There's some teams that, when they're good, football is just a whole lot better. It was awfully weird watching the Dallas Cowboys find a new way every year to blow it in games that could either send them to the playoffs or past the wild-card round in the mid-2000s. As much as Patriots fans love watching the New York Jets find new ways to faceplant for the past few years, those late-2000s Rex Ryan-Bill Belichick title-fight games were edge-of-your-seat, girlfriend-asking-if-maybe-you're-drinking-those-beers-a-bit-too-fast showdowns. And the 49ers not logging better than an 8-8 season from 2003 all the way until Jim freaking Harbaugh came to town? Eeeeek.
The Raiders are one of those teams that just makes football even better when they're a threat. Maybe it's the black and silver. Maybe it's the reputation from back in the day for playing dirty and telling everyone to go screw themselves when they got called on it. Maybe it's that if you're part of Raider Nation and you show up to a game with a jersey and facepaint on, you're the weird guy because you don't look like Darth Maul.
And don't look now, but after years of Browns-level bad drafting, comically inept coaching, and generally being one of those "start all your fantasy players playing Oakland this week", the Raiders are on F'ing FIRE. Like, NBA Jam BOOMSHAKALAKA type of on fire.
They're 7-2. They just wiped the floor with the reigning champs, the Denver Broncos, on Sunday Night Football in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the 30-20 final score would make you think. And when the power rankings came out this week, the Raiders had slugged their way to second-best team in the AFC in pretty much all of them. NFL FPI gives them an 81% chance to make the playoffs, so even if they lose a few more games, odds are pretty dang good that they're in for the first time in what feels like forever.
And let's be serious, they're fun as heck to watch.
Quarterback Derek Carr is slinging the ball all over the place, and he's got the fifth-most passing yards in the NFL right now, only behind Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, and Phillip Rivers. Carr's also in a six-way tie for fifth-most passing touchdowns, with 17 so far. Oh, and he's only thrown 3 picks on the year. Not only that, he's only been sacked 11 times, which is a tad more than once a week. Must be nice.
Carr's also making his receivers look like rockstars in the process. Amari Cooper, who, let's remember, Oakland took 4th overall after their 3-13 season in 2014, has 843 receiving yards so far and is averaging a whopping 14.5 yards per reception. Michael Crabtree has almost 600 yards and 6 touchdowns on the year, and third guy Seth Roberts is chipping in as a solid option too.
The run game is one of the NFL's best, too - despite the platoon approach pissing off fantasy players, Oakland's got the fourth-most rushing yards in the league.
Ok, stats, whatever, but they're putting up some serious points. Out of the 9 games the Raiders have played, they've put up at least 28 in all but two of them.
We all know Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia like to take away the offense's best player on defense, but what do you do when everything's clicking like that?
Now, about that defense...
Linebacker/defensive end Khalil Mack is still a destroyer of worlds, earning (among other awards) Stephen White's "Hoss of the Week" award this week, but there's absolutely no reason the rest of the defense should be one of the worst in the NFL. Even after they used boatloads of cap space this year to sign former Seahawk Bruce Irvin, stealing cornerback Sean Smith from the Chiefs, and safety Reggie Nelson, this defense can't stop anyone. They were allowing the second-most yards in the NFL per game until the Denver game. They get shredded through the air, allowing an average of 283 yards per game, and the run defense is barely better at 21st in the NFL. Most importantly, they're also 21st in the all-important "points allowed" column. It's not great.
So there's clearly a lot of football left in the season, but having said all that, how freaking nuts would a Raiders-Patriots AFC Championship Game be?
The Patriots, after going better than anyone could have realistically hoped for while Tom Brady was suspended, are back to wrecking shop on offense (we'll get to the defense in a second). They're 7-1 and run the AFC East, so, business as usual. LeGarrette Blount is on pace for his best season since his rookie year, and he's ALMOST 30. The offensive line is at least *somewhat* improved due to some tactical shifts from O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The Pats have scored the sixth-most points per game in football to date, and that's counting the game where Buffalo skunked them 16-0.
Guess who's right ahead of New England at fifth-most points per game? The Raiders.
So both teams score points in boatloads and we already know the Raiders defense isn't stopping anybody. Where this really starts sizzling is that the Patriots defense is quietly one of the NFL's best in one key spot that our fearless leader Rich Hill noted earlier this week - points allowed.
They may not create a ton of turnovers, which is why defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had to come out and say this week that they "don't focus on turnovers in particular", but it's also something that they "always want to do at a high level" (huh?). New England's pass rush is just not good at taking down the QB this year - they only have 13 sacks on the year, which just might have something to do with the fact that other teams are converting almost 41% of their third downs against the Pats. All that, and yet they're somehow second in the NFL in points allowed after the Bills hung 25 points on the Seahawks on Monday. Bend but don't break, right?
Not only would this AFCG matchup have shootout written all over it, it's the type of that should play right into New England's wheelhouse if - wait for it - they do their job.
Oh, and don't forget the classic revenge factor, either. These are the Raiders that lost the Tuck Rule game, and even though all those Raiders are long gone, it's still Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that are the guys to beat if you want to punch a Super Bowl ticket. Just like it has been since...well, pretty much ever since that game. How crazy would it be for a team that won three games just two seasons ago to step up to Patriots, who need no introduction, and go "We ain't scared of you"?
So if the Raiders and the Patriots both take care of business and find themselves squaring off in the AFC Championship Game, it's going to be Rumble in the Jungle-type fun.