OAKLAND -- Sunday’s game is the biggest of the Raiders' regular season.
Yeah, you’ve read that before. Maybe, you know, on this website and in this weekly series.
That’s because the Raiders had a chance to pull even atop the AFC West in last week’s game in Kansas City. The Silver and Black had a real chance to win their first division crown since 2002. That opportunity’s essentially blown, with the Raiders down two games (and a head-to-head tiebreaker) to the Chiefs.
Now we’re on to a pivotal wild-card matchup with the Tennessee Titans, who are blocking the Raiders’ path to the No. 6 seed. Beat them and pull even, with a head-to-head tiebreaker. Lose, and the Raiders can make New Year’s Eve vacation plans.
So, yeah, for the second straight week, this is as big as it gets.
The margin for error was burned on consecutive blowout losses to the Jets and Chiefs. Turn things around at home against Tennessee and optimism comes flooding back with three games remaining against 4-8 clubs.
“We’ve had a rough two weeks,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said this week. “I’ve had a rough two weeks. It’s time to get back on track, it’s time to get back in our stadium, it’s time to be efficient on offense, it’s time to win. I’m excited we get a chance to go compete against a really good football team. That’s the beautiful thing about this game. You rewind two weeks ago, we were the greatest story in the NFL and two weeks later we suck again, so I think we’ll be all right. We are just going to keep grinding, we’re going to stick to what we do.”
Here five players not named Derek Carr or Josh Jacobs -- those guys are obviously key -- vital to beating the Titans on Sunday at Oakland Coliseum.
TE Darren Waller
Opponents have devoted significant effort to slowing down the Raiders' best and most reliable pass-catcher. They’ve had mixed results, though Waller has worked tirelessly trying to perfect techniques to bust extra coverage and make plays. The coaching staff is also working to scheme him open. Those efforts worked out well in Kansas City, where Waller had seven catches for 100 yards.
The Raiders need Waller to be equally productive on Sunday against the Titans. Tennessee hasn’t been great against tight ends, allowing 59 catches for 675 yards and seven touchdowns to tight ends. That’s particularly exploitable with the Raiders’ tight-end personnel groupings, with Waller Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier all capable of making plays down the field.
Waller will be most active in that effort and can’t disappear into shaded coverage in this important contest. Waller believes he should succeed no matter how he’s covered. That’ll be important on Sunday afternoon.
DT Johnathan Hankins
Derrick Henry’s a massive human. The running back is cruelly efficient taking yards and levying punishment with his physical running style. Henry’s good running inside and out, but Hankins must lead the run defense by closing rush lanes on the interior.
Hankins is the Raiders' best run defender and must play his best to shut down the Titans' interior run game. Run defense against Henry is an 11-man effort, but it all starts in the middle. Hankins has 22 run stops -- meaning he shuts down a run at two yards or fewer -- which ranks in the NFL’s top 10.
The 27-year-old likes these types of challenges and must do his part well to make life hard on Tennessee’s stout run game.
RT Brandon Parker
Trent Brown might be the best right tackle in football. Not having him against Tennessee is a huge deal. The possibility of him missing extended time with a pectoral injury is a scary proposition for the Raiders' running game.
Brandon Parker is charged with mitigating the impact of Brown’s absence. It’s a safe bet he’ll often have tight-end help and a running back ready behind him until he proves a better pass protector that his rookie season.
David Sharpe fared well when Brown has missed time before, but the Raiders are going with Parker in this instance. The North Carolina A&T product gained weight and strength this offseason and has learned how to play nastier football from Brown. He must apply those lessons and be as close to perfect as possible in this one.
LB Marquel Lee
The Wake Forest alum hasn’t played since Week 3, when he injured his ankle and landed on IR. He was eligible to return last week but formally joined the 53-man roster this week in a game made for bigger, stronger linebackers. Count Lee in that class.
Lee and newcomer Preston Brown should see time here and must play solid run defense with Henry realistically busting through the line with regularity.
The Raiders must also deploy their linebackers well to maximize each player’s strengths, though Lee could jump back into a heavy workload in what should be a physical game. He needs to be a sure tackler both against Henry and pass-catchers who come into his area.
WR Tyrell Williams
Jon Gruden said he’s going to shake things up and give new guys opportunities. That could certainly happen in the receiver corps, with Keelan Doss and Marcell Ateman possibly in line for more action. That shouldn’t eliminate Williams from the game plan where, frankly, he must be better.
Williams has dropped some key passes this season, but he has the talent to get open and warrant targets. The 27-year-old can’t leave this game up to Waller and the young guys. He has to assert himself and make big plays here to show his worth.
You can argue if Williams is a true No. 1 receiver or not, but that’s irrelevant to this particular game. This is one where he has to show up. He has to perform and make the most of the targets received.