The Oakland Raiders are now in sole possession of the AFC West lead with a 5-4 record!
They got off to a good start to the season at 4-2, then seemed to lose their way after starting quarterback Jason Campbell was injured. Former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was then acquired but it didn't pay off right away because Palmer was just as lost as the team was.
But with first place on the line last Thursday, both Palmer and the Raiders seemed to have found themselves. It has been an up, down and up-again season to this point for the Raiders because the play of each unit has been uneven.
I now have grades for each unit.
Turn the page to see what I came up with.
Shane Lechler is still the game's best punter as he leads the NFL with a 51.7 punting average. Along with his strong punting leg, Lechler also has touch as he is tied for No. 4 in the NFL in punts inside the 20-yard line.
Despite already having two of his punts returned for touchdowns, he's No. 13 in net punting average. Lechler continues to be one of the best to ever do it so for his part of it, he gets an A.
However, the punt coverage unit of the Raiders brings the grade down (F-) as they are like the run defense. Players often get out of place instead of staying in their lane—trying too hard to make the play themselves.
But I can't discount the play Rock Cartwright made on fourth down to help save the game against the Texans.
The overall unit gets an C.
I'm not saying that Nick Miller shouldn't have been cut but we can see now that it wasn't all him. Rookie receiver Denarius Moore is a smooth, fluid athlete that could make a man miss with ease with the ball in his hands.
If you watch all of his returns, you can see he makes it as difficult as he can for the opposing punt team to corral him. Yet, when you look at his return average (8.6), it clearly doesn't reflect the ability Moore has.
That's because the punt return team doesn't do a good job of blocking for him. However, I will give the unit a little credit because they have a blocked punt on the season.
I gave the unit a C.
The Raiders kickoff unit is definitely one of the bright spots on the team—led by Sebastian Janikowski. Despite having a pulled hamstring the last few weeks, he is still tied for No. 14 in touchbacks.
None of his kicks have been returned for touchdowns and none of his kicks have gone out of bounds. Janikowski's big foot combined with solid kickoff coverage amount to top 10 in return average against.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Quentin Groves for his play on the unit since being demoted from starting outside linebacker. Janikowski deserves even more mention for playing hurt like a real football player.
For all of that, the kickoff unit gets an A.
Outside of superstar running back Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford is the most exciting player on the team. His speed is put to good use when running after the catch and when the Raiders dial up the deep ball.
But Ford's speed is also used very well on the kickoff return team as he is feared for his returning by opposing teams. Ford is No. 2 in kickoff return average among returners with at least 10 returns.
He is tied for No. 3 in returns of 40 yards or more and has a 101-yard return for a touchdown. Ford is special, but he obviously needs help from the blockers on the return team.
The whole unit gets an A.
I already mentioned what he's done while injured on kickoffs but Janikowski is truly special kicking field goals. He has climbed into the record books alongside Tom Dempsey with a 63-yard field goal.
Janikowski's percentage is 93 percent with his lone miss coming from a ridiculous distance of 56 yards. Most teams don't try too many field goals of 50 yards and beyond, but Janikowski is 5-of-6 from such distances.
Pro Bowl long snapper Jon Condo with Lechler holding always have things together for Janikowksi to make the kick. The blockers also do their job as Janikowski hasn't had a field-goal attempt blocked.
How about Lechler on the trick play—throwing a 35-yard touchdown pass against the Cleveland Browns?
The unit gets an A+.
The field-goal block unit doesn't have any blocks but I believe it's going to happen at some point. They've put a lot of pressure on the kicker and it has led to some missed field goals by opposing kickers.
Remember, a missed field goal is the same as a blocked field goal.
So to me, they deserve an A for it.
The Raiders are the No. 4 rushing team in the NFL despite having lost their leading rusher. It helps to have a backup running back that's good enough to start on most teams in the NFL but the offensive line has plenty to do with it as well.
In the passing game, the Raiders are the No. 2 team in the NFL in protecting the quarterback. Sure, we saw how much better the offensive line performed with Stefen Wisniewski at center and Stephon Heyer at left guard Thursday but overall, the offensive has been the strength of the team anyway.
Tight end Kevin Boss has done more than his part in blocking as well.
This unit deserves an A+.
Raiders didn't get too many opportunities in the beginning of the season with Jason Campbell at quarterback. The running game was the mainstay as McFadden was healthy with Campbell managing the game.
When Campbell went down, Jackson went out and got Palmer to more than manage the game. It wasn't pretty at first but Raiders receivers are getting a chance to make plays now, and boy are they.
