After a tough loss in a game that could have propelled them into playoff position, the Las Vegas Raiders have a chance to put their season back on track on "Thursday Night Football" in a divisional matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Playoff positioning is more salient than ever as Week 15 of the NFL season kicks off at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders sit ninth in the AFC at 7-6 but are only one game behind the seven-seed Dolphins and Ravens, both 8-5. They'll have a chance to beat Miami and take the tiebreaker next week and will have the tiebreaker over Baltimore if they finish with the same record.
Last Sunday was a golden opportunity for the Raiders since they played the Colts, the team that was one game ahead of them for the final AFC wild-card spot. In losing 44-27 on the road, not only did the Raiders fail to move up in the standings, but they also lost a potentially crucial tiebreaker with a team ahead of them in the standings.
The Chargers are out of the playoffs at 4-9 but won a rare close game last week, a 20-17 victory over the Falcons that improved their record in one-score games to 3-7. Still, it was not without headaches and drama. The team failed to score from the eight-yard line in the closing seconds of the first half because they lost track of the down and the time. Head coach Anthony Lynn can't keep having his team make these sloppy mistakes if he's going to keep his job.
History tells us this will be a close game. The Raiders have won three straight — including a 31-26 road win in Week 9 — but each has been decided by one score or less. Will that continue on Thursday? Let's take a look at the keys to the matchup.
Thursday Night Football: Los Angeles at Las Vegas
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 17 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network/Amazon Prime
Spread: Raiders -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Derek Carr stop his turnover problem?
The Raiders have been one of the streakier teams in football, and Carr is a big reason for that. He's putting up big passing numbers — Carr is top 10 in adjusted yards per attempt (8.0), passer rating (102.1), and completion rate (68.2 percent) — but can't help but cough up the ball. He leads the NFL with 11 fumbles and has added in seven picks.
Turnovers have been an especially noticeable problem in the last four games, during which the Raiders have gone 1-3. He's thrown at least one pick in each game and fumbled an astonishing three times against the Falcons. Las Vegas is 7-3 when he has one or fewer turnovers and 0-3 when he commits multiple giveaways.
The Chargers have been fairly middling in this department in 2020. They are tied for 19th with nine interceptions and tied for 20th with six fumble recoveries. However, they have forced a trio of turnovers in two of their last three games. More important than putting up big yardage totals for Carr will be protecting the ball as he did in their November meeting — one fumble but no interceptions.
2. Will this finally be Austin Ekeler's breakthrough game?
Los Angeles felt confident letting Melvin Gordon III go over the offseason because of Ekeler, whom they gave a four-year, $24.5 million deal. However, he's had a tough 2020 season while dealing with a hamstring injury.
Ekeler has yet to reach 100 yards in any game this season — although he rushed for a combined 177 yards in his first two games. However, he's made steady improvements since returning from injured reserve in Week 12. He's raised his yards per carry from 3.1 to 4.5 to 5.3 last week, all while receiving at least nine targets each game too.
Thursday's game against Las Vegas could be an opportunity to crack the century mark for just the second time in his career. The Raiders are giving up 4.7 yards per carry this season, the third-worst mark in the NFL, and have allowed 100-yard rushers in back-to-back weeks. Doing so would not only be a nice feather in Ekeler's cap but also help the Chargers control the clock on the road.
3. Anthony Lynn coaching for his job
Lynn didn't quite enter the season on the hot seat, but he's found his way there with mistake after inexcusable mistake. Had the Chargers not stormed back to beat the Falcons last week after the halftime debacle, he may not have survived to coach this week.
The fourth-year head coach will have a lot of work cut out for him if he wants to keep his jobs; oddsmakers have him as the most likely coach to get fired next. Splitting the remaining four games to improve on last season's 5-11 record would be a start, but competent clock management and focused play also will be key.
In their game last month, the Chargers out-gained the Raiders 440-320 and dominated time of possession 34:44 to 25:16. Both teams had one turnover and converted about half their third-down attempts. One big difference? The Chargers had three more penalties than the Raiders for 35 more yards. Eliminating those mistakes on Thursday will be crucial to winning and keeping Lynn's job.
Rookie Justin Herbert's strong play gives the Chargers room for optimism moving forward, but they have struggled to convert good yardage totals (8th total offense, 9th total defense) into equivalent scoring totals (22nd scoring offense, 27th scoring defense). Until they've shown improvement, Las Vegas has to be considered a solid favorite at home.
The Raiders have a manageable remaining schedule with the Chargers, Dolphins, and a road trip to Denver, but they'll likely need to win out to make the playoffs. They should be able to limit turnovers for the most part on Thursday and get a crucial win at home.