As the final blows in the inaugural “Fight For L.A.” were struck Sunday, the winner became clear.
As you probably suspected, and as the NFL surely feared, it wasn’t one of the two teams matched in the fight.
The Rams finished a spectacular regular season that will send them to the playoffs, but it wasn’t them.
The Chargers won nine of their last 12 games and missed the playoffs by a whisker, but it wasn’t them.
The winner was a team that only played here once, on Sunday, in a roaring StubHub Center painted in shades of passionate silver and rowdy black.
The winner filled every corner of Carson like it has long filled every corner of this city, with Plunkett and Jackson and Alzado jerseys, with unrelenting screams and deep boos and blind loyalty.
Two seasons and two franchises into the NFL’s return, this town still belongs to the team that didn’t come back.
In the Fight for L.A., the Raiders just won, baby.
You could see it, hear it, and feel it Sunday in an overwhelmingly black-shirted and full-throated crowd that showed up to watch the team from Oakland play its first game back in Los Angeles in 23 years.
The Chargers entered as one of the hottest teams in football — the Raiders entered as a dysfunctional mess — yet the announced crowd of 25,430 was roughly three-fourths Raiders fans.
The Chargers just missed out on a playoff spot after their 30-10 victory gave them nine wins in their last 12 games; the Raiders finished 6-10 and their head coach was fired on the spot, yet Raiders fans acted like they were in the Super Bowl.
It was the Chargers’ final home game of their first season here, perhaps a time of salute and appreciation, yet the Raiders fans sent them home feeling like unwanted visitors in their own digs.
“It’s crazy,’’ said Chargers safety Tre Boston afterward. “This is our stadium.’’
Not on Sunday it wasn’t. This has happened a lot to the Chargers here over the past couple of months, but it’s rarely happened with this much force.
The Raiders fans filled the room with dueling end zone chants of “Chargers Suck.” They overwhelmed the building with a bellowing “Dee-fense.” They booed an innocent season-ticketholder who was introduced on the video board. They even booed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts when he had the misfortune of being seen on the video board talking to former Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson.
Then early in the second quarter, when Amari Cooper caught an 87-yard touchdown heave from Derek Carr, they erupted in what might have been the loudest cheers at any Los Angeles pro football game this year, so thick I couldn’t hear myself talk.
Some of the heat was caused by the natural rivalry between the two teams, but much of it was because, at long last, after nearly a quarter of a century, the Los Angeles-based part of Raider Nation felt at home.
One sign read, “This Is Still ‘Our City’ Raider Nation, Look Around You!”
Wading through the sea of black jerseys on the concourse at halftime, one could confirm that statement. These weren’t fans from Oakland. They were fans from Long Beach and Santa Clarita and Riverside, fans who grew up following a team that should only have been a distant childhood memory.
They spoke of a Raiders love that, much like the Dodgers, had been passed down through families and neighborhoods. They spoke of their wish that the tone-deaf NFL had moved the Raiders here instead of the Chargers.
They also spoke glowingly of something that should seriously scare the NFL. They talked about embracing the opportunity to follow their favorite team when, in 2020, it moves to a town located just a four-hour drive across the desert.
Here’s guessing it won’t help the league gain a foothold with NFL fans here if some of the most fervent ones are spending their money watching the Raiders in Las Vegas.
What’s equally amazing is how the Raiders fans continue to love an organization that almost never loves them back. Remember last year when Jack Del Rio was the cool tough guy who coached them to the playoffs? Moments after he addressed his team following Sunday’s loss, he was ushered into a corner of the StubHub Center and fired.
He didn’t get a chance to tell his players. He walked right from the meeting with owner Mark Davis into a news conference. While following him on that walk, I knew something was strange when I noticed tears in his eyes. Once in front of the cameras, he announced his own dismissal, and when is that last time that happened?
The only thing more awkward was watching him return to the locker room and squeeze through the media crowds to shake his players’ hands and thank them. The Raiders handled it awfully, unprofessionally. One wonders why Jon Gruden would want to return to this madness, and it stunned even their biggest star.
“It’s crazy,” Carr said. “It’s a crazy deal.”
Yet the Raiders fans keep showing up, and an example of their numbers Sunday could be found late in the rout when they finally threw up their hands and walked out into New Year’s Eve. The stadium was suddenly nearly empty, with only the few Chargers fans sticking around to stay goodbye.
“You see those Raider fans walk out, it’s a great feeling, honestly,” Boston said.
But the real story here Sunday was how many of them showed up in the first place.
The Rams are making a dent in the local landscape, and will build momentum with a win or two in the playoffs. The Chargers could begin building a fan base if their momentum from the last two months carries into next season.
But, for now, the Fight for L.A. has been won by a Raiders team that isn’t even here, but never really left.