If you asked Raiders fans last spring if they'd take being 7-7 and in the thick of the AFC West race in December, what do you think the response would've been? "Hey, I gotta mount my JaMarcus Russell Fathead?" Richard Simmons leaps of joy like '80s Toyota commercials? Or, "So what did we end up getting for Darren McFadden?"
Raider nation was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to get anything other than trade bait and injuries from McFadden. But the former first-round draft choice has been a one-man wrecking crew this season. Sure, he's had some hamstring woes, but that's about it. When he's gotten going, he's gotten going. So has the running game in general. It's the major reason the Raiders are in the hunt, and one of a myriad of causes for hope from the dark side of the league.
The Raiders have been less than competitive for the last several years. In fact, they lost at least 11 games each season from 2003 to 2009. The last time Oakland had anything to play for in Week 16 was 2002, when Rich Gannon led the silver and black to an AFC West title and eventual berth in Super Bowl XXXVII. That team was made up of a gang of veterans, many of whom were on their last legs in the NFL: Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Bill Romanowski, and Rod Woodson to name a few.
But McFadden leads a group of young pups, 23- and 24-year olds, who are ready to make their mark on the league, and maybe sneak in a division crown in the process. For starters, McFadden has 1,112 yards rushing this season, the first 1,000-yard season of his career and the highest for anyone in an Oakland uniform since 1997. He only trails Arian Foster in scrimmage yards per game (135.4 to 132.3). But going deeper, his and the team's season, looks even better from both a statistical standpoint and a down-the-road perspective.
Oakland's ground attack has been a huge factor, evidenced by the fact that it ranks second overall at 157.5 yards per game. Last Sunday, McFadden and Michael Bush knifed through the Denver defense time and again for 264 yards. This, after their previous meeting in Denver where McBush looked like they were men playing in peewee ball, Oakland racked up 328 yards on the ground against a hapless defense. No team has rushed for that many yards in a game all season.
With Sunday's win, Oakland stayed two games back of division leader Kansas City with two to play. Perhaps it sounds farfetched that the Raiders could catch the Chiefs, but considering that they're undefeated in the division (5-0), and they play at Kansas City in Week 17, it's possible. They simply need Todd Haley's group to falter at home against Tennessee, and San Diego to drop one of its last two games.
Of course, the Raiders must keep winning. They host the Colts on Sunday in a game that has major postseason implications. While it's hard to bet against Peyton Manning, the Colts have had trouble stopping the run (28th in the NFL.) Throw in the fact that Jason Campbell has been playing some good football, and the Raiders might actually be doing something other than watching Temptation Island reruns in mid-January.
For the first time in years, the franchise has stability. Tom Cable will be the coach come 2011. McFadden is 23. The uber-fast Jacoby Ford is also 23. Ditto wideout Louis Murphy. Stud tight end Zack Miller is an old man at 25. Despite the fact that Campbell seems like he came into the league at the same time as Doug Williams and James Lofton, he's still only 28 and might get his first opportunity to play in the same offense two years in a row -- something he was never able to do in Washington.
Defensively, Oakland has found a solid player in rookie linebacker Rolando McClain. End Matt Shaughnessy, 24, has hustled his way to seven sacks. Safety Michael Huff, despite some flaws, has been disruptive with four sacks, a pick, and three forced fumbles. He's 27. Fellow safety Tyvon Branch is just 24. Corner Nnamdi Asomugha, 29, was Darrelle Revis before Darrelle Revis -- maybe better. The Raiders, as a whole, have only four regular starters on either offense or defense that have hit the magic age of 30, and only one is over 31.
Toxic differential update
Brian Billick and Jim Mora's favorite stat showed some interesting movement this past week. As discussed previously in this space, toxic differential might be the best playoff predictor out there. This figure, or differential, reflects teams that can create big plays without risking too many turnovers, while being able to create takeaways without giving up a lot of long pass plays, etc.
The Eagles have given up a lot of big plays, especially with risk-taking corners like Asante Samuel and Dimitri Patterson. But they've more than made up for it by forcing 32 turnovers, and the offense creating the most big plays in the league. With a quarterback that hasn't thrown a lot of picks in Michael Vick, the Eagles are second in toxic differential and lead the NFC East.
Teams that currently sit in the top 10 in toxic differential went 6-4 last week. Five of the six winners saw their toxic differential go up. Of the four losers, all but one had their differential fall. The two exceptions: The Steelers and Jets. Despite winning the turnover/big play battle by a large margin (plus-three), the Steelers still managed to fall Sunday against Gang Green. The difference in that game might have been the opening stanza of the contest: Brad Smith's 97-yard kick return touchdown.
News and notes
» While everyone will remember Sunday's Eagles-Giants game for DeSean Jackson's winning punt return, here's some kudos for rookie Jamar Chaney. Filling in at middle linebacker for starter Stewart Bradley, the seventh-round pick from Mississippi State made 16 tackles and forced a fumble. How's that for late value in the draft?
» If you're doing a second-half MVP list, Jon Kitna merits at least a top five vote. He's won four of his last six starts, with the two losses being by a grand total of six points. Kitna's third-down passer rating is a whopping 114.4.
» Tom Brady is closing in on one of the NFL's toughest-to-break records. I wrote about Brady's incredible season last week, and he was once again relatively mistake-free against the Packers. ("Relatively" meaning the Packers dropped a couple of easy would-be picks.) Still, Brady is just 17 attempts short of passing Bernie Kosar's record of most consecutive passes without an interception.
What made Kosar's mark so impressive is just how bad the Browns were the seasons he set the standard. The most interesting line item in this top five might be Jeff George. He and his Alan Jackson mustache threw 279 passes over the course of two seasons -- with two different teams -- without a pick.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.