While questions of succession have naturally arisen in Oakland in the wake of Al Davis' death after decades of leading the franchise, let's not focus so long-term that we overlook the arrival of some long-awaited success to Raiders football, and to the NFL landscape in the Bay Area as a whole.
It may still be a tad early to declare a true renaissance is underway in Oakland and San Francisco, but you can see the beginnings of one taking shape in the West. The last time both the Raiders and 49ers had winning records and this much relevance this late in the season was nine long years ago, when Oakland started 4-1 on its way to its most recent Super Bowl appearance and San Francisco opened 4-1 en route to its mind-boggling 14th NFC West division title in a 22-year span.
Neither team has been to the playoffs since those heady days of the 2002 season, but here they are as mid-October looms, with rookie head coaches named Harbaugh and Jackson leading them back to prominence. The 4-1 49ers are setting the pace in their division by two full games and the 3-2 Raiders are just a game behind first-place San Diego in theirs.
Since their last trips to the postseason, these two once-proud franchises with a combined eight Super Bowl rings and 10 Super Bowl appearances between them have hired nine head coaches and endured 14 losing seasons. A pair of .500 records (the Raiders last year, the 49ers in 2009) represent their high-water marks.
But the drought may be over, and this past Sunday might have been the best and most significant day for the NFL's two Bay Area teams after a long and mostly lost decade.
San Francisco is on its first three-game winning streak since 2006, and is coming off Sunday's 48-3 home-field demolition of Tampa Bay, its largest winning margin since beating Denver by 45 points in Super Bowl XXIV in January 1990. Just nine days ago, the 49ers went into Philadelphia and posted their biggest regular season comeback victory since 1996, overcoming a 23-3 second-half deficit to win 24-23. San Francisco's four victories are just two shy of matching its win total for all of 2010, and the 49ers already hold a 3½-game lead over St. Louis, the team that was the consensus favorite to win the NFC West.
"It's truly different. I don't even like to go in the past,'' 49ers tight end Delanie Walker told the Associated Press on Monday. "It's a turnaround. I don't even want to say it's the players because we've got the same players from when I first came here. It's got to be the coaches. Coaches are doing a great job. It's just unbelievable. You can't even speak about it. We're moving on, we're looking to the future. That's why I've never liked to talk about the past. We're setting the standard of real 49er football.''
The outlook isn't quite as rosy in Oakland, but compared to the misery of the past eight seasons, when the Raiders posted seven consecutive double-digit loss records and then last year's hopeful 8-8, this season's win-one-lose-one path to 3-2 feels like a corner has been turned. The exclamation point came Sunday with that emotional 25-20 fourth-quarter comeback win in Houston, just a day after Davis died at age 82. Some 500 or so fans met the team Sunday night at the Raiders team facility, both celebrating the win and the life of the man who made the franchise one of the NFL's most iconic.
For about 30 minutes, the Raiders players and coaches and team officials mingled and grieved together with the fans, in a scene that could have unfolded in few places other than Oakland. The unique bond between the Raiders and their fans has been sorely tested by the past decade of failure, but it has endured, and was on display in a special way on this night.
"There were families with children and babies that probably should have been asleep,'' Raiders CEO Amy Trask told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday night. "There wasn't a beer or cigarette to be found, just love and respect and a whole lot of emotion.''
There's nothing guaranteed so far for the 49ers and Raiders, but the horizon does look promising. San Francisco this week draws a glamour matchup that will be elevated to center stage, with the resurgent 49ers traveling to Harbaugh's collegiate home state of Michigan to take on the 5-0 Detroit Lions. After that, San Francisco takes its bye week, then plays four of its next six games at home, against some beatable opponents like Cleveland, the Giants, Arizona and St. Louis. The mild, mild NFC West could all but belong to Harbaugh's 49ers by then.
The Raiders trail the 4-1 Chargers by one game, but they too are about to hit a stretch of home dates that could boost their record and wind up making their season. Oakland plays host to Cleveland (2-2), Kansas City (2-3) and Denver (1-4) in the coming three games, with its bye sandwiched in there in the final week of October. Don't forget, the Raiders went 6-0 in the AFC West last season. They're 1-0 in the division this year, and they've already matched their 2010 total of two non-division victories. In Oakland's final 11 games, it faces just three teams (San Diego, Green Bay and Detroit) that currently have a winning record.
