ALAMEDA (AP) — Without even playing this past weekend, the Oakland Raiders moved into a tie for first place in the AFC West. Staying there might not be as easy.
Denver’s surprising blowout of Kansas City on Sunday gave the idle Raiders a share of the top spot in their division, the first time since 2002 that they’ve been there this late in the season.
Oakland has already matched its win total from each of the past two years. A win in Pittsburgh on Sunday would extend the team’s longest winning streak in eight years and solidify the Raiders as a contender in the topsy turvy AFC.
Left guard Robert Gallery, who has never won more than five games in a single season since arriving as the second-overall pick in 2004, thinks any talk about the playoffs is premature at this point but he likes how things have panned out so far.
“We put ourselves in a good position going into the bye and the other teams took care of the rest for us,” Gallery said Monday. “Obviously we have to take care of business the rest of the year but it’s a good position to be in in November. It’s going to be real important these last seven games for us to keep rolling. Anything can happen so every game from here on out is important.”
Coach Tom Cable eliminated one possible distraction by picking Jason Campbell as the team’s starting quarterback even though Bruce Gradkowski has been cleared to practice. Cable had previously insisted the job was Gradkowski’s once he returned from a shoulder injury, but the coach hedged after the Campbell-led Raiders beat Kansas City 23-20 in overtime on Nov. 7.
“(Campbell’s) earned the right to do that,” Cable said. “Four out of (his) last five games are wins. Bruce will back him up and we’ll move forward from there.”
Players returned from the bye week to continue preparations for Sunday’s game against the Steelers, a game that has taken on added significance with the Raiders’ recent success.
Oakland takes a three-game winning streak into Heinz Field and will try to make it four in a row for the first time since a five-game streak late in the 2002 season.
“People are really going to start talking about us for playoff contention if we do that,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “That’s the most important game of the year. Everything that we’ve done up to this point is going to come down to what we do Sunday. We just want to keep all that momentum going.”
The Raiders got more good news, too.
Gradkowski, tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Louis Murphy are all cleared to practice this week. Gradkowski has been slow to heal from an injury to his throwing shoulder, Miller missed one game with a sore arch and Murphy sat out two games with a chest injury.
Additionally, Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (ankle) and defensive tackle John Henderson (foot) may be cleared later this week. That would be a boost for Oakland’s defense, which is allowing an average of only 236 yards during the winning streak.
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