By Josh Dubow
ALAMEDA, Calif. — Oakland coach Jack Del Rio got swamped with congratulatory messages after the Raiders clinched their first playoff berth in 14 years.
Fans had reason for excitement after more than a decade of losing that featured 18 starting quarterbacks, nine head coaches and the second-most losses in the league with 148.
Del Rio’s focus, however, is elsewhere, with the Raiders (11-3) still needing two more wins to clinch the division and a first-round bye once they get to the postseason.
“I’m excited for the fans,” Del Rio said Monday. “To be in the playoffs, and there’s been a drought here. We got here two years ago and talked about winning the division and being in the playoffs. The being in the playoffs part is there, the winning the division is still to be determined. So we need to continue to work on that, let the fans enjoy the other part, but as a team we’ve got to get back to work.”
The Raiders had a very successful Sunday as they watched Tennessee beat Kansas City 19-17 on a last-second field goal to knock the Chiefs out of first place in the AFC West, then went out and beat San Diego 19-16 to clinch at least a wild-card spot.
Oakland now turns its attention to Saturday’s home game against Indianapolis (7-7). With wins over the Colts and then in the season finale at Denver (8-6), the Raiders will win the AFC West. They can also win the division with only one win, as long as the Chiefs lose again.
Oakland also can earn the top seed in the AFC with the combination of two wins and a loss by New England.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that started the 2014 season with 10 straight losses before turning things around after the hiring of Del Rio that offseason.
Del Rio came to a franchise that had building blocks in place in quarterback Derek Carr and pass rusher Khalil Mack, the team’s top two draft picks in 2014, but little else.
But two strong free-agent classes, key draft picks such as receiver Amari Cooper, and development of players still here have helped Oakland become one of the league’s top teams. It made Del Rio’s proclamation of aiming to win a division a legitimate possibility.
“It wasn’t anything that I saw. We had a lot of work to do,” Del Rio said. “It’s a belief that anything is possible when you get a group of men to believe in each other and to buy in and to work hard. We’ve done that. We’ve added to the talent base and we’ve embraced the message.”
It hasn’t come easy this season. The Raiders have needed seven fourth-quarter comebacks to vault to the top of the division, starting with the winning 2-point conversion in the season opener at New Orleans that set the tone for the year.
Carr has also led comeback wins over Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Houston, Carolina, Buffalo and San Diego to tie for the second-most fourth-quarter comebacks in a season.
He has gotten help from a maligned defense that, despite ranking 31st, allowing 6.07 yards per play, has not allowed a single point on 11 drives in the final five minutes with the opponent having a chance to tie or take the lead.
“We’ve seen glimpses of what we’re capable of, we want to be in constant pursuit of a perfect performance, and the perfection is not really in the end result, the perfection is in the effort that you give,” Del Rio said. “We’re looking to give tremendous effort, clean up what we can, be very competitive and continue to win situations and win games.”