Cheat Sheet: Raiders' young talent could be reason for revival
There all the Raiders coaches were, a new staff with new whistles around their necks, watching an OTA workout last May. A routine third down drill was called for. The players lined up in a third down scenario, offense vs. defense. Starters. Head to head.
Amari Cooper, the rookie wide receiver had been playing his tail off all spring, but without much head-to-head competition, just how good he was might not have been evident yet.
Then the third down drill happened.
11-on-11. Third-and-5 from midfield. Quarterback Derek Carr hits Amari Cooper for six yards on a curl route. Same deal. Next play.
Derek Carr hits Amari Cooper on a stop and go for 11. Same deal. Next play.
Derek Carr hits Amari Cooper on a crossing pattern in traffic for 7 yards.
That's three for three.
At this point, the veteran defensive backs on the roster started getting a little feisty. Competitive juices are flowing. And one by one, play by play, Cooper lined up against a different defensive back, and won the drill. Passions flaring, all eyes watching, and the rookie got it done every single time.
They all knew right then and there. Amari Cooper was the real deal.
The Raiders certainly have something special on their hands with Cooper, a wide receiver that Chris Simms said last month is the best rookie wideout to enter the league in 30 years. But they've also got something special in second-year quarterback Derek Carr, second-year pass rusher Khalil Mack, and third-year cornerback D.J. Hayden. All three are having breakout seasons, and the team is as competitive as it's been in years.
It's all happening, and for Oakland fans whom haven't seen a road win like Sunday's over San Diego in ages, it's almost too good to be true.
A look inside the walls in that Raiders facility will reveal a front office, a coaching staff and an owner that are finally all on the same page from personnel to game-day decisions. There's something being built in Oakland, and it's being built to not only compete in the long-term future, but to challenge for a playoff spot this season.
Unlike other star receivers, Cooper is quiet. He goes about his business and just works on getting better every day.
The real leader in the Raiders' wide receivers room? Michael Crabtree, who in his seventh year as a pro, has revitalized his career with the team across the bay from his old one and is in the midst of a 33-catch season.
Now 28 years old, Crabtree is the veteran voice in a wideouts room that includes Cooper, undrafted guys Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, and former practice squad scrapper Seth Roberts.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, wideouts coach Rob Moore and assistant Nick Holz help draw up the plays and offer the blueprint week to week, but it's Crabtree -- never seen as the leader-type in a San Francisco locker room full of veterans -- giving the guidance and setting the tone in that room. The proof is in the results. Derek Carr is putting up Pro Bowl caliber numbers, and the wide receiver group has combined for 79 receptions in just six games.
The Raiders have been fortunate enough to see their offensive line stay healthy. The same five starters have started and finished all six of their games. The defense is doing just enough and the special teams have been magnificent. They're 3-3 and have tough tests against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings in the next three games. Win two of those games and the playoffs become a real possibility.
Raiders fans have been through this before, but this year truly feels different. This year actually feels real.
WEEK 8 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION
Chris Johnson is the first Arizona Cardinal to rush for 100+ yards three different times in a season since who did it in 2007?
THIS WEEK'S PODCAST
Two high profile jobs are open in college football. Peter Schrager and Bruce Feldman do a deep dive on candidates for the University of Miami and USC jobs. The two hit on big NFL names like Chuck Pagano, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin…and more.
Now, on to the picks.
Week 7 record: 7-7
2015 Overall record: 56-49
Miami at New England: I have enjoyed the Dan Campbell era in Miami thus far, and I know Dolphins fans have, too. He's taking on Chuck Norris-like status where you can say anything -- some magicians can walk on water, Dan Campbell swims through land -- and you'd believe it. But beating Tennessee and Houston isn't much if you can't go into New England and challenge the Patriots. New England is banged up, down several offensive linemen and will either be without or with an injured version of Dion Lewis. I still like the Patriots.
The Pick: Patriots 31, Dolphins 23
Detroit at Kansas City, London: Jim Bob Cooter is the new offensive coordinator in Detroit. Best name in football, sure, but who is he? Well, he's a 31-year-old offensive wunderkind who was one of Peyton Manning's trusted guys both in Indianapolis and in Denver. He's now got nine games to show Lions GM Martin Mayhew and 31 other NFL front offices and ownership groups what he can do running an offense. I think Cooter gets creative and gets a W in his first game as OC on Sunday.
The Pick: Lions 23, Chiefs 18
San Diego at Baltimore: If the NFL Draft was to take place this weekend -- (Editor's Note: It's not) -- the Ravens would have the first overall pick. Considering the success this organization has had in the seven years since Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh got to Baltimore, it's incredible to even consider the Ravens in the top 10 of a draft. Who would they take? I have no idea, but it might be time to start having those conversations. I think the Chargers travel across the country and upset them on Sunday.
The Pick: Chargers 31, Ravens 23
Arizona at Cleveland: In other seasons, this could be seen as a trap game. I don't see it this year. And can we give Cardinals GM Steve Keim the appropriate amount of attention he deserves for some of the castaways that are playing big roles? Chris Johnson, Dwight Freeney and LaMarr Woodley didn't exactly have a long line of suitors this year. All three are now playing big roles on the NFC West division leader.
