This season, the Raiders have become survivors. They are 8-7 despite all odds, and they can reach the playoffs two ways: Capture the AFC West with a win and a Broncos loss, or earn a wild-card berth with a win and an elaborate-but-not-impossible combination of losses around the AFC.
The Raiders are on the brink of their first playoffs since 2002 because of all they've had to overcome: injuries at quarterback and other skill position starters, the death of Al Davis, a midseason swoon that swallowed other hot-starting teams the Bills and Redskins, and Tebowmania - or at least they've been able to swim in its wake.
The Raiders could easily be the Bears: Their hopes dashed, their coach's job in jeopardy, their whole roster shrugging its shoulders and saying "sorry, we had too many injuries." The Raiders are still around because they play in an easier division, but also because they made the kind of daring moves they were famous for in their heyday, taking chances other teams were not bold enough to take.
Carson Palmer is just 4-4 as a starter this season, 4-5 if you count his early, ineffective relief appearance against the Chiefs. At his worst, he looks rusty and out-of-synch with his receivers. At his best, he bears only a slight resemblance to the Palmer of 2005 and 2006. He cost the Raiders a fortune in draft picks, including a first-rounder next year. It is hard to classify the midseason trade to bring Palmer out of Bengals exile as an unqualified success. It was a high-risk gambit, and we won't know what the long-term impact of the trade will be for many years.
Instead of comparing Palmer to his former peers among elite starting quarterbacks, compare him to the some of the backups that have taken snaps this season. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and has a 77.2 efficiency rating.
- Caleb Hanie threw three touchdowns in four starts and earned a 41.8 rating before the Bears dragged Josh McCown out of the private sector and tossed him in the lineup.
- Tyler Palko had two touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 59.8 rating in the month before the Chiefs pulled Kyle Orton out of Tebow Limbo.
- The Eagles thought they had an ideal backup in Vince Young, but he has a 60.8 rating, mixing a handful of brilliant plays with lots of comic bumbling.
- Matt Leinart played just long enough to finish a coffee and Danish before getting hurt, and the Texans would be in deep trouble if T.J. Yates did not mature so quickly.
- Charlie Whitehurst started one game for the Seahawks and went 12 of 30 for 97 yards; when a banged-up Tarvaris Jackson looks like a savior, you know the backup quarterback really screwed things up.
- And let's not even mention Curtis Painter of the Colts. For every team that discovers a Yates on their bench, there are two or three others who realize too late that their backup is so terrible that they cannot run anything resembling their regular offense.
The Raiders would be in the same boat as the Bears Chiefs, and others if they had crossed their fingers and left Kyle Boller to his own devices when Jason Campbell got hurt. Their three-game winning streak against the Chargers, Vikings, and Bears never would have happened. They would probably be experimenting with Terrelle Pryor.
Palmer is no Drew Brees, and he isn't 2005 Palmer, but he is light years above the vat of unqualified Hanie-Boller-Palko types that teams talked themselves into. Coach Hue Jackson knew Boller and wishes were not going to work, and that waiting 'til next year was not an appealing option. He acquired a quarterback he knew and trusted.
As for the heavy price tag in draft picks, Palmer probably will look much better after spending a full training camp in Oakland. Also, he hasn't yet lined up with his full complement of offensive weapons since joining the Raiders. When you look at their injuries on offense, it's a wonder they've scored any points at all in the last two months.
Something old, something new
Darren McFadden has not played since Oct. 23, the day Palmer entered the lineup. Wide receiver Jacoby Ford has been out of action since mid-November, though he might return Sunday. Rookie sensation Denarius Moore missed three full games and was limited in others before getting his groove back against the Chiefs last week.
Backups such as running back Taiwan Jones and receiver Derek Hagan have also been injured. The Raiders endured a three-game stretch (Bears, Dolphins, Packers) without their No. 1 running back and their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers, and with the still-adjusting Palmer at quarterback. That they beat the Bears under those circumstances might have been their greatest accomplishment this season.
Bruising Michael Bush has been excellent in McFadden's absence, and Jackson has done a fine job disguising the fact that the Raiders have no real backup or change-of-pace runner. At wide receiver, the Raiders have performed a miracle, cobbling a credible passing game together from has-been T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 100-meter dash specialist Darrius Heyward-Bey and hanger-on Chaz Schilens.
Heyward-Bey was the last of the great scratch-your-head Al Davis draft picks: a speedster with a lackluster college record and everything to learn about running NFL routes. For two years in Oakland, he lived down to his reputation as a guy who does nothing but run fly routes.
But he has 55 receptions this season, and there is nothing wrong with being a one-dimensional deep threat if you are good at it: Palmer and Heyward-Bey have connected on 34-, 35-, and 55-yard passes in the past two weeks, the final pass to set up a game-winning overtime field goal Saturday. Heyward-Bey also has helped in ways that do not show up on the stat sheet: He is a fine blocker on screens and outside runs.
Lately, Houshmandzadeh has found his niche, and he is 8-for-8 on passes thrown to him in the past two games, most of them short passes into the right flat that help keep the chains moving.
Schilens has been hanging around the Raiders' bench since 2008. When thrust into the starting lineup by the Moore-Ford injuries, he exceeded expectations. The Bears game was his signature performance: He kept two field goal drives alive with long receptions, then converted a third down to set up the Bush touchdowns that won the game for the Raiders. It was a great game from a former seventh-round pick who had no business being a go-to receiver in a crucial game.
Tight end Kevin Boss, fullback Marcel Reece and handyman Rock Cartwright also played significant roles in keeping the Raiders afloat. The offense has not been great, but it has been far better than it had any business to be. And we haven't even flipped to the other side of the ball, where the Raiders have been forced to give old-timers such as Lito Sheppard major playing time in the secondary.
Jackson and his staff deserve a lot of credit for keeping the wagon axle from snapping. The Houshmandzadeh acquisition looked like a power play at first ("Jackson is exerting control bringing in HIS guys"), but it was a sensible move to grab a warm body who knew the offensive terminology.
Heyward-Bey and Schilens were holdovers from the last regime, but instead of sweeping them out, Jackson found roles for them. And Jackson kept most of the playbook open, giving the Raiders a shot most weeks. With Palmer throwing to whoever is available, the Raiders are 35 of 76 for 954 yards, six touchdowns, and seven interceptions on deep passes. Somewhere, Al Davis is nodding: It is not a great vertical offense, but it is as good as anyone can ask for under the circumstances.
Just win, maybe
To reach the playoffs, the Raiders must beat the Chargers, a team which had its fair share of injuries but got through the season with most of its skill position players healthy. The Chargers are out of the postseason, thanks to a six-game losing streak that included a loss to the Raiders.
The fact that the Raiders still have hope and the Chargers do not tells you all you need to know about Oakland this season. San Diego found reasons to lose: The quarterback was slumping, the line was banged up, the field goal was short, and so on. The Raiders never gave up. They scrapped together wins out of special teams plays. They won games on deep passes to third-string receivers.
Give them an inch, and the Raiders took a foot or two. They are a team you never want to turn your back on. Just like in the old days.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.