The Kansas City Chiefs entered Thursday looking like clear Super Bowl contenders, having won five straight to chase down Denver in the AFC West standings. The Oakland Raiders appeared to be on their way to 0-16 and had gone 368 days without a regular-season win.
So of course, in this incredibly unpredictable NFL season, the night belonged to Oakland.
The Raiders used a 17-play touchdown drive (their longest of the season at 7:21) and a late defensive stop to pull off the shocking upset, 24-20. It was their first victory since a 28-23 triumph at Houston on Nov. 17 of last season. Since then, the Raiders had come up short in 16 consecutive games, including all 10 to start 2014.
"These losses have been hard," Raiders QB Derek Carr said in the aftermath of his team's win.
Carr dropped to his knees and threw his hands up toward the sky after Alex Smith's final fourth-down pass fell incomplete. His teammates celebrated with equal exuberance, almost to a fault. After a sack of Smith one play earlier, Oakland linebacker Sio Moorecelebrated with his teammates behind the line of scrimmage for so long that DE Justin Tuck called timeout to avoid an offside penalty.
The Raiders' celebration was on for good just a few seconds later.
Three thoughts on Oakland's breakthrough:
1. This was no fluke
Kansas City clearly is the more talented of the two teams, but it hardly looked that way for much of Thursday night. The Raiders came out firing on all cylinders, streaking to a 14-0 lead behind stalwart efforts at the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively.
The tables turned for a bit late in the third quarter, with the Chiefs running off 17 straight points to take the lead.
But with their backs against the wall, the Raiders responded via that epic game-winning drive, which included three third-down conversions and a 4th-and-1 QB sneak from Carr to move the chains. Carr then capped the possession by slinging one to an open James Jones in the end zone, sending the Black Hole into pandemonium.
"I needed this win like I need to breathe," said veteran DB Charles Woodson, who Thursday became the first player in NFL history with 50 interceptions and 20 sacks over his career. "The whole team, this whole organization needed this win tonight.
"[The Chiefs] fought back, they made it interesting but we [were] going to get this one," Woodson added. "We needed it."
Perhaps it's fitting that Jones made the grab. He was one of several relatively big-name free agents added by the Raiders this offseason with an eye on moving forward from back-to-back 4-12 seasons. Several of those pickups — Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley and others — have fallen far shy of expectations.
Oakland had been a deserving 0-10, even with Carr and first-round pick Khalil Mack offering a silver lining. Thursday, the Raiders looked nothing like a winless squad.
2. On Kansas City's play calling ...
Following a couple of Kansas City losses earlier in the year, head coach Andy Reid criticized himself for not getting Jamaal Charles enough touches. He might sound a similar tune after this costly setback.
Charles wound up with 23 touches (19 rushes, four passes), but on a night when the Chiefs' offense was sluggish for extended periods, though, the number probably could have been higher.
That goes for the final drive, too. Kansas City was up against it, trailing by four and without a timeout. There still was plenty of time to work in a Charles run or two, especially with the Raiders so focused on not getting beat over the top. The star running back's only work on the decisive possession came on a 4-yard pass from Smith.
The Chiefs also waited until they faced a 17-3 third-quarter deficit to really lean on talented TE Travis Kelce. He made two catches to help set up Kansas City's first touchdown, then hauled in a 27-yard completion to open the Chiefs' next offensive series.
There undoubtedly will be questions asked of Smith, who is three months removed from signing a $68 million extension. Plenty of Smith critics remain skeptical of his ability to take the Chiefs deep into the playoffs or past the Peyton Manning-led Broncos in the AFC West. Performances like the one he endured Thursday only add fuel to the fire.
Smith was all out of whack in the early going, misfiring badly on several short throws. He did connect on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, yet came up short in the closing seconds. Smith took a sack on 3rd-and-6, despite solid initial protection, and then came up well short of Frankie Hammond on fourth down.
Give credit to the Oakland defense for disrupting its opponent up front. The Chiefs failed to find any counters in the first half, opting for (often unsuccessful) screens or inside handoffs to Charles.
That said, Reid's offense left some points on the field.
3. Latavius Murray's all-too-brief brilliance
Murray was headed toward a potential all-timer type of night before a concussion sent him to the locker room. On just four carries, spread over the first and second quarters, Murray piled up 112 yards and scored twice. His 90-yard touchdown scamper was the longest ever allowed by the Chiefs and had CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz recalling a Bo Jackson highlight.
Once Murray left a few minutes later, the Oakland offense absolutely bogged down. Only when the coaching staff bailed almost completely on Darren McFadden and Jones-Drew in favor of hybrid fullback Marcel Reece did any oomph return, and just in time for the late drive that won the game.
Hopefully, Murray can recover in short order, because the starting running back job ought to be his moving forward. The 2013 sixth-round pick out of Central Florida has a burst that neither McFadden nor Jones-Drew possesses any longer.
He could be a perfect partner for Carr in the backfield as the Raiders continue their rebuild. And Murray helped set the tone vs. Kansas City, landing a couple of haymakers early in the upset.