Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl domination of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, only one team had defeated Andy Reid's team when Patrick Mahomes wasn't in sweatpants -- the Raiders.
The Raiders handed their AFC West rival a 40-32 loss in Week 5 at Arrowhead Stadium. They had them on the ropes at Allegiant Stadium in Week 11 before Mahomes hit Travis Kelce for a 22-yard game-winning touchdown with 28 seconds remaining.
Kansas City has played in back-to-back Super Bowls and is a Dee Ford offsides penalty away from making in three in a row. The Raiders only have one playoff appearance since 2002 and are 1-5 against Kansas City since Mahomes took over.
Despite what would appear to be a chasm between the two, the Raiders are confident they are right there with the two-time defending AFC champions.
"I really don’t think there’s much because the first game we won, the second game they score at the end and if you ask people on defense, they say we can’t happen but those are two games that we feel like we should have won," tight end Darren Waller told NBC Sports Bay Area about how big the gap between the Raiders and Chiefs is. "We don’t feel like the gap is that big, honestly. It’s easy to show up and play them because they are so good and so talented that you naturally want to play your best. We feel like our best is right there with theirs."
Wide receiver Henry Ruggs echoed the belief that the Silver and Black are on the same level as the Chiefs.
“No disrespect to anyone," Ruggs told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I would never disrespect anyone in this league, but I feel like we definitely have the team, definitely have the pieces and if we put it together, we showed in that game that we can compete with anybody. I know that one thing we have to do is to stay consistent and focus on the little things and we can be a top contending team. We definitely should have been in the playoffs."
While the Raiders' best might very well rival the Chiefs' A-game, Waller is aware of the work the lies ahead if the Raiders plan to go from 8-8 to perennial Super Bowl contenders as the Chiefs have with Mahomes under center.
"The Chiefs do it Week 1 through Week 22," Waller said. "We just found a way to pick our spots. We can do it the first nine weeks fairly consistently, but at the end, it’s not the same. The Chiefs you’re getting that same product every week and you better come ready or it’s not going to look good. So we have to reach that level of consistency that they have. They have a historically great level of consistency that we haven’t reached yet."
Consistency has been one of the Raiders' most significant issues in the first three years of Jon Gruden's second tenure at the helm. In 2019, a talent-deficient Raiders team surprised by jumping out to a 6-4 record, but fell apart down the stretch and skidde to a 1-5 finish.
This past season, the Raiders sat at 6-3 following that Week 11 loss to the Chiefs. They were one of the darlings of the NFL season. Derek Carr was playing his best football, Waller was well on his way to what should have been an All-Pro selection and they had the look of a team no one would want to see in the playoffs.
But things quickly fell apart. The Raiders went to Atlanta and got rolled by a Falcons team that finished 4-12. A miracle Hail Mary to Ruggs saved them from a humiliating loss to the New York Jets, but they returned home and lost three straight home games before beating the Broncos in Denver to finish at 8-8.
The Raiders' late-season struggles are a sign of a team trying to find its way from NFL punching bag to legitimate contender. They have the offensive talent to beat anyone. But the slightest speed bump pushes them off the tracks and they are unable to course correct and bounce back as the NFL elite do.
"I feel like when adversity hits and when you naturally get tired and, you know, I feel like our attention to detail lacked in all areas of the game, not just one side of the ball," Waller said of the what derailed a promising season. "I feel like that has to be better because as teams go through the season, they get better -- the good teams, the great teams -- and we found a way to decline and that can’t happen. We just have to be a more locked in team going through the season because there’s going to be times when you’re not feeling great or you’re banged up and things like that, but the details can’t slide, the fundamentals can’t slide --- we have the talent, we have the energy, guys get up and get going on game day. But when those fundamentals and those details aren’t there, that’s where the separation comes. It’s not blowouts all the time, it’s those one-score games that happen to us regularly and that’s what that comes down to."
For Ruggs, who came from the Nick Saban win factory at Alabama, the Raiders were too comfortable after the fast start.
"One thing probably had to do with complacency, that’s one thing," Ruggs said. "We kind of got settled on ‘OK, we getting the wins.' We had a couple tough wins, so we felt like we were doing the right things in certain situations. But you know, as the season goes on and teams get more film on you, you can’t just get by doing the little things wrong. You have to pay attention to all details."
That attention to detail is what separates the champions from the rest of the pack. It was a foundation for 20 years of success in New England. It's been a critical component of the Chiefs' success and was vital to the Bucs' 31-9 dismantling of Kansas City on Sunday.
The Raiders don't do the little things. That was true in 2019 and it was the same story in 2020. Yes, the Raiders have to find a way to get their defense from the 30th ranked unit to somewhere in the low 20s or high teens. That's a top priority. Waller, Ruggs, Carr and the offense won't always be able to bail them out. Even Mahomes, the NFL's magician, can't always throw on a cape and come to the rescue, as was evidenced against the Bucs.
In order to go from fringe playoff team to Super Bowl contender, the Raiders must attack next season with a different mindset. They need a dedication to consistency and a belief and will that they can rise to the Chiefs' level, not just once or twice a week, but for an entire season.
"I feel like it’s just holding each other accountable," Waller said. "Not waiting on a coach to hold us accountable and knowing that the depth of knowledge of what we have, the depth of preparation of taking care of ourselves, that each and every step that we take on that field is important and it’s got to be a mental thing and then it translates to a physical thing. Because if your mind can think of it, you can make your body do it. It’s just looking at each week, each day playing like it’s your last. Like you aren’t promised anything else and allowing that sense of urgency to transfer through the way that you play."
From Week 5 until Sunday, the Raiders were the only team to draw blood from Mahomes and the Chiefs. That team that left Arrowhead Stadium victorious didn't show itself again after Mahomes ripped their heart out in Week 11.
That team from Week 5 is close to the Chiefs' neighborhood. The one that showed up in the final seven weeks of the season can't afford real estate in the same zip code.
Waller and the Raiders' offseason to-do list starts with making sure the rich version of the Raiders is the only one that shows its head in 2021. If they can't do that, they'll only be dreaming of moving in next to the Chiefs.