This season, the Raiders have become survivors. They are 8-7 despite all odds, and they can reach the playoffs two ways: Capture the AFC West with a win and a Broncos loss, or earn a wild-card berth with a win and an elaborate-but-not-impossible combination of losses around the AFC.
The Raiders are on the brink of their first playoffs since 2002 because of all they've had to overcome: injuries at quarterback and other skill position starters, the death of Al Davis, a midseason swoon that swallowed other hot-starting teams the Bills and Redskins, and Tebowmania — or at least they've been able to swim in its wake.
The Raiders could easily be the Bears: Their hopes dashed, their coach’s job in jeopardy, their whole roster shrugging its shoulders and saying “sorry, we had too many injuries.” The Raiders are still around because they play in an easier division, but also because they made the kind of daring moves they were famous for in their heyday, taking chances other teams were not bold enough to take.
Carson Palmer is just 4-4 as a starter this season, 4-5 if you count his early, ineffective relief appearance against the Chiefs. At his worst, he looks rusty and out-of-synch with his receivers. At his best, he bears only a slight resemblance to the Palmer of 2005 and 2006. He cost the Raiders a fortune in draft picks, including a first-rounder next year. It is hard to classify the midseason trade to bring Palmer out of Bengals exile as an unqualified success. It was a high-risk gambit, and we won’t know what the long-term impact of the trade will be for many years.
Instead of comparing Palmer to his former peers among elite starting quarterbacks, compare him to the some of the backups that have taken snaps this season. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and has a 77.2 efficiency rating.
The Raiders would be in the same boat as the Bears Chiefs, and others if they had crossed their fingers and left Kyle Boller to his own devices when Jason Campbell got hurt. Their three-game winning streak against the Chargers, Vikings, and Bears never would have happened. They would probably be experimenting with Terrelle Pryor.
Palmer is no Drew Brees, and he isn’t 2005 Palmer, but he is light years above the vat of unqualified Hanie-Boller-Palko types that teams talked themselves into. Coach Hue Jackson knew Boller and wishes were not going to work, and that waiting 'til next year was not an appealing option. He acquired a quarterback he knew and trusted.
As for the heavy price tag in draft picks, Palmer probably will look much better after spending a full training camp in Oakland. Also, he hasn't yet lined up with his full complement of offensive weapons since joining the Raiders. When you look at their injuries on offense, it’s a wonder they've scored any points at all in the last two months.
Something old, something new
Darren McFadden has not played since Oct. 23, the day Palmer entered the lineup. Wide receiver Jacoby Ford has been out of action since mid-November, though he might return Sunday. Rookie sensation Denarius Moore missed three full games and was limited in others before getting his groove back against the Chiefs last week.
Backups such as running back Taiwan Jones and receiver Derek Hagan have also been injured. The Raiders endured a three-game stretch (Bears, Dolphins, Packers) without their No. 1 running back and their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers, and with the still-adjusting Palmer at quarterback. That they beat the Bears under those circumstances might have been their greatest accomplishment this season.
Bruising Michael Bush has been excellent in McFadden’s absence, and Jackson has done a fine job disguising the fact that the Raiders have no real backup or change-of-pace runner. At wide receiver, the Raiders have performed a miracle, cobbling a credible passing game together from has-been T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 100-meter dash specialist Darrius Heyward-Bey and hanger-on Chaz Schilens.
Heyward-Bey was the last of the great scratch-your-head Al Davis draft picks: a speedster with a lackluster college record and everything to learn about running NFL routes. For two years in Oakland, he lived down to his reputation as a guy who does nothing but run fly routes.
But he has 55 receptions this season, and there is nothing wrong with being a one-dimensional deep threat if you are good at it: Palmer and Heyward-Bey have connected on 34-, 35-, and 55-yard passes in the past two weeks, the final pass to set up a game-winning overtime field goal Saturday. Heyward-Bey also has helped in ways that do not show up on the stat sheet: He is a fine blocker on screens and outside runs.
Lately, Houshmandzadeh has found his niche, and he is 8-for-8 on passes thrown to him in the past two games, most of them short passes into the right flat that help keep the chains moving.
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
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