Raiders head into bye week as first-place team
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Two years after starting the season with 10 straight losses, the Oakland Raiders head into their bye week in a far different place: first place.
Fresh off a 30-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos that left them all alone in first in the AFC West, the Raiders now get the chance to rest up a bit before the stretch run of a season they hope will include playoff games for the first time since 2002.
After building a strong record with wins against some of the lesser regarded teams, the Raiders (7-2) stamped their arrival as legitimate contenders with a complete victory over the Broncos on a prime-time stage.
The offense controlled the line of scrimmage and ran for 218 yards, Derek Carr made key plays in the passing game, the defense shut down Denver's run game and harassed Trevor Siemian all night and even the special teams got into the act with two punts downed at the 2, prompting celebratory dances from punter Marquette King .
''I think it was closest,'' coach Jack Del Rio said Monday when asked whether his team put together a complete game. ''I think all three phases certainly contributed in the game. They had really good moments, all three. We see a lot of things that can be better. That's what we're going to keep working at. I don't know if you ever reach that perfect performance you're striving for anyway but there are things we need to clean up, that we need to be better at.''
Seeking improvement after a big win is a far cry from where this franchise was as recently as 2014. Oakland started that season 0-10 – firing coach Dennis Allen after four games – and was often not even competitive in games during Carr's rookie season.
But after showing progress by winning seven games last year in Del Rio's first season, the Raiders are putting it all together in 2016 and look like one of the top teams in the AFC even if they see plenty of room for growth.
''We have so much we can do and we see that we can do it,'' Carr said. ''We can't work on it all at once. We have to just build, but we're trying.''
Carr has been a big reason for the rebuilding job. He has improved in each of his three seasons and has thrown for 2,505 yards with 17 TDs and only three interceptions so far this season.
But he has gotten plenty of help from an offensive line that mauled Denver's heralded front to clear holes for Latavius Murray and the backs, big-play receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and a defense that has improved significantly in recent weeks after getting torched the first few.
That's all part of the winning culture Del Rio is trying to instill.
''I'm pretty straight forward about it with the staff and with the players about what we're looking for and what championship football looks like,'' he said. ''We're just going to push for it. It takes time to develop and to grow. The good news is we've recognized where these areas are yet we're winning. Being able to win and put that big smile on your face, go home and feel good about things, lay your head down at night but wake up in the morning knowing you have work to do and there are things that must improve.''
The Raiders hope to get a boost from the bye with players like right tackle Menelik Watson and cornerback Sean Smith able to heal up from injuries, other key veterans getting needed rest and some potential help on the front seven from two players who have been missing all year.
Linebacker Aldon Smith said last week he hopes to be able to return when his one-year suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy ends Nov. 17.
Smith still must get reinstated by the league and Del Rio is not counting on anything at this point.
Defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. seems like a better bet to return. He has been out since training camp with a hip injury but could be able to return to practice soon and provided needed help for both the pass rush and run defense.
''The unknown part, I just leave that over there in that category and we're not going to wait for that,'' Del Rio said. ''What we've got to do is continue to grow, got to continue to do the things that helped us play better defensively the last several weeks and continue to be better.''
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