Oakland Raiders: 5 Things That Need To Happen for Them To Win AFC West
Worse, the Raiders’ current two-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 80-30 actually feels like a longer losing streak. Worse, given that the Broncos have won six games in a row, Oakland must feel like they're on a three-game losing streak. The Raiders have seen their two-game lead in the division turn into a one-game deficit, with three games to go.
Such is life in the NFL.
Some Raiders fans have been calling for the head (or hand) of quarterback Carson Palmer, whose mishandling performance on offense of late has not warranted any laurels, for sure. Other critics point to coach Hue Jackson’s hugely risky decision-making as an influence of the team’s disrupted focus and mindset. All the while, injuries have hamstrung the lightning-quick abilities of Oakland’s offense.
And yet through it all—the injuries, the colossal defeats, the wide receiver carousel, the death of owner Al Davis—the Raiders find themselves in a position they have not recognized for nearly eight years—the playoff hunt.
But in order for Oakland to achieve their rather impudent prophecy of winning the division, they’ll have to have a few balls bounce their way. Moreover, the following things need to happen in order for them to make the playoffs.
Score Early and Often
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Much has been said about the Raiders’ offensive ineptitude of late, due in large part to the overall lack of health during this season.
From quarterback Jason Campbell to starting running back Darren McFadden to wide receiver Jacoby Ford to tight end Kevin Boss to backup wide receiver Denarius Moore to backup backup running back Taiwan Jones, the Raiders offense has been decimated by the injury bug. As a result, points have not come as frequently or with as much as ease as the team would have hoped.
Thus, the Raiders have struggled to move the ball consistently during each game. This includes tremendously slow starts out of the gate and nearly identical difficulty closing out games when Oakland does have a lead in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders rank 25th in the NFL in points scored in the first quarter, mustering a measly three points per game. Conversely, they have given up nearly twice that on defense, allowing 5.8 points per first quarter—ranking 27th in the league. Apparently the decimated offensive roster and Carson Palmer’s acclimation to the playbook has equated to a several deficits, meaning the Raiders have been uncomfortably playing from behind.
Additionally, with the fact that McFadden has been out of the loop, Oakland has not been able to establish the run early and often, having to rely on Palmer's rusty throwing hand instead.
But playing from behind is not the Raiders' strong suit, as they do not have the team chemistry nor the team discipline to overcome in-game obstacles. With the amount of bravado that Jackson and the current roster possesses, Oakland is more dangerous and confident as a team that plays with a lead. The defense plays looser. The offense starts clicking. Trick plays actually work.
But it's all dependent upon scoring early.
Oakland needs a way to find the end zone in the first quarters. Otherwise, they'll be chasing for the remainder of the season.
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The NFL likes to remind us that there are three facets to a complete football team—offense, defense and special teams. So, in order to alleviate some of the pressure that the Raiders' offense has had while their arsenal is in the infirmary room, the defense could help out their counterparts by scoring some points of their own. Especially so long as key return men Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore continue to be grounded.
With points coming infrequently on offense and special teams as of late, it would be tremendously helpful for the team if the Raiders were able to put up points on defense. Or at least come close.
Last week's safety by linebacker Rolando McClain, against Green Bay, were the first points scored by the Raiders defense. However, going into Week 15, Oakland is one of only five teams that have not scored a defensive touchdown—via interception or fumble recovery. And the Raiders only rank 30th in forced fumbles.
This lack of defensive contribution may suggest that the Raiders do not have game-changing play-makers on that side of the ball. A closer look verifies that although the Raiders have 15 interceptions on the season, a considerable fraction of them are on the last series of the game or first half, when Oakland's defensive backs are against the wall. In only a few instances have their interceptions been returned for solid gains. Thus, Oakland has not been able to capitalize on the change in field position.
It would be alleviating, however, to have the defense step up early and make some key plays, to put the offense in position to score. Because if the offense is sputtering out the gate and the special teams burners idling, the Raiders' best scoring threat may be on defense.
Healthy Running Back...Taiwan Jones
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Since Darren McFadden blew one of his tires in Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Raiders' running game has been stalling in stop-and-go traffic.
Though Michael Bush has filled in admirably for the past six games, Oakland's ground game has gone stale. It lacks the electrifying panache that made the offense so explosive. It's missing the big-play ability of Taiwan Jones.
Yes, the Taiwan Jones.
Absolutely, the Raiders need McFadden back in the lineup. There's no doubt that McFadden's potential to break a short run into a 50-yard gain, in addition to his pass-catching skill, have been a missing link. His speed around the corner and through the holes offset the ground-and-pound North-South running of Bush.
