Opinion: Derek Carr is driving the Raiders' bus and showing an early MVP vibe

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It was a serious, heart-stopping moment. With just over 5 minutes on the clock in the third quarter at Heinz Field, Derek Carr lay on the turf, in agony.

Carr, clipped late and from behind by a Steelers defender, didn’t see what he had just accomplished with a 9-yard scoring strike to Foster Moreau. He looked up and saw a crowd of more than a dozen Raiders — players, coaches, trainers — gathered, their faces showing concern.

“Did he catch it?” Carr asked from the turf.

Silence.

“Did he freaking catch it?!!!”

Yes, someone replied. That’s when Carr declared that the apparent right ankle injury wasn’t serious enough to knock him out. Whew.

“All right,” he added, "get me up.”

Before Carr was helped to his feet and able to jog to the sideline with a 16-7 lead, the Raiders showed just how much they cared for their fearless teammate.

Quarterback Derek Carr had another big game for the Raiders.
Quarterback Derek Carr had another big game for the Raiders.

“They stood praying for me,” Carr said during his postgame news conference. “That was a beautiful moment.”

And fitting, too. It’s way too early to size up the contenders for league honors, but at this point, there’s no debate that the much-maligned Carr has been the most valuable player for a Raiders team that has started 2-0 by scoring impressive wins against two formidable foes from the AFC North. After a heart-stopping comeback win in overtime against the Ravens on Monday night, Las Vegas stung the Steelers 26-17 Sunday, with another outing punctuated by some timely, sizzling throws from Carr.

The Raiders have won their first two games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1984. And with 817 yards over six days, Carr has passed for more yards over a two-game span than any thrower in the franchise’s long, proud history, which includes all of those gunslinger days in the wide-open AFL.

On Sunday, when the Raiders were without injured stud running back Josh Jacobs and managed just 52 rushing yards and 2.1 per carry, Carr completed 28 of 37 throws for 382 yards and two TDs, without a pick. The game was iced by Carr’s 61-yard touchdown connection to Henry Ruggs.

While there has certainly been some completeness to the Raiders' victories — the defense is better, the O-line has held up despite an assortment of injuries and kicker Daniel Carlson has been money — Carr has provided the glue for the silver-and-black grit.

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“I’ll let his play speak for itself,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden, in his fourth season on the job, told reporters. On Monday night, Carr threw 56 times for 435 yards, including a game-winning, 31-yard TD throw in overtime. "I’ve been clamoring about Derek since I’ve been here. Hopefully, he’ll start to get some recognition.”

Gruden went on to mention how Carr engineered long scoring drives, most notably the 82-yard possession that ended with the TD to Moreau. He talked about how Carr was again “big at the end.”

That would include the dime to Ruggs early in the fourth quarter, when Carr looked off safety Minkah Fitzpatrick as the speedy receiver whizzed upfield on a post route. Fitzpatrick apparently was clued on tight end Darren Waller in a seam to Carr’s left, which allowed the split-second needed to help clear Ruggs’ route.

“It was a ‘Moon ball,’ " Ruggs said. “He threw it up and I had to go and get it.”

It was an appropriate highlight throw from a game that marked Carr’s second-highest game for efficiency (126.2) since 2018. He protected the football and by extension, his team, without committing a turnover. It was the type of composed game needed to take advantage of a Steelers defense that lost star linebacker T.J. Watt to a groin injury and nose tackle Tyson Alualu to an ankle injury. Besides, Ben Roethlisberger was the other quarterback on the field, still plenty capable of putting his team on his back as Carr did.

It will take that for the Raiders to turn this fast start into their first playoff berth since 2016, the season before Gruden arrived.

Just win. Carr has echoed the late, great Al Davis after the games, maintaining he doesn't care about style points -- the objective is to win.

Done. Again.

“We’ve got to keep going,” he said. “We can’t let this go downhill.”

Carr has demonstrated that he’s the essential leader needed for the equation. Just listen to Moreau. “That’s an awesome quarterback,” he said. “I love the guy to death.”

Moreau recalled his quick emotional swing after his touchdown. His celebration was quickly deflated when he looked back to discover Carr on the turf. “My mood definitely switched,” he said. “It sunk down. Way down.”

Carr rebounded quickly from what turned out to be a mini-crisis. His foot was taped over, and he took a few warm-up throws on the sideline, never missing a snap.

You can’t blame the Raiders for keeping their fingers crossed that it stays that way.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Carr is driving the Raiders' bus, showing an early MVP vibe