Out of 77 games so far this NFL season, only one double-digit underdog has pulled an outright upset.
That was, of course, the Las Vegas Raiders last week when they went on the road and knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs 40-32 as 10.5-point underdogs.
“I don’t think anyone really thought we were going to go out there and win, to be honest,” defensive end Maxx Crosby said.
For once, the “no one believed in us” refrain checks out. The rest of the Raiders’ season, which will resume after a bye week on the Oct. 25 edition of Sunday Night Football against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will come down to whether they can continue to silence the skepticism.
Las Vegas currently sits in a playoff spot, the seventh and final AFC seed, but there’s uncertainty regarding whether it can maintain the position for the final two-thirds of the season. A composite of (mostly offshore) sports books offering updated odds on teams to make the playoffs has the Raiders as a slight +115 underdog.
The public perception is understandable, if not sensible, with the Raiders’ recent history of failure. They were the fifth-losingest franchise in the NFL over the past decade with only one playoff appearance.
And they were in an identical position a year ago. With the same Week 6 bye assignment, the Raiders sat 3-2 after an upset victory over the Bears in London.
Two straight losses to eventual playoff teams, the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, followed and created too big of a hole for the Raiders to navigate in order to reach their postseason aspirations. Similarly, two ostensible contenders, the Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns, await when Las Vegas gets back to action this year.
The Raiders didn’t improve out of their bye week a year ago; they must improve out of their bye week this year.
“We need to stay focused and be true to ourselves,” coach Jon Gruden said. “We can still get better. We are going to have to get better if we are going to stay in the hunt.”
A lot of factors indicate the Raiders sit in a better spot this year than they did last year despite the matching record. The roster is clearly upgraded, especially on offense. The underlying numbers are better too.
Despite last year’s 3-2 start, the Raiders had been outscored by 20 points with all their victories coming by a touchdown or less. Their point differential is -1 this season, an even stronger mark than it may appear considering they’ve played the seventh toughest schedule in the league according to Football Outsiders.
And most important to the coaching staff, they’ve proven an ability to fight through adversity.
The Raiders hadn’t overcome a deficit at this point last season; this year, they’ve overcome three. That includes double-digit deficits to both the Chiefs and New Orleans Saints, two teams unanimously rated among the top five in the league coming into the season.
“That’s been our vision for the last three years as we’ve built this thing: We’ve looked for tough guys who love to play,” Raiders defensive back coach Jim O’Neil said. “Some of those guys, you’re going to have to put them in strait jackets to keep them out of the game. They all want to be out there. They’re all super competitive and we appreciate it.”
The biggest proof something is different, however, comes from the Raiders managing to win at Arrowhead Stadium for the first time in eight years. The win snapped a 13-game Chiefs’ winning streak dating back to last year’s Super Bowl season, a stretch that may somehow be underrated considering how dominant it was.
Despite having faced many of the NFL’s elite teams during the run, Kansas City had outscored its opponents by an average of nearly 11 points per game.
The Chiefs hadn’t gone four straight possessions without scoring all season, but the Raiders didn’t allow them to even come close on their first four drives out of halftime last week. Kansas City never crossed the 50-yard line during the span, which included three quick punts and an interception.
“We simplified some stuff for the guys and allowed them to play a little bit faster,” O’Neil said. “I think that helped up front and I think that helped us in the back end.”
There was surely some randomness, or cluster luck, in what had been a mediocre-at-best Las Vegas defense limiting Kansas City so severely at a crucial point of the game. But that shouldn’t take away from the achievement.
No more difficult matchup than playing at Kansas City is on the slate for the rest of the year. If the Raiders can beat the Chiefs on the road, then anything is possible going forward.
The range of possible outcomes remains wide. It’s just that the top end looks expanded after getting through the Chiefs.
Reasons to doubt the Raiders’ potential are starting to diminish.
“We feel like we can beat anybody,” Gruden said. “We’re a confident group of guys.”