Chargers Travel To Las Vegas For Week 18 Do Or Die Matchup With The Raiders

Photos: Bolts Begin Prep for Primetime

Chargers Travel To Las Vegas For Week 18 Do Or Die Matchup With The Raiders

Well Chargers fans, we have finally made it to the end of the regular season. Brandon Staley’s first season in Los Angeles has been a wild ride with a ton of highs, and a few bouts with growing pains, but Staley and his staff have the Chargers on the cusp of a playoff berth. It all comes to a point this Sunday night in Las Vegas, on Sunday Night Football no less, against the Raiders. 

The stakes (pun semi-intentional) could not be any higher. If we could go back and tell the August version of ourselves that this would be the scenario for Week 18, I think we would all be absolutely thrilled. Heading into the season, I felt like battling for a playoff spot were realistic expectations for this first season. If they win on Sunday night, they have officially exceeded expectations and then anything can happen in the tournament. 

That being said, let’s dive into this Raiders team – I’m going to be taking a little bit of a different path than usual in this series highlighting key points and players along the way.

Chargers Have The Offensive Edge

On paper, the Chargers led by Justin Herbert have a rather large edge on the offensive side of the ball in this matchup. Now, granted the Raiders have dealt with a coaching change, the Henry Ruggs legal issues, and Darren Waller has missed the last five games (although he should be back in this one). Still, you look at the statistics on that side of the ball and the Chargers have been one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL. Per Football Outsiders, they rank 3rd in offensive DVOA, 2nd in yards per drive, 3rd in points per drive, and 2nd in overall drive success rate. Per Team Rankings they rank 8th in red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) on the season. Per ESPN they are 4th in total yards per game and 6th in total points per game. Not bad for the first year of a new system, huh?

On the other side of this game, the Raiders are 19th in offensive DVOA, 13th in yards per drive, 18th in points per drive, and 19th in overall drive success rate. They rank 29th in red zone scoring percentage. ESPN has them at 11th in total yards per game and 19th in total points per game. Perhaps the most important stat for the Raiders offense: they’ve only managed to score 20 points or more in two of their last nine games since their bye week. They’ve really managed to muck games up and turn them into slugfests. It will be interesting to see if that changes with Waller being back, but that’s been their mode of operation over the last month.

Raiders Game Wreckers

The Raiders overhauled their defense in the offseason after they hired Gus Bradley from the Chargers, and Bradley of course brought several of his old buddies with him including Casey Hayward and Denzel Perryman who are the best players in the Raiders back seven. Perryman finally managed to stay healthy for most of a whole season and rewarded the Raiders with a Pro Bowl year. The key to the Raiders’ growth on the defensive side of the ball really comes down to the two players on the edge, however: Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue.  

I would say that both have exceeded expectations of what the Raiders thought they were getting this season. In previous years, Crosby was mostly an effort player with little polish. He would simply will his way into production with his incredibly high motor. He seemed more like a Robin than a Batman. Now he has found some of that polish and has turned that into a league-leading 90 total pressures and 8 sacks. He has become a Batman this season.

Now, 38 of his 90 pressures came in three games: Baltimore in Week 1, Denver in Week 6, and Kansas City in Week 10. While that does inflate his overall numbers a smidge, it also shows his game-wrecking ability. In the first matchup between these two teams, Crosby tallied 5 total pressures and only hit Herbert once, but he did also beat Storm Norton a few other times as well. I think Norton has improved since that first game or at least gotten more comfortable. Still, the Chargers will have to be wary of Crosby’s ability on Sunday night. 

Ngakoue secured a two-year, $26 million contract with the Raiders this past offseason. Up until then, he had mostly been a situational pass rusher. As a full-time starter this year, Ngakoue has provided Crosby with a solid running mate on the season. He has accumulated 58 total pressures and 10 sacks this year. In the first matchup, Ngakoue found himself on Slater Island and barely had an impact on the game outside of a few instances where he was a free rusher.

