Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio prefers to keep internal expectations high. He talked about winning the AFC West since the spring, despite a perceived talent disparity and an ability to excuse struggles in his first season.
He welcomed the thought of being a wild-card combatant, especially when the Raiders were the AFC’s fifth-seeded team at 4-3. His message was clear: Don’t be afraid of success.
The Raiders weren’t scared of it, nor did they get caught up in being a sexy playoff pick near midseason. They’ve taken a tumble since, with four losses in five weeks stealing their postseason hopes. It all came crashing down Sunday during a disastrous fourth-quarter against Kansas City where Derek Carr threw three interceptions and yet another victory slipped away.
The Raiders are now 5-7, no longer able to win the AFC West. The Broncos are up five games with four to play. The Raiders are 5-7, two full games behind three teams in the wild-card chase and a game back of two others.
There’s a one-percent chance the Raiders make the playoffs now. Once again, Del Rio didn’t ignore the facts. He acknowledged the magnitude of that Chiefs loss, accepted blame for his part in a disappointing outcome made a clever “Dumb and Dumber” reference – so you’re saying there’s a chance -- and promised to fight on.
“You get what you earn in this league. I believe that,” Del Rio said. “We didn’t do enough to earn our way to be in second place today. We had that opportunity, so that’s disappointing.”
This isn’t a column set to call the season a disappointment. It hasn’t been to this point. This is a multi-year rebuild despite a desire to win now, and the Silver and Black have made strides in Del Rio’s first year. Not everything has worked, but there is a quality quarterback in Derek Carr, a defensive superstar in the making in Khalil Mack and a solid young foundation.
The Raiders have showed flashes of solid play, but it’s clear they’re not ready to be a playoff contender. They are 1-5 against teams above .500, 4-2 against other struggling teams. They don’t fit in with cellar dwellers, but they still can’t beat the big boys.
There is confidence the Raiders will get right, just not soon enough to save this season.
“I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in the guys we have. I believe in the coaches and the players and the effort that we’re getting,” Del Rio said. “We’re going to turn this thing and become a really good football team. It just hasn’t happened quickly enough over the first 12 games, 12 opportunities we’ve had. We’re sitting here with five victories after 12 games, and I expected more. “
Going from worst to wild card is tough to do. Don’t forget this team was 0-10 with a fired coach before finishing the season 3-13. The Raiders had won 11 games over three seasons in a major redevelopment period, with some missteps before Del Rio joined the crew.
The Raiders have been better, still not great. They’ve been competitive in several losses, but haven’t been able to seal the deal.
Getting close doesn’t matter. The Raiders have learned that the hard way, a bit too often for comfort.
“Win enough games. That’s all it comes down to,” Carr said. “No one cares about anything but winning in this league. A lot of things are really good and a lot of things get thrown under the table when you win. That’s what we haven’t done yet, is win enough games. Our record is what we’ve earned and it’s not ‘this happened or this happened.’ That’s just what we’ve learned.”
The franchise has more to do over the last month, especially in the growth and development of young talent. The Raiders will look to see which players can be relied upon, and which upgrades are needed in free agency and the draft. And, since wins are what matter, more than five will show improvement over recent impoverished seasons.
“This is a thing that we’re really trying to turn around,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “We still have some division games left. We can still be physical and set the tone for the future.”