The Oakland Raiders clinched a playoff spot with a slight twist. How did the Raiders punch their ticket to the postseason?
You could certainly envision quarterback Derek Carr carving up the San Diego Chargers No. 25 ranked pass defense for a playoff berth on Sunday. Going into Week 15, most were almost sure it would pan out that way—until it didn’t.
Carr shrugged off his worst NFL performance with a mediocre showing against the Chargers. Obviously, the dislocated pinky has affected him more than he’d like to admit. Despite costly turnovers and no AC-DC connection, the Raiders found a way to claim a playoff spot for the first time since 2002.
Here’s how the Silver and Black made it happen.
Dec 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) looks on from the bench during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Misleading Narrative: Raiders Defense is a Liability
Throughout the season, analysts, pundits and some fans pointed to the defense as the Achilles Heel. Many believed Ken Norton‘s unit would lead to the Raiders’ downfall as the clear-cut liability.
On Sunday, the defense kept the Raiders afloat. Cornerback Sean Smith didn’t look particularly stunning, but Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers passed for a mere 206 yards. In Week 5, he dissected Oakland’s secondary like a fresh oven-baked pizza. 10 weeks later, without safety Karl Joseph, the Raiders clamped down on the Chargers’ passing attack in the second half with a relentless pass rush and opportunistic defensive backs.
Nonetheless, we don’t give enough credit to the defense for its ability to put a Band-Aid on early bleeding up front or within the secondary. The coaching staff has done a good job with halftime adjustments over the past few weeks.
After Buffalo Bills running back Mike Gillislee scored a touchdown against the Raiders in the third quarter with nine minutes left during a Week 13 matchup, Oakland has only allowed six second-half points.
We often overlook the Raiders’ penchant for creating turnovers and freak out over yards allowed. Oakland lists as a top five team in takeaways. As the season draws to a close, the defense has also cut down on giving up ample yardage. The Raiders haven’t allowed 400-plus total yards since their first meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7.
Oct 25, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Mario Jr. Edwards (97) looks on from the bench during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Looking Ahead to the Playoffs
At the moment, we shouldn’t get carried away and compare this defense to Super Bowl winning units, but it’s on the upswing.
Furthermore, we’ve yet to see the unit at full strength. Joseph missed another game with a toe injury. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. should suit up next week against the Indianapolis Colts, per ESPN’s Adam Caplan. Commissioner Roger Goodell could potentially unleash pass-rusher Aldon Smith before the season ends.
If all three players mentioned above rejoin the team on fresh legs, we could see a defensive unit capable of keeping scores low, which takes tremendous pressure off the offense. Carr and co. won’t have to score 30-plus per game to win during the postseason.
Despite all the attention given to the offense, the defense has multiple game-finishing drives as closers as well. Situationally, Norton’s group continues to show up in crucial spots.
The 2016 Raiders team features more than a dynamic offense capable of erasing a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. As shown against bitter division rivals, Oakland can play bully ball with the running backs, which makes them viable in cold January temperatures. Moreover, Norton’s halftime adjustments give the team a chance at a comeback after a poor start.
As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. At some point in the playoffs, the Raiders will find themselves in a critical moment in need of a stop to keep their season alive. At the current state, with players potentially on the return, they’re certainly capable. Once looked at as a liability, the defense has slowly become reliable.