No NFL franchise is inherently good. They're all various shades of amoral—thirty-two profit-driven enablers of horrible behavior.
Still, occasionally, some teams are more sympathetic than others. That's the case for the Oakland Raiders this year. The Raiders are an exciting team returning to glory after more than a decade of irrelevance, backed by a loyal, soon-to-be abandoned fan base, and they just got their biggest victory of the season. In beating defending champion Denver in a prime-time game, it's fair to say Oakland has arrived.
The Raiders have needed to win a lot of shootouts early in the season, which is partially why head coach Jack Del Rio has been so bold in his decision making. The reason he opted to go for two points late in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints rather than a tie was because of a lack of faith in his own defense. But that defense, while still far from world-beating, is improving.
Usually, Oakland has been guided by the pass, but it was a bullying run game that led the Raiders to victory and sole possession of first place in AFC West on Sunday night. The Broncos lost Derek Wolfe to injury during the game, and the fact that Denver can't cobble together much of an offense surely has a wearying effect on its vaunted defense. There aren't many teams that have been able to push around the Broncos the way the Raiders did.
Oakland punter Marquette King is finding nascent stardom in his fourth season. While Khalil Mack and Derek Carr have been heralded as the franchise's future for several years now, King has quietly become one of the best in the league at his position, and easily the most entertaining. On Sunday night, he twice pinned Denver deep in their own end of the field, the first time celebrating by mimicking riding a horse back to the sideline.
Perhaps it's a little hasty to proclaim Oakland the second-best team in the AFC, since they've lost the other two games they've played against teams with a winning record, including one against their division rivals in Kansas City. But it's getting to the point that it would require a massive collapse for the Raiders to not secure at least a Wild Card berth, and with it, the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2002. It's good for the league to have a once-marquee franchise be relevant again. Also consider that for as much as the NFL likes to drone on about parity, there are still teams that go more than a decade without a postseason appearance. The Raiders were a prime example of egregious mismanagement, especially in Al Davis' final years, and now they're finally emerging from the swamp.
The Vikings and Steelers Are Vying To Fall Apart Fastest
Super Bowl contenders a few weeks ago, Minnesota and Pittsburgh are now barely clinging to the top of the standings thanks to listless defeats to division rivals on Sunday. For Pittsburgh, Sunday's 21-14 loss to Baltimore was the all-too-familiar game in which Ben Roethlisberger returns too quickly from a moderately serious injury just to play like a shell of himself. You can't say much else about the Steelers' uninspired, penalty-ridden performance in Baltimore, though at least they gave the world a viral moment thanks to a terribly executed rabona onside kick by Chris Boswell, who had actually successfully pulled one off in college.
Minnesota was able to reduce the number of hits on Sam Bradford through quicker play design by new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. However, the problem with an emphasis on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands as quickly as possible is that it's tough to turn short tosses into chunk gains. Detroit has been playing tough the last few weeks, losing to the Lions isn't as humiliating as it might sometimes be. The only saving grace for the Vikings right now is that the Green Bay Packers are just as much of a mess as they are.
The NFL Resoundingly Accepts The Mannequin Challenge
From the people who brought you planking, it's the new meme stunt sweeping the nation: The Mannequin Challenge. It involves freezing in a pose while someone films you in seeming suspended animation. NFL teams bought all the way into the craze this weekend, with the Dallas Cowboys getting receiver Cole Beasley lodged in an airplane overhead for yuks following their lopsided victory in Cleveland. The New York Giants got in on the act as well, which is something that definitely would never have happened under Tom Coughlin's watch.
