NFL Playoffs: Raiders have tough road ahead in Houston

Oakland Raiders tackle Donald Penn lies on the turf with an injury in the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

HOUSTON, TX — Already having to deal with the loss of starting quarterback Derek Carr after the signal-caller broke his fibula in Week 16 at home against the visiting Indianapolis Colts, the Silver and Black were dealt a major blow as starting left tackle Donald Penn was ruled out for Saturday’s AFC Wild-Card playoff game against the Houston Texas at NRG Stadium.

Penn was hurt in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 24-6 loss at Denver in the regular season finale. Even though Penn returned to the game, he didn’t look the same and struggled to move on the snap.

With the loss of the Penn, starting right tackle Menelik Watson will move to left tackle, while durable lineman Austin Howard is expected to slide into Watson’s spot at right tackle.

Penn will miss his first game after starting 155 consecutive games in his career.

Penn, along with left guard Keleche Osemele and center Rodney Hudson were named to the AFC Pro Bowl team as the nucleus of a Raiders’ offensive line that allowed a league-low 18 sacks during the regular season.

Any quarterback would relish at the opportunity to play behind that type of protection, especially rookie Connor Cook, who will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the playoffs.

But Penn is the one offensive lineman that Oakland could ill-afford to lose because of his great play in both the running and passing games. Oakland just mustered 57 yards rushing against the Broncos.

Oakland faces a Houston defense that finished No. 1 in the league in total defense and according to Pro Football Focus, ranks int he top-five in the league in both the blitz and pressures per cbssports.com.

Playing the majority of the season without wrecking ball defensive end J.J. Watt, still Houston’s linebackers Whitney Mercilus (7.5) and Benardrick McKinney (5.0), along with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (6.0) combine for 18.5 of Houston’s 31 sacks during the regular season.

McKinney leads Houston with 129 tackles, while Clowney was named to his first AFC Pro Bowl team.

Cook will  have the tough task of leading a Raiders team that finished 12-4, earning the franchise their first playoff berth since 2002 where Oakland made a trip to the Super Bowl, but don’t expect Cook to be rattled.

Cook did admit that he was “nervous” when he replaced backup quarterback Matt McGloin during Oakland’s loss at Denver, as he completed 14-of-21 passes for 150 yards, a touchdown and an interception in relief. McGloin hurt his shoulder in the second quarter and remained on the sideline for the remainder of the game.

Oakland did sign former practice squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert during the week to the team and is expected to serve as Cook’s backup Saturday.

If Cook can get the time to showcase his strong arm behind a reshuffled, but still stout offensive line, he’ll have two 1,000-yard receivers to throw to who can make plays in second-year standout Amari Cooper (83 catches, 1,153 yards, and 5 TDs) and Michael Crabtree (89 catches, 1,003 yards, and 8 TDs).

The last time that the Silver and Black won a road playoff game in the Wild-Card round: Dec. 28, 1980 when Jim Plunkett tossed two touchdowns to lead Oakland past former Raider great and Hall of Famer Ken Stabler’s Houston Oilers 27-7 at the now closed Houston Astrodome.

In addition to Houston finishing with the league’s top defense, Houston finished behind Denver in passing yards allowed, surrendering just 201.6 yards per game during the regular season.

Houston’s starting strong safety Quintin Demps finished second in the NFL with six interceptions combined that with 55 tackles is the anchor of the secondary.

There is no question that Houston’s defense led by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel who is one of the greats calling defenses in history, will come to play at 3:35 p.m. CT (1:35 p.m. PT for us West Coasters), but Houston’s quarterback situation is just as suspect as Oakland’s.

Quarterback Brock Osweiler is back in the starting lineup for the Texans after quarterback Tom Savage suffered a concussion in Houston’s 24-17 loss at Tennessee to close out the regular season.

Houston (9-7) already wrapped up the AFC South and the No. 4-seed.

Savage didn’t pass the NFL’s concussion protocol, meaning journeyman quarterback Brandon Weeden will serve as Osweiler’s backup.

During a Week 15 matchup at home against Jacksonville, Osweiler threw two first half interceptions that led to a 20-8 lead for the Jaguars and the boo-birds started to cascade down  from the home crowd before Savage replaced and ineffective Osweiler (6-of-11 for 48 yards), to the delight of the Texan crowd.

Savage completed 23-of-36 passes for 260 yards helping Houston come from behind with a 21-20 victory, prompting head coach Bill O’Brien to name Savage the starter for the remainder of the season, benching Osweiler.

