Raiders showing growth and grit in young NFL season

The growth is real.

Through four games in 2015, the Raiders were 2-2, and three of the teams they faced during that stretch finished the season with fewer than six wins. This year, though, they’re toppling nothing but contenders.

Oakland’s 28-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday had everything a team needs to contend for a title. Mental wherewithal, brute strength, and efficiency. The took and they gave, but left a sturdy group of Ravens feeling totally outplayed.

More than that, though, the Raiders are winning on the road, and in clutch ways that prove their grit and determination, not to mention the hard work put forth by everyone in the organization — front office, advance scouting, coaches and players. This team is for real.

Stop me if you’ve heard that before, and stop me if you’ve heard that from me. I penned those same words in 2015, during the Raiders bye week. I was wrong then — the team fell apart, and perhaps I overestimated their strength in key areas.

The wins in 2016, though, are coming against teams who are much better than the squads from last season. Atlanta doled out the sole Oakland loss of this year, but proved why they could do it today: their quarterback, Matt Ryan, threw for 503 yards against one of only three elite defenses in football, Carolina, and their ground game averaged only 3.6 yards per carry.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr hasn’t been airing it out like that, but he has been efficient. One interception in 153 pass attempts, with a 67.9 completion percentage and nine touchdowns. And while the Raiders didn’t run the ball particularly well against a stout Baltimore front, that didn’t halt Carr’s decision making.

It doesn’t hurt that the offensive line didn’t allow a sack, though rookie Vadal Alexandar allowed significant yardage from holding penalties — it’s hard to fault him, it was his first NFL start, and at right tackle, against an incredibly tough opponent — but the unit kept Carr upright and unharmed.

The Raiders do not win this game with Connor Cook or Matt McGloin calling the shots.

So, where are the Raiders?

They’re 3-1, with two home games against division opponents coming in weeks five and six, riding the wave of confidence and seldom showing their mortality.

Mack Attack

Khalil Mack finally drew a holding penalty, despite egregious holds during the three weeks prior, along with his first sack of 2016. Mack went sackless through his first two games of 2015 — including a week two win versus Baltimore — and then heated up with three over the first four weeks.

The holding penalty if especially noteworthy, because Mack is held on most plays. Teams kept getting away with it because they could. But officiating crews needed to flag it at some point, and the precedent has been set now. If crews continue to call games with a keen eye towards Mack’s matchup, that would bode well for Oakland.

They need their top pass rusher to record tackles for loss, and keep quarterbacks running. It’s the key to unlocking the potential of Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith, two of Oakland’s offseason additions in the secondary. The pair thrive when covering the targets of off-balance throws, and Nelson put forth career numbers in 2015 as the result of Cincinnati’s ferocious attack.

Once Mack’s sack production goes up, the turnovers will come. Bet that.

Punting on third down

The Raiders didn’t actually punt on third down. But they went 3-for-12 on third down, a 25 percent clip that can’t become a trend. It hasn’t been that bad this season, with 38 percent at Tennessee, 36 percent at New Orleans, and 41 percent in their home loss to the Falcons.

It’s an oddity that the best conversion rate over four games would be the one loss, but converting one of every three third downs isn’t something easily overcome. Especially in a division with Kansas City and Denver, two of the toughest defenses in football.

Games are won on a cumulative per-play basis, meaning that one or two plays does not decide a ballgame. It’s 20 plays, 30 plays, 40 plays that make or break a game. But 30 plays could be the offensive maximum if the efficiency remains low.

Five of 12 playoff teams from 2015 ranked in the bottom half in converting third downs, three (Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Green Bay) were wild card teams. Not surprisingly, though, the teams who were unable to convert, also sported solid defenses (Minnesota, Kansas City, Denver and Green Bay).

There are no outliers here, which is one of the reasons it’s such an important statistical category, perhaps the only singular statistical category that can paint a picture of where a team is in its quest for a championship.

Oakland was dead middle last season, 16th, and so was their 7-9 record.

No offense, but an awesome quarterback rating?

This is one of the reasons that the quarterback rating stat is so effusive, yet hated. Carr’s 123.4 quarterback rating (the ninth time he’s posted such a rating over 100) comes with fewer than 200 passing yards, which seems odd in the bigger picture.

Here are the pass plays on third down, in order of when they happened:

1. Short right to Crabtree, incomplete; 2. Deep left to Cooper, incomplete; 3. Short middle to Cooper, complete for 1st down; 4. Short middle to Richard, incomplete; 5. Deep middle to Crabtree, complete for 1st down; 6. Short middle to Richard, complete (punt); 7. Short right to Roberts, complete (punt); 8. Short left to Cooper, complete; 9. Middle right to Crabtree, complete for touchdown; 10. Short right to Crabtree, incomplete.

For a purist like myself, I wish there was a statistic that took game situation into consideration. This isn’t a segue to bag on Carr either, by the way, just something to show what happened against a good defense through the air, on third down.

Carr made several throws on second down for solid gains, and also convinced the Baltimore line to jump into the neutral zone on 4th-and-short. He played well. But the Raiders will need to play better in order to win against one of the NFL’s elite.

Coming back is how the Raiders are coming back to relevance

The Raiders came back to win in the waning seconds of the season opener, at New Orleans, and they did it again at Baltimore. There’s something to be said for that.

Words that would generally be used: exciting, invigorating, thrilling. Or, a few others: Lucky, overachieving, lackluster. It’s tough to determine which are most appropriate, and perhaps a healthy combination is proper.

As noted earlier in this column, games are won and lost over a cumulative number of plays, not necessarily a final drive. But that doesn’t mean that big plays at the end of a game won’t matter.

The Raiders point margin through 16 games in 2015 was -2.5. The champion Denver Broncos’ margin was +4.6, and Carolina led the league at +11.5.

12 teams, though, had a margin of victory from +4 to -4. The average margin of victory for 22 teams was the difference of less than a touchdown. Games will be close. So it’s a good thing that Carr looked up to Brett Favre as a kid, and has Kenny Stabler’s ghost in his home building.

Coming back in tight games will be necessary for any team to lay claim to a winning record, and especially a playoff berth. And for their numerous shortcomings so far this season, the Raiders are coming back with a vengeance.

Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at for full coverage of Raiders football.