The First Read, Week 7: Raiders refuse to be rattled; Ja'Marr Chase proving Bengals right

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season, including:

— What Lamar Jackson is showing with his play.

— How one rookie is powering a team’s surprisingly hot start.

— Why Justin Herbert was overlooked before the 2020 NFL Draft.

But first, how the Raiders managed to follow a shockingly disruptive week with a win …

The Las Vegas Raiders could’ve let this past weekend be an extension of everything that has plagued that franchise since the resignation last week of head coach Jon Gruden. They could’ve fallen into disarray, turned in another deflating performance and relied heavily on the notion that few teams could’ve thrived under that kind of chaos. That probably would’ve been the case a year or two ago. What they revealed is that there is far more to this team than what Gruden gave them during his tenure.

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There already were signs that this group was going to be different than the Raiders team that wilted in the second half of last season. Quarterback Derek Carr has openly praised the chemistry and camaraderie on this roster. A slew of offseason moves delivered more leadership to the locker room, in the form of accomplished veterans like linebacker K.J. Wright, cornerback Casey Hayward and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Those elements were supposed to help the Raiders weather adversity, and that’s exactly what this team is prepared to do.

Yes, Las Vegas won a huge AFC West game against Denver to improve to 4-2 on Sunday. The Raiders also just told the world that victories aren’t the only way to define this current squad. “We still have our room of guys, our leaders,” Carr told reporters after the Broncos game. “More now than ever, we needed to step up and be a voice … There will be a time to deal with the emotions of all that, but now is not the time. If anything, (the controversy) brought us closer.”

Interim head coach/special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia deserves credit for creating focus in the midst of a tumultuous week. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson reignited a struggling offense and reminded people of how explosive the Raiders had been earlier in the year, when they opened the season with three straight wins. The common refrain amongst this bunch was practicing and playing the game provided comfort, a true sense of normalcy. Football is a game built on high emotions, and the Raiders adeptly channeled their own.

The critical aspect of Sunday’s victory is that it keeps the Raiders right smack in the middle of the AFC West race. At 4-2, they’re currently tied for first place with the Los Angeles Chargers, with the Kansas City Chiefs one game behind. The next three weeks will give Las Vegas even more time to steady themselves for the second half of the season. They’ll see the Eagles and Giants — two teams that have combined for three victories so far — with a bye sandwiched in between.

That kind of promising situation can be as inspirational as what this team just endured. “Certainly, it’s emotional for everybody, right?” Bisaccia said. “So I think they did a good job as a bunch of grown men of handling their emotions throughout the week, putting them in perspective when it was time to go play the game. It is a job for all of us, and again, they seem to do a really good job with it. We’ll see what goes on from here. We’ll see the consistency that we can have going on. I think that’ll be the challenge for all of us.”

The Raiders learned about how daunting it can be to sustain such success last season. Before Gruden’s departure, he talked openly about the lessons that came from suffering so many close, heartbreaking losses with a playoff spot on the line. He’s now vacated his position in that franchise, becoming a pariah who is likely hoping forgiveness will find him someday. But the men he coached are still fighting and winning, all the while showing us they didn’t need him as much as we once thought.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) Lamar Jackson’s earning his big payday: Sometimes, timing makes a big difference in perspective. There were fair questions about whether the Baltimore Ravens should be considering a massive extension for their star quarterback, who has two years (including the fifth-year option) remaining on his rookie contract, this summer, especially after he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in training camp, which marked the second such instance in his career. One narrative that seemed to be emerging then was that Jackson hadn’t won enough playoff games (he’s 1-3) or developed enough as a passer for that kind of distraction to be worth tolerating by the Ravens. It’s been an entirely different conversation since Baltimore opened the year with five wins in six games, despite losing a number of key performers to season-ending knee injuries. Other players have stepped up on this roster, but no player has meant more to that success than Jackson. The questions about his downfield passing? He’s connecting on a career-high 67.5 percent of his attempts this season. The knocks on how this offense could only function best after being given a lead? Jackson has engineered three comeback wins this year, including when he helped Baltimore overcome a 19-point deficit in a 31-25 overtime win over Indianapolis in Week 5. Jackson’s latest accomplishment came in Sunday’s heavily hyped matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert, who is an early candidate for Most Valuable Player, just like Jackson. Jackson didn’t have to do as much in that 34-6 win — the Baltimore defense dominated — but there will be ample opportunities for him to don his cape again. Nobody can diminish what Jackson is doing. There isn’t a team in the league that is asking more of its quarterback each week and being rewarded with production and victories. What Jackson is proving is that timing really does matter. He’s always been a great talent. But he’s at his best when his team desperately needs him to deliver.

