There are many of us who owe the Oakland Raiders an apology. You do. I do. All of you who made fun of Jon Gruden's $100 million contract do. A bunch of you who said quarterback Derek Carr couldn't hit the Pacific Ocean do. Others who said new general manager Mike Mayock should have stayed in a television studio do.
Lots of apologies owed. From every. Single. One of us.
Go ahead and swallow your pride. You can do it. I can. C'mon.
We were wrong.
Granted, the Raiders are far from perfect, and the distance between them and the two best teams in the AFC, the Ravens and Patriots, is about the same distance as Earth to Alpha Centauri (spoiler alert: it's far).
And granted also, the opponent they beat 17-10 on Sunday was a pretty hapless Bengals team, though they did put up a solid fight. It wasn't pretty for the Raiders (few games were this Sunday), but it was a win.
But all that said, what we're seeing with Oakland is a slow, deliberate, impressive metastasizing from an offseason blunder wrecked by Antonio Brown into a team with a legitimate playoff shot.
The Raiders are in the postseason mix for a number of reasons. The defense and the running game are big ones (more on them in a bit). The biggest reason, at least for now, is their schedule. Their final games are against the Jets, Chiefs, Titans, Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos. The combined record of those teams is 25-35, and only the Chiefs have a winning record. The Raiders aren't good enough to overlook any of those teams, and from what we've seen of them so far this season, it's unlikely they will. This is an impressive, tough and talented team that knows what it is and what it can be.
But maybe as big as anything for these Raiders is how good two men have been who were the reason so many of us doubted the team in the first place:
• Quarterback Derek Carr has become an efficient passer and leader—after spending the last couple of years as a bungling mess who spent way too much time blocking critics on Twitter.
• Around the league, Gruden was viewed by many as a coach living off a Super Bowl he won with Tony Dungy's players. But he's turned this aimless Raiders organization into a 6-4 team and has gotten Carr to cut down on his mistakes.
Carr has just five interceptions on the season and is completing 72.3 percent of his passes. At one point Sunday, he was 9-of-9, and into the third quarter 15-of-16. Then he was intercepted. Hey, no one said he's Lamar Jackson. But he finished 25-of-29 passing for 292 yards with a touchdown and another on the ground. He did what it took to win, which is something this team seems to now consistently find a way to do, with three straight wins overall and a 5-1 record at home.
It's a bit of vindication for Mayock, too, who was viewed by some front offices as someone who didn't deserve a top personnel job. His drafting of rookie running back Josh Jacobs (23 rushes for 112 yards Sunday) 24th overall this past April is now proving to be one of the draft's best moves, as Jacobs has quickly become one of the league's most dangerous rushers.
And also, it's been vindication of the team's approach to its future, in general. When the Raiders traded pass-rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago, many of us painted it as a franchise death sentence. But it was also a bet that they could find a way to win (even if ugly, like Sunday) in the present while building for the future. Jacobs was among their three first-round picks in the 2019 draft, and they also acquired an extra first and two thirds in 2020 in the Mack and Gareon Conley trades (while giving up a second).
Against the Bengals, another rookie, defensive end Maxx Crosby, had four sacks. He's only the fourth rookie in league history to record at least four sacks in a game, per ESPN's Field Yates. Mayock picked Crosby in the fourth round. The emergence of players like this is how the Raiders defense survived trading Mack and has become faster and more athletic than we thought it could.
The offense is also better than we thought. The coaching is better than we thought. The players overall are more talented than we thought.
They weren't supposed to be good and, well, they are.
Of course, no one is sipping champagne in Oakland, because yes the Raiders can beat a lot of teams, but they can also lose to anyone. We saw some of that in their game against the Bengals, who are 0-10, the first team this season to be officially eliminated from the playoffs. Cincinnati had no business keeping this game close. Yet after Carr was intercepted and sacked in the third quarter, Oakland had just a 14-10 lead.
Then, the Raiders did what they've done more than a few times this season. Their defense holds at key times, and Carr is efficient when he most needs to be. Two key passes went to tight end Darren Waller—another talented, if raw, young player—for 32- and 23-yard gains in the fourth to put the Bengals back on their heels. The Raiders ended the game with an interception.
Winning close games, even against putrid franchises, is important in this league. The NFC's No. 1 seed right now, the 49ers, struggled in a win that was too close for comfort in Arizona. The Vikings, after beating Dallas last week, won on the final play of the game against Denver. The only team that consistently blows others out is Baltimore.
Anyone who says they saw the Raiders at 6-4 at this point is either lying or needs to be drug tested. No one saw this coming. Hell, the Raiders probably didn't.
So, let's all line up. Single file.
And take our turns apologizing.