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OAKLAND

The Raiders’ 21-14 victory against the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon verified a couple things. The first is that this team will create its own destiny in 2017.

“Now we sit where we sit, and we know what’s ahead of us,” quarterback Derek Carr said.

Improbably, the 5-6 Raiders can win the AFC West with no outside help. But the second lesson from the win at the Coliseum is this: The ride is going to be bumpy, and there’s no guarantee it will end at the intended destination.

But let the good news sink in for a moment. The Raiders entered Week 12 ranked 20th in the NFL in total offense, 26th in total defense, 27th in rushing yardage and dead last in sacks. They haven’t won consecutive games since Week 2. Head coach Jack Del Rio fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on Tuesday, and his own job is far from secure.

And yet the Raiders are right in the thick of the race. They’re one game behind the division-leading Kansas City (6-5). Not long ago, the Chiefs were the popular choice to represent in the AFC in the Super Bowl. But they lost for the fifth time in six weeks Sunday, and seem frozen in an endless loop of 4-yard Alex Smith passes. The Raiders beat the Chiefs in Week 7; if they complete the sweep in KC on Dec. 10, they will own the tiebreaker.

The Chargers, once as irrelevant as the Chiefs were celebrated, might be playing the best ball in the division, and they own a victory against the Raiders. But the two teams are tied at 5-6, and they meet again in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve. So Oakland can gain the upper hand in that one, too.

Yes, all the Raiders have to do is keep winning. But can they?

The past month and a half has been a rollercoaster, not a drag strip. The Raiders seemed to have finally righted the ship when they beat the Chiefs in a 31-30 nailbiter here on Oct. 19. Then they laid an egg the next week at Buffalo. They rallied for a close win at Miami on Nov. 5. Then came unglued against the Patriots in Mexico City.

After Sunday’s game, I asked Carr how they can sustain momentum this time.

“Come on, man,” he said, giving me a beseeching look.

“No, I’m just kidding,” Carr continued. “We stick to our process. I’ll start on the next game as soon as I get home. Was actually just talking to our video guy about getting the games on my iPad.”

Carr will have a lot to ponder when he clicks through those games. Sunday was an exciting day for the Raiders, who buried one AFC West foe and gained ground on another. But the red flags are still flying, and I’m not referring to coach’s challenges.

For 45 minutes, the Raiders put together one of their most complete games of the season. Granted, the Broncos are sinking into oblivion, and their quarterback, Paxton Lynch, was making his first start of 2017 and the third of his young career. Still, the Raiders dominated most of the game. Heading into the fourth quarter they had 21 points, 253 yards and 18 first downs; Denver had zero points, 66 yards and three first downs. It was a thrashing.

And then … well, the 2017 Raiders showed up again. They got a little soft on defense. They got a bit sloppy on offense. And just like that, the Broncos had cut their deficit to 21-14 with 2:39 left. The antsy crowd didn’t find relief under Carr connected with Cordarrelle Patterson on a 54-yard reception at the 2-minute warning.

Del Rio acknowledged the letdown after the game, when someone asked him about the effort of his defense. “Yeah, for three quarters it was pretty good,” he said, before offering some praise. “I just thought there was certainty, decisiveness. Played fast. They played very fast. I said three quarters. It was a three-quarters effort.”

In a season where every game has become, if not a “must win,” then a “really, really should win,” three quarters of stout play won’t always be enough. The Raiders’ three remaining road games are at Kansas City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (to play the Chargers). Those will be 60-minute contests waged against quarterbacks better than Lynch and his late-third-quarter replacement, Trevor Siemian.

And if it weren’t enough to ponder whether the Raiders can beat the likes of the Eagles, there’s this question: Can they refrain from beating themselves?

Sunday’s game was barely 3 minutes old when bedlam broke out on the field, with fights erupting near the Broncos’ bench and in the south end zone. Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree wound up losing both his gold chain and his helmet. He was thrown out of the game along with his long-time antagonist, Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, as well as Raiders right guard Gabe Jackson, who ran into an official while trying to protect Crabtree.

When the dust had settled and the saloon keeper had swept up all the glass and nailed the barstools back together, some details emerged. The Crabtree-Talib fracas was rooted in the previous play, a handoff to Marshawn Lynch.

“He just sucker-punched me,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said of Crabtree. “I have never seen that in the NFL. Today, he just came out wanting to fight. He didn’t want to play football. … It was a run play, I was playing man and I wasn’t even doing anything. He just came in there, was like ‘bam!,’ hit me right in the middle of the stomach and I just lost my breath.”

Harris left the field for a play, and Talib was incensed. So on the next play, another handoff to Lynch, he reprised the petty crime he committed against Crabtree at Denver last year. He got in the receiver’s face and ripped the chain off his neck.

Last year, Crabtree took the high road. This time he jumped right in the ditch, driving Talib out of bounds, putting him on the ground and igniting a wild fight. When order was restored, the Raiders were without their leading receiver and a starting offensive lineman.

“I like to count on my guys to do the right thing there and keep their poise, keep their composure, not get tossed,” Del Rio said. “It’s just too much.”

Talib is a renowned pest. He clearly has it in for Crabtree. But the Raiders will be skating on thin ice for the remainder of the season. They can’t afford to lose their composure like that, just as they couldn’t afford it earlier in the year when Lynch ran onto the field to break up a fight that involved his close friend, Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, and wound up suspended for a game because he made contact with an official.

The Raiders are hanging around the playoff race, because they keep lowering the bar in the AFC high-jump pit. It’s exciting. Despite the tribulations of this season, despite a sacrificial defensive coordinator and a receiving corps that can’t catch the ball consistently, hope is alive in Oakland.

Now it’s up to the Raiders to do something about it.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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