ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) The fall for the Oakland Raiders was rapid: AFC West champions in 2002 to a four-win season the following year.
The rebuild has taken far longer, with 13 straight years without a playoff berth or winning record.
But after more than a decade of poor drafts, questionable personnel moves and a revolving door of coaches, the Raiders (7-2) are once again legitimate contenders. Thanks the plans of general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio, and a young core led by Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper.
Fresh off a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, Oakland went into the bye week alone in first place in the AFC West.
''We're not close to where we want to be and where we need to be,'' Carr said. ''Are we doing really good things? Absolutely. We are doing really good things, but there's so much more out there for us. I don't ever want us to get complacent. As long as I'm throwing the ball here, I'm not going to let guys get complacent.''
But it's amazing how far they have come since starting the 2014 season with 10 straight losses. Oakland won seven games a year ago in the first year under Del Rio before taking another big step so far this season, led by Carr's strong play.
Despite being passed over until the second round in the 2014 draft, Carr has emerged as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks. He has thrown for 2,505 yards this season with 17 touchdowns, only three interceptions and a 99.1 passer rating to put all those losses from 2014 in the rear-view mirror.
''There's a lot of character that goes into where we're at today,'' Carr said. ''Not just myself, but I'm saying the whole team. It was tough to come in 0-10. It was tough to come in 0-8, 0-9 and keep doing it. We kept our heads down, and we knew that there was an end goal in mind. Obviously, we're not there yet, so we have a long way to go.''
The decline began after that Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. Late owner Al Davis spent the final years of his life trying to make big splashes in trades and free agency in hopes of making one more Super Bowl run. He also picked busts in the draft such as JaMarcus Russell, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Rolando McClain.
McKenzie took over following Davis' death in 2011 and spent his first two seasons tearing down a team overwhelmed by salary cap woes and a lack of talent. The rebuild truly started in 2014 when he drafted Mack and Carr with his first two picks and signed Donald Penn to anchor the offensive line.
Two more productive offseasons that included the hiring of Del Rio and addition of big-play receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson and key defenders Bruce Irvin, David Amerson Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson set the stage for this season's success.
''We talk about winning ballgames because that is what it is,'' Mack said. ''That is how you change the culture, by winning. Doing all the things it takes to win, and that is the preparation.''
The Raiders faced some doubters early this season despite their fast start because most of the wins came against lesser opponents, and the defense struggled to stop anyone. They needed late comebacks to beat New Orleans, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and held off late rallies from San Diego and Tennessee.
But the defense has improved in recent weeks, the offensive line has dominated the trenches, and the thorough win over the Broncos on a prime-time stage helped Oakland gained much more respect.
The final seven games will feature more tough tests, starting with a Monday night game in Mexico City against Houston on Nov. 21. Oakland still must go on the road to face all three division rivals over the final four weeks, and then could have even more important games come January.
''Things are coming together,'' Penn said. ''I can't wait to see where it will go. I'm excited about the future even though I don't want to jump to the future. We're building something very special right now. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. Once all that work starts jelling together, that's what I'm excited to see.''
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