By Sam McPherson
Usually, you can break a National Football League season into quarters, four games at a time. It makes team assessments more revealing than perhaps just looking at one single game – or all 16, for that matter.
In that context, the Oakland Raiders have come through the second quarter of their season better than expected – a team that has the potential to win eight games on the season as a whole if all goes their way in the next few weeks.
And they are certainly nowhere near as bad as some people thought they would be.
The Raiders followed up a 1-3 start with a 2-2 stretch that leaves them at 3-5 at the midway point of their season. Oakland played Indianapolis tough in Week One on the road, while winning three of five games at the O.co Coliseum so far. If the Raiders can grab a few road wins in the next five weeks, they’ll give themselves a good shot at finishing near .500 on the season – a remarkable accomplishment for this 2013 team in transition.
Four of the next five games are away from Oakland: at the New York Giants next Sunday, followed by a trip to struggling Houston to face the Texans on November 17. The Raiders come back home on November 24 to host Tennessee, and then they get to face Dallas on Thanksgiving Day in Texas. A trip back to New York to face the Jets follows the Cowboys game.
(It’s very odd to go to New York twice in the same season, but the Raiders will have to take that up with the league office next spring.)
That upcoming gauntlet can make or break Oakland’s season: all are winnable games against teams that have been just as erratic and inconsistent as the Raiders have been in 2013. The Giants are 2-6, as are the Texans. The Titans are 4-4, but Oakland gets to play them at home. Dallas is 5-4 and always tough at home for their traditional Thanksgiving matchup, and the Jets have been outscored by 62 points this year despite their 5-4 record.
The Raiders would have to start playing their best football yet this year to conquer those teams, of course – but who is to say they cannot do so? Oakland has some weaknesses, but they have some strengths, too: a running game that ranks fourth in the NFL right now at 147.8 yards per game is the basis for the Raiders positive outlook, even as nominal starting running back Darren McFadden fights a recurring hamstring issue. But backup Rashad Jennings has filled in admirably and quarterback Terrelle Pryor has played better than expected because his legs help him and the team in ways a traditional QB’s skill set never could.
On the other side of the ball, the Raiders also do a great job stopping the run. The defense is sixth in the NFL against the run, giving up only 94.6 yards per game through the first eight contests. Usually, when you can run the ball and stop the other team from doing the same, you’re giving yourself the best chance you can to win.
Yes, there are some other ugly numbers. Pryor’s passing skills need improvement still, and he knows he is a work in progress. Oakland is just 30th in a 32-team league in passing yards, at a mere 197.8 yards per game. But if the quarterback can limit his mistakes in the second half of the season – he’s thrown nine interceptions so far – the Raiders can live with that yardage number – it’s the turnovers that hurt the most.
And likewise, the pass defense needs some help, even though the loss Sunday to Philadelphia has skewed these numbers. Oakland is giving up 262.6 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks, which is just 25th in the league. Tighten that coverage up a bit here and there, force some turnovers of their own, and maybe the Raiders can shove the ball down the opponents’ throats for the next five games.
The first two segments of the season are over. How Oakland responds in this “third quarter” of the season with so many road games will determine how we all remember the 2013 Raiders. The potential is there, and now the team just has to turn some of it into victories.
For more Raiders news and updates, visit Raiders Central.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.