BUFFALO – The Raiders started the season with two victories, then lost one and two, then three and finally four in a row.
Just like that, their margin for error became pine needles in a fire.
That’s why last week’s game was a must-win, even without elimination on the table. The Raiders would’ve been too far back, facing too daunting a schedule to meet lofty pre-season expectations.
A 31-30 win over Kansas City kept them in the hunt.
Everything’s within reach heading toward the halfway point, even the franchise’s first division title since 2002.
The AFC West was stretched out with Kansas City cruising. Now it’s a closed fist. This division is angry, featuring four teams believing they should’ve done better by now. The Raiders (3-4) are still in last, though they’re just two games off the division pace and one back of a wild card spot thanks to the Chiefs win.
That game saved a season. The next two will define it.
The Raiders flew east for Sunday’s clash in Buffalo, and won’t come home until after facing the Dolphins next week in Miami. They’ll hunker down at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota, Fl., and practice nearby at the state-of-the-art IMG Academy, as the Silver and Black did a year ago.
This East Coast swing offers a real opportunity to galvanize strong bonds, focus completely on football and emerge a stronger unit.
“It’s almost like another camp where we’re all together,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “We’re all doing things together. Guys, if they don’t have their families, they’re going out to eat together and having dinner. They’re going out together and hanging out in the room together. And I think that is, besides not having to fly, a major benefit of guys just being together outside of the hour windows that we have here.”
They went 2-0 then, with victories over Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. Duplicate that result and the Raiders are sitting pretty, back over .500 rolling into a bye week. Losing once would put them back in a pre-Chiefs-win predicament. Drop two and start planning a wake.
Consecutive victories would also make hay against teams above them in conference, and continue a slow climb out of the mess previously made.
The Raiders have no interest in that outlook. They’re honed on Buffalo, and rightfully so. Those upstarts have an excellent plus-9 turnover margin and feature slippery, explosive runner LeSean McCoy. No sense in peeking at Miami’s dumpster fire just yet.
The goal is to repeat Week 7’s offensive performance, when a dormant volcano erupted for 31 points and erased a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit. Another is being more impactful on defense. The Raiders haven’t been bad, but are lacking turnovers than changed so many games last season.
Playing that way will make life difficult on anyone. Even during that month-long slump where virtually nothing went right, the Raiders didn’t become less talented. Explosiveness remains on both sides of the football, but must be paired with execution from play callers to play makers.
It’s realistic to expect that from this group. They have played well on the road under Jack Del Rio. They’ve been shockingly good in 10 a.m. PT kickoffs, like what’s coming Sunday in Buffalo. They have gone on runs, and put enough on tape to suggest they’re possible. The Raiders also have exploitable weakness that need covering by scheme or other units.
Can they go on a run? Or will they fall into previous patterns and let opportunities slip? We’ll know those answers when they come back home.