Panthers hope to regain footing vs. red-hot Raiders
This is a trip that could go a long way to define the season for the Carolina Panthers.
The Oakland Raiders are hoping they're recovered enough from their latest voyage to be able to continue their winning ways.
The teams meet Sunday at Oakland-Alamedia County Coliseum.
"We're talking about recovering from the trip," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "It's all about what's next for us and right now it's the Carolina Panthers. ... Busy turning the page to the Carolina Panthers."
The Raiders, who are the leaders in the AFC West, are coming off Monday night's victory against the Houston Texans in Mexico City.
The Panthers have packed up for the long haul. They're staying on the West Coast after this game to take on the Seattle Seahawks the following week.
It shapes up as a crucial time for the reigning NFC champions.
"We're going there for two reasons and two reasons only," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, offering a twist on the one-game-at-a-time mantra. "They're both important. Each game has (its) own individual meaning."
Rivera, though, said the focus is clearly on the Raiders as the Panthers (4-6) embark on this trip. They'll practice at San Jose State in between the games.
The Panthers are somewhat wounded, particularly with linebacker Luke Kuechly ruled out after entering the concussion protocol from the Nov. 17 game against New Orleans.
Carolina was fortunate to have extra time to prepare because of that Thursday night game. The injury report grew considerably, especially with defensive end Mario Addison and center Ryan Kalil exiting and also ruled out.
"Hopefully they can come back and we can make a push," Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said.
The Panthers, who've won three of their past four games, are in a wait-and-see situation regarding the linebacking because Kuechly's normal backup is A.J. Klein, who missed the most-recent game because of a concussion.
The Raiders (8-2) appear in much better position, if nothing else they're in a more enviable spot in the standings. But winning the division remains a priority and there's lots of work to be done regarding that mission.
"It still begins with winning the division," Del Rio said. "It's the surest way to get a spot in that playoff tournament."
With accolades and attention starting to fall on the Raiders, they're intent on maintaining the right approach.
"You set goals and you want to reach certain things," quarterback Derek Carr said. "Everybody expects great things and when good things come our way you have to know how to be humble.
"Anytime you have 10 games and you have eight wins, we're thankful for that. If we don't win another one, it's not going to mean anything. Our focus right now is on beating Carolina."
Del Rio, who was the defensive coordinator for the Panthers in 2002, said the Raiders have developed good tendencies during their four-game winning streak. He said there are challenges the team must encounter in the aftermath of the out-of-country trip and dealing with a shortened week of preparation.
The season's foundation is something he's counting on.
"As you have success and build on that and have a reference point to go back on," Del Rio said. "I think our guys have embraced the idea of competing for the full 60 minutes. We've found ways to win, but it has been different ways each week."
While Carr has become a focal point for Oakland's offense, the team has thrived on balance and versatility. That's something the Raiders figure can work to their advantage.
"To know that we can win a football game either way," Carr said. "We can run the football or throw the football. Either way, I'm all for it as long as we keep on winning."
The Panthers have been shoddy in converting scoring chances into touchdowns and quarterback Cam Newton's inconsistency has created concerns. Turnovers and red-zone shortcomings have been glaring at times.
"We will make plays and hopefully we will make enough to win football games," Rivera said.
Rivera has put a positive spin on the trip's potential even though it means facing a pair of divisional leaders in consecutive weeks. From an internal standpoint, there are gains to be made for the Panthers.
"It's an opportunity for those guys to do some bonding," Rivera said. "Hopefully, it will be a good opportunity for our guys."
This will be only the sixth meeting between the Panthers and Raiders, and the first in Oakland since 2008. The Panthers won the 2012 meeting to forge a 3-2 series lead.