It’s getting crazy in the Black Hole when the fans are chanting “MVP!” while you’re trying to figure out for whom they’re cheering.
There are two candidates, you know: quarterback Derek Carr, the Difference-Maker, the engineer of six fourth-quarter comebacks this season, and linebacker Khalil Mack, the Closer, the guy who finishes the game with a hammer blow every week.
“I’m voting for Khalil,” Carr deferred. “There’s no doubt about it.”
It’s a joint entry, of course. The Oakland Raiders are 10-2 for the first time in 16 years because they possess a script-flipping player on each side of the ball. Together, Carr and Mack are lifting the Raiders to places they haven’t been in a while.
The fans aren’t confused. They’re elated about the sudden wealth of heroes. When it’s going this good, why make a choice?
Accordingly, the Raider season is transitioning from “pretty good” to “when will the magic happen today?” Sunday’s 38-24 win over the Buffalo Bills followed a now-familiar script. The Raiders trailed by 15 points during the third quarter, then ambushed the Bills with 29 points in 11 you-must-be-kidding minutes.
6 Fourth-quarter comebacks this season by Derek Carr
“The offense was special and rolling – 29 unanswered points is special,” Mack said. “We knew we had to step up as a defense.”
It did. While Carr and Company rang up its numbers, the Raider defense rang up its favorite number – zero.
At this point, 49er fans are advised to stop reading. They won’t like the next part.
Carr’s maturation as a quarterback is reaching new levels. It’s not easy to toggle second-half deficits into leads in the NFL – the players and the schemes are too good – but Carr does it almost like turning on the living-room lamp.
What he’s doing is – dare we say it – Montana-esque.
OK, Niners fans, it’s safe to return.
Last week, Carr pushed the Raiders to 11 points in the final two drives to beat Carolina 35-32. The Raiders blew a 17-point lead, gave up 25 straight, then recovered. Against Buffalo, they varied only slightly from that theme.
Consider the final 30 seconds of the first half while the Raiders still were in catch-up mode. Carr completed four straight passes, leading to Sebastian Janikowski’s 47-yard field goal. It got better after halftime.
General manager Reggie McKenzie accented Carr’s intangibles this week. “His leadership,” McKenzie began, “it was almost, to me, instant.”
Carr, 25, shrugs off his improvement. Still, he recognizes the Raiders’ wondrous run.
“It’s an exciting time in Oakland. For our fans, it’s really exciting,” he said. “In my rookie year, it didn’t look like this.”
It also wasn’t lollipops and seashells for Mack. The quality of his play shined, however, and now it’s risen to dominance, to almost willing the outcome.
Mack, during the Carolina win, became the first NFL player since 2009 to record a sack, intercept a pass for a touchdown, force a fumble and recover a fumble in the same game. Buffalo witnessed the encore – a Mack-induced interception by Tyrod Taylor, followed minutes later by the game-finishing strip-sack-and-recovery.
It’s an exciting time in Oakland. For our fans, it’s really exciting. In my rookie year, it didn’t look like this.
“Khalil Mack is really making his mark on these ballgames,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “That interception he caused – he just keeps showing up huge, and that’s what great players do.”
The Raiders win when their coach gambles. They win when they set records for penalty yards. They win when they fly to the East Coast. They win when they trek to Mexico. They win when a loss is barreling at them like a locomotive.
And they win when their fans can’t decide who’s their star. Yes, Raider Nation is living large these days, and the next chapter of this story will be written in only four days.
Next stop, Kansas City.