Oh how fickle the sports world tends to be. It seemed like the Raiders became an overnight success this season. It was like one moment they were still considered bottom feeders, and next moment they were the toast of the town.
Even after they had beaten the Denver Broncos by 45 points and smothered the Seahawks a week later, there still seemed to be an uneasy feeling about rooting for the annually disappointing team sporting Silver and Black.
But with their come from behind win over the former AFC West champion Chiefs, all of that doubt seems to have instantly evaporated. Last week the Raiders took over sole possession of first place in the AFC West without even playing a game. The Broncos, of whom the Raiders beat in historic fashion, took it to the Chiefs and knocked them out of the lead in the division. That only stood to strengthen the newfound faith in these Raiders.
This week the Raiders meet up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Several sportswriters and analysts have chosen the Raiders to win. Among them are Cam Inman of the Contra Costa Times, Sterling Sharpe of NFL Network, and both Mark Schlereth and Tedy Bruschi of ESPN's NFL Live.
The Steelers were considered to be the best team in all of football just last week. Then they played the Patriots and were stopped dead in their tracks. The gameplan the Patriots used to beat the Steelers is one of the main reasons people are favoring the Raiders in this weekend's game.
The Patriots used a solid pass rush and blitz schemes on defense to expose the injury depleted Steeler offensive line. Then on offense, they utilized screens and short passes to the tight end to neutralize the Steelers #1 ranked rush defense.
The Raiders have proven this season that they can get after the quarterback. With the Raiders line looking as confident as they ever have in getting pressure. Combined that with defensive coordinator John Marshall masterfully drawing up blitz packages, and they appear likely to put Ben Roethlisberger in the same vulnerable positions the Patriots did last week.
The Raiders also get back their All Pro calibre tight end Zach Miller from injury which will be invaluable in making the Steelers pay for overpursuit as well as string out their defensive ends and linebackers. Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece will also cause some serious matchup problems with their speed and receiving skills out of the backfield.
Injuries should also play a hand in this game. Hines Ward is out with a concussion he suffered against the Patriots last week. While he may not be their fastest guy, he is a glue guy and he is their most dependable receiver. Much more of a concern is the achilles heal of Troy Polamalu. The Steelers live and die by him. If he can't play, that is disasterous for them. If he can play, it is possible he will be about a half step off his game. That could be just enough.
All the while, the Raiders get back their All Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, their best wide receiver in Louis Murphy, starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain and the aforementioned Zach Miller.
All of the stars are alligned for the Raiders to give the Steelers all they can handle. But I don't think that any of those things are going to be where this game is won.
This game is going to be won or lost in the hearts and minds of these Raider players.
The Raiders have been counted out for years. Only in small pockets have they had the sports world thinking they were capable of competing. And in every instance, they have folded. These aren't the Raiders of the past seven years, that is for sure. But have they gotten to the point where they can play up to their potential and not self destruct even during a time when everyone believes in them?
That is a big question because most of these guys are only used to stepping up to prove their doubters wrong. Now it is time to prove their believers right. To live up to high expectations instead of conceding to low expectations. The real challenge this week is to find that fire inside of them and stoke it without "bulletin board material" of any kind. To recreate that drive that finally chucked that monkey off their backs against San Diego, dominated the Broncos in Denver and never stopped believing in themselves against the Chiefs.
Every week it seems like we are saying "THIS is the most important game for the Raiders in a long time." and that is because each week, the next big win IS the most important game. First it was stopping the 13 game losing streak to the Chargers. Then it was scoring a record 59 points. Then it was going .500 at midseason. Then it was winning three in a row, going 3-0 in the AFC West, and taking sole possession of the division.
Now it is beating one of the best teams in football, winning four in a row, and getting to 6 wins in a season for the first time in 7 years. In the process proving all the sudden believers RIGHT. And in doing so, these Raider players would find something in themselves they have never felt. To be favored by the prognosticators and feared by the competition.