The Raiders will face the Kansas City Chiefs twice in the last five weeks, punishment that seems both cruel and unusual. The disparity between this longtime rivals may never be greater, with the Chiefs a juggernaut and the Raiders a cellar dweller in the AFC.
Oddsmakers believe this will be a blowout, but the Raiders won't find much solace in keeping things close. They are in the silver linings business at this stage of a season gone wrong, looking hard for signs of progress and player development among the ranks.
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Playing well against such a formidable opponent would make a real impact with this coaching staff.
Keep an eye on these four on Sunday afternoon at Oakland Coliseum, when the Raiders battle the Chiefs:
P Johnny Townsend
The Raiders have given their fifth-round punter plenty of slack this season to work through a rough rookie campaign. Townsend has just a 37.7-yard net average, and hasn't been as good a directional punter as expected.
He put the team in a rough spot last week, playing a large part in a punt returned for a touchdown.
"We didn't' hit our landmark," head coach Jon Gruden said. "We gave them a low hanging punt that gave him a two-way go, and that's hard to defend. If we do that against this guy, we'll have very little chance to win this game."
"This guy" is Chiefs receiver/return man Tyreek Hill, who has world-class speed and elusiveness. He can wreck a game on offense and special teams. If you give him a returnable punt, Hunt can take it all the way.
"Tyreek Hill, he's a unique skill set," Gruden said. "You have to limit his opportunities every way you can, on offense and in the kicking game."
This is a big-time prove-it game for Townsend, who could negate Hill's impact some with solid directional kick. This matchup, and this final stretch, is vital to deciding whether the Raiders bring in stiff competition for the 2019 punter job or a camp leg to help prepare him for the season. The Raiders have been patient. At some point, however, that might wear thin.
LB Tahir Whitehead
The veteran weakside linebacker plays every defensive snap in most every game, the only player with such distinction. He has struggled at times this season but was solid against the Baltimore Ravens. He has 14 tackles and didn't miss one all game. His defensive grades have been strong in each of the past three games after some pronounced struggles on both sides of midseason.
His coverage has been critiqued, but that too has improved. In fact, he has allowed just five catches for 34 yards in the last three games. He'll have some tough assignments against Kansas City, defending both the run and pass. He will spend some time covering Chiefs tight end and noted Raiders killer Travis Kelce, a tough task for anyone.
These are important moments for those fighting for jobs – he has non-guaranteed two years left on his deal – and Whitehead must prove he belongs in next year's linebacker corps as well.
RT Brandon Parker
The Raiders third-round pick has been playing better football lately. I wrote that in his rookie spotlight and got the business for it on social media, but I stand by it. Those disagreeing with the statement pointing out the three sacks allowed in as many snaps last week, and, yeah. That was a low point. Parker has been better on the whole, but fans only recognize an offensive lineman's bad moments. Such is the nature of the position, and Parker understands that.
He'll square off against Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford on most snaps. The Auburn product has 10 sacks and 59 total quarterback pressures this season, so that will be no easy task.
Think of these final games as development points for a young player Raiders coach believe can be a quality starter at right tackle, even the moments that don't go well Experience and added strength next offseason will help him realize potential, with a prospect of becoming a long-term solution at his spot.
WR Jordy Nelson
Gruden praised the veteran receiver for playing nearly every snap last week at far less than 100 percent. He didn't have a catch on one target, and looked a step (or more) slow on an ill-timed end around.
The bone bruise on Nelson's knee must be getting better, considering he was taken off this week's participation report. The Raiders need more from someone making more than $7 million this season. The Raiders don't have many reliable options in the pattern outside Jared Cook, and need Nelson to be steadier and more productive. That's especially true on third down, where the Raiders have struggled.
He has another year on his deal worth $7.2 million, and has an uphill climb ahead proving he'll be worth that amount in 2019. A solid finish could help him finish out this deal, something likely greater than he could get on the open market next spring.