Derek Carr dislocated his damn pinky and still lit up the Panthers. After suffering the injury early in the second quarter and sitting out a series he — well, he came back and threw an interception then went three-and-out. But after THAT, he completed nine of his next 10 passes.
His completions included a 12-yard touchdown pass, a two-point conversion pass, a 49-yard bomb to a defender-draped Michael Crabtree, and what should have been a touchdown pass to Crabtree if the wideout hadn’t stumbled at the goal line before the Raiders’ go-ahead field goal.
The Raiders are now 9-2, a better record than all but two teams in the NFL, and guaranteed a winning season for the first time since 2002. They got here by the thinnest of margins. They’ve come back from fourth quarter deficits to win five times this season, and have four wins by three points or fewer.
The Raiders are a gnarly, ugly team. On Sunday, Carr said he was in “probably some of the most pain I've felt in my life” before coming back to stymie the Panthers’ onslaught. They lead the NFL in accepted penalties and penalty yards by a significant margin, and set the single-game penalties record in a game they won. They’re an unbalanced machine, with an over-clocked offense that runs hot and a defense that ranks 29th by DVOA. Still, they’re fifth in takeaways among the leagues’ actually good defenses.
In a nutshell: The Raiders are the perfect team to be leading the AFC West, a division of teams you can’t believe are good, except that they are.
Chiefs-Broncos was the AFC West’s opus.
On Sunday night, the Chiefs had a 9-3 lead at halftime despite 49 yards of offense, scoring on a safety, and a brilliant Tyreek Hill punt return (that ended with an awesome high-five).
The Broncos counterpunched with a touchdown pass in which Trevor Siemian weaved around the field recklessly to avoid pass rushers and find Jordan Taylor in the end zone.
The Chiefs took the lead back on a wildcat play with Hill behind center. The Broncos got more magic out of Siemian and scored on a 76-yard touchdown pass, but left too much time on the clock. That allowed the Chiefs to march right back and send the game to overtime.
None of Sunday’s game could be considered coherent, or cohesive, or anything like a game between reasonable-minded, calculating professionals. To drive the point home, the Chiefs won by doinking the game-winning field goal off the left upright.
The game plan for both teams seemed to be to sow chaos. They combined for 11 sacks on the night. The Chiefs deployed one of the niftiest young players in the NFL today. The Broncos unleashed a former Northwestern communications major. The results shouldn’t be replicable, and yet the AFC West is perhaps the best division in the NFL with a combined 29 wins.
Even the 5-6 Chargers have been admirable, having now won four of their last six after beating the AFC South-leading Houston Texans on Sunday. The Chargers may be the most dangerous losing team in the league. They stopped blowing late leads like they did in their first three losses, and started winning close games behind an ever-underappreciated Philip Rivers, a resurgent Melvin Gordon, and a revelatory Joey Bosa.
Now the division is heading for a pile-up.
This season has felt like the death of the sleek, staid, efficient football that the NFL seemed to represent not that long ago. NFL teams are getting younger, and they’re preparing less before each upcoming season than they used to, creating a burgeoning reality in which the game is increasingly uglier.
We saw a lot of that rough-cut weirdness in Week 12, from the Ravens intentionally committing holding penalties to run the clock out on the Bengals, to Jason Pierre-Paul negating the Browns’ best play of the day with a pick-six, to Sean Payton running up the score on his former Bountygate defensive coordinator, to the Seahawks putting up a #funfer and losing.
Every team in the NFL has a fatal flaw, and some are adjusting better than others.
The AFC West has adapted by embracing volatility. The division is now poised to have three teams in the playoffs. After Sunday’s loss, the Broncos are right on the outside, holding the same 7-4 overall record as the projected No. 6 seed Miami Dolphins, but a slightly worse conference record for the time being. The Broncos would be in right now if they had tied the Chiefs.
The Raiders have the potential to be one of the most disruptive teams to close out the regular season. They hold a comfortable lead in the AFC West, but have to go on the road to all three of their division rivals in three of their final four weeks. At that point they could be fighting for a first-round bye ... or simply not let their crown slip away with the Chiefs and Broncos just one and two games back, respectively.
If the AFC West’s four teams live up to their resumes, the end of the 2016 season is going to be a bewildering mess. In that case, it’s only fitting that the team in charge is the Raiders — a team that had an NFL-high 145 losses from 2003 to 2015.
The Raiders have been a junk heap of odd parts — free agents and enigmatic draft picks — for years, and now they’ve got exactly the sort of rusty Mad Max diesel semi-truck/tank to survive the NFL’s bombed-out landscape.
This shitty NFL season has been all about who can best scrap together a functional team from competent parts that are becoming harder to find. The AFC West is doing it better than anyone, led by a team that has had to scrap itself together for years. They may not look good, but that’s not really the point anymore.