MEXICO CITY (AP) — As much as possible, the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans want to treat their trip to Mexico City as business as usual.
But there’s no hiding the fact that this game will be unlike any other road trip.
Players have been given security warnings. The teams are taking precautions about how their food is prepared. And both teams are figuring out how to deal with the thin air 7,380 feet above sea level when the Texans (6-3) take on the Raiders (7-2) tonight at Azteca Stadium.
Players have run extra laps, spent more time on the bike, and a few have even used elevation masks as part of their training for the game.
“It’s going to be tough,” Raiders offensive lineman Donald Penn said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Whenever that second wind hits, then you’re good. You hope that second wind hits early, then you’re really good. When my second wind hits, it’s usually early in the first quarter, second quarter maybe.”
Both teams have some experience with playing at altitude, with the Texans traveling to Mile High in Denver last month and the Raiders making annual trips there. Mexico City is more than 2,000 feet higher than Denver but both teams are in the same boat.
“We’re on an equal playing field,” Texans offensive lineman Duane Brown said. “No one’s more used to the altitude than the other team, so we’re all going out there with the same struggle, if there will be a struggle.”
The thin air also could impact how the game is played, with throws and kicks both able to travel longer distances. Three of the five longest field goals in NFL history have come at altitude in Denver, including Matt Prater’s record 64-yarder for the Broncos in 2013.
“In Denver, I can see anywhere from 6 to 7 yards difference in ball carry, just over my past experience there,” Texans punter Shane Lechler said. “I know the altitude here in Mexico City is going to be a little higher, but you still have to hit a good ball. It’s not like every single time it’s going to be a huge difference.”
The altitude is only one factor that will make the second regular-season game ever in Mexico different from a typical one in the NFL.
The Mexican fans are known for their enthusiasm at soccer games and the players expect nothing less Monday night, with perhaps more cheers than usual for kicks and punts from a crowd used to a different kind of football.
“I like to watch soccer, so I’m wondering is it going to be like a soccer atmosphere where they have the horns playing and stuff like that,” Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye said. “I’m already visualizing everything on what it’s going to be like. At the end of the day, you just got to expect the unexpected.”
The NFL announced the matchup for the game back in February and has spent lots of time planning for the week to make it as smooth as possible for the players and teams.
Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international, said the league gave the teams advice on when to arrive to limit the effects of the elevation; made sure there were English speaking drivers for the players; and worked with the chefs at the team hotels to ensure the players could get their usual meals.
“Our goal in any game is to not have any reason why the teams would be disrupted from performing at their best in any market in any game,” Waller said.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, Azteca Stadium has undergone major renovations since the NFL last played a regular-season game there in 2005. Capacity was reduced from more than 100,000 to 84,000, with premium seating added, improved communication capability and new locker rooms that can handle the larger roster for football teams.
This game is the first of a three-year contract for the NFL to play in Mexico City, and the league would like it to become an annual event.
“In the same way that we built in London an annual game, I would like to think we can do the same thing there and become part of the sporting calendar,” Waller said. “We want to become known as one of the great sporting events in the city in any given year.”
Waller said he wasn’t sure whether it would be better to have one team become the regular host of the games like Jacksonville does in London or to rotate teams. The Raiders would be a prime candidate to give up a home game to come to Mexico City because of their uncertain stadium situation — they seek a possible move to Las Vegas — and their popularity in Mexico.
“It was impressive to see all the Raiders fans down there and see how excited they were for the game,” said Raiders running back Taiwan Jones, who made two offseason trips south of the border to help promote the game. “One thing I heard from the locals was how crazy an environment it’s going to be. From what I hear, It’s going to be a party.”