The Oakland Raiders weren't up to the task in their most recent road test. An even greater challenge awaits this week.
The AFC West contenders try to shake off a lopsided loss when they travel to historic Lambeau Field for Sunday's pivotal matchup with the defending world champion Green Bay Packers, who enter this mid-December clash still unbeaten but having had to work hard to obtain their latest victory.
Green Bay ran its astounding winning streak to 18 games, which matches the second-longest run in NFL history, by outlasting the New York Giants this past Sunday at MetLife Stadium. It didn't come easy, however, with the deciding points in the 38-35 triumph coming on a 30-yard field goal from Mason Crosby as time expired.
The three-point margin was the closest the Packers have prevailed by over the course of their tremendous tear, which dates back to Week 15 of the 2010 campaign, and the Giants fought back from a 28-17 third-quarter deficit to tie the contest at 35-35 on an Eli Manning touchdown pass and subsequent two-point conversion with under a minute to go. That was still enough time for Aaron Rodgers, though, with the insanely-accurate Green Bay quarterback marching the offense 68 yards in just four plays to set up Crosby's kick.
"That's what you're looking for," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy of his team's successful late drive. "You are going to have to complete two-minute drives to win championships. So trust me, I would have taken the win a little easier, but that's a great investment in your football team to get a win like that."
The narrow result could give the Raiders a boost of confidence heading into Sunday's tilt, though they'll surely have to play better than they did a week ago. Oakland was soundly beaten in all phases during a 34-14 shellacking at the hands of the Miami Dolphins last week, halting a string of three straight wins for the Silver and Black and dropping the team into a first-place tie with upstart Denver in the AFC West.
The Raiders produced a mere 133 total yards in falling behind 34-0 after three quarters, while the defense was gashed for 209 rushing yards by the Dolphins for the game.
Oakland will have to bounce back quickly in a showdown with a prolific Green Bay squad that's averaging a league-best 35.0 points per game and possesses the leading candidate for this year's Most Valuable Player award in Rodgers, who tops all signal-callers with a 125.3 passer rating, a 70.6 completion percentage and 37 touchdown throws against just five interceptions.
"We're going to show up and we're going to be ready to play," said Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. "[The Packers] have a goal, we have a goal too. "We need to get back to winning, so something���s going to give one way or the other. So, it's going to be fun to see."
Jackson's club has posted a 4-2 record on the road this season and had won three straight away from home prior to their Week 13 setback in Miami.
The Packers were able to clinch their first NFC North title since 2007 with last Sunday's happenings and can secure a first-round bye in the playoffs as one of the conference's top two seeds by besting the Raiders or if New Orleans loses at Tennessee this weekend.
Oakland and Green Bay have split 10 all-time meetings in the regular season, but the Packers have defeated the Raiders five consecutive times and have outscored Sunday's opponent by a 79-14 margin over the past two bouts. Green Bay trounced the Raiders by a 38-7 count at Lambeau Field back in 2007, four years after recording a 41-7 rout in Oakland during the 2003 season in a game best remembered for being held one day after the death of the father of then- Packers quarterback Brett Favre. The Raiders are 0-3 on the road in this set since coming through with a 20-0 shutout of Green Bay on Sept, 13, 1997.
McCarthy's only previous game against the Raiders as a head coach came during Green Bay's above-mentioned 2007 victory, while Jackson will be taking on both the Packers and McCarthy for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland's bread-and-butter on offense has been a persistent running game that's averaged 140.6 yards per week (4th overall), but the team will again have to make do without top back Darren McFadden for a sixth straight outing because of a slow recovery from a sprained foot. Michael Bush (686 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 7 total TD) has fared well in his place, though the powerful understudy has shown signs of slowing down following heavy usage. After compiling 266 yards on a combined 60 carries in back-to-back November wins over San Diego and Minnesota, Bush managed just 69 yards on 24 attempts in a Week 12 decision over Chicago and was a non-factor in the Miami game, gaining a paltry 18 yards on 10 totes. The Raiders were held to a season-low 46 rushing yards by the Dolphins, which seemed to affect the performance of quarterback Carson Palmer (1485 passing yards, 8 TD, 9 INT) as well. The midseason acquisition completed an off-target 20-of-41 passes in the latest loss, while his two touchdown strikes came in the final eight minutes with the outcome already decided. It didn't help matters that Palmer was working without two of his best receivers in speedster Jacoby Ford (foot) and talented rookie Denarius Moore (ankle), neither of whom will be available for Sunday's game as well. Wideout Chaz Schilens (20 receptions, 2 TD) served as the top target last week and registered season highs of six catches and 89 receiving yards, while inconsistent former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey (38 receptions, 2 TD) tops the team in both those categories for the season.
