The Oakland Raiders are cruising right along in 2016 thanks to their high-octane offense.
Headed into Week 12, Oakland sits tied with the New England Patriots atop the AFC at 8-2, one game back of the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL's best overall record. Yet there's a huge problem for the Raiders — one that will keep Jack Del Rio's team out of Super Bowl LI in Houston this coming February.
While Derek Carr & Co. can score with the very best of them, Oakland can't stop a Pop Warner team from matriculating the ball down the field. And if the Raiders end up heading to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots in January, they're almost certainly doomed.
FOX Sports contributor and former NFL executive Mike Lombardi joined Nick Wright on the “Make Me Smarter” football podcast this week to break down the Raiders' weakness:
All I could think about was Tom Brady moving the ball up and down the field on that defense and converting a lot of those times with the ball into points. […] When you evaluate secondaries, you break them down into meals. You're either a breakfast secondary or a dinner secondary. What does that mean?
You can win early in the route — defensive backs can win early in the route — means they jam you, they're a breakfast secondary. They win immediately, they jam, they disrupt the pattern, they create chaos at the start of the route. If you win late, the dinner secondary, and that secondary would be like Kansas City, where you win late. That means you're reading the coverage off.
The Raiders don't have either. They have a bunch of guys who allegedly are breakfast secondaries, guys that win early, but they can't win early. They get turned around, and quickness bothers you. And when quickness bothers you, and lateral movement bothers you, you can't cover anybody. … So I can't define their secondary. Chiefs: dinner secondary. Broncos: breakfast secondary. Raiders: no secondary.
No matter how you slice it, Oakland's defense is abysmal this season. Are you a stats traditionalist? The Raiders are 29th in the NFL in yards surrendered, 20th in points against, 29th in pass defense and 26th against the run. Do you prefer advanced stats? Oakland ranks 24th against the pass in Football Outsiders' DVOA and 27th in rushing defense, clocking in at No. 29 in total defense by that expected value-based metric.
Yet the Raiders might not even get a chance to test themselves against the Patriots, as a quick glance at the current playoff picture paints an ugly scene for the silver and black.
Let's assume that the Patriots and Raiders claim the top two seeds in the AFC, since they're two games ahead of the rest of the field. The Texans will likely claim the AFC South and the third or fourth seed. In the AFC North, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore will take the division, leaving two wild card spots for four potential teams: the Broncos, Chiefs, Dolphins (don't laugh; we'll get to Miami in a second), and the runner-up in the AFC North.
Each of those teams poses a serious threat to the Raiders — yes, including the Dolphins. Although Oakland's major defensive weakness is the secondary, the Raiders are pretty awful against the run as well. Miami, of course, boasts one of the NFL's best ground games. Jay Ajayi could keep Oakland's offense off the field, putting pressure on the Raiders to make the most out of every offensive possession. Oh, and the Dolphins have a top-ten defense to boot. If Miami sneaks into the postseason (and Football Outsiders currently gives the Dolphins a 55.5 percent chance), the Raiders could easily suffer an embarrassing second-round defeat, especially if they're looking ahead to New England.
And if Miami can knock off the Raiders, surely the likes of Denver, Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh could take advantage of Oakland's inability to stop anyone. The Broncos have the NFL's second-best overall defense, bolstered by the league's No. 1 passing defense. The Steelers, meanwhile, can go toe-to-toe with the Raiders offense; while Pittsburgh's defense isn't great, it's head and shoulders above Oakland's unit.
As for the Chiefs? Betting on Andy Reid in the postseason is always a nervewracking experience, but Kansas City could be the AFC's biggest Super Bowl sleeper — if the Chiefs can figure out how to run the ball, at least. And even the oft-ignored Texans could knock off the Raiders (depending on a replay review here or there), as we saw this week in Mexico City.
So who can challenge the Patriots? Look to the north, Lombardi says:
I think the reality is going to be whoever wins the [AFC] North will challenge the New England Patriots. I think the Patriots can be threatened. … But the northern team, Pittsburgh or Baltimore, whoever comes out of there, they pose the biggest threat to the Patriots, because they can match them. The Ravens can handle them physically, they can match up to them physically, and they'll keep the game in the low 20s. The Steelers can keep the game in the high 20s. They're not any good on defense … but they can score and execute much better.