By Chad Bellin/Sammy Bissett. The Oakland Raiders will travel to Houston to face the Texans in one of the AFC Wild Card Weekend showdowns. This game will kick off the 2016 playoffs, and it is a fitting matchup.
The Raiders come into the game reeling from a late season swoon largely due to injuries to their top two quarterbacks. Now, their championship hopes are pinned to rookie Connor Cook and his ability to move the Raiders’ offense. The Texans won the hapless AFC South, and needed a three game winning streak in December to hold off the Colts and Titans. But losing superstar J.J. Watt early in the season, combined with quarterback instability leave the Texans vulnerable as a division winner.
The Raiders “hosted” the Texans in Week 11 in Mexico City, and won the game 27-20. Derek Carr was the hero of the game, throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. The Raiders could not throw the ball, but both running backs and receivers did damage in the passing game. The Texans ran the ball effectively with Lamar Miller, and Brock Osweiler was only responsible for a single turnover.
What to expect from the Raiders: Offense / Defense
Having lost both Derek Carr and Matt McGloin, the quarterback position is the key to the game for the Raiders. Rookie Connor Cook will make his first career start in the playoffs, a truly unique experience. Assuming McGloin will not be healthy enough to suit up, Cook figures to be backed up by youngster Garrett Gilbert who is presently on the Raiders Practice Squad. Cook is a big, strong passer with a good arm and he has had his share of success at Michigan State. But, Connor Cool is a step back for a team that was as hot as any for most of the regular season.
The Raiders running game has been inconsistent and generally speaking, has not been able to carry the team. However, Latavius Murray combined with rookies DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard form a capable group with diverse skill sets. The Raiders offensive line can blow open holes, but the Raiders must commit to the run. The Texans stingy defense (ranked first in overall yardage allowed) will look to force the Raiders into passing situations.
If Cook can get the ball in the air, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are great targets. Crabtree led the team in catches and touchdowns, while Cooper led in yardage and average. Combined, they accounted for over 170 receptions for over 2,100 yards and 13 touchdowns. Seth Roberts is a sneaky third target who accounted for 5 touchdowns himself. But look for the Raiders to employ shorter passes and check downs, bringing the running backs into play, and perhaps featuring more opportunities for tight end Clive Walford.
On defense, the Raiders feature defensive player of the year candidate Khalil Mack, who leads a ferocious pass rush. While they thrive on big plays, the Raiders are also in the bottom half of the league in points allowed, and rank 26th in yardage allowed. So, they are vulnerable if the Texans can protect the ball and sustain drives.
On special teams, the entertaining and effective Marquette King combined with long-time kicker Sebastian Janikowski anchor solid units while speedster Jalen Richard has homerun potential as a returner.
What to expect from the Texans: Offense / Defense
The quarterback play has been the main issue for the Texans in 2016, and many can make an argument that their situation is the only one as bad as Oakland’s right now. Brock Osweiler was re-inserted after Tom Savage went out with an injury in Week 17 and Osweiler played well. He threw for 253 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for a touchdown in a game that wasn’t particularly competitive. Against the Raiders, the game plan should comprise a lot of quick and safe passes because the offensive line is incapable of quality pass protection right now.
Lamar Miller’s return is a much-needed boost for this offense. His 104 yards on the ground (with a touchdown) against the Raiders in the Mexico City matchup showed he is a threat to the Raiders in the ground game. You can expect at least 20 touches for Miller on Saturday, and when he gets at least that much action he’s putting up over 111 yards in those games.
Deandre Hopkins had a quiet but efficient night against the Raiders in November, reeling in five receptions for 58 yards on six targets. He was also robbed of a long touchdown reception mistakenly called out of bounds. This season, he was the only Texans receiver to produce consistently, albeit at a disappointing pace compared to his 2015 campaign. Both Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller must exploit the Raiders secondary enough to maintain a balanced attack on Saturday. Fuller has been a disappointment for the second half of the season after starting the season and his career with rookie of the year potential.
The most improved and arguably most effective unit for the Texans offense lately are the tight ends, and C.J. Fiedorowicz has been a pleasant surprise this season. His six receptions and 82 yards helped stretch the middle of the Raiders secondary in their first matchup. In that game, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson also made some contributions. As noted in the Shootout Report Wild Card Round by Game: Defense Against the Position, the tight ends will have a favorable matchup with the Raiders giving up more production to the tight end position per game than average.
With the Raiders now having to start Connor Cook this week, the Texans defense will look to tee off on the rookie quarterback starting his first NFL game. Defensive stars Jadeveon Clowney, Jonathan Joseph, and Brian Cushing should give the Texans plenty of playmaking ability.
The “Winner” is . . .
Sammy says . . . “Texans win.” This should be an ugly game, which is what the Texans specialize in. The Texans have an 8-2 record in games decided by a touchdown, and have performed well in close games. The Texans are also 18-0 since 2014 when they have a lead at halftime. Both teams finished in the top eight in rushing this season, and both finished top six in time of possession. Without Derek Carr, the Raiders are less effective on offense. If Osweiler doesn’t turn the ball over more than once, the Texans will escape with a dreadfully boring 16-10 victory.
Chad says . . . “Raiders win.” The Texans aren’t a great football team. But, they are a good team and can play well for long stretches. The Raiders have amassed a more impressive roster, but with a rookie third string quarterback making his first NFL start, a lot of things could go sideways. The Raiders will rally behind their young quarterback and surprise the critics with a hard-fought 24-17 victory.
The Greek’s Bold Prediction: Raiders 16 | Texans 23
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