New England Patriots @ Oakland Raiders
Start-time: Sunday, 21:25
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
New England's old frailties in the secondary could be exposed by Carr
While most observers have the New England Patriots down as returning to their supposedly peerless best well in time for a trademark mid-season push towards the Super Bowl, the jury remains out for me on Tom Brady's bunch. But what's not to love?
Brady tops the league for passing (just shy of 3,000 yards) and is completing 67.3% of his attempts. Over his storied career, he's only twice exceeded that mark at this stage in the season. Further, over the Pats' opening nine games, he has attempted 47 passes that amassed 20+ yards of hangtime. In short, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the ageing pass master is taking more deep downfield strikes than ever before. More mint condition than regressive, it seems. Much of that throwing confidence can be attributed to the welcome addition of Brandin Cooks (from New Orleans in the offseason) a truly mercurial blazer on the wings who creates natural separation. Has Brady ever had it so good for options among his perennial crack receiving crew?
Well, rather than end each paragraph with a question, it's high time that I provided some answers. Cooks heads the league through nine weeks of regular-season with 290 receiving yards on passes in excess of 20 yards, and leads the Patriots with over 16 yards per catch. You can't deny those numbers. But while numbers mean everything in the stats-driven NFL, that typically applies two-fold when it comes to age. Brady is 40 and simply not what he was - physically, not cognitively. Operating behind a susceptible front line, he has to get the ball out quickly to his running backs (who can double as receivers), or find Cooks (or the hardy Rob Gronkowski) in coverage.
This provides the Oakland secondary (underwhelming as it's been to date) with a chance to make some plays and create a turnover or three. Especially amid the rarefied Mexico City altitude where the ball can fly on fiery throw-first-think-later quarterbacks. Even a thoroughbred like Brady. The Raiders' defense have little to lose (not to mention unique experience in this atmosphere after last year's successful Mexican jaunt) and can bring the heat to the All-American poster-boy if they commit to the blitz. In any case, it can't get much worse than their bargain-basement status: no picks through nine weeks, and tied for last in the NFL with 13 sacks. Perhaps that's a high-risk tactic but it's one that's already helped morph the New Orleans D from also-rans into contenders this year. Pigs, it appears, really can fly. And Oakland can follow both suit and strategy. The Raiders are also coming off a bye week, so should strip the fresher and fitter for it.
Prior to their week off, Oakland accounted for the dubious might of the Miami Dolphins 27-24. But at least QB Derek Carr is starting to show glimpses of his best (300 passing yards for a QB Rating of 99.3), while running man Marshawn Lynch is again going through the gears to Beast Mode. So in spite of all the bad breaks and blunders this term, the Silver and Black still only stand a couple of games outside the race for sixth spot in the AFC. Make no mistake, then, this game still counts for a lot. Although it's not the showdown for the AFC number-one seeding that many billed it at the campaign's outset when the schedules were released.
As I mentioned, at least Oakland have been here before and have found their 7,382-feetm, er, feet. Now they just have to elevate their thinking. The Carr to Michael Crabtree connection always affords any crisis a potentially happy resolution, and the New England secondary is more porous that many judges would have you believe.
So trust Jack Del Rio when he says he has a plan for the Azteca Stadium's breathless arena: get in and get out before your lungs get a chance to notice. Sounds like a smash-and-grab plan. Would you expect anything less from this raiding party? Questions, questions.... now it's about time Oakland provided some definitive answers, lest their season unravel into oblivion.
Back Oakland Raiders (+7) to win on the Match Handicap @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Oakland Raiders (+3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Over 23.5 Total Oakland Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back M.Crabtree to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ 12.011/1 / 2.56/4 or better