TITANS BEAT COLTS 36-22 MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The drought is over. The Tennessee Titans finally beat the Indianapolis Colts 36-22 after 11 consecutive losses, and they did so on the back of a limited, pocket-passing Marcus Mariota and a heroic second-half performance by their much-maligned defense.

Franchise quarterbacks rise to the occasion, and Mariota did so Monday, helping wake up a dormant Titans defense with clutch third-down completions and what ended up being the game-winning, 53-yard touchdown pass to Taywan Taylor.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was Mariota’s fifth career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, and he earned it by digging deep for a 15-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that put the Titans ahead 22-19 after they trailed for most of the game. Mariota went 8-of-8 for 76 yards on that drive, including key completions to Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker, who had his best game as a Titan, with seven catches for 88 receiving yards.

The Titans (3-3) are in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South, and they are eyeing a very manageable schedule down the stretch.

“It’s a huge win,” Mariota said. “It’s a division win. It’s an opportunity for us to share the lead in the division. I think when it comes down to it, the monkey is off our back, and we get to just go out there and play now. And we look forward to getting ready for Cleveland next week.”

Mariota finished 23-of-36 with a season-high 306 yards, a touchdown and a pick-six that was forgotten by the end of the game.

Mariota’s footwork and passing accuracy were the best they’ve been all season. He used play-action to perfection, going a crisp 10-of-11 and throwing for a career-best 186 yards off the fake.

“The guy’s a complete stud,” Taylor Lewan said. “The guy’s a franchise quarterback, and he deserves everything he gets. I’m just happy to be his left tackle.

“Just his work ethic, the kind of pro he is, the kind of guy he is, I can’t say enough about Marcus Mariota. He’s the bomb dot com.”

Still, Mariota clearly was not 100 percent. He didn’t even attempt to run, besides on an extremely important and successful fourth-quarter quarterback sneak. He threw only one pass outside of the pocket, a throwaway. But Mariota’s being forced to remain in the pocket could help his confidence in the long run.

“It’s part of the game. I think throughout the season there’s points in time when you’ve got to play a little hurt,” Mariota said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys up front, and the receivers are doing a great job of finding separation. We were just able to execute and make plays, and we came out on top.”

The Titans’ offensive line played great. Mariota had a clean pocket for most of the game, and his only sack was a self-sack for 1 yard to avoid contact.

“We live and die by each other,” said Lewan, who played well after missing much of last week’s game against the Dolphins because of a knee injury. “That’s what makes us such a special group.”

Derrick Henry capped it off with a 72-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. He ended with a career-high 131 rushing yards.

The Titans’ defensive performance might be lost because of Mariota’s great day, but it shouldn’t be. It was an entirely different bunch in the second half, and credit defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for making the appropriate halftime adjustments. Tennessee came out attacking effectively with tighter coverage in the back end and strong run defense.

Titans cornerback Logan Ryandeserved major props for his efforts against Colts star receiver T.Y. Hilton. Rookies Adoree’ Jacksonand Jayon Brown, who had two key pass breakups, also played big roles in shutting the Colts down in the second half.

Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett went 9-of-20 for 93 yards in the second half, after going 12-of-17 for 119 yards in the first half.

It was all capped off by veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard tracking down a scrambling Brissett on the Colts’ final fourth-down comeback attack. Woodyard grabbed Brissett’s ankles at the last moment to prevent Brissett from reaching the first-down marker before he went out of bounds. It has been a great season for Woodyard, and he secured the win with that play.

“Huge, huge, huge team win,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said.

NFL OWES A BIG EXPLANATION ON JETS/PATRIOTS GAME

There are times in NFL games when the application of rules doesn’t match the eye test. Sunday’s controversial overturn of a New York Jets fourth-quarter touchdown is one of those occasions.

Our eyes told us that Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught a pass, juggled it upon contact with New England Patriots defensive backs Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon, and then regained control while barreling into the corner of the end zone. We saw down judge Patrick Turner, standing inches away from the play, confidently raise both arms to signal a touchdown.

