OAKLAND, Calif. – The football soared through the darkening East Bay sky like an oblong blast from the past, a gorgeous throw that might have come from the hand of George Blanda, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler or Jim Plunkett. As it landed in the outstretched arms of an unheralded rookie receiver, the Raiders were relevant once more.
Jason Campbell(notes), the Oakland quarterback who delivered the deep ball that doomed the Kansas City Chiefs to an overtime defeat on Sunday, is a nominal backup who threw for just 18 first-half yards while guiding his team to two first downs. Seven weeks ago, Campbell lost his starting job six quarters into the season. It turns out both he and his team are more resilient than most of us realized.
On a day which, literally and metaphorically, began with a messy downpour and ended with glorious sunshine, the Raiders brought the roar back to the sold-out Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, sending 61,075 fans into a fit of well-deserved hysterics. Oakland's 23-20 triumph over the Chiefs was its biggest victory since the 2002 AFC championship game and pushed the Raiders – who've endured an unprecedented seven consecutive seasons with 11 or more defeats – into the thick of the playoff race.
"We're back – there's no doubt about it," halfback Darren McFadden(notes) proclaimed afterward amid a positively giddy locker-room environment. "We've been believing in ourselves. We play for each other. We show it on the field."
Oakland (5-4) now heads into its bye week with its first three-game winning streak in eight years, a 3-0 record against AFC West opponents and a bead on the division-leading Chiefs (5-3), with the San Diego Chargers (4-5) also lurking after Sunday's 29-23 road victory over the Texans. The Raiders had every chance to blow Sunday's game and made many of the familiar mistakes that typically doom them, but this time they overcame them in mentally tough fashion.
In recent years, a performance that included a dubious and unsuccessful fake-punt attempt that set up an opponent's touchdown, three turnovers and 15 penalties would have triggered a predictable outcome, according to defensive tackle Tommy Kelly(notes). "You already know what would have happened," Kelly said. "We'd have went in the damn tank and lost that [expletive]."
Instead, the Raiders fought back from deficits of 10-0 and 20-17 and put together the kind of clutch drive at the end of regulation that evoked images of silver-and-black teams of yore. "We had opportunities to win the game," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said, "but they made a couple of the crazy plays that they've been making, to their credit."
In a game that Haley called "one of the ugliest I've ever been a part of" – the two teams combined to incur 27 penalties for 240 yards, and a few more that were declined, among other miscues – the Raiders found beauty in the breakaway speed of a fourth-round draft pick. Wideout Jacoby Ford(notes), the fastest man at the 2010 NFL scouting combine, was a quintessential Al Davis selection – and it turns out the former track standout with 4.28 speed in the 40 can do a whole lot more than run.
First Ford erased the team's first-half malaise and got the Raiders right back into the game by taking the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, cutting the K.C. lead to 10-7. Pressed into service as a starting wideout due to Louis Murphy's(notes) injury, Ford (six catches, 148 yards) shook off a futile first half and completely outpaced more celebrated teammate Darius Heyward-Bey (zero for zero), the seventh overall pick in the '09 draft.
He was especially electric on Oakland's game-tying drive, which began at its own 25-yard line with 2:06 remaining and no timeouts. Given a reprieve when K.C. wideout Dwayne Bowe(notes), who'd caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel(notes) with 6:13 remaining that put the Chiefs ahead 20-17, dropped a third-down throw that would have closed out the game, the Raiders converted a pair of third downs and appeared to get into field-goal range on Campbell's 19-yard sideline completion to Ford with 24 seconds remaining. However, a holding penalty on left tackle Jared Veldheer(notes) pushed the ball back to the Oakland 49.
No matter – Campbell threw deep over the middle again to Ford, who managed to seize the ball away from cornerback Brandon Flowers(notes), a killer of a strip that set up Sebastian Janikowski's(notes) 41-yard field goal with three seconds remaining. "It was kind of thrown behind me a little bit," Ford said, "and I just went up there and made a play … just pulled it out."
It was an impressive drive by Campbell, the former Redskins starter who was benched in Week 2 for Bruce Gradkowski(notes) and seemed destined to join a long list of recent Raider regrets. Given another chance when Gradkowski suffered a shoulder injury in an Oct. 10 game against the Chargers, Campbell helped lead Oakland to an upset victory, only to perform miserably in the following week's 17-9 defeat to the then-winless 49ers in San Francisco. (Raiders coach Tom Cable has said that Gradkowski will get the starting job back once he returns to health.)
To his credit, Campbell took command of the offense in a pair of blowout victories over the Broncos and Seahawks and, after Sunday's abysmal first half, settled down to complete 15 of 23 post-intermission passes for 211 yards. The biggest throw of all came after Oakland's defense forced a three-and-out in overtime and Campbell, on first down from his own 38, unleashed that perfect spiral that Ford caught 47 yards downfield a step ahead of Flowers.
Two plays later, Janikowski made a 33-yard field goal that provoked an on-field celebration befitting a college team in a rivalry game.
"I'm happy for Jason," said Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour(notes), who had eight tackles, a pair of quarterback hurries and was a force all afternoon in holding the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack to 104 yards. "He's been a trouper throughout this whole process. It isn't an easy situation to handle. He could teach the prima donnas in this league a thing or two about how to handle a situation like this. Just keep grinding."
That's an approach Oakland would be advised to take as it heads into a bye week with legitimate visions of a division-title run. On paper, it won't be easy – the Raiders' next game is a Nov. 14 showdown with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and they also face the Colts at home and have road rematches with the Chargers and Chiefs.
Still, this was an emotional victory, and some Raiders didn't hesitate to attach significance to their accomplishment.
