The Oakland Raiders have powered their way to the top of the AFC West with a 7-2 mark. But the road to the playoffs doesn’t get any easier from here.
The Oakland Raiders couldn’t have finished out their pre-bye schedule any better. Having thumped hated division rival Denver, the Raiders went into their week off on a three game winning streak, having posted a mark of 7-2, and found themselves in sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all. In fact, you can probably be forgiven for giving a few fist pumps and “Woooo-hoooo’s” to celebrate.
But lest anybody get too comfortable, there is a lot of work to do on the road ahead. And that road ahead does not get one lick easier for the Silver and Black.
Though they are 7-2, they are far from a dominant team. The defense is improving game by game, but there are still plenty of holes that need to be addressed and filled. Plenty of things that need to be tightened up and fixed.
The Raiders defense seems to be getting itself on the right track, giving up just 344, 270, and 299 yards over the last three games with the Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Broncos respectively. They’ve also given up a total of just 60 points over those three games.
Both the yardage and point totals over that span would put them among the league leaders in those categories.
It’s a pretty remarkable turnaround from the start of the season in which Oakland’s defense surrendered 1,035 yards and 69 points to the Saints and Falcons in the first two games. The offense hung in there and gave it a valiant effort – managing to take down New Orleans with some last minute heroics, but falling to Atlanta – but couldn’t overcome the defensive shortcomings.
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But the Raiders kept chipping away at it and finally put together their most complete, best all around performance against Denver. The defense, which has been deservingly maligned much of this season, held the Broncos to a paltry 33 rushing yards and 266 passing yards and forced two turnovers.
Offensively, the Raiders rolled up 397 yards – 218 of those coming on the ground. They also gashed Denver’s vaunted defense for three touchdowns. On top of that, the Raiders held the ball for a staggering 41 minutes, 28 seconds to Denver’s 18 minutes, 32 seconds.
It was as thorough and dominant of a performance that the Raiders have had in quite some time. It was the sort of signature win this team needed and had been lacking for so long. Their manhandling of the Broncos – more than the 6-2 record they came into the game with – truly announced that the Raiders were back.
But now, the road ahead is going to be filled with bumps and pitfalls. And if the Raiders are hoping to end their playoff drought – and possibly even snag a division crown while they’re at it – they’re going to have to earn it week in and week out.
They have upcoming dates with the Texans, who have had an up and down season, but seem to play their best in tougher games. That’s followed by an always dangerous Panthers team that seems to finally be figuring things out and are playing better ball. Their three game homestand ends with a visit by Rex Ryan and the Bills who have some weapons they can use and are a scrappy team that is no easy out.
The Raiders end the season with three of their final four games on the road. First, they visit the Chiefs – who manhandled them in Oakland 26-10. After that, they travel to San Diego to face a Chargers team that gave them all they could handle – and then some – back in week five. The Chargers, despite a plethora of catastrophic injuries, have been playing well and are a dangerous team – mainly, because at this point, they have nothing to lose.
If there is one silver lining to playing consecutive division games on the road, it’s that at least in San Diego, it’s going to “feel” like a home game for the Raiders.
After that game, Andrew Luck and the Colts will be coming to Oakland. Though the Colts have had an up and down season, they’re still in the mix for a division title in the AFC South and could very well be fighting for their playoff lives, which makes them a dangerous animal.
And finally, the Raiders will end the season in Denver where they will square off with a Broncos team that will have a little extra incentive to beat them after the pasting the Raiders gave them in Oakland.
Denver is always a tough match up and this game very well could have the added factor of the division title being on the line. A factor that will put that much more heat and intensity into a game that already figures to be heated and probably pretty chippy as well.
The one thing the Raiders may be able to look forward to though, the thing that could help bolster them for a playoff push, are the possible returns of Mario Edwards Jr., and Aldon Smith. Though we do not know with any certainty yet, Edwards may be healthy enough to return following the bye, and depending on Roger Goodell’s mood at the time, Smith is eligible to be reinstated next week.
The return of both to an Oakland pass rush that is finally beginning to find a groove, can only help. Khalil Mack is coming on, notching six sacks over the last four games, but he needs some help. With Stacy McGee second on the team in sacks with his 2.5 and Bruce Irvin third with two, it’s clear that the Raiders need some bodies that can put some heat on opposing quarterbacks.
A healthy, vibrant pass rush that’s able to generate some consistent and sustained pressure on the quarterback is going to help Oakland’s defense at all levels. It will make things easier for a secondary succeptible to giving up big plays, and can help a linebackers group who is still struggling in pass coverage.
The defense is improving, but they still have a ways to go if they want to be talked about as serious championship contenders. The return of Edwards and Smith could potentially go a long way to helping them get there.
The Raiders are 7-2 and are in first place in the division. It’s a nice feather to stick in their cap at their bye week, but there is a lot of season left to be played yet and a lot of work to be done. The road ahead gets no easier for this Raiders team, as the combined record of their remaining opponents – as of this writing – is 32-28.
It’s a final seven games that is packed with teams who can absolutely rise up and beat this Raiders team if they’re not careful. Oakland cannot afford to take plays off and will have to fight and scrap for every yard and every point.
HC Jack Del Rio has done a great job of installing that mindset into his team thus far. Let’s all hope that coming out of the break, this team shows the same sort of fire and hunger they went into it with because the road to the playoffs is bumpy, perilous and will offer this Raiders team no respite.