¡Vamos a Mexico!
The NFL hits the road for the latest stop in the league’s international initiative and heads to Mexico City for a “Monday Night Football” game from Estadio Azteca. The environment figures to be a wild one and the game carries plenty of playoff implications for both teams as one of the best defenses tries to slow down a hot-shot offense that has been rolling over opponents.
That would be the Oakland Raiders, fresh off their bye week and ready to lay claim to not just the division but home-field advantage as well. Quarterback Derek Carr has turned into a legitimate MVP candidate in leading the team’s resurgence and has benefitted from one of the best offensive lines in all of football. The team’s defense hasn’t quite gotten up to speed under new head coach Jack Del Rio but the Silver and Black are improving on that side of the ball and appear to be hitting their stride coming into this week.
On the flip side, the Houston Texans are benefitting from the relatively weak AFC South and are clinging to the division lead and a playoff home game to boot. Big free agent flashes Brock Osweiller and Lamar Miller haven’t quite panned out like the team had hoped but the defense remains among the stingiest in the NFL to help carry the team through whatever rough patches they may face. Last week’s win over Jacksonville was the team’s first road victory and head coach Bill O’Brien is hoping that the hard-fought game will help propel these Texans as they look ahead to the rest of the season.
This is only the 10th meeting between the franchises and will obviously be the first outside of either Oakland or Houston. The Texans own the slight 6-3 lead in the series but the pair has split the last four meetings dating back to 2010. It should make for a fun matchup between the two with playoff seeding on the line and in a fun atmosphere south of the border.
Houston vs. Oakland (Mexico City)
Kickoff: Monday, Nov. 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Raiders -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Containing Carr and Company
The Texans are third in the NFL in pass defense and have allowed just eight touchdown passes all season. They’ll be tested by what is perhaps their most talented opponent so far this year on Monday however as Derek Carr has been lighting things up ever since he took over under center for the Raiders. In addition to pressuring the still-young quarterback, trying to contain his productive receivers will be the top task for Romeo Crennel’s unit. Amari Cooper has proven to be one of the best young receivers in the game and running mate Michael Crabtree has flourished since moving across the Bay Area to Oakland. Both are able to stretch the field or use their size against smaller corners to muscle out tough catches. Without J.J. Watt and others, the task of containing Carr and company won’t be an easy one for Houston, especially when you factor in the small revenge factor the Oakland signal-caller might have given the way the franchise treated his brother, Derek, all those years ago.
2. Sustaining Drives
It’s been no secret around the NFL that Brock Osweiller has been ineffective since taking over as the starting quarterback and there has even been talk that there could be a change made if things don’t pick up at the position. That’s what makes the fact that Houston has the fifth-best run game in the league so much more surprising given how teams love to load the box against the Texans. Part of the issue is due to the offensive line and inability for some of the team’s receivers to create separation but the bottom line is Osweiler and company will have to sustain drives and make some plays down the field if they want a shot at beating one of the better teams in the AFC. It’s been a thin edge Bill O’Brien’s offense has been living on but perhaps the past few victories have allowed the unit to grow and move forward instead of having to rely on the defense to get things done.
3. High Altitude and Hangovers
Let’s face it, neither Houston or Oakland are cities at elevation and that makes the trip to Mexico City (7,382 feet above sea level) even worse than going to play at Denver. With so many high-level athletes hitting the field, they’re bound to experience at least a little difference from a normal NFL game and it will be something to keep in mind if one side or the other has a long drive or is dominating in time of possession. Don’t forget that the Raiders are also coming off their bye week and could exhibit a little rust early in the game before they find their legs. Add in the unknown from what an NFL game will be like at Estadio Azteca and don’t be shocked if things are a little ugly to begin the game.
The way things are going this season for both teams, this game could end up being a preview of a potential AFC playoff pairing. The Raiders have become a legitimate threat to not only make the postseason but also make noise in what might be the toughest division in football out in the AFC West. The Texans have benefitted from playing in the weak AFC South and done most of their damage at home but have won three of their last four and are showing more signs of life than they did in early October.
Houston has always been limited by its quarterback play and that has continued this season despite the addition of splashy free agent acquisition Brock Osweiller. While his play hasn’t been stellar, the team has still managed to win games behind a solid run game, some big plays from players like rookie Will Fuller and a handful of defensive stops from a unit that has more than survived the loss of star J.J. Watt. Unfortunately starting tailback Lamar Miller is banged up and backup Alfred Blue won’t play on Monday. That will put more pressure on Osweiller’s arm to come through with some big plays against an Oakland defense that has given up a few of its own.
Whether that will be enough to slow down one of the hottest teams in the league remains to be seen. Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio has breathed life into the franchise and Derek Carr has picked up more and more momentum as an MVP candidate with each win. Beating Denver and stringing together three straight victories has put the team in a position many thought it would be if all that young talent came together and these Raiders might even be ahead of schedule. The normally fearsome Oakland defense didn’t quite show up early in the year but has been playing much better with some new pieces on the back end and old hands like Khalil Mack finally rounding into form.
Anything can happen on the road in a game outside the normal confines of an NFL stadium but the Raiders have been playing much better football their their AFC rivals and get the benefit of the some additional rest before making the trip south of the border. While things won’t be easy against a defense like the Texans, they’ll get it done in the end and head back home to the Bay Area with a big win in what should be a much different kind of “Monday Night Football” game than we’re used to.
Prediction: Raiders 26, Texans 20
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.