ALAMEDA, Calif. — The path to the Oakland Raiders’ return to the postseason for the first time since 2016 (and second time since 2002) is pretty straightforward.
Win, and they’re in.
“We’re in control of our own destiny,” rookie edge rusher Clelin Ferrell said. “One day at a time. One game at a time.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But if any of the silver-and-black-clad denizens of the Black Hole had told you back in training camp that come Dec. 1, the Raiders could be playing for first place, well, Gorilla Rilla has a bridge in Las Vegas he’d like to sell you.
But here it is. Riding a three-game win streak, the Raiders are 6-4 and just on the outside looking in at the No. 6 seed Houston Texans — who are also 6-4 but beat the Raiders on Oct. 27 in Texas — if the season ended today. But if the Raiders beat the New York Jets (3-7) this week, they’ll head to Arrowhead Stadium seven days later with first place in the AFC West on the line against the Kansas City Chiefs, who held on against the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday in Mexico City to improve to 7-4.
The Chiefs, who are on their bye this week, have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Raiders due to their 28-10 victory on Sept. 15 in Oakland.
“It just says that we’re getting better,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of his team’s sudden playoff contention in his second year back with the franchise. “We’re able to find ways to win. There’s an old saying around here: Just win, baby. We’ve fought our hearts out to put ourselves in a 6-4 position. That doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got a lot of respect for the Jets and a lot of work to do.”
Gruden referenced Evansville’s upset of No. 1 Kentucky in college basketball this past week in insisting that the Raiders would not overlook the winless Bengals prior to their harder-than-expected 17-10 win over Cincinnati.
Gruden does have college hoops experience, having been a ball boy for Bobby Knight at Indiana in his youth. So you can imagine the maxims Gruden will employ in the final month of the season. Besides the Chiefs, the Raiders do not face a team that currently has a winning record.
They have the Tennessee Titans (5-5) at home on Dec. 8, the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6) on Dec. 15 in what should be the final game in Oakland, at the Chargers (4-7) on Dec. 22 and at the Denver Broncos (3-7) on Dec. 29. The Raiders defeated the Chargers and Broncos in Oakland.
As it stands now, the New England Patriots (9-1) would be the top seed, followed by the Baltimore Ravens (8-2). The Indianapolis Colts (6-4) would be the No. 3 seed as the AFC South champs and would play host to the No. 6 Texans (6-4) in the wild-card round. The No. 4 Chiefs (6-4) would be the AFC West champs and would host the No. 5 Buffalo Bills (7-3).
All of that means that if Oakland loses at Kansas City (Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is 0-5 at Arrowhead, after all), the Raiders will need some help. But it is too soon to start thinking of such things — things such as a “trap game” at the Jets.
“I can’t speak for the team, but I know personally, I don’t look ahead,” rookie running back Josh Jacobs said. “Even coming into this week, I didn’t even know Cincinnati’s record. I didn’t know any of the stats. I just looked at film and take it day by day and opponent by opponent.”
That sounds familiar — like what another Raiders first-round draft pick said earlier, right?
It has been a strange season, with the Raiders playing an exhibition “home” game on an 80-yard field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, before two home games to start the regular season and embarking on a road trip that took them to Minnesota, Indianapolis, London, a bye week, Green Bay and Houston before this three-game winning streak in the Black Hole.
“When we were on that 11-month road trip, across the globe,” Carr laughed, “I was thinking, ‘Now we’ve set ourselves up to have a homestand … with games that matter.’ November is the games they remember. Every coach that I’ve been around has said that. We asked our fans to be loud for us, and they were loud for us. We demanded that we want [to win] every one of those games at home, and we protected this place. Because this is a special place.
“Now we have to go on the road again, but when we get back home, hopefully there’s still some things that we need to be playing for.”
And if the Raiders win the division, they’re guaranteed one home playoff game, right?