them for long gainers, which helps them jam up the running lanes and prevent teams from playing ball control. The Raiders would be best served to try to stretch that defense by sending Randy Moss deep, then having LaMont Jordan rush or gather in passes underneath. Defensively, Oakland must be prepared to mix it up, first making sure to control RB Corey Dillon on sweeps and not letting him break out into the flat uncovered against oversized outside LBs Tyler Brayton and Grant Irons. Don't look for an abundance of blitzing. The Patriots play it safe, figure the Raiders will do the same.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Expect T Warren Sapp to test rookie LG Logan Mankins early to see if the Raiders can exert pressure on QB Tom Brady. Likewise, in pass rush situations, look for RE Derrick Burgess to put pressure on LT Matt Light. When Oakland has the ball, WR Randy Moss will no doubt try to drag LCB Randall Gay downfield to try to force FS Eugene Wilson or SS Rodney Harrison to help out in deep coverage. The Raiders will try to take advantage of two new inside linebackers Monty Beisel and the 35-year-old Chad Brown (who replaced retired Ted Johnson and the ill Tedi Bruschi) to spring RB LaMont Jordan.

INJURY IMPACT: If Porter (hamstring) isn't able to function up to par, his spot will be taken by Johnnie Morant, possibly even as a starter. That will allow Ronald Curry to operate out of the slot as he usually does. If Justin Fargas (knee) can't play, the tailback options are, in order, FBs Zack Crockett and Omar Easy.

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