2) Jared Goff going downhill fast: The Detroit Lions quarterback is going to have a long week. He’s leading a team that remains winless, and he’s about to face the franchise that gave up on him, the Los Angeles Rams, in his next game. This matchup is hard enough, given that Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was considered the Rams’ franchise quarterback right until that team traded for his predecessor in Detroit, Matthew Stafford. So far, Stafford has played at an MVP level in Los Angeles. Goff, on the other hand, literally may be playing his way out of the league. He’s running an offense that currently ranks 28th in scoring. He’s had a mind-blowing eight turnovers (four interceptions and four lost fumbles). Hell, Goff hasn’t even thrown a touchdown pass in his last two games. In fairness, the Lions are a train wreck. They’ve been plagued by holes throughout their roster, the offensive line is beat up and the wide receivers aren’t going to make any opposing defensive coordinators lose sleep. However, Goff is learning quickly that none of that matters when you play his position in that town. Somebody has to take the blame, and he’s near the front of the line, right after head coach Dan Campbell. Lions fans pounced on Goff in Detroit’s latest defeat, booing him during the 34-11 loss to Cincinnati. Campbell didn’t offer much defense of his quarterback after the game when asked if it was time to consider other options at the position. The most the first-year coach would say was that everything was open for evaluation. It’s a fair stance, just because of how bad this fit is becoming. Goff is the kind of quarterback who performs best in a proven system, where he’s surrounded by skilled playmakers who allow him to operate as a facilitator. That isn’t the Lions. And this coming week is only going to drive home an obvious fact about Goff’s career: Los Angeles definitely got out while the getting was good.

3) Bill Belichick battling growing pains: Chalk this one up to the old adage about money not solving everything. The New England Patriots spent a lot of cash in free agency, but the return on investment hasn’t been so good for their head coach. Belichick is in the midst of a second consecutive season filled with frustration. The Patriots clearly have more talent than they did in 2020, when an underwhelming squad finished 7-9 and kept New England out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The problem is that Belichick can’t get this team to execute in those critical moments that used to define this franchise. Case in point: Sunday’s 35-29 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Patriots played Dallas tough, only to allow a game-tying field goal in the final minute and a 35-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to a wide-open CeeDee Lamb in overtime. You’d be hard pressed to remember the last time the Patriots blew a coverage in that type of situation. But this is who they are right now. We thought they’d lean more on the running game to ease the pressure on rookie quarterback Mac Jones, but they’re one of the worst in the league in that department, ranking 27th in rushing yards per game. They still haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this year; meanwhile, the two opponents they have defeated, the Houston Texans and New York Jets, have a combined record of 2-9. The defense also had a rough day against the Cowboys, giving up 567 total yards. Look, we’re far past the point of wondering how Belichick would fare once Tom Brady left town. Now the real question about this team is more pressing: When will they ever start resembling a contender again?

THREE UP

There was a lot of debate about whether the Cincinnati Bengals should select another offensive weapon for quarterback Joe Burrow with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft or a pass-protector in offensive tackle Penei Sewell. So much for that conversation. Chase has been as good as advertised, maybe even better. He now has 553 receiving yards, which is the second-highest total any rookie receiver has had in his first six games (behind Anquan Boldin). The Bengals have their flaws, but you can’t argue with their 4-2 record and a realistic shot at a playoff spot. Chase is a huge part of that surprising success.

