GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Not every NFL game leaves you with a defining visual. Sunday's Raiders-Arizona Cardinals game produced one you could frame and hang in the Museum of Modern Jock Art.
In the foreground? That's Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski, in a deep squat, hands on the ground for support, looking like he just got kicked in the gut. In reality, he has just missed a gimme field goal attempt that would have turned the Raiders from losers to winners on the game's final play.
To the right? Those are Janikowski's teammates and coaches racing giddily onto the field under the mistaken impression that his 32-yard attempt has spun merrily through the uprights.
To the left? The Arizona sideline is in an uproar as it dawns on the Cardinals they have just cheated the reaper.
That's the visceral image you'll take from Sunday's game, a twisty, turny 24-23 Arizona win. Which is fine. Pictures are good. But this picture doesn't convey the complex mediocrity of Sunday's game. And it doesn't necessarily portray the current state of the Raiders.
That state? Well, here it helps if you take the moderately optimistic viewpoint that they are building to something meaningful, or at least more meaningful than 5-11. Otherwise, if you're of a mind that this is just another example of the Raiders being the Raiders, the picture is all you need. Snap, spot, kick, hardy har har, same as it ever was.
But let's run with this building-toward-something thing for a minute. Four times the Raiders fell behind Sunday, the first when Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling returned the opening kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. Three times they came back to either tie or take the lead. Janikowski's kick would have been the fourth.
"That is who we are," coach Tom Cable said. "We are a tough-minded group that can come from behind."
If that sticks, it would represent a change from the days when Marty Schottenheimer prepared for the Raiders by telling his players, "If you hit them in the mouth, they'll quit."
Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was -- by Cable's estimation, and his own -- just OK. But he was effective in spurts, completing half his passes for 255 yards, a score and a pick. He led the Raiders to 20 points in the first half, the first time they'd turned that trick in five years.
"We should have had 20 in the second half, too," he said.
And he's right.
The bigger point here is that Gradkowski gave his team a chance to win. And he didn't make an OK day worse by undermining his play with forehead-slapping turnovers and shockingly poor decision-making (if you catch our drift).
Darren McFadden had yet another solid game, both explosive and tough, running for 105 yards and catching two passes. There are still times when receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey plays football the way Michael Jordan played baseball, and it took 11 throws in his direction Sunday to get him three catches. But he got three catches. One came on fourth-and-10 en route to Janikowski's would've-been game-winner.
Those are all building blocks, attributes the Raiders have lacked in recent seasons. As ever, they are weighed down by a substantial to-do-better list.
Item 1: Penalties. They were a problem (again) Sunday, especially in the defensive backfield.
"You got three pass interference penalties, an illegal contact and one hold," Cable said. "That was their offense for a good portion of the game."
Item 2: The Raiders finished strong, crossing midfield on their final four drives. They settled for four field goal attempts.
"If we score touchdowns instead of field goals," tight end Zach Miller said, "it's not even that close at the end."
Then there are the random little things. Johnnie Lee Higgins let a short punt bounce in the fourth quarter. It went bounding another 10 yards down the field. That drive ended with Janikowski missing just wide right from 58 yards. If Higgins makes a fair catch and Janikowski sets up 10 yards closer?
"I don't feel the game was won or lost on the final play," Cable said. "It certainly could have been won, but we had a lot of opportunities to put some exclamation points out there and we couldn't do it. We have to continue to get better in the red zone offensively and just continue to work. This game will not define us."
That's to be determined. For now it's intriguing enough to speculate whether or not the Raiders are capable of self-determination.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.