Almost exactly a year ago, the Oakland Raiders were 5-4 and looked like odds-on playoff favorites. In a moment of clairvoyance, we published an article called “Silver and Black Lining: Just Because.” One of the last things the article says is, ‘even if the Raiders have a painfully typical meltdown, miss the playoffs, and fall apart, this team is improved, and Raider Nation has so much to be optimistic about’.
A year removed, the Raiders are in a very similar situation. They’re 6-3, poised to take down an “easy” schedule as they march towards the playoffs. Let me tell you why this year will be different from last year.
Silver and Black Lining: Hindsight Is 2020
The similarities between both squads
Unfortunately, last year’s Raiders and this year’s team aren’t completely different. They are still giving up about 26 points a game. Also, both teams started 3-2, and last year’s squad had a last-second win against the Los Angeles Chargers too. At this time last year, the defense had ten turnovers. This was misleading as they had intercepted Philip Rivers three times in Week 10. This year, the defense has ten, inflated by five from Drew Lock and the Broncos.
Just like last year at this time, the Raiders have had some heart-stoppers. They escaped from running back Christian McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers with a four-point win. Then they held off the Cleveland Browns by ten and were mere inches from losing to the Los Angeles Chargers.
This is still a team that’s still going to give up a third-and-15 two or three times a year. They still need to pick up their sacks and turnovers, and head coach Jon Gruden can get too conservative early in a game, with his offensive play-calling. This is a young and exciting team, but they certainly have a lot to figure out before they’re true contenders.
What has changed for this Raiders squad?
Last year, Oakland’s critics were quick to point out that they had a negative point differential. At this point in the season, they had given up 32 more points than they’d scored. In 2020, the Raiders have outscored their opponents by 14 points. That’s a 46-point swing in a calendar year, and that’s despite the fact that they’ve actually given up one more point on defense in nine games.
Not only that, but they’re winning by a lot more. This season, the average margin of victory for the Raiders is nearly a touchdown. That’s including garbage time points scored by the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver Broncos. All three of the team’s losses are better than they look too, with the Raiders being within a score in the fourth quarter on all three occasions, often with pretty devastating injuries on the offensive side of the ball.
This is a young, talented, passionate team that doesn’t give up. They never mail it in, and they show up on Sundays. The 2020 Las Vegas Raiders would handily beat any of the last 17 incarnations of their Oakland counterparts.
You really have to give it to quarterback Derek Carr. Over the last three weeks, he’s only averaged 143 passing yards a game, but somehow, he’s still playing his best football. To call him a game manager seems dismissive, but that’s what he is doing, and he’s doing it masterfully. When the Raiders need a first down, ‘4’ is there, through the air or on the ground.
Carr might not break any passing records this year, but despite injuries to his surrounding cast, he has been astonishingly consistent all year long. Forget his 2016 version, this is his best one we’ve ever seen.
The Raiders are establishing the run while taking shots downfield
Remember when Jon Gruden was mocked for “taking offense back to 1998” upon his return to the Raiders? It’s not so funny now, is it? The Raiders are averaging over 150 yards a game on the ground, with Josh Jacobs on pace for 1,200 yards and 14 scores, pairing nicely with Devontae Booker’s resurgence and cameos of Jalen Richard’s quickness. And that’s without including the team’s do-it-all fullback, Alec Ingold, who doesn’t let a little thing like cracked ribs stop him from pancaking defenders.
Going back to the moment Jack Del Rio didn’t re-sign Bill Musgrave as the team’s offensive coordinator, Raider Nation has wept for the lack of a vertical offense. Carr’s biggest detractors always pointed to the lack of a deep ball in the offense, but it seems like the offense will load up two or three deep balls a game in 2020. They’ve attempted 51 deep passes in eight games, that’s only 28 fewer than they attempted in all of last year. Even if Carr isn’t always connecting with his targets, teams can’t load the box against Josh Jacobs or focus on Darren Waller underneath.
A glimpse at the Raiders remaining schedule
The Chiefs are an elite football team. Beating them in week five was a statement, but it’s hard to beat a team that talented twice a year. Not impossible, mind you, but very, very difficult. It’s the other six games I’ve got my eye on. In my mind, the Raiders should beat all of them. On paper, they are the better team in all six instances.
- After hosting Kansas City, the Raiders travel to Atlanta to take on the high-powered Falcons. Atlanta is 3-6 and has an abysmal defense, but they’re still top five on offense. The Raiders can’t overlook them, regardless of how they play against the Chiefs.
- Then they travel back to MetLife to play the New York Jets. The ‘Gang Green’ is one of the worst teams in football, but nobody’s more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose. Gruden and Carr better have vengeance in their hearts and be sure to not overlook gang green.
- The Raiders later start a home-stretch of three games, hosting Philip Rivers and the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts. This is a tougher game than people realize and the Silver and Black need to take Indy’s league-best defense seriously.
- The Raiders host Justin Herbert’s Chargers again, and hopefully, they’ll remember Isaiah Johnson’s great pass defensed was the difference between a win and a loss in round one. At least they won’t have to travel to their summer home for this one.
- Early in the season, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Miami Dolphins looked like an easy dub, but they’ve won five in a row and Tua Tagovailoa has yet to throw an interception in the NFL.
- And then finally, just like last year, the Raiders have to travel to Denver to take on Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos again. This might feel like an easy win after the brash blowout, but you have to remember there are few places more difficult to play than Mile High in the heart of winter.
Each team presents a unique challenge for the Raiders. Nevertheless, this year, the Raiders have played with confidence and passion that we haven’t seen from them in a long, long time.
Last year, I said it ‘looked like’ the Raiders would be a playoff team. This year, we know it.
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Top Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images