It’s been a really, really long time since the Oakland Raiders have been anything more than an afterthought in the NFL. Their last winning season came in 2002 — the year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers destroyed them in Super Bowl XXXVII — and they have gone through 10 different head coaches since the turn of the century. Just when it looked like the Raiders would never turn the corner and return to playing winning football, they made a couple of wise draft picks and free-agent signings and now sit atop the AFC standings with a 10-3 record.
Under head coach Jack Del Rio, the 2016 Raiders suddenly figured out how to win close games in the fourth quarter — something they haven’t done since the Rich Gannon era. Six of their eight wins this year have come by a touchdown or less, but what’s more impressive is the fact that they are 5-1 in road games. The franchise regained its swagger and now the team controls their own postseason destiny.
When it comes down to it, the Raiders are realistically two or three wins away from assuring themselves a spot in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Knowing that, we fully expect the silver and black to end their 13-year postseason drought. Regardless, there is still a major difference between being just another playoff team and being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Here is our take on where the Raiders fall on the “Super Bowl contender versus Super Bowl pretender” spectrum.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In his last four draft classes, Oakland General Manager Reggie McKenzie has landed franchise building blocks such as running back Latavius Murray (sixth round), wide receiver Amari Cooper (first round), quarterback Derek Carr (second round), guard Gabe Jackson (third round), linebacker Khalil Mack (first round), and safety Karl Joseph (first round).
The 53-year-old GM is equally impressive with free agents. McKenzie has recruited and signed center Rodney Hudson, guard Kelechi Osemele, offensive tackle Donald Penn, linebackers Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith, cornerback Sean Smith, and safety Reggie Nelson.
The most impressive things about McKenzie: He built an offensive line not far behind that of the Dallas Cowboys (who have the unquestioned best offensive line in the league). He also drafted a perennial All-Pro at quarterback (Carr) and pass rusher (Mack), which are arguably the two most important positions in today’s NFL.
While the Raiders have game-changing players at the most important positions on the field, they also have deficiencies on their roster that we cannot overlook.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Raiders’ biggest holes are at the tight end and running back positions. Their current starters — Clive Walford at tight end and Murray at running back — are both solid contributors, but neither player has the ability to consistently play at a Pro Bowl level.
Take the Cowboys, who are serious Super Bowl contenders, for example. America’s Team has a very similar roster structure to that of the Raiders. But the key difference is that they have impact players at both running back (Ezekiel Elliott) and tight end (Jason Witten).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders could use upgrades at several positions. Outside of Mack and fellow linebacker Irvin, Oakland’s defense doesn’t have another player with the type of talent to earn Pro Bowl honors on a consistent basis. At the end of the day, though, the Raiders do have a franchise quarterback, a dominant offensive line, two excellent wide receivers, and a couple of game-changers on the defensive side of the ball.
As we previously mentioned, the Oakland Raiders are in control of their own postseason fate. Unfortunately for them, their road to the AFC Playoffs could get bumpy. Here is a quick look at the remaining three games on their schedule:
- Week 15: @ San Diego Chargers
- Week 16: Indianapolis Colts
- Week 17: @ Denver Broncos
As you can see, the Raiders don’t have a slam-dunk win left on their 2016 schedule. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Oakland lose half of their remaining games. The Colts and Chargers are talented and capable of playing with and beating any team in the league when things are clicking. And as we all know, the Broncos are the defending Super Bowl champions.
Bottom line: The Raiders have the makings of a team that could very well contend for a Super Bowl title within the next three or four years. They have a quarterback who has become elite, one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a pair of game-changing wide receivers, and a one of the best all-around defensive players in the league.
At their best, the Raiders can challenge and likely beat any team in the league. However, in the end, we just don’t see them beating teams like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, or Pittsburgh Steelers when January comes around. For now, we cannot call the Raiders serious Super Bowl contenders.