Derek Carr hears the talk. People run up to him on the street and tell him he’s in the running for the NFL’s MVP award, and if you’re a quarterback and your team is performing at a playoff level and you throw for 513 yards one week and you have 17 touchdown passes against only three interceptions, you can’t shut it out. You can try to ignore it all you want, but anytime you turn on the TV or punch up a story on your phone, there you are, right in the middle of the discussion.
“I would rather not hear anything,” Carr told reporters last week, but that’s not going to happen, not after his performance on national TV Sunday night when he put his Raiders in position to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Carr played with poise and persistence to help the Raiders beat the Broncos 30-20 and take over sole possession of first in the AFC West with a 7-2 record. His numbers were not the flashiest (20 of 31, 184 yards), but the solid performance against the team with the third-best statistical defense in the league lent substance to the conversation that has picked up around the NFL in recent weeks that he is an MVP candidate.
Last year in the Oakland Coliseum against the Broncos, Carr completed 26 of 39 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. But Von Miller strip-sacked him early in the third quarter to start Denver on its way to a comeback win. With the Raiders trying to get back into it late, Chris Harris intercepted Carr and ran it back 74 yards for the winning points in the Broncos’ 16-10 victory.
Everybody remembers Khalil Mack’s five sacks the second time around, when the Raiders beat the Broncos 15-12 in Denver. Carr didn’t get as much face time from the win over the champs-to-be, having completed only 12 of 29 passes for 135 yards. More than what he did, it’s what Carr didn’t do that stood out for the Raiders, and that is turn the ball over. It was the difference in the two games between the Raiders winning and losing.
Carr played played turnover-free football for the Raiders again Sunday night.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio likes the MVP buzz that surrounds his quarterback. He thinks the guy deserves the acknowledgment. He loves Carr’s preparation, his leadership, his maturation, his interaction and communication with his offensive line and his receivers, his understanding of what his blockers are trying to do for him to give him time, his accuracy in delivering the ball to his skill people and his decision-making process on where the ball needs to go.
Oh, and the coach likes it that his quarterback has cut way down on his turnovers.
“It’s clearly a point of emphasis,” Del Rio said. “We want to win the turnover battle. This is a team that really feasts on the mistakes that you make and the turnovers. ... I think Derek has embraced that, but yet remain(s) aggressive. We’re taking our shots. We’re moving the ball. We’re scoring points. There’s a fine line there, and I think he’s been on the right side of the line for us.”
In the matchup of the Raiders’ fourth-best offense in the league and the Broncos’ third-best defense in the NFL, Sunday night’s contest of AFC heavyweights broke in Oakland’s favor. Their first three possessions, the Raiders drove for two field goals and a touchdown. They added a later touchdown and led 20-10 at halftime.
The Raiders gained 241 yards in the first 30 minutes against a defense that had only been giving up 301 a game. Of course it wasn’t just Carr who sideswiped the Denver defense. Running back Latavius Murray, on his way to a 114-yard night, also gashed them. Left guard Kelechi Osemele showed why he might have been the best free-agent pickup of the offseason, cracking open the hole on Murray’s long run and teaming with left tackle Donald Penn to get their pal into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown run that followed just before halftime. Bronco tacklers also had trouble finding the Raiders’ smaller running backs, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.
Both teams reputedly were weak in other areas of their games, Denver on offense, which it most certainly was in the early going, and Oakland on defense, which it was not – at least against Denver’s 27th- ranked offense. Four straight times to start the game, the Raiders stopped the Broncos on three-and-outs. Denver did not get a first down for nearly 20 minutes.
In the echo chamber of hoopla, with networks spinning commentary and internet ramblings churning out reams of analysis and deep dives into statistical comparisons, the primary focus of Carr’s concentration in the third year of his professional career has been one of self-improvement, both as a football player and as a human being.
“I always want to get better at everything I do. You spend a lot of hours that people don’t see that you go put in, especially in the offseason – you put the work in, you get up in the mornings before anyone else wants to and things like that – it’s cool to see it paying off.
“But there’s still so much on my mind and in my heart that I want to do and get better at, so I’m just not going to stop.”