Darrius Heyward-Bey started the season as the go-to guy but there seemingly isn't one these days. Ford had a 100-yard, multiple-touchdown game in a loss against the Denver Broncos and Moore had his 100-yard, multiple-touchdown game in San Diego Thursday.
There isn't a receiver with big season numbers but they have made the most of their opportunities.
For that, they get an A.
McFadden was the NFL's leading rusher before spraining his foot in Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Michael Bush has since stepped in for McFadden and rushed for 117 yards per game.
I'm a little scared of Taiwan Jones getting too many touches for ball-security reasons but he did flash a little last Thursday. And any time you have a rookie averaging five yards per carry, you can't say he's doing badly.
Then of course, you have the ultimate weapon at fullback in Marcel Reece.
The running backs definitely get an A+.
Before getting injured, Campbell did a good job of managing the game and that was about it. Kyle Boller then came in and was horrible for one half—confirming the move the Raiders made for Palmer as a good one.
Sorry, I'm not going to grade a quarterback for going into a game after three days of practice with limited reps after not playing football for 10 months. Being thrown into a game down 21 points while only knowing 15 plays with the defense knowing he has to throw doesn't help either.
I'm throwing that game out and going to the next two games as he knew more than 15 plays in the offense, got all the reps in practice and started the games. In his first two games as a starter, Palmer is 1-1, has thrown for 315 yards per game, five touchdowns, four interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 99.
His interception percentage is high at seven percent but so is his touchdown percentage at nine. His yards per attempt is right up there with the elite quarterbacks at 11.5 yards per attempt.
Palmer needs only to cut down on the interceptions.
The quarterbacks' grade is an incomplete because no one has stayed healthy long enough.
I expected a lot from the defensive line going into the season, but only got a lot sometimes. The Raiders defense is tied for No. 10 in sacks but I want to see more consistency rather than feast or famine.
It's been either six sacks and a bunch of hits or no sacks without even getting near the quarterback. The defensive line has been solid against the run as in three of their nine games the Raiders didn't contain the run.
Those three games were extremely horrible but not on the defensive line.
But I do want to see more consistency out of the unit.
They get a C+.
For a while, it was starting to look like the Raiders were going to stop the run this year.
After giving up big rushing totals to the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, the Raiders stopped the Jets' ground-and-pound. They then held Houston Texans star Arian Foster to 68 yards, bolstered their run defense with the acquisition of Aaron Curry, and weren't having problems against the run.
Middle linebacker Rolando McClain then missed the Broncos game and suddenly, the Raiders can't stop the option. McClain then came back in Thursday night's game and the Chargers only ran for 75 yards.
The linebacker corps hasn't been all that bad against the pass either with McClain and Curry having some multiple passed defensed games. They haven't been the greatest either but they are much better than they were last year in coverage.
Kamerion Wimbley, who had four sacks last Thursday, is decent in coverage but he gets after the quarterback on passing downs. As a unit, they have been so up and down that it's really hard to grade them—especially with McClain playing hurt most of the season so far.
The grade is incomplete because I want to see this group play together longer with a healthy McClain.
The Raiders secondary started off horribly but has vastly improved since the beginning of the season. They have climbed up eight spots to No. 22 from No.28 in pass defense and held Chargers superstar quarterback Philip Rivers to 275 yards.
That is due in large part to Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt following Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson was held to one catch for 22 yards. Routt and rookie DeMarcus Van Dyke are top-10 corners in burn percentage with Routt No. 1 in yards per attempt against.
Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa looked good when healthy and Michael Huff was a lockdown nickel corner until his ankle got too bad. Safety Tyvon Branch's coverage skills really seem to have gotten a lot better too but you had to have seen the hit fellow safety Mike Mitchell put on Charger receiver Vincent Brown.
People forget that Chris Johnson was a top-five corner in burn percentage last year and was hindered by groin and hamstring issues before finally not playing. The only one of these guys that has been reasonably healthy all year is Routt and he is the one that has played well.
That's why I'm giving the group an incomplete.
The reason why I gave so many incompletes for grades where there are injuries is twofold. In one case, the Raiders have a quarterback that's starting to get used to his teammates and playbook.
In the other cases, there are some No. 1 guys that will be coming back at some point and even the No. 2 guys have gotten hurt. Then you have a unit with a new player and it takes a while to see how he meshes with the rest of the unit.
All the other units are who they are.
But one thing I can see about this team from all the grades is this team won't have a weakness if they get some key players back.
This can be one tough team!