The Jaguars are such an easy punchline that they deserve a little love when they have success. Lawrence, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, finally can say he knows what it’s like to win in the NFL, and to end a 20-game losing streak for that franchise. Even better, the rookie quarterback did it in style, throwing for 319 yards and engineering a fourth-quarter drive in London to set up the game-winning field goal in a 23-20 victory over Miami. In fairness to Lawrence, he’s been building toward this moment. All the drama surrounding head coach Urban Meyer has obscured the growth Lawrence has made with each passing week. The Jaguars won’t win many more games this year. But their quarterback is trending in the right direction.

The Arizona Cardinals have made plenty of smart moves over the last couple years. They made another in trading for Ertz. This offense hasn’t typically fed the tight end, but former veteran starter Maxx Williams was enjoying a career year before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Ertz is more talented and accomplished than Williams, having been named to three Pro Bowls. If Williams was seeing more passes come his way, then imagine what Ertz can do in an explosive offense that features already weapons like DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore. 

THREE DOWN

This writer was talked out of addressing this subject last week because the Chargers beat the Browns in a 47-42 shootout. Los Angeles isn’t getting a pass this week. The Chargers have allowed four teams to rush for at least 186 yards this season. The Browns hit them for 230, and the Ravens gashed them for 187 in a 34-6 Baltimore win on Sunday. There’s simply too much talent on this team for it to be this bad in any category. At 4-2, the Chargers are sitting in prime position to win the AFC West. This run defense is bad enough to keep them from doing that.

So much for all those good vibes to start the season for the Panthers quarterback. It seemed that Darnold was going to make the New York Jets look foolish for dealing him to Carolina this offseason after he failed to live up to the hype of being the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Not anymore. These are his numbers from Carolina’s first four games, three of which were wins: 67.8 percent completion rate and 297.3 passing yards per game. Now here are his numbers in their last two games, both losses: 48.7 percent completion rate and 192 passing yards per game. The takeaway? The Panthers need running back Christian McCaffrey (who’s been out since Week 3) to get healthy in a hurry.

The Football Team needs to find the head coach who’s been affectionately known as “Riverboat Ron” soon. Rivera twice passed up manageable fourth-down opportunities to settle for field goals in a 31-13 loss to Kansas City on Sunday. Washington could’ve used touchdowns in both situations. One would’ve tied the game at 10 midway through the second quarter, and another would’ve given them a 10-point lead in the second half — and to add salt to the wound, the kick on the latter fourth-down situation, halfway through the third quarter veered wide left. The Football Team, now 2-4, is too lousy defensively for Rivera to play it that safe moving forward. It just a lost a winnable game because their coach realized that too late.

SCOUT’S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Why did people think Justin Herbert was going to be the third-best quarterback prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft?

SCOUT FOR AN AFC TEAM: “I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. One reason Herbert has had more success in the league is that he has more talent around him (with the Chargers) than Tua (Tagovailoa) has in Miami or (Joe) Burrow has in Cincinnati. But Herbert was always the more talented player. People forget or underestimate how big of a person he really is. He was and is an accurate passer with a huge arm. Combine all of that with this play speed, and you end up with a big, strong, fast quarterback who is highly intelligent. The reason he ‘fell’ in the draft (the Chargers selected Herbert sixth overall in the 2020 Draft, one spot behind where Miami selected Tagovailoa and five behind where the Bengals took Burrow) had nothing to do with his physical play. Burrow won the Heisman and was coming off a national championship, so he had the ‘it’ factor. Tua already had been crowned as ‘The Guy’ after his success at Alabama. Herbert was supposed to be the top player in the 2019 draft, but he wound up staying in school. I think a lot of people questioned him for that, like he didn’t care enough about football. But he’s always been the most talented of those three, and it’s showing now.”

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 7 (arrows reflect movement from last week’s edition):

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Buffalo over Arizona.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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