For all of their early-season dysfunction, defensive lapses, and overall deficiencies, the Raiders have somehow wandered into a three-way tie at top of the AFC West standings.
Oakland did so on the strength of a 24-14 victory Sunday over the dilapidated New York Giants, with an assist from the New York Jets, who handed the previously division-leading Kansas City Chiefs a fourth-straight defeat.
Head coach Jack Del Rio said he is proud of his team’s performance as it enters the home stretch:
“Happy to get a hard-fought victory here at home and earn ourselves, after today’s events, a share of first place. Obviously, all the goals that we set when the season started are right there in front of us.”
It was far from an impressive effort by the Raiders (6-6), who overcame the blatantly obvious absences of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to hand the Giants (2-10) — helmed by a quarterback other than Eli Manning for the first time since 2004 — their third-straight loss.
Without its Pro Bowl wide receiver duo, the Raiders offense ended up with little success. But early in the game, that did not look like it would be the case.
Marshawn Lynch racked up 60 yards on the Raiders’ first three plays from scrimmage, including a 51-yard touchdown for the game’s first score.
Lynch didn’t carry the ball again until the second quarter, after three Oakland runs from Cordarrelle Patterson (2) and DeAndre Washington (1) fizzled for a total of three yards. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing did eventually find his way back to the “Beast Mode” pages of his playbook, getting the ball in the hands of Lynch for 17 carries and two catches.
The ten-year veteran finished his best day as a Raider with 101 yards on the ground — his most since Oct. 22, 2015 — and one score, along with 20 receiving yards highlighted by a 21-yard catch and run early in the fourth, paving the way for a Washington touchdown.
Linebacker Bruce Irvin, who played four seasons alongside Lynch in Seattle, said:
“That was it. He’s a pretty much do-it-all back. … He’s just finally getting his legs back under him and he can feel it, you can tell.”
NaVorro Bowman spent six years trying to tackle the powerful running back as a member of the San Francisco defense. He added:
“I looked up at them stats and I said ‘oh, he’s still got it.’ To see him running the way he’s run for so many years, I know exactly what that defense and he’s a hard tackle.”
Following a one-yard touchdown run by Orleans Darkwa, who paced New York in both carries (14) and yards (32), the first quarter closed tied 7-7. Solid defense and lackluster offense then sent the game into a deep freeze spanning the next 2-1/2 quarters.
In a game with a shortage of big highlights, a pair of plays that weren’t made stood out.
With 3:46 remaining in the first half, and the Raiders at the New York 21, a second-and-11 pass from Derek Carr intended for Jared Cook sailed into the hands of Giants safety Landon Collins, who had the easy pick slide right through his hands off his chest. Earlier in the drive, Collins had scooped up an incomplete pass and sprinted into the end zone, motioning to the Oakland fans once there. The drive culminated in a go-ahead 39-yard field goal from Giorgio Tavecchio.
Three minutes later, it was a non-punt that proved to be Oakland’s salvation.
Under heavy pressure in his own red zone, Marquette King made the snap decision to abort a punt attempt. New York special teamer Shane Smith, almost untouched, smothered the Raiders punter at the Oakland 9-yard-line.
The choice to avoid a blocked punt, which likely would have ended up as either a touchdown or safety for the Giants, forced the Raiders defense to take a stand.
It did so resoundingly, with Khalil Mack beating left tackle Ereck Flowers for a sack and, with his right hand, yanking the ball from Geno Smith — making his first start since Oct. 23, 2016 — for Oakland’s second sack-fumble takeaway of the game.
When asked how many players he has known of who could make such a play, Del Rio, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a player and another 12 as a coach, laughed:
“I know one.”
Irvin, known in his own right to have been the author of many similar plays including one with just under nine minutes left in the first half, marveled at the display:
“We pride ourself on turnovers. We haven’t been getting a lot this year, but they’re starting to come — three in two weeks and you know what they say: they come in bunches.”
Given an opportunity by its aggressive defense, the Raiders offense opened things up in the second half, nearly doubling its first-half output of 161 total yards. Oakland finished the game with 401 including 287 thrown for by Carr, who completed 22 of 36 passes for one score — the eventual decider, hauled in by Johnny Holton.
Patterson, who paced the Cooper- and Crabtree-less Raiders with 97 receiving yards on four catches, said there was no change made to the game plan at halftime, insisting that the difference was simply execution. Carr concurred:
“You have to find a rhythm. We have a lot of guys playing some new spots. For us, it was just finding the rhythm, staying the course — because we knew our plan was good.”
When the frozen crust slowing the offenses finally thawed, it did so under the hot hands of Carr and Smith, who combined for 235 yards and 24 total points in the fourth quarter. Smith completed 21-of-34 attempts for 212 yards and one touchdown, finding a comfort level with tight end Evan Engram, who led the way for New York with seven catches and 99 yards and a score.
A late onrush wasn’t enough for Smith and the Giants, who have seen high preseason expectations evaporate into a team playing for nothing more than an early draft pick. The Raiders, though, strengthened their playoff chances considerably with a win — albeit an expected one — which, as Bowman said, isn’t always easily done:
“This game was a serious game, for me personally, because I understand how guys respond to teams that are not doing well. … So, for the defense to start the game like that and make the plays that we needed, playing good football in December, is really good.”
The Raiders will look to maintain their renewed grasp on the AFC West division lead next Sunday when they face the scuffing Chiefs (6-6) in Kansas City. The Chiefs have lost six of their last seven, including a 31-30 Week 7 loss in Oakland.
With no Michael Crabtree or Amari Cooper, tight end Jared Cook claimed the team lead in receptions, getting one to push his season total to 43. Fellow tight end Clive Walford, however, saw the most notable increase in activity finishing with four catches — two of which coming in the fourth — for a career-best 57 yards. … Jalen Richard was credited with a career-high three fumbles, though none resulted in turnovers. Johnny Holton caught three of seven targets for 39 yards, but also fumbled once, resulting in a turnover. Oakland recorded three total sacks — one apiece by Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry — giving the Raiders defense eight in the past two games. It had recorded just 14 in the 10 games prior.