The Oakland Raiders are officially the NFL’s best dark horse

At the start of the season, the Oakland Raiders were a trendy pick to make the playoffs, almost certainly as a wild card team; but not many expected them to race off into a top position in the AFC.

After a comfortable 33-16 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday, Oakland is now 5-2 and sits atop the AFC West with a 5-2 record. The AFC at the beginning of the season was widely seen as a three horse race between New England, Pittsburgh and Denver; but with Denver struggling after a strong start and Pittsburgh forced to play without Ben Roethlisberger, a void has been opened and it looks like Oakland is coming through to fill it.

Oakland’s success in large part is due to the maturation of quarterback Derek Carr. Carr flew under the radar last season, his second in the league, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and throwing 32 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. He has picked up right where he left off last season, completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing 13 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions and strong-arming big-time throws like this:

But Carr and the Oakland offense, which ranks eighth in total points, has been led by a great offensive line. They arrived in Oakland in different ways; guard Gabe Jackson is a homegrown star, center Rodney Hudson was signed in 2015 after a couple strong years in Kansas City and  tackle Donald Penn was signed off the scrap heap after being cut by Tampa Bay in 2014, but they have become one of the best units in football.

The knock on Carr coming out of Fresno State was that he had all the physical tools to be an elite QB, but struggled under pressure. Oakland has rectified that issue in large part because their offensive line has been terrific; according to Football Outsiders, Carr was pressured on just 20 percent of his dropbacks last season, the sixth lowest rate among qualified quarterbacks. They have continued that strong trend this season, as Carr is being sacked on only 2.6 percent of his dropbacks, the second best rate in all of football.

The offensive line has also proven to be strong in the running game; as the three-headed attack of Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard are averaging collectively 4.8 yards per carry. Washington is a speed back and Richard is a valuable third-down back while Murray is a more traditional one-cut back which is great for when your offensive line opens up holes that you could drive a truck through.

Defensively, Oakland has had their troubles, surrendering the most yards in the NFL through Week 7. However, the team does have quite a bit of playmakers that have forced turnovers and have aided the defense in allowing 25.5 points per game, which is a little closer to league average.

Pass rusher Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick from the 2014 draft has become a true star, commanding double teams at all times and rivaling Von Miller as the most intimidating edge rusher in the NFL. In the off-season, Oakland went shopping and brought in veteran safety Reggie Nelson, who led the league with 8 interceptions last season with Cincinnati and is one of the NFL’s premier center fielders.  They also brought in Bruce Irvin from Seattle, who already has 4 forced fumbles in 2016 including a key strip sack of Joe Flacco in their win against Baltimore.

Oakland has been the laughingstock of the NFL for years and have not made the playoffs since being routed by Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII. Numerous head coaches and quarterbacks never panned out and under the unpredictable ownership of Al Davis the team seemed destined to remain in the basement of the AFC West. But since Mark Davis took over for his father in 2011, things have looked brighter in Oakland. With a more hands-off approach than his father, Davis has trusted General Manager Reggie McKenzie to call the shots and results have been exciting. They found a franchise quarterback in Carr and brought in quality free agents such as Hudson, Irvin, Nelson and Michael Crabtree. After years of lackluster drafts they have taken care of business in recent years, peaking in 2014 when they drafted arguably their three best players; Mack, Carr and Jackson, in the first three rounds and snagging playmaking wideout Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick and 2015 draft.

The addition of Crabtree in particular is an example of the new, shrewder approach to football Oakland has undertaken. After six years in San Francisco, Crabtree was believed to be a physically gifted receiver that had underachieved due to injuries, inconsistent coaching and a questionable attitude. Oakland signed him to a cheap one-year, $3.2 million contract in 2015 and immediately Crabtree became a big factor, hauling in 85 passes for 923 yards and 9 touchdowns. That got him a four-year, $35 million extension and this season he leads the NFL with 6 touchdown receptions and has become the go-to playmaker in big situations for Oakland.

Through seven weeks, a lot of teams predicted to succeed in 2016 have been disappointments. Denver has lost two in a row, as have Pittsburgh. Seattle, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Green Bay and Arizona have been inconsistent; Carolina is just plain bad. Really, outside of New England, the next best teams so far have been underdogs in Dallas, Minnesota and Oakland. If the Raiders continue to pile up yards on offense and make a few big plays on defense, there is no reason why they can’t win the AFC West and earn a bye for the first round of the playoffs. Oakland has been strategically built on both sides of the ball and look poised to not be satisfied for just making the playoffs; expect them to have some success in January.