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OAKLAND — It could be NaVorro Bowman, Bruce Irvin, John Pagano or simply the level of play on the other side of the field.
It’s not as if Paxton Lynch or Geno Smith are accurate barometers as to what’s ahead for the Raiders defense.
The Raiders are 6-6 and tied with the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West. They may not make the playoffs, but are officially back in the conversation, and their play on defense is a big reason why.
“I understand that we have a shot,” Bowman said following a 24-17 win over the New York Giants at the Coliseum. “This game was a serious game for me because I understand how guys respond to teams that aren’t going well. For the defense to start like that and make the plays that we needed, playing good football in December is what you need.”
Since Pagano replaced Ken Norton Jr. and began running the Raiders defense, the Broncos and Giants have combined for 481 yards, rushed for 121 and gone 10 for 28 on third down.
Norton was surely a scapegoat, and it’s fair to wonder how the Raiders would have fared against New England with Pagano calling defensive signals, but it’s equally true the Raiders are playing with more juice defensively.
Both games were closer than they should have been since Denver and New York were able to move the ball late and keep games interesting, but the bottom line is they combined for 31 points in two games.
Jack Del Rio and his players have been careful to avoid heaping praise on Pagano and the improved play out of their respect for Norton, although the Raiders head coach did note the defense “held our opponent under 300 yards and really kept us in the game early when we were not firing on all cylinders offensively.”
Bowman led the Raiders with nine tackles, including a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery. General manager Reggie McKenzie likes to think, analyze and then ponder before reacting, yet his quick reaction when it came to snagging Bowman may have saved the season.
“I mean, it’s obvious,” Irvin said. “The guy flies around, takes control of the huddle. You see the difference, how the defense was before he was here, and to now. He’s a great competitor, a great leader, and I’m just happy to have him.”
Irvin appears to have been liberated as well of late, with dominating performances in the last two games. He had eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback hits against the Giants.
In terms of his evolution as an NFL player, Irvin grew up under Norton, his position coach in Seattle. But he’s come alive under Pagano and a simplified system that mandates “see ball, get ball” and has done some creative things with Khalil Mack to create havoc elsewhere.
The Giants went three-and-out on their first three possessions Sunday.
“Talk about going out there and starting fast, that’s what you want,” Irvin said. “We always try and take it personal. We try and take the fight to them. I think we did a really good job of doing that today.”
Mack’s strip-sack of Smith and recovered fumble prevented the Giants from a halftime lead and was a “grown-man” play in the estimation of Del Rio.
For all the consternation regarding Smith’s elevation to starter ahead of two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning, it was the right move by the Giants against the Raiders.
Smith, a college teammate of Irvin at West Virginia, escaped the pocket a handful of times where Manning would have been target practice.
“Man, 52 (Mack) and 51 (Irvin), two of the best in the game, two of the best pass rushers,” Smith said. “They really got after it today . . . you know I was actually caught getting ready to throw a pass ito the end zone. I felt we had a pretty good look. Unfortunately (Mack) got there and got the ball out.”
Remaining in the final four games of the season for the Raiders are Alex Smith, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz and finally Philip Rivers.
There’s not a Paxton Lynch or Geno Smith in the bunch.
“Worry about what we can control,” Irvin said. “Stack these wins up. We’ll see how the cards fall at the end of the season . . . that’s been our approach the last to weeks and it’s paid off so hopefully we can continue to keep it like this.”