Derek Carr and Amari Cooper saved the Oakland Raiders' season with standout performances during a thrilling 31-30 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Thursday Night Football.
Even after a 3-4 start, Oakland's Super Bowl aspirations remain intact.
Jack Del Rio's squad displayed resiliency and found a way to win despite a 30-21 deficit going into the fourth quarter. The Raiders proved their opponents were beatable after they handed the Chiefs their second straight loss.
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A new scapegoat emerged every week during the team's downturn. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing, wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back Marshawn Lynch and backup quarterback EJ Manuel each took a turn.
Cooper, in particular, felt the brunt of disappointment after he managed only 146 yards through six games. The 2015 fourth overall pick couldn't manage to average nine yards per reception. Everything changed against the Chiefs.
The Raiders receiver caught 11 passes for a career-high 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In fact, Cooper became the first Oakland target to produce 200 receiving yards in 52 years, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Amari Cooper is the 1st Raiders player with 200 receiving yards in a game since Art Powell in 1965 against the Boston Patriots. https://t.co/tBAkIyxOus2017-10-20 03:55:25
Cooper still experienced inconsistency in the form of a pair of drops, but Carr knew exactly who to target late in the contest. Trailing 30-24 with 2:11 left to play, the Raiders quarterback looked to the re-emerging star.
The game-winning drive began with a 15-yard completion to Cooper. The receiver turned a short pass into a big play with a tone-setting first down.
The batterymates connected again three plays later for 39 yards, putting Oakland in Kansas City territory. Other receivers took over after that, but Cooper had already done enough damage.
After struggling for weeks, the two-time 1,000-yard receiver had two things create space for him.
First, the Raiders used far more play action, particularly early in the contest, to open passing lanes.
Running backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington combined for 64 yards on 18 carries to keep Kansas City's defense honest. Marshawn Lynch only had two carries for nine yards before he was ejected for running onto the field and making contact with an official.
The incident occurred after officials called cornerback Marcus Peters for a late hit to Carr. The Raiders offensive line didn't take kindly to the defensive back's overeager approach, and a scuffle occurred. Lynch tried to play peacemaker before he got entangled with an official, who was trying to pry players apart.
Downing leaned heavily on similar run concepts to those the Pittsburgh Steelers used to dominate the Chiefs in Arrowhead four days earlier. Oakland may not have been as effective overall, but the run game helped set the tone early while Carr and Cooper built confidence.
This was important since Cooper became frustrated with his play and Carr needed to establish a comfort level while dealing with an injured back.
"I think everyone on our team is a little frustrated at something," the quarterback said last week, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "... I think if we can go out there and cut it loose and just trust what we have and what God gave us, I think we'll be better going forward."
Carr's words proved prophetic. But the duo's production didn't emerge from nowhere. Slight tinkering with the scheme created opportunities.
Aside from increased play-action usage, Cooper found himself working out of the slot.
Cooper, a two-time Pro Bowler, rewarded his coordinator with a 45-yard touchdown when he ran free after he lined up as the inside receiver:
AC⚡️DC AGAIN. 45-yard @RAIDERS TD! #KCvsOAK #RaiderNation https://t.co/OFXRjRH29W2017-10-20 01:02:13
However, Cooper couldn't deliver without his quarterback.
Carr isn't fully healthy, yet he played his best game of the season when the team appeared to have its proverbial back against the wall.
A loss would have dropped the Raiders to 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the division. They weren't crawling out of that hole even with nine games to play. After all, the Chiefs were the NFL's best team.
But the $125 million man loves to beat the odds, and he's done it more than any other quarterback since the start of the 2015 campaign, per NFL Research:
NFL Research @NFLResearch
Derek Carr: 12 4th quarter comebacks since 2015, most in the NFL @RAIDERS2017-10-20 03:57:18
The 26-year-old was far from perfect. He hung up too many passes, threw into double coverage on numerous occasions, missed targets and didn't look comfortable in the pocket.
Carr made the necessary throws to win, though.
In fact, he threw two touchdown passes before finally being credited with the game-winning score. Jared Cook was ruled to have come up short on the first after review. Offensive pass interference on Crabtree nullified the second. On an untimed down, Carr went back to the former San Francisco 49er on a short comeback in the front left portion of the end zone to capture the victory:
MICHAEL CRABTREE FOR THE WIN! #KCvsOAK #RaiderNation https://t.co/X1PotZ1KtV2017-10-20 03:53:52
The quarterback's ability to roll to his left and throw a rocket despite a transverse process fracture in his back is nothing short of astounding.
The Raiders needed every one of Carr's 417 passing yards to overcome the rival Chiefs.
"It was huge," All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack said, per Gutierrez. "Everybody knew what was at stake."
When Carr and Cooper click, the Raiders can stick with the NFL's best. The pair can't take a step back after Thursday's performance. The AC-DC connection will be needed if Oakland plans to stay fully charged.