Next, we saw an attempt to apply rules developed in a sterile environment that can’t always anticipate unusual circumstances. That’s where it got incontrovertibly sticky.

As he does on every scoring play, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron (or one of his staff members) reviewed the touchdown. Replays showed that Butler punched the ball loose as Seferian-Jenkins extended toward the end zone. Seferian-Jenkins ultimately regained control.

In order to be credited with a touchdown, he needed to establish himself in bounds with the ball clearly back in his possession. Otherwise, one of the NFL’s most frustrating rules would have to be implemented: A fumble out of the end zone results in a touchback.

Riveron reversed the ruling, a sign that he saw indisputable evidence that Butler jarred the ball loose before Seferian-Jenkins crossed the plane, and that Seferian-Jenkins didn’t regain control until after he had stepped out of bounds. The reversal reflected the point differential in the Patriots’ 24-17 victory.

Is that really what happened?

The NFL’s replay review philosophy is to stay with the call on the field unless a video angle shows, without a doubt, that a mistake was made. In this case, I didn’t see a replay that confirmed it. Perhaps another angle exists that confirms a mistake was made in the touchdown call. Regardless, there is no time limit for the NFL review process. There should never be mistakes. Clearly, Riveron and his crew saw something that we didn’t to prompt his decision.

Referee Tony Corrente, who participated in the review via a sideline tablet, told a pool reporter that a replay angle popped up at the end of the review to confirm the reversal. Seferian-Jenkins lost control of the ball a second time, according to Corrente, and he recovered only after his knee landed out of bounds. “It was pretty obvious,” Corrente said.

I never saw a replay nearly that obvious. Maybe I missed it. The NFL can only use replays supplied by the broadcaster, but that doesn’t mean the broadcaster has to televise all of the angles to the public.

Riveron has kept a low profile since taking over the league’s top officiating job from Dean Blandino. Even after Corrente’s interview, this is one instance where a definitive explanation is merited from the executive in charge. The sooner the better.

BELL RUNS WILD AS STEELERS HAND THE CHIEFS THEIR FIRST LOSS OF THE SEASON

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — And all is normal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks to another heady Antonio Brown play.

Brown’s wild, game-clinching touchdown bounced off Kansas City Chiefscornerback Phillip Gaines‘ hands and head and into Browns’ arms, who did the rest for a sideline-streaking, 51-yard score with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left. Brown’s description of how he got the ball was as miraculous as the play itself.

“Called God and asked him,” he said.

After weeks of anthem drama, Gatorade-cooler drama and does-the-QB-still-have-it drama, the Steelers put it all to sleep by defeating the Chiefs 19-13, and looking like themselves again behind Le’Veon Bell‘s staggering 179 yards and a late-game sack by James Harrison.

The Chiefs’ 5-0 start didn’t faze the Steelers, who liked this matchup to start the week. They felt their offensive line could win up front on Kansas City’s 20th-ranked rushing defense and let Bell exhaust the defense. Roethlisberger had won five straight against Kansas City and getting a sixth would calm the storylines about his poor play.

“I guess this old cowboy’s got a little bit left in him,” Roethlisberger said when asked if he had a told-you-so response coming off his five-interception performance in Week 5 against Jacksonville.

But the Steelers didn’t need vintage Big Ben — at least not Sunday. They needed steady Roethlisberger, which they got. The Steelers had a stingy defense that allowed one first down in the first half. And they had Bell, who was right when he said last week that dedicating to the run is “a formula for winning.”

That’s how this team won last year, and that’s mostly how it’ll win this year.

Need evidence that Bell is all the way back? Five of Bell’s first 19 carries went for 10 yards or more. The Steelers utilized pulling guards and two-tight end sets to spring Bell open on the perimeter, giving him the chance to work the outside or cut back inside.

“He was in the hole all night,” guard David DeCastro of Bell. “He was making those cuts and running like the Le’Veon we know.”

The defense looked inspired after Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards on it last week. In response, the Steelers held the league’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, to 21 yards.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was getting consistent pressure up front, linebacker Vince Williams was an effective blitzer and linebacker Ryan Shazierand Artie Burns each recorded key pass breakups.

