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Raiders Keep Winning, but Slow Starts Loom as Huge Postseason Problem

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 5, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Latavius Murray #28 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates after a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during their NFL game at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on December 4, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

You aren't going to find many anxious fans of the Oakland Raiders at the moment. Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills lifted the first-place Raiders to 10-2 on the season. It's the first time the Silver and Black have posted that many victories since their run to Super Bowl XXXVII.

If the season ended today, the Raiders would have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs as the top seed in the conference.

However, it's a good thing the season doesn't end today. For all the back-slapping and attaboys in the Bay Area of late, there's a problem in Oakland. It hasn't cost the team yet, but as the postseason nears and the margin for error evaporates, it could cost the Raiders dearly down the line.

For lack of a better way to put it, the Raiders need to figure out how to find fourth gear before the fourth quarter, because their knack for digging early holes could bury them in the second season.

Much of the talk about Sunday's win will center on the four unanswered touchdowns the Raiders dropped on Buffalo in the third and fourth quarters. Or the fact the Raiders came back after being down by 15 or more points for the first time since 2000.

But that second accomplishment is also a concern. The Raiders are perfecting the art of the fourth-quarter comeback because they keep losing the first three stanzas.

While speaking with Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury-News, starting left tackle Donald Penn said the Raiders need to start working on getting out of the gate faster:

We've got to start fast. We've got to be better on our first drives. That's something we're going to work on, and that's something we're going to look at this week. We've got to get better, and the good thing here is everybody wants to get better.

The problem is Penn said that in September. Not much has changed since then.

The Raiders kicked off the season with a wild 35-34 win in New Orleans, a game in which they trailed 17-10 at intermission. The next week, the Atlanta Falcons shut the Raiders out in the first quarter of a seven-point home loss. In a win over San Diego in Week 5 (just as against the Bills in Week 13), the Raiders headed to the half down a single point.

Quarterback Derek Carr has had an MVP-caliber season, passing for 3,375 yards, 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Quarterback Derek Carr has had an MVP-caliber season, passing for 3,375 yards, 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It's a theme that has continued throughout the season. Per NFL Team Stats, the Raiders rank a handful of spots higher in second-half scoring than in the first. More often than not, the Raiders haven't been in the lead as the first half ended, and Sunday's win over the Bills was Oakland's sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the year.

Now, this is the point where a lot of people are probably rolling their eyes and thinking, "so?" If the Raiders are 4-2 in games in which they trailed at the half and they've won 10 games already this year, who cares if they come out of the gate slowly from time to time?

Well, general manager Reggie McKenzie does. Even while lauding the team's ability to pull out the close ones earlier this week while speaking to Scott Bair of NBC Bay Area, McKenzie said the necessity of late heroics wasn't easy on the old ticker:

As many heart attacks as I've had, I absolutely do. It goes without saying that you can feel it. They have an air about them, that they know they're going to win. That's good to be around.

I'm a bottom-line guy. Just give me a safety and I'm good. It's all about winning football games. The good thing about postgame is that you can find something to practice for the next week.

The Raiders will have a short week to try to work out the kinks. On Thursday, they travel to Kansas City to face a Chiefs team they fell behind to early in their last loss in Week 6. If they drop that game, the Raiders would fall from the No. 1 seed in the AFC all the way to No. 5.

And that's the thing: All the success the Raiders have enjoyed so far this season has brought with it increased expectations. Just an appearance in the playoffs isn't good enough now. The Raiders are expected to make a run.

If they are going to do that, Oakland can't let up even a little. Maintaining its AFC West lead and home-field advantage is critically important. Coming back against Buffalo at home is one thing. Coming back on the road at, say, New England is another entirely. 

In fact, the next time the Patriots lose a game at Gillette Stadium in which they lead at halftime will be the first.

This isn't meant to be nitpicking, nor is it a proclamation that the sky is falling for the Raiders. As their record demonstrates, the Raiders are a good football team. In a year when every team in the league has flaws, the Raiders are capable of winning the AFC.

But Oakland needs to spend the next month figuring out how to get on track earlier in ballgames. With games still left against Kansas City, Indianapolis, San Diego and Denver, if the Raiders don't, that top seed will disappear.

On the road in the playoffs, against the best of the best in the AFC, a slow start will lead to a fast postseason exit—and a disappointing end to the best season of football in Oakland in a while.

        

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.

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