Standing alone atop the AFC West mountain – at least for the time being – are the resurgent Oakland Raiders.
Head Coach Jack Del Rio's squad boasts a 7-2 record heading into the bye week, and as the weather begins to turn colder, they've established themselves as a legitimate threat in the AFC.
So why are the Raiders 7-2? Well, myriad reasons.
They have one of the best, young quarterbacks in the NFL in Derek Carr, a dominant offensive line, and a defense that has seemingly turned the corner over the past month. Add in a Top Five run game, and that's a recipe for success, and it's a recipe that has been producing quite well for the Silver and Black through nine games.
However, there's another reason that the Raiders have taken the NFL by storm over the past two-and-a-half months, and it's something that isn't quite as obvious as Derek Carr and his impressive stats, or Khalil Mack and his sack numbers; it's the play of the Silver and Black's special teams units.
Marquette King has been one of the best punters in the NFL this season – he leads the NFL with 21 punts over 50 yards, as well as five punts that have been downed inside the 10-yard line – undrafted free agent running back Jalen Richard has emerged as a viable weapon on both kickoff and punt returns, and along with that, the coverage teams for the Raiders have been tremendous, routinely keeping opposing offenses from starting drives with advantageous field position.
And the key to that productivity has been the guiding hand of special teams coordinator Brad Seely.
"We started off as kind of a patchwork group, but from game one, we molded, and we worked with him [Seely], and he worked with us, each day, each week, and getting better, and making it a real special teams unit, and not just individuals," said linebacker Daren Bates. "He made it a unit."
That idea of the special teams *unit *was perfectly embodied Sunday night, as the Raiders coverage units were especially potent, forcing the Broncos to start their drives on average at their own 19-yard line, while Derek Carr and Co. had the luxury of beginning drives on average at their own 37-yard line.
That's a 17-yard difference in starting field position, and the value of that isn't lost on any of the team's core special team players.
"That's the game we've been waiting for to get us rolling," Bates said. "We've been talking about it the past nine games, dominating the field positon, and dominating the game period, and we did that tonight."
Bates and the other players on the special teams unit know that while they might not earn a lot of fanfare, they still have an important job to do, and are critical for the success of the team going forward, besides, they all have fun lining up, and going to work.
"That's what we love to do," Bates said. "We hear the music, that's what gets us going, gets us hype, and we just feed off of each other, and make each other better."
Yes, Carr, Mack and the Raiders stars have been impressive this season, but don't forget about the play of the special teams units – they've been just as valuable.