David Rosenthal, CBS Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The Oakland Raiders have started the season with a 4-3 record, and the team looks as impressive as it has in recent memory.
Led by the young trio of Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Latavius Murray, the Raiders have a competent offense and a solid defense that has them contending for a playoff spot for the first time in years.
The team last made the playoffs in 2002, when it lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.
This year, the Raiders have beaten the Ravens, Browns, Chargers and Jets as they sit in second place in the AFC’s west division.
Here are six reasons why the Raiders will return to the playoffs this season.
6.) Jack Del Rio
It looks like Oakland has finally found a head coach that can stick around for more than a couple of years.
Del Rio has a team with a young nucleus that he can coach and develop over the next decade or so, and he has his team battling week in and week out.
“We’re a 4-3 team. We’ve battled each and every week,” Del Rio said. “We’re going to continue to battle each and every week”.
The 52-year old is in his first head-coaching gig after being an assistant coach in the NFL since 1997.
5.) Their Schedule
The Raiders have already played the hard part of their schedule and have a serious chance to finish with a record that would put them into the playoffs as a wild card team.
Having played games against the Bengals, Broncos, and Jets, the Raiders have multiple opponents left on their schedule that they shouldn’t have much trouble with.
Besides playing the Steelers next week, traveling to Denver to play the Broncos in Week 14 and hosting the Packers in Week 15, the Raiders should be favored in almost every other game.
The Chiefs are not playing well this season, and if Oakland wants any chance at a wild card berth, the Raiders are going to have to sweep the season series with the team from Kansas City.
4.) Amari Cooper
It’s been a very long time since the Raiders had a legitimate option at wide receiver.
The fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft is exactly that.
Cooper is a deep threat, a speedster and a possession receiver all in one and has wowed fans across the nation with his skills this season.
Through seven games, the Alabama product has 39 catches for 565 yards and three touchdowns, and has been targeted a team high 59 times as well.
He ranks 19th in the entire NFL in receiving yards, 26th in receptions and 26th in targets.
In every game he has played in his career so far, Cooper has had at least four receptions and 46 yards.
This 21-year-old is the real deal, and the Raiders now have a franchise wide receiver for years to come.
3.) Latavius Murray
The third-year player out of central Florida has made his mark on the league this year.
Murray has totaled 534 yards on 115 carries this season, as well as three touchdowns on the year.
The Raiders have lacked a feature back in the past, but Murray’s explosiveness and downhill style of running has caused nightmares for defenders this year.
Murray’s 534 yards rushing is good enough to rank him ninth in the NFL in that category, while his 4.6 yards per rush attempt ranks 13th in the NFL.
The Raiders found a gem when they drafted Murray in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, as he is a running back the team can rely on in critical situations.
2.) Improved Defense
In 2014, the Raiders allowed the most points in the NFL (452), and surrendered the most points per game (28.2).
This season is a different story.
So far, the Raiders have allowed 173 total points, which ranks 14th best in the NFL. The Lions have allowed the most points this season (245)to put that stat into perspective.
The team also ranks seventh in the NFL in yards allowed per game (385).
In 2014, the Raiders were flagged for 116 defensive penalties, which was sixth-highest in the NFL last season.
This year, the Raiders have only been called for 50 defensive penalties, which is the ninth-least in the league.
The team added safety Nate Allen and linebackers Curtis Lofton, Aldon Smith and Malcolm Smith in the offseason to bolster the defense, which has been working out so far.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impressive play of 39-year-old safety Charles Woodson.
Not only is Woodson the oldest defensive player in the league, but he starts for the Raiders and leads the NFL with five interceptions.
He has picked off Peyton Manning twice this year,and had a game-clinching interception against the Browns as well.
The veteran leader is bound for yet another Pro Bowl selection, and he continues to prove the doubters wrong year in and year out.
1.) Derek Carr
The most impressive player on the Raiders this season has been quarterback Derek Carr.
In his second season out of Fresno State, Carr has put on a show during the Raiders’ first seven games.
He ranks fifth in the NFL with a 105.7 Quarterback Rating, only trailing Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
Carr has thrown for 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions through seven games.
The only starting quarterbacks with fewer interceptions are Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Carr is in the top 10 in yards per passing attempt as well, averaging 7.83 yards for every pass attempt.
He ranks 13th in the NFL with a 65 percent completion percentage, and his ability to limit the turnovers and lead the offense to score has made him into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL.
With Carr’s success goes the Raiders success, so if the team wants to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002, Carr is going to have to continue his stellar quarterback play.