Raiders at Texans: The next step

(Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)   (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Houston Texans are trying to take the next step, while the Oakland Raiders are hoping for their first postseason win in more than a decade.

It’s the game nobody wants to watch. The Texans and Raiders, two teams without a quarterback or much hope to advance beyond the Wild Card weekend. Houston has been the weak sister of the AFC playoff participants all year, while the Raiders went from contender to afterthought with one broken leg.

Oakland wasn’t supposed to be in this position. On Christmas Eve, the Raiders were whipping the Indianapolis Colts until Trent Cole sacked Derek Carr. The leg gave, the hush came, and Oakland’s playoff chances were dead on arrival. Come the following Sunday, Matt McGloin and Connor Cook struggled to produce yardage in a 24-6 defeat against the Denver Broncos. The loss, combined with a win by Kansas City, put the Raiders on the road as a No. 5 seed.

Houston is here by an equally volatile path. The Texans spent $72 million on Brock Osweiler to fix their perennial quarterback issues, only to see them grow worse. Osweiler threw 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions before being benched for Tom Savage, a former fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh who has been more caretaker than revelation. However, a concussion in Week 17 has Houston in a quandary, perhaps opening the door for an Osweiler return.

And so here we are. The Raiders and Texans. A battle for one win before quietly going into the abyss.

For all the talk about the signal callers, the game could rest on the defenses. The Texans rank first in defense with 301.3 yards per game, despite losing J.J. Watt to season-ending back surgery following a Week 3 defeat at New England. The Raiders are dead last in yards per play allowed and 26th in total defense, laboring outside of Khalil Mack’s excellence.

Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has gotten the best out of Jadeveon Clowney, a former first-overall selection who appeared more bust than boom over his first three years in the league. Clowney finally began to consistently impact games, racking up six sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

Whitney Mercilus and Bernadrick McKinney are also playmakers in the front seven that Oakland must account for. McKinney is the rare inside linebacker who can create pressure, generating five sacks. Mercilus fell off his 12-sack total from last season, but still notched 7.5.

Of all the matchups to watch with Houston’s defense on the field, perhaps the best will be A.J. Bouye and the receiver he’s covering. Bouye has been a blossoming star in 2016, turning his fourth season into a showcase. If he can shut down either Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree, the Raiders will be further hamstrung.

For Oakland, the best defense is a solid rushing attack. With Carr on the sidelines, the impetus will fall on running backs Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. The three-headed monster has accounted for 1,746 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per carry, threatening a Houston defense that ranks 12th in that department.

If the Raiders find success on the ground, either McGloin or Cook should be afforded quality pass protection via play action. Oakland has a menacing line that surrendered 18 sacks all season, although a knee injury sustained by left tackle Donald Penn in Week 17 merits watching. If the Raiders have any hope of throwing for significant yardage, it will only come because of a sustained effort to pound the ball.

This game is not about the start of a championship march. Even the most ardent fan of either team would admit as much. Whoever wins likely plays the Patriots in Foxborough the following week, the proverbial lamb to slaughter.

If Houston wins, it can extol the virtues of progress. The Texans will have won the division two consecutive years and this time have a playoff berth to show for it, the first since 2010. Oakland has already enjoyed a renaissance with a remarkable 12-4 record, something only soured in the short-term by Carr’s injury. A Raiders win would give a young team more experience in the pressure cooker of the postseason, something head coach Jack Del Rio can build upon going into training camp.

This may be the game with the least impact on the rest of the playoffs for the field. But for the two teams involve, plenty is at stake.