There's no denying it: For Rodger Saffold, the Oakland Raiders are not and will never again be just another opponent.
Saffold has started every game at guard for the St. Louis Rams this season. He's about to get his chance to show the team that pulled the plug on a free agent deal what it's missing.
"I try to stay away from it just so I don't get too antsy for the game," Saffold. "But, of course, my energy and my passion for the game takes over. So who knows what I'm going to say when I'm on the field on Sunday."
After starting during his first four NFL seasons with St. Louis, Saffold agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million deal with the Raiders in February. The deal was voided because of a previous shoulder injury. Saffold had wanted to test the market so he could get a chance to start again at left tackle, but quickly landed back with the Rams.
Saffold has proven durable this season, starting eight games at left guard and three at right guard.
Another Rams lineman, right tackle Joe Barksdale, has incentive this week. The Raiders drafted him in the third round in 2011 and cut him the following September.
"I'm sure they'll be highly motivated," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Rodger's having a great year, had the little setback with the shoulder, but he's back and playing well — as is Joe."
Things to watch for in the off-the-radar matchup between the 1-10 Raiders and 4-7 Rams:
LONG'S BACK: Rams linchpin defensive end Chris Long is expected to play for the first time since the opener, when a teammate stepped on his left foot and surgery was required to reattach tendons on both sides.
The pass rush has come alive in recent weeks but Long may be most useful helping stop the run. Ryan Mathews gashed St. Louis for 105 yards with an 8.8-yard average last week.
Long had lobbied to play last week, but accepted Fisher's decision to wait one more game.
"I'm excited just being in kind of a routine of practicing," Long said. "To be working toward something means a lot. I really wanted to play Sunday and I want to play this week."
NOT THAT BAD: To a man, the Rams judge the Raiders a worthy opponent — and not just because Oakland ended a 16-game losing streak with a victory at Kansas City and has had three extra days to rest and prepare.
Even Saffold takes note that six of the losses were decided by less than a touchdown and that the Raiders have been blown out only twice.
"Those games were super close," Saffold said. "So, you can't take them for granted for a second."
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has led a number of successful fourth-quarter scoring drives only to have the team fall short. It was gratifying to produce the deciding touchdown against the Chiefs, but he said he's never lost confidence.
"Never arrogant, just extremely confident in my teammates and just what we can do," Carr said. "I will say it was a relief that it ended up in a win. I was tired of coming in the next day and having to watch the film on a loss."
HIGHS AND LOWS: Three of the Rams' four victories have come against teams that played in conference championship games last season. They just completed a stretch of eight consecutive games against teams that had double-digit win totals last season.
A week after beating Denver for the signature win in Fisher's three seasons, they failed to keep the momentum going against a team that had lost three of four. St. Louis has yet to win on consecutive weeks and will have to win out to avoid an 11th straight season without a winning record.
"It gets frustrating when you don't pull out those games when you put in so much work throughout the whole game," safety T.J. McDonald said.
ROAD WOES: The Raiders' 16-game losing streak is history, but their eight-game road slump since Nov. 17, 2013 at Houston is ongoing. Plus, they haven't won two straight overall since October 2012. "We don't want to be a one-hit wonder," defensive end Justin Tuck said.
RUNNING OPTIONS: The Raiders had a season-high 179 yards rushing last week, including 112 yards by Latavius Murray on just four carries with two touchdowns before leaving with a concussion. Murray is back practicing, but the door may be ajar for veterans Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, who have been inconsistent.
Interim coach Tony Sparano wouldn't commit to Murray as the feature back if he's healthy, saying only, "We'll see."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL