Head coach Jack Del Rio said this week the Raiders’ return to primetime signified a return to relevancy. His team used that stage to make a statement of its own.
Spotlighted on Sunday Night Football for the first time in 10 years, the upstart Raiders seemed invigorated rather than intimidated by the attention. They stomped to an early 13-point lead and defeated the Denver Broncos, their division rivals and the defending Super Bowl champions, 30-20 amid a party atmosphere at the Coliseum.
"I think it’s a good win for us," said running back Latavius Murray, who rushed for three touchdowns. "I really just think it’s a start."
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The Raiders, at 7-2, are alone in first place in the AFC West amid their best start since 2001. They beat the Broncos, who also came in 6-2, in Oakland for the first time since 2010. And they did so before a national audience, in a game some saw as a test of their legitimacy as contenders.
"You talk about stage," linebacker Khalil Mack said. "But it was another game. It was another game for us that we knew we had to win."
That understated reaction, echoed in the locker room afterward, belied a resounding win. The Raiders gained 218 yards on the ground, including 114 from Murray on a career day. They converted 30 first downs to the Broncos’ 13.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the Raiders’ return to primetime was expressed in minutes: Oakland held the ball for 41 minutes and 28 seconds, the Broncos for 18:32.
"Very proud of our front," Del Rio said. "We’ve invested a lot in our front. We’ve committed to being a physical team. And that was a great opportunity to illustrate that."
The Raiders’ turnaround in less than two seasons under Del Rio has been extreme. Two years ago as rookies, Mack and quarterback Derek Carr were part of a team that started out 0-10. They are now leaders of one of only three teams in the NFL with seven wins.
"That’s how you change the culture, by winning," Mack said, "and doing all the things that it takes to win."
The defense, a liability for much of the first half of this season, continued to improve by outperforming the Broncos’ more decorated unit. Oakland’s defense, which came in allowing 410.4 yards per game, held Denver to 299 yards and delivered a key moment midway through the fourth quarter.
Mack and fellow linebacker Bruce Irvin swarmed Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian, with Mack stripping the ball and recovering his own forced fumble to give the Raiders possession with a 10-point lead. Shortly thereafter, Murray punched in his third one-yard touchdown run of the game.
Yet the final eight minutes also showed the Raiders are not perfect. Right after Mack’s fumble recovery, Carr floated an ill-advised pass that appeared to be intercepted by T.J. Ward before a video review determined the ball had touched the ground.
And after Murray’s touchdown, the defense allowed Denver running back Kapri Bibbs to take a short pass 69 yards for a touchdown through several missed tackles that prolonged the suspense.
But Del Rio afterward praised a "solid" all-around effort. A week after throwing for a franchise-record 513 yards, Carr threw for 184 yards and no touchdowns against the Broncos but did not turn the ball over and was well-protected by his line, sacked twice by a Denver defense that came in leading the league in getting to the quarterback.
The defense, relying all night on energy from a raucous Coliseum crowd, forced Denver into four consecutive three-and-outs to start the game. Safety Reggie Nelson set the tone on the game’s first possession with a jarring hit on receiver Demaryius Thomas to force an incompletion on third down, and later sealed the game with a diving interception on a pass by Siemian just before the two-minute warning.
"You always want to open the game fast," Nelson said. "We did that as a defense holding them. We have to continue to do that. It was a good start for us."
Sebastian Janikowski converted field goals of 24, 29 and 35 yards, taking some sting out of a miss from 48 in the second quarter. And punter Marquette King twice pinned Denver in the shadow of its own goal line in the second half, when the pace of the game became more deliberate and defensive.
"We’re growing to expect success now," Del Rio said. "The process of preparing to play well is critical. That’s where we’ve been able to hone in and make improvements, get some of the details down and put together good performances.
"We have a lot of things we have to fix. But we’ll do it with a smile on our face."