The Chargers have such a luxury in their Pro Bowl rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater, who has a legitimate shot at earning an appearance on the All-Pro list as well. Because of his ability to stay on an island, he can be left one on one against Ngakoue or the other Raiders pass rushers and shut them out. This also allows the Chargers to send all the help towards Norton and Crosby. 

Josh Jacobs The Raiders X-Factor?

Turn on any national media show this week and you’ll hear that the Chargers haven’t stopped the run all season long and the key to the Raiders’ recent success has been a resurgent rushing attack, led by Jacobs. 

When you dive into the numbers on the Raiders offense, the latter part of the national narrative this week is a little misleading. On the season, the Raiders rank 29th in rushing yards per game with 90.2 yards per game. Only the Texans (32nd), Dolphins, and Falcons average fewer yards per game on the ground. Raiders fans will point out that Jacobs was banged up early in the season and that has certainly played a part but the biggest difference in their recent improvement has really been higher volume. Since the Raiders Week 8 bye, Jacobs is averaging 14.5 carries per game – topped by a 27 carry performance against the Broncos two weeks ago – and has averaged 60 yards a game in that stretch. Before the bye week, Jacobs was averaging 12 carries and 42 yards per game. 

So it’s not like the Raiders have gone full Eagles or turned their offense into a Wing-T ground and pound approach over the last few weeks. During their 3 game win streak, they are averaging 114 rushing yards per game (again inflated by Jacobs’ 129-yard performance against the Broncos), the 20th most in the league. For reference’s sake, the Chargers are averaging 128 yards on the ground over their last 3 games, which is the 10th most in the league. 

The Chargers run defense has been much maligned this season, and most of it has been justified. Particularly after letting Rex Burkhead earn AFC player of the week two weeks ago. However, they have generally been middle of the pack since the bye week and the key to that improvement has been rather simple: Justin Jones has been healthy. Daniel Popper pointed out last week that the defense is allowing a full two yards per carry more when Jones is off the field this season.

I was concerned about the way the Broncos would run the ball on the Chargers last week with Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. The Broncos are absolutely a team that wants to run the ball 30 times a game and does their best not to stray from that plan. The Chargers’ defensive front showed up with their most spirited performance of the season this week. Derwin James, Joey Bosa, and Jones (all absent against the Texans) led the show but you could also tell the other players on the Chargers were putting out a more concerted effort as well. As a result, they held Williams to just 2.1 yards per carry. Gordon had a little more success but his longest run was only 12 yards. If the Chargers run defense shows up this week as it did against the Broncos, the defense will be more than fine. 

I tried to find the last time a second Chargers-Raiders regular-season game meant this much, and really there isn’t one, at least not a recent one. Of course, there’s the 1980 AFC Championship game, but in terms of the regular-season matchups, the closest I could find was the matchup in November of 1993 when the Chargers were 4-5 and the Raiders were 5-4. The Raiders won that matchup 12-7 and took that momentum to a 10 win, playoff berth season. The Chargers ended up going 8-8 and just missing the playoffs that year. The rivalry hasn’t been what it was in those early 1990’s seasons when both teams were consistent contenders, but this Sunday’s matchup is by far the biggest game between these two teams, and I can’t wait to be at the Roomba stadium to watch it all go down.

If the Chargers had taken care of business against the Texans, I would be 100% confident heading into this matchup. Even still, I am confident that the Chargers will win this game. The offense has been one of the most efficient offenses in the league and Herbert has killed Cover 3 and Cover 1 all season long, which is obviously what the Raiders do most with Bradley’s scheme. The question marks are on the defensive side, but the secondary is finally healthy and the front seven is coming off its best performance of the season. The Raiders have been in do or die mode for the last month and will do everything they can to win this game but I expect the Chargers to pull away late and win this game 31-23.

Herbert scaled

Photos: Bolts Begin Prep for Primetime – Mike Nowak