The Las Vegas Raiders head to the Crossroads of America on Sunday to take on the Indianapolis Colts and to keep their playoff chances alive for one more week.
The Raiders (8-7) are in full-on survival mode with two games left in their whirlwind season. A loss essentially eliminates them from playoff contention, but winning out against the Colts and Chargers assures them a spot in the postseason.
The Colts (9-6) are sitting pretty with the AFC's fifth seed. They've played as well as anyone in the NFL for the last two months, having won three straight and six of their last seven contests. A win on Sunday against the visiting Raiders will all but lock in their spot in the postseason. Not too shabby considering the 0-3 hole they put themselves in to start the season.
Las Vegas (8-7) at Indianapolis (9-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2, at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Colts -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Indianapolis: Who is in? Who is out?
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is throwing NFL locker rooms — and the rest of the world, for that matter — for a total loop. Both the Raiders and Colts have been hit hard, but it's who is on the list for Indianapolis that is the focus here. Or rather, who WAS on the list.
Last week, Indianapolis was without star linebacker Darius Leonard, safety Khari Willis, and wide receiver Zach Pascal, all placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 reserve list on game day against the Cardinals. The virus especially impacted the Colts' offensive line room, as All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and guard Mark Glowinski also were placed on the list. To make matters worse, the team also was without starting center Ryan Kelly (personal reasons), and starting left tackle Eric Fisher suffered a knee injury mid-game and did not return.
Then on Tuesday morning, the Colts added more names to the Reserve/COVID-19 list, including starting right tackle Braden Smith and Carson Wentz. But due to the new quarantine protocols set forth by the NFL — and, more importantly, the CDC — that allow players who tested positive but also are asymptomatic to only isolate for five days instead of 10, both Wentz and Smith (as well as cornerback T.J. Carrie) were all activated from the list on Saturday. Wentz still has to be cleared by the doctor to be able to play on Sunday, but it appears that the Colts should be close to full strength with Leonard, Pascal, Willis, Nelson, and Glowinski all expected to return.
2. Josh Jacobs
Jacobs' rookie year in the NFL in 2019 went about as well as anyone could hope for a first-round pick. Taken 24th overall out of Alabama, Jacobs put 1,150 rushing yards (eighth in the NFL) with seven touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He followed that up with another 1,000-yard campaign (1,065 yds., eighth) but averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt despite logging 30 more carries compared to his rookie year. But he did score 12 times on the ground to rank fourth in the league in that category.
But this year has been a different story. Coming into this game, Jacobs has gained just 677 yards on the ground (52 per game) and is once again averaging fewer than four yards per carry (3.9). He has been more involved in the passing game this season (48 rec., 319 yds., both career highs), but it hasn't helped his scoring output. All seven of his touchdowns have come on the ground, and he hasn't found the end zone since Week 13.
It should be pointed out that Jacobs isn't getting as many opportunities to run the ball this season compared to his first two. After averaging 18.5 carries per game in 2019 and '20, he's logging 13.5 his season. He's not getting much help from his offensive line either. The Raiders rank 29th in the league in run block win rate, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Despite the underwhelming performance, Jacobs came alive last week against Denver, gashing the Broncos for 129 yards on 27 carries. It was his first 100-yard game since Week 10 of last season. And he did much of his on his own, as most of his big gains came on cutbacks and setting up his own blockers, rather than relying on his offensive line to open up lanes.
This week, Jacobs will look for more success against an Indianapolis defense that's been a middle-of-the-pack unit against the run (111.2 ypg, 14th in NFL) but has done a decent job against running backs, holding them to less than four yards per carry. More importantly, the Colts also will get back Leonard, their defensive anchor and one of the league's best when it comes to forcing fumbles.
3. Anyone wanna stop Jonathan Taylor? Can they?!?
I mean, it's not like it's easy. But I'll keep asking the question until someone actually answers it. Because for the last two months, no one has been able to slow down the NFL's best running back.
Last week, the Cardinals were about as close as anyone by keeping Taylor to just 108 yards on 27 carries. It was the first time since Oct. 11 (Week 5) that Taylor was kept under 4.5 yards per carry in a game. But he still went over 100 yards for the third straight contest and the sixth in the last seven — all six of which have been Indy wins, for what it's worth.
This week, Taylor faces a Las Vegas defense that checks in at 19th in rushing yards allowed (1,736) and 23rd in rushing touchdowns surrendered (23). However, the Raiders' run defense may be rounding into form just in the nick of time. Las Vegas has kept opponents under 100 yards in three of its last five games including two in a row against the Browns and Broncos. Of course, both Cleveland and Denver were playing without their starting quarterbacks, so stacking the box was an obvious call. But holding the NFL's best rushing team in Cleveland to just 89 yards and the Broncos to only 18 — yes, really, 18 — are two nice feathers in the Raiders' cap.
Las Vegas also got some good news late Saturday when several players, including leading tackler Denzel Perryman and fellow starting linebacker Cory Littleton were activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The last thing you want to be when you are getting ready to take on the league's leading rusher is short-handed on defense.
With it looking like Wentz will start, the Colts shouldn't have too much trouble winning or covering the near-touchdown spread. Besides it's not like Frank Reich and Co. haven't figured out how to win weird or ugly these last two months. This one shouldn't enter either territory.
Prediction: Colts 31, Raiders 23
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.