Dream Season for Injury-Ravaged Raiders Headed for Nightmare Finish

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 2, 2017

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 1:  Outside linebacker Shane Ray #56 of the Denver Broncos sacks quarterback Connor Cook #8 of the Oakland Raiders and fumbles the ball in the third quarter of the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

At first glance, fans of the Oakland Raiders seemingly have plenty to be happy about. Despite falling 24-6 on the road to the Denver Broncos in Week 17, the Raiders are a 12-win team headed to the playoffs for the first time sine 2002.

But look a little closer and the smiles quickly fade. After spending most of the season looking like Super Bowl contenders, the Raiders now appear destined for a quick exit from the postseason.

Because Oakland is literally limping into the playoffs at the most important position in the game.

Over the first half of the 2016 campaign, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr led one of the NFL's most potent offenses. Carr wasn't just a vastly improved third-year pro. He was a legitimate MVP candidate for the first-place Raiders.

Even after Carr suffered an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand, the Raiders kept winning. His numbers were down, but the only number that matters stayed in Oakland's favor. He was bruised a bit but played on.

However, while Carr toughed it out through a busted finger, there was no playing through the broken fibula he suffered against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16.

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Oakland was still able to defeat the Colts, but much of the wind came out of the Raiders' sails as they prepared for the season finale against the Broncos. With a victory in that game, the Raiders would clinch their division and earn the AFC's No. 2 seed.

Backup quarterback Matt McGloin told Josh Dubow of the Associated Press earlier this week that he was confident he could lead the Raiders to a win that would earn them a week off and at least one playoff game at home:

It's exciting. This is the position you want to be in. This is why you spend so much time trying to master your craft and why you put so much time in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field, is for games like this, moments like this.

So, we're definitely aware of where we're at right now and again, what's at stake come Sunday and we're excited about it.

That excitement didn't last long Sunday, and it's unlikely McGloin wound up in the position he wanted to be in. He watched from the sideline after being slammed to the turf.

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

The shoulder injury that forced McGloin from the game thrust rookie third-stringer Connor Cook into action against the NFL's stingiest pass defense.

That went about as well as one would expect. An Oakland offense that entered Week 17 sixth in the NFL ground to a halt. In a first-half split between McGloin and Cook, the Raiders generated just 40 yards of total offense. A Raiders team that entered the week averaging 27.3 points per game in 2016 scored six.

That was only the beginning of the bad news for the Silver and Black. While Oakland was flopping in Denver, the Kansas City Chiefs were giving the Chargers the business in San Diego. Kansas City's 10-point win gave it the AFC West title, which comes with the No. 2 seed and a bye in the Wild Card Round.

Rather than taking a week to get healthy before hosting a playoff game, the Raiders will hit the road and travel to Houston next week.

And Oakland's dreams of going to Houston a second time to play in Super Bowl LI are stone-cold dead.

Yes, the Raiders beat the Texans 27-20 back in Week 11. But that was a full-strength Raiders team taking on a Texans squad that went 2-6 on the road this season. This is a hobbled Raiders squad taking on the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense (entering Week 17) in a stadium where the Texans went 7-1 this season.

At this point, it isn't known how severe McGloin's injury is or whether he will be able to make the start against the Texans. Citing a source, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the Raiders aren't yet ruling McGloin out for the Wild Card Round, but "they are not optimistic about him playing."

At the risk of sounding callous, does it matter who starts?

We're either talking about a rookie who wasn't active most of the season making his first career NFL start or a fourth-year career backup who is now 1-6 as a starter. The duo combined to go 20-of-32 for 171 yards with a touchdown and an interception against Denver. According to PrimeComputing.com, their combined passer rating on the day was south of 75.

As if that wasn't bad enough, an Oakland defense that has been suspect at times but improved over the season's second half took a big step back Sunday against a Denver offense that's spent the last month looking pretty offensive.

Denver entered the weekend averaging 89.4 yards per game on the ground—28th in the NFL. The Broncos gashed Oakland for 143 rushing yards, and Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian posted his second-highest passer rating (95.6) since Week 4.

Even if the Raiders somehow get past a Houston team that fell to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday and has plenty of problems of its own, the divisional round would bring either a trip to face a Chiefs team that beat the Raiders twice this season or a journey to the meat grinder that is Gillette Stadium to play the New England Patriots.

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 08:  Center Mitch Morse #61 of the Kansas City Chiefs gets set to snap the ball against the Oakland Raiders during the second half on December 8, 2016 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Gett
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

If you think Oakland has a snowball's chance of winning in either locale, then I suggest you give the Kool-Aid a rest.

The Raiders' success this year lied in the offense's ability to compensate for their defensive lapses. Being as unable to score as you are to stop your opponent is not a recipe for winningespecially in the postseason.

It's unfortunate a season that looked so promising for the Raiders will end so unceremoniously. It's unfair that Oakland's return to the playoffs after such a long absence will end with a whimper instead of a bang because of a fluke injury.

But from here on out, there are no easy outs. Every game brings a matchup with either a prolific offense, a stout defense or both. And the Oakland team that Denver pounded can't hang with either.

Whether McGloin or Cook is under center isn't relevant.

It's been a good year for the Silver and Black. General manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio deserve a ton of credit for building the team into a contender. And there's no reason to think Oakland won't again be a legitimate contender in 2017.

They aren't now, though. Sunday's loss hammered home something we all knew but were afraid to admit.

Like it or not, the Raiders are done.

                                          

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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