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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Hola Raiders!
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When the Patriots (7-2) schedule came out last spring, there were a few true marquee games on the slate.
One of those would be this Sunday afternoon’s trip to Mexico City to take on the Raiders (4-5), an international locale for a battle between two would-be AFC contenders.
But while playing a game in the unique setting of Estadio Azteca will certainly be an experience for New England’s coaches, players and fans in attendance, Oakland doesn’t bring quite the competition to the matchup that may have been expected.
After winning 12 games last season in a breakout campaign before falling victim to Derek Carr’s injury heading into the postseason, Jack Del Rio’s Raiders have underperformed and underachieved across the board in a disappointing 2017 campaign.
Oakland followed up two wins to open the season with a four-game losing streak that now has the team fighting to stay playoff-relevant in the AFC. Carr has battled injury and ineffectiveness, but really the failures this fall have come in all areas on both sides of the ball.
Meanwhile, New England has shaken off its early-season struggles to put forth a five-game winning streak, including last Sunday night’s blowout of the Broncos in Denver.
A week of workouts in the high altitude of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs should only help Bill Belichick’s team as it prepares for a battle at 7,200 feet in Mexico City.
The Raiders still have the ability to be explosive on offense and have talent across much of the roster, but they have to prove they can play to that potential. The Patriots still have some questions on defense and are battling through various injuries.
The Patriots travel party enjoyed a unique week in the Rocky Mountains, but Belichick made it clear that he expected the focus to be on preparations for the still-dangerous Raiders.
“It’s been great. It’s great, but our job here is to get ready for the Raiders. That’s what we’re here for,” Belichick said Friday afternoon. “A lot of things to get ready for with the Raiders. They present a lot of problems, but we’ll just keep grinding our way through it.”
Before the Patriots board a plane for a Saturday flight to Mexico City for the team’s first international game since its last trip to London, here are a few potential keys to the meeting with Oakland.
(Light) Air it out – There will be some focus on the air in Mexico City for obvious reasons. The altitude is even higher than that last weekend in Denver, which could have an effect on both teams’ players. But there is another reason to focus on the air, because that’s where Tom Brady and the Patriots will likely be making a lot of plays. Oakland has been pretty bad on pass defense and is also dealing with injuries in the back end. The Raiders have allowed opponents to complete 71.2 percent of passes on the year. They’ve allowed a combined 110.5 passer rating on the season. And maybe most amazingly, they’ve yet to record an interception nine games into the season. Brady, on the other hand, is coming off a performance in which he earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors with three touchdowns in Denver against what is supposed to be one of the best pass defenses in football. Brady will be looking throw early and often against Oakland.
Something Cooking – A strong case can be made that each team’s most dangerous target in this game is a Cook(s). For the Patriots, Brandin Cooks should certainly be an option to make big plays on the outside and down the field. He’s yet to really have a true breakout game for New England and has seen the passing game focus on the passing backs and tight ends in recent weeks. This is a week where the speedy outside target should get his and then some. For Oakland, tight end Jared Cook leads the team in receptions (39), yards (499) and average (12.8). New England’s cornerbacks may also have their hands full with Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper – though they’ve not had great years and have dropped too many passes – but how the middle of the secondary deals with Cook could be a key to the Patriots success on pass defense this time around.
Lining up the line – With Marcus Cannon (ankle) missing practice all week, veteran LaAdrian Waddle will likely get another fill-in start at right tackle. The backup has done a really impressive job this season, including more than holding his own last week against Von Miller and Co. in Denver. After handling the man who was runner-up for last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, Waddle will now see the man who won the award in Khalil Mack. Though the defensive end has just 4.5 sacks, he has the potential to ruin a game on any snap. Cannon may not be the only absent starter, though. Center David Andrews missed the last couple days of practice to illness and his status for Sunday bears watching. If he misses his first game since 2015, second-year backup Ted Karras is the most likely candidate to fill in. New England’s line and pass protection have been on the upswing in recent weeks but the group may have to rely on a couple backups to keep that positive momentum going against Oakland.
Slay the Beast – Marshawn Lynch has not had a very impressive season coming out of retirement to join his hometown Raiders. He’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. His season-high for yards came with 76 in Week 1. He’s been suspended. Still, he’s topped 4 yards a carry the last three games he’s played and expect Oakland to try to get him going against a Patriots run defense that is allowing 5 yards a carry on the season. New England’s front could get Malcom Brown after the big third-year tackle returned to practice in Colorado Springs. Still, he, Alan Branch and the inside linebacker duo of Elandon Roberts and David Harris need to prove they can be more consistently stout against the run in this battle with the aging Beast Mode.
Big es mal – New England has allowed way too many big plays to opposing offenses all year. It’s a trend that the Raiders will try to extend. It’s an area the Patriots defense needs to improve on if it’s going to continue to keep the points down from opponents. Oakland has the ability to make catch-and-run plays as well as fight for 50-50 balls down the field with their big receivers. New England is rounding into health in the secondary with the possiblity of Eric Rowe (groin) returning after missing more than a month. Whatever the lineup looks like, the cornerbacks and safeties need to continue to improve on their communication and continue to work to eliminate all the big plays they’ve been allowing dating all the way back to Week 1. If Oakland can’t hit some big plays it will probably be hard for them to hang with Brady’s output.
Prediction: Even if the Raiders were playing better heading into this game, the Patriots would be considered the better team. New England has a massive advantage in coaching with the Belichick/Del Rio comparison. The Patriots have been picking up momentum on both sides of the ball in recent weeks and even cleaned up the penalty problem last week in Denver. This feels like a game where Brady will throw the ball early and mix in the run later with Dion Lewis continuing to get the bulk of the carries. Defensively if the Patriots stop the run early and avoid allowing big plays it should allow the game to be played on New England’s terms. As we saw last week, special teams are always a wild card. The Patriots have been so good in the kicking game all year that it’s hard to give an opponent the edge there, even with Matthew Slater out of the mix. Put it all together and the Patriots should remain in the 30-plus-point-range with a 34-24 win over Oakland to keep chugging along toward a clash with the Steelers.
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