Jack In The Box: Raiders playoff hopes hinge upon Del Rio

There is a question not even Jack Del Rio can dodge. This particular inquiry won’t occur when the smug Oakland Raiders head coach is behind a podium with a microphone set up in front of him. This query will be answered by the final score when the game clock strikes 00:00 this coming Sunday at Arrowhead.

Can this Raiders coaching staff engineer a winning formula and keep the team focused on a make-or-break four-game calendar consisting of the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers?

Hold off on your answer for now. Give it one more Sunday. This Sunday.

Del Rio will either reinforce your pessimism or — for one more week — disprove your naysaying ways. And, for you eternal optimists, vice versa.

Whether the inevitable answer is yes or no to the question above, the response hinges largely upon Del Rio. Fair or foul, wins and losses loom over his head — primarily. Why are the Raiders a lackluster 6-6? Why hasn’t the offense and defense performed on a consistent basis? You can point to a myriad of reasons. Some that have been discussed at length and drove a wedge amongst a rabid fan base.

But atop that lists is Captain Jack.

Let’s be clear, however. If Del Rio gets the finger pointed at him for all the wrongs, he gets the same finger for the rights.

Why are the Raiders in a convoluted three-way tie for first place in the AFC West? Why has the defense played much better?

That too is a Del Rio product, fair or foul.

After a series of disappointments, it is strange to say the Raiders are still in the AFC West dogfight. The NFL and Football Gods sure like to make things interesting. And so does Del Rio.

“It’s a good division, a strong division. It’s one that we’ve had, I would say, maybe down a year in terms of us hitting a little bit of a dry spell for a stretch,” Del Rio said. “The Chargers hit a dry spell for a stretch to start the year, the Chiefs are in one now. We’re all good football teams and we’re all alive right now. We all have an opportunity.”

An opportunity? Yes, indeed. It’s a chance for Del Rio to get his team to kick into another gear, access to show the Raiders do need to be taken seriously.

Defensive coordinator John Pagano is given a hell of a four-game stretch to test his coaching mettle. We’ll truly find out if this “rejuvenated” Oakland defense is truly a product of the “Pagano Effect” or playing against piss-poor opponents (the Denver Broncos and New York Giants).

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing, the much-maligned neophyte play-caller, has a stretch to prove he too has evolved as both designer and conductor of the Oakland attack. Is the insertion of a Power I formation an aberration? Or does it become a staple play in Downing’s oft-criticized playbook?

Come to think of it, the inquiry posed above isn’t isolated to just Del Rio. The Chiefs and Chargers are asking themselves the same question, as a good nugget from Associated Press Raiders beat writer and statistician extraordinaire Josh Dubow unveils: The AFC West is the first division since the merger in 1970 where every team had a four-game losing streak in the same season.

But there is an inherent difference between the Raiders and their divisional brethren: Oakland has been the benefactor of some outlandish good fortunate. The Raiders got to face marginal quarterbacks in the last two games. Oakland won’t have to throw at Chiefs’ cover corner Marcus Peters (suspended by team); won’t have to corral Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott; may face a resting Philadelphia squad, and have a de facto “home game” against the Bolts to close the season.

With this type of luck, there may be an even tougher question for Del Rio to answer. It’ll come from Mark Davis, and rightfully so.

If Del Rio is unable to capitalize on the fortuitous events, can anyone blame Davis for asking his head coach: What say you?

Didn’t think so.

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