Michael Crabtree stood on the sideline, looked up at the scoreboard above the north end zone and took a deep breath. The eighth-year receiver crunched the numbers: His Raiders trailed the Buffalo Bills, 24-9, with 9:01 left in the third quarter, having been manhandled by the visitors on both sides of the ball. While 54,759 fans at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum fretted over the prospect of an unexpected stumble to a fired-up underdog, Crabtree smiled and thought to himself, We’ve only just begun to fight.
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Crabtree wasn’t lying. And as the rest of the football world is starting to figure out, when you’ve got the hottest right hand in the land at your disposal, you’ve always got a puncher’s chance.
After a 15-minute, 27-second flurry in which Raiders quarterback Derek Carr buoyed his burgeoning MVP candidacy — and, more important, fueled a jaw-dropping 29-0 run that propelled Oakland to a 38-24 victory — Crabtree stood at his locker and explained the mindset of a 10-2 team that currently leads in the race for homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
“Bruh, you’ve been seeing this the whole season — we’ve been doing the same thing as we did today,” Crabtree told me, punching the air for emphasis. “When we hit a rough patch, we respond, plain and simple. When you’ve got a team like this, bruh, when you’ve got this many weapons, the sky’s the limit.”
Then Crabtree made reference to another high-profile Oakland athlete: Boxer Andre Ward, who two weeks ago fought back from a hellacious second-round knockdown to dethrone light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.
“I was watching the Andre Ward fight (recently) — he was here today, too,” Crabtree said. “He got knocked down in the first part of the fight, but he just kept standing in there and came back and won. That inspired me. We’ve got the same type of drive on this team. That’s what I was thinking about when we got down today. And trust me, bruh, we didn’t flinch one time.”
At this point, the Raiders’ resilience shouldn’t be overly surprising to anyone. This was Oakland’s sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the 2016 season, a campaign which began with a dramatic road victory over the New Orleans Saints, capped by coach Jack Del Rio (aka Jack Del Huevos) making a tone-setting decision to win the game on a two-point conversion attempt.
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Now the AFC West-leading Raiders remain a game ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs — a team that handed them one of their two defeats — in advance of Thursday night’s rematch at Arrowhead Stadium. And though the 10-2 New England Patriots and defending champion Denver Broncos (8-4) will likely have plenty of influence on the race for the conference title, there are currently 53 dudes in silver and black who feel pretty good about their prospects.
After all, these aren’t your big brother’s Raiders. Last Sunday, after Carr dramatically returned from a pinkie dislocation on his throwing hand to lead Oakland to a victory over the Carolina Panthers, they clinched their first winning season since 2002, which ended with a jarring Super Bowl XXXVII defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before the Raiders roared to life, Rex Ryan spent much of Sunday flipping the bird to his fleet of doubters. Laughed about in September as a candidate to lose his job, the Bills coach unleashed his top-ranked ground game against a Raiders defense allowing an NFL-worst 6.2 yards per play. Buffalo peaked just after the break when LeSean McCoy ripped off a 54-yard burst to set up a Tyrod Taylor scoring scramble that put Buffalo up 17-9. With 212 yards on the day at a strong 7.1 yards per pop, Buffalo used the combination of McCoy (17/130) and Mike Gillislee (8/49/2) to initially confound the Raiders, who couldn’t counter Shady’s patience and zigzagging magic or Gillislee’s straight-ahead hammer drops. Oakland tightened up down the stretch, though, to force three straight punts before Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack nipped Taylor’s arm on a fourth-quarter lob that landed in the arms of safety Nate Allen. The Raiders scored four plays later to put this tilt on ice.
Michael Crabtree has been a revelation for the Raiders, but the wideout hurt the team in the second quarter by dropping a would-be touchdown pass two plays before he was flagged for taunting, a gaffe that forced Oakland to settle for a field goal. Still, Crabtree (7/74/1) made up for it with a pretty third-quarter grab in the back of the end zone to galvanize Buffalo’s demise.
Oakland’s ground game is led by Latavius Murray (20/82/2), but sign us up for more action from Jalen Richard, the undrafted rookie who gave the Raiders life with a handful of key bursts down the stretch. Murray spun his own gold, scoring twice to become the first Raiders back with 10-plus rushing touchdowns in a season since Marcus Allen in 1990.
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It’s tough to call Carr the league MVP when Alex Smith has outplayed him in two head-to-head meetings. While Smith turned the ball over after halftime, it was his big plays early that put the Chiefs in front. Kansas City won for the first time in 44 years with a negative-three turnover differential because their playmakers — from Tyreek Hill to Travis Kelce to cornerback Marcus Peters and pass rusher Justin Houston — all came up big. Unheralded cornerbacks like Terrance Mitchell and Steven Nelson played huge roles.
Oakland’s young leaders, on the other hand, came up short. Amari Cooper failed to track a long pass from Carr that could have resulted in a touchdown. Cooper told reporters that the ball moved on him at the last second. That wasn’t the only odd look from Cooper on a night when he was targeted 10 times and only wound up with five catches for 29 yards. In a season that has included so much good fortune, it felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Raiders.
“Everything about tonight was unusual, to be honest,” Carr said. “To have our defense step up for us and make plays like that and for us to go out and not execute. You know, do things that we don’t do.”
This result is hardly a death sentence for Oakland’s Super Bowl chances, but the 10-3 team relinquished control of the AFC West to the Chiefs, who hold the tiebreaker over Oakland after the season sweep. The Raiders and Chiefs both have three tricky games left, so this race has a long way to go. The defending Super Bowl champion Broncos are only one loss back and they face both teams in the coming weeks.
While the Broncos and Chiefs have plenty of playoff race experience, these are entirely new circumstances for this young Raiders squad. Carr admitted that the Raiders were “punched in the mouth” Thursday and now they have to respond.
For an organization that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2002, no one said that just winning, baby was going to be easy.