The Steelers’ defensive players barely got any sleep this week thinking about their poor showing vs. Jacksonville, Tuitt said.

“We just wanted to show the world what we really are,” he said.

Roethlisberger (17-of-25, 252 yards, one touchdown, one interception) made his share of impressive throws. Touch passes to Brown and Vance McDonald over the middle created crucial first downs. Roethlisberger’s only interception came on a miscommunication with Brown, who ran a hitch instead of a slant for an easy first down.

But the uninspired Chiefs were all but asking the Steelers to put them away early in the second half. The Steelers couldn’t quite do it, opting for a punt on the Chiefs’ 35-yard line on fourth-and-2 with a $12 million running back with 124 yards at that point. Coach Mike Tomlin likely didn’t want to give the Chiefs any momentum, but the game felt like Pittsburgh was up by 25, even though it never was.

The Steelers had two touchdown chances in the second quarter but messed around in the red zone, which has become an odd habit. An ugly defensive sequence on third-and-8 didn’t help: Safety Mike Mitchell missed on a sack, then drew a penalty for going low on Alex Smith after the pass, gift-wrapping the Chiefs into the red zone.

That’s when the Steelers punctuated a dominant defensive day. The Steelers’ defense faced fourth-and-2 from their own 4-yard line, up 12-3 early in the fourth. The Chiefs decided to go for it, threatening the Steelers’ near-shutout of one of the NFL’s best offenses. Smith dropped back, rolled to his left and targeted Demetrius Harris over the middle. Safety Sean Davis made a clutch, body-contorting play to knock the ball out as Harris was landing. He nearly had an interception, but no matter: The stop punctuated a dominant day for the Steelers.

Now, at 4-2, the Steelers remain atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals coming to town Sunday.

“We are excited about being in the thick of it,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

CAN PACKERS SURVIVE WITH RODGERS?

MINNEAPOLIS — This is 2013 all over — and maybe worse.

At least four years ago, Aaron Rodgers came back from his broken collarbone in time to get the Green Bay Packers into the playoffs.

This time, it might be up to Brett Hundley — or whoever else ends up playing quarterback for coach Mike McCarthy — for the duration. Rodgers broke his collarbone after a hit from Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr in the first quarter of Sunday’s 23-10 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Four years ago, Rodgers cracked his left collarbone and missed seven starts. After weeks of will-he-or-won’t-he return, Rodgers came back for the regular-season finale at Chicago — a game the Packers won on Rodgers’ last-minute touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that gave them the NFC North title.

This time, it’s the collarbone on Rodgers’ right side — his throwing side — which is why the Packers said he could miss the rest of the season.

Matt Flynn, the quarterback who kept the Packers afloat in 2013, most likely isn’t walking through the door. Although he’s only 32 years old, Flynn hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2014 — his last year in Green Bay as a backup.

Hundley, 24, the only other quarterback on the active roster going into Sunday’s game, became the first Packers quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers to throw a touchdown pass since Flynn’s last one in Week 16 of the 2013 season.

The third-year pro played the first meaningful regular-season action of his career. After a rough start — he threw an interception his first pass of the game — he settled in and got a few things accomplished, albeit with significant field-position help thanks to a couple of takeaways (Clay Matthews’ 67-yard fumble return and Damarious Randall’s 14-yard interception return).

Hundley stepped up in the pocket and found a wide-open Davante Adams for a 14-yard touchdown after Matthews’ return. He later hit Jordy Nelson on the back-shoulder throw that Rodgers has perfected for a 26-yard gain to set up a field goal after Randall returned the Case Keenum pass that linebacker Blake Martinez tipped.

However, with the Packers down by 10 points in the fourth quarter, Hundley got picked off again when it appeared he didn’t see safety Harrison Smith underneath on a throw for Nelson. He finished with 157 yards passing on 18-of-33 with one touchdown and three interceptions.

