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Barber: Raiders in precarious spot with Chiefs game approaching

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ALAMEDA - Jon Gruden — face red, brim pulled low, a bit sniffly after spending three hours in the wind and cold of late-November New Jersey — addressed the media in East Rutherford after the Raiders’ 34-3 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday. You can watch the video on the Raiders website if you’re into that sort of thing.

“It is a sinking feeling,” Gruden said at one point. “You ever been on a boat that’s sinking? It’s not happy, it’s not pleasant. But it’s adversity, it’s football. You gotta respond to adversity.”

The question was about a particular play, and how it contributed to the snowball that eventually buried Gruden’s team several feet deep in missed tackles, missed blocks, missed field goals and missed opportunities. But his words might have applied to the Raiders’ overall status right now.

Heading into that Jets game, they were riding a wave of momentum like nothing they had experienced since Gruden returned in January of 2018 — like very little they have experienced since he was originally traded to Tampa Bay in 2002. Now, following one day of exceptionally bad football, the emergency sirens are wailing.

“We did not get that contagious play-making vibe yesterday,” Gruden said Monday, at his start-of-the-week press conference at team headquarters. “It was like we were waiting for somebody to make a play, it just didn’t happen.

And so the question must be asked: Is the USS Raider a sinking boat?

It sure feels like it. Before Sunday, the Raiders hadn’t fallen victim to an upset in 2019. Their only losses had come against legitimate playoff teams — the Chiefs, Vikings, Packers and Texans. No shame there. Likewise, they had beaten the teams they were expected to vanquish — Broncos, Lions, Chargers, Bengals. Throw in a victory in London against a Bears team who aren’t what we thought they were, and a surprise win at Indianapolis, and the Raiders had the look of a wild-card team.

Or heck, even better. They were right on the heels of the Chiefs in the AFC West, with a trip to Kansas City on the horizon.

The Jets game changed everything. It was the slip-up that couldn’t happen, and it reminded us what a precarious position the Raiders had been in all along. It’s true they had lost to good teams. But they lost to several of them, enough to provide little margin of error.

Now that margin is virtually invisible. The Raiders re-slotted themselves behind the Steelers in the AFC playoff race, and currently sit in the No. 7 seed, which is at least one place below where they’d like to be. They have to play catch-up. And their first chance to do so will be both a tremendous opportunity and an arduous task. Because that game at Kansas City is coming this Sunday.

“It was already huge — a division game, trying to make the playoffs” defensive tackle P.J. Hall said in the Oakland locker room Monday. “So it was already on top.”

What’s bigger than huge? Titan? Colossal? Whatever it is, that’s what the Chiefs game has become in the wake of that loss to the Jets.

And in light of last Sunday’s events, it has become much harder to picture a positive outcome for the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium, a place where they have lost six consecutive games. If they lose that one, they’ll be 6-6 heading into the final four games of the season. Do the Raiders feel like a team that can run the table after Dec. 1?

I’ll answer that one for you. No, they really don’t. They’re a solid squad with notable flaws and injuries, and this is going to be a rough assignment. That’s what happens when you are outgained 401-208 by a Jets team was 3-7 at the time.

So yes, the Raiders are taking on water. But are they sinking? That will depend on how they respond to this mess. And that will rest on their ability to practice Jedi-level mind discipline and remember nothing about the New York game, and everything about the hopeful three games that preceded it.

“Yeah, I’m very confident in that,” Gruden said Monday. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and do anything. We are going to have to earn every first down, we are going to have to work hard to get (Chiefs quarterback Patrick) Mahomes off the field. They’re coming off a bye week. They’ll be fresh as daisies. So it’ll be a great challenge in one of the great places and great rivalries in football. Hopefully it brings out a much better performance in us.”

Tight end Darren Waller, who has been one of the Raiders’ best players this year, also was feeling good about his team’s mental state as he sat in front of his locker. I asked Waller about the flight home after that crushing defeat. He said it was the same vibe — guys playing cards, guys watching film, guys snoring — that follows any road game, win or lose.

“I think people understand that if we take this loss forward, that we’ll only be hurting ourselves,” Waller said. “And if we just leave it where it’s at — evaluate it today, of course, then leave it where it’s at — that gives us the best chance to go forward. Not just carry those feelings and emotions and pain of what happened yesterday going forward.”

That can be easier said than done, though. It takes a certain type of locker room to rebound from a setback, and I’m not sure if the Raiders have one of those locker rooms. I’m not doubting them. I just don’t know. They have a lot of rookies, and few of the Oakland players have been working together for more than a year or two. This trip to KC will be a huge mental test. For some players, it’s the biggest test of their NFL careers.

Had they been polled in August, I’m guessing a lot of people in the Raiders organization would have been perfectly happy to be where they are, on the bubble of a postseason bid. But right now, having checked so many boxes along the way, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Are the Raiders sinking? We won’t know until Sunday afternoon. Just to be safe, though, I think everyone should be bailing as fast as he can.

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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