Southwest Flight 5951 with service from Las Vegas to Oakland was full Sunday morning, with all 149 seats spoken for. Three reporters were on board, along with 144 passengers sporting silver and black football gear, a woman wearing a Tom Petty T-shirt and one guy conspicuously attired in a No. 18 Cincinnati Bengals jersey — the number favored by wide receiver A.J. Green when he’s not injured.
Only middle seats were available. A Raiders fan on the aisle smiled warmly upon rising to let the solitary Bengals’ supporter take a seat. There were unconfirmed reports they may even have shared the armrest, because virtually no one perceived the winless football side from the Queen City a threat on this day.
For the longest time, that seemed a significant error in judgment.
But there is no penalty for a listless start in the NFL provided alertness is regained within a reasonable time frame — which the Raiders kinda, sorta were able to do during a 17-10 victory in front of an announced crowd of 51,921 at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium.
The lackluster performance against pro football’s worst team kept Oakland tracking positively with crunch time in the AFC West looming larger than most thought it would just a few short weeks ago.
That was about the most you could say for it, though Jon Gruden was asked to say more. He said Cincinnati’s effort was “great for all of football.”
Gruden tends to overstate things sometimes.
Anything can happen
“I compliment the Bengals; they fought their heart out,” the Raiders’ coach said after his team pulled into a first-place tie with Kansas City atop the AFC West at 6-4, pending the Chiefs’ Monday night game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Mexico City.
“If you’re a young football player, there are no standings. There are no stats. There are no records. The ball is snapped, you play hard. Anything can happen, and that was one of those games today.”
It was one of those games that, the longer it went, the more the Bengals thought they might win.
“That one really hurts because we went into that last drive expecting to win the game,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said after the Bengals fell to 0-10.
That’s something nobody — not even the lone guy wearing a Bengals jersey at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet — could have imagined when the day began.
But it was one of those games the Raiders had to win ugly or otherwise, what with people starting to mention postseason berths and such. At the risk of finding himself in a beer commercial some day, an intrepid reporter asked Gruden about the playoffs by name.
“It just says that we’re getting better,” he said of the team’s resurgence following a 3-4 start. “We’re able to find ways to win. We’ve fought our hearts out to put ourselves in a 6-4 position.
“(But) that doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got a lot of respect for the Jets (next Sunday’s opponent) and a lot of work to do.”
Get by that one, and there’s another rivalry game in Kansas City on Dec. 1 that will relegate Sunday’s plodding win over the hapless Bengals into the Black Hole of near missteps.
Down the stretch they come
“I can’t speak for the team but I know personally, I don’t look ahead,” rookie running back Josh Jacobs said after managing 123 yards on 23 carries against the league’s worst defense. “We left points out there on offense. There certainly is a lot to improve on.”
But there are only six more games in which to do it — at the Jets, at the Chiefs, home for the Titans and Jaguars, away at the Chargers and Broncos.
It’s not a difficult schedule. And so where a few weeks ago the team’s move to Las Vegas was seeming more imminent, Raiders fans have momentarily ceased making rhyme of yesterday, as the old song goes. Now they are checking the standings and the schedules and their sofa cushions for playoff travel money.
Gruden feels like he’s one of them.
“I can say I’ve been fortunate to be in some great places, great traditional places like Notre Dame, and I got a chance to coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers,” he said. “They all have great fans, but there’s something about these people.
“They’re the closest thing to me that I’ve ever seen.”