Can the Raiders prevail in a wide-open AFC playoff bracket?

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Wade Vandervort

Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) celebrates after running the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022.

Thu, Jan 13, 2022 (2 a.m.)

Derek Carr and Josh Jacobs have spent the past three years dreaming about returning the Raiders to glory, first by leading the franchise back to the playoffs. The quarterback-running back duo accomplished that in the regular-season finale January 9.

So it could be assumed the quiet moment the two captains shared in their Allegiant Stadium locker room following the Raiders’ 35-32 overtime victory against the LA Chargers was an emotional one … but that wasn’t the case, according to Jacobs.

“[Carr] looked at me and said, ‘The job is not done yet,’ ” Jacobs said after the game. “We all have that same mentality. We’re all happy we’re in the playoffs, but we want to go further in the playoffs.”

And wild as it might sound, the Raiders actually have a chance to do just that, starting with their first-round game January 15 at Cincinnati. Las Vegas might have been written off just five weeks ago after its brutal 48-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Raiders have rallied to win four straight since then.

That ties them with the Buffalo Bills for the AFC’s longest winning streak heading into the postseason. And while Las Vegas might be the second-longest shot in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl—20-to-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, behind only Pittsburgh at 40-to-1—it’s really not that outrageous of a notion.

Even by the NFL’s parity-stricken standards, the AFC is wide open. Every team vying to reach Super Bowl 56 is flawed.

The Tennessee Titans (3-to-1 to win the AFC) get the big break with a bye week to start, but they might statistically be the worst No. 1 seed in NFL history. From an efficiency standpoint, Tennessee is closer to an 8-9 team than its actual 12-5 record, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.

Kansas City (+175) has reached the Super Bowl two straight seasons and sits as the rightful favorite, but the Chiefs’ biggest edge during their recent championship runs has been an offense far above the rest of the NFL. That has plummeted this year. The Chiefs are averaging 5.7 yards per play, compared with an average of 6.4 in quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first three seasons behind center.

Buffalo (+275) has the NFL’s best point differential at +194, but the Bills have also been one of the most inconsistent teams ever tracked by DVOA. That was best exemplified when they blew out the Chiefs only to lose to NFL-worst Jacksonville just three weeks later.

Speaking of bad losses, the Bengals (10-to-1) lost to the New York Jets in overtime and then to the Browns by 25 points in back-to-back games midseason. Like Las Vegas, Cincinnati was a long shot to make the playoffs a month ago, before edging the Chiefs and becoming a trendy sleeper—traditionally a precarious position.

Meanwhile, the New England Patriots (12-to-1) are sliding with losses in three of their past four games. New England’s Mac Jones has eclipsed expectations this year, but a rookie quarterback has never reached the Super Bowl.

So, yeah, this is anyone’s conference title to take.

“Every single week, you’ve got to be ready to go and at your best,” Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby said when asked about the AFC’s parity. “I love it. There’s nothing else I would want, especially with these guys. There’s no other group I would rather go to war with.

“We’re glad we’re in the playoffs, but now we’ve got to go start over again, have another season.”

The Raiders’ relatively brief celebration after beating the Chargers before getting back in business mode was telling. There’s not a single opponent they don’t believe they can beat, an unwavering confidence that’s a prerequisite for any championship team.

The Chiefs have blown out the Raiders twice this season—by a combined 66 points—so there’s an argument that they belong in the unbeatable column when it comes to the Raiders. But Las Vegas won in Kansas City in October 2020.

Importantly, the Raiders avoided the Chiefs in the first round by not settling for a tie against the Chargers. Las Vegas now is unlikely to face Kansas City, or Buffalo, until a potential AFC Championship Game.

Sure, it’s still against the odds for the Raiders get that far, but knocking off Cincinnati and possibly Tennessee back-to-back is a lot less far-fetched than the streak Las Vegas just went on to reach the playoffs. The Raiders aren’t spouting empty nonsense; they have a real chance.

“It does feel good, it’s exciting,” Carr said of his impending first career postseason start. “But I didn’t set out just to make the playoffs.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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