Derek Carr's MVP buzz growing as Raiders continue to impress

OAKLAND -- Michael Crabtree stood on the sideline, looked up at the scoreboard above the north end zone and took a deep breath. The eighth-year receiver crunched the numbers: His Raiders trailed the Buffalo Bills, 24-9, with 9:01 left in the third quarter, having been manhandled by the visitors on both sides of the ball. While 54,759 fans at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum fretted over the prospect of an unexpected stumble to a fired-up underdog, Crabtree smiled and thought to himself, We've only just begun to fight.

Crabtree wasn't lying. And as the rest of the football world is starting to figure out, when you've got the hottest right hand in the land at your disposal, you've always got a puncher's chance.

After a 15-minute, 27-second flurry in which Raiders quarterback Derek Carr buoyed his burgeoning MVP candidacy -- and, more important, fueled a jaw-dropping 29-0 run that propelled Oakland to a 38-24 victory -- Crabtree stood at his locker and explained the mindset of a 10-2 team that currently leads in the race for homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

"Bruh, you've been seeing this the whole season -- we've been doing the same thing as we did today," Crabtree told me, punching the air for emphasis. "When we hit a rough patch, we respond, plain and simple. When you've got a team like this, bruh, when you've got this many weapons, the sky's the limit."

Then Crabtree made reference to another high-profile Oakland athlete: Boxer Andre Ward, who two weeks ago fought back from a hellacious second-round knockdown to dethrone light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.

"I was watching the Andre Ward fight (recently) -- he was here today, too," Crabtree said. "He got knocked down in the first part of the fight, but he just kept standing in there and came back and won. That inspired me. We've got the same type of drive on this team. That's what I was thinking about when we got down today. And trust me, bruh, we didn't flinch one time."

At this point, the Raiders' resilience shouldn't be overly surprising to anyone. This was Oakland's sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the 2016 season, a campaign which began with a dramatic road victory over the New Orleans Saints, capped by coach Jack Del Rio (aka Jack Del Huevos) making a tone-setting decision to win the game on a two-point conversion attempt.

Now the AFC West-leading Raiders remain a game ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs -- a team that handed them one of their two defeats -- in advance of Thursday night's rematch at Arrowhead Stadium. And though the 10-2 New England Patriots and defending champion Denver Broncos (8-4) will likely have plenty of influence on the race for the conference title, there are currently 53 dudes in silver and black who feel pretty good about their prospects.

After all, these aren't your big brother's Raiders. Last Sunday, after Carr dramatically returned from a pinkie dislocation on his throwing hand to lead Oakland to a victory over the Carolina Panthers, they clinched their first winning season since 2002, which ended with a jarring Super BowlXXXVII defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now try out this streak-breaker: Going into Sunday's game against the Bills (6-6), the Raiders had lost their last 72 games in which they'd trailed by 15 points or more, a run of futility that spanned 15 years.

Thanks largely to Carr and his fellow third-year franchise centerpiece, pass-rushing defensive end (and Defensive Player of the Year candidate) Khalil Mack, they're poised to obliterate all sorts of unfavorable precedents -- and the scary thing is, they still haven't come close to reaching their potential.

"No, we have not, and that's a beautiful thing," Del Rio said as he stood in the players' parking lot outside the Coliseum about an hour after the game. "We think we can be much better -- that's the plan -- but in the meantime we're just stacking up wins and putting ourselves in a great spot."

Said one Raiders personnel executive: "We still think we're a couple of pieces away. And we know we haven't scratched the surface of what we can do this season. We still haven't played a 60-minute game. Today, we played 25. But these guys have learned to win, and they did that during their first two seasons, when we were still figuring it out. Now they get in situations like today and know how to close it out."

If, as Alec Baldwin famously uttered in Glengarry Glen Ross, coffee is for closers, then Carr should get a fresh cup of Peet's Big Bang roast delivered to his locker on a daily basis. On Sunday, playing exclusively out of the shotgun formation to ease pressure on his right pinkie (which was taped to the adjacent ring finger), Carr completed 19 of 35 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns. More important, he led scoring drives on four of five possessions during the game-turning stretch, showcasing the cool and timely leadership he has displayed during this coming-of-age campaign.

