ALAMEDA — After scuffling their way through the first three months of the season as one of the NFL’s bigger disappointments, the Oakland Raiders have managed to claw their way back into contention in the mediocre AFC West.
The Raiders (6-6) won their second straight game against a backup quarterback, beating Geno Smith and the New York Giants 24-17 on Sunday to move into a three-way tie for first with Kansas City and the Chargers with four games to play.
The task of getting back to the playoffs for a second straight season won’t be easy thanks to a four-game losing streak early in the year that put Oakland into a hole.
The Raiders play three of their final four games on the road starting with Sunday’s game at the slumping Chiefs. After hosting Dallas on Dec. 17, Oakland ends the season with trips to Philadelphia (10-2) and the Chargers.
But the Raiders are fortunate even to have a chance after trailing Kansas City by three games just one month ago before the Chiefs went on their own four-game skid. The AFC West is the first division since the 1970 merger where every team had a four-game losing streak at some point in a season.
“It’s a good division,” coach Jack Del Rio said Monday. “I think it’s a strong division. It’s one where we’ve had maybe a down year in terms of us hitting a little bit of a dry spell for a stretch, the Chargers hit a dry spell for a stretch to start the year and the Chiefs are in one now. We’re all good football teams and we’re all alive right now. We all have an opportunity.”
The Raiders have been far from overwhelming the past two weeks in beating Paxton Lynch and a Broncos team on an eight-game losing streak and the Giants the day before they fired coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.
But there have been some encouraging signs of improvement that they hope will carry over for the more difficult stretch run.
Oakland has three takeaways the past two games after having just four on defense in the first 10 contests, including the team’s only interception of the season in the game against Denver.
The Raiders also have eight sacks the past two games after recording just four in the previous four contests as the defense has played better after John Pagano replaced fired coordinator Ken Norton Jr. as play-caller.
“It’s definitely been what we’re looking for,” Del Rio said. “The guys are cutting it loose and playing a little more aggressively. Coverage has been tighter and I think they go hand in hand.”
The offense has relied more on the run game the past two weeks with starting receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper mostly unavailable. Crabtree was ejected for a fight against Denver and then suspended this past game, while Cooper was knocked out of the game against the Broncos with a concussion and sprained ankle that sidelined him against the Giants.
Marshawn Lynch had a season-high 26 carries against the Broncos and then delivered his first 100-yard rushing game since coming out of retirement to lead the way against the Giants.
Backup receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Johnny Holton both delivered big plays with Patterson’s 59-yard catch setting up a 9-yard TD to Holton. Even backup tight end Clive Walford made a big contribution with four catches after having only three the first 10 games.
The Raiders will have Crabtree back this week and Del Rio said he’s hopeful Cooper will return.
NOTES: DL Darius Latham was released to make room for Crabtree to return.