Now that the Raiders appear to be competitive again, whispers have started to become more audible around the league.
Is it really possible the Raiders are a playoff-caliber team?
The Raiders can provide a bold answer today, when the New York Jets visit O.co Coliseum. A victory would pull them even with the Jets (4-2), who currently own the top AFC wild card playoff berth. For now, their three victories have come against teams with a combined 5-16 record.
“We’re better than we were. We’re not quite where we’re going to be, but we’re improving,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton could have said for the team as a whole.
No matchup represents the potential changing of the guard better than that between rookie sensation Amari Cooper, 21, and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, 30, a six-time Pro Bowl selection.
In his most difficult challenge to date, Cooper will spend much of the afternoon on Revis Island, where the best wide receivers in the league starve more times than not. “It’s going to be a tough matchup,” Cooper said. “[Revis] is just really sound.”
Cooper has gained 302 of his 519 yards after the catch, most of any player in the league. “He’s a talent, man,” Revis said of Cooper. “He makes plays. He’s one of the premier guys coming up in the league.”
On the other side of the ball, the Jets represent a sizable challenge for a defense that ranks 21st in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed in the league.
“They’re big up front,” Norton said. “They have a certain feeling about the run. They’re dedicated to being a good running team. When you dedicate yourself to something, it usually happens.”
Bruiser Chris Ivory is the focal point of a run attack that ranks third in the league. He is one of three players to average more than 100 yards per game on the ground this season.
“A fantastic runner,” Norton said. “He’s strong. He’s smart. He’s hard-working. He has that mentality that is he’s going for that extra yard. The way he runs and what’s in his heart make him special.”
At the same time, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick may want to throw the ball more often. The Raiders have been torched for the most pass yards per game in the league and they’re the only team to allow at least 250 yards through the air in every game thus far.
To compound matters, the defense will be without linebacker Neiron Ball, its best pass defender at the position. The rookie strained a knee against the San Diego Chargers last week. Ray-Ray Armstrong is next in line, but he has been a liability in pass coverage this season. Another option is Curtis Lofton, who also does his best work against the run.
At 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, wide receiver Brandon Marshall is a matchup nightmare. In the midst of a bounce-back season, the veteran ranks 11th in pass receptions and yards in the league.
“That’s my favorite stadium to play in,” Marshall said. “Every time before the game, I’ll run to the Black Hole, and I’ll just stare at them and mean-mug them and they just throw stuff at you. It’s fun.”
If the Raiders had an answer for Marshall, then Norton was reluctant to share it.
“If you spend too much worrying about the other team, you won’t have enough time to worry about yourself,” Norton said. “It’s important to put ourselves first, find out what we’re doing.”