From strong coverage on the opening kick to an interception by Malcolm Smith on the third play from scrimmage to a touchdown run by Latavius Murray two plays later, the Raiders used a team effort to jump all over the San Diego Chargers.
The Raiders (3-3) kept up that play for the first three quarters and rolled to their most complete victory of the season, winning 37-29 for their second road win of the year.
Now the team that lost more games than anyone else the previous 12 seasons is suddenly relevant in the AFC, showing significant progress in coach Jack Del Rio’s first year at the helm.
“What we saw yesterday was an example of all three phases played well and it came together for us,” Del Rio said Monday. “There’s more there. It’s not like we arrived or anything. But it certainly was the best football we played to date.”
For three quarters, it’s hard to envision the Raiders playing much better. They scored on their first seven drives of the game, with second-year quarterback Derek Carr teaming with rookies Amari Cooper and Clive Walford and veteran Michael Crabtree for a sophisticated passing game that feasted on the Chargers secondary.
The defense applied heavy pressure on Philip Rivers and shut down the run, helping Oakland build a 37-6 lead before 23 fourth-quarter points by San Diego made the final score much closer than the game felt.
“As coaches, that’s what we try to do,” Del Rio said. “When it comes together, it’s very rewarding, but it’s about players playing well on game day. It comes down to our ability, for 11 guys to go out on the field while the rest of us are standing back behind the white lines and the 11 guys on the field be able to execute the plan.”
The Raiders had a lot of players who did that Sunday. Carr threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns, while committing no turnovers.
He had help from his big-play receivers as both Cooper and Crabtree turned short catches into long touchdowns. Cooper finished with five catches for 133 yards and is the first rookie since Mike Ditka in 1961 to have three 100-yard receiving games in his team’s first six games.
Latavius Murray also ran for 85 yards and a score and the Raiders got strong line play on both sides of the ball.
Despite giving up the three late TDs, the Raiders got strong defensive performances from Smith, who had an interception, a sack, two passes defensed and 11 solo tackles. D.J. Hayden also intercepted a pass and Khalil Mack provided constant pressure on Rivers and was strong against the run.
Performances like that have Raiders fans looking at playoff positioning instead of the usual routine of looking at draft order this time of year. Oakland is one of seven teams in the AFC at .500 or better and the Raiders’ next two games come against teams ahead of them in the wild-card race, starting with Sunday’s home game against the Jets (4-3) followed by a trip to Pittsburgh (4-3).
“I feel like we’re growing as a team,” Del Rio said. “I feel like we’re getting better. And I think we all recognize that there’s still a lot to be done, there’s still a lot of work in front of us.”