As the NFL season heads down the stretch run, anxious fans everywhere are familiar with their team's remaining schedule.
Some games are chalked up as gimme-wins, while others are looked at as forget-about-it losses.
A week ago, Raiders fans were crossing off the Week 14 visit to Green Bay as a sure loss. And that was okay. Oakland was 7-4, riding a three-game winning streak, a hot Michael Bush and a dangerous front seven.
The schedule suggested a move to 8-4 was probable, with a visit to the 3-8 Dolphins looming. Miami had not beaten a .500 team all season, and the Raiders were playing good football of late.
An 8-4 record and retention of the division lead would allow them to lose in Green Bay and either still lead or be tied with the Denver Broncos. Even in a tie at that point, the Raiders would be in a good position with the reeling Lions and Chargers coming to Oakland, with their only road game against the beatable Chiefs. An 11-5 finish would certainly either garner a division title or wild-card berth.
But after an embarrassing blowout loss in Miami, the Packers game this Sunday suddenly changes in nature. Fans can no longer write it off as a losable game; the Broncos are tied for the divisional lead and hold the tiebreaker. The Bengals, Titans and Jets are all tied with Oakland for the final wild-card spot, but Cincinnati and Tennessee both have a chance to win out.
The Packer game is not a "must win," but the difference between a win and a loss in Green Bay could ultimately equal the difference between a playoff berth or a narrow miss once the season is over.
After nearly falling to the New York Giants last week, Green Bay has proven that they are not shoe-ins for an undefeated season. If they are inching closer to their first loss, it is not inconceivable that the inconsistent but sometimes dominant Oakland Raiders could be the team that hands it to them.
But there are some things that must go right for a Raider win to be a real possibility.
Ever since going down with a mid-foot sprain back in Week 7, Darren McFadden has watched his team from the sidelines. And while the team has lost three times in his absence, his absence is not to blame for the losses.
Michael Bush rushed for at least 96 yards in the first four weeks of McFadden's absence. In game No. 5 as the starter, Bush was slowed slightly by the Bears' stout defense, but got the job done with some gutsy fourth quarter running.
Last week, Bush was completely stopped by Miami, as he put up only 18 yards on 10 carries.
Bush is a big, physical runner who punishes teams inside the tackles and wears down tacklers throughout the game. He forces teams to load the box, and this has allowed the Raiders to open up the passing game.
However, with each passing week of a Raider rushing attack sans Darren McFadden, defenses are becoming more and more aware of its weaknesses. Bush is not effective bouncing to the outside, so teams have been applying more and more pressure up the middle. This is forcing the Raiders to give him the ball less, which makes the passing game more predictable.
The Dolphins perfected this approach: They jumped out to an early lead by clogging the middle as the Raiders tried to run over them. Once ahead by 13 in the second quarter, Miami forced the Raiders to try to come back through the air.
As a result, the Dolphins were able to dial up more blitzes and drop extra DBs into zone coverage, shutting down the passing game until the Dolphins put the game out of reach.
Darren McFadden returning would stop the Packers from doing this. If Green Bay clogs up the middle, D-Mac will bounce runs to the outside, receive pitches and catch balls in the flat. This will tire out Green Bays linebackers and secondary, which will allow the Raiders to use Bush as a punishing bruiser later in the game and allow McFadden and the WRs to break some big plays.
Beating Green Bay will require lots of touchdowns, and only a Raiders offense featuring McFadden will score lots of touchdowns.
The Packers have won all of their games this season in similar fashion. They get into a shootout with their opponents, and their opponents can't keep up. As the Packers march down the field and score time after time, opposing teams feel more and more pressured to strike back.
Not only can't these teams keep up with Green Bay's passing game, but their aggressiveness allows Green Bay to anticipate passes. This in turn allows the Packers to dial up blitzes and rack up sacks.
QBs then feel pressured to make downfield throws more quickly, which allows the Packers to make interceptions that they, of course, capitalize on.
Even before the Packers pull away, teams pass the ball frantically, anticipating an inevitable strike from Rodgers on Green Bays upcoming possession. The Raiders must avoid this trap, and the simplest and only way to that is to grab an early lead.
