Khalil Mack and the Raiders look for their second win over the Texans this season to kick off the NFL playoffs
For the second straight season, the Houston Texans will host a wild card game. The hope is that this year’s matchup goes a lot better than last year’s 30-0 loss to Kansas City.
The Texans’ (9-7) opponent this time will be another AFC West team, the Oakland Raiders. Entering the last week of the regular season, the Raiders (12-4) had an opportunity to clinch the division and more importantly, a first-round bye, but they fell to Denver 24-6. With the Chiefs defeating the Chargers, the Raiders fell all the way to the No. 5 seed.
Unlike Houston, Oakland doesn’t have any recent playoff experience. This will be the first time the Raiders have played in a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII when they lost 48-21 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Saturday also is a rematch from earlier in the season, when Oakland beat Houston 27-20 in Mexico City in Week 11. The Texans hold a 6-4 series advantage in the all-time series with this being the first playoff meeting.
AFC Wild Card: Oakland at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN/ABC
Spread: Houston -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Brock Osweiler vs. Raiders’ Pass Rushers
Sometimes during the playoffs, you get a matchup between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Eli Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers or all of the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning pairings. But Saturday’s pairing at NRG Stadium is anything but with Osweiler starting for Houston and rookie Connor Cook at the helm for Oakland.
Osweiler started most of this season, but was benched and replaced by Tom Savage in the Texans’ Week 15 21-20 home victory over Jacksonville. But last week, Savage sustained a concussion in the loss to Tennessee with Osweiler taking his place.
In the 24-17 loss to the Titans, Osweiler finished 21 of 40 passing, as he threw for 253 yards and a touchdown. Despite signing a four-year, $72 million contract, Osweiler hasn’t played like a franchise quarterback.
In 15 games, Osweiler has 2,957 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while completing just 59 percent of his attempts. He will have his hands full against the Raiders’ potent pass rush.
Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin have combined for 18 sacks thus far. Mack had just once in the earlier meeting between the two teams, but he had five last season when Osweiler was starting for Denver.
2. Connor Cook vs. Texans’ Defense
Although Osweiler has experience under center, Cook will be making his first career start. It will mark the first time a rookie quarterback has made his first start in a playoff game.
Last week against Denver, Cook saw his first action when Matt McGloin, who was starting in place of injured Pro Bowler Derek Carr, injured his shoulder in the second quarter. Cook entered and led the Raiders to their only score of the game as he threw a touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the third quarter. The fourth-round pick (No. 100 overall) out of Michigan State finished the game 14 of 21 for 150 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 24-6 loss.
Cook will have a tough test facing the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense. Houston is allowing 301.3 yards per game. The difference-maker for the Texans hasn’t been three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who played in just one game because of back injury, but former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
In his third season, Clowney finally established himself as a force, making his first Pro Bowl in the process. While he’s had to deal with some nagging injuries, Clowney has recorded 52 tackles, six sacks and a forced fumble. Besides Clowney, Cook also will have to worry about Whitney Mercilus, who leads Houston with 7.5 sacks.
3. Lamar Miller
Houston’s best chance to win on Saturday will probably ride on the shoulders and legs of Miller. In 14 games this season, Miller has 1,073 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His production has been limited somewhat by a nagging ankle injury that caused him to miss the last two games.
Miller will be facing an Oakland defense that has been one of the worse against the run. The Raiders are giving up an average of 117.6 rushing yards per game, which puts them 23rd in the NFL. They also have surrendered 18 touchdowns on the ground (25th).
In the first meeting back in Week 11, Miller ran for 104 yards and a score. Unless Osweiler shows an ability to consistently beat Oakland through the air, the offensive burden will all on Miller once again. The Raiders need to do a better job of limiting Miller, especially considering their own quarterback concerns.
With starting quarterback Derek Carr leading the way, many thought Oakland had an opportunity to challenge New England for AFC supremacy in the playoffs. With Carr out with a broken fibula and back Matt McGloin dealing with a shoulder injury, the Raiders must now rely on rookie Connor Cook to help them keep their season alive.
To take pressure off of Cook, Oakland will need to establish its running game with Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington. The problem is, Houston’s rushing defense gives up 99.7 yards per game on the ground. If Cook is in a lot of 3rd-and-long situations throughout the day, it could spell trouble for the Raiders’ offense.
Even though Houston’s Brock Osweiler hasn’t been great by any means, he does have experience, although none in the postseason. If the Texans can get Lamar Miller going, that could potentially set up some big plays down the field to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the team’s other targets.
Against a struggling Denver offense last week, Oakland gave up 349 yards and 24 points. Saturday’s game may not be pretty, but the Texans should come away with the victory, their first in the postseason since the 2012 playoffs.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Brock Osweiler photo courtesy of www.houstontexans.com)