Las Vegas Raiders may be legit

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Is it possible we’ve underestimated the Raiders?

Perhaps.

There’s no question this team is better than the one that went 7-9 and finished third in the AFC West. But how much better are they?

It’s a tricky question. Sitting at 5-3 heading into the second half of their first season in Las Vegas, the Silver and Black have the appearance of a playoff team. And with the NFL expanding its postseason from 12 to 14 teams along with the fact they’re likely to finish no worse than second in their division, we can probably expect to see Jon Gruden’s team playing meaningful football come January.

There’s no denying this has been a crazy year, not just for the Raiders, not just for the NFL, not just for sports, but for life in general. The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on all of us and while the good news Monday that a workable vaccine appears to be in the offing soon, it doesn’t change the fact we have to live an abnormal existence.

I found that out firsthand last weekend when I traveled to California to cover the Raiders-Chargers game. No indoor dining meant eating outside or grabbing takeout and eating in the car. It was my first trip outside Nevada in nearly a year and I could see the differences from state to state.

The Raiders have had their share of COVID-19 related issues. Gruden tested positive. Offensive tackle Trent Brown had it. The organization has been fined $1.185 million by the NFL and had a sixth-round draft pick forfeited in 2021 for repeated violations of the protocols.

The team has had to deal with a rash of injuries to its offensive line and secondary, putting the popular “Next man up” theory to the test. But this has proved to be a rather resilient bunch. You watch Devontae Booker run the ball effectively or see cornerback Isaiah Johnson come up with key plays at the end of Las Vegas’ 31-26 win over Los Angeles and how the makeshift offensive line kept quarterback Derek Carr upright for the most part and you can envision a team that can overcome adversity.

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Carr appears to finally be on the same page as Gruden when it comes to play calling and execution. The late second-quarter fumble that led to the Chargers taking a 17-14 halftime lead aside, he was very impressive.

The Raiders have balance with their offense and the defense is starting to make more plays. It wasn’t that long ago that people were calling for the head of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. But when Maxx Crosby is getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton are getting stops and Johnathan Abram is flying around in the secondary breaking up passes, the Raiders have the makings of a decent defense.

Most of all, it appears everyone is buying in to what the coaches are selling. There’s a trust, a confidence in Gruden and his staff. This is a team that is very much engaged.

Yet, there’s much work still to be done, starting Sunday against a Broncos team that can play a little defense itself from time to time. A week from now, Patrick Mahomes visits Allegiant Stadium and the Chiefs remain an NFL elite team. Kansas City will no doubt be out to avenge the 40-32 Week 5 loss to the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium.

The rest of the second half schedule has road games at Atlanta and the Jets, a three-game homestand in December against Indianapolis, the Chargers and Miami, with the finale at Denver on Jan. 3. A 10-6 record or even better is not out of the question for the Raiders, though to prognosticate anything beyond a day or two in advance is not advisable. Too many variables stand in the way, not the least of which is another potential coronavirus outbreak between now and early January.

But given what we’ve seen so far from the Raiders, there’s more reason to be encouraged than discouraged. 

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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