The Las Vegas Raiders managed to beat the Indianapolis Colts 23-20 on the game’s last play, which isn’t unusual. They didn’t clinch a playoff berth by doing so, which is very normal for them. They still have to beat the Los Angeles Chargers next week in a playoff-or-golf game to make the postseason at all, which is still much better than who they’ve been for all but one of the last 19 years.
But in a game that screamed “elimination, again,” they survived. More to the point, in a game played in December or January in this century, they failed to fail. In the 106 regular-season games they have played since the festive 2000 season, they have been the third least-festive team in the league (36-70), ahead of only the expansionist Cleveland Browns and the perpetually diminished Detroit Lions. The Raiders started the 2000s with such hope, reaching the playoffs thrice and the Super Bowl once. Then they became the Raiders you know now, with bad season after worse season, culminating in this season. The Raiders were so utterly Raidered that it was hard to find a season as comprehensively Raidered as this one.
But it isn’t Raidered yet, not in the way it normally is this time of year. Under interim head coach/Italian saddlebag Rich Bisaccia, they are 6-5, with a quarterback who manages to be good while being consistently beleaguered in Derek Carr, and a defense that breaks less in it yielding than it has in about a decade. They are finally Harder To Play Than Watch.
This isn’t much of an advertisement, obviously. Chiefs-Bengals should happen every weekend for all the good children, and the Jaguars, Giants, and Jets should be forced viewing for felons, bastards, politicians, and billionaires, with the contents of that hellish Venn diagram strapped to uncomfortable chairs stuffed with active wasp hives. The Raiders are just a weird thing that usually doesn’t achieve worthwhile weirdness, loved by fans too tolerant to be openly acknowledged and mocked actively by anyone else who notices them. This may be their last week for that if things go poorly against the Chargers, their erstwhile partners in the now-famous 2015 L.A. Screwjob, but they’ve only had two meaningful December/Januaries since 2002, so by that definition alone, this is the third-best team they’ve had since the first George W. Bush administration.
If it helps, they never had Antonio Brown walk off the field half-nude in the middle of a game, because he had the courtesy to walk out in training camp wearing all his clothes. When you’re the Raiders, you take the good news when you’ve dug deep enough into the permafrost to find it.