OAKLAND -- Well, that about settles it. There really is something strangely different about the NFL's half-over 2010 season. The clincher for me was watching the Raiders win a legitimately big game in November. Before a soldout and delirious crowd at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. To get within sniffing distance of first place in the AFC West, and win their third straight game for the first time since December 2002.
In a phrase ex-Raiders play-by-play man Bill King made famous via NFL Films: "There's nothing real in the world anymore.''
I don't think we know quite enough yet to know whether the Raiders are all the way back or not, but I do know this much: The Raiders of 2003-2009 would have lost Sunday's showdown against first-place Kansas City. I'm certain of that. Somehow, some way, Oakland would have disappointed and underwhelmed its beleaguered fans, and suffered just enough self-inflicted wounds to give back any gains it might have made earlier in the season.
But not this time. Not these relevant-again Raiders. Against the improved Chiefs, one of the feel-good stories of the season so far, the Raiders spit the bit early on, recovered momentarily, lost their mojo in the fourth quarter, and then found a way to scratch back at the end, winning 23-20 in overtime -- thanks to a pair of clutch Sebastian Janikowski field goals.
And just like that, Oakland (5-4) is over .500 this late in the season for the first time since Rich Gannon was winning league MVP and taking the Raiders to the Super Bowl eight long and often stupefying years ago. Oakland is just a half-game behind the Chiefs (5-3) in the division, and already owns a 3-0 record in the AFC West, with wins over San Diego, Denver and Kansas City.
"In the past, a lot of Raiders teams would have folded in a game like today,'' said Oakland offensive lineman Khalif Barnes, who actually scored his first career touchdown Sunday when Jason Campbell threw him a two-yard pass on a third-quarter tackle-eligible play. "People would have been like, 'Same old Raiders again.' But this team, even when it was down today, it just kept doing what it needed to do on offense and defense and special teams. We just kept playing.''
I'm still not exactly sure how, but Oakland won this game despite committing three turnovers and being flagged 15 times for penalties totaling 140 yards. The Raiders, who rolled up a 2007 Patriots-like 92 points the past two weeks in blowouts of the Broncos and Seahawks, had zero points at halftime against the Chiefs, with just two first downs and 49 yards of total offense. If that doesn't sound like a blueprint to defeat, then you've got a lot in common with Raiders head coach Tom Cable.
"Frustrating, kind of ugly, frustrating, and really something,'' said Cable, summing up starting quarterback Jason Campbell's rollercoaster day as well as his team's. "But it's more an example of our team today. We were kind of the same way. But the defense kept us in it, and our special teams made some plays.''
Cable as much admitted that his Raiders really weren't ready their closeup in the first half of their biggest game in eight years. That seemed to surprise him, but it also wound up enlightening him. Because Oakland had to find a different way to win on this day. There would be no 59-point explosion like two weeks ago at Denver. And no 33-3 butt-kicking, like the one that unfolded against Seattle at the Coliseum last Sunday.
But this would be the kind of victory that hopefully pays dividends down the line. Not in style points, but in muscle memory. The Raiders were working on the part of their game that requires resiliency on Sunday, and they almost failed the test.
"I think we were a little bit unsettled early, but some of that, maybe it was just our first time being in this [setting],'' Cable said. "But we'll be better next time.''
Because they won, there will likely be a next time for the Raiders. Being one-half game behind the Chiefs in victory is a world of difference from 2½ back in defeat. In essence, this could be the Raiders' turning-point victory that leads to bigger and better things.
"I think they took the next step,'' Cable said. "This is a journey, and the next step was for us to win the third one in a row. It was for us to be 3-0 in our division. It was for us to have a winning record. The biggest message today was it wasn't the way we draw it up, but it was the way it was supposed to be.
"Because we hung in there, fought, hung in there, fought, got a chance, made a couple plays, hit two kicks and now we're all happy. It was a great job by the team pulling together as a team.''
Cable's team was far from flawless in the game, but I liked what I heard afterward. The Raiders know they haven't arrived. They know there's so much more to be accomplished; and Cable set exactly the right tone for his on-the-way-up team, reminding it that in the long run, an ugly win that has to be fought for, with adversity overcome, can be far more valuable than the ease of a blowout.
"That's what I just told them,'' Cable said. "We can't sit around here and feel like, 'Gosh, what a great effort.' It was tremendous effort, but it's just not very clean. And yet what did happen today was a new building block showed up, and that is, no matter what, no matter how long it takes, we just keep grinding and find a way. And that's what we did.
"For us it [was valuable]. Because we're going to be in some of these, so we're going to have to go through it. And fortunately it worked out for us. But don't get me wrong. I would take 59 to whatever all the time.''
It wasn't all ugly for Oakland against Kansas City. There's always something beautiful when a team discovers a new star on its roster, like the Raiders did with rookie receiver-return man Jacoby Ford, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson. Ford was simply a big-play revelation against the Chiefs, and he almost single-handedly kept Oakland's winning streak alive.
The 5-9, 185-pound speedster started the Raiders' comeback with a breathtaking 94-yard kickoff-return touchdown to open the second half, and then contributed the two biggest catches on the field goal drives that tied the game at the end of regulation, and won it in overtime. His 29-yard snatch-and-grab in the closing seconds of regulation -- the ball was in the hands of Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers before Ford took it away -- set up Janikowski's game-tying 41-yard field goal. And Ford's 47-yard catch of a Campbell bomb on Oakland's first OT possession paved the way for Janikowski's 33-yard game-winner.
Ford finished with six catches for a career-high 148 yards, plus four kickoff returns for 158 more yards and the touchdown. He was the one player Kansas City's stout defense had no answer for; and after a rough start that included two first-half drops, Ford and Campbell started developing the kind of connection that quarterbacks and receivers kill for.
"I thought in the first half we were the worst offense in the league, after putting up 500 yards the last two weeks,'' said Campbell, who was booed lustily by the home crowd in the first half. "It felt like one of those days nothing goes right. But his [Ford] return flipped the whole game.
"They were only up 10-0 at the half and they had the opportunity have more than that. So, we felt like we were still in the game. If we could just get a drive going to get our rhythm going, it could change. Early in the game, we were pressing too much. [Cable]said, 'Hey guys, we're not cutting it loose. We're not playing like we did the last couple weeks. Just cut it loose.'''
The Raiders cut it loose in the second half and wound up outscoring a mistake-prone Chiefs team 23-10 after the break. Neither team's running games -- which ranked first (Chiefs) and second (Raiders) in the league coming into Week 9 -- showed up huge on a wet field that withstood heavy pregame rains. But the Raiders found a way to win a sloppy game in which they didn't play all that well, seemingly feeding off the big crowd's intensity and emotion.
"The fans were off the hook,'' Cable said of the 61,075-strong sellout, the first Raiders home game televised locally since September 2009. "It made a difference, and that's what it's about when a team connects back with its fan base. I think we've done that, and the emotion of the game was very good for us. We needed to be in that [setting], because they're just going to get bigger from here on out. That's what happens when you achieve. That's what happens when you have success.''
Believe it or not, the Raiders are having success, and Sunday was their biggest coming-out party yet. Nothing about the game came easily for Oakland, but it won any way. It's a strange, strange year in the NFL. For proof, look no further than the AFC West standings, where long-downtrodden Kansas City and Oakland have renewed their historic AFL/AFC rivalry and now hold down the division's top two spots.
As November arrives, that's the new reality we all have to get used to.