Don't look now, but the Oakland Raiders aren't a punchline anymore.
No, really. They aren't.
For most of the past decade, there hasn't been a more floundering, directionless team in the National Football League than the Raiders. But in 2015, under the direction of first-year head coach Jack Del Rio and with young playmakers on both sides of the ball, with a win over the New York Jets at home in Week 8 the Raiders could take a big step toward—and I can't believe I'm saying this—the playoffs.
|AFC West Standings|
|Denver Broncos||6-0||--||vs. GB|
|Oakland Raiders||3-3||3.0||vs. NYJ|
|Kansas City Chiefs||2-5||5.0||vs. DET|
|San Diego Chargers||2-5||5.0||at BAL|
|Entering Week 8|
After dismantling the Chargers in San Diego in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated in Week 7, the Raiders are 3-3 for the only the second time since 2002—the last time the Raiders made the postseason.
And plenty of people, including Adam Schein of NFL.com, are taking notice:
Oakland has a real football team. And it is pretty fantastic for Raider Nation and the NFL. I expected the Raiders to beat San Diego because they are the better team. That's a significant statement in isolation. Oakland crushed the Chargers, simply humiliated and humbled them. The 37-29 final score doesn't do it justice. It was 30-6 Oakland at the half.
Back in August, I anticipated the Raiders would return to respectability; at 3-3, they certainly haven't disappointed. While I don't think this team is quite ready to make the playoffs, I see Oakland being in the mix all season. Jack Del Rio has changed the culture. The Raiders ooze young talent. It's fun to watch.
Yes, I just said the Raiders are "fun to watch." It's a new day indeed!
Honestly, when is the last time the Raiders were on the right side of a 30-6 halftime score?
That win snapped a two-game skid and was only the Raiders' second win in the past 13 seasons coming out of the bye week. Take away a fourth quarter in which the Chargers outscored Oakland 23-0 after the game was decided, and it was a woodshed moment for a team that's had precious few of those of late.
It also got a fanbase starved for success thinking the unthinkable: that the Raiders might actually make a run at a playoff spot. When reporters mentioned the "P word" after the San Diego game, Del Rio didn't shy from it, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury-News:
We talked from Day 1 about our No. 1 goal was to win the division. You have to win in the division to have a chance to win the division.
We don’t sit and fixate on it every day–we can see the numbers, we know there’s a team that’s undefeated right now. But for us it’s just about the process of playing good football.
That was a stated goal, we’re not going to back away from it. But what we’re going to focus on now is to be a good football team and demanding, developing, growing as an organization, as a football team.
I’m proud of our guys because I see plenty of good signs of growth.
Now, at this point, it's time for a cold-water moment. The Chargers sort of, um, stink. So do the Baltimore Ravens, who the Raiders beat in Week 2. And the Cleveland Browns, who the Raiders downed in Week 3.
The combined record of the opponents from Oakland's three wins is 5-16. Against the two teams the Raiders have faced with winning records, they've been outscored 49-23, including a 33-13 pasting at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1.
And the Jets are a 4-2 team with the NFL's second-ranked defense who just gave the New England Patriots all they could handle in Boston.
Much like the Raiders, the Jets are a team making real progress this season. An easy out they ain't.
But that growth Del Rio mentioned? It isn't just coachspeak.
Quarterback Derek Carr has blossomed in Year 2. Through six games Carr has passed for nearly 1,500 yards with 11 touchdowns versus only three interceptions.
It's the first time since Rich Gannon in 2002 that an Oakland quarterback has tossed double-digit scoring passes over the season's first six games.
His 137.6 passer rating a week ago against San Diego nudged Carr's mark for the season north of 100.
Del Rio told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle that he's been very pleased with the progress Carr has made this season, while allowing that the second-year pro faces a stiff test against the Jets:
He’s a good young player that is making strides. He’s growing in our system. He’s growing in his knowledge of what it takes to be successful in this league. It’s a week-to-week league. Very quickly we will move past this one and on to the next opportunity against a very difficult opponent.
Carr is emblematic of another rather recent development in the Bay Area—success in the early rounds of the NFL draft.
Last year's first-round pick, Khalil Mack, doesn't have eye-popping stats for the season with 21 tackles and three sacks, but Mack is also making the transition to defensive end and is one of the more talented young pass-rushers in all the NFL.
This year's first-round pick, wide receiver Amari Cooper, has been even better. Over the first six games of his NFL career, Cooper has already eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards three times. It's the first time a rookie has done that since...:
Well, it's been a good long while.
As Kevin Patra of NFL.com reports, in the opinion of his quarterback, Cooper has already established himself as one of the NFL's best at his position: "He's amazing, he's awesome and he's one of the best in this league. Obviously because he's a rookie and hasn't done it for a certain amount of time people won't say that but he's one of the best."
Nothing like having a go-to receiver to make a young quarterback look good.
Free agency has been more of a mixed bag, but there have been successes there as well. Michael Crabtree has shown to be a solid complement to Cooper in the passing game. Linebacker Malcolm Smith has been the tackle machine the team hoped Curtis Lofton would be, pacing the Raiders with 51 stops.
General manager Reggie McKenzie told Josh Dubow of the Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports) that he's been pleased with the progress the team has made since he took the reins in Oakland back in 2012:
You knew you had to take the punches. The key was really looking at the big picture, not get so down on myself and the team at that point knowing what was ahead of me. It wasn't easy. I'm used to being in the playoffs. I haven't been since I've been here. That's the goal.
And this week, the Raiders get to show the world that their start in 2015 is more than smoke and mirrors, more than just getting fat on a slate that's light on quality opponents early in the season.
It will be a stiff test. In addition to ranking second in the NFL in total defense, the Jets possess the league's stingiest run defense. All-world cornerback Darrelle Revis anchors one of the league's deeper secondaries.
Running back Chris Ivory powers the NFL's third-ranked ground game. In Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the Jets have a pair of big receivers who will give Oakland cornerbacks D.J. Hayden and David Amerson all they can handle.
There's a reason the Jets are 4-2.
A loss would hardly be the end of the world. This isn't a team that's going to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50 next February.
But a victory would do more than just legitimize the Raiders' season to date, more than show that Oakland appears well-positioned to challenge for the AFC West as soon as next year.
In a season where over half the NFL's teams sport losing records, a win would vault the 4-3 Raiders into the thick of the wild-card hunt in the AFC.
So for a fanbase that hasn't seen a playoff game in well over 10 years, for a city who wonders if the Raiders will even be in Oakland much longer and for a ghost whose shadow looms large over all things Silver and Black...
Just win, baby.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.