JOSH DUBOW, AP Sports Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — After getting a rude introduction to the NFL after losing their first 10 games as rookies in 2014, Derek Carr and Khalil Mack have put the Oakland Raiders at the top of the AFC just two years later.
Carr came back from an injured pinkie to lead another fourth-quarter comeback and Mack had an interception return for a touchdown and a game-sealing strip sack that led Oakland to a 35-32 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Raiders (9-2) won their fifth straight game to remain tied atop the AFC with New England and are assured of a winning record for the first time since 2002.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mack said. “Even then you can’t really think about the past. All you can really focus on is stacking these wins up. That’s all we really care about as a team.”
Mack and Carr are the biggest reasons for the turnaround and for the latest win against the Panthers (4-7). But it didn’t come easy despite the fact that Mack gave Oakland a 24-7 lead with an interception return for a score late in the first half.
Carr got hurt while fumbling a snap on the second play from scrimmage in the second half and the Panthers scored 25 straight points to take a 32-24 lead.
Carr answered with a touchdown pass to Clive Walford and 2-point conversion to Seth Roberts , and then drove the Raiders to Sebastian Janikowski’s go-ahead field goal.
“We’ve done it every single way. It’s crazy,” Carr said. “I’m just going to keep on believing. I’m going to keep working hard. Hopefully, we’ll have more ways for you. To be honest, I don’t care how we do it.”
The Panthers had a chance to tie or win it but Greg Olsen dropped a third-down pass that would have put Carolina in field-goal range and Mack sacked Cam Newton and recovered the fumble to close out the victory for Oakland.
Carolina dropped to 2-5 in games decided by eight points or fewer a year after going 8-1 in close games on the way to 15 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl appearance.
“We’re just got to find ways,” Newton said. “For most of this year we have to come together and win these close games. That’s what it comes down to.”
Here are some other takeaways from the game:
CLUTCH CARR: Carr led his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season and 10th in his three-year career. More than half of his 19 career wins have come in that fashion. This season, Carr has completed 80 of 118 passes (67.8 percent) for 1,109 yards (9.4 ypa), 10 TDs, one interception and a 122.5 passer rating when tied or trailing in the fourth quarter.
“I grew up a Kobe (Bryant) fan so that mamba mentality,” Carr said.
DISAPPOINTED FAN: There was one notable fan very disappointed in the result. Warriors star Stephen Curry watched the game from a suite, cheering for his hometown Panthers. After the game, Curry had to wear a Carr jersey after losing a bet.
GOING FOR 2: After Denico Autry blocked the extra point following Carolina’s first TD in the third quarter, coach Ron Rivera went for 2 unsuccessfully after the next two touchdowns. Those missed points kept Oakland down only eight after Benjamin’s touchdown and the Raiders managed to tie it when they got the 2-point conversion after Walford’s score. Olsen lamented his dropped pass on the second conversion attempt.
“You have to catch the ball,” he said. “I have caught a lot of balls in this league and this team relies on me to make the plays and come to me when (the game) is on the line.”
ELITE COMPANY: Mack joined some elite company with his latest star performance. He had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception and a touchdown. The last player to do all of that in the same game, according to ESPN, was Charles Woodson with Green Bay in 2009 against Detroit. Woodson was Mack’s teammate the past two years.
“That’s some great company right there,” he said. “C-Wood, that’s big bro. We talk all the time. He tells me, ‘It’s time for you to take over games.’ Fortunately I was in a position to do a little bit of that today.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Panthers will stay in the Bay Area to practice at San Jose State before traveling to Seattle next weekend for a rematch of last year’s playoff game against the Seahawks. The Raiders will look for their sixth straight win when they host Buffalo.
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