But the Raiders do not know when McFadden will return. And until they have a better idea of when he will be healthy again, Oakland needs a player to back Bush up. The dynamism of having both styles in the running game certainly keeps defenses on their toes. A between-the-tackles runner offsetting a flash-and-dash sprinter is the vogue of the NFL today. That's where Jones comes in.
Jones is a burner. He's one of the fastest players in the league, making him a perfect fit for the Raiders. But he also has been hampered, by a hamstring injury. And his absence has affected the diversity of the Raiders' running game. With neither McFadden nor Jones in the lineup, opposing defenses can key in on Bush and wear him down throughout the game.
Though the Raiders would obviously love to have McFadden back, it's a mystery as to when he will be able to suit up again this season. He has not returned to practice since his injury. And there are only three games left on the schedule. The more likely running back to return is Jones. And if the Raiders want to have an offense that's a perfect balance of the ground game and passing game, they'll need a equal dosage of Bush and Jones.
Of course, McFadden would be nice, too.
The Return of Jason Campbell as Starter
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If the Raiders are going to win out, Jason Campbell has to be the starter. He needs to start. One way or another.
Either coach Hue Jackson comes to his senses and realizes that Campbell plays mistake-free football or Carson Palmer sustains some ailment that forces Campbell into the game or the ghost of Al Davis orders Jackson to play Campbell. Whatever needs to happen, the Raiders’ best shot at winning the AFC West is with Campbell.
Or rather without Palmer.
Palmer has done a formidable job of filling in as the Raiders’ starting quarterback. Especially considering he had no minicamp or preseason or OTAs or anything really. For him to waltz onto the field after some considerable time off—it’s impressive enough that he has a 3-3 record this season as their starter.
But let’s take note: Palmer isn’t Brett Favre—a bionic anomaly. Palmer is an above-average quarterback who, like most above-average quarterbacks, probably needed to dust off the rust before embarking on a serious mid-season playoff push for a starving Oakland franchise. The odds for even a player like Favre would be long.
That's why it should come as no surprise that Palmer has been off the mark in his tenure as the starting QB. His 13 interceptions in six-and-a-half games is no surprise. His 56.2 completion percentage is no surprise. Neither is his 14 sacks taken or 70.8 quarterback rating. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most surprise, Palmer’s performance thus far has been about a five.
Right where you’d expect it to be considering his layoff. The Raiders should pat Palmer on the back and thank him for the decent job he’s done under center—keeping the team in the hunt.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jackson has to ride Palmer to the end, especially if Campbell finds himself healthy this week or next.
Tim Tebow Loses a Game...or Leg
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As some people might be aware, the Denver Broncos, led by quarterback Tim Tebow, have won six games in a row, vaulting from near oblivion to the top of the AFC West.
Tebow's magic has swept the NFL and the nation, as he has engineered Denver's miraculous run into the playoff picture.
And Raiders fans cannot be more disgusted.
Worse of it all is the fact that this six-game run began with a come-from-behind defeat of the Raiders, at the Coliseum. Oakland had led by 10 points toward the end of the third quarter, before Tebow jumped out of the phone booth and guided the Broncos to 24 unanswered points to close out the win.
Since then, Tebow has not only catapulted Denver atop the division, but has the spotlight shining away from a now dismal black hole in Oakland.
Just a few weeks ago, pundits still had the Raiders to finish as AFC West champs. But as the offense continues to sputter and the defense continues to disappear, Oakland no longer controls its own playoff destiny. Help is needed. They need to start Tebowing, praying for a Denver collapse the rest of the way.
Fortunately for Oakland, Denver's schedule isn't easy. The Broncos face the New England Patriots this Sunday and then travel on the road to a frosty Buffalo a short six days later to face the Bills, before finishing at home against Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the Raiders have a slightly tougher task, needing to beat the Detroit Lions at home this weekend, then face a formidable Kansas City team at Arrowhead Stadium and finish at home against the charging San Diego Chargers.
It looks a bit daunting for the Raiders. And it doesn't help that even if they do win out, the Broncos need to likely lose two games in order for Oakland to avoid any tie-breaking scenarios—should they finish with identical records.
Thus, the Raiders must pray and pray hard for Tim Tebow to run out of miracles. Heck, they should line up at the mall and tell Santa that what they want for the holidays is for Denver to lose out.
It might be the only way Oakland will make the playoffs.