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Jerry Sullivan: Raiders rise at last, while Bills fans dream

Jerry Sullivan

Column as I see 'em, Week 12:

It's understandable if Bills fans feel a stab of envy when they contemplate next week's opponent. After more than a decade of dysfunction, the Raiders have emerged as a championship contender with a legitimate franchise quarterback, Derek Carr.

By beating Carolina on Sunday, 35-32, Oakland ensured its first winning record since 2002, the year they lost to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl under Jon Gruden. It also gave the Raiders their first five-game winning streak since that '02 season, when quarterback Rich Gannon won the most valuable player award.

The Raiders are looking to end a 13-year playoff drought, tied with the winless Browns for the third-longest in pro sports. The Bills are first, of course, at 16. It has to torment Buffalo fans to know that Oakland's rise began when they took Carr and Khalil Mack in the 2014 draft – yes, the same year the Bills gave a king's ransom for Sammy Watkins.

Carr and Mack are the Raiders' best players and budding superstars. Carr, who has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,115 yards, is a top candidate for the NFL's MVP. Mack, the pride of UB, is regarded as one of the top edge rushers in the game and a candidate for defensive player of the year.

You could even make a case for Mack as the league MVP. Granted, defensive players rarely get considered for the award. Lawrence Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971) are the only defenders to win MVP. Also, it's hard to justify taking a player from an Oakland defense that's ranked 28th in the league.

Still, the fact that Mack is a top candidate for the NFL's best defender tells you how much he means to the Raiders. If we're talking value to a team, he's surely more valuable to his team than, say, Von Miller is to the Broncos.

As weak as Oakland's defense has been, it's hard to imagine where they'd be without Mack. He was expected to make strides after getting 15 sacks last season. But he has faced constant double teams. Opponents scheme for him on every play, resorting to multiple reads, misdirections and chip blocks to keep Mack at bay.

He has come on lately, though. Mack has at least one sack in six straight games and had the game of his career Sunday against the Panthers. He picked off a Cam Newton pass and returned it for a 6-yard touchdown. With the Panthers driving toward a possible tying score, Mack sacked Newton and stripped the ball away. He recovered the fumble with one minute to play, effectively ending the game.

Mack became the first player to record a sack, an interception, a touchdown, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the same game since Charles Woodson did it for the Packers against Detroit in 2009. Woodson played two years with Mack on the Raiders before retiring after the 2015 season at age 39.

"That's great company right there," Mack said after Sunday's win. "C-Wood, that's my big bro'. We talk all the time. He tells me, 'It's time for you to take over games.' Fortunately, I was in position to do a little bit of that today."

Carr says Mack is in "a class of his own" and called him the best football player he's ever played with.

"Every time there's a two-minute drill, I go up to him and say, 'Now it's your turn. Go end it'," Carr said in his postgame press conference. "I'm dead serious. 'End the game'. He goes 'OK.' That's just him."

As a rookie in 2014, Mack was the best player on the field when the 2-12 Raiders upset the Bills, 26-24, knocking them from the playoffs. He'll be equally inspired to play Buffalo this time, with Oakland having playoff visions of its own.

The Bills are 6-5, but have beaten only one winning team – the Patriots with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. This time, they travel to the Black Hole as the underdog, against the sort of team their fans only dream they could become.

* * *

"Is He Owned?" This week's featured fantasy player is Chiefs rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Hill, who was drafted in the fifth round out of West Alabama, scored three touchdowns in KC's 30-27 overtime win over Denver on Sunday night.

Hill scored on an 86-yard free kick return, a 3-yard rush and a 3-yard reception that pulled the Chiefs within two, 24-22, with 12 seconds left in the game. KC made a two-point conversion to force overtime. Hill is the first NFL player to score on a run, reception and kick return in the same game since Gale Sayers did it for the Bears in 1965.

At the outset of the season, Hill was expected to be a marginal contributor. But an injury to Jeremy Maclin forced him into a larger role. He has 45 catches for 428 yards and five TDs. He has seven touchdowns overall, tops on the team. And to think, two years ago KC didn't have a single TD from a wide receiver.

Hill was still available in three of four ESPN fantasy leagues that I checked on Monday morning. Sadly, he was already owned in the Bills media league, and contributed heavily to Matt Fairburn's comeback win over my squad.

* * *

Arizona's David Johnson had 161 combined yards (58 rush, 103 receiving), giving him at least 100 scrimmage yards in all 11 games this season and moving him past Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott for the league lead with 1,534 combined yards from scrimmage.

Elliott had 120 scrimmage yards in Dallas' win over Washington on Thanksgiving, him him 1,502. Elliott is on pace for 2,185 scrimmage yards. Eric Dickerson set the NFL rookie record with 2,212 scrimmage yards for the Rams in 1983.

* * *

The Bills didn't turn the ball over against Jacksonville and now have six giveaways on the season, an NFL record for the fewest turnovers through 11 games. Seattle also had six turnovers heading into Sunday's action, but coughed it up three times in a 14-5 loss to Tampa Bay.

Amazing what can happen when the quarterback holds the ball and takes off running, rather than attempt a tough throw into coverage.

* * *

Blake Bortles became the first opposing quarterback to outrush Tyrod Taylor in a game this season, and only the second in Taylor's career as a Bill. Bortles had 81 yards on eight carries, a career high. His previous high had been 68 yards.

Taylor ran seven times for 38 yards, giving him 1,007 yards rushing as a Bill. The only other QB to outrush him in a game was Ryan Fitzpatrick, who ran for 30 yards in the Jets' 22-17 loss to the Bills last November.

* * *

Taylor Gabriel scored two touchdown on screen passes in Atlanta's 38-19 win over the Cardinals. Gabriel, who is 5-8, 165 pounds, has TDs in four straight games for the Falcons, who lead the NFL in scoring. He was undrafted out of Abilene Christian in 2014. The Browns cut him before the season. Nice job.

Next year, I want to see Gabriel matched up against the Bills' Nickell Robey-Coleman, who is also listed at 5-8, 165.

* * *

In case you missed it, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed another extra point in Cincinnati's 19-14 loss to the Ravens. Nugent missed after the Bengals' first TD in the third quarter, giving him three straight misses dating to the Bills game. Earlier, he had kicked a 23-yard field goal – a much easier task.

* * *

On Oct. 17, after beating the Niners at home, the Bills were leading the NFL in red-zone defense. Opponents had scored touchdowns on only 33.3 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. In the last five games, they have dropped all the way to 19th at 55.88 percent. Their opponents are a stunning 11 of their last 12 in the red zone.

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