Super Bowl XXXVII was an absolute bashing for the Oakland Raiders at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The only thing more embarrassing than that stat for the once-proud Silver and Black is what has followed: They haven’t appeared in a playoff game since that dreaded day in January 2003.
But after 13 seasons, nine head coaches, 145 losses and front-office bungles such as drafting JaMarcus Russell and trading for Carson Palmer, the Raiders are in the driver’s seat to claim a playoff berth and maybe even the AFC West title.
And while they certainly have a solid passing game and can score a healthy amount of points, the 5-2 Raiders have not done nearly enough in the first half of the regular season to prove they are destined to end the NFL’s second-longest postseason drought.
Not one of Oakland’s five wins this season has come against a team that currently holds a winning record: that stat will not change this Sunday, as they travel to Tampa to face the 3-3 Buccaneers.
Of course the record of their opponents shouldn’t necessarily be a knock against the Raiders: they can only play the games on the schedule. And besides, the Broncos — the team Oakland is tied with atop the AFC West — only have one victory versus a team with a winning record and that came last week against the much-maligned Houston Texans.
Still, the Raiders have one enormous flaw, a flaw that both the Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs — who have the same number of losses as both Denver and Oakland — do not possess.
Sure, Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree make up the best QB/WR trio among any of the AFC West competitors, and is one of the best in the NFL. Those three have also benefited from (statistically) the best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL; Oakland has allowed a league-low 7 sacks and 15 hits on the quarterback through seven games. And although it’s been greatly overshadowed, the Raiders running game is also surprisingly strong. Their 115 yards per game average is actually the best in the division.
But they’ve needed that Herculean effort from the offense to mask considerable difficulties on the other side of the ball. Oakland has allowed more yards per game and yards per play this season than any team in the NFL. One of the reasons for that is an inability to pressure opposing passers. Despite the presence of Khalil Mack, perhaps the best front-seven defender in the NFL not named Von Miller, the Raiders have just 9 sacks, tied for third-fewest in the NFL. And since Mack himself has 3, that means the entire team has only 6 sacks, despite opposing offensive coordinators furiously scheming around and assigning multiple blockers to last year’s First Team All-Pro defensive end.
Despite the poor pressure they’ve put on opposing passers, and the all the yards they’ve surrendered — they’ve actually allowed both more rushing yards and passing yards than they’ve gained — Oakland is still giving up less than 26 points per game. But to whom they’ve given those points to is troublesome.
The Ravens, who boast one of the most underwhelming offenses in the NFL this year, posted by far their best performance of the season against Oakland: In Week 4, Joe Flacco enjoyed his most efficient performance of the year and a Ravens running back broke the 100-yard rushing barrier for the only time all season.
Worse than allowing that type of offense from a team that would fire its offensive coordinator just two weeks later, was the Raiders’ defensive effort two weeks later.
Against the Chiefs, the Raiders squandered an opportunity to make a statement about their viability as a playoff team. Not only was their own offense stuck in neutral — scoring a season-low 10 points, turning the ball over a season-high twice — but Oakland’s defense was manhandled for 406 yards and four lengthy scoring drives by the Chiefs running game and an Alex Smith-led passing game that is, to put it mildly, inert.
Even if the Raiders pound Tampa Bay this Sunday — ironically enough, in a rematch of that very forgettable Super Bowl showdown — it won’t move the needle very much. The Bucs are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that shouldn’t be judged on their blowout of the 49ers or the beat-down Denver gave them in Week 4. And even the following month isn’t necessarily a make-or-break stretch for Jack Del Rio’s club. Aside from the Broncos, games with Houston, Carolina and Buffalo are very much winnable: none of those three teams pose serious trouble for their weary defense and the Carr, Cooper, Crabtree collection matches up well with those thin secondaries.
No, the real test for the Raiders comes the final four weeks of the season: road games, against San Diego, Kansas City, and Denver, straddled around a home game with Andrew Luck’s Colts … not an ideal visitor for the worst-ranked pass defense in football. So if Oakland hopes to reach the postseason, and in the process redefine a cellar-dweller image, they’re going to have to do it in December, and on the home fields of the three teams that have made them the AFC West doormat for more than a decade.