Aside from a stinker of a loss to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 24 and a low-scoring defeat to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 1, the Oakland Raiders are taking their “Commitment to Excellence” motto seriously. The only issue with their surge is that their entire AFC West division (save for the Chargers) appears to have excelled at the exact same time. With this being said, however, the Raiders have established themselves as one of the best AFC teams, spearheaded by quarterback Derek Carr, receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and defensive end Khalil Mack. The Raiders have talent even down to their punter, Marquette King, who in this very young season leads the NFL in average yards per punt at 53.3 yards. Head coach Jack Del Rio’s system and fiery personality fit the Silver and Black nicely. The Raiders — barring a collapse — will absolutely contend for a Super Bowl this year, and may even sniff the Big Game if they get lucky. The road to contention, however, will be one filled with twists, turns and pitfalls. Their division, the AFC West, is absolutely stacked – every team has its own slew of dangerous players.
Being in such a tough division has its upside and downside. First, the upside. The concept of playing down to the opposition, which is a very real problem for younger or more emotional teams, is a moot point. Take one of the teams that they are currently looking up at in the AFC West standings, the Kansas City Chiefs, who are undefeated (4-0) so far. The Chiefs have a premier coach in Andy Reid, who is continuing his reputation for mentoring players and being able to dig up talent from seemingly every corner of the NFL. Quarterback Alex Smith, while not possessing the strongest arm in the league, can place the ball as well as most other quarterbacks. Tight end Travis Kelce ranks fifth in receiving yards amongst tight ends. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill has more receiving yards than Larry Fitzgerald so far this season. The Chiefs will certainly keep the Raiders honest, pointing to hotly contested playoff seeding and division records. The Chiefs’ explosive offense against a Raider defense with plenty to prove (aside from Khalil Mack) will be must-see TV.
The problem with such a tight division is that there is no margin for error. The Raiders will have to fire on all cylinders this season, which means the bad losses must stop, or at the very least the Raiders need to find a way to win games where they are not 100 percent. The Raiders offense is talented, but inconsistent, and as mentioned before, their defense has much to prove. This should make both Raider fans and players not get too comfortable. Just the right amount of uncertainty is good for a team, but they must learn to keep their emotions in check. If the Raiders can remain calm, and if their young players pan out, the defense should be a non-issue.
Unfortunately, these topics have been overshadowed by the U.S.’s increasingly circus-like political atmosphere. In response to President Trump’s comments regarding players kneeling while the national anthem is played, nearly all of the players in the NFL either lowered to one knee or locked arms with teammates in a show of unity, protesting Trump’s comments and the injustices people of color face in America. The Raiders’ offensive line is all African-American, the only such unit in the NFL. Prior to the Redskins game, the Raiders had originally planned to stay in their locker room during the anthem similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, since primetime games are structured differently to daytime games, the Raiders elected to kneel or sit with arms locked together. If the teams had instead chosen to sit the anthem out entirely, they may have potentially missed the opening coin toss and received a penalty. Running back and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch has been protesting the anthem for a while now and also has been putting his money where his mouth is, aiding charitable efforts with children and fighting injustice.
In addition to the important job of protesting injustice, the Raiders have the task of continuing their ascent in the NFL pecking order. If they play to their potential, the Raiders’ search for a fourth helping of buried treasure may be over.
Featured Photo: Derek Carr (4) under pressure from Johnathan Allen (95). The Mercury News.