At 4-3, the Oakland Raiders have momentum on their side.
The Derek Carr-led offense is producing points and the Charles Woodson-led defense is coming up with big plays.
After beating the Jets Sunday and the Chargers the previous week, the Raiders find themselves with a winning record this late in the season for the first time since 2011.
But as that 2011 season proved, a winning record after seven games isn’t a ticket to the playoffs. The Raiders still have nine games remaining – beginning with a matchup Sunday vs. the 4-4 Steelers in Pittsburgh – and a schedule that includes the 5-2 Vikings, 7-0 Broncos, 6-1 Packers and three other games against AFC West rivals.
In 2011, the Raiders won two straight games in Weeks 5 and 6 to improve to 4-2. But quarterback Jason Campbell was lost for the season to injury, and the Raiders lost the next week to Kansas City to fall to 4-3 in Week 7. Trading for quarterback Carson Palmer was going to be the elixir, yet it wasn’t. Oakland went 4-5 over the remaining nine games to end the season 8-8 and finish just out of the playoff picture.
Yet this season’s Raiders team seems like a different bunch.
Carr is young and ascending. Receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and tight end Clive Walford lead a corps of dangerous pass catchers. Running backs Latavius Murray, Taiwan Jones and Marcel Reece are making plays behind a solid offensive line. And the defense, with the veteran Woodson and second-year standout Khalil Mack as leaders, has grown significantly since the start of the season.
Plus, first-year head coach Jack Del Rio has assembled a staff that seems to be pushing all the right buttons.
The analytic FiveThirtyEight blog on ESPN.com now gives the Raiders a 24 percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s a huge improvement from its preseason projection of 9 percent. Before the season began, the blog predicted the Raiders would win 5.4 games; now the projection is 7.7. A victory over the Steelers Sunday would boost those numbers even higher.
As Vinnie Iyer of The Sporting News noted after Sunday’s victory over the Jets, the Raiders would be the AFC’s No. 5 playoff seed if the season ended today.
“Surprisingly, it’s hard to find any major weaknesses with Oakland,” wrote Iyer. “It can win games in a variety of ways and is a lot more disciplined under Jack Del Rio. Those are certainly traits of a team that can both make the playoffs and win in the playoffs.”
Iyer wrote that the Raiders' victory over a solid Jets team is a good indicator for the remainder of the Raiders season.
Wrote Iyer: “It’s just past Halloween in The Black Hole and, for a change, Raiders fans can celebrate a team that’s become a whole lot scarier for every opponent.”