The last time the Raiders played a Sunday night prime-time game, their current quarterback was running plays at Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas. Their return to that stage this weekend, coach Jack Del Rio said, is a reflection of the progress the team has made in recent seasons.
“Those are things that happen when you play good football,” Del Rio said Wednesday. “That was kind of the result of last year, and (we’ve) picked up and we’re playing good football this year. So you earn that kind of exposure, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Raiders will host the Denver Broncos with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” crew in town – their first scheduled Sunday night game since 2006. In the interim, the Raiders have had six different head coaches and zero winning seasons, not the kind of success that attracts much national attention.
But this year’s Raiders are 6-2 – off to their best start since 2001, tied for first place in the AFC West with Denver and seeing quarterback Derek Carr’s name pop up in MVP conversations. Del Rio said he does not see Sunday’s marquee game as a chance for the Raiders to put themselves “on display” for the rest of the country, but it is significant.
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Following a bye, the Raiders’ next game will come Nov. 21 on “Monday Night Football” against the Houston Texans in Mexico City, their first Monday night appearance since 2013. The Raiders also played an 8:35 p.m. Pacific game on a Sunday that season, but that was because the Coliseum field had to be converted following an Oakland A’s playoff game the night before.
“What we recognize as an organization is that as you become relevant … you’re going to have more of these opportunities,” Del Rio said.
“This is the natural progression of building a good football team. We should expect to be in these games, we’re going to expect to win these games, and then we’re going to move forward and expect to have more of these kinds of games.”
Having meaningful games at this point in the season seemed a ways off when the Raiders were losing their first 10 games of the 2014 season en route to a 3-13 finish. Khalil Mack, a rookie that season along with Carr, has helped lift the franchise with each leading their respective units. But Mack seemed uninterested in talking about the progress the team has made in two years.
“You’re talking about the past,” the linebacker said. “We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on the present. You can make a big deal out of it, but the focus is to go out and win the game.”
At the core of Sunday’s matchup is whether the Raiders’ potent offense, which ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per game (401.6), will be able to move the ball against another strong Denver defense that’s allowing the third-fewest yards per game (301.3) through the first eight weeks.
Carr, who set a franchise record Sunday with 513 passing yards, has thrown effectively to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. But the Broncos have been the league’s best team at defending the pass, holding teams to 183.9 yards per game. Their pass rush, led by Von Miller, could encourage the Raiders to lean more heavily on a running game that is averaging 116.5 yards per game, eighth in the league.
“We know they’re very capable of being successful in both the run and pass,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said on a conference call Wednesday. “It’s a tremendous challenge for us as a football team to come into their stadium and play a team that’s on top of the division and the way they’re playing.”
Carr is 1-3 with a 72.0 rating in four career starts against the Broncos. But the one win, 15-12 in Denver last December, snapped an eight-game losing streak for Oakland against its division rival. Sunday’s winner will seize an inside track in the AFC West.
“We’re not trying to make it bigger than it is,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “It’s been a long time since the Raiders have really been highlighted like this during the season. But we’re going to try to just keep it as normal as possible.”
Irvin, who played the past four seasons in Seattle, has experience in meaningful games. So does Miller, the Broncos’ linebacker, but that didn’t quell his enthusiasm for Sunday.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than prime-time football,” Miller said. “I still get the feeling I got when I was a little kid watching the National Football League games. It’s still important to me. It will always be important to me.”