"The Raiders are back," Kelly said. "Yep, the Raiders are back. We've won three in a row. We just had a come-from-behind win against a division leader. We're back, man."
If nothing else, they're back to being relevant – and that's a nice place to be in early November.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• In honor of Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain(notes), I'm going to spit it out now – and ask that you wait a few weeks before arguing: Michael Vick(notes) has a legitimate shot at being the league MVP. In returning from his rib injury to outduel four-time MVP Peyton Manning(notes) in the Eagles' 26-24 victory over the Colts, Vick looked even better than those terrific 1955 throwback jerseys Indy wore at Lincoln Financial Field. "They were sweet," Eagles tight end Brent Celek(notes) agreed via text.
• You can join me in calling Brett Favre(notes) a Drama Queen, but don't ever call the man a pouter: Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards and rallied the Vikings from a 14-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation as Minnesota (3-5) pulled out a 27-24 overtime victory against the Cardinals to save its season – at least for another week. With games against the division-rival Bears and Packers in the next two weeks, the Vikes and their 41-year-old quarterback can keep hope alive, even if they have turned Winter Park into Dysfunction Junction.
• While his boss, Mike Holmgren, drops some fairly strong recent hints about returning to the sidelines, Browns coach Eric Mangini is showing some impressive survivor skills: Cleveland (3-5), coming off an upset over the Saints, scored its second consecutive stunner with a 34-14 victory over the Patriots. Mangini not only prevailed over estranged mentor Bill Belichick but got into Hoodie's head – the Browns scored their second touchdown on a trick play that featured a touchdown run by wideout Chansi Stuckey(notes) off a hidden handoff from Wildcat quarterback Josh Cribbs.
• After the Bucs' 27-21 defeat to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, it looks like the best team in the NFC is technically the third-best team in the NFC South. But you know what? In fighting back from 14-0 and 27-14 deficits to get to within two yards of a go-ahead touchdown – halfback LeGarrette Blount(notes) was stuffed by the Falcons' Thomas DeCoud(notes) on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 2 with less than three minutes remaining – Tampa Bay showed me it's a legitimate playoff contender in coach Raheem Morris' second year.
• Cam Cameron had only a single season as an NFL head coach, the Miami Dolphins' disastrous 1-15 campaign in 2007, and no one likes to tease him more than I do for his famous draft-day address to season-ticket holders following the Ted Ginn selection. Yet I have to give Cameron his props for his How You Like Me Now? performance as the Ravens' offensive coordinator Sunday against his former team: Zero punts (Baltimore had one successful fake), zero turnovers in a 26-10 victory over Miami.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How Edison Pena competed in and completed Sunday's New York City Marathon three weeks after being rescued from the Chilean mine in which he and 32 coworkers were trapped for 69 days. And here I thought Yonni Barrios was the most remarkable of the miners. I was wrong. Pena is El Jefe.
2. The NFL rule that coaches are limited to two replay challenges unless each is successful, at which point a third challenge is granted. I understand the league's commitment to avoiding unnecessary replay delays, but given the degree to which replay has become accepted and how much is riding on the outcome of NFL games, I think it's time to amend the system. Case in point: In the Raiders-Chiefs game, Cable challenged apparent K.C. touchdowns on the first two plays of the second quarter (sandwiched around a holding penalty that negated another apparent TD). He was right the first time, and the call was overturned, but the replay official upheld Verran Tucker's(notes) 11-yard scoring catch in the corner of the end zone. That meant that, when Oakland punt returner Nick Miller(notes) was ruled to have fumbled away the ball at a critical fourth-quarter juncture (8:52 remaining at the Raiders' 30 as they clung to a four-point lead), Cable was unable to challenge the questionable call. I'm not going to defend Cable's cavalier use of the initial challenge (which still gave the Chiefs a first-and-goal at the 1 after the reversal), but I think a fairer rule would be to allow a coach an extra challenge for each of the first two that are successful.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Is Brad Childress trying to get fired, or does he simply have the worst comedic timing in the history of coaching – or both? After having somehow retained his job as Vikings coach following a week in which he was exposed as a flawed leader and borderline mutinous employee, and in the wake of a comeback victory he probably needed to forestall immediate dismissal, Childress turned Chuckles the Clown in his postgame media session, using Favre as his foil. Never mind that Favre, with whom Childress has feuded for two seasons, had just saved his job. Childress, asked about his ability to deal with the stress of recent events, couldn't resist a passive-aggressive swipe at the quarterback's emotional demeanor, telling reporters, "I'm not gonna be here and be like Favre and tell you that I need a hug."
Really, Chilly? Really? As one Vikings defender said Sunday night, "It never stops." I understand that owner Zygi Wilf is trying to avoid additional turmoil while his team still has mathematical life and is thus averse to a midseason change, but at some point he has to face reality. Childress, by all accounts, told Vikings players he was cutting wideout Randy Moss(notes) without ever bothering to inform his owner, an act more insubordinate than anything of which Moss has ever been accused. According to ESPN's Ed Werder, Childress and wideout Percy Harvin(notes) had to be separated during an argument in practice Friday and nearly came to blows. And unlike Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Wilf has a logical interim hire on the existing staff – defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, a potential star in the profession whose strategic acumen and temperament make him ideally suited to take over this veteran-laden team. I'm stunned Wilf hasn't yet made the move. And when he does, if the owner has a sense of humor, perhaps he'll tell Frazier, the Vikings' players and a whole bunch of journalists of the comedian coach's dismissal before he bothers to inform Childress of the move.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"It took five games but she went out a winner! Game, set, match."
– Text Saturday night from Dan Pedone (my fellow Reading loyalist and Big Ben clock-watcher, celebrating his last night as a volleyball dad – and the end of a terrific collegiate career by his daughter, Courtnee.