NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-2) AT OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-5)
SERIES HISTORY: 32nd regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 16-14-1. New England and Oakland/L.A./soon-to-be Las Vegas have a history that dates back to the AFL, when they met twice a year. New England has won five of the last six games in the Bill Belichick era. It was kicked off by the controversial Tuck Rule game in the 2001 postseason, with Adam Vinatieri's famous field goal in the snow kick-starting the Patriots' dynasty. The Patriots are 2-1 on the road against Oakland over the last decade-plus, winning 49-26 with Matt Cassel at quarterback in 2008 and 31-19 in 2011.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The last couple weeks, Tom Brady and the Patriots have dealt with impressive pass rushes by utilizing a short passing game to the running backs. While such an approach will always be a part of what the Patriots do under Josh McDaniels, this battle with the Raiders should offer the opportunity to work the outside receivers and push the ball down the field.
Oakland's pass defense is poor, allowing passers a 110 rating and 71 percent completions while not yet recording an interception. Brady and his array of weapons are likely licking their chops -- assuming the line that's shown much improvement in recent weeks can handle Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin and Co. The passing attack should continue to roll, with just a bit more emphasis on Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski and some bigger plays.
Defensively, the Raiders realize blitzing Brady is suicide, so they'll attempt to do what they failed to execute against Jay Cutler: Concede short throws and rally to tackle. It's pretty much a mismatch with Brady against the Raiders' pass rush and secondary unless Khalil Mack can get home and the Raiders can force a turnover -- maybe even their first interception.
The Raiders gave a glimpse of the kind of balance they desire against Miami -- not so much in yardage, but in intent. They ran the ball 27 times and threw it 30, and they ideally would keep Marshawn Lynch involved to keep Brady off the field as much as possible.
The Patriots' defense will focus on the usual: communication in the back end, stopping the run and avoiding big plays. Alan Branch and Co. up front will work to keep Lynch and the ground game from getting going to put more pressure on Derek Carr and an inconsistent Raiders passing game. The Patriots' pass defense will likely include more zone looks than last week's plan.
Maybe the biggest issue New England must deal with is tight end Jared Cook, Oakland's leading receiver. He will likely see a lot Patrick Chung in coverage, a matchup that could favor the Raiders.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Raiders WR Amari Cooper vs. Patriots CB Jonathan Jones. The Raiders understand any chance to beat a quality opponent (as they did against Kansas City) will have to come with a big performance by Cooper. Cooper's 11 passes for 210 yards in that game were far and away his best game -- perhaps his only truly outstanding performance. By lining Cooper up in the slot, the Raiders hope to get him matched against Jones rather than starters Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler. Cooper's efficiency has risen since offensive coordinator Todd Downing has gradually begun to work him more inside.
--Patriots RT LaAdrian Waddle vs. Raiders LDE Khalil Mack. Though the reigning Defensive Player of the Year isn't having as elite a season in 2017, Mack (4.5 sacks) is still extremely dangerous. New England starting RT Marcus Cannon has missed the last game-plus to an ankle injury and may not be able to go again this week. That means Waddle, who was impressive dealing with Von Miller last Sunday night in Denver, will get another chance to prove his worth. The Raiders defense has struggled this season, but Mack remains a man who can destroy an opponent almost single-handedly.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. The former Pro Bowler is coming off a tough performance in Denver, matched up with Broncos playmaker Emmanuel Sanders. Butler, who will be a free agent looking for big money at season's end, allowed Sanders to catch six passes for 137 yards and looked lost at times in coverage. He will face a different challenge against Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper and Co. this week as he attempts to bounce back from his latest struggles in an up-and-down season.
FAST FACTS: New England has won five consecutive games, including last week's 41-16 victory at Denver. The Patriots lead the NFL in total offense (409.4 yards per game) and passing offense (301.6). ... QB Tom Brady leads the NFL in completions (231), attempts (343) and passing yards (2,807), ranks second in passer rating (108.3) and is tied for second in touchdown passes (19). Against Denver, Brady recorded his 86th regular-season road win, passing Peyton Manning for most in NFL history. ... RB Dion Lewis rushed for a TD and returned a kick 103 yards for a TD in Week 10. He is one of three players with a TD off a kick return in 2017. ... TE Rob Gronkowski has five TD catches in his past six road games. He scored against Oakland in the last meeting. ... TE Martellus Bennett, who returned to the Patriots last week, had 11 catches and a TD in his last game vs. Oakland (2015 with Chicago). ... Oakland defeated Houston 27-20 last year at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Raiders QB Derek Carr passed for 295 yards and three TDs in that game. He has thrown for 300 yards in three straight games. ... RB Marshawn Lynch last saw the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, where he controversially was not allowed a chance to rush for the winning TD. He tallied 102 yards and a score in that loss. ... WR Michael Crabtree recorded 107 receiving yards and two TDs in his only game vs. New England (2012 with San Francisco). ... TE Jared Cook caught eight passes for 126 yards in Week 9. He has gone over 100 yards in two of the past three games and ranks third among AFC tight ends with 499 yards, fourth with 39 catches. ... LB NaVorro Bowman has tallied at least 10 tackles in four straight games. Since his Oakland debut in Week 7, he leads the AFC with 32 tackles.
PREDICTION: After a horrible first month, the Patriots' defense has really clamped down during the five-game winning streak. That's bad news for the Raiders.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 30-20.