The Packers went 2-4-1 without Rodgers, 33, in 2013. Flynn was the third option after Seneca Wallace got hurt and Scott Tolzien got benched. The journeyman backup managed to pull out a tie against the Vikings in relief of Tolzien and then went 2-2 as a starter before Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale. The Packers’ season ended a week later with a home wild-card playoff loss against the 49ers.

The Packers were 5-2 when Rodgers broke his left collarbone in 2013. They were 4-1 entering Sunday’s game at Minnesota thanks to some lights-out play from Rodgers, who was 12-2 with 37 touchdowns and five interceptions in the 14 games prior to Sunday.

The problem this time around isn’t just Rodgers; the Packers have been ravaged by injuries. Already without three of their top four defensive backs (Kevin King, Davon House and Morgan Burnett) entering the game, they lost cornerback Quinten Rollins (ankle) during the game. They also lost left guard Lane Taylor (ankle, knee) and both of their starting tackles against the Vikings when Bryan Bulaga (concussion) and David Bakhtiari(hamstring) dropped out. It was the first time all season that Bulaga and Bakhtiari had played together.

It’s not like they have an unstoppable running game for Hundley to rely on, either. McCarthy tried to split series between Ty Montgomery (playing his first game since he broke multiple ribs last month) and rookie Aaron Jones, and neither found much of a rhythm or room to run.

The Packers have relied heavily on Rodgers all season. Entering Week 6, they had the second-highest dropback percentage in the NFL at 71 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Maybe the outlook won’t appear to gloomy when the sting of this day wears off, but if the Packers can’t beat with a team quarterbacked by Keenum, who was without his best receiver (Stefon Diggs), then maybe this will be even worse than 2013.

COLIN KAEPERNICK HAS FILED A SUIT AGAINST THE NFL

Colin Kaepernick has formally filed a suit against the National Football League, alleging the sports entities in the organizations have engaged in collusion.

The Bleacher Report reports that the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback charges that the owners have participated in “collusion under the latest collective bargaining agreement.”

Kaepernick reportedly hired famed attorney Mark Geragos to assist him in his legal grievance with the NFL.

The 29-year old activist was the first football player of note to take a knee during the United States National Anthem in protest of police brutality and social injustice. Last year, Kaepernick didn’t continue his contract with the San Fransisco 49ers, but he was not picked up by another team. Many teams have stated on the record they didn’t want the attention that he has generated over his beliefs.

Kaepernick has not retired, contrary to previous reports.

LEBRON JAMES RESPONDS TO RACIST GRAFFITI ON HIS HOME

LeBron James has said the U.S. has “a long way to go” in combating racism, commenting after his Los Angeles home was vandalized with a racial slur.

James, who will lead the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, was speaking on the eve of the NBA Finals at the Oracle Arena on Wednesday, just hours after reports of the scrawl on his property.

“As I sit here on the eve of one of the greatest sporting events that we have in sports, race and what’s going on [in America] comes again,” he said.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is—it’s tough. And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

The 32-year-old, a four-time MVP, spends the season living in Akron, Ohio, but purchased the Brentwood home in L.A. in 2015, according to USA Today.

“If this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing, then I’m not against it happening to us again,” James added. “I mean, it’s as long as my family is safe.”

James has spoken out on social issues more regularly as his career has progressed. Last year, he publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential election and spoke at an event on her behalf.

He has spoken out on the police killings of African-American men and wore a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” printed on the front, the words of Eric Garner who died following a confrontation with police in which the officers put him into a chokehold.

While James had expected to enter the Oracle Arena talking about the hopes and dreams of a team and state, instead he found himself once again discussing the racial division of a nation.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR WARRIORS VS. CAVALIERS REMATCH

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have spent the past six weeks dismantling all comers, methodically advancing toward the NBA Finals rubber match the entire basketball universe has been waiting for.

Now, it’s finally here.

Starting Thursday, the Warriors and Cavaliers will duke it out for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a second time in three years. It’s the first time in NBA history the same two teams have met in the finals three straight seasons.

