AFC Playoff Picture: Raiders Still Have Warts, But Don’t Count Them Out

The Las Vegas Raiders' three-game win streak has opened the possibility of a playoff berth, but they still have a lot of problems to solve.

The Las Vas Raiders are playing their best football of the season and, following a three-game win streak, have climbed back to a 5-7 record. The Raiders remaining in the thick of the AFC playoff picture remains unlikely but not wholly improbable, while calls for head coach Josh McDaniels’ jobs have abated for the time being. Still, despite their recent success, the Raiders will still have a number of questions left to solve as the offseason approaches.

The Las Vegas Raiders’ Path to the Postseason

Let’s begin with one caveat: Two of the Raiders’ wins on their current streak came in overtime. Vegas mounted late-game comebacks against both the Broncos and the Seahawks before winning in the extra period, and if they’d lost either of those games, they’d be entirely out of the playoff picture.

While the Raiders have clearly benefitted from some luck-based outcomes in recent weeks, they’ve also displayed improvement on both sides of the ball. Vegas’ offense, 15th in expected points added per play through Week 10, ranked ninth in efficiency from Weeks 11-13. Their defense has seen ever more drastic refinement, finishing 13th in EPA per play during the win streak after ranking 29th over the first 10 weeks of the year.

Given these steps forward, there could be a good deal of excitement about the Raiders over the next three weeks, especially given the state of their schedule. Las Vegas will play the reeling Rams on Thursday Night Football before taking on the Patriots and Steelers in Weeks 15 and 16.

The Raiders have a legitimate chance to win all three of those games. They’re a better team than Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. While New England’s defense presents a difficult challenge, McDaniels – the Patriots’ longtime offensive coordinator – should know exactly what Bill Belichick and Co. will throw the Raiders’ way.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, Las Vegas currently has a 15% chance of earning a Wild Card berth. If they extend their win streak to six straight, their odds will increase to 53%. However, the bottom could drop out during the season’s last two games.

In Week 17, the Raiders will get a home matchup against the 49ers, who just lost Jimmy Garoppolo for the rest of the season. Brock Purdy being under center will give Vegas a chance, but DeMeco Ryans’ defense will likely be too much for the Raiders to handle.

Then, Las Vegas has to play Kansas City to close out the year. The Raiders have beaten the Chiefs just once in their last 10 meetings, and while Andy Reid has been known to rest his starters in meaningless last-season matchups, KC will likely still be involved in a race for a first-round bye. Unless the Chiefs run away with the AFC’s top seed over the next few weeks, the Raiders will likely have to face Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and the rest of KC’s key players.

Additionally, there are just too many teams ahead of the Raiders in the Wild Card race. The Bengals, Dolphins, and Jets would be the fifth, sixth, and seventh seeds if the season ended today, but the Patriots and Chargers are also ahead of Las Vegas in the AFC playoff picture heading into Week 14. Several of those clubs will play each other as the season winds down, but it will be difficult for the Raiders to leapfrog all those teams.

Realistically, the Raiders will probably need to win out to land a playoff spot. Vegas has found an offensive line combination it likes, and Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow should return from injury soon. There are reasons to be excited about the Raiders’ performance over the rest of the season, but maintaining positive vibes heading into 2023 seems like a more likely outcome than a postseason appearance.

What Will the Raiders Do This Offseason?

Both McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler were trained in the Patriots’ roster-building philosophies. Still, instead of taking things slow in their first year with the Raiders, the duo took a giant swing just weeks into the job. Las Vegas sent first- and second-round picks to the Packers to acquire Davante Adams, who has continued his run as one of the NFL’s best receivers after moving west.

Next year, the Raiders project to have roughly $35 million in cap space, the 10th-most in the league. They’ll have the money to go after another offensive lineman or add pieces to their secondary. But the most interesting case studies will involve two players already central to Las Vegas’ offense.

The Raiders could create nearly $30 million in cap space by trading or releasing Derek Carr next spring. While he received a three-year, $120.5 million extension this year, the structure of Carr’s contract means he isn’t tied to Las Vegas long-term.

McDaniels and Ziegler could probably get at least a first-round pick from a quarterback-needy team, and clubs like the Colts, Commanders, Jets, Titans, and Panthers could all be searching for veteran signal-callers.

During his first run as an NFL head coach, McDaniels shook up the Broncos’ locker room by trading Jay Cutler to the Bears, so he may not want to go down that road again. But if the Raiders think they can find a quarterback in the draft or sign a veteran like Jimmy Garoppolo (who worked with McDaniels in New England), Carr could be gone.

It will also be worth watching how the Raiders approach Josh Jacobs’ pending free agency. Las Vegas declined Jacobs’ fifth-year option in May, and it initially looked like the Raiders would deploy a running-back-by-committee.

Instead, Jacobs has dominated touches and leads the NFL with 1,303 rushing yards. He’s averaging 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, second in the league behind only Tony Pollard, and is on pace post his best season as a receiver.

Will the Raiders follow the Patriots’ strategy of not paying running backs? Or will they decide Jacobs is too central to their offense to let him walk?

Given how poorly most running back contracts have worked out, the smart play is probably to allow Jacobs to sign elsewhere in free agency. If both Jacobs and Carr are gone in 2023, the Raiders offense that we’ve seen this season will look a lot different heading into next year.

FEATURED
PFN NEWSLETTER

Every day, get free NFL updates sent straight to your inbox!