The Oakland Raiders entered their bye week at 4-3, and you get the feeling that they're at a major crossroads in their 2011 season.
The Raiders will come out of the bye and face two straight division opponents—games which could decide whether they really are playoff contenders or not.
Here are four keys to the rest of the season for the Oakland Raiders.
Darren McFadden injured his foot in the Week 7 loss to Kansas City. Losing McFadden early in the game was one of the reasons the Raiders were shut out at home by the Chiefs. He’s listed as questionable for the Raiders' Week 9 contest vs. Denver.
The medical exam revealed no structural damage to his right foot, and the problem was diagnosed as a severe sprain.
While Michael Bush is certainly a capable running back, he's not McFadden. The Raiders need him back if they're going to make a run at the AFC West title.
The injury to McFadden makes Carson Palmer’s ability to step in and lead the team all the more critical. His disastrous performance against Kansas City was written off as an anomaly, since Palmer wasn’t supposed to play at all until he had more time to get up to speed on the Raider playbook.
But with two weeks to prepare, Palmer won’t be given the same luxury if he doesn’t produce against the Broncos.
Janikowski has had an incredible year. In addition to tying the record for longest field goal in NFL history, he has shown his usual accuracy, making 12 of his 13 field-goal attempts.
Additionally, Janikowski has taken full advantage of the NFL’s move of the kickoff yard line, booming touchbacks at a 55.9 percent rate.
Janikowski missed the Kansas City game because of a hamstring injury, but the kicker the Raiders signed to fill in for him, Dave Rayner, has already been cut. Rayner’s release seems to signal that Janikowski will be back for the Denver game.
Nothing says “bad defense” more than being torched by a division opponent at home. But the 28-0 spanking that the Chiefs put on the Raiders wasn’t entirely the defense’s fault, as Kansas City returned two of the Raiders' six interceptions for touchdowns.
There are major issues on defense, though. The Raiders rank 25th in the league in pass defense, and their secondary is especially banged up, with defensive backs Chris Johnson, Chimdi Chekwa, Michael Huff and Matt Giordano all nursing injuries.
The defense has to get better, particularly downfield, for the Raiders to make a run at the playoffs.