In the first half of the season, the Panthers earned a 6-2 record, including 5-0 at home, and 2-1 in their division. Carolina leads the NFC South, with the Buccaneers (6-3) and the Falcons (5-3) close behind.
The Raiders are 2-6, only good enough for third in the AFC West, one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. Oakland comes into the game on a two-game losing streak after getting blown off their own field by the Atlanta Falcons last week, 24-0.
The Panthers have struggled on the road this year, dropping games in Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Still, they edged the Chargers in the first week of the season. But they haven't played a team as bad as the Raiders outside of Charlotte yet.
Plus the Raiders are nothing to fear at McAfee Coliseum, as they're 1-3 at home.
The Panthers' rush defense, while ranked only 14th in the league, is still dynamite. Only one opposing rusher has gained 100 yards or more on the Panthers, and Carolina has seen some elite runners; LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Larry Johnson, and Matt Forte have all faced the Panthers' defense.
This already stifling unit should be even better this week as Raiders' rookie RB Darren McFadden likely won't play. McFadden has only had limited participation in practice this week. His backup, Justin Fargas, has been far less effective than the former Razorback, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and going without a touchdown this year.
The pass defense, ranked 11th, should have it just as easy as the rush defense. Raiders' QB JaMarcus Russell is playing like a major bust, completing only 49 percent of his passes with 1281 yards and six touchdowns.
Oakland's receivers don't make things any better for Russell. The leading receiver, tight end Zach Miller, only has 22 catches for 321 yards and one touchdown. Nobody has more than one touchdown catch.
Free agent pickup Javon Walker, who was expected to be a key contributor, has only thirteen catches for 169 yards and one score.
The Raiders are last in the NFL in scoring, averaging 13.4 points per game. The Panthers' defense ranks third in the league in scoring at 15.9 points per game.
Simply put, the Raiders are completely inept offensively. The Panthers' 8th ranked total defense shouldn't have any problem shutting Oakland down.
The Panthers' rush offense has been vital to their success. When Carolina runs for 100 yards or more, they're 6-0.
Oakland's run defense ranks 30th in the league; it allows 156.7 yards per game. The Panthers' rushing attack ranks 13th in the NFL at 113.9 yards per game. You can bet that even if Jonathan Stewart is forced to miss the game because of his sore heel, DeAngelo Williams won't have much trouble handling things on his own.
Williams could be on his way to his first 1,000-yard rushing season. He currently has 522 yards halfway through the season. If he reached 1,000 yards, he would be the first Panther to do it since Stephen Davis in 2003-04, the Panthers' Super Bowl season.
The Raiders' pass defense, despite the release of starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall earlier this week, is better than their run defense, but not by much.
Oakland still ranks 17th in the NFL in pass defense. But, they haven't played a game without Hall this year, and we don't know how much Hall's absence will impact the quality of Oakland's secondary.
With Hall gone, Stanford Routt will start at cornerback opposite Nnamdi Asomugha. Routt started 14 games for the Raiders in 2007 and notched 42 tackles, 7 pass deflections, and 3 interceptions.
The aforementioned Asomugha is suffering through a poor season. He has only 21 tackles and 3 deflections in 8 starts.
A member of the NY Giants' 2007 Super Bowl title team, safety Gibril Wilson is the best of Oakland's defensive backs. He has accumulated 72 tackles, which ties him for fourth in the NFL. But, the Raiders' defense is on the field a lot—34:31 per game, more than all but one defense. That's a lot of time, and a lot of chances, to make tackles.
The Panthers' air attack ranks 15th in the NFL at 213.5 yards per game. Steve Smith, Mushin Muhammad, and Jake Delhomme make a formidable trio in the passing game, and the Raiders shouldn't be able to do much to stop them.
The Panthers even have most of the advantages in the special teams department.
Oakland's kick returner, Johnnie Lee Higgins, averages 24 yards per return. Panthers return man Mark Jones averages 24.3 yards per return.
Raiders' placekicker Sebastian Janikowski is 14-of-18 on field goal attempts and perfect on PAT's. But, his longest field goal of the year is 57 yards, so if he kicks the ball straight, it's probably good.
Panthers' placekicker John Kasay is perfect on field goal tries and PAT's.
The only thing the Raiders have on the Panthers is punting. Oakland punter Shane Lechler averages 48.7 yards to the Panthers' Jason Baker's 46.5. Plus Lechler has landed 16 punts inside the opposing team's 20 to Baker's 14. What a huge difference that makes.
Raiders punt returner Higgins averages 9.1 yards per return, but Carolina's Jones averages 10.4 per.
Even though they have almost every advantage on the Raiders, the one thing the Panthers must avoid is playing down to Oakland. If they let up against the Raiders, anything can happen. But, John Fox got the team ready to play the Chiefs way back when. Why can't he get the team ready for this game?
There is every reason to think that the Panthers will blow the Raiders out. Their offense and defense is far superior to the Raiders' respective units. The Raiders are only better at punting.
If the Panthers don't win this game, they have no business in the playoffs.
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