Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
The Raiders lead the NFL in "Yeah, but" victories this year.
They won a bunch of games on the road early in the year. Yeah, but they were against teams like the Saints, Titans, Ravens and Jaguars. They beat the Texans on Monday Night Football on a sheep pasture of a field at an altitude that makes Mile High Stadium look like base camp. Yeah, but the Texans aren't as good as their record, and the calls were weird. They beat the Broncos decisively. Yeah, but the Chiefs beat both the Broncos AND Raiders, and no one is giving them any love.
Sunday's win over the Panthers was a "Yeah, but" win, too. The Raiders dominated the first half, then answered the call when the defending NFC champs came back on them, with Derek Carr leading a two-drive comeback despite what looked like a nasty injury to his throwing hand. Yeah, but they nearly coughed up the game in the fourth quarter...
Enough. The Raiders are the best team in the AFC West. They belong in the conversation about the NFL's best teams alongside the Cowboys (who gobbled up everything but the wishbone on Thanksgiving), Patriots (who survived a scare against the Jets) and Seahawks (whose offense entered another fugue state in a loss to the Buccaneers).
All of those "Yeah, buts" start to ring hollow now that the Raiders have racked up nine of them. It turns out that the Saints, Ravens and Titans are pretty good, making those road wins more impressive. Following up an international, high-altitude Monday nighter with a fourth-quarter comeback is an achievement no matter who the opponents are.
The Raiders have met more than their share of skepticism this year as newcomers to the playoff chase after a 15-year absence and are also stuck in the NFL's toughest division. But as the Chiefs and Broncos traded sacks, safeties and overtime field goals into the night, the AFC West hierarchy became crystal clear.
1. Oakland Raiders
Strengths: Carr and a deep passing corps. Excellent pass protection. Great kicking and punting. Khalil Mack.
Weaknesses: They can get gashed for a long touchdown from any spot in the stadium, as Ted Ginn Jr. demonstrated.
Intangibles: The Raiders have demonstrated an ability to win on the road and in unusual conditions. Those skills can be invaluable in the postseason.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Strengths: A brutal pass rush, especially now that Justin Houston is back to full health. Takeaway capability on defense and ball control on offense. A unique gift for successful horizontal Wildcat-reverse-option-misdirection type plays, often involving Tyreek Hill.
Weaknesses: Forward passing.
Intangibles: Andy Reid can manufacture 11 wins out of 8-8 talent. That appears to be what he is doing this season, particularly at the skill positions. But their 3-0 division record, with road wins in Oakland and Denver, could eventually pay massive tiebreaker dividends.
3. Denver Broncos
Strengths: The defense.
Weaknesses: The offense, except for sudden big-play bursts. Special teams after Sunday's return touchdown and muffed punts.
Intangibles: It's hard to point to coaching acumen as a major positive after a team allows several uptempo drives to the league's most downtempo offense, then hitches its overtime hopes to a 62-yard field goal.
4. San Diego Chargers
Strengths: Balanced offense with lots of weapons. Emerging talent on defense.
Weaknesses: Turnovers. An almost uncanny ability to self-destruct in unpredictable ways.
Intangibles: See weaknesses.
The Raiders end their season with three road AFC West games in four weeks. The Chiefs and Broncos still have something to say about how the division and playoffs will shake out.
But every great team must win tough games down the stretch. The Raiders have simply earned that great team status this year. No ifs, ands or "Yeah, buts" about it.