Houston Texans

Why Texans-Colts could have major impact on Raiders' playoff hopes

Why Texans-Colts could have major impact on Raiders' playoff hopes

Week 12 of the NFL season kicks off Thursday night with a marquee AFC South matchup that has massive playoff implications for Jon Gruden and the Raiders.

And they won't even be on the field.

Winners of three straight, the Raiders will be hard at work preparing to face the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium while the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts face off at NRG Stadium.

Thanks to the Ravens' Week 11 demolition of Deshaun Watson and the Texans, the Colts slid into first place in the AFC South via the tiebreaker from an earlier win over Houston. That bumped Houston down to the No. 6 seed in the AFC and moved the Raiders down to the seven seed. 

The AFC South race is of paramount importance to the Raiders' playoff hopes. Assuming the Silver and Black don't catch the Chiefs in the AFC West -- which of course still is on the table -- the Raiders will be fighting with the Bills, Steelers, Browns and the second-place AFC South team for a wild-card spot.

Let's rewind to Week 4. The Raiders, fresh off being pantsed by the Vikings, rebounded to stun the Colts 31-24 at Lucas Oil Stadium thanks to the grit and resiliency that has become their trademark. 

Four weeks later, the Raiders had the Texans on the ropes at NRG Stadium, hoping to end their five-game road odyssey with another win over a playoff-caliber opponent. The Raiders held the lead for almost the entire second half, but Watson worked his magic late, throwing a touchdown pass after being kicked in the eye to give Houston the late edge.

When Derek Carr's pass down the sideline to Tyrell Williams fell incomplete to seal the 27-24 loss, Oakland's horse in the AFC South race became clear.

The Raiders need Watson and the Texans to win the division, knocking the Colts down the wild-card rung behind the Silver and Black thanks to that Week 4 win and removing a potential obstacle from Oakland's playoff path. If the Texans end up losing out in the division, the Raiders will have to finish with a better record in order to squeak past them, a feat that might prove difficult.

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The Raiders still control their own destiny. Win Sunday against the Jets and set up a massive AFC West battle at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 13 with the winner taking over first place with four weeks to go.

But if the Chiefs begin to pull away and the Raiders are fighting for a wild-card spot, having the Texans not in the wild-card picture becomes very important.

No matter who wins Thursday night, the Raiders will slide back into the playoff picture with the loser falling out.

But what matters more, in the long run, is the Texans winning and going on to take the AFC South. That'll make the Raiders' playoff path much clearer.

Hunter Renfrow's game-winning heroics prove Raiders rookie belongs in NFL

Hunter Renfrow's game-winning heroics prove Raiders rookie belongs in NFL

OAKLAND -- Hunter Renfrow is a legend at Clemson. As a sophomore, he caught the pass from Deshaun Watson that beat Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. All told, he caught 186 passes for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns as a member of the TIgers. 

But there was a time when he wasn't a legend. A time when he was finding his way as a preferred walk-on slot receiver for Dabo Swinney's up-and-coming juggernaut. A time when he didn't know if he belonged. 

Then, No. 6 Notre Dame visited No. 12 Clemson on a rainy October Saturday in 2015. Renfrow, a freshman, was the third option for Watson, but he came up with an important 24-yard catch in the first quarter against the fighting Irish, a game Clemson would narrowly win 24-22. 

Renfrow parlayed that catch into an incredible career in Death Valley that saw him become one of the most clutch receivers in modern college football. 

The Raiders drafted Renfrow in the fifth round and he immediately won the job as the starting slot receiver. But the transition to the NFL wasn't seamless, as Renfrow had just 14 catches for 115 yards and no touchdowns in his first six games for the Raiders. 

But he got on the board in Week 8 when he grabbed four passes for 88 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown in the Raiders' loss to the Texans. That moment gave Renfrow the same feeling he got on that wet October night in 2015. 

"In college, I felt like the Notre Dame game, I had a big catch in the Notre Dame game and then kind of felt like I belonged," Renfrow said after the Raiders' 31-24 win over the Lions. "That was similar to that one. Just being able to go out there and feel like you can contribute and go out there and win games. For me, it's never about how many catches or touchdowns, it's at the end of the day do I feel like I've done enough to be a good teammate and to go win games for our team. The more we play, the more we do, hopefully I can continue to do that. "

Renfrow's confidence in himself, and quarterback Derek Carr's belief in him, was on full display Sunday at the Coliseum. With the Raiders and Lions tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, the Raiders got the ball at their own 25-yard line with 5:16 to play. Carr drove the Raiders down the field to the Detroit 9-yard line. 

