Following an embarrassing 27-10 nationally televised loss to Washington, the Raiders spent all week saying the right things, doing their best to assuage fears that a one-game downturn is the start of a bad trend for the Silver and Black.
But only thing that can make the Raiders’ fan base forget last Sunday’s ugly loss: a rock-solid performance against Denver this Sunday
And while all three facets of the game need to improve week-over-week for the Raiders, the onus for victory on Sunday falls squarely on the shoulders of the highest-paid man in the AFC: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
First, let’s establish that while this is only Week 4, Sunday’s game in Denver is huge for the Raiders.
It’s obviously not an elimination game, so it’s not — by the strict letter of the law — a must-win contest, but for a Raiders team that was looking to prove this season that it’s part of the NFL’s elite, Sunday’s game in Denver is pretty close to “must-win” status.
It’s all about the narrative. Whether NFL teams want to admit it or not, that narrative is important, and, simply put, a 3-1 record looks a lot better than 2-2.
A team that’s 3-1 and already has a road win in the division is going places — they’re on the upswing.
A 2-2 team that has a really bad Sunday Night Football loss on the resume? That team isn’t a Super Bowl contender, not at that juncture in the season, anyway. Any preseason optimism would be replaced by full-fledged worry and doubt that perhaps expectations were too high heading into the year.
And when you add in the fact that this Raiders team — with Carr at quarterback and Jack Del Rio as head coach — hasn’t proven it can win big games on the road in three-plus seasons (don’t come at me with the wins against Tennessee or Brock Osweiler), the importance of Sunday’s game is clear.
It might not be a true “must-win”, but it’s certainly a tone-setter for the rest of the 2017 season.
And the Raiders are going to go the way Carr goes on Sunday.
We’re going to find out a lot about him in Denver.
Make no mistake, Denver is a quality team. They might have lost to the Bills last week, but they’ve shown in the first three games of the season that they’re going to be in the thick of things in the AFC West this year, alongside the undefeated Chiefs and presumably the Raiders.
More importantly, the Broncos are a team that presents many of the same problems Carr faced against Washington.
If Oakland’s highly paid offensive line had problems with Washington’s pass rush last week, they’re certainly going to have their hands full with Von Miller and his cohorts in orange on Sunday.
And if that pass rush can get to Carr, there’s been no indication to date that the $125 million man can handle it.
The fourth-quarter comebacks last year were fantastic, but late-game magic isn’t something you can count on every week. The Raiders need more from their starting quarterback in all four quarters, week in, week out — no matter the scenario.
Franchise quarterbacks can’t be cogs in the machine. They have to rise above the fray and perform, no matter the circumstances. That’s what true franchise quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and even Matt Stafford do. Carr hasn’t proven that he’s part of that class.
But the Raiders need Carr to take a big step forward, and they need him to do it now.
Carr’s rap heading into the season is that he’s only effective in a clean pocket — otherwise, he has a dink-and-dunk mindset with a gunslinger’s arm. So far in 2017, he hasn’t shaken that reputation: he’s faced the lowest amount of pressure in the league (he’s under pressure on 20.2 percent of his dropbacks this year, slightly more than last year) but has a passer rating of 27.4 under pressure (second worst in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus).
In an offense that was as aggressive in the passing game as any in the NFL last year (no one ran five-wide receiver plays more) and came into this season poised to take that aggressiveness to the next level, Carr can’t be below average for the Raiders to win.
Oakland’s defense, even on its best day, isn’t good enough to singlehandedly win a game (unlike Denver’s) — it needs the Raiders’ offense to put up at least three touchdowns (probably four, if we’re being honest) a game.
Carr hasn’t shown he can do that under pressure.
And that makes the formula for a Denver victory simple: pressure Carr and let the Oakland quarterback take care of the rest.
No matter how well the Raiders’ offensive line plays Sunday, the Broncos are going to create some pressure on Carr. That’s no slight on what I believe is still an elite o-line unit — Denver’s defensive line is too good not to find its way into the backfield.
If Carr can buck three-plus years of tradition and perform well under pressure Sunday, the Raiders are going to put up points and have an excellent chance to win the game. More importantly, we’ll have seen a clear progression from the fourth-year quarterback — a sign that he’s on the path to being the transcendent quarterback the Raiders believe he is and need him to be.
If not, there’s a good chance Sunday’s game looks awfully similar to the performance against Washington.
It all rides on Carr.
It always has.
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