If the Raiders can punch the ball in on their first or second possession, they can take Green Bay's own game to them. Not only will the Raiders be able to run the ball more effectively once they have the lead, but they will be able to pass rush Rodgers more aggressively.
If the Raiders score an early TD, trade some field goals and establish the running game, they will enter halftime in position to withstand Green Bay's inevitable push.
For the Raiders to win this game, they will need to win the time of possession battle. In order to do this, two things must happen: The Raiders need to run the ball often and effectively, and they need to convert on third downs.
In order to run the ball effectively, they must do the things covered in slides one and two: have a healthy McFadden and score first. If they do this, they can open up Green Bays defense, keeping their LBs moving sideline to sideline with outside runs and misdirection, and later pounding them with inside runs once they're tired. This will eat up clock and keep the score from getting out of hand
In order for the Raiders offense to not only keep the clock running but stay on the field, it must convert on third downs. This will require picking up positive yardage on first and second down, making third downs tougher to defend. Green Bay can dial up the pressure on 3rd-and-11 and force punt after punt, but it's a different story on 3rd-and-5.
With managible third downs, Carson Palmer can look to his big targets such as Kevin Boss, Chaz Schillens and Denarius Moore. If Green Bay is playing pass all the way, he can look to Darren McFadden in the flat, or even hand it to him on a draw here and there.
Moving the chains is the No. 1 way to stop Green Bay's offense.
Let's look at the Packers-Lions Thanksgiving day game. The Lions moved the ball more effectively than Green Bay in the first half. Had they played a mistake-free game, they would have gone into halftime with the lead and a good chance to knock off the Packers.
Instead, they did anything but. They took penalty after penalty, setting potential scoring drives back and ultimately killing them. Matthew Stafford also threw a needless interception that gave Green Bay great field position and led to the Packers only TD.
Ndamukong Suh also took a terrible penalty that cost his team four points as well as their best pass rusher. The Packers put up a comfortable lead, and once they do that it's over.
The first issue is the penalties. Green Bay has a defense that is not going to stop a good offense from putting up yards. The Raiders have a very good offense, but if they pick up costly penalties, something they are prone to doing, the Packers will get away with their imperfect defense.
If the Raiders do play penalty-free, they can stay on the field, keep momentum on their drives and ultimately punch in one extra TD or a couple extra FGs that could swing momentum, if not actually decide the game.
The second issue is turnovers. The Packers don't turn the ball over, and there isn't much to do about that. But they do create a ton of turnovers, and this often gives them great field position. Aaron Rodgers with great field position equals touchdowns.
To keep the game close, the Raiders cannot afford to turn the ball over at all. This will require them establishing the run, taking a lead so that they can play more conservatively once in FG range, and Carson Palmer making some good throws. Simple as that.
The final issue is stupid defensive penalties. The Packers are going to score some touchdowns and put together some long drives no matter what. But the Raiders will also get some stops. What the Raiders cannot do is spot Green Bay extra scoring drives by taking automatic first down penalties or costly penalties on third down.
You never know until a drive is over whether it would result in a punt, an FG or a TD, but if the Raiders turn even one punt-destined drive into a FG, or one FG-destined drive into a TD, they may not overcome it.
I have laid out a list of things that must happen in order for Oakland to have a chance to win this game come the closing minutes. But ultimately, Aaron Rodgers has proven to be unstoppable with the game in the balance. And the Raiders cannot expect anything different. If the Raiders are up a field goal with 5:00 left, you can bet they're still going to need another TD to win the game.
While the Packer offense may be unstoppable, the Packer defense is not unbeatable. And if the Raiders are in this game late, it may come down to a big play that the Raiders do or don't make. Oakland has a bevy of talented playmakers at every skill position. Darrius Heyward-Bey. Denarius Moore. Jacoby Ford. Chaz Schillens. Kevin Boss. Marcel Reese. Darren McFadden. Michael Bush.
Carson Palmer has the arm and the Raiders have the line to hit one of these guys deep or open up a gaping hole for one of them. Green Bay has a system that is built to win games, but if the Raiders steps up and scores a late TD, they may leave Green Bay out of answers.