The Oakland Raiders return home to the Coliseum this Sunday as they sit atop the AFC West thanks to a thrilling victory over the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football in Mexico City.
Head coach Jack Del Rio and the Raiders will host the reining NFC champion Carolina Panthers. The Panthers got off to a rocky start, going just 1-6 before righting the ship and now winning three of their last four games.
The Panthers feature one of the league's most dynamic quarterbacks in Cam Newton, last year's Most Valuable Player. Through Newton, the Panthers possess the 15th ranked offense in the league. Newton has thrown for 11 touchdowns, but is also a dangerous rusher at any moment -- he already has four rushing touchdowns.
Carolina likes to use Newton in goal-line situations so the Raiders defense will have to be aware of that and be ready to try and tackle the big quarterback. The young quarterback has some nice weapons around him as well, starting with running back Jonathan Stewart. Newton's running ability takes some carries away from Stewart, but he's still a good back and capable of taking any carry the distance.
In the passing game, one of Newton's favorite targets is tight end Greg Olsen, who holds the Panthers franchise record for yards by a tight end. Olsen currently leads the team in both receptions (54) and receiving yards (745). The Raiders have struggled in covering the tight end all year (and last year if you're keeping track) and will have arguably one of the toughest matchups in the NFL this year.
Another key piece for the Panthers is wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who uses his height advantage to soar over defenders for receptions, especially touchdowns in which he has four of this season. The Raiders need to find a way to neutralize the big wide receiver and limit the damage he does on the Raiders secondary.
Quarterback Derek Carr and the Raiders offense will likely be going up against a Panthers defense that will be without their leader, linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly suffered a devastating concussion last week and does not look like he'll be available this week. He leads the NFL in solo tackles with 71.
The Raiders were unable to get the running game going last week in Mexico and won't have an easy matchup this week as the Panthers are holding opponents to just 81.8 yards per game on the ground, second best in the NFL. While tough in defending the run, there's a little more vulnerability in the Panthers secondary after cornerback Josh Norman left for the Redskin via free agency. The Panthers are allowing 353 passing yards a game, 15th in the NFL.
Carolina's defense has relied on getting to the quarterback and sacks to help their second, already racking up 30 sacks on the season, which is tied for the third most in the NFL. Defensive end Mario Addison leads the team with 6.5. The Raiders have done a phenomenal job protecting Carr this season, allowing just 11 sacks through 10 games, the best in the NFL. They Raiders offensive line will have to keep Carr off his back again if they want to find a way to continue their winning streak.
The Raiders control their own destiny as they currently sit atop the AFC West, and even the entire AFC. If they found a way to win out, the playoffs would come through Oakland.