By Sam McPherson
The 2016 NFL postseason has arrived, and for the first time since 2002, the Oakland Raiders received an invitation by virtue of their 12-4 record and second-place finish in the AFC West Division. By luck of the draw as the No. 5 seed in the AFC, the Silver & Black will travel to Houston this Saturday to face the Texans, winners of the AFC South Division and the No. 4 seed in the conference. This was the best possible landing spot for the Raiders once the division title faded away on Sunday with the Week 17 loss in Denver to the Broncos. Even though the Oakland organization is reeling from its quarterback injuries and resulting woes, the Texans are hardly a division champion to be feared.
Texans Season Record
Houston posted a 9-7 record this year to finish tied atop the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans, but the Texans won the tiebreak based on their 5-1 division record. The two teams split the regular-season match-ups, but Tennessee was just 2-4 in its division games. Houston posted two wins this year over other playoff teams along the way: A Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs and a Week 8 victory over the Lions. On the other side of the ledger, the Texans lost to three playoff teams by an average of 14 points, all on the road. Those defeats came at New England, in Mexico City against Oakland and Green Bay.
In that game against the Raiders, Houston took a 20-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to see the Oakland score two touchdowns in about six minutes to erase the lead and hang on for the 27-20 win. Of course, the key player in those two TDs for Oakland was QB Derek Carr, who will not play in this playoff game on Saturday. The Raiders may have posted a 12-4 record and earned that head-to-head win over the Texans, but they still must travel to Houston this time around and win on the road to advance in the postseason.
Texans On Offense
QB Brock Osweiler has been a polarizing figure this season for Houston, as he was a big free-agent acquisition who didn’t deliver on the value of his contract this year. Osweiler tossed more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15) this year, and his 72.2 QB rating ranked 29th out of 30 qualifying QBs this season. He also fumbled five times this season, although only one was recovered by the opponent. After some late-season drama where the Texans started Tom Savage instead, Houston head coach Bill O’Brien has confirmed it will be Osweiler starting on Saturday against Oakland. Savage has a concussion and may not clear league protocols by game time.
The mediocre QB play has affected the Texans, as they scored just 279 points this season (17.4 per game, fourth-worst mark in the league). Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins still caught 78 passes for 954 yards, and he’s dangerous every time the ball is thrown his way. Running backs Alfred Blue and Lamar Miller combined for 1,493 yards and six rushing TDs, giving the Houston offense some ability to move the ball consistently against weaker defenses against the run. Oakland’s run defense looked poor last week against the Broncos in Denver, so look for the Texans to try to establish the run early in Saturday’s game.
Texans On Defense
Everyone knows that defensive end J.J. Watt missed most of the season, but the Houston defense did not fall apart without its best player. In fact, the Texans finished first overall in total defense, which is measured by yards allowed. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney is the dominant force on the defense in Houston now, as he registered 129 tackles this season for the Texans. That was the 11th-best total in the NFL overall, and McKinney added five sacks as well.
Houston was just 12th in rushing yards allowed, so that was the “weakness” of the defense, although the Texans still held their opponents to under 100 yards a game on the ground on average (99.7). With the Raiders offensive line strength and three different running backs to use, Oakland will want to test that run defense early in the game, especially with its own inexperienced QB running the offense. No one else on the Houston defense had more than 65 tackles this season, so the Raiders will want to run away from McKinney.
Texans Players To Watch
Hopkins is really the big threat on offense, for if he can gain any separation from the Oakland cornerbacks, Osweiler can just throw the ball up there for him to catch. Last season playing with four different QBs, Hopkins had a season for the ages (111 receptions, 1,521 yards, 11 TDs). The Raiders don’t want him playing at that level on Saturday, so Oakland should rotate its pass defense in Hopkins’ direction and take its chances with Osweiler throwing elsewhere. On defense, no one has really stepped up to replace Watt as a disruptor in the backfield, so the Raiders just need to avoid running at McKinney while throwing quick passes to make sure DE Jadeveon Clowney (six sacks) and LB Whitney Mercilus (7.5 sacks) can’t get to the QB.
The Raiders cannot underestimate the Texans, despite Houston’s historic mediocrity. Remember, those 2010 Seahawks upset the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the first round, and those 2011 Broncos engineered an overtime upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers with QB Tim Tebow having the game of his professional life. Home teams, even bad ones, can catch lightning in a bottle come playoff time. That’s what Oakland has to be aware of, even though it has the superior roster—even with a third-string QB running the offense. Look for Osweiler to commit a few turnovers, allowing the Raiders to use their dominant offensive line to pave the way on the ground for a 27-14 victory on Saturday.