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Raiders rising but can they breathe?

11/22/2011

For the first three quarters of their 27-21 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the Oakland Raiders looked like the class of the AFC West and a scary good young team that could make enough noise in the playoffs to net the Cincinnatti Bengals two first-round draft choices from the Carson Palmer trade after all.

In the fourth quarter they looked like the same undisciplined, immature Oakland Raiders team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2003.

The Raiders weren't just bad in the fourth quarter Sunday, they seemed hellbent on giving away the game to a Vikings team that has done the same on way too many occasions this season.

First Sebastian Janikowski had a 48-yard field-goal attempt blocked. Then Michael Bush fumbled inside the Raiders 40 yard line just moments after the Oakland defense came up with a key interception in the endzone to thwart a nice drive by the Vikings. In between the Raiders committed an alarming number of penalties.

Some of the dysfunction can be attributed to the scary injury to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was carted off the field because of a neck injury.

Some of the penalties whistled by the officials were probably due more to the Raiders' reputation for reckless, undisciplined play. They are guilty until presumed innocent far too often for it to be a coincidence, which I assume is why coach Hue Jackson decided to take a heavy fine for the team and criticize the officials after they whistled his team for 12 penalties that cost the Raiders 117 yards during the game.

But way too much of the Raiders problem late in Sunday's game has to do with attitude.

This has been a team on its way up for the better part of two years now. They've played -- as young teams generally do -- with a large chip on their shoulder.

Now all of a sudden they have arrived and they seem to have little idea of how to breathe the air up there.

The Raiders had every chance to put the Vikings away after they went up 24-7 at the half. Their tough, physical defense was clearly rattling rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who threw three interceptions and was under pressure more often than he had time to throw. Minnesota was also without running back Adrian Peterson, who sprained his ankle late in the first quarter.

In the first three quarters of the game, the Raiders exploited all of these advantages.

Then they just stopped.

You have to figure Palmer's voice in the locker room will grow louder by the week as he continues to learn the offense and his new teammates' names. The question is whether that will happen fast enough.

The Raiders path forward is clear, the AFC West is theirs for the taking. But they have another evolution to complete.

It's one thing to be a promising young team. It's another thing to grow up.