For so many years, the Oakland Raiders’ puzzle was a jumbled mess with several missing pieces. Most of the pieces were missing, in fact. But things seem to finally be changing, and now Derek Carr is developing into a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Amari Cooper is a promising rookie wide receiver. Jack Del Rio is a competent coach who’s building the foundation for a real defense. It’s all sounding good, right?
Not everything looks good. Oakland owner Mark Davis wears a hairdo that doubles as a coonskip cap. But that’s irrelevant right now.
This is a big week for the Raiders, who are in playoff contention in December. That line has not been written for many years, but it’s a true statement. In the AFC, only three teams — New England, Cincinnati and Denver — are better than 6-5.
Oakland (5-6) is among many teams in playoff contention. Surprisingly, so is Kansas City (6-5). No one would have believed this when the Chiefs were 1-5 and coach Andy Reid resembled a hibernating bear on the sideline.
But the Chiefs, riding a five-game win streak, are rolling without running back Jamaal Charles, who was considered their most valuable piece on offense. The wide receiver, an endangered species in Kansas City, is a part of the game plan again. Jeremy Maclin had nine receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown in a victory over Buffalo a week ago.
How this team continues to win is somewhat of a mystery, but quarterback Alex Smith is avoiding turnovers and the Chiefs rank No. 7 in the NFL in scoring defense (20.0 points per game). It’s a boring formula that works.
Meanwhile, Carr is turning the corner in Oakland, passing for 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. He has been sacked 12 times, which means he is well-protected and gets rid of the ball quickly. By comparison, Smith is the second-most sacked quarterback (34 times) in the league. Kansas City’s top pass rusher, outside linebacker Justin Houston, is out with a left knee injury, so that helps Carr’s cause.
Are the Raiders for real? In the past, they would take one step forward, make some gullible people believe, and then take three steps back into a black hole. Another step forward Sunday gets Oakland to .500.
This is risky, but I’ll ride Carr and the Raiders as 3-point home underdogs.
Off my worst NFL week since 2012, here are four more guesses for Week 13 (home team in CAPS):
* SAINTS (+7) over Panthers: Almost every teaser ticket in town will have Carolina on it, and why not? The Panthers are 11-0 straight up, including 9-2 against the spread and 5-0 ATS on the road. Cam Newton’s end-zone dances are driving everyone crazy. New Orleans is off back-to-back ugly losses. But the Saints are never big home ‘dogs, and the Panthers will get their best shot in this spot.
* Falcons (+1) over BUCCANEERS: Tampa Bay is 2-11 straight up at home under coach Lovie Smith, with victories over Jacksonville and Dallas. I usually like the division revenge angle, which is in play. The Buccaneers beat Atlanta in overtime on Nov. 1. Matt Ryan and Falcons, who have failed to cover their past seven games, are overdue to snap out of their funk.
* GIANTS (+2) over Jets: Eli Manning said this is “not as big of a rivalry as you think.” But it’s a bigger game for the Giants, who stunk for three quarters in a loss at Washington last week. It’s unlikely the Giants can run much against the Jets’ defensive front, so it’s up to Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. to produce big plays. Off two losses and with their backs against the wall, the Giants will play well.
* Cowboys (+4) over REDSKINS: The road team won both games in this rivalry last year. A week ago, Washington was a 3-point underdog to the Giants, so this is a major line shift and role reversal. Tony Romo is done for the season, but Matt Cassel has improved in the Dallas offense. The Cowboys should show up Monday night.
Last week: 0-5 against the spread
— Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him: @mattyoumans247