A game against the Chargers this season has been like opening up a fortune cookie. No team has been able to quite figure out what’s inside.
Sometimes, you get the Chargers team that looks flat, mistake-prone and uninspired, like the one that laid an egg in Detroit last week, losing 38-10 when a playoff spot was still up for grabs. At others, the Chargers can look like one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the NFL, with Philip Rivers connecting with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates to pick apart a secondary.
So there’s no telling how the 7-8 Chargers will play Sunday when they come into O.co Coliseum. Will they be inspired spoilers? Or will they go through the motions against an 8-7 Raiders team that needs a win (and some help) to get into the playoffs?
Oddsmakers have made the Raiders 2½-point favorites.
The Raiders certainly know that no matter how the Chargers approach the game, they need to take care of their own business.
The Raiders will be playing in front of an eighth sellout crowd this season – the first time that’s happened since the franchise moved back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in 1995 – and they don’t want to send their fans home disappointed.
A victory Sunday – combined with a Broncos loss to Kansas City in a game at the same time – will give the Raiders the AFC West championship. The Raiders can also make it as a wild-card team if they beat the Chargers and Cincinnati loses at home to Balitmore and either the Jets beat the Dolphins or the Titans lose to the Texans.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” head coach Hue Jackson told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group, about the fans and the atmosphere Sunday. “They’ll bring the noise and the passion. I expect them to be as loud as they’ve ever been, and we need a true 12th man this week.”
The home-stadium formula hasn’t been a sure-fire thing though in 2011. Oakland is just 3-4 at home.
What may help, however, is a return of three key players who have been back practicing this week: running back Taiwan Jones, wide receiver/returner Jacoby Ford and safety Michael Huff. It’s now official that running back Darren McFadden won’t return, but having Jones, Ford and Huff back will help.
The Raiders will be going for their fourth straight victory over the Chargers, something the team hasn’t done since going 4-0 over San Diego in 2000 and 2001.
The return of Huff should help a secondary that will need to shut down Rivers, who has thrown for more than 4,300 yards and 24 TDs. In their first matchup this season, the Raiders were able to put a heavy pass rush on Rivers, sacking him six times, with Kamerion Wimbley having a career-best four. Oakland, which has been terrible against the run this season, will also need to stop Ryan Mathews, who’s rushed for 1,091 yards, with much of his production coming in the second half of the season.
Offensively, the Raiders will rely on QB Carson Palmer to open things up for running back Michael Bush, who has had some big rushing games in the past against San Diego.
In the end, however, everything might come down to whether the Raiders can avoid being their own worst enemies. They’re still alive for a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, despite leading the NFL in penalties, giving up several late leads this season and being no better than 25th in the league against the rush, the pass and in yards and points allowed.
Still, defensive tackle Richard Seymour believes the Raiders will win because they know they must.
Seymour told Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group that he’s been preaching to his teammates all week that they have to come up big Sunday. He’s not pretending it’s just another game in a 16-game season. This is it.
“You have to, obviously,” he said. “It is a big game. … As a competitor, as a player, you have to embrace these moments because they don’t come around often.”
Come late Sunday afternoon, the Raiders will find out what their own fortune cookie says.