At 5-4, the Oakland Raiders – who just broke a two-game losing streak -- have hardly been a juggernaut.
Yet the Raiders lead the AFC West over the Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos (all 4-5) and, as one ESPN pundit put it this week, the road to the AFC West championship now goes through Oakland, based on the Raiders’ potential and how the schedule shapes up.
With quarterback Carson Palmer now settling in after his acquisition in October and coming off his best game yet in last Thursday’s victory over the Chargers, Pro Football Talk’s Gregg Rosenthal noted the Raiders should win the AFC West.
“Oakland looked like the best team in the division before the trade (for Palmer),” he wrote. “They are the only AFC West team with wins over quality opponents like the Texans and Jets.”
A little-known aspect of the Raiders’ success story this season has been the offense’s ability to consistently make big plays.
As the Raiders prepare for their Sunday game against the Vikings in Minnesota, Oakland has even stepped up its big-play capabilities since Palmer took over for Jason Campbell, who was knocked out of the lineup with an injury Oct. 16.
Paul Gutierrez of Comcast Sportsnet this week noted that, according to STATS LLC, the Raiders have made 54 plays of 20 or more yards this season, the best in the NFL, ahead of Carolina (49), Dallas (48), Philadelphia (47), San Diego (47) and New Orleans (46). The league average is 36.
Among those plays is a league-best 17 runs of 20 or more yards, far above the league average of seven.
And Palmer, in just 76 passing attempts, already has 17 completions of at least 20 yards, which matches the same number Campbell had in 165 attempts.
As Gutierrez points out, the Raiders – who always have loved the “vertical game” preached by the late Al Davis – have become a better deep-ball team with Palmer. Palmer is 7-for-16 for 237 yards with three TDs and an interception on passes of at least 21 yards through the air, he reports. Last week against San Diego, Palmer connected twice with rookie Denarius Moore on long TD strikes.
So, while leading rusher Darren McFadden is still likely to miss another game this Sunday, the rushing attack should remain capable with Michael Bush and Taiwan Jones, and the passing attack appears more potent than it was at the beginning of the season.