Now comes the hard part for the Raiders.
Exceeding the expectations of a loser is easy compared to meeting the expectations of a winner.
The Raiders are coming off a 35-31 to the Kansas City Chiefs, a defeat that enhanced their reputation nationally. A lot of the good things the Raiders have done seemed to gain notice. They’re 6-4, nearly swept the defending Super Bowl champions and have played one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.
The punch line status of coach Jon Gruden is giving way to the recognition he and general manager Mike Mayock have built a team worthy of the playoffs. Nowhere to go but downhill.
The Raiders visit the Atlanta Falcons Sunday (10 a.m.), an underachiever that fired its head coach Dan Quinn and elevated Raheem Morris, the man who took Gruden’s job when he was relieved of his command at Tampa Bay.
Gruden called Atlanta “the best 3-7 team I’ve ever seen” and said the Falcons are dangerous, although to be fair, he thinks the opponent is dangerous every week.
“They’re flying around, they have a lot of talent,” Gruden said. “This team was recently in the Super Bowl, they had a tough start, they lost some games in head-scratching fashion but they’re still playing hard and they’re still a formidable opponent. We have to get ready for them.”
The Super Bowl season was the 2016 season and the infamous 28-3 lead (and collapse) against the New England Patriots — an eternity ago in a league where roster turnover rivals a fast food restaurant. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL Most Valuable Player that year, is still around. So is wide receiver Julio Jones.
It begins a six-game stretch for the Raiders against opponents with a 23-38 record that will make or break the season.
They were also 6-4 last year, went on an an East Coast trip and took on the 3-7 New York Jets. The Raiders lost 34-0 and won just one more game the rest of the season.
Quarterback Derek Carr said Mayock reminded him of their identical record through 10 games a year ago.
“I said, `Yeah, but this is different,’ and he said he agreed,” Carr said. “There’s just something about this team, the teams we’ve lost to, how we’ve lost, things like that. The teams we’ve played with and beat. We’re definitely a better team. But we have to finish better than we did last year, and I believe that we will . . . I feel it’s different, but time will tell.”
Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said “We’re a totally different team,” and cornerback Trayvon Mullen added, “this year, it just feels better.”
Four ways the Raiders can beat the Falcons and show those good vibrations mean something:
1. Wake up early
It’s the first of back to back games set at a 10 a.m. body clock against teams with losing records. Come out firing and ready to go. The surest way to make a 3-7 team remember its record is by taking a quick lead and building on it.
If the Raiders are as angry as they say they are, and that was the prevailing post-Chiefs theme, it shouldn’t be a problem. Johnathan Abram said said they were mad. So did defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and offensive coordinator Greg Olson. No hanging of heads, just an edge and determination to come back strong.
It’s a sterile, indoor, non-hostile environment. There won’t be a crowd whipping the home team into a frenzy. Limited attendance at the Falcons’ last home game, a 34-27 win over Denver on Nov. 8, was 7,665.
2. Get after Ryan
Hard to imagine the Falcons winning unless Ryan has a big day, and he’s a good enough passer to put up numbers against anybody. The last time Ryan played the Raiders in 2016, he was 26 of 34 for 396 yards and three touchdowns. This year, he’s passed for 2,978 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
But Ryan has also been sacked 27 times, the seventh-highest figure in the league. That figure was inflated by getting sacked eight times in a 24-9 loss to New Orleans last week, but Ryan has been sacked in every game — twice in seven of them and four times once.
The Raiders have 11 sacks in 10 games. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (nine) have fewer. Two years ago the Raiders had 13 and last year got all the way to 32. It’s going to take a strong finish to break into the 30s in 2020.
Maxx Crosby is getting more attention than ever since he’s got six sacks and no one else has more than 1 1/2. Having Maurice Hurst back could help the interior push. Pressure up front gives Ryan less time to find dangerous wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and benefit corners Mullen and Damon Arnette.
3. Let Carr attack
The Raiders have been like a metronome in terms of balance and that’s a good thing. Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker need their carries. Yet if there is a circumstance to have Carr let it fly for reasons other than playing with a deficit, this is it.
Against Atlanta, Russell Wilson of Seattle was 31 of 35 for 322 yards and four touchdowns, Dak Prescott of Dallas was 34 of 47 for 450 yards and a touchdown, Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay was 27 of 33 for 327 yards and four touchdowns, Matt Stafford of Detroit was 25 of 36 for 340 yards and a touchdown.
Taysom Hill went 18 of 23 for 233 yards in his first start for New Orleans.
Carr is coming off what might be his best game in his best season and he’s completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 2,427 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. There are holes in the Falcons’ secondary and Carr could have a field day finding Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow, Nelson Agholor and maybe even Henry Ruggs III.
4. Avoid defensive penalties
An easy way to be victimized by Jones, Ridley and the Atlanta passing offense is to keep giving them second chances. Or third chances. The Raiders gave Patrick Mahomes four defensive first downs and their mistakes let the NFL’s most dangerous player have additional chances to do damage.
The Raiders defense simply gives up too much ground in normal circumstances to be giving it up additional plays during the course of a game.
“We’ve got to do a better job eliminating the defensive penalties and we got to improve our down-to-down discipline, and that will be a big assessment that we make with our players,” Gruden said.