At first glance, Thursday’s tilt is a clash of cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than the quarterback position. Derek Carr and Alex Smith are both winning games, but they’re winning in different ways. Carr, the young stud in the midst of a career year, is a mastermind on throws down the field, completing a league-best 58.8 percent of his 15-plus air yard passes with a passer rating of 120.8. The Raiders quarterback is also on pace for yuge franchise-best numbers (4,500 passing yards, 32 TDs). Smith, regarded as an overlooked game-manager, is most comfortable short of the sticks; last week, he was 18-of-18 on passes under 15 air yards. Kansas City’s “gunslinger” has thrown just 11 scores this season, second-fewest of any QB who has started at least 10 games this season.
Where these two foils find common ground is in their late-game heroism. Carr’s comeback magic is well documented; his 10 fourth-quarter comebacks are the most in the NFL, one more than Matthew Stafford and his Cardiac Cats. When trailing, Carr has thrown 14 TDs and zero interceptions with a 113.0 passer rating. But Smith’s proclivity for leading late game-winning drives has flown under the radar. Heading into 2016, Smith had just 15 seven-plus-point comebacks in his 121 prior starts, but this season he has completed six, the most such in the league. His latest trick? Storming down the field in Mile High on Sunday Night Football against a vaunted Broncos secondary to tie the game, and then completing two similar drives in overtime to secure the win. They are more alike, my friends, then they are unalike.
After a 15-minute, 27-second flurry in which Raiders quarterback Derek Carr buoyed his burgeoning MVP candidacy — and, more important, fueled a jaw-dropping 29-0 run that propelled Oakland to a 38-24 victory — Crabtree stood at his locker and explained the mindset of a 10-2 team that currently leads in the race for homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
“Bruh, you’ve been seeing this the whole season — we’ve been doing the same thing as we did today,” Crabtree told me, punching the air for emphasis. “When we hit a rough patch, we respond, plain and cheap jerseys and simple. When you’ve got a team like this, bruh, when you’ve got this many weapons, the sky’s the limit.”
Coming off their best performance of the season in last week’s blowout victory versus the Vikings’ fatally flawed attack, the Colts defense was simply outclassed by a superior offense in Oakland. They allowed 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground through the first three quarters and didn’t get a finger on Carr until Cole’s early-fourth sack knocked the quarterback out of the game. While the perennially beleaguered offensive line actually boasts promising building blocks to turn the unit around, the defensive front seven is desperately in need of talented young pass rushers and run stuffers next offseason.
Whereas O’Brien died by those fourth-down calls, Jack Del Rio continues to grant his team new life with his own celebrated “onions” in close-and-late situations. Up 27-20 with just over a minute remaining, Del Rio opted to play keep-away, running Latavius Murray on fourth-and-1 from Oakland’s 39-yard line. Murray sealed yet another exhilarating Raiders victory with a 6-yard gain. One of the stories of the 2016 season has been the trend toward increased aggressiveness in fourth-and-short situations.
Oakland’s season was turned upside-down on Saturday when quarterback Derek Carr suffered a broken fibula in the fourth quarter of a 33-25 win over the Colts. Carr appeared to say, “It’s broke” or “It’s broken” immediately after his foot got pinned beneath a tackler and was helped off the field before being carted off the field for X-rays. Coach Jack Del Rio later said that he will be out indefinitely.
Before leaving the field, Carr spent several minutes on the trainer’s table situated on the Oakland sideline. That led to the surreal sight of a dozen or so Raiders players and personnel standing around Carr and team doctors, holding up Gatorade towels to block the view of CBS cameras.
“It was crazy. It was one of those situations where everything they did went right and we couldn’t make a play,” Graham said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that. Those guys got on a roll and it was like everything they did turned into gold. It didn’t matter what they called, what they did, they found ways to make plays. That’s why they’re 10-2 and No. 1 in the AFC.”
Carucci noted that Ryan looked “absolutely dumbfounded” during his postgame press conference, still stunned by a defense that gave up 29 unanswered points over the final 19 minutes of play. On the outside looking in, the Bills likely need to win out and hope for other teams to implode for any shot at January.