The Texans were embarrassed last season in the playoffs, getting thumped 30-0 at home thanks to quarterback Brian Hoyer’s five turnovers. Hoyer’s performance (15-of-34/136 yards/4 INTs) was the cyanide pill that Houston swallowed ending their season.

After signing a four-year $72 million ($37 million guaranteed) contract in the offseason with Houston after four years in Denver as the so-called heir apparent to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, Osweiler was an average quarterback throwing for 2,957 yard, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions with a 72.2 passer rating.

It’ll be interesting to see how Osweiler, who threw for 253 yards on 21-of-40 passes and a touchdown against the Titans after Savage left the game with the concussion, performs in his first start since his benching.

Houston will look to get super talented wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins more involved in the passing game. Hopkins led Houston with 78 catches for 954 yards and was tied with tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for the team lead in touchdown catches with four.

Running back Lamar Miller will see a lot of action against the Raiders, after missing Houston’s final two games of the regular season with a nagging ankle injury. The Texans didn’t list the 1,000-yard rusher on their injury report.

In the first matchup against the two teams (a 27-20 Raiders’ victory in Mexico City), Oakland had trouble stopping  Miller, who rushed for 104 yards on 24 carries, including a 1-yard score.

Oakland’s defense, led by defensive end Khalil Mack, will have to get in the face of Osweiler on dropbacks and stop Miller from turning 2-yard runs into 5-to-7-yard runs to have a realistic shot at advancing to the Divisional Round and a trip to either New England or Kansas City next weekend.

Mack, who is the unquestioned engine that powers the Raiders’ defense, is key and must perform for the Silver and Black. Mack was named to the Associated Press’ All-Pro First Team for his 73 tackles, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, and one interception (a pick-6 no less).

With all that being said: with no Carr, no Penn, a third-string rookie quarterback making NFL history with his first career start coming in a playoff game, and a reshuffled offensive line, the Raiders have the deck stacked high against them to pull out a victory.

Prediction?

Raiders over Houston, 23-21, behind a Sebastian Janikowski game-winning field goal with time expiring. Cook will drive Oakland into field goal range.

Call me crazy, but that’s why the first weekend of the NFL Playoffs are “wild” for a reason because someone who people least expect make a name for themselves on this stage.

Cook could be that player for Oakland.

 

Oakland and Houston both dealing with QB issues ahead of Saturday’s AFC Wild Card playoff game

Oakland Raiders quarterback Connor Cook passes against the Denver Broncos in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

OAKLAND, Calif — Now that the 2016 season is in the rear view mirror, the real fun begins: the playoffs.

No matter how you got there as a team, if you happen to be one of the 12 teams that have a shot at playing in Houston on Sunday Feb. 5 in Super Bowl LI for the Vince Lombardi trophy you earned your way to the Dance.

Needing just a win in Denver in Week 17 to clinch the AFC West title, the No. 2 seed, and a first-round bye, the Raiders squandered all of it by looking lethargic and disinterested in a 24-6 loss to the Broncos Sunday knocking the Silver and Black to the No. 5 seed.

No home playoff game or week off. All gone.

By virtue of their 37-27 win in San Diego Sunday, Kansas City (12-4), captured the AFC West crown and locked up the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.

In the process of the loss, Oakland (12-4) lost another quarterback when backup-turned-starter Matt McGloin left the game late in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.McGloin completed 6-of-11 passes for 21 yards and was ineffective in his first start since 2013 in place of franchise quarterback, Derek Carr.

Carr was having an MVP-type of season passing for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions before breaking his fibula against Indianapolis in a 33-25 Oakland victory on Christmas Eve.

Carr headlined a league-high seven Raiders that were selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team this season.

McGloin finished the game on the sideline as he watched rookie quarterback Connor Cook taking his first snap as a pro.

Oakland had more penalty yards (90) than on offense (50) in the first half as Denver racked up 254 yards of total offense.

Cook, who may find himself starting for the Silver and Black’s first playoff game since 2002 on Saturday when the 5-seeded Raiders travel to Houston for an AFC Wild Card game, completed 14-of-21 passes for 150 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in relief.

Kickoff is at 1:35 p.m. PT  at NRG Stadium.

Oakland is hoping that this won’t be the last time they travel to Houston for a big game this season, but all hands are definitely on deck.

According to a report by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Oakland is planning to sign journeyman quarterback Garrett Gilbert to the practice squad and could be active for the Wild Card game.

Gilbert, a former sixth round draft pick by in 2014 by the then-St. Louis Rams, spent all of last season on Oakland’s practice squad. Gilbert actually spent his rookie season with the New England Patriots and won a Super Bowl ring after being cut by the Rams.

