HOUSTON – The playoffs don't start Sunday, or for another 10 weeks after that. Let's make that perfectly clear before we say this: The Houston Texans are currently the AFC's sixth seed. The Raiders are seventh.
Both teams are in the playoff hunt. A head-to-head tiebreaker could be earned with a victory on Sunday, a valuable asset to be sure.
There's more to this intraconference clash than that. It formally ends a five-game stretch away from Oakland, and a victory puts the Silver and Black over .500 during that run full of legitimate playoff contenders. It would also give the Raiders confidence they can beat a top-tier quarterback, something they haven't done after facing Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. DeShaun Watson also belongs in that elite class, though he'll take some big hits and throwing risks to make a big play.
It would also leave the Raiders at 4-3 through a start to the schedule brutal well beyond where these games have been played. The Raiders have the NFL's fourth toughest schedule through Week 7, with the Denver Broncos in the season opener followed by a murder's row of excellent teams.
The schedule gets a lot easier after this. The Chiefs are the only team left after the Texans with a winning record at this stage, and the Jaguars and Texans are the only others with at least three wins through seven weeks.
That's why Sunday's game is nowhere close to a must win. Finishing the road swing at 3-4 is far from a killer, but a win would be a defining moment that would but the Raiders in solid position down the stretch, with fans able to utter the word "playoffs" without opponents able to point and laugh.
That in itself is a step in the right direction for Jon Gruden's team, a resilient bunch that has weathered several setbacks already this season. They rebound well after a terrible loss in Minnesota. Can they do it again in Houston? It's certainly possible, though it will take a compete and consistent effort from all units. The Raiders don't have talent required to overtake teams on an off day.
And it isn't that crazy to consider playoff tiebreakers, even at this early stage and even if the Raiders aren't ready to go there yet.
"I, honestly, very rarely know anybody's record when we play them," quarterback Derek Carr said. "Because when you turn the tape on, the records lie sometimes, you know? You don't ever want that to skew your view of anything. But, obviously, it's very important, there's no hiding that. The simple fact is that, that is very important for us to try and go get a win there. That's no secret. But we don't have to heighten our urgency or anything like that. We know that for anything that we want to do, postseason wise, we have to take care of our business."
That's dead right. Games aren't played on paper, and some games against struggling teams can be lost with a bad day or deteriorating health.
That's Gruden's message to a team with a lot of work to do to remain a playoff contender into this winter, even though, you know deep down he'd like to have a tiebreaker over Houston in his back pocket.
"Every game is important," Gruden said. "I try not to get into the playoff hype right now. We're more interested in making the corrections from last week and finding a way to win another game against a good team."