On third-and-goal, Carr bought time, rolled left and spotted Renfrow break free near the pylon. Carr fired a strike to Renfrow who nabbed the ball and got both feet down before falling out of bounds, his second career touchdown that gave the Raiders the lead and sent the Coliseum into a frenzy. 

"Something we've been working on is just become more available," Renfrow said of the game-winning score. "When a play breaks down be able to create a new play and Derek did a phenomenal job. Offensive line did a good job to protect and let him get outside the pocket there. From there it's kind of backyard football so it worked out." 

Over his last two games, Renfrow has caught 10 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. 

While the touchdown against the Texans and the game-winning grab Sunday might have been Renfrow's Notre Dame moment in the NFL, Carr never had a doubt the rookie would be great. 

"I had it with him from the moment I met him," Carr said of his trust in Renfrow. "His love for football, you can see it in his eyes. His love for team. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he does not care who catches that last ball. I promise you that. He doesn't care if he gets one catch at all. He just wants to win. When guys are that selfless, you ask them to do selfless things in the run game, ask them to do selfless things in the pass game, clearing somethings out, it really feels good when a guy who's very selfless makes a game-winning touchdown catch." 

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The rookie transition behind him, Renfrow has cemented himself as a go-to target for Carr over the past two games. 

He belonged at Clemson and he belongs in the NFL. That much has been made clear over the last two weeks. 

On Sunday, he showed his clutch gene made the trip from South Carolina to the Bay Area with him.

Raiders' Trayvon Mullen ready for dream starting job after wake-up call

Raiders' Trayvon Mullen ready for dream starting job after wake-up call

ALAMEDA – Trayvon Mullen spent all of last week hearing about how the pressure was on. Gareon Conley had been traded to Houston, leaving the Raiders' rookie cornerback to take his place in the starting lineup in Week 8 against the Texans.

Mullen was going to get picked on. He was going to get tormented by the Texans standout receiver corps. He was going to play a huge role in the final result.

Mullen casually shrugged all of that off his shoulders. He was excited, not anxious to make his first NFL start. He was confident, not overhyped.

After all, he already knew he would play at that level. That realization came from an odd place, from a time after he got beat in front of the home crowd during the Raiders' Week 1 win. Then-Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders beat Mullen for three catches and a touchdown, and Mullen came away a more confident player.

Just hear him out. His logic is sound.

“I always knew I could play at this level, but I realized it after I got into that Broncos game,” Mullen said on this week’s Raiders Talk podcast. “I played a little too aggressive, I believe, instead of just going in there and playing with fundamentals and technique. I got too aggressive in my first game, and it was at that moment I realized that I work hard, I prepare and I know what to do. After that, I was able to just relax and play. That game just woke me up.”

Mullen realized he didn’t have to play outside himself to succeed. That brought calm and continued focus on technique. He hasn’t been perfect since then, but he has honed in on his technique, on staying low in his backpedal and being the sticky cover man he always was during his college career at Clemson. That came during an extended practice stretch without much play, one that gave coaches confidence he was ready for a promotion against Houston.

While he had to get an IV during the game, Mullen insists he wasn’t overhyped. He brought a different strategy into this game.

“I really wanted to stay focused, stay level,” Mullen said. “During the week, people were staying there was going to be a lot of pressure. For me, it was just relying on the game plan, fundamentals and technique. It was still football, and I reminded myself of that.”

Mullen fared pretty well for his first start. He was targeted four times and allowed just two catches for 10 yards. Not bad for an opening salvo, though there’s one play he’d like back.

Texans QB and fellow Clemson alum DeShaun Watson tried to get it to wideout Kenny Stills, who came in motion from left to right, at the first-down marker. Mullen saw the route develop and jumped it, with nothing but open field before him. The pass hit Mullen in the hands but didn’t stay there.

The Raiders forced a punt, but Mullen knows that should’ve been a pick-six. That was one moment with the game went a little too fast for him.

“I was ready,” Mullen said. “I knew exactly what was coming, but everything just happened so fast. I won’t miss any more of those.”

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Mullen will be more prepared, with some emotion stripped from each passing game. That’s what experience does. While he tried to hone on his craft, he also knew that making the first of many NFL starts was a dream come true. He had played in huge games at Clemson. He was drafted high and was able to buy his mother a car with his first big paycheck, but the first start was the big moment he has been working for.

“Just thinking about growing up from a little 5-year old kid to where I’m at now, with all the experience I’ve had and the steady progress through the years, really made it special,” Mullen said. “Getting older and wiser, bigger and stronger, always preparing for that moment -- that’s what you work so hard for. You always have to be ready for that moment, because you never know when you’re going to get your big chance. I was ready because I always work hard.”