Here are five things to focus on when the Warriors and Cavaliers take the floor Thursday night at Oakland’s Oracle Arena for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

1. Will the Cavaliers be able to successfully defend the Warriors? And if so, how?

This is the key to whether this series will be a noncompetitive rout by the Warriors or a longer series that the Cavaliers can win. Cleveland was second-to-last in the league in defense after the all-star break and has won its past two series against teams missing their best offensive player (Kyle Lowry for the Toronto Raptors and Isaiah Thomas for the Boston Celtics) due to injury.

Guarding the Warriors, who feature three of the game’s top scoring threats in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, is immeasurably harder than anything the Cavaliers have done so far in these playoffs, and there is no proof they can up their defensive level to the point it will have to be to take on one of the most explosive offenses of all time.

If Cleveland can manage to slow down Golden State, the Cavaliers have enough firepower of their own to make this series a toss-up. But if the defense they displayed the final two months of the regular season appears during the Finals, then it’s hard to see this series being anything other than a Warriors in a walk.

2. Can Kevin Love stay on the court?

This is a parallel question to the first one. Love has been on fire during the playoffs, shooting 47.5 percent on three-pointers as part of Cleveland’s own devastating offensive attack, and can be a particularly deadly matchup nightmare for opponents when he’s playing at center. The problem for the Cavaliers, though, is finding a home for Love defensively.

Although everyone remembers the one stop Love had against Stephen Curry on the perimeter in Game 7 of last year’s Finals, he’s a liability on that end — particularly when the Warriors go small. The more minutes Cleveland can find to keep Love on the court, the more he can keep the floor spaced and give LeBron James another option to hit with one of his pinpoint passes.

Love’s role will be one of several cat-and-mouse games these two teams — and, more specifically, their coaching staffs — will be conducting as this series goes on. If Love can tip the scales in his favor, that will be a big victory for Cleveland.

3. Can the Warriors’ centers contain Tristan Thompson?

When the Warriors and Cavaliers go against each other with their base lineups, there will be plenty of focus on the star power at positions like point guard (Curry vs. Irving) and small forward (Durant vs. James). But the most fascinating matchup on the court might very well be Tristan Thompson vs. Zaza Pachulia. Really.

I know, I know. Thompson vs. Pachulia? Why? Well, because if Pachulia — as well as his backups, JaVale McGee and David West — can somewhat neutralize Thompson, one of the true “star” role players in the NBA, it will open up everything for the Warriors. For as much as Golden State thrives when it goes to its small lineup, if it can stick with a traditional big man on the floor against Thompson, a rugged, mobile big man and a strong rebounder, that will allow defensive wizard Draymond Green to stick to Love. And if Green is able to do that, Love will be neutralized.

If Thompson dominates that matchup, however, the Warriors then have to shift over to Green playing at center — wearing him down and also allowing Cleveland to potentially do some things to free up Love and others elsewhere. This will be a fun matchup to watch — especially considering it won’t get nearly the attention that the many other high-profile matchups in this series will.

4. Can Kevin Durant stay out of his own head?

One of the most fascinating quotes of the playoffs came from Kevin Durant after Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

“I just play, man. I just play. If I see a lane open, sometimes I think too much. Sometimes I look to pass when I should look to score. Sometimes I look to score when I should pass. But I figured out if I just don’t think at all, that’s when I’m best.

“So I try not to think out there. The times when I do think, early in the game I was battling on the defensive end because he was thinking too much. The third quarter I just went out there and played and not worried about anything. Just played every possession and tried to play as hard as I can. I was able to score, because it started with my defense first. So that’s what I think about offense. Whatever happens, whatever Coach calls, I just try to go out there and run it as hard as I can.”

Durant has always been one to climb into his own head. Well, now he’s playing against James, who owns a 16-4 edge in their career head-to-head series, in the NBA Finals, where he and the Warriors were always supposed to get — and win — from the moment he agreed to sign with Golden State last July. It will be fascinating to watch how Durant handles this moment. That will be particularly true if the Warriors run into adversity early in the series — something they’ve avoided throughout this entire playoff run.

