Maybe the Raiders aren’t a big joke: Team revives its playoff pulse vs. Chargers
It was the kind of comedy that sells out theaters on the Strip.
In the middle of November, after his team had lost at home to the lowly Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis proclaimed without a hint of sarcasm that first-year coach Josh McDaniels was doing a “fantastic” job.
Fantastic? The same Raiders had blown three leads of at least 17 points. Talk about a gag reel. They were so vexingly unreliable that quarterback Derek Carr cried in frustration in a postgame news conference. They fell to the Colts in the sideline debut of coach Jeff Saturday, who had no collegiate or pro coaching experience and had just stepped out of an ESPN studio.
If the Raiders weren’t the biggest disappointment of the NFL season, they got clipped at the wire only by Russell Wilson. They were a sad trombone personified.
With a 6-6 record and five games left, Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. says it doesn’t matter who the team plays now: It needs to string together wins.
But they sure didn’t look that way Sunday in their 27-20 victory over the Chargers, or in their two wins before that, overtime road victories against the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
The Raiders actually have a pulse, and that’s quite something for a team that lost seven of its first nine games.
OK, so Las Vegas has only five wins and is buried in third place in the AFC West. It’s a little premature to say it can make a playoff run. Then again, the Raiders play at the Rams on Thursday — nothing is going right for the defending Super Bowl champions — with a chance to claw their way to 6-7.
The Raiders had an identical 6-7 record last season before closing the schedule with four wins in a row and sneaking into the playoffs. Crazier things have happened.
The NFL season really starts after Thanksgiving. That’s the fourth quarter of the regular season, so everyone who can stay relevant up to that point has a chance.
“Teams that can adapt in November and December, those are the teams that are really going to go the farthest,” Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller said. “That’s do-or-die time for a lot of teams.”
Even with the loss, the 6-6 Chargers still have a better record than the Raiders. But it was the third defeat in four games for Justin Herbert & Co., and the next two opponents — Miami and Tennessee — are likely playoff teams. They aren’t as hobbled as the Rams, but the Chargers are heading in the wrong direction as well.
And for Herbert, this trip to the mecca of gaming was sort of a high-stakes game of left, right, center. Because the Chargers had backups at left tackle, right tackle and center, leaving them with porous protection of their quarterback (sacked five times) and almost no running game (72 yards).
Las Vegas doesn’t have an easy finish, either, with the Raiders’ final four games against New England, at Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Kansas City. It’s worth noting, though, that the 49ers have lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the season, and that final game could be meaningless to the Chiefs.
What’s more, Raiders tight end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow are eligible to come off injured reserve this week, so this team should be getting stronger on offense.
On Sunday, the Raiders got off to a horrid start before finding their footing, with their first three possessions ending thusly: three and out, fumble, pick-six. But they were a different team after halftime, with Davante Adams scoring two touchdowns on long receptions in the third quarter and almost catching a third scoring pass on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Adams, who arrived this season from Green Bay, has made an instant impact in the AFC West. He has caught passes for at least 100 yards in each of his first five division games.
The Chargers had their rare moments — a 35-yard touchdown reception by Keenan Allen in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to seven — but mostly couldn’t generate much of anything.
For some in the visitors’ locker room, losing to the Raiders had to conjure memories of last season when Raiders-Chargers was moved to the coveted final Sunday night slot, the league’s regular-season finale. The Raiders won in overtime, 35-32, extinguishing the Chargers’ playoff hopes like wet fingers pinching a candle wick.
Carr, for one, is hopeful.
“The character was on full display this week,” he said.
Sure beats comedy.
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