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.
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.