Raiders Showcase Why They'll be Tough Out In Wide Open AFC Playoffs

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 10, 2022

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) celebrates after wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (13) scored a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
David Becker/Associated Press

It has been quite the season for the Las Vegas Raiders. In addition to dealing with the typical adversity every team faces in a season that has been anything but typical thanks to COVID-19, the Raiders also had to deal with the sudden dismissal of the team's head coach.

And the release of arguably the team's best wide receiver after he was charged with DUI in a crash in which a woman died.

And the release of a first-round cornerback after he appeared in social media videos brandishing weapons and making threats.

They came one another after another. The sort of avalanche that buries teams and ruins seasons.

But rather than be plowed under, the Raiders rallied. They rallied around one another. They rallied around interim head coach Rich Bisaccia.

After outlasting the rival Chargers in the wildest game in recent memory at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday night, the Raiders have rallied their way right into the postseason.

And the Cincinnati Bengals would be well-served to realize that they are in for a battle in the Wild Card Round.

There has been no shortage written and said about the racist, sexist and anti-gay emails Jon Gruden reportedly wrote; about Henry Ruggs III being charged with four felonies, including driving under the influence causing death or substantial harm, following a crash in which Tina Tintor died; or about the videos containing death threats made by Damon Arnette that led to his release.

But it was a dizzying array of off-field incidents. 

And starting in early November (right about the time the Arnette videos surfaced), it appeared that it was all catching up to the team. Beginning with a seven-point loss to the New York Giants in Week 9 and culminating in a 48-9 rout at the hands of the rival Chiefs in Week 14, the Raiders lost five of six games to fall below .500. The season was circling the drain.

However, after that game in which the Raiders were demolished in Kansas City, Bisaccia made it clear to the team that how they handled that latest adversity would define the rest of their season.

"[We] talked amongst ourselves, but that's exactly what I told them," Bisaccia said. "I told them that these kinds of games will bring out the best and worst in all of us, and it will be easy to see which one comes out. I told the coaches and told the players that we look at ourselves as coaches, and they look themselves as players. Have conversations going through the week and be ready to play next game in Cleveland."

The Raiders haven't lost a game since.

Ellen Schmidt/Associated Press

Bisaccia's impact on this team has been immeasurable. When he was promoted to interim head coach from special teams coordinator, he was widely regarded as a placeholder—a fill-in who would lead the franchise through a season that was already lost.

Instead, the Raiders are in the playoffs after winning a fourth game in overtime this season, and it's at least in part because the locker room was behind Bisaccia from Day 1.

"I love having him as my head coach, and he's somebody I've been able to go to for advice from day one from the time I came here three years ago," defensive end Maxx Crosby said, via Tom Lamarre of Raider Maven. "He's the same guy every single day, works his ass off and keeps things real, doesn't sugarcoat anything. You know he's in your corner no matter what, and all the guys in the locker room really respond to him."

In recent days, there has been a growing amount of speculation connecting Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh to the Raiders job. That may be the exciting hire, but Vegas would be wise to give serious consideration to making Bisaccia's role permanent.

He's a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate and engineered (per Sunday's telecast) the first playoff trip by a team that made a mid-season coaching change in 60 years.

Of course, while Bisaccia steered the ship, the team is only as good as the players on it. And there were plenty of standouts from Sunday's mayhem who have stepped up big for the Raiders all season long.

As an aside, what did we just watch? Did that game actually happen? And how many people in Pittsburgh fainted during the game?

Quarterback Derek Carr, who has spent much of the past few years with the Raiders being side-eyed by fans, only threw for 186 yards in Sunday's ridiculous 35-32 thriller. Nonetheless, he threw two touchdown passes, didn't turn the ball over and made plays when he needed to. That, after entering Week 18 fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game.

Oh, and for all you folks wondering about the tie that would have sent the Raiders and Chargers on to the postseason and the Steelers home for the winter, Carr told Michelle Tafoya of NBC Sports after the game that he had no interest in helping his AFC West rivals.

"We knew no matter what, we didn't want to tie," he said. "We wanted to win the football game. … My mindset was to make sure we were the only team moving on after this."

So there.

Carr wasn't the only guy who showed up when the pressure was at its highest. Tailback Josh Jacobs had 132 rushing yards and two scores. Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who has been so vital with tight end Darren Waller hurt, topped 100 catches for the season and scored twice against the Chargers.

Defensively, edge-rusher Maxx Crosby was constantly in Justin Herbert's face. Cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. (a former Charger) had a key interception.

David Becker/Associated Press

That's been the story of these Raiders all season long. It's a team where the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. A new player seemingly steps up every week. And now, as the Raiders get ready to face the Bengals in Cincinnati, their Pro Bowl tight end in Waller will have another week to get healthier.

We have admittedly seen the Bengals vs. Raiders movie before—Cincinnati blasted Vegas 32-13 at Allegiant Stadium back in Week 11. But that was before the team's hot streak began. Before the Silver and Black got its groove back. And this is a team with wins over the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts on the road.

Maybe the run will end next Saturday. But the Bengals aren't a team without its own flaws, particularly along the offensive line and secondary. The Raiders are playing well on both sides of the ball. Playing their butts off for their "interim" coach. And playing for one another.

You can bet the rent the Bengals would rather play the Steelers again.