A hard-earned win last week has the Detroit Lions back in position to end a playoff absence that's gone on for 12 years. The Oakland Raiders, on the other hand, have seen the chances of extending their own postseason drought increased following a pair of untimely lopsided losses.
Both teams' hopes of lengthening their seasons may hinge on the outcome of Sunday's meeting at the Oakland Coliseum in one of the most pivotal games on the Week 15 NFL slate.
Detroit's playoff fortunes took a sizeable hit after a rough seven-game stretch in which the NFC upstarts lost five times to erase the momentum built from a sizzling 5-0 start to the season. The Lions were able to bounce back with a 34-28 triumph over doormat Minnesota last Sunday, which coupled with a loss by slumping Chicago that same day, vaulted the club into possession of the conference's sixth and final seed for the upcoming playoffs heading into the final three weeks.
The Lions, who haven't reached the postseason since 1999, presently stand one game ahead of the Bears in the standings, with Dallas also right on Detroit's heels heading into a Saturday showdown at Tampa Bay.
Detroit doesn't have the easiest of schedules the rest of the way, however, with a home date against a dangerous San Diego squad looming next week before it visits the unbeaten Green Bay Packers in the Jan. 1 finale.
"We know what situation we're in," said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "We know that every one of these games is going to be important."
Oakland finds itself in a bit of a tougher spot as it returns home off a rough two-game road swing in which was outscored by an 80-30 margin in losses to non- contending Miami and the powerhouse Packers. The consecutive defeats placed the Raiders one game behind scorching Denver in the battle for first place in the AFC West.
"I think every game from here on in for us is a must-win," Oakland head coach Hue Jackson remarked. "I mean if we want to accomplish our goals, which is winning this division, I think every game, one game at a time, is a must-win game for us."
Rebounding from a mistake-filled blowout at the hands of the Packers this past Sunday will also be a prime objective for the reeling Raiders, a postseason non-participant in every year since 2002. Oakland turned the ball over five times on the afternoon, with struggling quarterback Carson Palmer throwing four interceptions in a forgettable outing, and was penalized 11 times for a total of 89 yards.
The Lions were on the opposite side of the spectrum in their clash with the Vikings, coming up with six giveaways and roaring out to a 21-0 lead in the game's opening 10 minutes. The offense scored just three second-half points as Minnesota mounted a fierce comeback attempt behind backup quarterback Joe Webb, however, but Detroit was able to hold on after coming up with a critical stop near the goal line in the final seconds.
Detroit's injury-riddled defense surrendered 425 total yards and a whopping 269 on the ground for the contest, but will get back one of its key cogs for Sunday's tilt. Havoc-wreaking tackle Ndamukong Suh has finished serving a two- game suspension for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith in a Thanksgiving Day setback to the Packers and will step back into his customary place in the starting lineup.
At 8-5, the Lions are one victory shy of achieving a winning season for the first time since 2000.
Oakland holds a 6-4 edge in the overall series between these franchises, but Detroit has won the last two matchups in the set and came through with a 36-21 decision in its most recent visit to the Coliseum, which took place in the 2007 season opener. The Lions also handed the Raiders a 23-13 loss in the Motor City in a 2003 encounter, with Oakland last topping Detroit via a 37-21 home verdict on Oct. 13, 1996. The Raiders are 4-1 all-time against the Lions as the host team.
Both Schwartz and Jackson will be opposing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit is a team that likes to air it out on offense, with only New Orleans having attempted more passes than the Lions this season. Young quarterback Matthew Stafford (3754 passing yards, 29 TD, 14 INT) has managed to stay healthy for the first time in his three-year career and put up strong numbers as a result, ranking fourth in the league in touchdown throws and fifth overall in passing yards, and is coming off a sharp performance against the Vikings in which he completed 20-of-29 tries for 227 yards and two scores without an interception after having been picked off 10 times over the previous four weeks. The 2009 No. 1 overall pick has one of the game's best wide receivers to work with in Calvin Johnson (72 receptions, 1121 yards, 12 TD), a 6-foot-5, 236-pound physical marvel who's hauled in 24 touchdowns over the past two years. He's been held under 100 receiving yards in five straight games, however, as teams have game-planned to limit his opportunities, but players such as rookie wideout Titus Young (35 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (62 receptions, 4 TD) have been able to step up. Young posted a team- high 87 yards on four catches and connected with Stafford on a 57-yard touchdown in last Sunday's win, with Pettigrew snaring six receptions for 57 yards and a score. Detroit has produced just 159 rushing yards combined over its past two outings, but is expected to have capable running back Kevin Smith (229 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 4 total TD) active this week after sitting out the Minnesota game with an ankle sprain.
