Knock on wood if you’re with me: Jon Gruden, Raiders are AFC playoff contenders

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For the Raiders, winning three time zones away last week in Indianapolis was fun. Winning eight time zones away Sunday in London was exhilarating. So much so that Jon Gruden did a bizarre dance in the locker room at Tottenham Stadium and screeched after the 24-21 win over the Bears: “I’m 56 years old, and that’s the most fun I’ve ever had tonight!”

The Raiders almost blew this game, losing a 17-0 lead and falling behind 21-17 and needing to be saved by a late 97-yard touchdown drive. The fact is, though:

• They’re not a fluky 3-2. They’re a totally legit 3-2.

• They can hold up on the offensive line, fortified by GM Mike Mayock.

• They’ve got a franchise back in Josh Jacobs.

• They’re deeper than they have been, and beat a top-tier NFL team Sunday without their top receiver, Tyrell Williams, and two of their first-round picks, defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram, both of whom started the season playing big roles for Oakland. And think of the mayhem this team was in a month ago, with Antonio Brown (we thought) leaving the team in tatters by shooting his way off the team.

• They’re smart. They totally negated the powerful Bears pass-rush by throwing quick and not allowing Derek Carr to be pulverized.

“We’re beginning to figure out our identity,” right tackle Trent Brown, one of the Mayock reinforcements, said from the winning locker room after the game. “Our identity is running the football. Everything, for us, opens up by running the football.”

The Raiders have the nucleus for that run game. It’s Jacobs, the first-round back from Alabama, who never was a workhorse under Nick Saban but was drafted by Mayock and Gruden to be just that. Jacobs never ran the ball more than 20 times in his job-sharing Alabama career—in fact, he ran the ball more than 16 times in a game only that one time—but on Sunday, with the beefy line pushing the Bear front around, Jacobs ran it 11 times in the first and 15 in the second half, grinding out 123 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

When I told Trent Brown about his light college use, Brown chuckled, and said, “Josh is a great running back, and it’s going to be interesting in the next couple of years to watch what a great back he develops into. Alabama always has a deep stable. I really appreciate Alabama not giving him that many carries. Keeps him fresher for us in his NFL career.”

Mayock and Gruden were criticized for making Brown the highest paid tackle in football in free agency—and for giving a new life to the formerly retired Richie Incognito, who left football under a cloud in Buffalo. And who knows how the story will play out, but those guys were tremendous Sunday as 40 percent of the line that held the Bears sackless. Amazing, Carr was knocked down just once on the day, and was comfy enough in the pocket to complete 25 of 32 mostly quick passes.

Hard to tell where this season will take the Raiders, but they’re playing like the second-best team in the West, and they’ll have a huge schedule edge in the second half of the season. Five of their last nine games will be home beginning Nov. 3, and only the Dec. 1 game at Kansas City looks like a steep task. Who’d have thought when Brown was wreaking havoc on this franchise on Labor Day Weekend that we’d be seeing the Raiders a game out of first in the AFC West entering the middle of October?

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.