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ALAMEDA - In the Raiders locker room on Thursday, I asked running back Jalen Richard if he figured this screwy 2017 playoff race was destined to come down to the final week. His reply, more or less: “too soon.”

“We can sit here and talk about Week 17, when we play the Chargers, and what all that we’ll have at stake in that game,” Richard said. “But if we don’t beat KC this weekend, we ain’t even in it. We knocked out of it if we lose to KC. So basically, we’ll be playing in Week 17 just to spoil their efforts. You’re not thinking that far.”

He added: “It’s almost like seeing an 18-wheeler in front of you, but you know you got a car right here — right in front of you. And it’s like, OK, I gotta get around this first.”

Three cars, actually, painted in the color schemes of (in order) the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Los Angeles Chargers, the final opponent on the Raiders’ schedule, will be the big rig if Oakland is still in contention on New Year’s Eve.

The final quarter of the 2017 season promises to be intriguing and confusing in the AFC West. About mid-September, almost everyone figured this was the strongest division in the NFL. Now it appears to be the .500-est division. As dawn breaks today, three of the West’s four teams are tied for first at 6-6.

There’s the Chiefs, who were poised for a Super Bowl appearance before realizing they might be terrible; the Chargers, who accepted their role as snakebitten losers before realizing they were actually pretty good; and the Raiders, who are having a hard time deciding exactly what they are.

Handicapping the race objectively, there is little reason to bet on the Raiders. Kansas City has the easiest schedule, with home games against the other two competitors. And LA has the momentum, with three consecutive wins and six in its past eight games.

What do the Raiders have? Hope. A fair degree of talent. And a continued feeling of constriction around their throats.

Since the Raiders fell to 2-3 with a home loss to Baltimore on Oct. 8, every one of their games has been described as a “must win” in some circles. Clearly, this wasn’t always true, since they lost three of those seven games and are still treading water, waiting for their life raft to properly inflate. But it’s accurate that all of those games were vital, or at least felt so at the time.

You could assign them various levels of “must.” The home game against the Chiefs in Week 7 was rife with must. If the Raiders had fallen to 2-5 with a fifth consecutive loss, it’s reasonable to surmise the season would have crumbled in ruins and head coach Jack Del Rio’s job security would be a daily question.

The two other games that followed losses, at Miami in Week 9 and home against the Broncos in Week 12, were pretty must-y, too. Not, like, storage shed with a leaky roof and a mouse infestation must-y. But maybe high school boys’ locker room must-y.

The Raiders won them both, and the Chiefs have continued to come unstapled, which explains why today’s game at Arrowhead Stadium has a high concentration of “must.” Let’s be perfectly honest. The Raiders will not be eliminated if they lose, or on Easy Street if they win. There’s too much football to be played, and none of these three contenders is easy to figure.

But we can say with confidence that things will be very grim indeed for the Raiders if they head home at 6-7.

So Richard and his teammates have another car to dodge. Granted, the Chiefs’ vehicle is sputtering. One of the tires is a spare and the radiator is leaking coolant. But it’s a hazard nonetheless.

“That’s fool’s gold,” Oakland right tackle Marshall Newhouse said of KC having lost six of its past seven games. “There’s a reason they started 5-0. There’s no semblance of taking them lightly. I think they’re even favorites.”

He’s right. Las Vegas, despite its love for what will be the hometown team in 2020, currently had the Raiders as four-point underdogs heading into the weekend.

It makes sense, too. The Raiders’ stirring 31-30 win against the Chiefs at the Oakland Coliseum on Oct. 19 was their milestone victory of 2017. Since then, the victories have been one-possession differentials against bad teams — the Dolphins, Broncos and Giants. The Raiders have stabilized, but there is no reliable evidence that they have truly turned the corner yet.

And so we’ve got another nervous Sunday for Del Rio’s team, the seventh in a row by my estimation (subtracting a bye week). That sounds exhausting, considering the playoffs are more than a month away. But the Raiders insist that what does not kill them makes them stronger.

“It’s been good for us,” Richard said. “I think we’ve reacted to it very well.”

Newhouse noted that when every game is meaningful, a team gets used to the pressure and the extra intensity. It’s a form of armor.

“So you kind of just learn how to not blink, and just go out and play, because you don’t want to make it more than it is,” Newhouse said. “You don’t want guys seizing up with the big moment. You just kind of want to go out there and play loose. So I think having plenty of games like that — there’s less time to relax, there’s less room for error, but you definitely get hardened a bit to that kind of atmosphere.”

You see where I’m going with this. If the Raiders are still in the hunt in Week 17, they’ll be fully battle-tested for the Chargers. And if they survive that one and complete an improbable run to the playoffs, they’ll be ready for that, too. And then the weekly set of high hurdles will be considered an asset, not a drawback.

“I don’t think we saw ourselves being tied in the division for first place at this point (when we were 2-4), you know what I’m saying?” tight end Jared Cook said. “It’s all about sticking with it. Fate is kind of on our table a little bit, maybe like a toe or something on our table.”

I’m not sure fate has truly made a visit to the Raiders’ table. And I’m not sure they need fate. What they need is resilience and the ability to recharge quickly. Beat the Chiefs today, and this team might begin to embrace must-iness as a satisfying aroma.

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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