Oakland vs. Carolina: 10 Keys to the Game for Carolina

Stephen Fenech@Fenech2491Correspondent IDecember 21, 2012

Oakland vs. Carolina: 10 Keys to the Game for Carolina

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    The Carolina Panthers will attempt to beat a team from the AFC West for the second straight week as the Oakland Raiders visit Charlotte in Week 16. 

    The Raiders are one of the worst teams in the NFL and will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. 

    Oakland is 4-10, with two of those victories coming against the abysmal Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders have only beaten one team with a winning record, and that came way back in Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers

    Since Week 4, the Raiders have been beaten by double-digits six time, and the end of their ineptitude does not appear to be in sight. 

    In recent weeks, the Panthers have looked like the team the fanbase expected to be at the start of the season. Although it's too little too late to make a late playoff push, playing quality football is never a bad thing.  

    This game is another opportunity for the Panthers to lay the groundwork for a successful 2013. 

    If the Panthers dominate in the following key areas, then they will have no problem vanquishing the dreaded Silver and Black 

Get the Raiders off the Field on 3rd Down

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    One of the keys to winning is getting the opposing offense off the field, which makes third down crucial. 

    Part of the Oakland Raiders' struggles stem from their inefficiency on third down, as they have converted on just 34.2 percent of them. That paltry conversion percentage puts the Raiders in 26th place in the category.

    Unfortunately for the Raiders, the Carolina Panthers defense has played very well on third down this season. 

    The Panthers have surrendered first downs on third down just 37.1 percent of the time, which is ranked 11th in the NFL. 

    If the Raiders offense cannot move the chains on third down, then it will fail to find a rhythm. If that's the case, the Panthers will win the game by double-digits.  

Take Care of the Ball

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    The Carolina Panthers can beat any team in the league when they take care of the ball, but are not good enough to overcome those mistakes. 

    For evidence, just take a look at the loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 8. The Panthers dominated the entire game, but were undone by a Cam Newton pick-six late in the fourth quarter. 

    The Panthers turnover differential currently sits out plus-two, which is ranked 10th in the NFC. The turnover differential has improved in recent weeks, primarily due to Newton's strong play. 

    Newton has not turned the ball over once in his last five games, which is one of the reasons why he has the highest Quarterback Rating over that time span. 

    Turnovers are the great equalizer, and the Panthers don't need to give any gifts to an inferior Oakland Raiders team. 

Slow Down the Radiers Passing Attack

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    While the Oakland Raiders are a gloomy 4-10, their passing attack has actually done a fair amount of damage. 

    Quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown for 3,987 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing 14 interceptions. This isn't to say that Palmer is among the league's elite, but he does have the arm to get the job done. 

    Palmer has a few speedy wideouts at his disposal, as both Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey are both deep threats down the field. 

    The Raiders have the weapons to pick up chunks of yards on the Panthers secondary, which means that Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy will be counted upon to generate a menacing pass rush. 

Establish the Run Early

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    The Oakland Raiders rushing defense has had a rough season, as it has surrendered an average of 122.5 yards per game on the ground. 

    The Panthers should look to exploit the Raiders' shaky front seven early and often.  

    The coaching staff should unleash Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart on the Raiders defense, as that trio should dominate running the ball.  

    A productive run game is a key component to a successful offense. If the Panthers rushing attack gets going, it will make Newton's job from the pocket much easier.

Put Pressure on Carson Palmer

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    The Oakland Raiders offensive line has done a good job protecting Carson Palmer this season, as he has only been sacked 26 times in 368 dropbacks.

    In fact, pass protection is one of the few areas in which the Raiders stack up favorably in comparison to the rest of the league's teams.

    The Panthers pass rush has had some superb games, like the seven-sack performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4 and the six sacks compiled against Jay Cutler's Chicago Bears in Week 8.

    Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy should have plenty of opportunities to get pressure on Palmer because the Raiders will likely be playing from behind. 

Convert Inside the Red Zone

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    Converting for touchdowns inside the red zone is key every week.

    The Carolina Panthers are heavy favorites in this game because they are simply the better team. That being said, they still need to outplay the Oakland Raiders on the field. 

    One of the quickest ways to be upset is to settle for field goals inside the red zone, which, to their credit, is something the Panthers have avoided this season. 

    According to TeamRankings.com, the Panthers rank sixth in the league in terms of red-zone possessions which end in touchdowns. 

    Cam Newton is arguably the league's most dangerous red-zone weapon, as his size, speed and field vision are unique to him. 

    The Panthers' red-zone efficiency will likely determine how close the game is in the fourth quarter. 

Keep Darren McFadden Under Control

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    Darren McFadden is one of the league's most injury-prone players, as the Arkansas Razorback alumnus missed four games this season after missing the majority of the 2011 season. 

    When he is able to stay on the field, though, McFadden is as explosive as any other running back. 

    The Oakland Raiders offense is most efficient when they can get the ball to McFadden in space, which means that the Panthers defense must be mindful of him at all times. 

    While the Oakland offensive line has done an admirable job in pass protection, they have not enjoyed that same level of success in terms of run blocking. 

    The Raiders are averaging just 89.9 yards on the ground per game, which is the fourth-lowest across the entire league. 

    Shutting down the run game would make the Raiders offense one-dimensional, which would make life a lot easier for the Panthers defense. 

Let the Game Unfold

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    While the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders will both miss the playoffs, they are in a very different place.  

    The Panthers have won three of their last four games, while the Raiders have only managed to win one game since Week 8. Carolina is entering this matchup with all of the momentum, which is something that should not be overlooked. 

    The Raiders will be traveling across the country to play in a game that means virtually nothing and will have to contend with Cam Newton once they take the field.

    Everything points to a Panthers win, which means that the coaching staff should call the game in a somewhat conservative manner. 

    The Raiders will have a hard time winning this game without help, so it's imperative that the Panthers play mistake-free football. 

Get Steve Smith Involved in the Offense

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    Steve Smith is the Carolina Panthers most explosive offensive weapon outside of Cam Newton, as the franchise's all-time receiving leader is still dangerous on the outside. 

    So far this season, Smith has hauled in 66 passes for 1,056 yards and three touchdowns. While he has not found the end zone enough, it's hard to blame him for that. 

    The Panthers do not tend to look Smitty's way inside the red zone, as they prefer to either run the ball or look Greg Olsen's way. 

    When Smith is a productive member of the offense, it opens up the coverage for Olsen, Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy. 

    The Oakland Raiders pass defense is ranked 27th in the league, so Smith should have no problems finding holes in their secondary. 

Be Weary of Tyvon Branch

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    Tyvon Branch may be the best player on the Oakland Raiders roster, as he is one of the NFL's premier strong safeties. 

    The Raiders will line Branch up all over the field in an attempt to confuse Cam Newton, which means that the Panthers' young signal-caller needs to account for him on every play. 

    Branch is the team's second-leading tackler, which speaks to how involved he is against the run. 

    Oakland may look to blitz Branch more this week, as his speed and tackling ability could cause problems for the Panthers rushing attack. 

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