SAN DIEGO –- The Oakland Raiders apparently wanted company on the dreaded “win out or go home” road to the NFL playoffs.
So the Raiders pushed the San Diego Chargers around the field all day, ensuring their stressful and unlikely journey to the playoffs won’t be a solo ride. After gladly assuming the role of the NFL’s hottest and most dangerous team heading into their favorite month of the year, the Chargers saw their long reign atop the AFC West go on life support after a 28-13 loss to the Raiders.
Things got so bad in San Diego on Sunday that late in the game, when only jubilant Raiders fan remained in the stadium, San Diego’s cheerleading squad was loudly booed during its final number of a forgettable day for the home team. It’s not supposed to be this way for San Diego in December and it’s certainly not the way the previously streaking Chargers planned on opening a stretch of three home games in 11 days.
Sunday’s upset in San Diego was cause for a big celebration in Kansas City hours after the Chiefs improved to 8-4 with a 10-6 win over Denver. Oakland and San Diego are now both 6-6 and trail the Chiefs by two games with four games remaining. Oakland owns the tiebreaker over San Diego based on its season sweep. The Raiders and Chargers are both two games behind in the AFC wild-card race.
If Kansas City wins in San Diego next Sunday, it will eliminate San Diego -- which has won four straight division crowns -- from the AFC West title race. In that scenario, Kansas City would be 9-4 and San Diego would be 6-7. The Chiefs would have a three-game lead with three games to go and they would hold the tiebreaker over San Diego based on a season sweep. Oakland can’t be eliminated next week when it plays at Jacksonville, but the Raiders know they are on thin ice and have to continue to win if they want to advance to the postseason for the first time in eight years. At 3-9, Denver is the only AFC West team eliminated from playoff contention.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for three weeks now,” Oakland fullback Marcel Reece said. “The first two weeks didn’t go well, but we got back to playing Raider football and if we keep that up, we’ll be fine. We know we can play with anybody, but it was nice to get back to doing it today.”
The Chargers were clearly shocked by Sunday’s developments. Well after the game, several pockets of players huddled in the locker room discussing what went wrong on the field.
“This is not where we expected to be,” San Diego defensive lineman Luis Castillo said.
This was San Diego’s first December loss since the Philip Rivers era started in 2006. San Diego entered this month winners of four straight games, including a 22-point win at Indianapolis last week. But the Chargers were run over by a resurgent Oakland ground game, which took over after the Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter via another San Diego special teams miscue and a Rivers interception.
While keeping its playoff hopes alive, Oakland also reached a major milestone in its journey from the depths of the NFL. The Raiders have won six games for the first time since 2002. The Raiders set an NFL record for futility by losing at least 11 games in seven straight seasons.
“It means we’re improving,” Oakland defensive lineman Tommy Kelly said. “I just want to see it carry over next week.”
The following are some key aspects of the game:
Raiders run through San Diego: If the Raiders can run the ball effectively, they usually win. If they can’t move the ball on the ground, they don’t have much of a chance to win.
“Yes,” Oakland guard Cooper Carlisle said, “that’s the truth in the simplest terms.”
In losing to the Steelers and the Dolphins by a combined 48 points the previous two weeks, the Raiders ran for a total of 77 yards. Sunday, against the top-ranked defense in the NFL, Oakland ran for 251 yards on 52 carries. The Raiders fed San Diego a healthy dose of both Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.
McFadden had 97 yards on 19 carries and Bush added 95 yards on 23 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders sliced through San Diego up the middle, which has been their calling card when the ground game works this season. Oakland had 137 yards on 30 rushing attempts up the middle Sunday. In October, Oakland had 69 rushing yards up the middle against San Diego, which was a season high for the Chargers’ defense this season.
Oakland’s ground success kept the pressure off quarterback Jason Campbell and allowed him to pick his spots, which is when he is at his best. Campbell completed 10 of 16 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown. Oakland will take a 251-117 rush-pass yardage ratio any time.
Oakland made Rivers uncomfortable: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers completed 23 of 39 passes for 280 yards. But he was never comfortable. The Raiders were always putting heat on him. Rivers was sacked four times.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers' passer rating against five or more pass-rushers Sunday was 19.9. In the first 11 games of the season under the same pressure, Rivers’ passer rating was 94.2
Because it fell behind by two touchdowns in the first quarter, San Diego ran only eight times for 21 yards. Rookie Ryan Mathews, even though he was healthy for the first time in a month, did not have a carry.
McClain hit legal: Referee John Parry said the helmet-to-helmet hit Oakland rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain registered on San Diego running back Darren Sproles was legal because Sproles was not defenseless. After spending several moments on the grass, Sproles left the game and he did not return because of a concussion.
The San Diego crowd was incensed McClain wasn’t penalized. Parry’s explanation probably means McClain will not be fined. However, the league has been aggressively fining defenders who lead with their helmet because of concussion concerns.