As Carr stood alone in the middle of the Raiders' locker room, I asked him to compare himself to the quarterback he was a year ago, and he smiled.

"Oh, it's way different," Carr replied. "The game has slowed down for me. It's so much easier than it was. I feel like I see things better, and I can take advantage of what I see."

Carr turned to enter the player-shower area, then pivoted and finished his thought: "It's weird, because in my head, I don't think it's any different. I feel like the same guy. But when you see the film, it tells a different story. I see a much calmer player."

One obvious calming influence, for Carr and all his teammates, is Mack, the former University of Buffalo star who general manager Reggie McKenzie selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2014 draft (31 selections ahead of second-rounder Carr). On Sunday, after the Raiders had gone up 30-24 in the fourth quarter on Carr's gorgeous, 37-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper, Mack hijacked the Bills' comeback hopes by forcing turnovers on consecutive possessions.

First Mack, while closing in from behind on quarterback Tyrod Taylor as the Bills began a drive from their own 4, reached out and got a finger on the ball as it was being released, causing it to pop up into the air and into the waiting arms of safety Nate Allen at the Buffalo 17. Then, after Latavius Murray (20 carries, 82 yards) scored his second touchdown (with Carr's two-point conversion pass to Seth Roberts extending the Oakland lead to 14), Mack snuffed out the Bills' ensuing 13-play drive by forcing and recovering a Taylor fumble at the Raiders' 22. Meanwhile, the Raiders' offensive line did its typically tremendous job of keeping Carr's jersey clean, holding Buffalo without a sack. And when Carr has time to throw, defenders tend to feel a bit helpless by day's end.

"It was Derek Carr at his finest," Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, whose 10 sacks rank him among the NFL leaders, said as he walked off the field. Asked about the prospect of Carr winning the league's MVP award, something that seems more plausible by the week, Alexander said, "He should be. He should be the MVP, the way he's playing."

To Crabtree (seven catches, 74 yards, one TD), who nearly won a Super Bowl with the 2012 San Francisco 49ers and came inches away from capturing another NFC championship the following year, such talk is counterproductive.

"I don't think I've ever been on a team that had this many weapons," Crabtree said. "We're competing at the highest level, and we need to carry that on into the postseason and see how far we can go.

"I don't really even care about what people think, though. They say we're not looking that good when we win? How good do we have to look? I thought this was about winning. We gotta win in style now? I don't care about any of the noise, good or bad. Right now, we're going in the right direction, bruh. And today, we got down 15, and we didn't even flinch."

As with his quarterback, who returned to the Panthers game with a black glove on his throwing hand after having his pinkie popped back into place, Crabtree endured a painful sequence against the Bills and soldiered on without incident. Early in the fourth quarter, two plays before Carr's go-ahead touchdown pass to Cooper, Crabtree raced down the right sideline and reached up to catch a deep ball, and it deflected off his left hand.

When Crabtree looked down at his ring finger, it was jutting out diagonally.

"Did you see what happened to mine?" Crabtree asked me, pointing to his since-realigned left ring finger. "I did the same thing DC did, and they had to pop it back in on the sideline. Yeah, it (hurt), but that's part of football, right?"

Long after the game, as Carr left the Coliseum and headed out into the Oakland night, he smiled when asked about Crabtree's injury.

"I didn't even know he'd hurt it until a few minutes later," Carr said. "He does a great job of concealing that stuff from me. I saw him with tape on the finger and said, 'What did you do?' He said, 'I already got it fixed, I'm good.' And we went back on the field and did our thing."

In boxing terms, what they did was deliver the knockout blow. And by the time their emphatic comeback was complete, a resounding message had been delivered to the rest of the NFL: Whatever happens to the Raiders the rest of the way, it would be wise not to doubt the might of the potent right hand that leads them.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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