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Palmer completes Raiders, makes them genuine postseason contenders

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Once Carson Palmer gets everything straightened out with his new offense, Oakland could soar. (Getty Images)  
Once Carson Palmer gets everything straightened out with his new offense, Oakland could soar. (Getty Images)  

SAN DIEGO -- OK, so Oakland's acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer wasn't exactly "the greatest trade in football," as coach Hue Jackson put it, but give Jackson this: The deal has the Raiders on the fast track to their first division title since 2002.

Normally, I don't read too much into a victory in the ninth game of the season, but the Raiders' 24-17 demolition of San Diego on Thursday was so complete, so impressive and so overwhelming that it can mean only one thing -- uh-huh, that Oakland is the favorite to win the AFC West.

In fact, I would be shocked if they didn't close the deal before their season finale against these Chargers, and I'll tell you why:

Carson Palmer.

The Raiders have been looking for a legitimate quarterback since Rich Gannon led Oakland to Super Bowl XXXVII, and they seem to have found him in Palmer. For the first time since his acquisition on Oct. 18, he was sharp, effective and successful -- missing only six of 20 passes and shredding the Chargers defense again and again with accurate deliveries.

And that's after only 10 practices with the first team.

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More important, Palmer dialed up big plays when required -- with none bigger than a 24-yard completion to tight end Kevin Boss on a third-and-11 with just over three minutes left and Oakland at its 25. The play is something called "Chevy 568," with Boss as Palmer's third option. But his first two choices were covered, so the quarterback did what he has done so many times before in his career -- he trusted himself to stick the football into a tight window.

And he succeeded.

"They rolled the coverage away from where we wanted to go," Palmer said of the Chargers, "and it was a critical time of the game. Kevin did a great job of getting open. He's 6-7 and such a big target, you can leave the ball high for him ... and that's what I did."

It wasn't the biggest play of the game, but it was a reminder why the Raiders were willing to pay such a steep price for Palmer. They believe in the guy, and they believe he can make them such a balanced offense that opponents won't know whom to concentrate on first -- Palmer or star running back Darren McFadden.

And that's another reason why this victory was so significant. McFadden didn't play.

Neither did starting center Samson Santele or starting safety Michael Huff. Nevertheless, the Raiders overpowered San Diego, with backup running back Michael Bush running for 157 yards and the Raiders piling up 191. It was reminiscent of last year's hammering here, except then, Jason Campbell was throwing the ball. Now, it's Palmer, and, yes, there's a difference.

And we just saw why.

"For a guy who's coming off the couch," Jackson said, "and just playing and having fun, I think what he's doing is phenomenal ... I know this young man. I know what Carson Palmer is, and we haven't seen the best of him yet. He's just warming up.

CBSSports.com Grades
Oakland Raiders
Oakland Raiders
A
Carson Palmer wasn't spectacular throughout the night. He committed two second-half turnovers (fumble and an interception) that kept San Diego around until the end of the game. Palmer, however, demonstrated the ability to lead the Raiders offense to quick scores and has shown improvement in consecutive weeks. With the win, the Raiders show that they are a franchise on the rise.
San Diego Chargers
San Diego Chargers
F
Sure, the offensive line was beat up with Kris Dielman out and Marcus McNeill (neck stinger) and Louis Vasquez (ankle) leaving the game with injuries. You can even blame it on the depleted linebacking corps that is missing Shaun Phillips and Larry English and lost ILB Takeo Spikes (concussion) during the game. But the time for excuses is over. Something has got to change in San Diego.
By Dan McLellan
RapidReports Correspondent

"He'll continue to get better and continue to grow. What we saw tonight was even better than last week. He'll continue to do that, because that's what he wants. There's a fire that burns within this young man, and he wants to be good. He understands what we need to do."

Consider that a warning. The Raiders came here on a two-game losing streak, with Palmer so out of sync he had six interceptions in six quarters of play. But the Raiders knew what they had, and so they adjusted their offense to fit his strengths -- drifting into what Jackson called "a little bit of a transition period."

The fear was that the Raiders might sacrifice their identity to suit their new quarterback -- that they no longer would be the physical, grind-it-out offense that crushed the Chargers twice last year -- but that fear vanished Thursday. The Raiders ran, passed, ran, then ran some more -- relying on Palmer only when they needed to drop the hammer.

The message was clear. The Oakland Raiders are what they are, and what they are now is a physical club that can beat you with the run, the pass and defense. In short, what they are is a serious playoff threat.

I mean, consider what happens when McFadden returns. Moreover, consider what happens when Palmer knows this offense. He admitted Thursday he still misses receivers and botches calls, but you would never know it looking at the results.

"It's been an information overload at times," he said. "It's taken me out of my normal routine the last eight years. It's been tough to watch as much film as I normally do because I've been spending time trying to figure out formations, protections, routes and where we're trying to get individual players and best matchups. It's been a challenge, and I have a lot of work to do ... [but] I'm just getting rolling. It's weird, and it's different. I've never been in this situation before."

The Raiders have ... but not for years. In fact, they haven't had a winning season since 2002. Now they're the team to beat in the AFC West, and if you don't believe me, you weren't paying attention Thursday.

"The sky's the limit," Boss said. "You look at where we are and where we can go with Carson leading us. We're excited about it."

They should be.

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