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From disaster to contender: Raiders now true challengers to Chiefs in AFC West

Embroiled in the most embarrassing story of the preseason, the Raiders not long ago appeared ready to be spend the 2019 season treading water until their grand inaugural season in Las Vegas opens the new decade. At best, it seemed, the franchise was hoping to be good enough to save face and give the splashy and exorbitant Jon Gruden experiment time to redeem itself.

Not so fast. Oakland has won four of its last six after starting 1-2 and finds itself only a half game out of first place in the AFC West. A Chiefs division title was once considered a foregone conclusion even a full month into the season. After all, the entire conference was deemed to be a two-horse race between them and the Patriots. But Kansas City has slipped at the same rate that Oakland has come up, with the Chiefs dropping four of their last six, including a gutting upset on Sunday by the Titans.

Sure, it’s fair to point out that Oakland is feasting on some subpar teams. So far the Raiders' record against those with winning records is 1-4, with the only win coming against the sliding Colts. But a big part of making the playoffs is taking care of business against the teams you’re supposed to. What’s more, while their overall resume isn’t the most impressive, piling up wins is the best way to position yourself in one of the higher tiers in the league.

The remaining schedule is amenable for a team building momentum as it goes. The Raiders' next two games come against the winless Bengals and the 2-7 Jets. Over their last seven, the Raiders have only two games left against teams .500 or better: at home against the Titans and on the road in Kansas City. The Chiefs beat the Raiders fairly decisively in Oakland back in Week 2, but the teams have headed in more or less opposite directions since. That second meeting will likely go a long way to decide the division, especially when the Chiefs still have a road game in New England the week after.

The Chiefs certainly were hamstrung for a bit due to Patrick Mahomes’ injury, which caused him to miss two starts and operate at less than 100 percent for a few more weeks. On Sunday against Tennessee, he played as though he was very close to full strength, albeit smartly avoiding contact in a few instances. It wasn’t enough, as Ryan Tannehill connected with Adam Humphries for a 23-yard score with half a minute remaining to secure the win.

The last-minute defensive failure is less concerning than the fact that the Chiefs' run defense remains porous. The Titans’ 225 rushing yards on Sunday mark the fifth time this season that Kansas City has allowed at least 180 yards on the ground. To date, the Chiefs are 2-3 in those games, and the two wins were nail-biters over Baltimore and Detroit.

Derek Carr is shaping up to have the best statistical season of his career, finally getting back on his early career upward trajectory that was interrupted by the broken fibula he suffered in Week 16 of the 2016 season. That injury not only set back Carr’s progress, but it put an abrupt end to what was the best Raiders season since the franchise lost Super Bowl XXXVII to Gruden’s Buccaneers.

At the time of Carr’s injury, the Raiders seemed like a team on the rise. They found their way through years of dismal roster building into a team that starred the likes of Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack. Carr’s injury proved to be a significant setback, as did less-than-inspired coaching by Jack Del Rio. One year after the big breakout, the franchise had to go back to the drawing board.

The Raiders tried to fix matters in the most Raiders way possible, by throwing money at the biggest name available. Despite not having coached in a decade and developing a broadcast reputation that often bordered on the ridiculous, Gruden received a record-setting 10-year contract. He initially brought on old veterans like Jordy Nelson and unloaded talents like Cooper and Mack. It had all the makings of the hilarious disaster that detractors forecast when Gruden was hired, saying Mark Davis was trying to emulate the worst tendencies of his father.

Gruden and the Raiders were consistently derided during the 2018 season for unloading Mack for draft picks, as the pass rusher dominated and led the Chicago Bears to a playoff appearance. Using one of the picks they got for Mack, however, the Raiders landed running back Josh Jacobs in this spring’s draft, and he’s now a top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, rushing for 811 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games thus far. The decision to waste a midrounder on Antonio Brown turned out to be an embarrassing flop, though in terms of draft capital it wasn’t all that costly.

Oakland still isn’t without its weakness. The receiving corps is unexceptional aside from tight end Darren Waller, and another pass rusher could come in handy, which is why there was speculation Oakland might have gone after someone like Von Miller at the trade deadline if he were available.

Yet this is an NFL season in which there are arguably only maybe four or five actually good teams, meaning there’s plenty of room for the fair to middling to make the leap if their rosters can gel into the best versions they can be. The Raiders appear to be doing that, while the Chiefs are losing their grip, and it could open the door for the Silver and Black to finish out in Oakland in a big way.

Mike Tunison is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. and the former editor of Kissing Suzy Kolber. You can follow him at @xmasape on Twitter.


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