By Nick Shook
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The Oakland Raiders have spent much of the season enjoying success the franchise hasn’t seen since it last appeared in the Super Bowl, way back in 2002. Headed by quarterback Derek Carr, the revived Silver and Black is perched atop the AFC West at 10-2. But it hasn’t come without many heart-stopping moments that have likely taken years off the lives of Raider Nation.
Risk-taking coach Jack Del Rio has Oakland succeeding by gambling on many occasions and coming out a winner. Sunday of Week 13 proved to be no different, as the Raiders were forced to overcome a 24-9 deficit to secure a victory over the visiting Bills.
Things didn’t look good for Oakland early on. Buffalo took a 10-9 lead and expanded it with quickness and efficiency, turning its first two possessions of the second half into scores. A ground game powered by powerful sprints from Mike Gillislee and shifty running from LeSean McCoy had Buffalo sitting pretty with a two-touchdown advantage. But that’s when Carr and the Raiders picked up the tempo and changed the course of the game.
Operating strictly out of the shotgun and pistol, Oakland went from methodical possessions early in the contest to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense in the second half, moving quickly down the field on a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by Carr’s completion to Michael Crabtree for a score.
Facing third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Carr trotted the Raiders out in a five-wide, shotgun formation. It was a favorable matchup for the Raiders, who met Cover-2 man defense in the end zone. Crabtree ran past cornerback Kevon Seymour along the back of the end zone, where a pass from Carr that was tipped by Marcel Dareus still managed to find its way into Crabtree’s welcoming arms for six. The deficit was cut to eight, and Oakland was just getting started.
The Raiders clamped down on defense, playing tight, physical coverage that was well-timed, breaking up a pass intended for Sammy Watkins and forcing the Bills to punt after a three-and-out. Oakland benefited from a strong return by Jalen Richard, setting up the Raiders with the ball at Buffalo’s 38, where Carr went back to work.
The Raiders mixed up the run and pass with ease, often deploying an extra offensive lineman to clear the way for Richard and running back Latavius Murray. Richard took a carry on a power play up the left side for a gain of 21, and two plays later, Carr connected with tight end Clive Walford to put the Raiders at the Buffalo 1. On the next down, Murray sprinted through a crack in the defense, diving across the goal line for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-23.
Another Buffalo possession ended quickly, as the Raiders brought pressure to force Tyrod Taylor into incompletions. It was an adjustment in disciplined play that quickly turned the Bills from an offensive juggernaut into a floundering unit. Oakland no longer found itself caught too far upfield, staying home and bottling up Buffalo’s rushing attack.
Carr and the Raiders kept the downfield attack going on the ensuing drive. Of Carr’s nine passes with air yards of 15 or more on Sunday, the quarterback was 6 of 9 for 15.9 yards per attempt and a 146.8 rating. None was more evident than on this possession, when Carr connected with Mychal Rivera on a great throw to his open shoulder on third-and-10 for 22 yards and a fresh set of downs.
Two plays later, Buffalo dialed up the blitz and Oakland made the Bills pay. Carr dropped to pass and with great trust in his wide receiver, lofted a pass past Cover-1 man coverage to Amari Cooper, who burned Seymour with a fake slant that ended up being a fade. Carr put the ball in Cooper’s path, where he caught the pass and sprinted for the end zone, crossing the goal line while being tackled for a 37-yard score. Suddenly, the Raiders were ahead and showed no signs of slowing.
Two major keys to the Raiders‘ comeback were time of possession and reliable protection of Carr. As Oakland shut down Buffalo’s suddenly stagnant offense, it burned little time. This gave Carr and the offense plenty of time to work, where a unit that led the NFL in usage of six-plus offensive linemen (32.3 percent of plays) in Week 13 also was the league’s best in pocket separation, averaging 3.7 yards of space for Carr. Even after their ensuing drive stalled, a Marquette King punt downed at the Buffalo 4 put the Bills in a tough spot, and the Raiders capitalized.
We all know about Khalil Mack‘s continued improvement, especially since the Raiders switched him to rushing almost exclusively from the left side. Mack sped past tackle Jordan Mills and hit Taylor’s arm as he threw, sending the ball into the sky, where it was intercepted by Nate Allen at Buffalo’s 17. Three Raiders rushes later, Oakland faced a first-and-goal from the 3, where Murray took a handoff in another six-linemen formation and found a crease created by guard Gabe Jackson, who pulled and blocked off an inside wall, while fullback Jamize Olawale sealed the edge in blocking James Ihedigbo. Murray waltzed into the end zone and jumped into the stands to celebrate while CBS broadcaster Ian Eagle proclaimed the Raiders a different team in the second half.
A different team they were. Oakland forced another Buffalo turnover to end the Bills‘ comeback attempt on a strip sack by Mack, who again rushed inside and past Mills, and the Raiders took advantage of a roughing the punter penalty to keep possession and burn clock. The Bills had too little time to work, finishing the game on a dump off to McCoy, who was tackled as the teams trotted onto the field to shake hands.
In what seemed like a blur, Oakland erased Buffalo’s 15-point lead and came away with a 38-24 win to remain atop the AFC West with a pivotal Thursday Night Football contest with Kansas City up next, and no end in sight for the surging Raiders.
Other notes from Week 13 in Next Gen Stats:
1. A week after New Orleans made Los Angeles pay for blitzing with a high frequency, the Saints employed pressure of their own. New Orleans blitzed on 59.1 percent of downs, recording two sacks in a 28-13 loss to the Lions.
2. Without Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady turned to Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell much more often Sunday. Edelman and Mitchell saw their percentage of Brady’s intended air yards increase — Edelman’s from 30.1 percent to 44.3 percent, and Mitchell’s from 10.9 percent to 22.9 percent. As we expected, Brady has and will continue to need to use his wideouts more in Gronkowski’s absence.
4. Andrew Luck carved up the Jets on Monday Night Football finding his greatest success when throwing attempts of 10-plus air yards. He completed 100 percent of his attempts, going 7 for 7 for 141 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating. Be careful putting the heat on Luck, too, who has adjusted to passing with pressure in his face (less than two yards away at time of throw), completing 6 of 8 attempts for 76 yards, one touchdown and a 143.8 passer rating in the win over New York.
5. Without A.J. Green, Andy Dalton has been forced to attempt to thread the needle with receivers who aren’t as adept at getting open. Dalton finished Sunday with a season-high 32.1 percent of his passes thrown into tight windows (less than one yard of targeted receiver separation).
7. Speaking of that Sunday night blowout, Carolina did have one play to hang its hat on early in the game. Cam Newton found former track star Ted Ginn on a streak down the middle of the field for a 55-yard touchdown. Ginn hit a top speed of 21.95 mph, good for the fastest touchdown-scoring ball carrier in Week 13.