DENVER — Given Mike Shanahan's tempestuous past with the Oakland Raiders, the bad guys in black must be doing something right to draw even the slightest praise from their former coach.
When asked why the Raiders (8-1) lead the AFC West heading into Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos, Shanahan emphasized their ability to minimize mistakes and, more importantly, keep their cool.
Uh, Mike? These are the Raiders we're talking about, right?
"I wouldn't say they're nice, but they're very disciplined," Shanahan said. "That's what you're looking for — people who can control their emotions, play extremely hard and still get the job done. I'm not going to give the Raiders too many compliments now; let's not get carried away."
For years, the Raiders have proudly embraced their status as the NFL's most vaunted villains.
That sinister pride survives but mostly in a superficial sense. While still wearing bad-guy black, Oakland is winning with the efficiency, poise and discipline that was lacking during a six-year playoff absence.
"I think we're doing some things that are totally different than the way we've done them before," Raiders receiver Tim Brown said. "We're playing good, disciplined, sound football."
The transformation from outlaw losers to playoff contenders can be attributed to a plus-12 turnover rate, a versatile veteran quarterback and a willingness to work hard for coach Jon Gruden.
"If I have been able to inspire somebody, maybe make somebody be a little bit more excited about playing, then I'm glad about that," Gruden said. "I really think the players, the veterans in particular, have basically done a great job here showing the way and setting standards on our practice field and how we do things."
Oakland's maturation has not been lost on the Broncos (5-4), the only team to beat the Raiders this season.
"They seem to have that tough, nasty mentality, but this team this year is a little bit different," Denver running back Terrell Davis said. "In the past, they kind of counted themselves out when they were down. This year they don't do that."
But the Raiders remain at the mercy of Shanahan. They are 1-10 against him and looked their worst in a 33-24 home loss to Denver in Week 3.