Raiders have learned how to win

Jacoby Ford returned four kicks for 158 yards and added 148 yards receiving. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It’s as simple as this: The Oakland Raiders are making more plays than their opponents.

That’s why Oakland is a legitimate playoff contender.

In a sloppy, physical, intense game that had the feel of a playoff primer, the Raiders moved within a half-game of first place in the AFC West with a 23-20 overtime win over Kansas City that served notice to the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC that this team now has the fortitude to win games on a regular basis.

Kansas City is 5-3 and Oakland sits at 5-4. San Diego is 4-5. This game conjures the possibility of a delicious Week 17 rematch in Kansas City that could decide the AFC West and end the Chargers’ four-year stranglehold on the division crown. This became clear Sunday: The Raiders, who were led by fourth-round kick returner/receiver Jacoby Ford, are going to stick around.

“We’re not the old Raiders,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We’re going to fight all game long.”

It may have taken a while, but the Raiders have learned how to win games in any situation. After hammering Denver and Seattle by a combined score of 92-17 in the past two games, Oakland had to fight until the final play to defeat the Chiefs. Oakland, which tied the score at 20 at the end of regulation on a 41-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, won the game on a 33-yard field goal by Janikowski 2:53 into overtime.

This was a huge swing game in the division. Oakland’s win means the Raiders probably will stay in the race all season. Had Kansas City won, it would have had a huge 2.5-game lead in the division. Oakland, which played without star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and standout tight end Zach Miller, is in fine shape with a 3-0 record against AFC West opponents. If Oakland wins one more game this season, it will win more than five games in a season for the first time since 2002, ending the NFL’s longest streak of futility.

If Oakland continues to make timely plays, it will render that mark a distant memory. This was the Chiefs’ game to win, but the Raiders lay in wait, looking to pounce when they needed to most.

At one point in the third quarter, Oakland had more penalty yardage than offensive yards. Kansas City led 10-0 at halftime and was dictating play. It was the first time Oakland has won after trailing 10-0 at the half in 18 years. But the Chiefs helped Oakland’s comeback.

In a game that had 27 penalties for 240 yards (an NFL high this season), the Chiefs lost 10 points on penalties. The Raiders first showed life in the final minute of the first half when defensive back Jeremy Ware picked off a Matt Cassel pass in the end zone with the Chiefs poised to extend their lead.

Oakland continued the good vibes when Ford started to take over by returning the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a score. Two possessions later, the Raiders had their first long drive of the game, going 74 yards for a touchdown and a 14-13 lead. They extended the lead to 17-13 with a field goal in the fourth quarter.

After a questionable fumble by Nick Miller, the Chiefs scored a touchdown to take a 20-17 lead with 6:13 to go. But the Chiefs couldn’t shake Oakland. After the Oakland defense made a huge stop, forcing the Chiefs to punt, quarterback Jason Campbell and Ford led Oakland on a field-goal drive after starting from its own 24 with 2:06 to go. The Raiders had their moments of misery on the drive, which they had all game, but they made the plays that mattered most.

The key play was a 29-yard pass from Campbell to Ford to the Chiefs' 22 to set up the tying field goal. After Kansas City was forced to go three plays and out on the opening drive of overtime, Campbell went back to his rookie receiver for a 47-yard pass play to the Chiefs’ 15 on the Raiders' first play. The game was over two plays later.

Oakland was far from perfect Sunday, but it was clutch. It was very similar to Oakland’s 35-27 win over San Diego four weeks ago. The Chargers could have run away from Oakland, but the Raiders wouldn’t let them.

“It’s been a process, but we know how to win games now,” Oakland fullback Marcel Reece said. “We knew what was at stake in this game. We knew that if we’re going to be a playoff contender, we had to hang in. But that’s what we do.”

Added defensive lineman Richard Seymour: “We’re a different team. It started way back in training camp. People can see how this team plays now and know we have made a lot of progress.”

The Raiders are entering their most joyous bye week in nearly a decade. It will be interesting to see where Campbell and Ford fit in when Oakland returns Nov. 21 at Pittsburgh. Campbell was playing for the fourth straight game because Bruce Gradkowski has a shoulder injury. Ford was starting because Louis Murphy is out with a lung injury. There is a good chance both Gradkowski and Murphy can return against Pittsburgh.

Ford has to stay on the field. He was the first rookie since 1979 to have a kickoff return for a touchdown and more than 100 yards receiving in the same game. He had six catches for 148 yards. Murphy has been better than Oakland’s other starter, 2009 No. 1 pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, so perhaps Ford will eat into Heyward-Bey’s playing time. Heyward-Bey had no catches Sunday after having five catches for 105 yards last week. He has not been consistent at all.

And how do you take out Campbell after he has led the team to three straight wins? Campbell, the original starter in Oakland after being acquired in a trade from Washington in April, struggled early, but he did come through with big plays Sunday. Oakland coach Tom Cable has maintained that Gradkowski will be the starter when he is healthy. Sunday, however, he said he’s not going to think about it right now, perhaps a signal that Campbell could remain the starter.

Campbell should keep the job. Oakland has a good thing going. It shouldn’t be messed with.