The Oakland Raiders were stumbling along at 4-4 three weeks ago, having lost two games in a row.
The Raiders had a new, rusty quarterback and an injured star running back and they’d been torched by two straight AFC West teams that hadn’t looked like top-echelon franchises before they stomped on the Raiders.
Clearly, the Raiders were at a crossroads.
Since then, however, the Raiders have found their way out of the woods with victories over the Chargers, Vikings and Bears and hold a one-game lead in the AFC West at 7-4 over the surprising 6-5 Broncos.
As Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole wrote, the Raiders found a way to pull out each of those games even though they all were “close enough to slip away in the fourth quarter.”
Added Poole of the team’s evolution: “They’ve gone from looking helpless at the finish to moaning about the need to finish to actually finishing.”
Sunday, in a 25-20 victory over the visiting Bears, the Raiders came through when it counted, scoring a TD on Michael Bush’s 3-yard run in the fourth quarter, their first fourth-quarter points since Oct. 9.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game occurred on the snap prior to Bush’s score, when Carson Palmer connected with wide receiver Louis Murphy on a 47-yard pass.
It not only was a big play for the Raiders, but a huge play for Murphy, who came up big on a day when the team’s receiving corps was thin, missing Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore.
Over 2009 and 2010, Murphy had caught more passes (75) for more yards (1,130) than any other receiver on the team, yet this year was an afterthought. As Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group noted, Murphy was inactive for the first five games because of surgery for a sports hernia, and then had just two catches this season before his 47-yard reception against the Bears.
“It’s just a relief,” Murphy told McDonald after the game. “You start to doubt yourself. Can I still play this game? Coach has been telling me, ‘Murph, keep focused. Keep going.’ ”
The long pass play down the right sideline came on “a play I saved in my pocket,” said Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. And it was a play set up specifically for Murphy.
“Louis hadn’t had a lot of catches all year,” Palmer told reporters. “He knew that was something special for him in the package. He did a great job of executing it.”
Murphy, in his third NFL season from Florida, now has three catches this season for 76 yards and no scores. Last season, he had 41 catches for 609 yards and two scores, and as a rookie in 2009 he had 34 receptions for 521 yards and four TDs.
The Raiders, who travel to Miami this Sunday to play the Dolphins – who’ve won three of their past four games – are hoping for a return by Moore and Ford to bolster their receiving group.