Through the first eight weeks of the regular season, the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys, the NFC North’s Minnesota Vikings, and Bill Belichick’s mighty New England Patriots have hogged NFL headlines thanks to impressive starts under less than favorable circumstances while the rest of league’s quality clubs have been forced to fight for what’s left of the mainstream media attention.
As the defending NFC champs, the unexpected struggles of Cam Newton and company have even kept the 2-5 Carolina Panthers relatively relevant, and as usual, New York City’s NFL cousins haven’t strayed far from the spotlight regardless of their respective records. But without fail, each NFL campaign produces at least one overachieving long-shot, and in 2016, it’s the 6-2 Oakland Raiders.
Last week, starting quarterback Derek Carr continued his dream season with an unbelievable individual effort that propelled Oakland to a 30-24 overtime-victory in Tampa Bay against Jameis Winston’s Buccaneers, finishing with a franchise-high 513 yards passing and tossing four touchdown passes including the game-winner with less than two minutes remaining in the extra period.
Armed with one of the best receiving corps in the business, Carr is currently posting career-highs in quarterback rating [65.9], completion percentage [66.3], and passer rating [100.9], and the 2,321 passing yards he’s totaled through his first eight starts is a good indication that he’ll also eclipse his previous high of 3,987 passing yards set in 2015.
With 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions to go along with his probable personal-bests, Carr has even worked his way into the league’s annual M.V.P discussion. And after his star signal-caller became just the third player in league history to throw for at least 500 yards and four touchdowns without tossing a single interception in Week 8, Raiders’ head coach Jack del Rio essentially told the media that his quarterback is just warming up.
”I think we’ll continue to see good ones from him [Carr],” said del Rio via ESPN. ”He’s very confident, he’s got some weapons that he’s utilizing and he had a heck of a performance today.”
In true Raider fashion, last Sunday’s overtime win in Tampa Bay wasn’t pretty as Oakland barely overcame an NFL record 23 penalties, and allowing 27 points to a sub-par squad like the Bucs is never a good sign. Still, Sunday’s near-catastrophe improved the Raiders’ road record to a flawless 5-0, and the outcome of this week’s divisional showdown with the 6-2 Denver Broncos could easily set the tone for the second half of their season.
”The road to win the division goes through them [the Broncos],” said Carr via ESPN following Oakland’s latest victory. ”The road to the Super Bowl goes through them. They’re on top. Everyone wants to crown us because we haven’t won for so long and now we are. But we are not on top. We respect everybody, but fear no one.”
From finishing 3-13 and at the bottom of the division as a rookie in 2014, to last season’s promising seven-win effort, to this season’s first-half success, Carr has gradually become the face of a franchise on the rise. But before we pencil the Raiders in as an AFC playoff participant for the first time since 2002, it’s worth taking a look at who they’ve beaten thus far.
Through its first eight games, Oakland has faced just two teams that currently own winning records—the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons–and the Raiders lost both of those games. While six wins is definitely impressive this time of year, it’s hard to tell how good Oakland truly is when its only beaten a collection of cellar-dwellers.
Beginning with Sunday night’s clash against the Broncos, the Raiders will play four straight home games over the next five weeks—a lengthy run of home cooking that any other team would welcome. And due to a second-half schedule featuring two games against Denver, a home date versus the 5-3 Houston Texans, and a Week 15 trip to Kansas City, we’ll know just how good this team is soon enough. But ultimately, only Carr controls Oakland’s destiny.