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Is It Time to Take Derek Carr and the Raiders Seriously?

Las Vegas beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, showing off just what the team’s offense is capable of

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Derek Carr plunged behind his offensive line to convert a fourth-and-1 with two minutes on Sunday, and the frustration on Patrick Mahomes’s face as he watched from the sideline told the story. It’s rare for the Chiefs’ young superstar to find himself in such a helpless spot—against a division foe, no less. But this is an NFL season in which Josh Allen has played at an elite level, a number of improbable comebacks have occurred, and the Ravens offense has not looked like the Ravens offense. The Raiders added to the list of implausible developments Sunday and accomplished what seemed impossible: defeating Kansas City 40-32 and ending their rival’s undefeated run that stretched back well into last season.

It was a fitting end to Sunday’s contest. There are few teams who can keep pace with the Chiefs’ high-powered offense. But this Raiders’ offense can go, and its performance carried the team to the franchise’s best regular-season win since Jon Gruden’s return.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Carr told CBS afterward. “I’ve had a lot of painful memories in this place. But not this time. It feels good.”

Kansas City has owned the rivalry since Andy Reid’s arrival (12-3), and the chasm between the two franchises had only grown larger in recent contests. The Chiefs outscored the Raiders across the past three meetings by a combined score of 103-22. Even Carr’s ascension as Vegas’s franchise quarterback didn’t pause the Chiefs’ dominance. Carr entered the weekend with a 2-10 record against Kansas City as a starter.

Arrowhead Stadium itself has been an impenetrable fortress for the Raiders, who until Sunday had lost seven straight games at the venue. Carr’s struggles there have been well documented for years, and he had never thrown for more than 225 yards in any of his six starts. Sunday, the tide finally changed. The knock on Carr has long been his conservative play style. Even this year, as he guided a successful passing game that entered the week seventh in Football Outsiders passing efficiency rankings, he’s rarely exhibited much desire to stretch the field. Before the season started, he said that he was tired of being disrespected. His aggressive showing this week is a start to putting the criticisms to rest. In the second quarter, he really let loose, hitting Nelson Agholor for a 59-yard touchdown pass before later finding rookie Henry Ruggs III on a 72-yard bomb.

“We tried to be aggressive,” Gruden told reporters after. “We threw it down the field today. The Pro Football Focus statisticians are gonna have to scratch their head, they’re gonna figure out what to do with that [performance from Carr].”

Carr finished 22-for-31 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns, and one pick. He became the first Raiders quarterback to notch 300 pass yards or more at Arrowhead Stadium since Rich Gannon in 2002. More importantly, he outdueled Mahomes, who finished with 340 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. The Raiders were also able to complement their passing attack with a reliable ground game: Second-year star Josh Jacobs rushed 23 times for 77 yards and two scores. Backup Devontae Booker chipped in seven carries for 62 yards, including a 43-yard gain. Gruden’s play-calling has been impeccable through the first quarter of the 2020 campaign, shining once again Sunday. His offense outpossessed the Chiefs by a significant margin (35:17 to 24:43) keeping Mahomes and Co. off the field. “We felt good about [the game plan],” Gruden said.

While much of the credit goes to the Raiders offense, which notched 40 points for the first time this season, their second-half defensive effort was key in Sunday’s victory. The Chiefs punted on each of their first three drives in the second half, and the fourth ended when Mahomes flung a wayward fourth-down pass that was intercepted by Jeff Heath. Mahomes was able to draw Kansas City within eight points, but the deficit was too great by that point.

The pass rush played a crucial role. According to Pro Football Reference, the Raiders defense entered Week 5 with just 25 total pressures (tied third fewest), a 17.5 percent pressure rate (fourth lowest), and just four sacks (tied second fewest). But their front seven generated consistent pressure on Mahomes and racked up three sacks. Mahomes was held to a 51.2 completion rate—the lowest of his career. Vegas managed to get off the field in third-down situations—where Mahomes’s magic has shined brightest throughout his career—and limited Kansas City to converting just 6 of 14 chances. The Chiefs entered first in the league on third down, converting at a 53.9 percent clip. Mahomes, who threw for 237 yards in the first half, tossed just 103 in the second.

At times, Mahomes has looked uncharacteristically mortal this season. Gus Bradley’s Chargers defense flustered Mahomes throughout much of their Week 2 matchup. Bill Belichick’s Patriots defense held Kansas City to just 26 points—and dropped a few potential interceptions—in their matchup last week. Both times, though, Mahomes and the Chiefs pulled off victories. But with the Raiders offense humming and defense making key stops, Kansas City couldn’t do it.

“I hope we gained confidence,” Gruden said of his defensive unit. “We’ve got Tom Brady coming in here next week. We’ve seen Drew Brees. We’ve seen Cam Newton. We’ve seen one of the hottest quarterbacks in [Josh] Allen. Now we’ve seen Mahomes—we’ve already seen [Teddy] Bridgewater. So we need to get healthy, stay focused. And to be true to ourselves, we could still get better.”

Could Sunday’s result be a sign of the landscape changing in the AFC West? Probably not. The Raiders, despite their outstanding showing, are still limited. But Gruden’s squad is now 3-2 and is a competitive group, with two noteworthy wins against the Saints and Chiefs already pocketed. From a macro perspective, Reid’s and Mahomes’s arrivals to the division upended the dynamic of the league, and Kansas City’s immediate rivals have been left playing catch up. The process of nearing the Chiefs’ level will not happen overnight. But perhaps the Raiders aren’t as far off from putting up a legitimate fight for a playoff spot as originally thought, even if Gruden admitted the Raiders still “have to get better if we’re gonna stay in the hunt.” Sunday’s victory could serve as a monumental launching point.