For the first time in six years and the second time since 2002, the Las Vegas Raiders are in the playoffs. With the No. 5 seed, Las Vegas will go on the road and face the No. 4 seed Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 15 at 1:30 p.m. PST at Paul Brown Stadium in the NFL Wild Card Playoffs.
The Raiders will look to avenge their home loss from November when Bengals running back Joe Mixon led the way, recording 30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-13 victory for Cincinnati.
Here are four keys to the Raiders’ first playoff victory in 20 years.
Las Vegas Raiders’ defense must rise up
Las Vegas will have to continue its strong defense this week. Maxx Crosby received AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on Wednesday for the second time this season after recording six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in last week’s wild 35-32 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Since the Bengals and Raiders faced off a couple of months ago, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said his defense has continued to improve down the stretch.
“They’re playing together more, the communication is better, the execution is better,” Bradley told reporters this week. “I think we’re doing a much better job on third down. So, that comes back to our execution. It really starts up front for us. Those guys set the tone and back end is played according. They feel like they’re playing as a unit right now.”
Over the first 15 games, the Raiders allowed teams to convert third downs 43% of the time. In the final three games to conclude the regular season, the Raiders’ defense allowed Cleveland, Denver and Los Angeles to convert a combined eight third downs for a 21% clip, which is near a 50% increase in the Silver and Black’s third-down defense.
Las Vegas Raiders face a young, high-power Bengals offense
The Bengals are led by sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow, who led the NFL with 70.4% pass completion rate, including throwing for 525 yards against Baltimore a couple of weeks ago.
Catching those passes are a trio of receivers in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. In addition, the Bengals’ offense also highlights Mixon, who ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards — trailing only Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb.
With youngsters such as Burrow, Chase, Higgins and Mixon having the success they had in 2021, they became the first team in NFL history to record a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers who are all 25 years or younger in the same season.
The success of the Bengals’ offense is led by offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who was the Raiders quarterbacks coach in 2018.
In terms of the players, Bradley said Cincinnati’s weapons will be a force on Saturday.
“They are playing at a high level, scoring a lot of points, putting up a lot of yards offensively and they still have the run game that keeps you on edge,” “Now, we’ve got a lot of respect for the running backs, Mixon’s a very talented back. So, you couple that with the skill that they have, and the quarterback that they have and that’s the reason why they’re scoring so many points.”
Raiders need to continue balanced offensive approach
For the Raiders’ offense, they will need to continue to run the ball as it continues to set up the pass game. Although the Bengals allow the fifth-least yards per game, it will be a challenge for running backs Josh Jacobs, Peyton Barber and Jalen Richard.
In two of the past three games, Jacobs has rushed for more than 100 yards. As the run game has improved, it has given other parts in the offense time to work out the kinks.
One of those obstacles has been the on-field chemistry between Derek Carr and tight end Darren Waller, who returned last week against Los Angeles.
With other parts to the offense finding success, such as wide receivers Zay Jones and Bryan Edwards, including the running game, Carr said it has allowed time for him and Waller to rekindle their trust while still seeing positive results.
“With Darren and I, there’s some rust there and some miscommunications and little things here and there that’s easily fixable and easily correctable,” Carr said. “We’re correcting it on the field. With the run game kicking up and with Zay stepping up, Bryan making some clutch plays, I feel like we’re a better team today than we were at the beginning of the year.
“I remember saying, ‘Did we have to throw for 300 yards to win a football game because that what the stat said,’” Carr told the media Tuesday afternoon. “Now, we can do that, or we can run the ball. We can play action; we can do a lot of different things. The more multiple you are as an offense, the better it is for your team.”
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Special teams will be a factor for the Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas has continued to rely on kicker Daniel Carlson and punter A.J. Cole with the former kicking game-winning field goals in back-to-back weeks.
Wednesday marked the fourth time this season Carlson received the conference’s weekly special teams honor.
His game-winning field goal last week marked his fifth walk-off field goal and his 40th field goal of the season, which is the most field goals in a single-season in Raiders’ franchise history. In addition, Carlson holds the Raiders franchise record for scoring 150 points this season.
Carlson, in addition to Cole, will be relied upon to put up three points on the board or to have the Bengals to start deep on their own side of the field.
If the Raiders win and are the lowest remaining seed on the AFC side of the bracket, they will face No. 1 Tennessee. However, if the Raiders win and are not the lowest seed remaining, they will play in the opposite side of the AFC bracket in the divisional round.