They say everything is bigger in Texas.
Well folks, this game is about as big as October games get.
If that seems like a preposterous statement to you, just follow me for a second: The Oakland Raiders are visiting the Houston Texans with a 2-2 record. Following their Texas trip, the Raiders have three straight home games where they face Cleveland, Kansas City and Denver. Those should be three victories for the Silver and Black, so even if the Raiders lose to Houston, they would have five wins halfway through the season (5-3).
Now here’s where it gets tricky.
Five games after Denver are possible losses: road games at Green Bay (good luck), at Detroit (Lions looking good), at Minnesota (Vikings have kept every game close) and at San Diego (always a close game), and a home game against Chicago (solid defense). I’ll grant you the Raiders should win at Miami and at Kansas City, and are a good bet to beat the Chargers at home. But where does that leave us?
That leaves Raider Nation at 8-8, exactly where it was last year—and most importantly, out of the playoffs. It’s hard to be a bully when you’re watching the postseason from your couch.
Which brings us back to Houston. That long and drawn-out explanation illustrates just how important this game is. If the Raiders win this game, they probably end the first half of the season at 6-2, which would be tremendous. That means a .500 record the rest of the way gets them in at 10-6, likely as division champs, and a division championship means some sucker wild-card team gets to visit the Black Hole.
And you thought that crowd was rowdy for the Jets game—you ain’t seen nothing yet.
But first things first: The Raiders have to beat the rejuvenated Texans. Here’s how they can do it.
Enjoy a Foster Freeze
No, not that tasty fast food place—they have to freeze out the now-healthy Arian Foster. The consensus No. 1 fantasy pick finally performed like it last week, pounding the once-proud Steelers for 155 yards on 30 carries.
Although I was glad he scored points for my fantasy team, the Raiders need to shut Foster down if they want to win this game. They need to put eight men in the box and dare Matt Schaub to beat them.
Now, testing Schaub might seem like a foolish proposition—after all, he’s no Tarvaris Jackson; Schaub is actually a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. But he’ll be without his favorite weapon on Sunday: Andre Johnson.
The second-best receiver in the league (behind only “Megatron,” Calvin Johnson) will miss the game with an injury, which is a hell of a break for the Raiders. The remaining receivers don’t inspire much fear in defenses: Kevin Walter, Bryant Johnson and Jacoby Jones. They’re decent enough, but if I’m Raider defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, I’ll load up against the run and take my chances. And for God’s sake, Chuck, please blitz.
Open up the Passing Game
As I detailed in my game analysis on Sunday, Jason Campbell tried to keep up with Tom Brady in a shootout, and Brady predictably ate his lunch. I like Campbell, and he’s made more smart decisions than dumb ones this season, but it’s time to earn your paycheck.
Campbell has checked down to short passes far too often this season, and that’s causing Raider drives to stall. Darren McFadden leads the team in receptions (15) and overall, 29 of Campbell’s 79 completions have gone to running backs or fullbacks. In fairness, the team has been ravaged by receiver injuries, but rookie Denarius Moore has performed well and even Darrius Heyward-Bey has shown improvement this year.
Coach Hue Jackson has shown great creativity in his play-calling, but it’s time for Campbell to start hitting some more eight- to 12-yard slants and 10-yard comeback routes. The Raiders also signed big, reliable tight end Kevin Boss in the offseason—use him! The NFL has become a passing league, so the Raiders need to start slinging it around a little more. We know McFadden is a great back, but Campbell has to start making defenses fear him more or they’ll just load up the box to stop the run.
Stop Settling and Be Aggressive
We were all very impressed by Sebastian Janikowski’s 63-yard field goal against Denver. Personally, I wasn’t shocked he made it, because Raider fans know he can kick the hell out of the ball. When coach Lane Kiffin put him out there for the infamous 76-yard field goal, I believed Janikowski actually had a shot at it—he probably did, too.
But just because Janikowski can make long field goals doesn’t mean you should constantly settle for them. Jackson seems to prefer the three points to going for it on fourth down, but I got news for you, Hue: You lose 100 percent of the bets you don’t make. It’s time to bully your way to some fourth-down conversions.
In the new-look NFL, where passing yards are racking up like new checking account fees, you can’t trade field goals for touchdowns all game. Should you go for it on 4th-and-15 from the 50-yard line? Probably not. But in last week’s game against New England, Oakland had a 4th-and-3 at the 8-yard line and settled for a field goal. That made the score 24-13—but if the Raiders get a touchdown there, it’s 24-17 and suddenly the crowd is pumped up because it’s a one-score game. Maybe the ending turns out different.
Time to gamble a little, Hue.