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Lowell Cohn: Patience pays off with Raiders' long-awaited return to playoffs

Oakland Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin pressures Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor during their game in Oakland on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. The Raiders defeated the Bills 38-24. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

LOWELL COHN,

HOUSTON — No matter what happens Saturday — meaning if the Raiders lose to Houston — this season already has been a whopping success for Oakland. Underline the previous sentence in red ink.

The Raiders have been a disaster. Have not been in the playoffs since the 2002 season, and now they are in the playoffs. They are playing a January game, for goodness sake. It’s a big deal. And it’s a very good deal.

Please give Mark Davis credit. He had a vision. He understood he had to deconstruct a bad roster before he could construct a good one. He understood no team accomplishes the reconstruction overnight. He exhibited the patience and wisdom — yes, wisdom — Jed York never has demonstrated.

Mark comprehended the problem and had the patience to let the plan evolve. In the past, people made fun of Mark. But he always knew what he did not know — as opposed to Jed. Tale of Two Owners. That kind of thing.

Mark reached out to NFL giants — John Madden, Jon Gruden, Ron Wolf and Ken Herock, met with them, learned from them. They all had been successful and Mark organized his plan after talking to them. He did things the right way. He understood a team doesn’t get to be horrible overnight. And it takes even longer to get un-horrible. To shake off years of accumulated badness. Fact of life.

Mark is the reason the Raiders are where they are Saturday — in Houston in the playoffs. The Raiders are a success. The season already has been a success no matter what.

Of course, the Raiders have more to do in future seasons.

They have made a giant stride, but as they move forward, they need to make smaller strides, significant strides. Get deeper at linebacker, their secondary, defensive line, even wide receiver. Make sure the gap between starters and subs is not as great as now. Need to have better backups for Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack.

And one other thing. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton is borderline remedial.

Sorry, but that’s true. He needs to evaluate opponents’ offenses better. The knock against the Raiders all season, even before Derek Carr got hurt, was the defense’s inability to close out opponents, its tendency to let opponents linger late into the game.

Against Houston, Norton needs to shut the door on the Texans offense. That means making the Texans go three and out again and again.

Now to the game itself, a real puzzler. This will be a tough one for the Raiders even though the Texans are, in some respects — mostly on offense — a pedestrian team. But the Raiders are reduced to their third-string quarterback, Connor Cook, a rookie making his first-ever NFL start.

It’s hard to win a playoff game, especially hard for someone like Cook, even though Jack Del Rio says Cook has the right frame of mind, even though Del Rio hints the Raiders have installed some plays suited to Cook’s talents.

But still.

Del Rio’s job is NOT to let Cook or the rest of the Raiders feel the immensity of this game. Del Rio keeps telling the team that if they take away the hype, this is just another football game. But it isn’t. Because it really is a playoff game. Because the Raiders really don’t have Carr. Because the Raiders have to play an almost-perfect game to win. Can they?

And remember, the Raiders had trouble beating the Texans in Mexico City in Week 11. And they had Carr for that game. This will be different, especially because Houston has the No. 1 defense in the entire NFL. You may not know that. Look it up.

Cook is facing huge obstacles in his own preparation and in what the Texans may do to him. Houston will put eight or even nine defenders in the box, try to make it impossible for Oakland to run, especially with 325-pound Vince Wolfork owning the middle of the line. The Raiders may have to run around the edges instead of up the middle. Can they?

When they met Week 11, the Raiders ran for only 30 yards, their season low. Scary bad. The Texans will dare Cook to complete passes before they commit multiple defenders to Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper and the other receivers.

The Raiders cannot fall behind early, cannot end the first quarter trailing by, say, 13 points. They may not have the offense to make up the deficit, to manufacture 14 points to win the game.

They have to run the ball well. They have to get first downs. They have to maintain ball control. They have to keep the Texans on the Houston side of the field. Make the Texans execute — try to execute — long drives, 70 yards, 80 yards to score touchdowns. Houston’s quarterback Brock Osweiler is no big deal — has thrown more picks than TDs — and may not sustain long drives. He is the Raiders’ big chance. The Raiders lose Carr, the Texans have Osweiler. Not an even trade, but interesting.

Field position will matter big time in this game. It will be a grueling game. It will be a grind. A low-scoring grind. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the essence of playoff football between two teams with a statement to make. The final score could be 10-6 unless one team gets gifted with a pick-six or there’s a massive mistake on special teams.

Who wins?

Take your pick.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach staff columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.