OAKLAND — Josh Jacobs lay on his back on the black-paint-covered grass in the corner of the end zone, arms at his side, surrounded by jubilant teammates and showered with the extremely loud love of 51,954 fans. The rookie running back’s 18-yard scoring run had just given the Oakland Raiders a two-point lead over the Los Angeles Chargers with 1:02 to go in a crucial Thursday Night Football clash between AFC West rivals, and as the iconic Raider Roar rang out around him, Jacobs looked as though he might do a makeshift snow angel.
Standing on the Oakland Coliseum sidelines, Raiders coach Jon Gruden took it all in with a heavenly grin.
“I love this place,” Gruden told me just before leaving the decidedly non-plush home locker room following his team’s 26-24 victory. “I’ve got a lot of love for the fans here, for this city. It’s why I came back…”
Gruden’s voice trailed off for a moment, and he took a deep breath.
“I get sentimental talking about it,” he said, bowing his head as he headed out the back door.
Beginning nine months from now, the Raiders will play their home games in a sparkling new stadium in Las Vegas, representing a different state and likely possessing a seismically shifted state of mind. Some of the same fans may sit in the stands, and there will be moments of commotion and fulfillment, but the historic and unique connection between a city and its football franchise will be severed, chalked up to the cost of doing business in 21st Century America.
Until then, the Silver and Black is still Oakland’s, and on Thursday — in what will almost certainly be the final night game they host in the 510 area code — the Raiders came through in the clutch and gave the grateful locals hope that their last ride in the East Bay won’t be in vain.
They did it behind a rejuvenated offensive line which shook off a frustrating night and regulated when it mattered most, and an oft-maligned secondary that picked off three Philip Rivers passes — along with two others which were negated by penalties. The last of those interceptions, a desperation deep ball, ended up in safety Karl Joseph‘s hands with 20 seconds remaining, pushing Oakland (5-4) into the AFC playoff picture and nudging the Chargers (4-6) in the opposite direction.
Now in the second year of his second stint as the Raiders‘ coach, Gruden is silencing the game has passed him by denunciations that droned on during last year’s tumultuous 4-12 campaign and throughout an offseason marred by high-profile acquisition Antonio Brown’s bizarre career meltdown.
Suddenly, the notion of Oakland in the postseason isn’t far-fetched. The Raiders currently trail the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs (6-3) by a game and are half a game behind the Indianapolis Colts (5-3) for the conference’s second wild-card berth. Oakland’s next two opponents, the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, are a combined 1-15, meaning the Raiders have a great chance of being 7-4 when they visit the Chiefs on Dec. 1.
Back in 2016 — the only time Oakland has reached the postseason in the previous 16 seasons — the Raiders‘ success was fueled by a big, physical offensive line which afforded quarterback Derek Carr ample time to pick apart opposing secondaries. Now, having undergone three-fifths of a makeover, the Oakland line is once again imposing its will on defenses. So far, the Raiders‘ running attack has been more formidable than it was three seasons ago, with Jacobs, a first-round pick in April’s draft, ranking among the league rushing leaders nine games into his career.
For much of Thursday’s game, the Raiders struggled to find a rhythm against a talented Chargers front. But with the game on the line — after Rivers’ six-yard touchdown pass to running back Austin Ekeler had given L.A. a 24-20 lead with 4:02 remaining — the self-proclaimed Carr Insurance Co. came alive.
Premium pocket protection allowed Carr (21 of 31, 218 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) to pull off his 18th career fourth-quarter comeback, the most ever by an NFL quarterback through his first six seasons.
“They’re really good, man — for real,” Carr said of his linemen, just before disappearing into the locker-room shower area. “Those are the best players on our football team. That’s what I want everyone to know.”
The Raiders‘ linemen weren’t gloating after Thursday’s victory over a Chargers team which, four days earlier, had shown signs of reasserting itself. Coming off a 12-4 campaign in 2018 that included a road playoff victory, L.A., beset by key injuries, struggled throughout the early part of this season. Last Sunday, however, the Chargers captured their second consecutive win in impressive fashion, stifling Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers by a 26-11 score.
The L.A. defense had its moments in Oakland, too. Carr was sacked three times, while Jacobs (16 carries, 71 yards; three catches, 30 yards) found holes hard to come by.
“We never really got in a rhythm, and we were frustrated for much of the night,” offensive line coach Tom Cable said. “The good news is that every one of them and I agree that we can play better, so we’ll learn from this and respond.”
Agreed veteran guard Richie Incognito, who has returned with a flourish after sitting out the 2018 season: “This wasn’t even a good game for us. We weren’t having a ton of success running it — they’re really good up front — and we made our fair share of mistakes.
“But when we had to have it, we hit them right in the mouth.”
After taking over at his own 25 while trailing by four with 3:57 to go, Carr completed six-of-eight passes to bring the Raiders to within 18 yards of a go-ahead touchdown. It was third-and-1, and the Chargers came out in a defensive alignment geared to stop the run.
Alas, L.A. was in for an unwanted adjustment, courtesy of — you guessed it — the Carr Insurance Co.
As Carr took a snap from under center and dropped back to hand off to Jacobs, Incognito and veteran center Rodney Hudson (one of the line’s two holdovers from 2016, along with right guard Gabe Jackson) double-teamed nose tackle Brandon Mebane, knocking him to the turf. Hudson continued forward and manhandled linebacker Drue Tranquill, with help from fullback Alec Ingold, while left tackle Kolton Miller sealed off defensive end Joey Bosa.
“Richie lifted (Mebane) out of his shoes, and Rodney and Kolton and the fullback were great,” Cable said. “It shows you that when everybody does it right, good things happen.”
In this case, the blocks produced a hefty hole that Jacobs ripped through and kept right on running, until the rookie halfback was on his back celebrating in the end zone and the Raider Roar reverberated throughout the Coliseum.
Any stress caused by Daniel Carlson‘s missed extra point was mitigated by an impressive defensive stand against Rivers, who had more than a minute and three timeouts to get the Chargers into field-goal range but couldn’t complete a single pass on eight attempts. One fourth-down incompletion was negated by a defensive holding penalty — continuing a game-long theme.
Raiders safety Erik Harris, who returned a pair of first-quarter interceptions 59 and 56 yards, respectively (the latter for a touchdown), had a third called back because defensive end Maxx Crosby was offside. And on L.A.’s game-opening drive, Joseph’s interception was negated by a pass interference call on teammate Trayvon Mullen.
Joseph finally got his pick on the Chargers‘ last-gasp drive when Rivers, facing a fourth-and-10 from his own 30, heaved a deep ball for receiver Keenan Allen that ended up in the Oakland safety’s hands, completing a spotless defensive stand.
“Holding them at the end felt great,” Joseph said. “It showed we’re coming together as a defense. We’ve taken a lot of criticism, but we’ve hung tough, and we’re getting better. And that crowd… I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
With three more home games scheduled, including next Sunday’s matchup with the winless Bengals, and at least the possibility of playing host in the postseason, the Raiders still have more to offer their adoring Oakland fans — and they’re savoring the opportunity to make every minute count.
“It’s unbelievable,” Carr said of the Coliseum in his postgame press conference. “I love this place. It’s special… The smells, the atmosphere, the noises, the things you can hear, those are memories you keep forever.”
Said Incognito: “It’s a special place for sure. We’re just hoping to win as many games as possible and enjoy this with the fans — and to give them one last ride to remember.”
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.