Good chance I'll look back on this in shame, but I like the Raiders' chances to take out the Ravens this week. Oakland's taken down two division leaders this year, and they are the reason why Denver and Pittsburgh need help to make the playoffs. Then again, they're also the reason why Houston and the Jets have a shot at the playoffs, why SD has a bye locked up, and why an ultimately mediocre Giants team would still have a shot if they could have handled Carolina. Since they have been bad since Barret Robbins' incident, most folk won't analyze the Raiders play beyond just stating that the team is bad.
The Raiders might have the best two kickers in football, with Shane Lechler about to shatter the record (which he already holds) for best net punting yards in a season. Janikowski is 1-for-3 on FG's over 55 yards, but other than that has only missed one FG attempt (a 45 yarder, though in possibly the worst game to do so, because if he had made that kick the Raiders likely would not have thrown an interception in FG range at the end of the game since another Janikowski FG would have tied the game; instead they lost 16-10 to KC). Janikowski is also a monster on kickoffs, but the team regularly has coverage issues so some of his good kicks are wasted and often he is asked to squib kicks.
When it comes to returning kicks, though, Oakland is a disaster. Johnnie Lee Higgins has a lower return average than any PR except Reggie Bush. The kick returns have been awful: Jonathan Holland has the third worst KR avg this season and Gary Russell the worst. It's hard to listen to jokes about JaMarcus being too fat for his position when Gary Russell may be the fatter of the two, and he is the kick returner!
On offense, the Raiders problems earlier in the year started with their receivers. Zach Miller (TE) was the established, returning threat with a legit shot at earning a pro bowl trip. He's had some big games and has nice numbers overall, but he has missed time to injury and teams have keyed on him, particularly in those rare instances where Oakland is in the red zone. Chaz Schilens was the WR who had worked the best with JaMarcus in 2008 and he looked surprisingly good in camp, but was injured in the latter half of camp and did not return until midseason. He has since made an impact, but his first game back was the last game that JaMarcus started, so he had no real chance to help out. Javon Walker, who Al gave a ton of money to last offseason, was hoping to return from his injury string and help improve the team's young receivers, but that has not happened. That left four receivers, two youngsters with scarce potential (Johnnie Lee Higgins and Todd Watkins) and two rookies with big upside (DHB and Louis Murphy). Watkins has been adequate. Higgins makes some big plays but gives up on routes and drops passes; his yards per catch embarassingly matches his awful punt return average of 5.3 yards per. DHB, to no one's surprise, has vindicated the Al haters with only 9 catches despite starting about half of the games. Whatever coaching Oakland needed to do to realize his potential mostly has not happened. That leaves Louis Murphy, who might be one of the best rookie wideouts in the league. He has had a few tough drops and typical rookie route-running issues, but on the whole has been the biggest positive (outside of Zach Miller or maybe Michael Bush) in the Oakland offense.
Without any top receivers with experience, I think Russell just has not been put in opportunities to grow his abilities. Without good downfield threats, his big arm hasn't been given the chance to hone its accuracy. I think there has been a vicious cycle where JaMarcus hasn't had leaders around to get him working hard, and Kiffin didn't seem focused at all on developing JaMarcus. With JaMarcus not in a habit of working hard to learn the offense, as the new receivers have trickled in he has not been in the habit of getting his receivers to work hard and work with him. The offense didn't gel because the QB and the WR's were working off of minimal work and minimal experience. As a result, opposing defenses have often been able to stack the box and dare the Raiders to throw, a large part of the reason why McFadden hasn't been effective running the ball, and also part of the reason why Cable cuts Michael Bush out of the game plan too often. The offensive line play has been somewhat inconsistent, and they are not overall a good unit, but they were noticeably better when their best player, Robert Gallery (famously a busted LT who has played well since being moved to guard), was able to stay in the lineup (their worst offensive stretch of games came after he was injured in the opener).
