OAKLAND (AP) — A season that has featured its share of emotional wins, crushing losses, the death of longtime owner Al Davis and a series of debilitating injuries comes down to this for Oakland: If the Raiders beat San Diego in the season finale and get some help, they’ll end an eight-year playoff drought.
“These type of games are why you do what you do in February, March, April, May when nobody is watching,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “It’s why you stay up late at night watching film. This is why you do that to be prepared. Every kid wants to play in the NFL. The next dream is to play in a game like this and the next dream is to win the Super Bowl. This is a big moment for this team and our fans.”
The game Sunday between the Raiders (8-7) and Chargers (7-8) is also exactly why the Raiders paid such a high price to bring in Palmer back in October when the season looked in trouble following starter Jason Campbell’s broken collarbone.
Oakland sent a 2012 first-round pick and 2013 second-rounder that could become a first to Cincinnati to acquire Palmer.
The deal came just over a week after Davis’ death and days before star running back Darren McFadden went down with a sprained right foot that has sidelined him for more than two months.
There have been some rough moments since the trade like a three-interception debut against Kansas City five days after arriving in Oakland, a four-interception performance in Green Bay and a missed third-down pass that set the stage for a dramatic comeback by Detroit two weeks ago.
There have also been highs like a sterling performance in a win in San Diego in November and the 53-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the first play of overtime last week in Kansas City that set the stage for a 16-13 win that put the Raiders in position to return to the playoffs.
“That’s why we made the trade is to have this opportunity,” coach Hue Jackson said. “It’s about winning. We’ve got a chance to win a huge football game this weekend, but we need to go play well.”
The Raiders also need some help.
To win the AFC West, they need to beat the Chargers and hope Denver loses at home to Kansas City. They can also get in as a wild-card team by winning, having Cincinnati lose at home to Baltimore and hope either the New York Jets win in Miami or Tennessee loses at Houston.
While Tennessee and the Jets play early Sunday, the games in Cincinnati and Denver will be going simultaneously to Oakland’s, creating a confusing situation that most of the players don’t want to think about.
“It’s all irrelevant if we don’t handle our business,” Palmer said. “I’m taking the mindset that we need to go out here and play good football and win. Whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to worry about who’s playing who, where we might end up, who might come to us if we win and somebody else loses. You just can’t focus on all of that. You have to focus on the Chargers and that’s our sole focus and my sole focus.”
Palmer is one of the few Raiders with any postseason experience, having made it twice with Cincinnati earlier in his career. He said his message to his less experienced teammates this week has been to “do your job,” saying he doesn’t want to “freak” anyone out by making them think they need to play differently.
For some of the veterans who have endured the long stretch of losing in Oakland that included an NFL-worst seven straight seasons with at least 11 losses, this is a long-awaited opportunity that they don’t want to squander.
“It will be even worse if we go in and fall flat on our face on Sunday,” seventh-year cornerback Stanford Routt said. “I know obviously we need help from Kansas City to beat Denver, and the other scenarios for the wild card, but I think if we go out there and we don’t handle business on Sunday, then it doesn’t matter who wins the other games if we don’t take care of ours.”
While the Raiders are hoping to play meaningful games after this, the Chargers immediate future is very uncertain. Coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith both could be in jeopardy of being fired after the team missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
After being done in by slow starts the past few years, the Chargers lost six straight starting in October to derail this season. They appeared to turn things around with three straight blowout wins in December, including a 34-14 victory over playoff-bound Baltimore.
But San Diego was knocked out of contention with last week’s 38-10 loss at Detroit, raising more questions about Turner’s ability to prepare his team and the roster that Smith put together.
“I try not to worry about the future since I have no control over it,” safety Eric Weddle said. “I hope everyone stays and we can get better as a group. But if not, then if happens that we get a new coaching staff and new players, then I just have to go out and prove myself to be starting safety of this team.”
After making it to the postseason four straight years from 2006-09, the Chargers have little to play for beyond spoiling the season for their rivals.
There’s also a little payback San Diego wants to deliver, having lost three straight to Oakland following 13 straight wins.
“That’s probably part of the motivation,” Turner said. “I think the satisfaction I’d like our guys to take is going out and performing at a high level and we weren’t able to do that last week and we certainly didn’t do it the last time we played the Raiders.”