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In Tebow's long shadow, Raiders looming as more-legit threat

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Michael Bush has toughened the Raiders running game since Darren McFadden went down. (Getty Images)  
Michael Bush has toughened the Raiders running game since Darren McFadden went down. (Getty Images)  

The best story in the AFC West is what's going on with Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, but the best team is still the Oakland Raiders. They can run. They can pass. Their defense is adequate, and their kicker is a bona fide weapon.

In short, they're close to a complete team, and when they play Green Bay Dec. 11 it could be more than just a clash of division leaders. It could be a preview of Super Bowl XLVI.

I'm serious.

Look, I love what Denver is doing, too, but Tebow mania has overshadowed what's going on in Oakland, and what's going on is that the Raiders are beginning to flex their muscles. They're more than just a tough out now. They're a legitimate playoff threat, a formidable team that can -- and maybe should -- make a deep run through January.

First, of course, they must get there, which means they must hold off Denver in the AFC West. I say they can. No, I say they will, partly because they don't have to play the surging Broncos and their irrepressible quarterback again.

Granted, Denver seems like a team on a mission, winning games it shouldn't in ways that defy reason. But Oakland is on a mission, too, with the memory of Al Davis a constant reminder that this year should be something extraordinary.

So let's say it is. Let's say the Raiders reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Well, then anything's possible, and I'll tell you why.

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Carson Palmer.

The guy seems to have settled down and become not just comfortable in the Oakland system but so comfortable he looks like the Carson Palmer of five years ago. So he's not producing gargantuan numbers that, say, an Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees will. He doesn't have to. He has one of the league's most reliable running games behind him, with the Raiders grinding it out 50 percent of the time.

That's what is known as a balanced attack, and it's the beauty of the Oakland offense. Unlike most clubs in today's passer-friendly league, the Raiders set up the throw with the run. Where others dazzle you with short and intermediate passes, the Raiders are physical at the line of scrimmage and prefer to hammer opponents by running over, around and through them.

That is nothing new. What is different is that they're equally capable of beating you with their quarterback. The vertical passing game has been synonymous with the Raiders for decades, but lately it's been more an idea than a reality. There really hasn't been a quarterback to pull it off since Rich Gannon.

Until now.

Palmer can make all the throws but is especially accurate with his deep game, as he demonstrated three weeks ago in San Diego when he completed 14 passes for 299 yards, an average of 21.3 per completion. It was that contest that seemed to launch Palmer and the Raiders, and they haven't stopped pushing forward since.

But that was why Oakland was so eager to acquire Palmer. With starting quarterback Jason Campbell sidelined, the Raiders knew they were DOA with backup Kyle Boller. So they pushed hard for Palmer, and the results speak for themselves: The Raiders won their last three starts without their best playmaker, running back Darren McFadden.

Which is another reason to like this club. I mean, if the Raiders aren't vulnerable without McFadden, what happens when he returns?

OK, so they got drilled by Kansas City and Denver in back-to-back home games. It happens, but it's not supposed to happen to good teams. Only that was not today's Oakland Raiders. That was a club in disarray, reeling from the loss of Campbell and desperate to rush Palmer onto the field before he was ready.

The results were predictable: Palmer looked like the quarterback he was -- a guy who got off the couch and returned to football without practicing and with little or no knowledge of the playbook -- and the Raiders looked like a club in search of an identity.

Well, now they have it, and I suggest it arrived with Palmer's breakout game vs. San Diego. I mean, look what's happened since: Palmer completes 65 percent of his passes, Michael Bush stars in relief of McFadden, no opponent puts up more than 21 points and the Raiders are on a roll. In short, Oakland is gaining momentum at just the right time, which is why I want to see them in Green Bay.

But it's not just Palmer or Bush's play in the absence of McFadden that makes the Raiders so attractive. It's that they win on the road, and, trust me, that's a bonus in the playoffs. The Raiders are 4-1 away from home, losing only when they blew a 21-3 lead in Buffalo the second week of the season, and average 26.8 points per game there.

When the New York Jets advanced to the conference championship the past two years they did it on the strength of their road success. They were 11-5 during the regular season, then 4-2 in the playoffs -- all away from home.

The New York Giants had a similar run in 2007 when they parlayed a 7-1 regular-season road record into a four-game sweep of the playoffs, punctuated by their Super Bowl upset of New England.

The point is: The better you are on the road, the better your chances of surviving the playoffs when you're not a top seed.

That doesn't mean the Raiders aren't flawed. They are. In fact, if there's one team that's a threat to the Raiders it's not Denver; it's the Raiders themselves. They continue to lead the league in penalties and haven't figured out how to stop the run. They rank 27th, with opponents averaging a whopping 5.3 yards per carry.

But I saw them stuff Houston's Arian Foster and the NFL's third-ranked running game, and I saw how they handled Chicago's Matt Forte. I also saw them drop their penalties to six last weekend -- their second-lowest total of the season -- after an exasperated coach Hue Jackson said he'd reached "my boiling point" following a defeat of Minnesota where his team was flagged for 12 fouls.

So they're making progress there. Heck, they're making progress everywhere. And they're almost as hot as Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Oakland has two games left against winning opponents. So does Denver. Something has to give ... and I say it's not the Oakland Raiders.

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