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Goodbye 2016 Oakland Raiders, you didn’t deserve this

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The Oakland Raiders were the best thing about this NFL season, and they were handed the worst ending.

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Wild Card Round - Oakland Raiders v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Raiders didn’t deserve this. A 12-4 team just got blown out by one of the worst playoff teams ever — the Texans’ minus-49 point differential was the seventh-lowest by a playoff team in NFL history — largely because two players were injured. Without quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders dialed up ineffective screens and short passes for rookie Connor Cook. Without left tackle Donald Penn, Menelik Watson started and gave up three times as many sacks in the first half as Penn did all season.

Oakland’s return to the postseason should have been triumphant. The last time the Raiders appeared in the playoffs, they were playing in Super Bowl 37, 14 years ago. It has been a long, rough road since, across nine different head coaches and 13 straight nonwinning seasons.

The team that once drafted JaMarcus Russell gradually built itself back up. It accomplished one of the toughest things to do in the NFL and drafted a franchise quarterback. Oakland also put together a massive offensive line, drafted one of the best young receivers in Amari Cooper, and an outside linebacker — Khalil Mack — who in Year 3 is already one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

Oakland was one of the best teams in the NFL this season up until an ugly loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 17. That game foretold everything that happened in the Wild Card. The Raiders gained just 221 total yards in Denver, losing a game that, if they had won, would’ve given them a division title and a first-round bye. Instead, they went to Houston to play the league’s No. 1 defense and gained just 203 yards, punting 10 times and committing three turnovers.

Cook sailed passes, hanging up his targets to take big hits over the middle. It’s no surprise, then, that when passes did hit them in the hands, they often dropped them. The running game had some success early, but center Rodney Hudson got hurt and the Texans stopped giving Cook even an iota of respect. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus played two of their best games of the season for Houston.

The Raiders looked nothing like the Raiders as we had come to know them. Carr put himself in the MVP discussion by throwing 28 touchdowns to six interceptions and amassing nearly 4,000 yards. They played some of the most exciting games of the season — nine one-score games, eight of which they won.

They have players you could love. Carr is a helluva talent but also a tornado of positivity. Their punter, Marquette King, plays with fire and has absolutely no regard for the NFL’s bylaws on player celebrations. Oakland is no longer purgatory for free agents. Players like Michael Crabtree, Bruce Irvin, and Penn came in and got better. Their head coach, Jack Del Rio, grew up a Raiders fan and seems to have a real love for the franchise.

The Raiders thrived on chaos this season — they had one of the best deep ball passers in the league and a defense that forced the second-most turnovers in the NFL. They were perhaps the most fun team in the NFL to watch and easiest to root for among unaffiliated fans. They were my favorite thing about a relatively meh season.

And then they got their legs chopped off.

The Raiders are a young team. It’d be easy to say they’ll be back. The offseason should be easily navigable with no core players set to become free agents. For the most part, the 2017 Raiders will be a more seasoned version of the 2016 Raiders.

But for all but a few teams, simply reloading is easier said than done. The Raiders haven’t strung together two good seasons in nearly a decade-and-a-half. Winning in the NFL takes great management and leadership, and the Raiders have that. But it also takes luck. Next year, they could suffer significant injuries early in the season, or drop those one-score games, or have fewer balls bounce their way on defense.

Winning in the NFL is so difficult that every good season needs to be celebrated on its own merits. The Raiders may be building toward something big, but they were good enough to win big now. They were legitimate Super Bowl contenders just two weeks ago at 12-3 with only the Patriots in better position in the AFC. That portends great things, but 3-13 and 7-9 seasons weren’t so long ago, either.

We don’t know if the Raiders will be special next season, but we know they were special in 2016. A humiliating end doesn’t change that. And yes, that’s cold comfort, but damn it’s the truth. Oakland should hold that dear, because there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about otherwise. There might not even be any “Oakland” Raiders next year as the franchise faces a move to Las Vegas.

The Raiders didn’t deserve this, but they got as much out of 2016 as they could while they could. They were as good as they could possibly be, and only fate kept them from potentially proving their greatness.