The Raiders do have two dangerous pass-catchers in wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. Crabtree led Oakland with five catches for 47 yards, while Cooper hauled in four catches for 39 yards including a 32-yard catch for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Crabtree (89 catches/1,003 yards/8 TDs) and Cooper (83 catches/1,153 yards/5 TDs) became the first Raider duo with 1,000 yards in a season since Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (83 catches/1,139 yards/9 TDs) and Tim Brown (91 catches/1,165 yards/9 TDs) did it in 2001.

Latavius Murray powers an Oakland running attack that will need to bounce back after rushing for 57 yards against a Broncos’ defense that has had trouble stopping the run this season.

Murray, who led Oakland with 788 yards rushing this season on 195 carries, tied former Raiders running back Marcus Allen’s franchise record with 12 rushing touchdowns. The Hall of Famer scored 12 rushing touchdowns for the Raiders in 1990 when the Silver and Black called Los Angeles home.

When you share company with a player like Allen, who was one of the most prolific offensive players in league history, that’s saying something for Murray.

Oakland’s defense, which has been hot and cold this season, let Broncos running backs run freely for huge yardage. The backfield of Justin Forsett (22 carries for 90 yards) and Devontae Booker (14 carries, 57 yards, TD) gave Oakland fits all day, especially Booker.

Booker capped off an 8-play, 84-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run to give Denver a 7-0 lead on the Broncos’ opening drive. Forsett’s 64-yard run (the longest run by a Broncos running back this season) on Denver’s third drive would set up a 22-yard field goal from kicker Brandon McManus that gave Denver a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Following a Raiders’ punt, Booker helped Denver stake a 17-0 lead shortly before halftime after taking a short pass from quarterback Trevor Siemian 43 yards for a touchdown.

But when you think hard about the chances for a Raiders’ victory, the more and more you got to believe that defensive end Khalil Mack and the defense will have to show up against a Houston team that has questions at quarterback of their own ahead of Saturday’s showdown in H-Town.

It’s only right since Mack is Oakland’s closer on defense, making game-changing plays in the fourth quarter when the Silver and Black have needed them.

Mack’s 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, and pick-6 has the third-year pro from Buffalo one of the favorites for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The No. 4-seeded Texans (9-7) don’t know who will play quarterback for them Saturday. According to reports, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien is expected to name a starter Tuesday.

Newly minted started Tom Savage (5-of-8 for 25 yards) left Sunday’s game at Tennessee with a concussion and was replaced by former starter Brock Osweiler for the remainder of the game.

Savage did clear the league concussion protocol during the game, but was held out for Osweiler, who finished 21-of-40 for 253 yards and a touchdown in Houston’s 24-17 loss in Music City.

Osweiler, who signed to a four-year, $72 million contract ($37 million guaranteed) to be the Houston’s franchise quarterback after four seasons backing up future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in Denver, had Houston in first place in the AFC South the entire year but has been inconsistent this season.

In 14 starts this season, Osweiler has thrown for 2,957 yards with 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Houston is 29th in the league in scoring at 17.4 points per game this season, and do have some play-makers of their own.

Running back Lamar Miller eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau in his first year in Houston following four years in Miami. Miller had 268 carries for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns, but missed the last two games dealing with an ankle injury.

Miller is expected to play Saturday which is critical to Houston’s offense.

Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is the Texans leading receiver with 78 catches for 954 yards, and is tied with tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for the team lead with four touchdown catches.

Houston’s defense was expected to suffer without superstar defensive end J.J. Watt, who only played in three games this season due to back surgery, but the unit hasn’t taken a step back in Watt’s absence as it finished ranked No. 1 in total defense yielding just 301.3 yards per game to opposing offenses.

The Silver and Black finished the season ranked seventh in total offense, averaging 26 points and 373.2 yards per game, albeit with Carr in the lineup.

Linebackers Whitney Mercilus (7.5) and Benardrick McKinney (5.0), along with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (6.0) combine for 18.5 of Houston’s 31 sacks this season.

McKinney leads Houston with 129 tackles, while Clowney was named to his first AFC Pro Bowl team.

This will be the second time that these two teams meet up this season.

Oakland scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to squeak past  Houston 27-20 in Week 11 in Mexico City. Houston held Oakland to just 120 yards offensively through the first three quarters.

The Raiders defense must do a better job on containing Miller this time around after allowing 24 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown to Houston’s starting running back in the last meeting.