While the Oakland Raiders are having their best season since 2002, the Carolina Panthers are suffering from a bit of a Super Bowl hangover.
Carolina (4-6) did defeat New Orleans last week 23-20, but it didn’t come without a cost. The Panthers’ best player, linebacker Luke Kuechly, a three-time All-Pro and the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was carted off of the field after suffering a concussion in the fourth quarter. He didn’t practice all week and will not play this afternoon.
This past Monday night In Mexico City, Oakland (8-2) was able to come away with a hard fought 27-20 victory over Houston. It took a little bit of the time for the Raiders to find their rhythm, but 14 straight points in the fourth quarter got the job done. Now on a short week, Oakland looks to maintain its lead not only in the AFC West, but also as the top seed in the conference overall with a fifth straight win..
This will be the sixth all-time meeting between the two teams with Carolina leading 3-2. In the last meeting in 2012, Cam Newton totaled 230 yards of offense and two touchdowns as the Panthers won in Charlotte, 17-6.
Carolina at Oakland
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 27 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Oakland -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Cam Newton
The MVP in 2015, Newton has not been the same dominant player to this point this season. In nine games (missed one due to a concussion), he has 2,186 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, along with 268 rushing yards and four more scores. Even though the numbers may not be as impressive, Newton still poses problems for Oakland’s defense.
The Raiders are giving up 115.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks them in the bottom third (24th) of the NFL. Carolina has always loved to run the ball under head coach Ron Rivera, so expect to see plenty of Jonathan Stewart and Newton, especially around the goal line.
Oakland has fared even worse, statistically, against the pass. The Raiders are 28th in the league at 277.9 passing yards per game. Whether it’s with his legs or his arm, Newton should have plenty of opportunities to make some plays against this defense, and it’s up to Oakland to limit the damage.
2. Khalil Mack
One of the players who will play a critical role in trying to slow down Newton and the Carolina offense is Oakland’s All-Pro linebacker/defensive end. After getting off to a slow start, Mack has been on a tear recently with a sack in six straight games. He has totaled seven alone in his last five contests, the third-most in the league in that span.
The Panthers have given up 25 sacks this season, which is the ninth most among teams. So expect Mack and the other Oakland pass rushers to try to add to that total this afternoon.
3. A.J. Klein
With Kuechly out because of a concussion, Klein will likely get the start at middle linebacker. He will have the tough task of trying to replace one of the league’s best players.
Klein has been with the Panthers for four seasons and has recorded 123 tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles during his career. This opportunity to start could be extra beneficial for Klein, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Even if he doesn’t re-sign with Carolina, the 25-year-old could show 31 other teams that he’s capable of starting for them.
The loss of Luke Kuechly in the middle could leave a huge hole in the Carolina defense. Oakland may try to run the ball even more than usual to see if it can take advantage.
If the Panthers can block Khalil Mack and give Cam Newton time in the pocket, their offense should be able to make plays in the passing game. The Raiders’ cornerbacks are one of the weak spots on defense and tall targets like wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess (both 6-5) and tight end Greg Olsen (6-6) may give Carolina the edge.
But in the end, Oakland’s offense also should be able to make a fair amount of plays and score plenty of points against a questionable Panthers defense. Derek Carr should continue this MVP-worthy campaign with a helping hand from wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, as the Raiders outlast Carolina in a high-scoring affair.
Prediction: Raiders 34, Panthers 31
— 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.