So the Oakland Raiders are good, but not magical, let alone soaked in destiny. So they can make every game a hard slog for the opponent, but they are not invulnerable. So they can be inefficient, and too sure of themselves, and terribly wasteful when they’re cold.
In other words, they are part of the National Football League – no longer too good to be true.
Their performance against the Chiefs in Kansas City was a pyramid of blown opportunities, opportunities made necessary by a terrible start. A week ago, against a borderline playoff team, they could get away with it. Thursday, on hostile ground, against a team that has lost three of its previous 23 regular season games and has a defense that specializes in standing on your chest until you whistle Yankee Doodle through your navel, they couldn’t.
The result of the 21-13 loss in a game with 12 more points than degrees of temperature is that the Raiders are now the fifth-best team in the American Football Conference rather than the first-best team with four more chances to change that position.
In other words, Thursday’s defeat only provided this much wisdom: The Raiders are a good team vulnerable to other good teams with an iron-plated sense of purpose, stubborn defenses that can apply and maintain a chokehold for hours on end, and offenses that don’t feel compelled to imitate Oakland’s offense by getting into a shootout.
And also this: There is nothing that would necessarily prevent them from beating the Chiefs in case of a third match, even though Kansas City held them to fewer points in two games than they scored in every other game save one. They are still, as the pedants say, “in the argument.”
But they have flaws to be exposed against the right team in the right situation. Kansas City has been that team twice, and New England probably is, but there the list probably stops. Nobody in the AFC North or South seems terribly capable of matching them in neutral conditions, but here’s the other bone spur:
The playoffs are not about neutral conditions.
The Raiders have come a long way in what most people think is a long time, but in fact in terms of team construction, you can throw out everything before 2013, and almost everything before 2015. They are just now getting a full understanding of the hardest part of becoming a Super Bowl contender – the other Super Bowl contenders.
Yes, Kansas City has an indifferent playoff history under Andy Reid, but it is clear that under current conditions the Chiefs are serious players. And while we have no link to how the Raiders would fare against new England, we are pretty sure that they wouldn’t want to play the second weekend of January arse-deep in snow in Foxborough.
The point? Now they get how hard this contender stuff really is. They could not have learned that lesson any other way – not anyone they’ve played yet save Kansas City.
Their next lessons come in Weeks 16 and 17, when they face the frantically desperate Indianapolis Colts in Oakland and then the Broncos in Denver the week after. Desperate teams can be very difficult indeed, especially to teams that are safe and dry and home, playoff-wise.
And then there are the actual playoffs, which if they were played today would have the Raiders traveling to Houston for a very winnable game against the stultifying Texans. The week after, they could be either in Kansas City again or in New England, getting a gut full of visiting field disadvantage.
But as a learning experience, the Raiders may have come out very well indeed. They now know in very real and personal ways the real difference between where they think they should be and where they are, as well as how many ways this can go terribly wrong between now and then.
And also how well it can go, if they learn what the Chiefs taught them again Thursday.