Once JaMarcus was benched, Bruce Gradkowski took over and to some extent got the offense studying and working more than they had been (Louis Murphy perhaps especially so). They were improved, though they couldn't manage much against the good Dallas D on three days rest, and Gradkowski had the team looking like they might actually be playoff caliber. When Gradkowski went down, JaMarcus was seemingly ill-prepared and the Raiders got crushed in the second half of the WAS game. Since then, Frye has played generally better than Russell played earlier in the season, but against Cleveland he threw three huge INT's (one set up an easy Browns TD, two ended Raiders drives in the red zone) and on top of that threw two INT's in the end zone that were called back (one where there was a legit PI call but the ball was sailed over Miller so far that he could not have broken up the INT, the other was thrown to the one spot in the corner of the end zone where Murphy had no chance to catch it and the defender landed with one foot out of bounds).
So, when a kickoff or a punt by the opposing team almost invariably leave the Raiders with lousy field position (field position that, for long stretches of the season, would only be advanced by a 3-and-out followed by Lechler), the Raiders' defense has had to play aggressively all season, trying to force turnovers and sacks. Ellis, Seymour, Warren, and Kelly have all played about as well as was expected: Warren and Kelly have had some big plays stuffing runners but often overpursue and aren't big factors in the pass rush. Seymour has been dominant for stretches but sometimes just occupies blockers and sometimes just shows he has lost a half step. Ellis is old but pretty productive. Trevor Scott has continued to improve and make an impact, but he still shows inexperience and is inconsistent against the run. Morrison and Howard are both solid contributors and Shaughnessy thus far looks like a great draft pick, but all in all the LB corps has had an inconsistent impact on games because of the desperation that comes with every defensive snap for this team. Huff and Branch have both played well at safety and Nnamdi is still a monster in every facet of the game. Chris Johnson is, as one would expect from a middling CB playing across from a great one, inconsistent; his success correlates highly with the Raiders' d as a whole.
The big problem with this unit has been the big play, particularly in the running game. The Broncos, Texans, Giants, and Jets laid a bunch of big plays on the Raiders, each team pounding the Raiders with a combination of power and speed in the running game, taking early leads that essentially shut down an Oakland offense that could not conceive of topping 20 points. Outside of those games, the Raiders have been 5-6, or 3-5 since the Jets game. They have been in each of their last 9 games in the fourth quarter, going 1-2 against playoff teams (SD, Cin, Dal), 2-0 against playoff hopefuls (Den, Pit), and 0-3 against teams that were already eliminated (KC, Was, Cle). It is hard to argue with the defensive performance of this unit since the Jets game, but their two worst stretches happened in inopportune times against teams with lousy records (the two touchdown drives allowed in the 4th Quarter against Washington that were sandwiched around an intercepted deep ball from Russell, turning a 17-13 lead into 31-13; the 2-minute drill where Cleveland had 3rd and 11 inside its own 10 but kept getting just enough and goading the Raiders into penalties, the result being a TD that contributed to Frye throwing awful picks in the end zone instead of playing more conservatively since the field goal was off the table).
I think the Raiders will win on Sunday because I think they will not abandon Michael Bush (as they did in the four Gradkowski-started game) and I think they will come out to win the game and keep a team out of the playoffs, just like they did last year against Tampa Bay to add an emphatic ending to the Gruden and Kiffen dramas. Flacco and the Baltimore receiving corps are not more than the Raiders can handle. Ray Rice might be, and the Raiders' recent success has come against teams that are struggling in the run game. But my suspicion is that Rice won't be able to carry the load, coming off of the most heavy usage of his career last week. On offense, Oakland will have their hands full, no doubt, and the only team that has beaten Baltimore this season that hasn't qualified for the postseason already is Pittsburgh. But if Oakland can mix up its running game and have regular success with both McFadden and Bush, I think the speed of the Oakland receivers, and the skills of Miller, Schilens, and Murphy, will be enough to give the Ravens problems, regardless of whether it's Frye or Russell throwing to them. I think the Raiders D, receivers, and running backs will make enough big plays in this game that the Ravens will need to pull down 2-3 interceptions to make the playoffs.