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Raiders vs Broncos

Wade Vandervort

Las Vegas Raiders interim head coach Antonio Pierce stands on the field during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos at Allegiant Stadium Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

Antonio Pierce has established a postgame ritual he’s followed in each of his four home victories since taking over as Raiders’ interim coach midway through the season.

He wastes little time sprinting to Allegiant Stadium’s Southwest tunnel at the end of games, acknowledging the fans for a second before getting in place to “dap up” all his players as they head into the locker room. He might have missed a few players in the aftermath of Las Vegas’ 27-14 season-ending win over Denver on Sunday afternoon though.

Pierce lingered and celebrated with fans as they began chanting his initials in a sign of endorsement for him to land the full-time job.

“What if I’m not here next year?” Pierce said shortly afterwards in his postgame news conference. “I didn’t want to let that moment go by.”

It would be a shame, if not an outright mistake, if Pierce doesn’t have the opportunity to revel in more postgame victories with the Raiders over the next few years.

Pierce has always maintained his résumé for the permanent role would be authored, “on the grass,” but it might have been incomplete before the game against the Broncos.   

Now it’s done, and it’s almost spotless.

In the final game of the season, Pierce built on what had already made him successful, answered to his perceived shortcomings and went out on a high.

Raiders owner Mark Davis gave Pierce the job midseason after firing coach Josh McDaniels and basically asked him to restore some pride and make sure the Raiders stopped getting embarrassed.

Pierce went above and beyond on those objectives.

Las Vegas was one of the worst teams in the league under McDaniels this season, going 3-5 and getting outscored by an average of nearly eight points per game. It was above average by most metrics once Pierce took over, going 5-4 with a scoring margin of nearly +7 per game.

Three of the Raiders’ four losses under Pierce were by a touchdown or less and the one exception — a 31-17 defeat to the Chiefs — was later avenged.

Smashing the Broncos as a season send-off meant Pierce beat each AFC West rival once and helped the Raiders finish second in the division for the third time in four years since the franchise moved to Las Vegas.

“Why wouldn’t we want to keep going in the direction we’re going?” Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby said after the game. “We’ve lost a couple close ones (under Pierce) but the fact that we’ve come together and found something special in a short time is hard to do. You’ve got a guy that’s played at the highest level, winning a Super Bowl, been a captain and now he’s a great coach and he’s a leader. It’s hard to find. For us, we just need to keep building on the foundation we’ve already built on.”

Crosby — one of only two Raiders’ Pro Bowlers this season next to punter A.J. Cole — as usual looked like the best player on the field throughout the game with a sack, four quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. He came out yelling to motivate teammates and celebrating big plays enthusiastically from the onset, making it hard to remember that the game held no actual stakes with both teams eliminated from playoff contention.

The competitive spirit the Raiders displayed was in stark contrast to their Week 18 game a year ago when they looked listless in a loss to the Chiefs. But that kind of energy is what Crosby has said Pierce pulls out of all the Raiders, both on defense and offense.

Las Vegas went three-and-out to start the game, but then scored a touchdown on its second possession after going 78 yards on 13 plays. Denver defended well a reverse-pass call where Jakobi Meyers was supposed to throw the ball, so the receiver improvised.

He cut back the other way, made two defenders miss and glided into the end zone for a five-yard score.    

“It’s the best morale of a team that I’ve been on when we’re done playing,” said star receiver Davante Adams. “Typically only one team is happy at the end, but just based on where this team is at right now and the feeling about where we’re headed is definitely a better feeling. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

Adams hauled in five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown that finished off what might have been the Raiders’ most impressive drive of the year. And maybe even a drive that ultimately helps Pierce stay in Las Vegas.

The interim coach had drawn criticism for showing no initiative to score late in the first half in losses to the Dolphins and Vikings earlier in the year. Most probably expected the same conservative approach when the Broncos pinned the Raiders at the 2-yard line inside the second quarter’s two-minute warning on Sunday.

But Pierce amped up the aggression this time around, trusting rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell to take the offense 98 yards for a score to go up double digits, where the margin stayed for the rest of the game.

O’Connell hit fellow rookie Tre Tucker on a deep bomb for 47 yards with 46 seconds remaining for the possession’s biggest play. He then found Adams in the corner of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left on the clock.   

“That was impressive, and he didn’t waver,” Pierce said of O’Connell’s performance on the scoring drive. “You talk about situational football: Clocking it, very calm, very poised. I think everything we worked on in practice was in full display tonight and I’m very proud of it.”

Pierce can point to the development of young players as a bullet point to bolster his coaching case. O’Connell probably still isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback, but he had one of his best games against the Broncos in completing 20 of 31 pass attempts for 244 yards and two touchdowns.

His second touchdown throw came down to the middle of the field to Meyers for a 33-yard strike to make the score 24-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, second-year running back Zamir White became the first running back in Raiders’ history to log 100 rushing yards in two of his first four starts. White, who never popped under McDaniels, paced the Las Vegas offense with 25 carries for 125 yards.

Defensively, Malcolm Koonce continued his tear with one of the Raiders’ five total sacks. And Pierce’s longtime pupil whom he advocated claiming off waivers earlier in the season, cornerback Jack Jones, continued leading a resilient secondary that kept Denver at bay all game.   

“I get it — (I’m known as) ‘a player’s coach, a rah-rah guy,’” Pierce said. “But I didn’t get to where I’m at by not knowing football.”  

The objective now becomes convincing Davis he knows coaching football as well as all the other candidates that will be lined up in his way. There will be other candidates, as Davis is required to go through a full coaching search by NFL rules before naming McDaniels’ official, permanent successor.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is the most-commonly rumored name to be in the running, and he would be tough to turn down given the success he’s found at every spot of his career. But that would be a drastic change, and likely precede a major shift in personnel. 

With the way the Raiders finished the season, a major shift in personnel doesn’t look necessary. They showed they can contend with Pierce at the helm for a half-season, and he should be able to show what he can do without having to pick up all the head-coaching responsibilities on the fly.

“It’s been a learning experience,” Pierce said. “I don’t know how anyone goes into this saying they’re ready for this. You need live reps. You can mimic everything in practice but there’s nothing like live reps. You can practice and you can watch them, but when that clock is ticking, it goes a little bit faster. But, for me, I think the process of working with our staff, the analytical people, getting better each and every game has been my goal and will continue to be my goal.”

The players believe in Pierce’s ability to improve and lead them to success long-term. And based on their postgame ovation, the fans do too.

“That’s the first I’ve seen that,” Adams said of the “AP” chants. “I’ve heard (fans) boo coaches for sure, but I’ve never heard anything like that.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or

Article written by #LasVegasSun