Oakland Raiders  

 

Raiders on verge of becoming a playoff contender

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OAKLAND -- The Raiders might not be for real -- yet. They are relevant, though, and in the process of transitioning from punch line to inept to credible, relevant is a good place to be.

At 4-4 with back-to-back blowout victories over the Broncos and Seahawks -- the Raiders' first winning streak since 2008 -- they are showing signs of being a legitimate playoff contender, which might be more of a testament to the sideways makeup of the NFL this season.

I'm not counting this team out from proving itself, though.

"Doing what's right is more important than being cool," coach Tom Cable said of the mindset he wants his players to have. "Guys know if (they) do (their) job, somebody will make a play. That part of buying in and playing for each other is our biggest ally right now."

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Sure, they're one Darren McFadden pulled hamstring away from stalling. The likelihood of not having cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha available for this week's showdown against AFC West-leading Kansas City -- the biggest example of the league being turned on its head -- could put Oakland back in its normal place below .500.

However, the Raiders are showing signs of life in the right places to serve them well over the long haul. The defensive line, led by Richard Seymour and rookie end LeMarr Houston, is shaping up to be intimidating.

The running game and the ability of their running backs to make plays in the passing attack, gives them a bailout option if Bruce Gradkowski doesn't re-emerge to what he was when he returns as the starting quarterback, or if his replacement/backup, Jason Campbell, levels off after throwing for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks.

"Our offense has more potential of scoring 59 than 33," fullback Marcel Reese said, referring to the total it hung on Denver Oct. 24 compared to the points scored against Seattle las week, in which four drives ended in field goals. "We have such a potent, versatile offense; we know we can put up a lot of points."

The optimistic chatter stems from the evasive attitude shift that is starting to set in under Cable. For years the Raiders talked the talk only to finish 4-12. That is still very much a possibility knowing that these are the Raiders -- they still can be a punch line -- but this time, the players have actually seen hope turn into results.

That's why someone like last season's first-round flop, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, could finally be delivering. Heyward-Bey caught five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown when called upon to fill in for fellow second-year wide receiver Louis Murphy last week against Seattle.

"It's a different energy because we believe," Heyward-Bey said. "We want to move forward. After the win we had (over Denver) we could have went out to practice and been like things are great, we're on top of the world. We went back to work like we have a chance to do something special. That's when we know that this team has matured."

I'm not saying Oakland has the depth or personnel to where they can expect players to fill in without missing a beat like Indianapolis. But players and coaches are starting to expect that. Winning has changed things, baby.

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More pointedly, the Raiders don't seem capable of turning their situation at quarterback into any sort of controversy, something that was almost expected with any type of change the past few seasons.

Campbell has won the past two games, but there doesn't seem to be much concern about Cable going back to Gradkowski, a move that could come this weekend. Players rallied around Gradkowski when Campbell didn't play well early this season, just like they rallied around him last season, when JaMarcus Russell took the air out of the team.

Cable is loyal to Gradkowski because it was the feisty journeyman quarterback who won games to help save Cable's job last season. Gradkowski also won games with the same players Russell couldn't win with, helping Cable prove to owner Al Davis that it was Russell, not Cable or anyone else, who was holding Oakland back.

It helps that the guys behind the quarterback are the ones driving the offense.

McFadden is finally delivering on his promise when Oakland drafted him fourth overall in 2008. He leads the NFL with 111.3 rushing yards per game, and he has 20 receptions for 217 yards. He has six combined touchdowns.

"I've said it for awhile but when Darren McFadden is healthy, he's as explosive of a player as there is," Cable said.

Michael Bush is a strong complement (80 rushes, 307 yards, four touchdowns). Reece has emerged as a dangerous receiver (11 receptions, 152 yards, two touchdowns) in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's scheme. The Raiders rank second in the NFL in rushing (168.5 yards per game average).

As explosive as Oakland's offense has been the last two games, a reason why it could be built for a playoff push is that both lines are starting to shape up -- especially on defense.

Seymour and Tommy Kelly are playing at a high level; Houston is starting to come on; and ends Trevor Scott and pass-rushing specialist Matt Shaughnessy are producing as well. They have 15 sacks between them, with Shaughnessy posting a team-high five.

Seymour told me that defensive line coach Mike Waufle, who was with the Giants from 2004-09, has used a rotation of players similar to that of the Giants. By keeping players fresh, they have been able to wear some teams down with their speed and size over the course of a game.

"We can play against anybody, anywhere, anytime, but we have to play the game the way we want to play it," Seymour said. "We're built a certain way. We're a big, physical, tough team, but we have to play that way. If we play that way, there ain't many teams in the league that can withstand that for 60 minutes."

We'll see. Oakland is about to embark on a hugely important four-game stretch that will determine if they can turn their relevant status into one of legitimacy. The Chiefs, Steelers, Dolphins and Chargers are on tap with the AFC West games against the Chiefs and Chargers vastly important.

They could get a leg up on the Chiefs and possibly bury San Diego or at least slow down the Chargers' potential for a late-season rebound from a bad start. How odd is it that I'm not being sarcastic?

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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