If the Packers have one concern heading into the playoffs, it's a defense that's given up the second-highest amount of total yards (397.8 ypg) and passing yards (292.8 ypg) in the NFL this season and was shredded by Manning a week ago, with the Giants quarterback amassing 347 yards and three touchdowns through the air while engineering a near-comeback. On the positive side, Green Bay has come up with a league-best 23 interceptions and is second overall in takeaways (27) and sports two terrific cornerbacks in ex-Raider and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson (55 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 INT) and Tramon Williams (45 tackles, 4 INT, 14 PD), not to mention an elite pass rusher in outside linebacker Clay Matthews (36 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT). The 2010 All- Pro displayed some strong coverage skills as well last week, picking off Manning and sprinting 38 yards for what turned out to be a crucial touchdown in the second quarter. The Packers' play against the run hasn't been stellar either, with the team allowing an average of 4.9 yards per carry for the year, and the possible absence of inside linebackers Desmond Bishop (97 tackles, 5 sacks) and A.J. Hawk (60 tackles, 1.5 sacks) for a second straight game due to calf strains could compound the problem. Hawk is considered questionable to play, while Bishop doesn't seem likely to suit up.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
A lethal Green Bay offense that's put up 30 or more points in eight of 12 contests in 2011 has been expertly directed by the deadly-accurate Rodgers (3844 passing yards, 37 TD, 5 INT), who's in the midst of one of the greatest statistical seasons the NFL has ever seen. The Super Bowl XLV Most Valuable Player has generated a quarterback rating of over 100 in every game this season and is coming off a 369-yard, four-touchdown outburst against the Giants, the ninth time he's thrown for at least three scores on the year. He does have plenty of support in running the league's third-rated aerial assault, though, as the Packers own one of the deepest collection of receivers in the game. No. 1 wideout Greg Jennings (65 receptions, 929 yards, 9 TD) is on the verge of a fourth straight 1,000-yard season, while breakout star Jordy Nelson (48 receptions, 876 yards, 9 TD) appears set to join him and is averaging over 18 yards per catch as the main big-play threat. The athletic Jermichael Finley (42 receptions, 6 TD) gives the team a matchup nightmare at the tight end spot, while venerable veteran Donald Driver (27 receptions, 4 TD) proved he's still a factor at age 36 by hauling in two Rodgers touchdown passes in last Sunday's win. Green Bay will be without leading rusher James Starks (565 rushing yards, 1 TD, 28 receptions) for Sunday's matchup due to an ankle sprain, leaving the declining Ryan Grant (316 rushing yards, 12 receptions) and seldom-used Brandon Saine as the primary options when the Packers run the ball.
An Oakland defense that's limited opposing quarterbacks to just a 52.3 percent completion rate -- second-best in the NFL -- may not make it all that easy on Rodgers this weekend, and a strong pass rush that's accounted for 33 sacks thus far figures to make its presence felt as well. The Raiders have a pair of tackles that can create havoc on the inside in six-time Pro Bowl honoree Richard Seymour (25 tackles, 6 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (34 tackles, 5.5 sacks), while outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (48 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) has tallied six sacks over the last five games. There's not a great deal of experienced depth behind cornerbacks Stanford Routt (37 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) and Lito Sheppard (20 tackles, 1 sack), however, which could be an issue considering Green Bay's strength at receiver, while Oakland has had its troubles in containing the run all season long. The Raiders rank just 28th in that category (141.4 ypg), and last week's loss to Miami marked the fifth time they've surrendered over 170 yards on the ground.
KEYS TO THE GAME
For the Raiders, it's all about running the football. Oakland is at its toughest when its backs are churning out the yards at a prodigious clip, as it's 5-2 when hitting 150 rushing yards in game and unbeaten in four contests in which the offense has gained over 162 yards on the ground. Controlling time of possession may also be the team's best chance of slowing down Rodgers and his army of playmakers, but a repeat of last week's meager output likely won't cut it in this one.
Though the Packers have been able to get away with playing lackluster defense because of Rodgers' remarkable precision, tightening up that side of the ball would help prevent close calls such as last week's. Finding a reliable pass rusher to team alongside Matthews in time for the playoffs would make for a nice addition as well.
If Oakland's going to win this game, it'll probably have to be in a shootout, and that means Palmer's going to have to be in top form to match what Rodgers will bring to the table. The veteran gunslinger has been kind of up-and-down since coming over from Cincinnati in a trade and faces the league's best secondary in terms of creating turnovers, and the Raiders can't afford to be careless against a foe that can score at will.
The Packers have been getting opponents' best shots all throughout their stellar season, and this week will be no different with the Raiders engaged in a heated race in their division. With a ground game that can be extremely potent and a defense that's better against the pass than the run, Oakland doesn't seem to match up badly here and should pose a threat to Green Bay's unbeaten streak if it can play to its strengths. That still may not be enough, however, as no team has yet to successfully stop Rodgers and the Packers' high- powered offense from lighting up the scoreboard. Expect Green Bay to have another hard battle on its hands, but ultimately come out on top once more.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 35, Raiders 27