Just a week ago the Raiders controlled their own destiny as they were a game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West. They had won three in a row and their schedule the rest of the season had many people very optimistic about their chances of winning the division. But the big loss to the Dolphins last week changed everything. Now the outlook is not quite so rosy.
The next few weeks are going to be extremely difficult for the Raiders. But as Anthony Hopkins said in Mission Impossible: “It isn’t called mission difficult, Mr Hunt, so this should be a walk in the park for you.”
If you look at records alone, the Raiders are tied for first in the AFC West with the Broncos as both are 7-5. But really the Raiders are in second place because the Broncos have more wins in the AFC West than do the Raiders. The Broncos currently sit at 3-2 in the AFC West with just the lowly Chiefs still remaining on their schedule from the division. The Raiders are at 2-2 with the Chiefs and Chargers to finish out the season.
Next week the outlook gets bleaker.
The Raiders are set to meet the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Packers in Green Bay on Sunday, a game in which it might just take a miracle the likes of which we have rarely seen for them to come out with a victory. The Packers are on a tear and show no signs of slowing down, while the Raiders are still without many of their top players due to injury.
The Broncos face the beat up Bears with Caleb Hanie behind center and starting running back Matt Forte now out with an injury. This is the same Bears team that lost to the Chiefs 7-3 on a last second Hail Mary pass last Sunday. So expect another Tebow love fest next week with another Bronco win.
It looks very likely that after next weekend, the Raiders will no longer be tied for the division lead even in record. It will be the following week that will be critical.
Two weeks from now, the Broncos face the New England Patriots. The Broncos would be hard pressed to beat the Patriots. A loss would snap their six game win streak and offer a bit of hope for the Raiders.
The Raiders must take advantage of this and beat the Lions at home. They will be helped by the likelihood of most, if not all, of their star players returning from injury including Darren McFadden who has been out for nearly two months. If they can’t beat the Lions, the Broncos will very likely cruise to the AFC West crown regardless of what the Raiders do to finish the season.
At this point, the only way the Raiders win the West is if they win three of their next four and the Broncos lose two games. If we assume the Broncos will lose to the Patriots, then that means they would have to lose to one of either the Bears, Bills, or Chiefs–three of the worst teams in the NFL right now. Not exactly the teams the Raiders would like to pin their hopes on beating the Broncos.
Even if the Raiders win three of four and the Broncos lose the season finale to the Chiefs, the Broncos would still win the division based on having a better conference record. The Broncos have a 6-3 conference record compared to the Raiders at 5-5. Sure, they have the Bills still to face, but if they lose to the Bills and then beat the Chiefs, the conference record is meaningless anyway. Only two losses will do.
This leaves absolutely no wiggle room for the Raiders. If they can’t run the table in the final three games, their only chance of making the playoffs is a wildcard berth. That scenario is still pretty unsettled and we won’t have a good idea of that picture until a couple of weeks from now. The Raiders are currently tied with the Jets, Bengals, and Titans at 7-5. Those are the only teams that have a realistic shot at the wildcard. If there were a tie at the end of the season, the Raiders own the edge over the Jets from winning the head to head, but the Bengals and Titans are less certain. At any rate, these are the three other teams to keep an eye on should the Raiders find themselves looking at a wildcard situation.
The best case scenario is, of course, winning the AFC West. That home field advantage in the first round would be a valuable thing. Any way you look at it, the next month is not going to be an easy road for the Raiders. But having a legitimate shot at the playoffs at all should be cause for some optimism.