Coming off back-to-back losses—two very winnable games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos at home—the Oakland Raiders hobbled into San Diego on a short week to face another divisional rival.
With the momentum of their season also heading south, the Raiders had—no, needed—to beat the Chargers on the road to shift the pendulum back in their favor. A third straight loss would undoubtedly have put pressure on the team to keep the Raiders ship from sinking, and placed first-year head coach Hue Jackson into the spotlight. After all, Jackson has been the unquestioned captain of this band of pirates, making bold and garish personnel moves in an effort to steer his team back on course.
After a Week 6 win in which the Raiders lost their starting quarterback, Jason Campbell, Jackson decided to plug the hole with the semi-retired former Pro Bowler Carson Palmer, who had mandated that he should be traded by the Cincinnati Bengals or he would not play for them. Jackson’s own decision to bring in Palmer, who had not played football in nine months and missed any and all minicamp opportunities, was seen as desperation for an Oakland team who was in the midst of a division title race, just half a game out of first.
Unfortunately, with Palmer still dusting off the rust, along with the insertion of veteran wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh into the receiving corps, the Raiders were veering in the wrong direction, losing their next two games to even their record at 4-4. There were grumblings that the Raiders were drifting out to sea, and that Jackson might be unable to get his crew back on track.
But this past Thursday proved that not only can Jackson will his team to victory but also that the Raiders are the front-runners in the AFC West. The same group that has lost their starting quarterback. The same group that lost their starting running back, Darren McFadden. The same group that leads the league in penalties. Yes, the Oakland Raiders’ performance against the Chargers showed that they will eventually win the division. Ultimately, the Raiders’ depth will guide them to the AFC title.
In McFadden’s absence, Oakland simply plugged in Michael Bush, the stalwart backup at running back. Against the Chargers, Bush powered his way to 157 yards rushing and 242 yards from scrimmage. Until McFadden heals from his ankle injury, the Raiders will dominantly be fine in the running game. The offensive line demonstrated that they are one of the best in the AFC—no matter who’s starting in the backfield. Their 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for the league lead.
In addition to the powerful ground game, the Raiders have ironed out the kinks in Palmer’s legs and arm and now possess one of the more excitingly lethal passing games in the league. With a young track team receiving corps, and Palmer’s sharp-shooting, Oakland is a threat to score on any pass play. And practically anybody can step in to make big-gain catches.
Against the Broncos, wideout Jacoby Ford sped for 105 yards and a touchdown on five receptions. On Thursday against the Chargers, Denarius Moore took the baton—five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Palmer definitely has at his disposal the most electrifying receiving units. With the threat of the conference-best running game, play-action passes devastatingly threaten the opposing defenses. As Palmer continues to acclimate himself to the Raiders’ playbook, they will only get better on offense the rest of the season. This is bad news for the rest of the AFC West.
The Chargers are in full free fall. The loss on Thursday was their fourth straight. And five of their remaining seven games are against opponents with winning records. The second-place Kansas City Chiefs face six teams with winning records in their last eight games—the other two games being against the Denver Broncos. The Raiders, meanwhile, have the more generous schedule—only three of their seven remaining opponents have better than .500 records.
All this points to Oakland winning the West. With Palmer jelling with his receivers, and Bush pounding his way in the running game, the Raiders will be a feared team down the stretch. If Jackson can keep his team in check, Oakland will come out on top of the weak AFC West.
Even if only be default.