Members of the Steelers and some beat reporters made a mannequin video on Friday, so it's safe to say this is a full-blown Thing. And maybe, just maybe, it already has peaked:
Secret Squirrel Steals The Show In Green Bay
Sports fans are enthralled with animals on the field like nothing else. Give us a frightened animal avoiding capture or a bird getting wiped out by a Randy Johnson fastball and we'll forget what we were even watching in the first place. The Green Bay-Indianapolis game on Sunday was actually pretty good, and yet all anyone will ever remember is the fact that the game had to be stopped because a squirrel was hanging out in the end zone during a Packers possession. Writers are already joked about Bill Belichick deploying squirrels during the playoffs so the New England Patriots can get a game stoppage without having to use a timeout. That's bound to happen, as is Belichick cruelly feeding the squirrels to dogs once their productivity shows any signs of decline. I mean, of course Jamie Collins was beat for a touchdown in his first game with the Browns.
I Can't Be The Only One Who Thinks All The Troops Should Get A Dog
This weekend marked the start of the NFL's Salute to Service month honoring military veterans, which seems a little more genuine now that the Defense Department is no longer feeding money to the league for the purposes of recruitment propaganda. In fact, all my cynicism melted away when I saw the Giants present Army veteran Steve DeVries with a service dog on Sunday. Perpetual war is now actually extremely good and cuddly.
Travis Kelce Is Putting The Whole Dang System On Trial
There have been endless complaints about the officiating this season. It's high time someone fought back. That's exactly what Travis Kelce did by throwing his glove at an official after he was flagged once for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing about an uncalled pass interference penalty on Jacksonville's Prince Amukamara. That earned Kelce an ejection, and his most memorable moment of disrespect to the officials since making the dismissive jerkoff motion during a penalty announcement a few years ago.
Looks Like Cam Newton And Roger Goodell Had A Productive Meeting
After Cam Newton used his postgame press conference last week as a bully pulpit to inveigh against uncalled roughing the passer penalties, the football world deliberated over just how much Newton has been screwed over the refs the last few years. Turns out it's quite a bit. To address this issue, Roger Goodell agreed to meet with Newton early in the week. What assurances, if any, the Panthers quarterback received we don't know. Based on the helmet-to-helmet hit Newton took from Aaron Donald in the pocket on Sunday, it doesn't seem like they were too sincere. Imagine that, the NFL paying lip service to a problem they have no intention of solving.
In other news, touchback percentage is now up two percent compared to this point last year, so clearly moving the kickoff line solved the concussion crisis forever.
Is it a positive that it's still possible to feel emotion for the Jaguars? That all feeling hasn't yet been pummeled out of their followers through years of thuddingly awful football? I'm going to say yes. Believing that the Jaguars are capable of better might be a form of self-torture. But you have to take the long view. Just look at the Chicago Cubs. I bet when the Jaguars finally break through and make the playoffs again in a few years just to lose in the first round, it's going to feel good as hell.
1. Melvin Gordon: San Diego managed two defensive scores against Tennessee, so you might glance at the 43 points the Chargers dropped on the Titans and assume their offense couldn't be stopped. They still had a good game, mind you, in large part thanks to the career-high 196 rushing yards Gordon put up, 103 of which came after contact. He also posted 65 yards on four catches. All that tough love from his mom paid off.
2. Khalil Mack: There was a good stretch of time when Mack was the only encouraging part of Oakland's defense. He got some help against Denver, but he was a force of his own, with eight hurries, two sacks and a forced fumble, which he recovered in Broncos' territory, setting up an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter.
3. Latavius Murray: It's a big victory, perhaps the team's biggest in years, so I'm going to have two Raiders on here. Hope that doesn't discredit my arbitrary awards section that affects nothing. Murray scored three touchdowns and rushed for 114 bulldozing yards against one of the league's best defenses. Oakland emphasized the run by using an extra lineman frequently throughout the game and the strategy paid off. Murray helped by forcing five missed tackles.
4. Dak Prescott: After a bit of erratic play in the win over Philadelphia, the murmurs about Tony Romo's return would have gotten louder had Prescott struggled against the Browns. No such issues, as the Cowboys quarterback was nearly perfect, going 21 of 27 for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the win in Cleveland.
5. Golden Tate: He had 11 catches on the game, though the other 10 went for a combined 51 yards, which is a bunch of dink and dunk stuff. Actually, he could have done basically nothing else and had an amazing game just based on this overtime walk-off alone.
