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Anatomy of a rivalry: Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers
November 1, 2009; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson (21) runs around Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (93) during the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers defeated the Raiders 24-16. Photo via Newscom

The rivalry and interconnection betwixt the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers has its origins in the earliest days of the American Football League.

As the AFL was forming, the franchise designated for Minneapolis was suddenly thrown into limbo when the established NFL agreed to give the Twin Cities a franchise. Barron Hilton who owned the Los Angeles franchise that was to become the Chargers wanted a team on the west coast so they would have a natural rivals. The city of Oakland was chosen without an ownership group in place, but local developer H Wayne Valley stepped up and put together the initial ownership group with Ed McGah and Chet Soda, and thus was born the Oakland Raiders.


The early years were not much of a rivalry. The Chargers were among the elite teams of the AFL and the Raiders, not so much. The Bolts won the first six games 251-109. They also won the AFL West in two of the first three seasons of the young league. By the same token, the Raiders had only won nine games in those first three years.


By 1963, Wayne Valley had become the driving force in Raider ownership, with Ed McGah the other general partner. Valley wanted to turn the Raiders into a winner so he looked south to his rivals and hired a young assistant coach from the Chargers to be his head coach and general manager. Davis took to the job and in his initial year led the Raiders to their first winning record including a sweep of the Bolts that represented two of the three losses that San Diego suffered that year.

By the end of the decade, the worm had turned completely. The Chargers won their last AFL west division title in 1965 and didn’t win an AFC west title until the Dan Fouts led Air Coryell teams in 1979. The Raiders won the AFL/AFC West in nine of those intervening years and was in the playoffs an additional time as a wild card. The Raider dominance was so complete that the Chargers had a winless streak starting in 1966 that didn’t lift until 1977. The Raiders went 17-0-1 over that streak.

In 1980 both the Silver and Black and the Bolts made the playoffs with the Chargers winning the AFC West and the Raiders were an unlikely wild card team. This put them on a collision course for their biggest matchup ever. The Raiders rolled the Houston Oilers in the wild card game and squeezed by the Browns on a Frigid Cleveland day. The Chargers, meanwhile blasted the Buffalo Bills to host the Oakland Raiders for the AFC Championship. The winner would move on to Super Bowl XV. The two teams had an old school AFL style shootout between the Raiders’ famed “vertical game” led by Jim Plunkett and the Bolts’ Air-Coryell piloted by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. The Raiders won 34-27 and went on to win their second Lombardi trophy.


The Bolts won the division in 1981 and wouldn’t win another one in 1992. After the Raiders win in Super Bowl XVIII they began their slide toward mediocrity with playoff appearances in 84, 85, 90, 91, and 93. The Bolts appeared in the Super Bowl following the 94 season only to be obliterated by the San Francisco 49ers.

From 1996 until 2003 the Bolts didn’t have a winning season, bottoming out after the selection of megabust Ryan Leaf in 1998 and a 1-15 record in 2000. During this period, Oakland Raiders won three division championships and added a loss in Super Bowl XXXVII.

As has frequently happened with these two teams they switched sides. In 2003, the Raiders pirate ship hit an iceberg and the Chargers were suddenly powered up. Since 2003, the Raiders have amassed double digit loss seasons and the Bolts have won five division championships.