After their first win of the season, the 1-3 Oakland Raiders travel to the StubHub Center in an attempt to validate their existence in the 2018 season against the 2-2 Los Angeles Chargers.
This week, the Raiders run into a far more legitimate team and quarterback in the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Against San Francisco last week, Rivers collected three touchdowns versus one pick while throwing for 250 yards, pushing him into eighth place in NFL history with 51,504 yards passing, surpassing John Elway's mark of 51,475.
This is now the 117th regular-season meeting between these former AFL rivals. The Raiders lead, 62-52-2, but the current juxtaposition was better represented last year when the Chargers won both meetings.
There are few legitimate reasons to believe the Raiders will turn that around this week, despite the confidence instilled by last week's win.
By coincidence, circumstance or necessity, it seems the Raiders get younger each week. This week, 13-year veteran tackle Donald Penn was put on injured reserve. Although he seemed concussed in the Bears game, the malady listed when he went on IR was his groin.
There was disagreement, both within the Raiders staff and among Raiders Nation, whether Penn deserved a massive raise when he held out last year. He signed a two-year, $21 million extension (after signing a two-year, $14 million contract in 2016). He failed to finish the 2017 season when he needed foot surgery. After Gruden was hired, the Raiders drafted UCLA tackle Kolton Miller in the first round this year. In training camp, Miller was installed at left tackle and Penn moved to right tackle where he didn't look that good in the first three games and was injured in the fourth.
Enter Brandon Parker, a third-round pick this year out of North Carolina A&T, who was thrown into action last week and played well. Although Gruden politely mentioned that Penn might return to the team from injured reserve, it appears probable that the plan is to make the 6-foot-8-inch rookies -- Miller and Parker -- the Raiders' bookend tackles of the future.
Although Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley confuses offenses with diverse deployment of talent, the Raiders' rookie tackles catch a break Sunday due to Los Angeles pass-rusher extraordinaire Joey Bosa remaining out (foot).
But Bradley utilizes the varied talents of rookie safety Derwin James to screw up offensive blocking assignments. James has run free several times after lining up somewhere in the seven-man box up front. He has 26 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and six passes defensed. This is mitigating the loss of Bosa and taking advantage of the extra blockers assigned to defensive end Melvin Ingram after he opened the season with 1.5 sacks.
Although the DNA of this rivalry will probably result in a shootout between Rivers and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, it might be more prudent if Oakland eats up the clock - and reduces Rivers' time on the field -- by hammering the Chargers with a smash-mouth ground game that features Marshawn Lynch and hard-running backup Doug Martin. Lynch rushed for 130 yards against Cleveland, barging through 10 would-be tackles along the way and now leads all runners with 20 broken tackles on the season.
Carr has overcome physical and decision problems and last week completed 35-of-58 passes for 437 yards and four touchdowns. But there were two interceptions, including one at the end of the half when the Raiders were within range of tying the game with a field goal.
Gruden, noted as a quarterback guru, especially during his nine years as a TV broadcaster, is expected to coach up Carr so he lives up to the talk of being a franchise quarterback, or at least worth the five-year, $125 million deal he signed last year before Gruden's arrival. After last week's win Gruden said nice things about Carr, but on Wednesday was much more effusive about Rivers.
"It's not good enough yet," Gruden said of Carr after the win over Cleveland. "He has spectacular talent, he is a great kid. He's going to be fine in this offense. We keep raising the bar with him and try not to ever get satisfied. It's a pleasure coaching him. ... And he hung in there and played his best when we needed him the most."
On Wednesday, Gruden was asked about Rivers.
"He's one of my favorite players," Gruden said. "Not only a great performer, he's a great competitor. He's durable. He's tough. Look at the number of players that he's played with. Different backs, different linemen, different receivers, different coaches, different systems. He's going to be a handful for us. Great opportunity for our defense to show their improvement."
It'll be a great opportunity for Carr to step up in a game of compare and contrast.