Whether he was intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, or strip-sacking last season’s NFL MVP and recovering the fumble, Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack buried the Carolina Panthers twice Sunday.
When his day was done, the Raiders still held the inside position for home-field advantage in the playoffs. It’s still fairly close between them and the New England Patriots, who, like the Raiders, are 9-2.
It’s also fairly close in the contest for this season’s MVP. Fortunately for the Raiders, the top two contenders are on their team. If Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has emerged as one of the favorites, it is one of his teammates – Mack – who deserves a spot on the short list of other candidates.
Mack’s 6-yard interception return on the last meaningful play of the first half, with 59 seconds to go, moved the Raiders out to a 24-7 lead. When the Raiders gave up that advantage but somehow got it back, Mack put the hit on Cam Newton that clinched Oakland’s 35-32 victory.
Talk about a crazy week.
Last Monday, the Raiders beat the Houston Texans 27-20 in Mexico City. They barely had time to recover before Sunday’s game at the Coliseum against one of last season’s Super Bowl teams. The game looked over with Mack’s touchdown. But Newton – the NFL magician of 2015 who has played like a forgotten man for most of 2016 – got hot in the second half and directed the Panthers to four unanswered touchdowns that gave them the lead.
Oh, and along the way, Carr wrecked the little finger on his throwing hand. He missed a series but came back and put 11 more points on the board to set up Mack for the game-sealing sack.
“By any means – by any means necessary,” Mack said after the game. “That’s the message every week. Whether you’ve got to pull them out in the fourth quarter, in overtime, we need those wins.”
The Coliseum seems a little subdued in the early going, with the fans still processing tryptophan from their turkey engorgement a few days earlier. It didn’t take them long to snap into game-day form. With Carr finding receivers all over the field, the grogginess of the final day of the holiday weekend gave way to the crisp reality the Raiders have evolved into a legitimate challenger to the NFL throne.
Carolina knew the perch, having been in that position last season behind Newton’s electric play. The Super Bowl 50 runners-up are having a bit of a problem this season, however. They entered Sunday’s game with a 4-6 record, and it looked as if they were going to embarrass themselves after Mack’s interception.
“Instincts,” Mack said when asked to describe his actions on the touchdown play, in which Newton spun counter-clockwise to his left and looked to deliver a screen pass, only to see it wind up in Mack’s mitts.
The deal was, Mack saw running back Fozzy Whittaker leaking out of the backfield. So Mack backed off his bull rush on the left end and anticipated the ball.
“I tried to separate and get my hands up,” Mack said. Next thing he knew, he’d jumped into the first row of the Black Hole with six points.
What had been a lovely afternoon for the Raiders turned rotten in the time it takes to snap a football into the little finger on the throwing hand of your MVP-caliber quarterback. On Sunday, the turn of events took exactly two scrimmage plays into the second half.
Besides apparently dislocating his finger, Carr became dislocated from the ball in a problematic exchange from his center, Rodney Hudson. While Carr spun away from the action in pain, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis fell on the ball in delight.
To that point, Newton had completed only three passes for 18 yards. Maybe the fumble recovery sparked something in his memory, like recollections of him being the most exciting player in pro football last season. He set forth the Panthers on their four straight touchdown excursions, including an 88-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr., and the Panthers led by eight.
Bad Finger Carr came back quickly with his hand in a black glove. So protected, he found his tight end, Clive Walford, for a 12-yard touchdown pass, and one of his wide receivers, Seth Roberts, for a two-point conversion to tie the score. His 49-yard pass to Michael Crabtree on a third and long deep in his own end set up what proved to be the winning 23-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.
When Newton moved Carolina into Oakland territory on its last-gasp drive, it was up to Mack to sack him to finish off the Panthers. For good measure, he knocked the ball away from Newton and fell on the ball.
“Man, you’re talking about trying to get there,” Mack said of his invasion of Newton’s personal territory. “That was the win. You want to end the game at that point, because their offense was rolling late in the game.
“We needed the stop.”
It’s tough to beat a team with MVP candidates on both sides of the ball, and Carolina couldn’t.