In many ways the Cowboys will see their mirror image tonight when they face off with the Raiders. Both teams were darlings of the 2016 season, led by bright, young quarterbacks, dominant offensive lines, and defenses that did just enough to get by with the support of their powerful offenses. This time last year if someone had told you that the Super Bowl in February of 2017 would be a matchup between those two teams nobody would have been surprised, and as such both teams were among the favorites to get there coming into this season. Things have not gone to plan for either team and the playoff hopes for each team are hanging by a thread entering tonight.
The good news for the Cowboys is that they have been playing a bit better than the Raiders as of late, winning their last two as opposed to the Raiders who were embarrassed by division rival Kansas City last week, and the last game they did win, just a seven-point victory at home vs. the Giants, was not especially inspiring. Of course there is also the looming return of Ezekiel Elliott, who will rejoin the team tomorrow by all accounts.
With that said, the Raiders are in more or less the same position as the Cowboys and with tonight being their last home game of the year, expect an inspired effort. With Derek Carr struggling, top receiver Amari Cooper injured and not playing, and the Cowboys missing perhaps their best defensive lineman in David Irving, expect the Raiders to rededicate themselves to Marshawn Lynch and the running game behind a physically dominating, road-grading offensive line.
Despite being about average league-wide as far as rushing yards per carry, Oakland has actually attempted the least runs in the league this year after finishing just outside the top 10 in attempts last season. However, with Lynch coming off a performance where he put up 61 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries, and with their season on the line teams often look to get back to basics, and that could be the case tonight against a team that prided themselves on the physicality of their offensive line last season.
With all that said, the Cowboys must look to start fast tonight and force the Raiders back into their pass-happy ways, which I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige given how their season has gone. Without Irving the Cowboys interior defensive line is light with just Maliek Collins, journeyman Richard Ash, Lewis Neal, Datone Jones, and perhaps Tyrone Crawford rotating in. Neal is 280 lbs. at most, while Jones recently played as a 3-4 OLB for the Packers, so it will be imperative that the Cowboys don’t allow the Raiders to dictate the pace of the game and wear down the interior of the defensive line as the game wears on.
Of course on the flip side of things the Raiders defense has been quite poor, especially their pass defense where they amazingly only have two interceptions on the year. There should be plenty of opportunities through the air to make big plays and if the Cowboys ca build an early lead, things could get ugly quick for a defense that has struggled all season with an offense that seems to find any excuse possible to abandon the run.
With Elliott set to return next week and the Cowboys still firmly in the playoff hunt thanks to the Packers loss today there is no excuse for a lackadaisical performance. After, at times, feeling like Moses wandering through the desert without Elliott over the last six weeks, especially after the three demoralizing blowouts in a row to start the suspension, you have to imagine the team will be rejuvenated and extremely focused tonight.
The Raiders are not a bad team, that’s for certain, but they are a struggling team that is almost asking to be put out of their misery with how they’ve played as of late. With a chance to jump into first place last week they came out with an uninspired performance and got pummeled against the Chiefs, going into the fourth quarter down 26-0. Get them down early tonight and expect them to pack it in, but give them a chance to feel good about themselves and it’s likely to be an all-night affair.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned with the possibility of Lynch and the Raiders dominant interior offensive line bulldozing the likes of Datone Jones and Richard Ash tonight, but it just feels like the Cowboys are starting to get things rolling at the right time. Dak Prescott seems to have found his groove last week against the Giants with several impressive throws, and with Sean Lee in the lineup the defense should be able to do enough against an offense that has been extremely inconsistent all year.
All they need to do now is win one more and the long Elliott-saga that has plagued the team since training camp will finally be over. They will be able to get back to the business of winning games with their team at full strength without the rumors of suspensions, the never-ending legal saga, and finally the eventual suspension of their most important skill position player. Just one more and the Cowboys can hit the reset button without the black cloud that’s been hanging over them for months, just one more and it may start to feel a little like 2016 again. Cowboys, 27-20.