Monday November 2nd, 2015

It's like a rite of passage in the sports world—in order for an emerging team to become a threat, it first must be declared a threat by everyone watching. So get ready to hear a lot of this in the coming days, in light of Oakland's 34-20 win over the Jets: “The Raiders are for real.”

What exactly that means is a little ambiguous. Does being “for real” mean the Raiders are ready to challenge in the AFC West? Does it make them a Super Bowl contender in the near future? Or does the designation merely move the Raiders from a novelty act to one that cannot be ignored? 

We'll see. 

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What it means for the moment is that the Raiders are playing as well as they have since at least 2011, and in the scattered AFC, they might be in this race for the long haul.

The major developing story comes on offense, where Derek Carr and co. delivered another scintillating performance Sunday. Carr was the fourth quarterback taken in last year's draft, behind Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. Right now, he is outplaying all of them. 

Of course, he's also outplaying a significant chunk of the NFL's starting quarterbacks, something the Chargers and Jets have learned the hard way. Over the past two Sundays, Carr has thrown for a combined 622 yards and seven touchdowns, with no interceptions. The Raiders have scored 71 total points in those games.

Sunday was supposed to stand as a benchmark challenge for Carr and his offense—the Jets' talented pass rush and playmaking secondary countering the Raiders' attack.

Oakland shredded that Jets defense. Carr did not hesitate to throw to Rookie of the Year candidate Amari Cooper, despite Darrelle Revis's presence opposite him. (Cooper finished with five catches for 46 yards.) He also fed Michael Crabtree, whose career resurgence continued with a 102-yard showing. 

Nine Raiders in all caught passes. If that was not enough, Latavius Murray chipped in 113 yards on the ground against New York's top-ranked rush defense.

This is what being “for real” looks like on offense.

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Coming off an emotional loss to New England, the Jets did their part to help Oakland reach accepted legitimacy—their defense failing away on tackle after tackle. Taiwan Jones, for example, shook the grasp of four separate New York defenders on a short pass turned 59-yard touchdown in the third quarter. There also was the little matter of an injury to starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, which forced backup Geno Smith to play three-plus quarters.

The Raiders still had to take advantage of those blips. They did so from the outset, marching 65 yards for a TD on their opening possession and never looking back. 

Just look around the AFC and ask yourself how many teams are unequivocally better than Oakland through eight weeks. New England, Cincinnati, Denver ... sure. Anyone else? The Raiders sit in second place in the AFC West, just beat the second place team in the AFC East and play the AFC North's second-place team (Pittsburgh) next week. The AFC South also exists, just as a point of clarification.

Oakland has a tough road to the finish, from a scheduling standpoint. Three of its next four are on the road, and games with Minnesota, Denver, Green Bay and Kansas City still follow the trip to Pittsburgh.

Like the 2010 and 2011 Raiders, who started 5-4 and 7-4, respectively, before crashing to 8-8, this year's team could find itself in over its head. Someone, somewhere no doubt declared at least that '11 squad “for real,” too. 

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This is a good time to take a step back, though. After years of wallowing through salary-cap issues and personnel nightmares, the Raiders committed in full to a more appropriate rebuilding approach. GM Reggie McKenzie got the books in order, found a QB and stopped trying to fix everything overnight.

Suddenly, the Raiders have hope for the future, and little about it feels like a mirage.

So, is Oakland “for real?” Possibly, depending on which definition we use.

But anyone paying attention the past two weeks should be ready to declare the Raiders an honest postseason contender. That respect alone for Oakland marks a good start, whatever may come from here.

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