Smith could play a significant role in Sunday's bout if healthy, as the Raiders have been one of the league's stronger teams in defending the pass but have experienced season-long issues in stopping the run. Oakland has held enemy quarterbacks to a 52.4 percent completion rate thus far in 2011, the second- lowest figure in the NFL, and Green Bay marksman Aaron Rodgers hit on a below- standard 17-of-30 throws in last week's meeting with the Silver and Black. The Raiders also came through with four sacks of the leading MVP candidate in the game, upping their overall total to 37 that's tied for fourth-best in the league. Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's group boasts three quality interior rushers in starting tackles Richard Seymour (25 tackles, 6 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (36 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and valued reserve Desmond Bryant (31 tackles, 5 sacks), while middle linebacker Rolando McClain (72 tackles, 4 sacks, 10 PD) took down Rodgers twice a week ago. Keeping opposing running backs in check has been a greater problem for Oakland, which sits a lowly 29th in rush defense (141.0 ypg) and is giving up an NFL-worst 5.2 yards per carry. The pass- oriented Packers ran for 136 yards in last Sunday's rout, while Miami put up 209 yards on the ground on Bresnahan's crew two weeks back.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
In contrast to the Lions, Jackson prefers to pound away at teams with a persistent rushing attack centered around big back Michael Bush (764 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 8 total TD), who's been serving as the main carrier with playmaker Darren McFadden out since Week 7 due to a slow-healing foot sprain. The Raiders are sixth in the NFL in yards gained via the ground (138.8 ypg), though the offense has been rather stagnant in that area as of late. After ripping off a pair of 100-yard efforts in November wins at San Diego in Minnesota, Bush has averaged a lackluster 2.9 yards per attempt over the past three games and appears to be worn down some from a heavy workload. Oakland hopes the fifth-year bruiser can obtain a second wind on Sunday, as Palmer (1732 passing yards, 9 TD, 13 INT) has been incredibly erratic since coming over from Cincinnati in a blockbuster midseason trade. The veteran gunslinger's accuracy has been suspect in each of the last three weeks, and he's now tossed 13 interceptions in seven games as a Raider after his turnover-laden display against Green Bay. Palmer's also been affected by injuries and inconsistency among a young receiving corps that should get a boost from the impending return of promising rookie Denarius Moore (24 receptions, 4 TD) from a three-game absence caused by an ankle problem. The fifth-round find will work in a rotation with the notoriously-brittle Chaz Schilens (21 receptions, 2 TD) and speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey (43 receptions, 2 TD).
The Raiders' recently-stagnant ground game figures to get some life in a matchup against a Detroit defense that's allowing 136.1 rushing yards per game (27th overall) and an unhealthy 5.1 yards per carry on the season, and the unit was gashed routinely by a Minnesota squad led by an extremely mobile quarterback in Webb last week. The Lions fared substantially better when rookie Christian Ponder was under center, intercepting the 2011 first-round choice three times before he was replaced early in the third quarter and sacking him on three occasions, with standout end Cliff Avril (32 tackles, 9 sacks) getting to Ponder twice and forcing an early fumble that was recovered for a touchdown by middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (87 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT). Reserve cornerback Alphonso Smith (13 tackles, 2 INT) also returned an interception for a score later on and may draw a start this weekend with both regular Eric Wright (56 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) and nickel back Aaron Berry doubtful with injuries. Free safety Louis Delmas is also questionable to make it back from a knee sprain that's kept him out two straight weeks, but the depleted backfield should have top corner Chris Houston (46 tackles, 4 INT, 10 PD) on hand after he missed the club's last two tests with an ailing knee. Suh (31 tackles, 3 sacks), the NFL's 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year who racked up 10 sacks in a dazzling debut last season, further upgrades an already-formidable pass rush with his reinstatement and will rejoin Avril and veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (29 tackles, 7 sacks) on a quality four-man line.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How well Oakland runs the football will have a big say in which team wins this game. The Raiders are 5-2 this season when rushing for over 150 yards, including a 4-0 mark when gaining 162 or more, but 2-4 when failing to hit that benchmark. With a shaky Palmer at the controls of the offense and Detroit's defensive strengths lying in its ability to contain the pass and pressure the quarterback, it's imperative to Oakland's chances that Bush has a big day.
The turnover battle. The Lions have had three takeaways in a game five times this year and won each of those contests, while the Raiders fell to 0-3 when turning it over three times or more in the Green Bay loss. Stafford's been somewhat prone to interceptions over the past month as well, and Detroit will be in a tough spot on the road if its quarterback is careless with the football.
Penalties. These are two of the most flagged teams in the NFL, with Oakland having committed a league-high 130 infractions totaling 1,116 yards and Detroit third in penalty yardage (894) and fourth in number of calls against (105). The team that's better able to harness its aggression -- something that's especially been an issue for the Lions -- should have a distinct advantage.
Both of these playoff hopefuls have displayed deficiencies that the other can exploit, with the Raiders a stronger running team that could get well against a banged-up Detroit defense that's been incredibly submissive against the rush and the Lions holding a clear edge in the passing game with the combo of Stafford and Johnson. Detroit may not have much of a problem getting on the board on an Oakland outfit that's given up 80 points in its last two games, but stopping the competition has quite troublesome for the NFC contenders for a while now. While the returns of Suh and Houston should help matters, neither will do much for solving the Lions' continued woes in run defense. And when the Raiders run the ball well, they've usually been successful. In a clash of two very inconsistent participants, Oakland's advantage in that department and a potent pass rush that can disrupt Detroit's one-dimensional offense could end up providing the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 30, Lions 24