Dallas Cowboys @ Oakland Raiders
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Faltering Raiders are there for the taking under erratic Carr
Much like the Green Bay Packers in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys have somehow kept their hopes alive over the past three weeks in the absence of arguably their star player (relentless running back Ezekiel Elliott). Finding a way to dig out some unlikely victories from tier-two sources has kept their path to the postseason open. Indeed, should Dallas win out, they may very well deprive Green Bay of that final wildcard into the play-offs.
This is the last game in which the Cowboys must do without Elliott (whose seemingly never-ending slate of suspensions, either reinforced or postponed, finally comes to an end on Monday). For now, though, you might lazily assume that match is best kept in the hands of QB Dak Prescott and his stand-out wideout Dez Bryant, both of whom have stepped up on recent Sundays to fill the supposedly gaping void left behind by Elliott.
However, the Cowboys actually sport the league's third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 137.5 yards per game. After a three-match losing streak, the Cowboys have regained their poise in successive victories, largely premised on ground gains over Washington and the Giants of New York (posting sterling figures of 182 and 122 yards respectively). Which just goes to show you that when a team commits to a sound strategy, elite athletes can blossom anywhere - especially in the Dallas backfield where they're operating behind arguably the finest offensive line in football. Cue current starter Alfred Morris who has 423 yards this term, and leads all Cowboys running backs with a 5.4-yard average per carry.
Unsurprisingly, though, and symptomatic of this late stage in the regular season, the Cowboys are nursing a few wounded warriors. That said, with Sean Lee back fresh and firing, coupled the stalwart availability of offensive linesmen Tyron Smith and La'El Collins, Dallas are stripping fitter than most. In fact, they're certainly winning the war against the Oakland treatment table which is full of first-choice personnel. It could be a case of 'Boys against back-ups here, so it's small surprise to see Dallas begin as favourites on the road.
For Oakland, Derek Carr is now back in shape physically, but in self-flagellating mode mentally with his "I sucked, we sucked" post-mortems delivered on most games. While it's noble to be honest and take the fall for your teammates, I think it gives lie to the fact that Carr knows he has been underwhelming under center this season, and maybe the locker room isn't buying into the DC hype anymore. Wide receiver Amari Cooper's dodgy ankle has gone through all the colours of the rainbow for "banged-up", and Carr's is looking limited when he gazes down the field and can't find his preferred target.
Last time out, the Raiders saw their two-game winning, er, "streak" end with a hugely disappointing defeat by the Kansas Chiefs, who leapt out to 26-0 lead. The Silver and Black technically remain in the postseason picture (and forthcoming encounters with Philly and LA suddenly appear strangely inviting) but they simply haven't found their balance on offense this year to be a contender. Marshawn Lynch may be discovering his Beast Mode capacity (619 yards for seven touchdowns this season) but I just can't see Jack Del Rio giving him the ball enough to establish the run here. For Oakland are still committed to Carr. Committed may end up being the operative word.
So leave this to Prescott, Bryant and the aforementioned Morris who have raised their level to account for Elliott's absence. For the third time this term, Dez Bryant scored a receiving touchdown in back-to-back games when he secured a 50-yard score last week against New York - and quite the jump-ball it was. Stats fans may remind me that it's been three years since Bryant has scored a touchdown in three straight games. However, I say that's about to change tonight.
If they get through this test, Dallas are another team to keep on the right side of as the play-offs loom. Elliott's return will only embolden their promising resurgence.
Back Dallas Cowboys (-3) to win on the Match Handicap @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Dallas Cowboys (-1.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread (-1.5) @ 1.9210/11 or better
Back Over 23.5 Dallas Cowboys @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back D.Bryant to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ 10.09/1 / 1.9110/11 or better