A disheartening three-game losing streak has relegated the Oakland Raiders to a position of spoiler and the 2012 season has officially shifted the team mindset into that of rebuilding mode. In their losses to Tampa Bay, at Baltimore, and against New Orleans, the Raiders allowed an unsightly 145 points. That is 45 points per game and if they continue along that pace, this team will threaten the 1981 Baltimore Colts in terms of points allowed in a 16 game season (the Colts surrendered 533).
This week, a lot of the emotion that has been seemingly lacking in the last couple of weeks should not be in short supply as quarterback Carson Palmer returns to the franchise he led for seven seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals. To his credit, Palmer has been complimentary while insisting that he needed a change of scenery professionally. But it doesn't take much of a mind reader to understand that Palmer would love nothing more than to beat his former team and put a dent in their playoff aspirations.
To do that, the Raiders will have to be better defensively. When Palmer has thrown for 300 yards or more in his career, his teams are 5-21, including 1-8 as the quarterback in Oakland. That means the Raiders need balance and to keep the game close enough to where Palmer is not obligated to throw the ball all over the field.
It has been a broken record all year long, but it starts with making a team one-dimensional. The Bengals have great skill players, led by second-year wunderkind A.J. Green. The University of Georgia wideout has caught a touchdown pass in nine straight games, just four short of Jerry Rice's NFL record of 13. It would make sense for the Raiders to double Green and force Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to look elsewhere in the passing.
However, if the Raiders don't stop the run, they won't have the luxury of doing anything like that. The math has been pretty simple for the Raiders this year: In three wins, they have allowed an average of 70 yards per game rushing. In seven losses, they have allowed an average of 144.5 yards. To win this game, they have to slow down Benjarvis Green-Ellis and make Dalton throw the ball in predictable situations.
Who is the biggest X-Factor this week?
Even then, there is no guarantee of sustained success with this patchwork unit, but without slowing the running game down, there is a good chance the Raiders will be sliced up defensively again.
On the other side of the ball, the Raiders need to continue to run the ball. Marcel Reece quietly had just the third 100 yard running game of the year for the Raiders, tallying 103 yards on just 19 carries. Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has been rightfully criticized all year long and last week's move away from the run was baffling. It was successful and the Raiders did not stick with it.
Beating a team like the Bengals is essentially like beating any decent team on the road for the Raiders: They have to control the ball, convert their opportunities on third down and score touchdowns. The problem has been the propensity for penalties and turnovers over the last month of the season as Oakland is now a -5 in the turnover differential after 10 games. Palmer has been a big problem in that area, throwing five interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in 2012.
Winning requires contributions from Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, along with emerging Pro Bowl contender Brandon Myers at tight end. But first and foremost, the Raiders have to establish their own running game. This will mean they are not committing stupid penalties and putting themselves in a situation where it is throw-only on offense.
However, when it gets down to it, I just don't know if this team has the stuff to conjure up an inspired performance, even for just a single week. If anything, it might be like the Atlanta game, where the Raiders played very well, but you just got the feeling something would happen to cost them the game. Sadly, I don't think it will even come down to a late field goal.
Prediction: Cincinnati 33, Oakland 20