OAKLAND If the Raiders hadnt waited so long to turn the defense over to John Pagano, they could be thinking seriously about the playoffs.
As it stands, the Raiders are in need of a miracle following a 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at the Coliseum.
But it was hard to fault their much-maligned defense for the end result. The Raiders offense continued to sputter, and a key special teams breakdown in the second half proved costly. Finally, quarterback Derek Carr fumbled the ball out of the end zone for what would have been the game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds to play.
Holding Dallas to 20 points in a game that is the closest thing the Raiders will get to a playoff atmosphere in 2017 should have been enough.
The Raiders arent the 1985 Chicago Bears, but of late they arent the 2016 Raiders, either. Nor are they the listless defense that got scorched by the New England Patriots in Mexico City, at which point Jack Del Rio finally relieved Ken Norton Jr. of his command.
The competition hasnt always been great, but even wins over the offensively-challenged Denver Broncos and New York Giants showed an obvious improvement in fundamental defense that was missing.
The Raiders prepared for the possibility of letting Norton go the moment they brought in Pagano as the assistant head coach/defense last off-season, even though that was never the company line.
Out of deference to Norton, who was beloved by the players, the Raiders have been muted in addressing their improvement. But there is no doubt Pagano has the Raiders playing much better.
Not that you could tell the difference early on against Dallas, with Alfred Morris breaking free for consistent yardage and the Cowboys at one point holding a 152 to 5 advantage in total offense.
But things tightened up considerably afterward. Not only that, but the Pagano era has brought the interception back to the Raiders after an unprecedented drought. NaVorro Bowmans flat-on-his back theft against Denver was followed by an interception by Karl Joseph and two on Sunday night by Sean Smith.
We got off on third down (Dallas was 2-for-10), we got some turnovers, Del Rio said. We had a chance for a couple more. I thought it was pretty solid.
The second Smith interception was a demonstration of Del Rios beloved rush and coverage mantra, with Bruce Irvin screaming in on a twist outside of Khalil Mack and getting his hand on the arm of quraterback Dak Prescott.
The resulting duck was grabbed by Smith, who jumped up and raced into the end zone for an apparent 22-yard touchdown. It was negated when it was determined on replay that Cole Beasely had touched Smith when he was down, and the Raiders had to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Giorgio Tavecchio.
On Smiths first interception, the Raiders followed with a three-and-out getting just three points for the two takeaways.
It was a small return for two big plays.
Irvin, who grew up as an NFL player with Norton as his position coach in Seattle, was the one most angered by his dismissal, firing off an expletive on Twitter as soon as the news broke that Pagano would take over.
Del Rio wisely gave Irvin time to cool off. Since Irvin returned, hes been a different player. Pagano has turned Irvin loose as a pass rusher, and his philosophy of see ball, get ball and simplifying the system has the entire defense playing faster and with more confidence.
As for Mack, Paganos main adjustment has been moving him around more often, sometimes over center. Mack had two more sacks against the Cowboys, giving him a sack in five straight games and 10.5 for the season.
The Raiders were last in the NFL in sacks through 10 games and have 14 in the four games under Pagano.
When the Raiders lost second-half momentum Sunday night after tying the game 10-10 Tavecchios 39-yard field goal, it came in large part because of special teams.
The defense had done its job, backing up Dallas with a fourth-and-11 at its own 24-yard line as Prescott threw incomplete.
Chris Jones, however, took the center snap, raced inside Jamize Olawale and ran 24 yards to the Dallas 48-yard line. The Cowboys went on to complete an 11-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown. Prescott did the honors on a 5-yard run, a play in which Mack was behind held by Dallas center Travis Frederick and guard Zach Martin.
Nor was it the Raiders fault with 4:49 remaining in the game that they walled off a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak by Prescott at the Dallas 40, with the Cowboys getting the first down by a margin so scant officials used an indexcard do measure the distance and then fumbled the explanation afterwards.
He was definitely short but Im not going to get into that, Irvin said. I like my money too much so I dont want to talk about the refs.
Prescott followed with a 40-yard strike to Dez Bryant over Smith, with the Raiders stuffing Morris twice and second-and-1 and third-and-1 to force a point-blank 19-yard field goal by Dan Bailey with 1:44 to play.
A desperation Carr heave to Michael Crabtree drew a 55-yard penalty on Jourdan Lewis with 51 seconds left, putting the Raiders in position for the win.
Instead, Carr fumbled the ball lunging for the goal line, it went out of the end zone, and the Cowboys had held on.
All that remained was for the Cowboys to kill the last 31 seconds, with the Raiders wasting a defensive effort that was good enough to win.
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