The last time the Oakland Raiders made the playoffs (2002), Tiger Woods was regularly winning major championships and Spider Man (the original one) was tops at the box office. So, coming into the 2016 season after going a combined 10-22 since Derek Carr first stepped under center, expectations weren’t all that high. But here we are, five weeks into the season, and the 4-1 Raiders are tied with the Broncos for the lead in the AFC West. All of their games have been pretty down to the wire and amazingly, two of their wins have been by a mere point: a 35-34 win over the Saints (47 seconds remained) and their most recent victory, a 28-27 win over the Ravens (2:12 remained). For fans that might be skeptical, don’t be. This Raiders team is poised to keep the good times rolling.
It all starts with Carr. The former second-round pick has gone from good, young signal caller to one of the best quarterbacks in the league, period. His 104.6 quarterback rating is eighth in the NFL amongst starting QBs. He’s on pace to throw for over 4,400 yards with 35 touchdowns against only six interceptions. And, best of all, he’s at the top of his game when his team needs him the most, late in the fourth quarter.
And it’s not as if Carr is carrying the team on his own – he’s got weapons. Michael Crabtree has been better than expected since jumping across the Bay to the Raiders last season. After amassing 85 receptions and nine touchdowns last season, he’s on pace to catch almost 95 passes for more than 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns. All of this has been made possible because of the bond he shares with Carr, which has made him Carr’s favorite and most trusted option in the passing game.
With Sunday’s emergence of Amari Cooper this season (1 TD that counted, 3 additional TDs that were an inch away from counting), the Raiders offense looks primed to go into a better offensive stretch than they had to the start of their year.
The Raiders can also move the ball on the ground. Despite Latavius Murray’s foot injury, the rushing attack hasn’t missed a beat. Fifth round pick DeAndre Washington has stepped in and is averaging more than five yards per carry (5.3 to be exact). Fellow rookie Jalen Richard has also contributed burst to the ground game, averaging 7 yards per carry and also a spark in the return game and as a receiver out of the backfield.
When Carr and company aren’t on the field, the Raiders are starting to step up to their potential on defense. First round pick Karl Joseph has added energy into the secondary, leading the team with 10 tackles in his first start against Tennessee and his safety blitzes in the win over Baltimore all led to Joe Flacco incompletions. Fellow draft pick Cory James (6th round, linebacker) has solidified the middle of the defense with his hard hitting and a nose for the ball.
While the players are getting it done on the field, much of their success can be attributed to Head Coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio and his staff preach a mantra that keeps a simple game plan for the team: allow the special teams and defense to set things up for the offense. He’s also shown an aptitude for handling little things better than his predecessor, like allowing players to adjust to time zone changes on their own – and the players are responding. Del Rio himself has talked about learning from his prior stint as a head coach but also he acknowledges that being a head coach is a partnership with his players and he works with a leadership council of veterans to best hear his player’s voice.
All of this has put the Raiders at #12 in the ESPN Power Rankings heading into week 6 but they have moved as high as #9 this season, tied for their highest ranking since 2003. While they might not be able to overtake the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos, the Raiders are in prime position to earn a Wild Card spot and join the playoff party for the first time in 14 years.