5. Is this finally Stephen Curry’s time to shine on the biggest stage?

Two years ago, Curry lost out on the NBA Finals MVP award to Andre Iguodala. Last year, Curry had his moments in coming back from a knee injury early in the playoffs — including 36 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals and 38 points in Cleveland in Game 4 of the NBA Finals — but wound up being the face of Golden State’s collapse from up 3-1.

This year, he enters the NBA Finals playing as well as he ever has in the postseason, averaging 28.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. Everything is set up for this to be the moment Curry finally delivers on the NBA’s biggest stage.

If he can do so, the Warriors will be celebrating a second title in three seasons — and Curry will likely be holding the Finals MVP trophy, as well, giving him the last piece of missing hardware he’s looking for.

Prediction:

The Warriors needed about a million things to go wrong last year — Curry’s lingering knee injury, Green’s suspension for Game 5, Andrew Bogut getting hurt, Andre Iguodala’s back tightening up, Harrison Barnes going 5 for 32 on virtually all wide-open shots in the final three games, not to mention spectacular performance from James and Irving for the Cavaliers — to blow that 3-1 lead and watch the Cavaliers celebrate on Golden State’s home court.

Then the Warriors went out and added Durant. They return with an even deeper supporting cast this time around. Despite James, it’s hard to see how the Cavaliers can get the job done this time. Even Cleveland, with all of its talent, doesn’t have enough to keep up.

Warriors in five.

FORMER BLAZER’S BRANDON ROY SHOT IN LEG WHILE PROTECTING KIDS

Former NBA All-Star guard Brandon Roy was injured in a shooting over the weekend in the Los Angeles area, according to multiple reports.

According to KING-TV, Roy was treated in Southern California before returning to Washington state, where he is a head coach at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School. He is expected to recover.

Roy reportedly was a bystander in the shooting.

The Portland Trail Blazers, with whom Roy spent the majority of his career, issued a statement on Tuesday night in response to the reports:

“Like many others, we’re just learning of the injury suffered by former Trail Blazers player Brandon Roy in a shooting over the weekend in California. According to those reports, Brandon was wounded as a bystander but is expected to recover. Our thoughts and prayers are with Brandon and his family during this time.”

Roy played five seasons in Portland before retiring in 2011 because of ongoing trouble with his knees. He attempted a comeback in 2012 and appeared in five regular-season games for the Minnesota Timberwolves, before undergoing another knee surgery. He was released in March 2013.

Roy took over Nathan Hale’s boys’ basketball program in 2016 and was named the Naismith National High School Coach of the Year after leading his team to an undefeated (29-0) record during the regular season.

MARSHAWN LYNCH TRADED TO THE RAIDERS, BUT IS HE THE OLD BEAST MODE

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement and staying home to play for the Oakland Raiders means a team on the rise has addressed a huge need at running back.

But there are questions.

After all, Lynch last played in 2015, when he struggled with a hamstring injury and then a sports hernia, which required surgery. He was limited to seven games, in which he averaged 3.8 yards per carry — the second lowest of his career for a single season.

He is not getting any younger, either, as he turned 31 on April 22. But the Raiders are banking on the year off, the change of scenery and the chance to play in Oakland all serving Lynch well after things seemed to sour in Seattle — especially after the Seahawks did not give him the ball from the 1-yard line for a potential winning score in Super Bowl XLIX with less than 30 seconds to play. Instead, Russell Wilson was picked off at the goal line by Malcolm Butler and the New England Patriots escaped.

Indeed, with Beast Mode in the fold, many see the Raiders, who went 12-4 last season and played in the postseason for the first time since 2002, challenging the Patriots for AFC supremacy.

Because if Lynch is close to replicating what he did in his last full NFL season — in 2014, he rushed for 1,306 yards and an NFL-leading 13 touchdowns, averaged 4.7 yards per carry and caught 37 passes for a career-high 367 yards and four TDs — the Raiders will have upgraded their No. 6 rushing attack significantly.

Latavius Murray, the Raiders’ lead back last season, was allowed to take his 788 rushing yards, 12 TDs, 33 catches and 264 receiving yards to the Minnesota Vikings in free agency.

Lynch gives the Raiders, who also signed tight end Jared Cook and receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency, a more sure-handed option for quarterback Derek Carr coming out of the backfield.

