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Derek Carr is for real and so are the Raiders

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Carr’s success — and the team’s — is no fluke.

Houston Texans v Oakland Raiders Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Expectations were elevated for the Oakland Raiders going into the 2016 season, but very few people thought they’d be 9-2 and atop the AFC. Yet that’s exactly where Jack Del Rio’s team is at the beginning of December.

The Raiders have been winning in a variety of ways, and while it looked as if they might be a couple of years away from really contending, it now appears they’re a legitimate threat in the AFC. They’re the best team in the NFL in the final three minutes of fourth quarters this season, outscoring opponents 39-0, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie told The San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur, “As many heart attacks as I've had, I was always confident. They have this air about them.”

Arguably the biggest reason for that has been Derek Carr. The third-year quarterback has had a masterful season through 12 weeks and is making a strong case to be the league’s MVP.

The Raiders have done what every bad NFL team tries to do: find a franchise QB

The Raiders have been at the bottom of the NFL totem pole for a while now. They made a Super Bowl in 2002 with Rich Gannon under center, and after his downfall, they struggled to find a quarterback. They went through guys like Kerry Collins, Aaron Brooks, Andrew Walter, former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer, and Terrelle Pryor.

So in the 2014 NFL draft, the Raiders took Carr in the second round with the 36th overall pick. In college, Carr threw for 12,843 yards and 113 touchdowns, against just 24 interceptions. He totaled all but 112 yards of that in three seasons.

Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater were all selected ahead of Carr. Bortles hasn’t helped the Jaguars figure out how to win, Manziel is no longer in the league after a short stint with the Browns, and Bridgewater suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury at the beginning of the season but has been promising for Minnesota otherwise.

Carr has done everything the Raiders have needed. Because of a defense that allows 25 points per game, he and the offense have been in the position to come from behind, and he’s met the challenge. He’s the first Raiders quarterback with five game-winning drives in fourth quarters and overtimes in a single season. He led his latest comeback, against the Panthers, despite dislocating his finger during the game.

Things might not be perfect in Oakland — the defense needs fixing, and with a point differential of +32, the Raiders aren’t blowing teams out. But there’s no question they’re playing with confidence with a guy who can help them get by. They’re still young, and they’ll only get better with age.

Carr was put in a position to succeed when he came to Oakland

For what seemed like the longest time, the Raiders were a mess of a franchise. Since 2003, the Raiders have gone through nine coaches, started 18 quarterbacks, and haven’t had a winning season until this year. There was no consistency to be found anywhere in the franchise.

Changes started when the Raiders began hitting on draft picks and putting together a strong, young core to build the team around.

After not having a first-round draft pick in 2011 or 2012, the Raiders started their turnaround in 2013. In 2014, they drafted Latavius Murray, who has been a good running back for the Raiders in his first few seasons. In his limited carries during his rookie season, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, rushing for 424 yards. In 2015, he was the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010.

The following draft, the Raiders selected Carr, along with defensive cornerstone Khalil Mack.

In 2015, the Raiders hired Jack Del Rio as their head coach, and Carr got legitimate threats at wide receiver with Amari Cooper, who was drafted fifth overall that year, and free agent acquisition Michael Crabtree. In Carr’s rookie season, his top target was 30-year-old James Jones. Suddenly, he had two Pro Bowl–caliber receivers surrounding him.

The success of Carr and the Raiders seems built for the long haul

Coming into this season, the Raiders had expectations higher than they’ve had in years. Offensively, they’ve been everything anybody could have imagined. Carr and Cooper have made for one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in the league. Carr is fifth in the NFL in passing yards with 3,115, with Cooper receiving 922 of them, good for sixth in the league.

On defense, the Raiders added Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith from the Seahawks in 2015 and his ex-teammate Bruce Irvin in 2016. Smith currently leads the team in tackles, and Irvin is second in sacks. The defensive line needs work, as Oakland is last in the league in sacks with the Cleveland Browns.

It’s a quarterback-driven league, and for the Raiders to have Carr performing this well at a young age is promising. At the same time, defense is important, and their defense certainly needs to improve if they want to win a Super Bowl. They’re sitting near the bottom of the NFL in terms of total defense, and are just slightly better when it comes to giving up points.

The good news is that Mack appears to be one of the NFL’s best defensive players now and moving forward. He had 15 sacks in his second year in the league and has nine this year, tied for sixth in the NFL. On Sunday, he was the first player since Charles Woodson in 2009 to have an interception, sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, and a touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Info. At just 25, Mack has a bright future ahead of him.

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Carr and the Raiders have been one of the most fun things to watch in the NFL this season. The tone for the season was set in Week 1, when Del Rio decided to go for two points after scoring a late touchdown against the Saints for the win. It was a perfect throw from Carr to Crabtree.

Carr has largely been a reason for optimism not only this season, but also in the years to come. McKenzie told Tafur, “We feel like we built this thing to last.” For a young team that has been able to string together wins the way it has, with budding superstars, there’s no reason to believe otherwise.