ALAMEDA, Calif. — The Oakland Raiders head into the final month of the season in a most unusual place after an eight-year stretch of disappointment and losses.
They stand alone in first place in the AFC West.
Oakland (7-4) has a one-game lead on Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos after beating the Chicago Bears 25-20 Sunday. So instead of preparing to play out the string on another failed season, the Raiders head into December with legitimate hopes of winning the division and making it to the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2002 AFC championship.
While most of the players in Oakland have little understanding of what it takes to win meaningful late-season games or of going to the playoffs, there are a few veterans ready to dole out advice.
"Seize the opportunity," said defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who won three Super Bowl titles in New England. "You'd rather play in games like this where every play is meaningful rather than a game where the stands aren't filled. It's so much more fun for everybody. It's a game that we're playing. It's not life or death. ... The bigger the game the more exciting and more fun it is."
Next up for the Raiders is a trip to Miami on Sunday to play the improving Dolphins (3-8). That will be followed by a high-profile game in Green Bay that has already been moved into the national doubleheader window to give it more exposure.
That's a far cry from recent years when the Raiders went through an NFL-worst stretch of seven straight seasons of at least 11 losses.
"It's something new around here and we're going to try and keep it that way," defensive end Lamarr Houston said.
The Raiders solved a few nagging issues in the win against the Bears with the defense limiting Matt Forte to 59 yards rushing and 84 yards from scrimmage — 55 yards below his league-leading average coming into the game.
Oakland also committed only six penalties for 44 yards and no personal fouls after averaging more than 10 penalties a game coming into the week.
Seymour credits the change to players paying more attention to detail with so much at stake at this point in the season.
"Everyone realizes the opportunity that we have," Seymour said. "You don't want to be the guy that squandered it away. Just trying to play smarter and still play aggressively."
The Raiders also were able to win on a day that the running game was held to 73 yards on 27 carries and big-play threats Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore were all sidelined by injuries.
But Carson Palmer threw for 304 yards — his third time in four starts with at least 299 — as the Raiders won for just the second time in their past 22 games when they rushed for fewer than 75 yards.
"At the end of the day I think we're growing all across this football team," coach Hue Jackson said. "What we need to do is still put a complete game together where we're playing from the first snap to the last snap and when we do that we've got a chance to be a scary group of players."
The Raiders were in contention a year ago, but knew they needed help to end their playoff drought. They ended up losing a crucial road game in Jacksonville and Kansas City kept winning and Oakland finished 8-8, two games behind the Chiefs.
Now they only need to worry about their own games, knowing if they keep winning the Broncos won't be able to catch them.
"It's a good feeling for us to be able to be in first place and not have to look, 'Oh, hopefully somebody loses,' Or, 'Get this win and hopefully this team loses,'" receiver Louis Murphy said. "It's good to be in control of our own destiny."
Notes: The only injury from the game was LB Rolando McClain, who tweaked his sprained left ankle but returned to action. ... RB Darren McFadden did a light workout on the practice field without a protective boot on his sprained right foot. He has not played since injuring the foot in the first quarter against Kansas City on Oct. 23. "I think that was huge," Jackson said. "I think that's a step in the right direction." ... WR Jacoby Ford said he is making progress to return from his sprained left foot that he hurt in San Diego on Nov. 10 but does not know when he will be able to practice.