Not a lot was expected from the Oakland Raiders in their London game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The Raiders were six-point underdogs, and all three NFL analysts who make weekly picks here at Bleacher Report chose the Bears to win the game and cover the spread.
That's not especially surprising. Not much was expected from the Raiders this season, either. More pundits than not picked the Silver and Black to bring up the rear in the AFC West.
But a funny thing happened across the pond in Week 5. The Raiders came out blazing against a 12-win division champion from a year ago and held on for a 24-21 win. In doing so, they moved to 3-2 and remained in second place in the AFC West.
Along the way, they may have discovered an identity—or at least cemented one.
It may not be an identity that will get the Raiders past the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019's divisional race or even get them into the playoffs as a wild card. But it's an identity that will keep the team in most games and make the Raiders a competitive squad.
These Raiders are tomato cans no more, and the rest of the NFL better take notice.
The first ingredient in the recipe for a Raiders renaissance is an old-school run game powered by rookie tailback Josh Jacobs. Playing against a Bears defense that entered Week 5 third in the league against the run (61.5 yards per game) and just put the clamps on Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings, Jacobs faced the tallest of tasks Sunday.
The youngster out of Alabama was up to that task and then some. He gashed the Bears for 123 yards and two scores on 26 carries. His 4.7 yards per carry was over a yard-and-a-half more per tote than the Bears had given up entering the game.
Jacobs was the player selected by the Raiders with the pick they got for trading edge-rusher Khalil Mack to the Bears before the 2018 season. And while there's no denying Mack is one of the best defensive players in the game, Jacobs has been a huge part of Oakland's 3-2 start. He has eclipsed 100 total yards three times in five games, and the Raiders have won all three.
Offensive tackle Trent Brown put it about as well as it can be put when he told Vic Tafur of The Athletic, "That mofo can run the ball."
Oh, and the Raiders still have Chicago's first-rounder in 2020, as well.
The second ingredient for a Raiders rebound is something that was sorely lacking in 2018: a defense.
Granted, Oakland's defensive ranking of 22nd overall heading into Week 5 won't blow anyone's doors off. But that's an improvement over last year's 26th, and it turned things up several notches against the Bears.
Yes, it was against a backup quarterback in Chase Daniel and a Bears offense that has struggled to consistently find its footing in 2019. But Oakland's performance was impressive nonetheless. The Raiders allowed just 236 total yards, forced a pair of Daniel interceptions and sacked him four times.
That last stat is most important for the Raiders.
Oakland still ranks in the bottom half of the league in sacks, but it's on pace to more than double last year's pathetic total of just 13. When six players have more sacks as individuals than your entire team, as was the case with the 2018 Raiders, that's a bad sign. But things are getting better.
Free-agent acquisition Benson Mayowa has piled up 4.5 sacks in five games. After notching a pair of sacks against the Bears, second-year defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who came off the board in 2018's fifth round, is looking more like a draft steal every week.
The third ingredient is both the least tangible and, quite possibly, the most important. Simply put, the Raiders are figuring out how to win.
After they jumped all over the Bears and raced out to a 17-point lead, Sunday's second half started with one of the worst turnovers you're going to see in an NFL game:
Seriously. What was that?
That turnover led to Chicago's first touchdown of the game and was the beginning of 21 unanswered points from the Bears in the third quarter. Just like that, the lead was gone.
It wasn't long ago that the Raiders would have crumbled. But not this time. Instead, they put together a 13-play, 97-yard drive in the final quarter that culminated with Jacobs' second score of the game.
They did that against one of the best defenses in the league. It was a gut-check in the truest sense, and the Raiders answered the bell.
Now, all this isn't to say Raider Nation should start making plans for a trip to Miami in February.
Through four weeks, Oakland ranked 26th in passing, and Derek Carr threw for just 229 yards without nominal No. 1 receiver Tyrell Williams in London. It's almost as if the organization tried to add a star wideout in the offseason and it backfired in spectacular fashion.
The Oakland secondary has struggled at times (see the 28-point second quarter by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2). While the pass rush is better, it still has plenty of room for improvement.
But the Raiders have a pair of first-round picks again in 2020 and are sitting on the fourth-most cap space in the NFL, according to Over the Cap. Oakland is going to be in excellent position to get better next year, which would allow it to keep heading in a positive direction.
And that's the thing. The Raiders appear to have a direction. Twenty-one games into the Jon Gruden reunion tour, they're taking on the personality of their head coach by playing hard-nosed, physical football.
However, it's going to take more hard-nosed football to keep the momentum going coming out of the Week 6 bye. All four of their upcoming opponents either have winning records this year, made the playoffs last year or both. It's not going to be easy.
It's not going to be easy for Oakland's opponents, either.
The Raiders are going to bang away with Jacobs, try to control tempo and time of possession and keep the score close. The defense may not be great, but it's getting better. The same can be said of the team as a whole.
The days of the Raiders as an easy out appear to be over, and it's time we all take notice.