Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 8: Raiders at Texans Week 5

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It’s not logical to love and hate someone for the same reason. And yet, it happens throughout life, and in the NFL.

Late Raiders Owner Al Davis was one of those people.

Davis was despised by many in league circles for pushing the envelope, be it openly challenging the AFL-NFL merger in the late 1960s, or suing the league in 1980 for the right to move the Raiders to Los Angeles. Always a lighting rod, he rubbed many fellow owners, league officials and even Raiders fans the wrong way while always following his mission statement: “Just win, baby.”

A large sum of those “haters” also respected the heck out of Davis’ ability to go his own way. Opposing coaches appreciated an NFL owner who knew more about X’s and O’s than any other, while Raiders fans enjoyed the renegade image of the franchise.

Although the last decade was tough, it should be noted that Davis’ teams went to the playoffs 18 times from 1967 to 1993. The undercurrent of that successful run emanated from Davis hand-picking not-so-obvious head coaches -- either minorities that fellow owners passed over, like Tom Flores and Art Shell, or a guy most teams would avoid due to age, 33-year-old John Madden. The Raiders’ prosperity also stemmed from a stubborn insistence on the vertical passing game, and a collection of castoffs from other teams that Davis felt could play. (To hell with the so-called experts’ opinions.)

Ultimately, these Davis traits played a huge part in the Raiders’ win over the Houston Texas on the day after the iconic owner’s death, our No. 8 game of 2011. Oakland was led into battle at Reliant Stadium by an African-American head coach in Hue Jackson. The Raiders got a big touchdown from a wide receiver 31 other teams thought was overvalued. And lastly, Oakland reaped the benefits of a portly individual who represents another unique Davis-ology: taking a kicker in the first round.

Yes, Sebastian Janikowski. Davis shocked everyone by taking the Florida State kicker with the 17th overall pick in 2000. This wasn’t without precedent, as Davis created a similar stir when he selected punter Ray Guy in the first round of the ‘73 draft. Janikowski’s howitzer of a leg was the difference in Houston last October. With the Oakland offense consistently stalling around the 35-yard line, Janikowski banged home four field goals, including three from 50-plus yards.

Another draft-day shocker, Darrius Heyward-Bey, whom the Raiders took with the No. 7 overall pick in 2009, made his mark on this game. Toward the end of the first half, Heyward-Bey caught a short pass, pivoted and exploded 34 yards to the end zone. He finished the game with seven catches for 99 yards.

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Jason Campbell, one of those castoffs Davis loved for five decades, did not have his best game, completing less than 50 percent of his passes for 190 yards. The result was an attack that couldn’t do diddly-poo on third down. Converting just three of 15 third downs meant that all other phases had to step up.

Janikowski wasn’t the only special teamer to contribute. Rock Cartwright’s 35-yard rumble on a fake punt in the fourth quarter (more on that play below) set up Janikowski’s fourth field goal -- a “short” 42-yarder -- to give the Raiders a 25-17 lead.

The defense hemorrhaged chunks of yards, but seemed to always come up with big plays when necessary. Lamarr Houston’s pick in the first quarter led to the Raiders’ first points of the game (a 54-yard Janikowski boot) and set an ominous tone to this game for the Texans. Of course, the biggest interception of the game -- the one that sealed the Raiders’ win -- came courtesy of Michael Huff, another first-round pick by Davis. The Texans had the ball at the Raiders’ 5-yard line, down by five with seven seconds left. After scrambling out of the pocket, Matt Schaub tried to flick a pass to Jacoby Jones, but Huff was right there to make the play.

All in all, it was a fantastic TEAM win for Oakland. This isn’t something you normally hear about Davis. The guy was a maverick who took on the league in meetings, the press and the courts. And yet, ultimately, he was all about team -- his team. In our No. 8 game of 2011, the Raiders honored his memory by adhering to his mantra and just winning, baby.

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Can’t-miss play 1: You want to see perfect play design? Look no further than the 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Texans tight end Joel Dreessen.

Schaub play-faked to Arian Foster on what appeared to be a stretch play running left and then rolled out to his right. A quarterback rolling right is going to throw to one of his wideouts running down the right side of the field ... right? Wrong. Schaub wheeled around and threw across his body to Dreessen, who had briefly blocked down before slipping out past the left hash. He was open by 20 yards and scored easily.

Can’t-miss play 2: Kevin Walter’s 41-yard catch in the third quarter was nothing short of spectacular. The Texans really needed it, too. Houston had been backed up to its own 10, but Walter’s diving grab gave the Texans a new set of downs at midfield. This eventually led to a Neil Rackers field goal, giving Houston a 17-15 lead late in the third quarter.

Head scratcher: Watching the final play of the game again, it’s hard to decipher what Schaub was doing. At first it looks as though he has a chance to run it in, with just one man to beat, safety Tyvon Branch. But the Texans quarterback wasn’t too confident in shaking Branch: “I’m not necessarily a guy that’s going to make a whole lot of guys miss in the open field,” Schaub would say later.

Instead, Schaub sprinted to his left before making an awkward flip into the end zone that never gave Jones a chance. It looks as though Branch closed much faster than Schaub was expecting, causing him to get rid of the ball with no force whatsoever. Not to mention, Schaub didn’t even throw it up and at least give Jones a 50-50 jump ball. Regardless, it was quite a defensive stand for the Raiders.

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Play of the game: A strong case for the most important play of the day can be made for the Raiders’ special teams, which also logged a pair of blocked punts in our No. 20 game of 2010. This time, their masterpiece was a fake punt-and-run by Cartwright. What made this play so huge -- other than the fact that it gained 35 yards -- was the situation. Oakland was nursing a 22-17 lead with 11:39 to play at its own 40. The Texans’ offense was humming all day -- racking up 473 yards -- so keeping the unit off the field was crucial. After Cartwright’s thrilling scamper, the Raiders added a field goal, giving them an all-important eight-point lead.

Best player on the field: Arian Foster. The Raiders’ defense was determined to stop the Texans ground attack. With Andre Johnson hurt, they could afford to dedicate more bodies in the box. Thus, Foster totaled just 68 yards on 22 carries. Too bad he also caught five balls for 116 yards. The dude is ridiculous.

Record breakers: Janikowski hit four field goals, with boots of 54, 55 and 50 yards. That tied an NFL record (three field goals of 50-plus yards in a game). Not a bad day to have Janikowski on your fantasy team, which I did.

Why this game is No. 8: Davis’ death was huge news, due to his unparalleled impact on the game. The AFL-NFL merger, 1970s strategy, team movement and many other facets of the nation’s biggest sport were heavily influenced by the man. For his team to go into an eventual playoff team’s house and win the day after his death was really something. Beyond that, this was an exciting game throughout, with a lot of middling players -- like Rock Cartwright, of all people -- making big-time contributions.

Why not higher?: Raiders–Texans Week 5 didn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the outcome of the season. The Texans still clinched a home playoff game, while the Raiders missed the playoffs -- again (sigh).

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