Besides, the Raiders had only 5-foot-8 mighty mites Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington on the roster before Lynch came aboard, and Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was sure they could handle the load as a pair, not with one as the lead back.

“We’d like to use those guys in multiple ways,” McKenzie said. “Those two, as the dynamic duo, could get it done. You don’t want to just ride one all the time. Those two guys are two pretty good little backs.

“But would you want a banger, sometimes, a bigger body to move the pile, or whatever? You could probably add something there.”

With Lynch, Oakland does that — but only if he’s healthy and focused. The Raiders were convinced enough by his visit earlier this month to acquire him.

CLIPPERS GET CLIPPED IN PIVOTAL GAME 5 LOSS TO THE JAZZ

LOS ANGELES — With 2 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Gordon Hayward tips out an errant George Hill 3 and the ball finds its way into the waiting hands of Joe Johnson, the unlikely influencer of this 4-vs.-5 first-round series. He takes a half-step back beyond the arc and, with a swish, the Utah Jazz climb to a crisp five-point lead.

Timeout, Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers Hoop Troop runs onto the court to rally the 19,171 in attendance for the critical push the home team needs in a teetering Game 5. When a series is tied 2-2 in NBA history, a road winner of Game 5 has won the series 63.8 percent of the time.

Along with them, a six-foot high inflatable totem is rolled onto center court with “LOUD” emblazoned down the side. Staples Center gets loud.

Then, unexpectedly, the air-filled polyurethane cylinder expands vertically to reveal “LOUDER” striped down the side of the second level. As the arena buzzes to a fever pitch, more air is pumped in and a “LOUDEST” third tier emerges — but not before toppling over.

“You know, it’s a tough loss, but it’s not like I’m going to go bury my head or anything like that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after the 96-92defeat that seemed to let the air out of Los Angeles’ hopes of returning to the second round.

“We lost the game. You know, defensively overall I thought we played pretty well. Offensively, I didn’t think we played well at all. There were a lot of things that I did like about the game, and there were a lot of things I didn’t. I think they’re all fixable.”

In a choppy affair that bore the hallmarks of Game 1, sharpshooter JJ Redick finally fought free of the offball clutches of Utah’s handsy wings. Redick zigged to the rim when the Jazz leapt through screens, and zagged from deep when feeling a lock and trail. L.A.’s third-leading scorer this season finished with 26 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 10 free throw attempts.

Yet while the Clippers might have deciphered the Jazz’s perimeter finger trap, how to handle the oversized iteration of small ball continues to mystify. Utah trotted out lineups for several minutes in Game 5 that featured four wings of at least 6-foot-7 and no traditional point guard.

“Well, we’ve played a lot of different lineups because we’ve had — we have four point guards on our roster,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “There was a point where I think two or three of them were hurt. We’ve used Joe Ingles at that position. I’m confident in our wings’ ballhandling ability …

“If it’s Rodney [Hood], Gordon, Joe Ingles and Joe, there’s no pure point guard and you worry a little bit about guys getting pressure. But hopefully they can just share it, and it makes us pretty good defensively at times. I felt like Hood did a great job tonight, but we still wanted to use that lineup, and particularly George Hill looked fatigued to me tonight at certain points, so we’re trying to get him a little bit of rest. It’s always a little nerve-wracking for me to do it, but our guys have confidence in it, so usually I just go with it.”

It’s yet another wrinkle Utah has added to a series that, despite unanticipated injuries, has largely unfolded to the design of the lower seed. Game 5 played to the slow tune the Jazz dictated yet again — a melody that has carried over from the outset of the series.

“We’re making [execution] mistakes,” Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute said after the loss. “We really haven’t gotten into a game where the whole game we makin’ them play the way we want to make ’em play, you know? They’ve gotten a lot of 3s and we’re trying to take them away from 3s, but somehow they’re still getting it.”

And for a team that spent a season under the cloud of whether it could bring back a core that has yet to enjoy a deep playoff run, the immediate reality is a question of whether the Clippers can even come back to host a Game 7.