1. Blake Bortles: Like Blaine Gabbert before him, Bortles is about to be a first-round quarterback who washes out of Jacksonville after a few seasons of failure. But where will Bortles re-emerge years later to battle for the starting job on a hopeless team? My money is on Chicago.
2. Antonio Allen: The New York Jets had just taken a three-point lead in Miami with under six minutes left. Naturally, the Jets thing to do would be to allow the Dolphins to score with a protracted drive that left no chance of a comeback. Instead, they did the next best thing, allowing Miami to take the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. The Dolphins had initially been stopped at their own 22-yard-line on the return, but Allen was flagged for offsides, forcing a re-kick, which Kenyan Drake took back 96 yards to the house in what ended up being the game-winner.
3. Doug Pederson: People gripe about NFL head coaches being overly conservative, right until they actually do take risks and it doesn't work out. Going into Sunday, Philadelphia had been 5-for-5 on fourth down attempts, giving the Eagles plenty of justification for being aggressive. However, in the first half against the Giants, they failed twice on 4th down attempts within field goal range, with a fourth-and-two Carson Wentz read option snuffed out extremely easily. Since the Eagles ended up losing by fewer than six points, those failed attempts are being cited as the difference in the game, as though the second half may not have played out differently with different context. You know what? Fans are actually the worst. That's right. Us. Luckily, you're probably already too worked up by the election to be offended.
4. Sean Davis: The Steelers safety whiffed on a block of Buck Allen, who then went untouched right into Jordan Berry's punt, which the Ravens returned for a score to go up 21-0, enough of a lead to survive a late awakening by the Pittsburgh offense. When asked about it after the game, Davis said there was a miscommunication on the play though did not elaborate.
5. Harrison Smith: Four missed tackles, the last of which caused by a brutal stiff-arm from Tate on the deciding touchdown. It was bad enough that Smith found himself the victim of a pointed Wikipedia edit, the scourge of Athletes Who Just Did Something Bad everywhere.
As for tonight ...
Cheers to this kid for having a moderately intriguing Monday Night Football matchup shaved into his head for retweets. It doesn't look like any of the eight players he tagged helped him out, though clearly the Dumb Football bump will propel him to the immediate online fame he seeks.
Following a bizarre four-week stretch during which the Buffalo Bills could be mistaken for a possible playoff team, there was a necessary corrective that saw Buffalo lose two straight to get back to .500 last week. Now the Bills face one of the NFL's toughest road assignments in Seattle before going into their bye week. A victory would position them to at least compete for a Wild Card berth in the AFC. Losing would put them behind the proverbial 8-ball with games remaining at Oakland, as well as against Pittsburgh and an improving Miami.
If there's anything working in the Bills' favor, it's the possibility of being overlooked as Seattle plays New England next Sunday night on a short week in what will be roundly considered a possible Super Bowl preview. However, an argument could easily be made that the Seahawks shouldn't be looking past anyone, as Seattle is coming off an upset loss in New Orleans following a tie with Arizona. Though generally successful and thought to be an NFC favorite, the Seahawks have yet to look dominant in 2016. Still, even with only a 4-2-1 record, Seattle holds a game and a half lead in the NFC West by virtue of there being no other thriving team in the division.
Safety Kam Chancellor will miss his fourth straight game with a groin injury and defensive end Michael Bennett has been listed as inactive due to a knee injury, leaving the Seattle defense down two major players. Of course, the Bills are still waiting for two of their biggest playmakers on offense, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins, to get healthy. Watkins hasn't yet returned from injured reserve; McCoy will play, albeit still likely in a limited capacity. The game does mark a return of sorts for Percy Harvin, who just abruptly unretired this week to play for the Bills again. Harvin was largely a disappointment in Seattle though did happen to make some plays in Seattle's Super Bowl XLVIII victory, so I'd imagine any lingering animosity isn't as bad as it could be.
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