ALAMEDA -- As the 2019 NFL season heads toward the home stretch, the Raiders have gone from punchline to playoff contender thanks to grit, resilience and some Jon Gruden magic.
Most teams that have traversed a similar path as the Raiders might alter their approach with the games meaning exponentially more. The Silver and Black were picked to win somewhere between four and six games to start the season, and that was before Antonio Brown auditioned for "The Jerry Springer Show" with help of a guerilla Instagram campaign to get himself released.
Oakland won its season-opener buoyed by an us-against-the-world mentality, but the Raiders dropped their next two, hitting rock bottom in a 34-14 loss to the Vikings in Week 3. Some teams might have fractured and folded, but the Raiders responded to win five of their next seven games to head into Week 12 occupying the No. 6 seed in the AFC and just a half-game back of the Chiefs for the AFC West lead.
The Raiders have surprised a lot of people in jumping into the playoff race, but the feeling around the Silver and Black is status quo.
"We've always been a group that has great energy," quarterback Derek Carr said. "Whether it was OTAs, workouts, meetings, training camp, we've had great energy all the time. The fact that there's still great energy in the locker room, that does not surprise me. When we lost a couple games in a row at the beginning of the season, the same energy was still there. It doesn't surprise me it's the same now. We don't get into wins and losses, we don't get into stats and all those kind of things -- Player of the Week and those things because it really doesn't matter until the end of the season.
"The only thing that matters is that we keep doing our same process and that we love what we are doing and who we are doing it with. If we can maintain that thought, that single mindset, the rest takes care of itself."
That early thumping in Minnesota could have defined the Raiders' season. Instead, they went to work, believing in the people in the locker room and the plan Gruden put in place. They survived their five-game road trip to return home at 3-4. and then protected the Coliseum, winning three in a row to move to 6-4.
They've been hit hard by injuries and roster turnover. But they didn't get down or take their focus off the task at hand. They put their arms around each other and kept their heads down, focused on a singular goal.
"Absolutely," Carr said when asked if the wins have rewarded the team's faith in what they are trying to do. "Because then you start to see like, yeah what we are doing is right. When we do what our coaches say, when we execute our assignments, when everyone just does their job everyone gets to benefit from it.
"As long as our guys can keep a level head -- which they will, we'll make sure of that with those young guys but as long as we keep a level head, it's nice to see our process be rewarded."
That process has seen Carr put together an efficient season that mirrors his 2016 campaign. The offensive line has kept him upright, rookie running back Josh Jacobs has put together a stellar first season but is hungry for more and the defense, ravaged by injuries across the board, has banded together to help secure big wins with fourth-quarter stops.
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The playoffs are within the Raiders' sights.
Even the AFC West title is a possibility as 2019 draws to a close.
Despite where the Raiders find themselves, Gruden is making sure everyone stays the course.
"We're just grinding," Gruden said. "We're in the midst of a fight. We know what we have to try to do to win another game. We got to play better. Play better in all three phases and keep working our hearts out to improve."
Expectations have been met and passed. Now, the Raiders must stay laser-focused on their process to achieve a goal most beleive impossible during the dog days of summer.