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Long road trip ends for Raiders with path to playoffs

HOUSTON — Funny thing, this road trip from hell. Someone forgot to tell the Raiders they were supposed to suffer enough punitive damage over 49 days, awaiting on the other side was another guaranteed losing season.

Let’s just say fate isn’t yet assured such torture.

It ends against the Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday, five straight games away from Oakland, a stretch of what will total 21,367 air miles.

It ends in a manner few thought possible: That the Raiders, assigned a projected win total of six to begin the season, own a definite path to the playoffs.

They are 3-3 and have split the last four games, losing big at Minnesota and Green Bay while beating Indianapolis and Chicago, the latter played in London and allowing the first hint of what is becoming a slow but trendy notion about there being life after the regular season.

“I try not to get into the playoff hype right now,” coach Jon Gruden said. “We’re more interested in making the corrections from last week and finding a way to win another game against a good team.”

Exposing the defense

It’s the only reasonable play, given seven days ago the Raiders were helpless in trying to slow Aaron Rodgers from producing the greatest single-game effort by a Packers quarterback in history.

Which spans, well, 100 years …

What the 42-24 loss did was expose some already concerning defensive weaknesses, one of which the Raiders believe was upgraded when former first-round pick Gareon Conley was traded to Houston on Monday and rookie Trayvon Mullen inserted as a starter.

Mullen’s chance to prove himself begins Sunday, a game significant for more than playing five of the next seven in Oakland.

Following this, the Raiders meet teams (including the Chargers twice) with a combined record of 18-35-1 and only one (Kansas City) that currently has a winning record.

Consider: A win against Houston would elevate the Raiders into a playoff spot if the season ended now, nowhere near a certainty of such placement following 16 games but notable just the same.

Head-to-head results are the primary tiebreaker should two teams be deadlocked for a playoff spot, and as things currently stand, the Texans lead the Raiders by one-half game for what would be the second AFC wild card spot.

“I didn’t know that until now,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “I honestly very rarely know anybody’s record when we play them. Because when you turn the tape on, the records lie sometimes, you know? You don’t ever want that to skew your view of anything.

“Obviously, (Sunday) is very important. We don’t have to heighten our urgency. We know that for anything that we want to do, postseason wise, we have to take care of our business.”

You can sense it around the Raiders, even minutes following the beat-down at Lambeau Field, an increased level of confidence that they can be involved in the playoff conversation all season.

Some of it is their own doing and some not.

AFC West open?

The former: A top 15 offense features one of the league’s best running backs in rookie Josh Jacobs and tight ends in Darren Waller.

Carr is also completing an NFL-best 74.1 percent of his attempts. If a deep threat at all develops — Carr averages just 10.1 yards per completion — the Raiders should score enough most weeks.

The latter: An AFC West that is suddenly more open than originally forecast.

Kansas City remains its best team, but the Chiefs are susceptible defensively and the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player in quarterback Patrick Mahomes is out with a dislocated kneecap.

Even if he returns soon, it’s unknown how big a part the injury might play on one of Mahomes’ most dangerous attributes as a scrambler.

Also, a Chargers team picked by many to reach the Super Bowl is free-falling at 2-5.

Nobody thought Denver was any good, which it’s not.

“It’s nice knowing that when we come home, Raider Nation will be ready for us to make a run,” Carr said.

I’m not sure many believed that last part possible when the road trip from hell began.

But it is.

There is a path.

More Raiders: Follow at vegasnation.com and @VegasNation on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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