The Pick: Cardinals 31, Cleveland 20
Minnesota at Chicago: The Vikings are the least talked about 4-2 team in league history, and they're just fine with being way under the radar. They haven't beaten the Bears in Chicago since 2007, and they trailed 14-3 on the road last Sunday before rallying to beat the Lions in Detroit. That's a big win for a team that entered the game 1-14-1 in their previous division games outside of Minneapolis. They keep it going this week behind a gritty defensive effort.
The Pick: Vikings 20, Bears 17
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh: Let's assume Ben Roethlisberger is back. Let's assume the Pittsburgh crowd will be fired up beyond belief for the first of three straight home games. Let's assume everything goes right and Antonio Brown is back as he was before the Roethlisberger injury. That still doesn't mean the Steelers can stop this Bengals offense. With Cincinnati coming off a bye and Hue Jackson given a week to game plan, I'm not sure how Pittsburgh's defensive backfield stops an offense that is fourth in the NFL in scoring (30.3 points per game) and third in total offense (410 yards per game).
The Pick: Bengals 23, Steelers 20
Tennessee at Houston: The Texans. Ugh. What a mess. And I think it's just starting. Anytime you have a general manager who watches every game on the hip of the owner in the owner's suite, you have a murky situation when the team is losing. It's a disaster in Houston right now, and yet, I can't pick Tennessee to beat them on the road. If Houston could keep a team from scoring 30 points in the first half, they'd be much better off. I think they do that on Sunday.
The Pick: Texans 24, Titans 20
New York Giants at New Orleans Saints: Far more known for their high-powered passing attack, I loved what I saw out of the three-headed monster at running back last week for the Saints. Mark Ingram led the way with 143 yards, but Khiry Robinson and CJ Spiller also made their impact felt. And say what you want about Rob Ryan, he outcoached Pep Hamilton and whatever the Colts were doing on offense last week. I believe in the Giants at home. In the SuperDome? No.
The Pick: Saints 35, Giants 24
San Francisco at St. Louis: I had the Rams going to the playoffs before the season started, and if they keep on playing like they did last Sunday, I'll be mentioning this more and more as the season progresses. I'm waiting for some team -- any team -- to stop Todd Gurley. I don't see the 49ers having much success in doing that this weekend.
The Pick: Rams 30, 49ers 17
Tampa Bay at Atlanta: It must be tough being a Buccaneers fan. Years and years of losing, and just as you think there's a license to get excited, they let you down. Latest example; last Sunday. Up 24-0 at the half, dominating on both sides of the ball, and then you find a way to somehow lose in the most inexplicable of fashions -- Kirk Cousins marching his team 80 yards for a game-winning score with under two minutes remaining. The Falcons haven't shown me that they're a title contender just yet, but they'll have enough to beat Tampa on Sunday.
The Pick: Falcons 24, Buccaneers 14
New York Jets at Oakland: I love both of these teams and can see them each representing the AFC as the two Wild-Card squads come January, but I've got to roll with Oakland here. The offensive line is maybe the one unit in the league that can compete with New York's loaded front four, and I think that home crowd will help lift the silver and black on Sunday. If you told me back in August that this game would be maybe the most intriguing of any in Week 8, I would have told you that you're crazy. And here we are.
The Pick: Raiders 27, Jets 20
Seattle at Dallas: I have no problem with Greg Hardy and Dez Bryant getting into it on the sideline. I actually kind of like it. But Greg Hardy getting into it with longtime special teams coach Rich Bisaccia? No. As Hall and Oates once said, "I can't go for that." But Hardy's not going anywhere, so get used to it, Cowboys fans. He will wreak havoc on that struggling Seattle offensive line on Sunday, but I just don't see it being enough to get a W. Fun one, here, that I see Seattle winning late.
The Pick: Seahawks 30, Cowboys 24
Green Bay at Denver: This one feels like a Super Bowl preview, but without the Patriots involved, I can't give it that label. Green Bay's been great and their aerial show travels well, but I just don't see Rodgers besting this defense on a Sunday night in Denver. Not enough can be said about Wade Phillips' unit. I think they bottle up No. 12 and Peyton gets the W on Sunday night.
The Pick: Broncos 27, Packers 21
Indianapolis at Carolina: Andrew Luck doesn't look the same this season as he did last year, he's clearly still injured, and the front office/owner/head coach relationship is strained. Carolina, meanwhile, is all milk and honey, baby. Give me the Panthers for their 11th straight regular-season win, dating back to last year.
The Pick: Panthers 32, Colts 24
READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK
I know you have a sick humor like I do. I imagine you could be any one of my friends watching games at the sports bar on Sunday. So, please tell me you enjoyed the clip of Mike Ditka farting -- or not farting -- from last Monday night. Your thoughts on this national dilemma?
Patrick, Hoboken, NJ
I loved everything about "Fartgate" and I dissected that "Monday Night Countdown" tape the next day more than I've ever dissected an All-22 coach's tape. Ditka denied it. Publically. I think that's the best part. The fact that he issued a public statement and spoke about it like it was worth addressing. He spoke to the Chicago Tribune last week and said, "I'm to the point in my life where it doesn't matter. One day I'll be happy if I can leave a fart." I don't even know what that means, but it makes me like Ditka even more. "Fartgate" is my favorite scandal of 2015; far better than "DeflateGate," I'll tell you that.
WEEK 8 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER
Edgerrin James ran for 100+ yards three times for the 2007 Cardinals.