There's plenty of work still to be done, but the 49ers and Raiders have combined to win seven of their 10 games so far, and the Bay Area's football renaissance is one of the biggest stories to emerge early in the 2011 season. Once upon a time, you couldn't even think of the NFL playoffs without thinking of San Francisco and Oakland. From the looks of things, those days may be making a comeback.
• When exactly did 50-yard-plus field goals in the NFL become like the two-foot gimme putt that you routinely give a buddy during the course of your weekend golf outing? Watching Week 5's games, I couldn't help but be struck by how prevalent long-distance field goals have become.
Not only did Oakland's thunder-footed Sebastian Janikowski tie an NFL one-game record by nailing three field goals of at least 50 yards in the Raiders' win at Houston (he hit from 55, 54, 50 and chip shot of 42), but also Texans kicker Neil Rackers boomed a 54-yarder in the same game. Ho-hum.
Green Bay's Mason Crosby converted from 56 yards out in the Packers' win at Atlanta. Minnesota's Ryan Longwell was good from 53 in the Vikings' win at home against Arizona. Indy's ageless Adam Vinatieri tapped home a 53-yarder, while Seattle's Stephen Hauschka, San Diego's Nick Novak, and Arizona's Jay Feely all were successful from 51 yards.
I checked with the NFL on Monday to see if any of this year's long-range kicking was historic in any way, and as it turns out, it is. Week 5's 10 field goals of at least 50 yards were the single most in NFL history, besting the nine that were converted in Week 2 of 2008. And here's the kicker (sorry, couldn't resist): Those 10 field goals of 50 yards or more on Sunday came on just 10 attempts, for a nice, clean 100 percent success ratio.
With Janikowski tying Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam's league-record 63-yarder in Week 1 at Denver ("Seabass'' already has five 50-yard-plus field goals this season, on six attempts), 2011 figured to be history-making on the long field goal front. Through five weeks of the season, there have already been 29 field goals made of at least 50 yards, by far the most ever in league history. The previous five-week standard was 24 in 2010.
• Even though their beloved Redskins (3-1) are happily and surprisingly alone in first place in the NFC East, it's got to be driving Washington fans a little bit crazy to see Carlos Rogers picking off a pass a week during the 49ers' current three-game winning streak. During his six seasons as a Redskins cornerback, the former first-round pick from Auburn couldn't catch a cold, and his stone-like hands were among the worst in the NFL.
Rogers had just eight interceptions, with one returned for a touchdown, in his entire Washington tenure. In the past three weeks, he has three picks for San Francisco, and his 31-yard interception return for a touchdown was one of the highlight plays in the 49ers' 45-point destruction of Tampa Bay on Sunday. Rogers' three interceptions are tied for the league lead with seven other players.
• Here's another blast of sobering reality for the Eagles and their frustrated fans: This year's 1-4 start has been tough enough to endure, but don't forget Philly lost its final three games of 2010 as well. The first two came in the regular season, at home against Minnesota and Dallas, and then the Packers finished them off at home in the first round of the playoffs.
Add it all up and that's a 1-7 spurt from Andy Reid's guys, including five consecutive losses before the rowdy faithful at Lincoln Financial Field. That's the worst eight-game stretch in Eagles history since Reid's first season in Philadelphia, when his 1999 team went 1-7 in the course of a 5-11, last-place finish that year.
The Eagles haven't won a game at home since Week 13 last Dec. 2 against Houston, and this funk actually began right after Philadelphia pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history, that 38-31 last-play, DeSean Jackson-authored victory over the stunned Giants in Week 15 of 2011. Curse of the Miracle of the Meadowlands II, anyone?
• If it seems rare to see one division boast two undefeated teams this deep into the NFL, as the NFC North does with the 5-0 Packers and 5-0 Lions, it's because it is. Since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, the only division to match that feat was the AFC East in 2004, when both the Jets and Patriots started 5-0. New York and New England happened to meet in the sixth game of their season, with the Patriots winning in Foxboro.
But with the Packers and Lions this year, we don't get the chance to see them head-to-head until Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, when they both could conceivably enter that Week 12 game at 10-0. Getting that kind of matchup in Detroit isn't exactly a holiday tradition.
• I refuse to read, listen or entertain any more injury reports regarding Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback only seems to play well these days when he's in danger of being placed in a cast or is considered a candidate for amputation. Roethlisberger and his sprained left foot carved up the Titans' heretofore difficult defense with five touchdown passes on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
How can we ever know when Roethlisberger is really hurt if he continues to elevate his game when injured? In Big Ben's case, being listed as questionable is a guarantee of being sensational.